Monday, January 12, 2009

Getting Up-To-Speed

Hi there. Long time no see. My fault, sorry. Time just sort of…flew…


In case you aren't in a reading mood and are just glancing at this, I'll note that I put up Vietnam pictures weeks ago (I think…but my sense of time has left me almost entirely) and forgot to mention it. That cool armadillo-y animal, since someone already asked me, is called a Pangolin and the photo was taken at an animal rescue center an hour or so outside of Ho Chi Minh. We do do things I don't have time to write about…or am I purposely leaving things out so you'll still want to meet up with me for coffee during my three week back-to-normal-life period in May? Hmmm…


So I'm not currently on the world wide web. I'm writing this in word and thus can't check to see exactly where I left off. I think I was in Quy Nhon, no? Probably before Chirstmas? I'll go from there:


Christmas was lovely. Delicious. Wonderful. All sorts of happy, upbeat, positive adjectives, in fact. We took a bus to a nice hotel about thirty minutes outside of Quy Nhon where there was a yum brunch buffet (waffles, an omelet bar, bread, cheese, and, of course, pho – but very fancy pho…that's pronounced "fuh" by the way…sort of). While we were eating (read: pigging out) Sandy gave us each a mysterious packet of paper tied in a red ribbon. It turns out she had emailed our parents and asked them to gather emails from family and maybe friends. My packet had messages from most everyone I care about (if it didn't have one from you don't be offended…I said MOST everyone now didn't I?) and many people whom I'd had trouble getting to respond to my emails.


Best. Present. Ever.




(Incidentally, I'll take this moment for my usual reminder for those less correspondently inclined to please drop a line. Alright, I'm done nagging. You may continue reading.)


So, we had what may have been a conference room with a lot of chairs and a projector and screen in it to ourselves. It was right on the beach. It wasn't sunny, but hey, it is mid-winter…After eating, the first thing we did was the final installment of Secret Santa. Sandy had gotten gifts for Tram (Chum), Phat (Fat), and Vnang (Vuhnang) since they weren't Secret Santa-ing which was really sweet, and then we got down to business. You got one guess who your SS was and then they revealed themselves and gave their final gift. Then the SS guessed who had them and so on. I don't think I've ever seen so much happy in one room at one time. I would not have been at all surprised if someone opened a bag and out popped a rainbow accompanied by some butterflies and a smattering of flowers. My cheeks ached from smiling. I have the absolute best photos, the kind that make you smile just looking at the joy in them. Cheesy, cheesy, Becca. Moving on.


After Secret Santa a bunch of us went outside to utilize our private section of the beach (while a few wandered off to the top in Vietnam spa for massages…their signature treatment involved burying you in the sand…). Some volleyball went down (not very well, but very fun) and then some of one of Beth's games that involved jumping on your partner when I, the humble overlord, called "birdie on a perch" – last pair with one person off the ground was out. There was some shell collecting and sand-castle building (both traditional Christmas activities right up there with building your very own Frosty) and then we went in for a movie. A Christmas classic: Baby Mamma. I've now seen it twice. It's funny, but twice is definitely enough. Happily, it cost me less than a dollar (5 kwai, in fact).


So we had dinner, pretty darn good, and then, well, that was Christmas. All in all, it could have been a lot worse :-)


The next day we got up early and were on the bus back to Ho Chi Minh by 7 or 7:30. This ride was infinitely shorter than the ride TO Quy Nhon. A zippy 15 hours or so. Sadly, my pants did not survive the trip. Sliding over in my seat, the fabric got caught on the seatbelt and, well, not and ideal situation…I did some skillful pants changing (I had a clothing bundle with me as a pillow) and life went on. I sewed the rip on my brown fisherman pants with teal thread (very badly, if I do say so myself) so now they resemble pants that a costumer would give to someone playing a Lost Boy. I think the look rather suits me. (What really is sad is that one of my two pairs of good farming pants, albeit the less good one, would shortly get sent to the laundry in our new guesthouse in Ho Chi Minh and not return…)


Now this is when time really starts to blur, so forgive me if the next section is a little fuzzy. I would refer back to my journal, but as far behind as I am on blogging, my journaling has been an utter disgrace. And I was so GOOD about it for the first two months, too! I finished my first journal exactly as we left Ecuador and began my second on the Inca Trail. That second journal has yet to be entirely filled. I'm quite ashamed…And I'm carrying around a third so it had better get used…


Basically, the weekend after Quy Nhon was Independent Student Travel and the time in which we had to finish media projects. Badly timed, to say the least. Media projects did not go particularly well for anyone this month as far as I can tell. My experience was particularly bad, I think, and has soured me on group projects, possibly forever since I've never been their biggest fan. To be fair though, no friendships were irrevocably harmed in the making of our project.


