Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Good Morning (from) Vietnam!

How long have I been waiting to use that Blog title? You don't want to know. It's not even that creative.

I'm getting spotty on blog posts aren't I? I feel like I start off every one with an apology for how long it's been since the last. So, on that note, sorry…


Anyway, where did we leave off? Angkor Wat right? Let's see…


On the third and final day of our Angkor Wat pass I asked one of the people working at the hotel's desk which temples were remote, relatively untouristy and relatively unrestored. He pointed me to a few, but one in particular, which I then looked up in the Tourist Guide I'd grabbed somewhere. I decided to check it out, convinced that it would meet my requirements when I saw it's measely two star rating in the guide. Don't tell, but it was called Ta Nei.


I hopped in a Tuk Tuk (you literally couldn't walk five feet without finding one) and negotiated a plan with the driver. He would take me as far as a Tuk Tuk could (the road apparently would get bad about a mile before the temple and I would have to walk since motorcylcles are not allowed on TBB and I can't ride a bike…) and then meet me back at that point (or, I think, just wait for me) four hours later. So that's what I did. He offered to walk me to the temple so I wouldn't get lost, but it was just one road so I figured I couldn't miss it. Little did I know that the one road forked three or four times and there was only a sign once. I magically chose the right direction every time, though, so it worked out just fine.


Ta Nei was pretty much deserted. There were two other women there when I arrived and a biker showed up later. There were also several Cambodian guys chilling out in this thatch-roofed building thing…I'm not sure what they were doing except chilling, but it seemed like that was their job.  I went around taking photos for a while, although the light wasn't ideal (black and white helped a lot with that, actually, if you're wondering why I have so many black and whites…they just look nicer) and then I camped out on a bench outside of the thatch-roofed building and got down to business: postcard writing. Sandy and Robin had us each write about 20 postcards to TBB donors, thanking them for their contribution and letting them know what was going on with us which I thought was a nice idea. It might encourage them to give again before the fiscal year ends (I mean…because of the holiday season…) but either way it's nice to put in a little effort to thank all the people that helped make TBB happen and I think it would be fun, were I a donor, to get a postcard from a TBB student written about their time in China but writing from, say, Angkor Wat.  I journaled some and then on my way out took more photos. I didn't want to do everything over, but the light was much better so I did take some. Too bad I didn't think of that before and save photo-ing time for the end.


The next day…I think…One day, anyway…We went to see the fabled "floating village." We hopped in our TBB sized bus (the tour company had a bus with exactly enough seats to fit us all) and drove out to the lake where we hopped on a boat as our pictures were being snapped by a random Cambodian girl with a camera. Our guide didn't say much as we jetted out past the few homes we saw into open water. We continued on for about an hour and a half with nothing on the horizon. The sky was pretty grey, which made the water pretty grey, which made them sort of blend into each other so that the horizon line was actually pretty hard to distinguish. It was pretty cool. Finally, we got to floating civilization. It was cool, yes, but it was very apparently a very poor community and I felt really strange about being on a boat full of reasonably well-off Americans driving through their village taking pictures. "Oh look at that beautiful tin and decaying wood house!" Snapsnapsnap. We were dropped off at what we were told was a monestary and school, walked into the yard and were promptly accosted by about 10 women selling notebooks. It took us a while to figure out that they wanted us to buy a pack for $5 which we would then give to the school kids. Theoretically, they were going into Siem Reap to buy the books which would then be financed later by tourists. This makes sense, assuming that's what is actually happening. We each bought a pack of notebooks. It was virtually impossible not to. There was nowhere else to go and we were staring at the schoolkids playing in the yard and it sounded like a good cause. We got right back on the boat after that and jetted back where we came from (minus a 20 minute stop at a floating store where we could buy souvenirs and drinks). That was the entire "tour." Our fearless leaders were a little put off. That wasn't exactly what they'd expected the "tour" to be. It wasn't what we had expected either. We all were under the impression that we'd be meeting the people, walking around, getting to know the community. We hadn't realized it was so touristy. (Remember that girl who'd taken our photos when we got on the boat at the beginning? Well, as we were getting off the boat, we were greeted with plates with our faces on them that had somehow been made from those photos in the three hours we'd been gone. I guess some people must buy those or it wouldn't be worthwhile for them. I hope they can reuse the plates because we certainly didn't buy any. Who does? I wonder…) Anyway, because I'd felt to weird about using their village as something resembling a human zoo (at least, that's how it felt to me), I didn't mind so much that we'd been plied for money that may or may not be going to school children (although I very VERY sincerely hope it did go to school children…). It felt like we were using them, so they should be using us too. It evened the playing field. On the whole, though, I do not recommend a floating village tour to any future Cambodia tourists.


