Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas from Laos

It is Christmas here in Luang Prabang, Laos. Last night I went to a party that was made by Laotians for the foreigners here. It is interesting to see their goodwill-gesture of a Chrismas tree was a bunch of green leaves all bunched up and tied in place by ballons and haphazard multi-colored lighting. It was more like a dangling Christmas ball. But, the message was clearly conveyed. There were Laotian food, Beerlao, and the passing around of LaoLao (45% alcohol that tastes like rubbing alcohol). It is surreal to walk around Luang Prabang, a city where the people generally do not celebrate Christmas, and barely see any sign of this holiday. In many other parts of the world, it is virtually impossible to not run into Christmas. Yet here, it is just another day. People still go to work. Women who carry these massive baskets 3-4 times their sizes will still walk the streets trying to unload them. Food vendors will still come out during the warm and damp day to sell anything from fried bananas, to soup, to sodas, to... Life goes on here because in this world, today is just another day.

It is amazing when I think about this Christmas and compare it to last christmas. Last christmas, I was floundering, not committed to my new life (fears, reservations, etc). Last year, around this time, after spending some time with my mother, I would play a useless virtual game (world of warcraft..otherwise known as war of worldcrack). This christmas, despite being half a world away, I was able to talk to my mother for nearly 1 hour, which makes not being around her less painful. We spoke about my experiences, how this trip give me so much understanding of how my father was when he was young. We spoke about Vardvuon and how I am retracing my father's footsteps. Years ago, my father was a rising star in Saigon when he traveled south to this town called Cantho. There, he met this young, smart, and very interesting girl called Kim Hoang. Living here for the last 2 weeks, getting to know Vardvuon, for the first time, in my life, I start to truly understand what my father must have thought and what he felt that he had to do when we first met my mother. Vardvuon and my mother in some ways are similar to each other. And in some ways I am similar to my father. Because of all of that and the experiences of these past 2 weeks, I am starting to fully understand my father and that understanding is destroying many misconceptions that I had about him. It is amazing that 4 years after he died, I am just starting to understand about some aspects of my father's life (he was not into talking about feelings). Like all humans, he has many faults, but I am beginning to truly admire his good qualities and appreciate all that he must have done, all that he had to endure, and the noble spirit and nature that existed in him. My mother and I talked about that as we talked about Vardvuon.

Although my facebook friends know about Vardvoun, she is a stranger in this blog. She is Laotian, she teaches me Laotian and through her smiles and laughter, she is immensely patient with me. I will not go deeply into who she is. Instead, I will give you the adjectives that those that know her use to describe her: kind, nice, beautiful, and good. The other adjectives that I will use are: funny, physically fragile yet mentally strong, patient, humble, resilient, and unyielding (in a good way). In this city (and I guess in a way, this world) where money talks and many people listen, she is a rare gem.

Soon I will be going to get food and drinks so I can share with Vardvuon (and we will also share the food with her friends). I recount the changes that have happened this past year, the friendships I have made, and how I have changed. It makes me happy. In one year, this body has been to 4 continents, and visited 5 countries. Most importantly, I now know people like Jackie S., Lacey, Madi F., Leah, Pipih, Betty, Mercy, Jen KP., Vardvoun, and countless others. Although they are spread throughout this world, I am glad to know each one of them. In my previous life, knowing one was a blessing. I am just amazed of how this life have brought all of these wonderful people into my life. I feel blessed.
The world is good and will be in a good shape as long as it has all of these people always fighting for it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Teaching and some interesting potential cultural faux pas...

As part of my volunteering stint in Laos, I have to (as in required to) teach these private night classes. The children that go to the night lessons come from wealthier families than those that go to the day government-run school. To be honest, I think the parents use the night school as a babysitter agency. Most of the children do not want to be there, and the teachers find ways to send them home early, but the parents continue to send their kids there. As long as the parents pay (by term), the 3 teachers that teach that night school are more than willing. For teaching extra 2 hours (but really 1 hour due to delay and sending the kids home early), these Laotian teachers basically double their salary (from the paltry 1200 to 2500 a year). I have to admit that the night classes are my least favorite time of the day.

During the day, I teach Secondary 7/1 and 7/3. Secondary 7 is our 12th grade. 1 denotes the top students. There are 18 Secondary 7 classes (7/1 to 7/18). So 7/1 students are basically the best of the province and surrouding provinces. There are a few schools that are as big as Luang Prabang School. So, in essence the kids that belong to 7/1 are probably the top 100 highschool seniors of the country. Teaching them you do see why. They are extremely sharp. They have those eyes that shine, that tells you, "we will be leaders of our country one day". As a reward for being the best, they get to live in a dormitory on school's ground, for free. They get a stipend, free food, and all of their school supplies are provided for. 7/3 students, despite being only 2 levels lower than 7/1 are vastly different. They are still the smart students but you can notice the difference. Regardless, teaching 7/1 and 7/3 are fun as you can see that they want to learn. The night class kids, oh bundle of hair-pulling joy.

I am also learning the little cultural differences that can cause little misunderstands. One man's version of being friendly and accommodating may be taken by a woman (in a pretty conservative culture such as Laos) as a sign of romantic interest. I did not know that invitation to help someone with her English could be taken as more. Finally, I am finding that Asian women can be pretty finicky, or may be it is because I am just inept at reading Asian women. I know some one at work (I also volunteer at the library on the school grounds) and after speaking one day where she was extremely warm and friendly, I would get 2-3 days of total coldness and aloofness. Sometimes I wondered to myself, "hmm did I do something wrong to offend her?" Then a few days later, the warm front would move back in. I give up. So, I tell myself, just be friendly, you are here to help. Well, that kind of backfired because my friendliness may have given someone else (not the same person from the library) the idea that it is more. I never had a jealous, non-established-relationship (because we barely know each other) barrage of textes before. That was interesting yet a little unnerving. But, I guess I will just continue to be friendly and just be myself.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

So many stories, so lazy, here is an attempt.

I have been in Luang Prabang, Laos, for over a week now. Although I have been pretty consistent with retelling my experiences in facebook, I have been pretty lacking here. So, this is my attempt at rectifying that.

One of the thing that is pretty shocking about Luang Prabang is that it is insulated from the current Xmas and New Year craze that is hitting most of the Western Hemisphere. Despite having thousands of tourists in this city every day, you would not know that Xmas is coming. Laotians just don't celebrate those 2 days. However, the Laotian New Year, which will happen some time in April, is a Huge week for them. I have seen pictures of previous years' festivals. I can't imagine how crazy it will get in this city. From my weeklong experience, I can say that Laotians love to party, relax, and just have fun. A Laotian I know recently told me: "We Laotians love to party and spend money. We make 100,000kips and we will spend 500,000kips. We make 500,000 and we will spend 1 million kips". So Laos New Year will be crazy.

Another thing that I am beginning to begrudgingly accept about this place is that it is one HUGE tourist trap. Every thing here is catered for tourists. It is hard to differentiate between what is genuine and what is done for the tourists. The prices here are ridiculous, they are jacked up 3 times their normal price based just on if you are a foreigner. So, even if you bargain, it is virtually impossible to know where to start. Also, because money talks in this town, some of the things that are said and done, I can't really discern if they come from the heart or the mind influenced by the dollars. For example, I met a tourist who recounted her story of meeting a child here in Luang Prabang.

