Saturday, February 28, 2009

Exploring the City Center

Last night I took it easy. I went to dinner with two swedes to the Big C supermarket were I ate fried chicken, which was ok... I wish I had been more adventurous. Afterwards we just came back to the Peace House and hung out until 11 or so. Two more people, a couple from Australia, arrived last night. The guy's name is Jack Hoffman, no relation, and the girl is Dafne. 

Today I woke up and went with them as well as two other girls to District 1, the city center. We went to the Ben Thanh market for a while, then realized how much of a tourist trap it was. We quickly left and walked north towards one of the city's parks and found a cafe to pass the time as a tropical storm came through. The raindrops were the size of pennies and within minutes the streets were flooded. This is not the rainy season so none of us had our rain gear with us; I was so glad to find the cafe as quick as we did because I saw other tourists sprinting through the rain, sopping wet. 

The four I was with booked a trip to the Mekong Delta for next weekend, however I didn't really want to spend a whole weekend there. I instead booked a day trip there for tomorrow on the same line as the Swedes, so I will be waking up at 6:30 to make it to the bus at 8. Once in the delta we will be getting on a boat going from town to town as well as going through a floating market. I will be returning tomorrow night late, then having my orientation on monday morning with the 4 other people who also arrived this weekend.

I am so glad that our dorms are where they are. As I said before, we live in the Phu Nhuan district, which is north of District 3, and it is almost entirely populated by locals and void of tourists. Now that I think about it, I haven't even seen another white person near to the Peace House. The PH is in a small alleyway between Ho Van Hue and the tracks of the railroad, which goes from HCMC and Hanoi. It is incredibly interesting to be coming or going from the PH and pass the neighbors in or out front of their houses. I am getting to see how they live and interact much more so than if I lived somewhere full of hotels and tourist destinations.  As I am writing this I am hearing the beginning prayers of a Vietnamese- Catholic funeral being chanted outside of my door by one of the neighboring families. Some of the women that live in the alley bring small stoves outside of their houses during the day and sell Pho. On the other side of the railroad tracks is a street that is essentially a really long market, but there are also internet centers, beer houses, and, surprisingly, stores that sell and make plaster statues of Mary and Jesus. 

I was told that Ho Van Hue is the area for selling wedding dresses and cell phones, and walking up and down it has affirmed that. Every other store is one of the two. I guess that similar stores are grouped together across the city, which makes absolutely no sense to me, because wouldn't it be better for them to be spread out across all of the districts? 

Tonight I am going to an Irish bar with Kate (Irish), Sylvia (Swiss), and Philip (British, who is leaving tomorrow). Apparently rugby is the best sport in the world, according to Kate, and she is going to explain it to me tonight as we watch her team play. I will hopefully make it an early night though, as that I have to be up so early. I would be putting up photos but I forgot my cord and will add them tomorrow... 

Thursday, February 26, 2009

First Full Day

Today I woke up at 7 and went to the the main office to see if I was scheduled to go to the orphanage. It turned out I was, along with a number of other people. The whole group, however, except for Anika, Nikolina, and myself, stayed out late last night and didn't wake up to go. Nikolene and I, along with a Vietnamese volunteer, went to the orphanage.

Let me take a moment to explain the structure of the program. Prior to arrival, volunteers are given the choice to be placed either as an english teacher or as a helper in orphanages- I chose to volunteer in the orphanages. The teachers go to a number of schools over the week, depending on the schedule, and generally teach an hour long class. There are many Vietnamese university students who also volunteer, and the ones who speak good English go to the classes with the native english speaking volunteers to be translators. Many of the Vietnamese volunteers come back to the Peace House (the name of the office/lounge/kitchen/dorms) to hang out or for a meal. They also give us Vietnamese lessons one- on- one once a week for an hour.

There are three orphanages that we go to on a regular basis. The first is a government run orphanage, the second is associated with a monastery, and the third is an orphanage for street kids. The children at the first two are completely disabled, mostly bed ridden, and unable to speak. Many have cerebral palsy or down syndrome. Every day there are two periods of volunteering: the first from 8-11, the second from 2-4. We go back to the office/dorms (named the Peace House) for lunch, and dinner is served at 5. I've been told that the cook makes the same dishes for every meal, and thus far that has proved true.