We also had our own little TBB Thanksgiving dinner at our hotel. Sandy worked really hard to get the kitchen to make Thanksgivingy food for us and while it wasn't perfect, it was adorable and delicious anyway. Pumpkin soup, some sort of veggie and gravy casserole, mashed sweet potato, chicken and…mango for dessert? We also made hand turkeys thanks to Liz and Katie R who had the foresight to purchase supplies. Then we headed up into the penthouse (where two of our roommate groups had been displaced to due to a booking error by the hotel) and played a game Beth taught us called Celebrity. So. Much. Fun. And then we set up a new game of Gotcha. That game is going much slower than the last. The first winner won only yesterday and we wait until we have three. Robin got me out by getting me to say "space shuttle" which apparently I miraculously avoided saying the first four times he brought it up. It was pretty impressive. I helped Sandy get John to say "sea cucumber" even though he knew the word and who had him by having her forge a messily written letter, part of which said: "…sailing in the Mediterranean sea…cucumber sandwiches were served for lunch…" then stuffing the letter into the package I got and having John help me decipher the handwriting. It was fabulous :-)


That was not exciting travel information was it? Sorry. It does give our group personality doesn't it?


Anyway, from Siem Reap we traveled to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. We visited the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum. (Short Factual Interlude: Pol Pot, a communist leader, came to power in Cambodia around 1975 and moved all city dwellers to the countryside in an effort to up rice production and create a communal society…Many died on the walk out of the city and many more were killed in his purges as he grew increasingly paranoid that enemies were everywhere plotting against him. Thousands were tortured and forced to confess to things they had not done before they were brutally murdered. Pol Pot was deposed when the Vietnamese invaded (for their own reasons: not wanting a two front war against China and it's ally Cambodia and so pre-emptively striking Cambodia which would be by far the easier adversary). The Killing Fields and Genocide Museum, located at the former torture facility S-21, were opened not long after. If my very cursory summary was not enough, I recommend a book I picked up in Siem Reap called Brother Number One which is supposed to be about Soloth Sar (alias Pol Pot) but, as very little is known about him, is actually mostly about the political situation in former French Indochina during the 20th century and is pretty informative and not too long. ) I don't want to try to describe the Killing Fields or the Museum here because I couldn't do it justice without getting a little more personal than I'm in the mood to. Needless to say it was horrifying, moving, confusing and upsetting for all of us. Actually, I shouldn't speak for everyone. It was all of those things for me and, judging by our discussion later that night, it was at least one of those things for most everyone.


From Phnom Penh we flew to Ho Chi Minh city. It was probably the shortest flight of my life. We went up, flattened out for maybe 2 minutes while the stewardesses served drinks and then we prepared for landing and landed all in about 30 minutes. We were greeted at the airport by Rylan, the head of CET Vietnam (another study abroad program and our program contact for this month…he's helping us organize everything including our partnership with another NGO called ENDA) and the three Vietnamese students with whom we'd be living and working. They seem more like program assistants than students in function, but they are all three college students in Ho Chi Minh. Their names are Tram ("Chum"), Vnang ("Vuh-nAng") and Phat (…"Fat"). I'm sorry if I'm spelling those horribly wrong. Then we bussed over to the "Government Guest House" where we're staying. No one seems to really know what that means, but it seems to be a hotel/meeting room facility with a restaurant on the ground floor. The girls are five to a room, the boys two to a room. Tram is in my room along with Alexandra, Liz, Katie C. and Emily. Vnang is next door with the rest of the TBB girls. Noah is rooming with Phat and the other TBB boys are paired up two and two. The boys get rooms with showers and refrigerators and we girls are in giant rooms with five beds (which can break, incidentally, because the legs are miniscule…Emily's is already slanted and mine creaks menacingly when I move), one bedside table, a dresser and four coat-hanger racks. Backwards? I think so! (To be clear, this is joking complaining and not sincere annoyed complaining…a distinction which is difficult to make in a blog…are rooms are perfectly adequate, well air-conditioned and well-lit. Plus, we've decorated them for the holidays. Both rooms have Christmas lights and my room has the lovely addition of the small menorah that was sent to me in a package. The other room made a coat-holder into a Christmas tree by draping it in a green hammock and hanging candy canes on it and put socks – er, Christmas stockings – on another coat-holder and filled them with candy. It's very festive. To extend this tangent: All of Ho Chi Minh city is Christmas obsessed. Every storefront is somehow decorted and walking down the street you hear Christmas jingle remixes blaring out of every third doorway).


ANYway, our itinerary changes daily which can be frustrating, but Robin, Sandy, Beth and Rylan are all being awesome about making the best of every situation and every change. As it stands now, we'll spend most of our time in Ho Chi Minh city save for a daytrip to the Mekong Delta on Saturday (this changed since we got here…it was originally a three or four day trip) and a week long excursion to Quy Nhon ("Kwee Nyon") where we'll be observing a composting facility and driving out to Son My, site of what Americans call the My Lai Massacre. We'll be having our Holiday Party in Quy Nhon, followed by three free days during which we can, if we so choose, do independent student travel. Sadly, Hanoi is a little far to get to by bus, so I think that particular travel destination is out of the question.