One day, while she was walking alone, a child, barely 10 years old, came to her and started to talk to her. After 10 minutes of getting to know each other, the kid asked her for some money. She was shocked and initially said no. The child retorted "I have been talking to you for 10minutes, you are rich, and you can't give me some money? You wasted my time". She was slightly shocked. And sadly, her story is not a singular one here. I have experienced it and have heard similar stories as well.

However, I am beginning to think that it is the effect of this World Heritage city. It changes people who live here. The Laotians who live in remote villages, I am told are different. I have seen that also. The Hmong people that I met at their New Year festivals when I first arrived in Luang Prabang were pretty genuine. The Hmong is the poorer minority group that lives around the outskirts of Luang Prabang. They live through farming. I found that they are friendly and carry a genuine look about them. Regardless of what continent you are from, people with good hearts and genuine looks seem to all have that "look". I have seen plenty of it in Uganda, Cambodia, and now among the Hmong people in Laos. I see much less of that "look" in the people who lives in Luang Prabang.

That concludes my commentary. For now.

During this past week, many of the people and students that I have met kept on asking me, which part of Luang Prabang do you like? My answer to them have been: "I have been busy teaching. My day starts at 7am and ends at 8pm every day so I don't have time to see anything". So, this weekend, with the weekend being free and I don't have to go to school until 2pm monday, I decided to visit the Pak Ou cave, Phousi temple, cross the Nam Khan bridge, found an expat hangout called Utopia, and catch up on my itunes' latest season of "leverage". I wish I had downloaded more seasons of that show. I really like "Leverage" and have finished the entire season. Besides, after 1 week of speaking English in a very VERY slow manner, it is refreshing to watch an American show.

Friday December 17, 2010

Apparently I didn't get a memo, as it was never sent. I went to class and saw a massive party outside the classrooms. All the tables and chairs for the classes have been moved to the party area. In the distance, I saw people dancing with loud music blasting, so I figure, yeah there probably won't be a class. At 5:30pm no class. Instead the principal of the school came over and talked to me and invited me to the staff party. Apparently some of the students at the local Training college finished their 1 week internship at the school, so everyone decided to have a party for them. There was Laobeer, dancing and games. The principal then proceeded to bring me over to a few women that were sitting there and introduced me to them. Actually, all the staffs made it very obvious that they wanted me to talk to the women and vice versa. These women are young, single, and knows english. I have to admit that some are pretty, especially the one person everyone wants me to talk to (forgot her name as Laotian names are hard to remember and I suck at names anyways). As I sat down, the first questions from the women were: what is your name? Pretty innocent enough. Where are you from? I have started to use Vietnamese american now because to say that I was born in Vietnam and live in the US, I have learned is virtually useless. People hear the Vietnam part, stick to it and either don't understand or completely ignore the living in the US part. Next question: how long have you been in Luang Prabang? I have answered these questions hundreds of times before by different Laotians. Of course, by the progression of things, I know the next few questions will be interesting as I have been answering them for many times now by women. Are you married?..Nope.. are you single? yep...why are you single? because I travel and don't have time. These three questions have recently bothered me. Why do these women want to know? So finally, I asked them. "Why do Laotian women always ask me if I am married? or if I am single?". The women laughed and said "we don't want to make your wife or your girlf-friend jealous". I laughed. This is hilarious. Later on, I asked the manager of the library the significance of knowing these things. It turned out that Laotian culture is pretty conservative and their women can get pretty jealous. So, if a girl is single, she first asks you these things so that if your wife or girlfriend finds out, you won't be the recipient of the jealous rage. Also, once a girl finds out the guy is not single, she will talk to him in a distant manner. Based on K, a Laotian I know, this part of the Laotian culture is so significant and they have ran into a lot of foreigners with this problem, that in English classes, these sentences are taught before anything else: What is your name? Where are you from? How long are you in Luang Prabang? Are you married? and Are you single?

Everytime I think of this, it makes me chuckle. Half way through the conversations, some of the friends of the girl that everyone wanted me to talk to asked me point blank: Do you like my friend? to which I give the diplomatic answer: I don't know her yet, I just met her. Although I have to admit, she does intrigue me and we have traded phone numbers. If she wants to practice English, I am all game. She is teaching English anyways.

Another funny fact: apparently some men when they are asked these questions, even if they are attached, say no to being married and yes to being single. Lol, so what is the point of asking?

Also, dating in conservative Laotian culture involves, boyfriend and girlfriends walking together. No holding hands or any sort of Public displays of affection. Finally, 2 lovebirds do not live together nor have sex until they are married. However, all rules are off in the gay community. Reading the volunteer packet, I was surprised to read that it is illegal for a man to live with a woman before marriage.

After the teachers' party, K took me to another festival/market. Apparently it is a big one and it closes tomorrow. The festival/market is to commemorate the 15th anniversary of Luang Prabang becoming a World Heritage city. I asked "K it seems to me that Laos people like to find any reason to relax and party". He answered "Yes, Laotians like to party, have fun and spend money. We make 100,000kips, we go and spend 500,000. We make 500,000, we party and spend 1million kips". So I asked him, "where do the people get the money from?" He replied "They go and borrow money from the banks so they can party".

Later, I asked him "what was Luang Prabang like before it became a world heritage city?" He answered: "the people had culture and history and they behaved differently". So I asked him, "wait are you saying that being made a World Heritage city is killing the laotian culture in the city". He looked at me and said "There will soon be no Laotian culture in Luang Prabang. It is destroyed!".

I thought that was ironic and sad. Sad because it is happening. The money that is flowing into the city helps the local economy. Yet it is changing it. Ken's assessment has been the 3rd similar assessment that I have heard from educated Laotians here. It is ironic because here it is, UNESCO designating this city as a World Heritage City to preserve the City's culture. Yet, by doing so, with the invasion of the tourists and everything that is associated with tourism, being made a World Heritage city is actually destroy the characteristics that made the city special in the first place.

I am still on the fence with what is wrong and what is right with all of this. The money helps the people, yet makes everything more expensive so they cannot afford some things while having easy access to others (ie. food is more expensive but they have paved roads and electricity). There is money and efforts put into preserving buildings, yet it is the buildings that invite the tourist invasions which in turn is destroying the old traditional culture that used to exist in this city. It is one big gray ball of irony.

