Thursday, June 3, 2010

Haiti - Port au Prince and La Gonave

Hi good people! It's been awhile. I hope that this finds everyone well. After bopping back and forth between CT and CA, I came back to the east coast on a hunt for a job in documentary film. Through a bizarre and wonderful sequence of events, I was asked to join Haiti Lumiere de Demain, a non-profit that distributes text books to children in Haiti, on their most recent trip. Wow. I am going to keep this post short because I am honestly still trying to sort out all my feelings on what I saw. To begin, it's a beautiful country with some of the most beautiful people I've ever seen. Their smiles cannot be described in words. I found Haiti incredible. It was incredibly stunning, sad, hopeful, broken and lost. It was incredibly warm both in temperature and feeling. It's incredibly forgotten even though there is talk and fundraising due to the earthquake. It is clear that we have never given enough attention to this beyond worthy country that is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. I went with Louis, who founded HLD in '98 as well as Paul and his wife Noelle. The four of us drove to schools on what cannot be called roads (16 miles = 3 hr drive) to deliver text books to students who without HLD would have nothing. You should have seen their faces. Pure Joy. These kids deserve so much more and yet they were beyond gracious. I am forever changed by what I saw in my week down there. The one thing that does not settle well with me and I hope it doesn't with you when you look at these pictures, is that what you see in these photos is almost the EXACT same as it was pre-earthquake. We, as human beings, should not be okay with that.
Please visit HLD's website at http://haitilumiere.org/wp/

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Lang Son

During our time in Hanoi, we made three trips to the northern town of Lang Son. Four hours north of the capitol, my sister and I were brought to an elementary school in desperate need of assistance. Located in the middle of nowhere (I’m talking roads that shouldn’t even be called roads since no cars ever drive on them), the children of this school are beyond poor. Walking miles to get to school in cold winter weather, we were shocked to see that these kids were wearing broken sandals, no socks, and no coats.

When I say that we stood out at the school, it wasn’t just because we were tall and blonde. It was also because many of these kids (and some teachers) have only seen tall and blonde on TV and weren’t sure how to react to it in person. We were literally gawked at from all angles…constantly. Let me share something with all of you though – if you film a child and they’re afraid of you, just show them the video. Suddenly all the fear evaporates and they think you’re pretty darn cool.


Only one person, a teacher, spoke English. This lack of English was rather incredible and made for some loooong, quiet lunches.


There were many hilarious moments in Lang Son. For instance, the principal loved my arms – well, I think she loved them – because she would squeeze them constantly and not let go; another teacher told my sister that she was so beautiful she just had to stare at her; they all thought that we were strange for not eating meat and basically ignored our requests when serving us food – laughing at us; and they took shots of whiskey during school lunch and got rather tipsy. Add to that some harrowing motorbike rides in the mountains, and the fact that I unknowingly drank a shot of cobra whiskey…some amazing memories.


But I want to talk about one of the most powerful experiences we had. Like I said, these kids wear broken sandals and many lacked coats. So we went shopping, with the help of the teacher who liked to stare at Alexandra, and bought over 100 coats and over 300 shoes and socks (your donations at work). Without an explanation, the teachers asked all the kids to line up in the courtyard. We got to play Santa. I’m sure it was beyond confusing having these tall blonde strangers handing out gifts and crying at the same time - tears kept coming because we were so moved by just how grateful each child was. I will remember that moment for the rest of my life. It changed my sister and me – that’s for sure.


We also were lucky enough to help FIV with the chicken project. Similar to Heifer Int’l (www.heifer.com), we hope that the chickens given to these families will provide them with a steady supply of eggs for themselves and the school and community.


All in all, I have to say that Lang Son was my favorite part of our time in the north. We got to experience things first-hand and it changed us. As cheesy as it sounds, it really was such a perfect example of how giving is selfish because it’s an even bigger gift to the giver.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Halong Bay

During our time in Hanoi, Hoa and Son recommended that we take a little “us time.” Although we were hesitant to take a break and play "tourists," we found two trips that were impossible to pass up. Both of these adventures were breathtaking, and I’m not sure I will come close to accurately describing what we saw. Hopefully, Alex’s photos will help (and we should point out that clicking on any of these photos allows you to see them with great detail).

Our first trip was to Halong Bay, where we cruised the amazing waters on a boat that also served as our hotel for the night. Halong Bay is a gorgeous spot where land literally jumps out of the water in spectacular formations. These limestone karsts are filled with stunning caves that go on forever, and the waters around them are home to a host of floating communities. It’s unlike anything we had ever seen. We hope that these photos give you some sense of the beauty we witnessed.







































Sapa

Our second trip beyond Hanoi was to Sapa, a village in northwest Vietnam near the Chinese border. Located in the eastern edge of the Himalayas, Sapa is home to the Hmong people. We trekked through various villages (where we quickly noticed that shoes and pants were optional among the children), amazed by the simple lifestyles and stunning hand-made clothing. Everything about this area (once you slipped away from the tourist spots) was spectacular -- the vistas and topography, the creative farming techniques, and lo and behold...perfect English (wasn't expecting that). We loved this magical place. Again, we hope you like the photos -- and make sure you click on them to see how cute these kids are.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Hanoi

I first want to thank everyone who donated to our fundraiser. My sister and I are still overwhelmed by your generosity, and your dollars directly assisted so many children in Vietnam. They were so gracious. Thank you!