Speaking of our project…what IS it? Well, it's NOT Google Earth, if that's what you're thinking. In fact, it is saved on this computer under "Not Google Earth." I spent quite literally ten hours  over a day and a half figuring out how to work the darned program and making a little video where the world spins, focuses on Vietnam which flashes twice, then the borders appear, then disapear, then an outline of Vietnam appears and one by one the areas sprayed with Agent Orange are highlighted in Orange. Then it all disappears, zooms out, and the world spins again. I describe it in detail because no one will ever see it. It's not in our project. Frankly, it doesn't belong in what we ended up doing and I never thought we should put it in – it wasn't very pretty despite my best efforts and my hours spent tracing the Vietnamese border and free-handing the Agent Orange spray areas from maps I'd found online. So I thought I'd regale you all with a story of my hard-work to make myself feel better. And also to discourage any of you from ever EVER deciding Google Earth would be fun to play with. It is not. Do not be fooled. Do not be taken in. This still doesn't answer the original question though. What IS my group's media project? It is, basically, a podcast with visual emphasis. The fourth project, after video, podcast and writing, will be referred to as "mixed media" in the future – we were basically the test run for out-of-the-box media projects. All in all, I think it could have been better, but some bits are pretty cool. Worth watching, at least, and informative I hope. (And if the final anecdote sounds like something I would say it's because I did, but for narration purposes I switched with Renee…Actually, if you find my voice grating you may not want to watch/listen to our piece…Fair warning has been given).


Did you catch how I said "test run for out-of-the-box media projects?" Of course you did. I know how you're hanging on my every word. Don't lie. Anyway, the idea is that our projects are getting stale. We're doing the same sort of thing every month.  Apparently, this is not what our fearless leaders intended or, more likely, it is sort of what they intended but is no longer seeming like a good idea. Some people, like me, enjoy doing projects like this. Most people, however, some would call them "normal people," do not. So, supposedly, we're going to be creative this time around. A photo-essay, a radio-play, a rap song may actually be in the works! (You heard it here first).


Fun Fact: Best Worst Country Song Ever? "Something Like That" by Tim McGraw…I had to look up the name – I have only ever known it as "The Barbeque Stain on My White T-Shirt Song"…enticed now? (Sorry, I got sidetracked when it came on on my shuffle on iTunes…it's on the Top 50 mix I made…that's how wonderfully bad it is :-) We all decided to make Top 50 Song mixes to share…very few have actually gotten made since we decided this in, oh, November, but we have four months left so there's time yet).


There were trials and tribulations, but the media projects did manage to get done before the deadline of our "Student Environmental Conference" and the conference itself was miraculously planned (albeit the day before it was held…not my ideal time frame for this sort of thing). How did the conference go? It depends who you ask, I think. I tend to expect more and be slightly cynical (but you all know me) so I'd say it went. There were no hitches to speak of (after an early scare where the sound on our media project mysteriously would not work to the point where we had to get other speakers) but the overall result was…well, I'm not sure and I guess that's the point. It may have helped the Vietnamese students network. I certainly don't feel like much was really shared beyond the few presentations given by club leaders. My small break-out talk group didn't speak too much English. Someone (I'm not quite sure who) actually came down to us halfway through our 20 minutes to translate which was really helpful, but still, I came away more frustrated than enlightened. Katie C. said something that pretty much summarized it for me, basically: We can't understand them or make ourselves understood by them, so we come away thinking that these really very intelligent, earnest, well-informed Vietnamese college students who care enough about environmental issues to take three hours of their free-time up on New Year's Eve to chat about them don't have much to say…and they probably think the same about us. It's pretty near impossible to express complex socio-economic ecological ideas at what was, at best, a third grade communication level. Too bad, really. But ask someone else and they might not agree. Maybe I'm missing the point entirely.


So that happened. It was New Year's Eve so we went back to our guesthouse (a different one from the one we stayed in the first time in HCMC—which was actually where we held the conference—because, being a government guesthouse, it cancelled our reservations when it found out more important government guests needed the rooms…they weren't too far apart, though, and the second one allowed the girls to be in rooms of three instead of six and to have refrigerators (!!! Yogurt !!! Although, the fridge in my, Katie C. and Isabel's room had the temperature controlling knob broken off and was more like a freezer so I guess the correct parenthetical would be "!!! Frozen Yogurt !!!" which was actually quite good if it wasn't TOO frozen…the milk, though, was less good frozen, and the Diet Pepsi actually exploded, so set your refrigerator to icy at your own risk).). I must apologize for my rampant parentheticals. I did warn your it would be blurry…Images of frozen yogurt get interspersed with PowerPoint slides when you sleep too little…And you get a little snarky which I'm sure you've noticed by now…Sorry.