Saturday December 18, 2010

I woke up early this morning, at around 6:30am to walk to the Mekong's Pak Ou cave Pier. Yep, it has its own Pier because it is a tourist trap. It is amazing how the streets along the Mekong that is lined with guest houses, hotels, and restaurants are completely devoid of Laotians (except for those that work there to service the tourists). It felt like I may as well walk along the Seine River in Paris, France. With 25mins until 8:30am, I decided to have breakfast at one of the restaurants. It is slightly pricer, about $4.5 US for a complete US breakfast with coffee with milk. Oh, coffee is slightly more expensive when they add condensed milk here. This morning was a cloudy and cold morning, you can actually see your breath. And it got colder when 4 other tourists and I embarked on a 2 hour slow boat ride up the Mekong to visit the Pak Ou Cave. Apparently, it is a well known tourist place. In my mind, I thought that it was a complex of many caves with different statues of the Buddha. Afterall, it is apparently one of THE place to visit. Anyways, half way through the trip, our boat driver dropped us off at this "remote village" that sells whisky. Well, it has its own pier and there are tons of tourists there, so it really isn't as "remote" as advertised. Once you disembark, you go up a hill and voila, you are inundated with the remoteness of tons of stalls selling fabrics, crafts, and Laos whisky. The Laos whiskey is pretty strong, 55% alcohol. Also, there are bottles that have different roots and embalmed animals in them such as scorpions, water snakes, and even snakes during mid strike that looks like small rattle snakes. As you walk further, you realize that along the middle of your path and all the shops is a Buddhist monastery. It looks prestine etc.. It is funny to see that monastery there, nestled between what must be hundreds of stalls.
Once the visit to understand Laos culture further (OK, complete sarcasm there), we continued to the cave. After 2 hours of sitting on the boat, the cave was pretty anticlimatic. It has tons of tourists trying to climb these stairs, huffing and puffing. The cave is divided into 2 parts, the upper and ther lower. The lower cave has one bigger statue of the Buddha and hundreds if not thousands of other buddhas that people have placed there. Oh, for a little price, you can buy a small buddha and reach your spiritual self and place it there. They have a stall there to sell to you the buddha statues. They can also sell to you the incense to pray etc.. But you may want to bargain because the prices are ridiculous. The upper cave is a little further up and required a further climb. At the end is a pretty big cave that has a statue of the Buddha at the end. In front of the Buddhas are monks who sit there, and for a "donation", you can sit in front of them, and they will chant and bless you. Without donation, no blessing, you lose. It is pretty funny because while everyone is taking the pictures of the Monks doing their business, sometimes the monks would take their cameras out and take pictures of the caves themselves. That made me think, ummm if you pray there all the time, why would you need to take pictures of the cave like the rest of us tourists? Pretty interesting.
And after that, about 30mins of cave hunting, we were done. It was time to embark the boat and spend the next 1.5hour to get home (downstream). So, 3.5hours ride, 30mins at the "remote whiskey village" and "30mins at the caves". Hey at least I can say that I have been here.

Sunday, December 19, 2010: Me, myself and my camera.

I Took that bamboo bridge across the River Nam Khan and had lunch at a restaurant on the otherside looking back at Luang Prabang. Then took a climb over a bunch of brick stairs to the famous Phou Si temple (or Stupa). The temple that sits ontop of Mount Phou Si is surprisingly small. But now, I know why weather pattern and rain get trapped here, Luang Prabang is surrounded by mountains.

It is only after I have climbed Mount Phousi that I truly understand the geography of this region. Luang Prabang is a pretty long city. Its tip is a peninsula that is formed by the convergence of the Nam Khan river and the Mekong River. Phousi temple being ontop of Mount Phousi is a great place to see everything. You can see lands for miles. You can also see that the whole region is surrounded by mountains. So, when a weather patterns arrive, it can get trapped here. Also, it made me wonder that a long time ago, Luang Prabang must have been a strategically important place. Its history certainly says so. It has been sacked and rebuilt so many times. The Siam Empire was here, the Vietnamese were here, and even the Thais. I can see how Luang Prabang, being the focal point where the Nam Khan meets with with Mekong and where the Mekong continues to sea, could have played an important trade city. It is no wonder that the French came here and made this city a resort town during the late 1800s. I read a book somewhere that the French came here to trade and eventually made Luang Prabang a protectorate. The people here, in a way, have been exposed to western cultures since the late 1800s. When the French left the region in the 1950s, the Americans were here. Historically speaking, they weren't in Laos. Heck, they weren't in Cambodia either. But, I have learned that nearby rice fields of Luang Prabang province are still filled with American bombs that never denotated.

Looking at where Luang Prabang is situated, the natural beauty that surrounds it, it is no wonder that it is a massive tourist trap.

Later that night...

After one week of research and futile searches, I think I have found my Utopia. Utopia is a restaurant/bar that from my research, would have the greatest chance of meeting volunteers and aid workers. So, no more tourist-filled eateries or bars where foreign teenagers use as meat markets.

I have found in my limited traveling experience that in many foreign cities, there is a hangout place that expats frequent (volunteers, aid workers, or just workers). In Jinja, my place is NRE. In Iganga, it is Sol Cafe. And now, in Luang Prabang, Laos, after 1 week of searching and being stuck with restaurants full of tourists, I think I have found the expat hang out. As I was eating dinner at Lao Lao Garden (which contrary to what Laotians will tell you, is not an expat volunteer/aid worker hang out but a young teens meat market for foreign youngsters), I ran into an Aussie expat who has been living here for 2 years. Based on him, if there is a hangout for expats like me, it would be Utopia. Although, as he warned me, despite having thousands of tourists every day, Luang Prabang has a very small expat community. However, Utopia is hard to find and many people, including the locals, don't know how to get there. After dinner, with a full stomach (of this delicious meal that reminded me of a Vietnamese dish called Lau Thai), I went in search of Utopia (pun un-intended). Well, no wonder people can't find it. To get to Utopia, you have to go on this winding road that broke off from the main road. That road then leads to another winding road but slightly smaller (about 5-6ft wide). Fortunately, if you are willing, Utopia has these signs that you can follow. After that road, you turn right into another yet smaller road, passing through the front doors of people's homes. By now if you have no patience or get freaked out by the darker corridors, and decide to turn back, you lose Utopia. At the end of that road, nestled among the trees, with a small gate, is Utopia. However, once you enter Utopia, it expands. The foyer is a massive high ceiling structure made of bamboo and palm leaves. Further in, there are tables and free Wifi. And, the kicker of it all, if you sit on the outter tables of Utopia, you can hear the Nam Khan river passes below you. And this place is where volunteers, aid workers, and long-term expats frequent. I think I found my dinner home. No more night market, or tourist-plagued eateries. It's going to be Utopia from now on.
After 1 week of futile searches, I am glad that I did not give up.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

First few days in Luang Prabang

I arrive in Luang Prabang 2 days ago. So far, I have walked a little of the streets, gotten myself a Laos phone, went to a Film Festival and two Hmong, festivals, and still, I still don't have a sense of what this city really is. It is World Heritage city, so there are many tourists. The streets are lined with shops and tourists of virtually every race.

I spoke to a few tourists and surprisingly, although they have been to many places, none so far have gone to Africa. The common thing, "out of the comfort zone". And it is true. Not because of how life is there, but just the characteristic ...of life. Here, in the prestine streets of Luang Prabang that are flanked by beautiful french homes and tons of shops, I am out of my comfort zone. I am one of those that will enjoy tourism, up to a certain point. Beyond a few days and it become generic to me. Because every tourist destination eventually become similar to every other tourist destination. They have to create that comfort level, that sense of familiarity, and in doing so, they lose the particular characteristics. In some ways, while here, I feel as if I am more closer to Paris, France, than Laos. In Iganga, Ugandan life touches you daily and in time, as you accustom yourself to think, I am immersing myself in Uganda, you feel comfortable because the things you see and experience are for the most part, Ugandan. Whereas, here, the city is kind of having an identity crisis. Is it a Laos city? a french city, a young people's party city, an old people's retirement getaway?