Alexandra and I went to Hanoi to work with the non-profit Families in Vietnam. Based in the capitol, Hoa and Son are the organization's Vietnamese contacts. They have spent the past five years working on keeping foster-care kids in school and off the streets. My sister and I were so lucky to have these two as guides. And let me add, we are in love with Hoa. She was inspiring and wonderful -- the real deal in that she grew up under the same circumstances as the girls we were trying to help. She is a role model to many and an example of female strength. We want to be like Hoa!

We went to visit multiple families who are sponsored by FIV. I had never seen homes like these before. They were basically all connected by an alley no wider than a sidewalk, and each home was about 100 sq ft (note, the average size home in the U.S. exceeds 2000 sq ft). These structures include a floor-based “kitchen” area, typically one shared bed for everyone who lives in the house, a ladder for hanging clothes, and some living space. It’s so tiny, and there were at least three people in each home. Most of the mothers shared a common story. They were either taking care of a relative’s child, in addition to their own; or they had been left without a husband due to jail, death, or abandonment. And these women are really young! They thought I was crazy for being a single 26 year-old without kids. It's such a different culture. But in this world, everyone watches out for each other. This “neighborhood” treats almost everything as communal property, out of necessity not political philosophy – food, space, babysitting responsibilities. We were welcomed into every home to check in on the children and retrieved various letters or drawings they wanted to send to their sponsors in the states. SO CUTE!

Our experience in Hanoi with the women sponsored by this program was, although tinged with sadness, spectacular and inspiring. It didn’t matter that there was a language barrier. These women work every day in the hopes of selling enough "goods" to tourists so that they can put food on the table (well, actually, floor; everyone, no matter what the income level, eats on the floor). Watching tourists brush them aside as they try to sell postcards, books, maps, etc. was always difficult for us as we knew of their daily struggle for survival.


In many ways the six weeks flew by yet, we were still ready to come home. Vietnam is far from America on so many fronts and toward the end, we needed to re-connect. It’s strange being back, however. AMAZING, but definitely strange. The jet lag alone was beyond odd. We were all up at 3am, starving and ready to work. Vietnam provided us with a beautiful gift -- a new perspective on life that we don’t want to disappear. We were always putting ourselves in check and feeling grateful. Worrying, although sometimes tempting, is a waste of time and energy. In Vietnam, we really never worried. It just seemed so silly to worry about the things we tend to worry about. It is so important to remember how great that felt!

During our six-week stay in Vietnam, we were unable to blog. Yet we were able to send a couple of rambling emails to our extended family. We've included below some excerpts from those messages because they accurately capture the spirit of our adventure. We apologize to those of you who have already read these "observations."

"We have never met nicer women than we did in Vietnam. They are kind, generous and treat you like a friend. The men are not as friendly, generally speaking; but that was filed away as another lesson to be learned about different cultures. We never got used to the noise. The Vietnamese use the car/motorbike horn more than they don’t. And motorbikes rule the road. They don’t really believe in street signs, lanes or obeying the few lights that are scattered throughout the city, therefore it feels like chaos. But somehow, all I want is a motorbike. They’re strangely addicting. You are forced to be aware all of the time."

"Being a vegetarian in Vietnam is confusing – for both the Vietnamese and us. Sometimes after saying “Toy On Chai,” which means “I’m a vegetarian,” they would give us strange looks. We would reciprocate that strange look when there were joint bones in our soup or fried veins in our rice. I will say, in general, they do eat the right way over there. Veggies and fruit are dirt-cheap. I mean a delicious vegetarian meal will cost you anywhere from 40 cents to at MOST a dollar U.S. Meat is more expensive than veggies. (As a side note, please see the movie Food, Inc. It’s a fabulous documentary about how we eat as Americans. It’s smart and lifts the veil.)"

"Roads in the Old Quarter are named for what they sell – Silver Road, Kids Clothes Road, etc. We stayed at the Salute Hotel on Shoe Road. When crossing the street, do not run or stop. Just pick a pace and stick to it. Otherwise you’ll get hit. We love Vietnamese coffee more than any other coffee we have ever had (sorry, Dunkin). And we love their use of condensed milk. There is something disturbing about bunnies, turtles and frogs in cages at the market. It’s risky to go in the morning as that tends to be “slaughter” time right there in front of you. Street food kicks restaurant food’s ass. Pho is a perfect way to start your day – yummy noodles, broth, some greens and hot peppers. The Vietnamese are very open and direct – not afraid to share their thoughts, sans filter. It’s funny because it’s a little shocking at first, but also refreshing."

"People eat shrimp without removing their shell - eyes and all. It's weird to think that that's weird. Personal space doesn't exist - whether it be on a bus when someone puts their hand behind their head, over the seat and into your space or just talking. They super-impose much larger white faces onto underwear boxes. Picking your nose in public is not only common but kind of supported?! As are long nails on men. The most amazing beverage is served in a plastic "to go" bag with a straw for about 45 cents and it's made with passion fruit, condensed milk, sugar and water. Showers here are NOT built for tall people. The Vietnamese women like to take photos of our teeth. And speaking of teeth, every meal ends with the aggressive use of a toothpick, right there at the table, both men and women. Now that's fun to watch. Both engrossing and gross!"

Those are just a handful of the experiences from Hanoi. During our time there we went to Halong Bay, Sapa and Lang Son. I’ll talk about that next time! Thank you for continuing to follow our trip. Happy Holidays Everyone! C & A