This morning we went to the government run orphanage, Thi Nghe, and it was a very difficult experience. The building that it is housed in is a large, 2 story, c-shaped concrete mostrocity. Two sections of the c are a school for normal children, the third is for disabled children. I think that they are devided into 4 groups; babies and toddlers, 6-10 year olds, 10- 13, and 13- 17. We were in the room with the 6-10 year olds. It was really two rooms with a doorway in between, and consisted of about 35 or 40 cribs. About a dozen of the kids had tubes going into them, 10 or so were sleeping, or maybe just unable to open there eyes or move. We took 6 or 7 of the somewhat mobile kids outside to a rug that was on the balcony and let them lay in the sun for about an hour. We then had to feed all of the kids for the following hour and a half. This was the hardest part for me; the women who worked there would force the kids mouths open and stuff spoonfuls of the rice porridge down their throats. Nikolene and I were unable to do this, and we took much longer to feed each child than they did.

I felt very ackward at first. I didn't quite know how to handle myself because I had no way of knowing if the kids liked us to touch them. Only 1 or 2 of the kids were able to actually play, the rest just laid there. After a while it got easier, but going into it I never expected to feel so unsure of myself.

This afternoon I went to the orphanage in the monastery. Most of the children there were active and wanted to play and roughouse. They varied in age from infants to 22 years old, although no child looked over 12. The monastery was beautiful, although the orphanage was in back and much more rundown. After my experiences in the morning, however, it was somewhat refreshing to be around kids that were responsive.

I didn't feel comfortable taking pictures in the orphanages today, but I will ask if it is ok and hopefully will be able to show you what they are all like.

Tonight it seems that people are being pretty mellow because they were all out so late, so I think I will go to bed a little early and tomorrow explore the rest of the city.

The Start

Hello friends and family-

Welcome to my journey! I am excited to share my experiences with you; I will be posting as often as I can so that no interesting detail will be overlooked (my brain is not quite as secure as Al Gore's lockbox). 

I arrived in Ho Chi Minh this morning at 11, although that is not where the trip began. After going to trivia night at my neighborhood bar with Quizzo, his dad Jaques, and John, Mark and Pedro took me to SFO. I got through security and arrived at the gate at 10:30pm. I sat near an electrical outlet to charge my laptop and noticed a group of guys sitting in a circle. Intrigued, I walked over and saw that they were playing cards. Upon further inspection I realized that they were playing a variation of deuces- Shane, I'm not sure if it was the version that you were explaining to me. I asked if I could sit and watch and they consented. They told me that they were from Taiwan and were in SF for an academic conference. The guy to my left, Huong (I'm gonna take this opportunity to make a disclaimer for all my future attempts at spelling Asian names.....), explained their rules to me and asked me to play. Thus I spent the hour and a half until my flight left at midnight... 

The flight was uneventful; I tried to stay awake as long as I could to get a jump on adjusting to the time difference (It is 12 hours ahead of NY and 15 ahead of SF) and ended up staying awake until 6am SF time. I then passed out until the plane arrived in Hong Kong, where I had a 2 hour layover. 

I stayed awake for the flight to HCMC. We passed over the ocean and many strings of small sandy islands, which were gorgeous, before descending into the yellow haze of pollution that envelopes HCMC. I made it though customs and was met by Minh, one of the organizers of the program. We took a 25,000 dang cab ride to the mens dormitory, dropped off my bags, then walked the 1 block to the main office/girls dorms/lounge area/kitchen. Many of the 12 volunteers in the program were there, along with the rest of the staff for the program, Ken, Diu, and the cook, who doesn't speak a word of english. The volunteers come from Australia, England, Denmark, Sweden, Maryland, and Ireland, and are mostly 19-23 except for 3 that are around 30.  3 volunteers are leaving in the next couple days and this weekend 2 more will be arriving (one of whose last name is Hoffman....). 

After becoming acquainted with everyone I went on an adventure to buy a towel and cell phone. I walked for about 30 minutes to a super market called Big C. Inside there was a small mall with a food shopping area in the back. After getting what I needed I was parched so I stopped at a drink booth out front and got a drink where they took sugar cane and mandarins and put them through a juicer. It was glorious. The sugar cane was sweet but not overwhelmingly so like in soda. Delicious. 

After returning to the lounge I was invited to play badminton with Ken and two girls from Sweden. We went to a sports complex that had 6 half- size fenced- in soccer pitches, 2 tennis courts, and a warehouse with 10 badminton courts, which had no windows or ventilation. It was like playing in a sauna. After an hour I was so wet that it felt like I had jumped in a pool. Tomorrow there are 2 volunteers leaving so tonight we are going out to dinner in there honor. It looks like tomorrow I will have my first day in the orphanage. 

Until Tomorrow.....

Pics in order: 1. The lounge/kitchen at the dorm 2. Street out from of the dorm 3. Alley leading up to boys dorm 4. We had dinner at a sit-down street-food restaurant. These are the cooks. 5. Pic of all the volunteers... I'm the only one looking at the camera- haha