There are many beautiful sights here but some you know have been created for the tourists, so you see it with a sense of disappointment because of the disinguientiy (sic). For example, I was walking with the 2 biking tourists yesterday and near one of the caves there were footprints that the path marks "Buddha's footprints" with a donation jar afterwards. It then has a brief thing about how the Buddha was here. The tourists when, "wow, that is amazing, this is a holy place". I only said "interesting, I didn't think that the Buddha made it this far" (He didn't, unless he took Vietnam Airlines to get here a few thousand years ago"). India is quite a distance for a man to walk to here.

The effect of the tourist industry is so strong here that those Laotian that try to keep genuine aspects of their life, will have to fight a hard current. For example, the monks at the local temple walks the street every morning. In the good old days, before the "World Heritage City" nomer being placed on this city and the hordes of tourists that came afterwards, the locals would line the streets and give alms to the monks. That still happens but it has become an industry. Tourist companies are now selling tickets for places for you to sit, the food that would be prepared for you to give to the monks, etc... A few years back, the monks wanted to stop walking because they disapprove of the new meaning of what their morning walks. The local government told them that if they stop walking, local people would be hired to get their heads shaven, and do the walk instead. So, being bribe into trying to keep their ritual somewhat sacred, the monks continue to do this daily. Also, the only way for children from small villages who want to go to school and learn English is by becoming monks. They would join the monastery, learn enough english, until they are well enough to get a job as a receptionist at a guest house, or as vendors at one of the shops in town. Then, they would leave the monastery. So, the calling of the temples have taken on a different meaning. It is no longer a way to forget this life, but instead, IT IS THE WAY TO MAKE IT IN THIS LIFE.

You can even see that in the Hmong festivals. Traditional dresses with high heels and mall girl's makeup. And this was in the rural area. In the rural area of Iganga, you see how people truly live and it gives you pause, questions your life, and asks you what you should do. Here, it just seems to me as if because of everything that is going on here, there is a big painted mask over everything. And I guess that is what makes me feel out of my comfort zone. May be all of this is Laos. May be Laos is a land that has learn to reinvent itself, to mask certain things, for the purpose of giving those that come and visit, those with fragile sensitivities, to be able to appreciate and while go "wow this is a beautiful place" and yet still be able to go "awww but they are poor".

I hope my prolonged experience here (I am here for another 4 weeks) will change these views. I do like Laotian people but at this point, I still don't know what they are.

Friday, December 10, 2010

What does a lazy blogger do? hmmm

Dec 11, 2010

Well I did it again. I have been in Siem Reap, Cambodia, 4 days and 4 nights, and I have managed to miss dinner 2 of those nights. Why? Well, I never gave myself time to rest after my flight from the US. And I try to pack everything in as much as I can. So, that means that when I get back to my room in the Villa Siem Reap (great place by the way, but I am discovering that I could have lived in much cheaper places), I am tired out. I tell myself, self, you will nap for 2 hours and then you can get some dinner. But I find myself waking up at 10-11pm and dinner just seems silly. Except for my 1 afternoon after arriving here, I have not been back to Pub Street. I had wanted to visit that street again and see what its nightlife is all about (I have heard of many things). Well, I guess, I won't have a chance to do so after all because it is 2:39am already and the idea of walking from the Villa to there seems a little sketchy to me. I could have gone earlier when I woke up at midnight. But, I had wanted to download the pictures and make facebook albums, etc.. This will be last night where I have free and fast internet access (well not really free as I did pay for the room here). In 10 hrs, I will be flying to Luang Prabang, Laos for my volunteering stint. That means it will be back to the lovely internet cafe speed. My internet cafes experience so far have been Europe and Uganda. Europe doesnt count but Uganda, a developing country, the internet is a test of human patience. So we will see how Luang Prabang's internet speed plays out. It will start to suck to post pictures on facebook. I do it mostly for my friends and family. Kind of the "wish you are here" and "since you can't go to it, I will help and bring it to you" sort of deal. Besides, one of my major incentive is for my friends to see the pictures, read the experiences and think to themselves, "it is lovely and it is not too unsafe", and decide to travel to these lovely spots. Heck better still, it would be awesome if they decide to go into international aid work/volunteering.
Speaking of facebook. I think I will start to cutting and pasting my fb statuses and descriptive comments, revise, and repost them here. It just seems to take forever to write my experiences on FB and regurgitate the same speil here. Besides, I am a lazy blogger.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

First day experience in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Dec 8, 2010 Siem Reap, Cambodia

I went and saw the floating village on the Great Lake. You know a lake is huge when you cannot see the other side. The trip down the Siem Reap River to see the village is interesting. The village is basically made up of floating homes (shacks really). There are schools, church, shops, etc.. all floating. Some of the homes, just like homes in Uganda, defy typical western understanding. Yet people live in them. As I sit on the boat with tons of boats behind me, in front of me, and going the from the other direction, I realize that on this same river, tons of money is being spent by the tons of tourists. Yet, it is imperative that the people who live in the homes that we see and pay money to see, remain that way. Their miseries benefit too many people. The tourist industry here is mostly state run and state regulated. Half way through the tour, I stopped by the local floating fish market.

There, I saw a few small families that spoke Vietnamese. They must be truly poor as they immigrated from Vietnam to here for a better living. Their better living is floating on one of those barely floating canoes. A girl of about 8 was begging on the river by floating herself on an aluminum container barely larger than she was. Hearing their Vietnamese truly bothered me. I was born in Vietnam and yet here I am and there they are. So, I came up to them and talked to them. The older woman (in her 60s) in her own canoe told me, "if you give money and you will only give to one of us, please give money to that one (pointing to a young woman in her 20s who was rocking a new born baby on her own canoe), she has a child". So, I gave her, the lady with child and another woman money. They thanked me and I felt so ashamed so I told them, "please don't thank me, thank you for accepting". It hurts me when people like these thank me, seemingly so grateful because as far as I am concerned, the only difference between us are a few luck of the draws.

I saw a little Vietnamese boy on a canoe with his father. He was fishing with a small net. The boy couldn't be more than 6 or 7 years old. Again everything that his father and him own are on that canoe about 10-12ft long and 2-3ft wide. Looking at him talking to his father, smiling, while floating along the Siem Reap river, it reminded me of me and my own father years ago. Years ago, my father and I had floated down a similar river (Hau Giang) in Vietnam under the illumination of the moonlight. Back then, we were trying to escape from Vietnam and we had to float down the river to the sea where we would board a bigger boat. Watching that boy I am reminded of all the international aid workers that we met while at a Refugee camps in Malaysia and Phillippines (UNICEF). Without those people, I wondered to myself, how similar would my life would have been to that boy and father? Life is funny sometimes. I guess, that is one main reason why I want to be an international aid worker. I owe those that came before me so much. In a way, for those of us that are more fortunate than others, we all OWE the world and others for our current status. We may not want to acknowledge it, but that debt is there. Just like any debt, we all must repay it somehow.