We spent our first few days having several lectures which were very interesting, getting two two-hour survival Vietnamese language classes which were great but from which I remember almost nothing (every time I try to say something in Vietnamese it comes out in Mandarin…), meeting with an economist, a guy who studies monkeys and a woman in the foreign service whose very appropriate name is Sunshine at the U.S. Consulate General, watching An Inconvenient Truth which I'd never seen and liked quite a bit, and meeting with ENDA (the NGO). The ENDA meeting was…interesting. A lot of plans changed after that – ours and theirs. It's fascinating to meet so many NGO heads and Americans working abroad. There are a lot of nutty people around. They're well-intentioned and may be doing great work, but they're still nutty. To be clear, we TBBers don't escape my glaring generalization of nuttiness. We aren't all so normal ourselves.


Anyway, as it stands now, we'll be having some sort of "conference" at the end of the month with us and Vietnamese students that Phat, Tram and Vnang will find where we'll be discussing environmental issues in Vietnam. Our media projects will somehow be incorporated into this conference (and so must be finished by then…) We haven't talked a ton about this and it's sort of vague – I don't quite get it – so I'm withholding judgment on whether I like the idea or whether it will work. I hope it does. I hope it's awesome and I'll do my best to make it so. I'm just not sure it will be. Open mind.  By the way, this conference idea didn't exist last week. I did say things were changing quite a bit. Luckily, our Fearless Leaders along with Rylan are good at rolling with the punches, not easily discouraged and have a wealth of creative plan Bs, Cs and Zs.  


I don't want to make it sound at all like TBB is not meticulously organized. It is. It really, really is. It's just that, as I'm learning, partnering out with international NGO's all headed by other nutty individuals and working in foreign countries with foreign cultures requires an incredibly level of flexibility, diplomacy and cheer. I have a lot of respect for Robin, Sandy and Beth (and Rylan and I bet Chris, too) for working night and day to make this work and to make everything as valuable an experience as possible. If everything were perfectly smooth, we'd be getting a pretty inaccurate picture of how the world works.


To bring us up to the present, this week is our service learning week in Ho Chi Minh. We've been split into three groups based on our media project groupings (the writing group being split apart and spread among the three). I'm Google Earth this month (the one medium I was not looking forward to and not one that any of our group is very gung ho about…Google Earth is not very intuitive to use and makes our choice of topic difficult because it has to be constantly geographical so that we'll always need a map to explain what we're talking about…still…think positive. Open mind. It may turn out awesome. It totally could. We'll see.) Anyway, my group is working with a guy named Steve who owns a company called Green Energy. We're split into twos and going around cold-calling restaurants trying to raise their awareness about environmental issues, but mainly trying to get them to let us buy their used cooking oil which Green Energy will then use to make bio-diesel. A lot of restaurants already sell their used cooking oil which often gets reused by street vendors (not at all healthy) and thrown in the street (polluting the water and often coming up out of the gutters after a rain). Mostly, restaurant owners and managers (who generally speak English in the area he sent us to because it's touristy and the restaurants are fancy) don't know where their cooking oil is going, although a lot of times the head chef is already selling it. Still, there's a fair amount of interest and most shocking to me, when we go into a restaurant (during off hours, of course) and ask to speak to the owner or manager, we're almost always shown to chairs and sometimes given water or even tea to drink while we talk. Today John and I (my canvassing partner) returned to a restaurant we'd visited yesterday to meet with the owner (who had been absent) and found Steve already there talking to the owner who had already called him at the number we'd left with an information sheet. So we got one, at least :-) The other two groups are doing something with trash collecting and trash sorting.


That's about it for now. I'll update eventually assuming I'm still around. You take your life in your hands every time you walk down the only occasionally existant sidewalk or cross the crazy motorcycle packed streets (where having all vehicles traveling in one direction in any given lane is a quaint notion and nothing more). Supposedly if you walk slowly across the street, everyone will go around you, but I'm not a fan of the putting faith in the fact that everyone else is paying perfect attention and is not drunk idea. Still, there really isn't another option if you want to go anywhere other than around the block. Ah well. We're all still here so far.


Merry Early Christmas and Happy Early Chanukah,



P.S. Don't worry about us not getting gifts. We're doing Secret Santas over the whole month. Fun!


McG said...

Loving the title, my dear. Is it ok that I continue to be extremely jealous even as I'm coming to realize the tightness of my situation in NYC? Oh well, I can live vicariously through your blog posts and we're having massive hangouts/catching up/photo sharing (b/c even though i go through like all of your photos I want to hear the stories that go with them!) when you get back. Canvassing restaurants actually sounds kinda fun. I hope you're enjoying it!

adelaide said...

I'll be interested to see what you can do with Google Earth for your project. I can't visualize it yet.

The cooking oil project sounds really neat. Who will use the bio diesel? Do the tuk tuks run on it like in India?

Happy Hanukkah/Merry Christmas early! I'll send you a catch-up email over the break, so you can hear what I've been up to lately.

Miss you!