Anway. New Year's Eve. Yes. We went to Rylan and his wife Hao's apartment for some champagne/sparkling juice depending on your preference (New Year's qualified as a "cultural experience" as far as alcohol consumption was concerned). We met a group of students there from St. Olaf's in Minnesota just beginning their time in Vietnam. They were nine girls spending a semester traveling around SE Asia plus their two leaders, a married couple of professors, and their two college aged sons who were joining them for the holiday season. They were all very nice. From there we all walked to a hotel in the touristy area where John and I had canvassed the restaurants. It had a massive buffet in the central courtyard as well as constant entertainment in the truest sense of the word: ballroom dancers, singers, competitive bar-tenders, a clown/magician, a scantily clad fire dancer…they had it all! And after midnight they had a hip-hop troop and four extra-scantily clad women who could really only have been strippers or Fifty Cent's backup dancers. The crowd of little girls watching was mesmerized. There was, however, a sign amongst all this high-end glamour that the financial crisis hit even Vietnam. Apparently this hotel's party usually goes from 9:00pm to 1:30am. This year it was 10:30 to 12:30. So, when the clock struck 12(.5), we mostly headed off with Phat and Tram to my third (count 'em!) Vietnamese club to booty-shake in 2009. Clubs in Vietnam apparently close at 1:30, though this one stayed open until 1:45 at which point we saw fit to head back to the guesthouse and fall into bed (or rather, shower off other people's sweat and THEN fall into bed). Not a bad way to ring in the New Year. We even got rained on by balloons at midnight which we then proceeded to stamp on in a scene oddly reminiscent of the groom stepping on the glass at a wedding. Don't worry though, it hasn't spoiled me for my tradition of late night movie marathons. I'm still a fan of that kind of New Year in-ringing as well :-)



Now I have a piece of sad news that I don't quite know how to transition into so I'm just going to go for it. We lost Isabel on January 1st. She went home kind of unexpectedly. It's not really my business to share so I think I'll just leave it with the fact that she didn't do anything wrong and we were all very sad to see her go. We wish her the best, will keep in touch and hope to see her soon. Love you Isabel!


For those of you keeping score, that's three down, one up. I say that only to point out that this year is fun, fascinating, a learning and growing experience, yes, but what it is not is easy.


After Isabel left (and Robin with her for a bit so we were down to sixteen total) we headed off for a week of beachiness in Thailand. We flew to Bangkok, then Koh Samui (a very touristy island off the coast…Liz looked it up and apparently there are 10,000 prostitutes on that ONE island…) where we stayed overnight in a very nice hotel by TBB standards with very, very comfy beds. Up early the next morning, we boarded a ferry to get to our ultimate destination, another island called Koh Tao. The man with the bloody bandage on his head and the guy on the stretcher attached to an IV coming off the boat were not good signs as to the quality of the ride. It lived up (or rather, down) to expectations. I do not get seasick. I really never have. Maybe once. But oh I was no match for this boat. The waves were absurd. I went to sit up top outside but was quickly cold and wet so I slipped into the "VIP" room for 50 baht (about $1.30) because it was close and easy to get to and there were seats available. This may have been my downfall. The tossing was much worse up high than it would have been below. People all around me started throwing up. My headphones had just broken so I couldn't turn my iPod up high – only the left side produced sound. I was fine until suddenly I wasn't. Luckily there was a guy whose job it was to hand out barf bags. I was then fine again. Until I wasn't. After that I just felt pretty gross. It didn't help that my bag got lost on the boat and we went to the hotel without it. My bags get lost so often though that I wasn't too worried. They always seem to find their way back. That boat company's bag system was horrendous though. I don't know the company's name or I would certainly tell you to avoid it. The boat ride back, which we all dreaded, was a different company. It was a single-hulled boat instead of a catamaran which should have made it less stable, especially since the waves were supposedly even worse than when we'd come, yet the ride was MUCH better. Whereas SIX TBBers lost their cookies on the way to Koh Tao, all cookies were thankfully kept on the way back.