Earlier in the morning, I had asked my tuk-tuk driver, Hav, whom I come to know better and trust, to find a legitimate orphanage for me. Just like many places, Siem Reap is full of orphanages and you have to talk to the locals that you trust to tell you a legitimate one. Well, after my floating village experience, I decided to visit that the orphange, Acodo orphanage. We first went into town to purchase rice, fish sauce, hot sauce, and instant noodles to donate. The school is a well run one. They don't have a teacher, so the children are only taught when volunteers from abroad come. Come this saturday, the children will be out of a teacher as their teacher is returning home. In looking at how that school is run, I learned a few decent ideas for the schools I know in Uganda. Before leaving, I donated the rice, sauces, instant noodles and was asked to leave a record. Under the reason for donating, I put:
"This is all done based on the wishes and on behalf of Ashley A. N. (full name with held here for her privacy), who couldn't be here".
It is only fitting for so many reasons. Now, despite A.N.N. not being here in Cambodia, on record, she has!


Please no more "surr". Everywhere I go, massage surr? tuk-tuk sur? you buy surr? I feel old.
While waiting for Hav to take me to one of the temples for the sunset tour, I walked about Old Market area of Siem Reap. Siem Reap is a small city so after 2 hours, I have managed to eat lunch, walked 1/2 of Old Market Area, and got myself a Rolex and a Partek Phillipe. One of which will be my gift to a friend stateside.
I ate lunch at the Dragon Soup on the famous (or infamous) 8th street, also known as Pub Street (yep you guess it). During the day time, that street is a place for restaurants and bars and occassional shops. At night, it gets wayyyyy more interesting, and you can almost get anything you want (include things that stay with you for ages that you don't want). After my tour, I think I will visit the night life of Pub Street.
Went to Old Market and its inner bowels. Old market is interesting because it has something for everone, Cambodians and tourists. It is like a dirty, dimly lit and on a dirtier side mall. At the enter, you can buy cooked on-the-spot food and soup. As you are eating, you are smelling and seeing dead chicken, poultry and cattle guts, fish, etc being sold nearby. There, you rarely find non-asian tourists. The non-asian tourists flock to the outer part where the souveirs, watches, scarves etc.. are sold. It was there that I scored a Rolex AND a Partek Phillippe for a whopping $35 from an originally inflated $50. I am sure that I could have gotten better prices for them. They are so interested in making it seem real that the Rolex still have old stickers of marked down prices, with the recent being around $750USD. Hah!

I think I know why so many tourists like Siem Reap. It has everything, the exoticity of Asian city, the history of the Wats (temples), the shoppings, the food, and the safety. And, I think the idea that they are surrounded and comforted by the presence of so many other tourists. It gives them another layer of invisible safety net. As you venture to more remote areas, you stop seeing tourists and the only foreigners you see are volunteers or aid workers.

....Later still....

So just came back from Angkor Wat. Watching the sunset on this 12th century historic place is a beautiful thing. I was in the tourist zone, enjoying the sights, and having my dinner laid out by the driver (part of the 3 day super saver package) which included a full bottle of Chile red wine, 2 big hunks of cheese, olives, bread, and salami slices. That beauty was then shattered by sad sight which immediately replaced by something much more beautiful. As I sat there watching the sunset and the throng of tourists enthralled by the majesty of Angkor Wat, I had my music on, chomping away at one of my cheese. Slowly, I saw two little children, a boy of around 6-7 and a girl slightly younger than he was. They look like street kids, tattered clothing, dirty, and hungry. The girl didnt ask me for money, instead, she put her hand upto her lips and pointed at my food. I nearly cried. So, her brother and her (they look like orphaned siblings) liberated my food and proceeded to sit in front of me and eating the food they just liberated from me. They looked so happy and smiling that I took a picture. Looking at them, I was happy and sad at the same time. Happy that they would sit infront of me and eat and let me witness something so precious, unadulterated innocent happiness shared between 2 siblings knowing they will be full in their stomachs that night. Sad because I find it so unfair that children like these should exist. In the US there are children whining about what they will get for christmas and yet there are these kids. All kids everywhere should have the privilege of being able to whine about what gifts they should have for christmas. And that sadness suddenly woke me up from being a tourist and reminded me again, "why are you doing all that you are doing?". There must be a way to systematically fix all of this. This is a systematic human problem. And part of me starts to realize the systematic causes of this problem: Ignorance, neglect and arrogance. Combined, we have many children like those two I met who will always be neglected, forgotten, and brushed aside

To Asia I go..

Dec 6, 2010
Just like last time, I couldn’t sleep before my flight. So, it will be a long 1.5 day of flying and waiting during layovers. I did have an “interesting” time (lack of a better word) during my taxi ride. After exchanging some pleasantries between two complete strangers, my driver started to tell me about his life. He is in the process of getting divorced. However, next year, he will be flying to the Philippines with his buddy to find a wife. He already has one in mind, as they have been getting to know each other online (as much as one can know another person online) and she seems to be his ideal mate because she can cook, “domesticated”, and will know that as a man, he has sexual needs that she MUST satisfy. Short of those requirements, he will divorce her and get her booted out of the US. I really don’t understand why people find it necessary to tell me this. His story disturbs me because I find it hard to believe that person like him exists and furthermore, unabashedly openly tells a complete stranger these things.
Listening to my iphone’s mp3s while sitting at almost the same spot I sat in the airport a few months ago, I can see how life moves by fast. It seems like it was only recently that I was this anxious boy waiting to fly to Africa. Taking stock, I guess I can consider myself now grown up to be a teenager. This trip may be interesting yet. We will see.

7:30AM O’Hare is huge. However, a combination of 1 hour of sleep on the plane and flying into snow-covered Chicago slowly illuminated by the rising sun is a treat. I am now partially awake. It is beautiful to see the contrast between the gray buildings and naked trees and the horizon adorned with a gradient of pink-reddish hue. Next stop will be Seoul, S. Korea.

Phew made it to Siem Reap, aka Jinja with MUCH more tourists. Must be like 20% tourists here. A little tired but am in Developing country mode so all is good.
OK hate HATE the flying part. 27 hours not soo cool. Mild "uh oh" moment, making it to Seoul with only 25mins to the next flight on the other end of the concourse. But, couldn't deplane until 15mins left. Ran down 22 gates to the last gate.... Made it with 1 min left and I was huffing and puffing while recover on a 737 to Siem Reap.

As I the plane captain announced, we are descending and will land shortly, I looked out the window and thought, "why is it pitched black and we are about to land?" Then as the plane started to land, I see little dim lights here and there and suddenly, I remember "er, you are in a developing country". Funny how living in the US makes you forget a few things like lights everywhere. I have to admit though, Siem Reap airport is small, about the size of Entebbe, but brand spanking new. As in WOW newer than US airport new. Yay for tourism.

Driving from REP (Siem Reap airport) to Siem Reap town at night (I arrived 2 hours ago at 9:20pm), I notice similarities with Uganda. The main road from the airport to town is brand new. New advertisement signs etc.. Street lamps are nice. But as you go further out (takes 15mins ride via tuk-tuk), road is still nice but lamps started to get more scarce. There are the small shack shops with dimly lit neon lights along the road. Main transport here seems to be the motorcycles (UG's version of boda-boda), tuk-tuks (motorcycle with a canopied rickshaw thingiemajik attached, vans (like matatus), and longer buses. Reminds me of Uganda.