We were supposed to get diving certified while on the beach. Our "dive resort" was really all dive and no resort which was a little disappointing, but the beachfront property was not to be argued with. Anyway, Emily and Dave were disqualified due to asthma (apparently honestly on medical forms is not always the best policy…a concept I'm still struggling to accept) and Alexis missed the course due to illness. I started it off and went on a dive the first day. It was fine, not too thrilling. Take it or leave it sort of. I did want to get certified, though. Still, I was so tired that I was just miserable spending all day in classes and on dive boats gearing up and then stripping it all off again, so I decided a day and a half in to our four day course that I would drop out. So there you have it, folks. I am a diving school drop-out (…hanging around the corner store…) Anyway, as much as it would be cool to be certified, for me it was a good decision.


I spent my week doing as little as possible. I read our assigned book, Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, which I really enjoyed and highly recommend. It is, of all things, really WELL WRITTEN!!! Hooray! (I always knew I was picky about writing, but I now realize how thoroughly it affects my ability to enjoy reading something…) I really, REALLY, needed a break. A break from feeling like I need to take advantage of every second and a break from all the people I've been seeing every day and night for the last four months (we just celebrated our four month anniversary or, as it could also be known, our half way point).  As someone said to me, this isn't just a trip, it's our year. Frankly, I am not naturally someone who does best in group situations. I very much enjoy some solitude. I also live on a calmer, more sober emotional plane. Oh sure I get stupidly thrilled about things all the time, little things usually, but I don't generally go around being actively happy or excited all the time…I am very comfortable and content on my quiet emotional plane hanging out with small groups of people and the constant effort to be social and exuberant finally got to me I think. I just needed a break. So I took one. Good decision.


Anyway, I feel much better, although four more months is still sounding simultaneously like a second and an eternity. I don't really consider myself much the homesick type, and I'm not homesick per se, but I wouldn't mind a week of a familiar neighborhood with familiar people who spoke a language that I understand and ate food I am familiar with. (The food in Thailand, though, is amazing, so I guess I'm ok with that, mostly). Frankly, I'd be happy to have a week in Bua again. Just a week of something like a place where I belong. This year has been a great experience so far and I'm sure I will continue to learn things about the world and myself, but it's getting a little harder for me to jump into new communities and new languages and customs. What's wonderful, though, is that all the hatred I built up associated with school has been relegated to the category where it belongs: Harvard-Westlake's version of school. It turns out, I quite LIKE school, much like I did through 9th grade. I miss having classes and books and schedules and extracurriculars or, rather, I miss how I imagine them to be at Brown. Experiential learning is useful and very intense, but I work well with books and I'm excited to get back to them. I feel like I'll fit really well in college. This year, TBB, is an invaluable and unbelievable experience, and I'm loving it, but it isn't something I could do for too much longer than I've signed up for. This is good realization. Now I'm not only excited about "college" but I'm excited again about school. Gap Year Objective 1: Check!


Anyway, I've got to get on the internet to upload this in the next 8 minutes before they shut it off so I'll give a quick rundown of what I expect for this month.


We're in Thailand. We're studying Sustainable Agriculture (a solution oriented month sounds lovely). We are partnering with a program called ISDSI which, for people interested in serious experiential learning, has a really cool looking semester abroad program. We will adapt one month of that program for ourselves. We will spend the next week in some sort of community/sustainable farming school and then will spend three weeks in a community that has in the last few years switched to sustainable organic farming. We will have homestays there and we will help farm. ISDSI has worked with this community for 10 years and seems really to value some of the key things we decided way back in Costa Rica that NGO's should value but tend to forget. These include seriously partnering with a community instead of "going in" to one as well as the idea that the goal of an NGO should be to put itself out of business. The length of this partnership also means that the homestay experience might be smoother than say, in China. We will have Thai classes daily and should be reasonable communicative by the time we leave. Thai seems difficult. We'll see. I hope so.


Anyway, that's about it. Internet access is looking like a no, except possibly this week at the farm school or on weekends if we travel the 1.5 hours into Chiang Mai (which is where we are now, by the way).


I miss and love you all,

Enjoy the inauguration for me!


~ Becca

 p.s. I just spend twenty minutes trying to put a few photos at the beginning of this post to entice you to look at my photos online, but it wouldn't work so, you know, feel enticed anyway?




slajdas said...

Wonderful blog, Becca. Honest and funny.
Renee's mom

mamacita said...

A Pangolin, eh? You are quite the sport. Thanks for the informative update.


McG said...

a) i'm definitely intrigued.
b) expect e-mail(s) in the near future.
c) i got a job!
d) i love you.
e) i love your blog. as sporadic as its updates may be.