First interesting Cambodian thing: cost of visa is $20. But, had to present my passport to a passport official who saw my Vietnamese name and started to speak to me in Vietnamese (softly). He then softly hinted to me "yeah help a person out with coffee money". It was so soft, I didn't hear it, so I asked, in English, excuse me? He held onto my passport, looking at it over and over and over and over. Then repeated in soft Vietnamese "help me out with coffee money". And so, my official visa cost is $20 but unofficially, it costed me $25.

Tuk-tuk ride is cool and boda-boda drivers here are crazy too. My tuk-tuk driver who will also be my guide while I am here is How (sp?). Seems like a friendly guy. I asked him all the pertinent question (safe to walk at night, what currency should we use, etc.). Siem Reap is a bustling town about the size of Jinja with basically a few main roads. THere are tons and TONs of tourists here and things seems safe to walk at night as they are everywhere. Because of the tourism here, basically everything is in Khmer and English. Lots of neon-signed restaurants, bars, souvenir shops etc..Although I was tired, I did take a walk around the town to get my bearings. Everything here can be purchased or sold in American dollar and forget about bargaining, the tourists here have killed any sense of a proper price structure.
I went to a street restaurant (one of those places that have a canopy on top and the cook just cook right there outside) because well, I was hungry. Apparently, a lot of Europeans are here along with those Frenchies. I guess because Cambodians still speak somewhat french, there are tons of Frenchies. A group of tourist next to me were french. I struck up a conversation with a Korean tourist and picked his brains on his experience from the last 2 days that he has been here. there are tons of Koreans here too. Speaking of Korean, apparently everywhere I go, I am called a Korean. In Uganda, I was either China or Korean. In Seoul everyone who talked to me started with Korean, and here in Cambodia, they think I am Korean also. Just once, I would like to be called a Vietnamese American.

After the meal, I walked the street a little more. People here are polite but there are beggars from adults to kids. Sad but that seems to be a common theme in developing countries.
OK that should be it. Meeting with How tomorrow for some sightseeing.
Oh Ankgor beer is pretty nice. Tastes like Nile beer and Budweiser.
I have to admire how the vendors here are able to convert Cambodian Rie (sp?) to US dollars, Euros, Thai Bahts, Aussie dollars, and Vietnam Dongs virtually instantaneously. Sorry, they don't accept Laotian Kip as it is v...irtually useless outside of Laos.

Heavy set foreign men (seen a few white ones last night) in their late 50s to early 60s walking around town looking happy, holding hands with their (not sure of age but barely above 20) local "honeys". Hmmm, I wonder besides money and gifts, what else are being exchanged.

Joh (the young Korean friend I met last night) told me of these "beautiful girls, the most beautiful I have seen" in Bangkok. Except they aren't really "girls". "They must have operations because how can they be so beautiful?". I think Joh for 3000Bahts may have been closer to those "girls" than he wanted to. So he warns me of their potential existence here (walking the streets, in bars, and in massage parlors). By the way, to my young American female friends, if you are looking for a traveling university-age Korean, Joh is available and loves American women ("they are soooooo beautiful. Do they actually date Asians there?"). Joh is hilarious.

So far today, I did 1 touristy thing and 2 non-touristy things.

I went and saw the floating village on the Great Lake. You know a lake is huge when you cannot see the other side. The trip down the Siem Reap River to see the village is intere...sting. It is basically made up of floating homes (shacks really). There are schools, church, shops, etc.. all floating. Some of the homes, just like homes in Uganda, defy typical western understanding. Yet people live in them. As I sit on the boat with tons of boats behind me, in front of me, and going the from the other direction, I realize that on this same river, tons of money is being spent by the tons of tourists. Yet, it is imperative that the people who live in the homes that we see and pay money to see, remain that way. Their miseries benefit too many people (trying to be politically sensitive here as who knows who else is reading this besides my friends). The tourist industry here is mostly state run and state regulated. Half way through the tour, I went stopped by the local floating fish market. The 2 things that happened shooked me:

a. I saw a few small families that spoke Vietnamese. They must be truly poor as they immigrated from Vietnam to here for a better living. Their better living is floating on one of those barely floating canoes. A girl of about 8 was begging on the river by floating herself on an aluminum container barely larger than she was. Hearing their Vietnamese truly bothered me. I was born in Vietnam and yet here I am and there they are. So, I came up to them and talked to them. The older woman (in her 60s) in her own canoe told me, "if you give money and you will only give to one of us, please give money to that one (pointing to a young woman in her 20s who was rocking a new born baby on her own canoe), she has a child". So, I gave her, the lady with child and another woman money. They thanked me and I felt so ashamed so I told them, please don't thank me, thank you for accepting. It hurts me when people like these thank me, seemingly so grateful because as far as I am concerned, the only difference between us were a few luck of the draws.
b. I saw a little vietnamese boy on a canoe with his father. He was fishing with a small net. The boy couldn't be more than 6 or 7 years old. Again everything that his father and him own are on that canoe about 10-12ft long and 2-3ft wide. Looking at him talking to his father, smiling, while floating along the Siem Reap river, it reminded me of me and my own father years ago. Years ago, my father and I had floated down a similar river (Hau Giang) in Vietnam under the illumination of the moonlight. Back then, we were trying to escape from Vietnam and we had to float down the river to the sea where we would board a bigger boat. Watching that boy I am reminded of all the international aid workers that we met while at a Refugee camps in Malaysia and Phillippines (UNICEF). Without those people, I wondered to myself, how similar would my life would have been to that boy and father? Life is funny sometimes. I guess, that is one main reason why I want to be an international aid worker. I owe those that came before me so much. In a way, for those of us that are more fortunate than others, we all OWE the world and others for our current status. We may not want to acknowledge it, but that debt is there. Just like any debt, we all must repay it somehow.
c. Earlier in the morning, I had asked my tuk-tuk driver, Hav, whom I come to know better and trust, to find a legitimate orphanage for me. Just like many places, Siem Reap is full of orphanages and you have to talk to the locals that you trust to tell you a legitimate one. Well, after my floating village experience, I decided to visit that the orphange, Akodo orphanage. We first went into town to purchase rice, fish sauce, hot sauce, and instant noodles to donate. The school is a well run one. They don't have a teacher, so the children are only taught when volunteers from abroad come. Come this saturday, the children will be out of a teacher as their teacher is returning home. In looking at how that school is run, I learned a few decent ideas for the schools I know in Uganda. Before leaving, I donated the rice, sauces, instant noodles and was asked to leave a record. Under the reason for donating, I put:
"This is all done based on the wishes and on behalf of Ashley A. N (full name written out), who couldn't be here".
It is only fitting for so many reasons. Now, despite A.N.N. not being here, on record, she has!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Nervous energy and excitement

Tomorrow, at 6am, I am heading to Asia. Luggage wise, I am set to go. But I am not so enthusiastic about waking up at 2:45AM to get ready.
I am currently a walking ball of nervous energy intertwined with excitement. The nervous energy is coming from an invisible self-doubt of how I will handle myself in a new place, new culture, new people, new everything. Although cerebrally, I know that I will be fine, that nervousness is still there. It was there when I travelled to Switzerland, France and England. It was also there when I went to Uganda. And that old friend is here again. At least I know two things: that it is not dependent on location and that it dissipates once I land and start to walk around. Perhaps as a conscious effort to get rid of it as fast as I can, when I first land in a new place, the first thing that I do is walk the streets and start to make heads or tails of how everything works. Normally, within hours, as I get an understanding of my temporary new home, the nervous energy translates to elation.
I am currently also excited for the experience that I am about to embark on, the sights, the memories, the friendships, etc. Also, I have noticed that I am a completely different beast when I am abroad. For some reasons, I am not myself in the US. That even translates to my interactions with friends I made abroad. Those that I have met while abroad and re-united in the US see a different, more jovial and patient Phong. In the US, the longer I stay, the more I feel as if my emotional well-being, mental strength and happiness are slowly getting depleted. Strange!

May be I need to travel more.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Packing, difference between neccessity and luxury.

With slightly more than 2 days before my really early flight to Asia (6:00AM), I have decided to pack. After 2 hours of feverishly ironing, sorting out stuffs, and checking and rechecking my travel list, for the most part, I am done. It is funny how experience changes you. I remember when I first packed for my Ugandan trip. It took forever. The list was 3 pages long and I must have packed and repacked for a million times. Taking stuffs out, putting other stuffs in etc.. It was a painful process. This time around, the process was fast and relatively painless. And I know the reason why. When I was packing for Uganda, I had the misconceptions and fears of a person who has lived way too long in a very well developed country. I had feared that Uganda was devoid of many daily life necessities and devoid of any sort of technology. How provincial and ignorant of me. During my stay in Uganda, it dawned on me that Ugandans, just like anyone else, need and want everything that any of us more privileged folks need and want. And wherever there is a need and want, there is a market for it. So, despite being an impoverished developing country, Ugandan markets have almost everything that one would need to survive. All you need is money, something many Ugandans do not have. So, armed with that experience, along with the knowledge that Asia (aside from some countries like N. Korea, Burma, etc) is more developed, I am traveling slightly lighter. Aside from some true necessities like my passport, cash, Steripen adventurer (my emergency water sterilizer kit), and malaria meds, I know whatever I discover to be missing, I can always get at a local market. In looking at my packed Northface Terra 65 (multi-day hiking pack that I love) and my NF Slingshot backpack (I am a walking NF advertisement), I realized another thing:

There is a significant difference between necessity and luxury. I know that if I am to empty out 1/3 of my hiking pack, I could easily live off of the stuffs I have in both packs (for a prolonged amount of time). Human beings are extremely resilient and we truly do not need a lot to live on. However, living in the US, we have come to believe that a lot of what should be considered as luxuries are necessities. And we often fear the loss of those "necessities" when in reality, we could easily survive without them. Afterall, there are many of our brothers and sisters out there (slums of inner cities, reservations, and developing countries, etc) that are living with significantly less. If they can survive with what they have, and what they have is significantly less than what we think we "need", then I truly believe that we each have to re-evaluate our definition of "need".

On a funny note, I had a wonderful conversation with a friend that I met while in Uganda. She is slowly moving her life into the humanitarian work. She is currently in the US, working just so she can save money to volunteer in Nepal in April. Like me, she has fallen in love with Uganda and humanitarian work. Unlike me, she has significantly more courage in voicing her opinion. She is one of those that is honest, kindhearted, and says what she thinks. Well, her husband and her attended a thanksgiving dinner with acquaintances and friends. Before dinner, her husband had warned those they knew that Jen is a strong supporter of humanitarism as well as lover of the African continent, especially Uganda. During dinner, the topic came up of where she went to volunteer this summer. There was grumbling by others because although they do not volunteer either at home or abroad, they were offended that she would volunteer abroad, much less Uganda (have to love those people). Despite the continued warning by Jen's husband, one of them asked "Ewww why would you go to Uganda?". To which Jen's answer was "Fu*k you!". When she told me this story, I laughed so hard because she had the courage to say what many of us who have had similar experiences would have liked to say. Her explanation for her bluntness "Phong, what else would I say?".
I truly like Jen.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Hellos, Goodbyes, and everything in between

Nov 28, 2010

I had to cut grass today, yes at the end of November. Earlier, I had do make sure all of my papers for the Asia trip were in order. That meant I had to make multiple copies of my passport, itinerary, volunteering document (immigration officials in Vietnam I hear can be a pain), and travel insurance (which is ironic as the only time that I have health insurance is when I travel to developing countries). Between paperwork and yardwork, I have been listening to my iphone's music. It dawned on me that I have been listening to the same music that I have been listening to these past few months. For me, music leads to free-association and often times, it brings me back to specific people, places and times. Once in a while, I would run across a song and it reminded me of the ski trip I took with RU one weekend in Feb 2004. "Round and round" would make me remember AN and how she looked when I first saw her the summer of 2009. Now, a series of songs remind me of all the goodbyes I said to my friends before heading to Uganda, the hellos I made to some amazing people, and finally again, goodbyes to those same amazing people.
One thing that I am starting to begrudgingly recognize and accept is that in my life now and for the foreseable future, there will always be a constant cycle of hellos and goodbyes. This cycle is made up of saying goodbye to my mother and dog, some friends, and the comfortable lifestyle and hello to a mixture of culture shock and learning new ways of life and cultures. It will also include the hellos to inspiring friends whose friendships silently as if through osmosis, mature me. There is also the hellos to beautiful sights, people, and different ways of living that completely amazes and humble me. In time, it also include the sad goodbyes to those same friends as well as the culture and people I have come to know and love. For those seeking a certain career path, such as aid work, this cycle is a perpetual one, an accepted side-effect of the chosen path. I am a creature who hates goodbyes and goodbyes (the good kind) internally wreck me. I was an unhappy camper for days after JS left Uganda and was worse as my impending return to the US was approaching. However, I am happy to have the chance to undergo this cycle. I know that because of it, I will continually grow as a human being, and through it, my life will have some meaning.

1 week and 14hours to go...

Friday, November 26, 2010

Pre and Post thanksgiving...

Nov 24, 2010.

It's the day before thanksgiving and all was... wait, that's for christmas. Anyways, pre-thanksgiving for me meant, early day at work, haircut (I am now back to getting carded for alcohol..grrrr), and quiet dinner with Mom at a local seafood restaurant. What a difference a year make. The atmosphere and demeanor of both my mother and I greatly changed this past year. We talked about that, about my Mom's subtle sadness that soon, I will leave her again for nearly 2 months, and about the future. But we are both at peace and hopeful about the future. For once, I am truly happy of where I am, what I want to do, and all the people who are in my life. She too, is happy for me. Instead of the floundering fool she had for a son, she says she is proud of who I am becoming. Also, we talked about her future. I am slowly convincing her that retirement should not be the start of the end. Instead, if she is willing, it is the beginning of a new life. I know my mother and I know that once she starts this new life, she will love it. And so, with a growing sense of excitement, my mother sees the potential within her and starts to actually grasp the idea that her future, the last chapter of her life, can be as beautiful as she wishes to make it. I am therefore, ecstatic that the first step she will take will be to visit the remote villages of Vietnam during her Vietnam trip in 1 month. Unlike before where she spent countless hours sitting around in Ho Chi Minh City, she will be travelling to remote villages of the Mekong delta, and seeking out impoverished families to donate money to them. That will be her gift to her relatives (although I think that, knowing them, they will not be thrilled to know that the money that was supposed to go to them as gifts was spent on strangers). She will also be heading to Thailand or Laos next year to volunteer. If all goes as she wishes, she may decide to start something. I am completely supportive and extremely happy of her new path. I will support her in any way that I can. It is the least that I can do for her insurmountable amount of support she had always placed in me. It was a good dinner that started out with a quiet sadness but ended with hope.

Nov 25, 2010

Thanksgiving, thanksgiving, everywhere on TV it is thanksgiving....well at least in the US. 6 hours before it officially became thanksgiving in the US, I had wished all of my American friends who were still in Uganda a happy thanksgiving. That led to Leah P (co-founder of Musana) and others' description to me of their fun and memorable version of thanksgiving party abroad. Suddenly, I wanted to be there, with them. At the same time I am happy that they were enjoying themselves. Later, I called Pipih and had a great conversation. Talking to him always make me laugh and this time, I laughed harder. He had asked me about why another friend had liked his picture and I erroneously thought of a funny reason, and proceed to give him a hard time. When I asked the other friend, AN, her answer again reminded me of why I have always thought of her as this wonderful and beautiful creature. This made me think deeper about how things have changed since last year and make me appreciative of the changes. I have discovered that lately, I am surrounded by some of the most wonderful people one could ever meet. These people have great and open minds, generous spirits, and epitomize the cliche "beautiful inside and out". And the miraculous thing is that, last year, I could not call them my friends. At this time last year, I have not met people like Andrea, Leah, Sally, Jackie S, Lacey, Jen, and Pipih. I was such a jerk that I could not call Ashley my friend (hah hah, a more apt word may be "jackass"). And my mother, despite her support of me, felt a sense of sadness for who I was. All of that no longer exist this year. Instead, I am constantly amazed and re-invigorated by the conversations I have with these people. I know that no matter how drained I feel by the materialism and spoiled ways of thinking by others (and by the so-called-friends) around me, each week, I will be recharged by either my conversation with Pipih or Betty, or the occassional emails by L.P and A.N. To be honest, I feel emotionally spoiled as I think that any human being would be blessed to have correspondences from just one of those people. So considering that I heard from Pipih, LP, and AN, all in one day, I consider my thanksgiving a pretty damn good day.


Some of my friends always wondered why Uganda was such a significant trip for me. It is difficult to give an eloquent response. However, I have been reading a book by Hermann Hesse entitled "Siddhartha". This morning, I came upon a long passage that for the most part encapsulates the transition I felt while I was in Uganda (and for some part, even now, I still do). While I was there, I could feel the changes within me whenever I visit the orphans in the villages or just sit around Musana and watch the orphans play. And so, here is the passage:

"He felt joy welling up gloriously within his breast.

Tell me, he asked his heart, what is the source of all this gladness? Might it come from this long, good slumber that has so restored me? Or from the word Om that I uttered? Or because I have escaped, because my flight was successful, because I am finally free again and standing like a child beneath the sky? Oh, how good it is to have fled, to have become free! How pure and beautiful the air is here, how good it is to breate it! In the place I ran from, everything smelled of lotions, of spices, of wine, of excess, of lethargy. How I hated the world of rich men, of gluttons, of gamblers! How I hated myself for having remained so long in that hideous world! How I hated myself; how I robbed myself, poisoned and tormented myself; how I made myself old and wicked! No, never again will I imagine, as I once enjoyed doing, that Siddhartha was a wiseman! But one thing I did do well, one thing pleases me, which I must praise: All my self-hatred has now come to an end, along with that idiotic, desolate existence! I praise you, Siddhartha. After all these years of idiocy, you for once had a good idea; you did something; you heard the bird singing in your breast and followed it!

....He has tasted his share of sorrow and misery these past days and times, tasted them and spit them out, eaten of them till he had reached the point of despair, of death. All was well. He might have remained a great while longer at Kamaswami's side, earning money, squandering money, stuffing his belly and letting his soul thirst; he might have gone on living a great while longer in this cozy well-uphostered hell if that moment had not come: that moment of utter despondency and despair, that extreme moment when he was hanging above the flowing water, ready to destroy himself. That he had felt this despair, this deepest nausea, and yet had not succumbed to it, that the bird, the happy fountainhead and voice within him, had remained alive after all - it was because of all these things that he now felt such joy, that he laughed, that his face beaming beneath his gray hair.

It is good, he thought, to taste for oneself all that it necessary to know. Already as a child I learned that wordly desires and wealth were not good things. I have known this for a long time but have only now experienced it. And now I do know it, know it not only with memory but with my eyes, with my heart, and with my stomach. How glad I am to know it!"

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Day off but not really..

Taking my day off to finish up some things around the house. My travel to Laos/Asia packing list is done. I am pleasantly surprised that it is only 2 pages long (slightly less than 2 complete pages). Of course, this means that I do anticipate buying stuffs while I am there. Besides, from the description of my volunteer package as well as the nature of my visit to Cambodia and Vietnam, 2 pages may be too much. Luang Prabang, Laos, the place where I will be volunteering, is a World Heritage city. Which means that there will be tons of tourists. Tourists mean higher prices than other places, avoiding streets where half-lost people totting massive cameras with lenses a mile long, and well, pick-pockets. It is funny but I used to be one of those. Now, I refuse to visit places as a stereotypically tourist. How snobbish of me, but I find that touristy cities are almost all the same. Similar craft shops, similar sorts of restaurants, and similar way locals treat you. So, if I go somewhere, I would rather not look like a tourist. In a way though, one truly never escape doing it, as any where you go for the first time, you will have that deer-staring-at-the-headlights effect.

From what I have read of the "amenities" that will be afforded to me by *** volunteering program, this trip to Laos will be a physically-inconvenience breeze. My own room with a bathroom with a running toilet and hot shower? I guess for one month, with the exception of self-motivated trips to remote areas, I will essentially be staying at a hotel. I am not such a big fan of doing that as I like the experiential volunteer atmosphere. I am pretty sure that most Laotian do not live in similar conditions as how I will be living. My trip to Uganda was special in part because we lived closer to what some people in Iganga lived (ok, those that are more spoiled). Also, there were not many tourists or foreigners where we were (may be 10-20 in a town of a few hundred thousands?). Well, when I say foreigners, I did not count Indians or Chinese as there were tons of them around.
So today, I am finally getting myself ready for Asia. I am not excited about it as I was with Uganda. There is a slight nervousness but I know that once I land in Cambodia, after an hour or so, that anxiety will dissipate. Hmmm, perhaps I am more anxious about the gropping sessions while at the airports....

Also, I am vigorously freshening up my English grammar. Each night, while in Laos, I will be teaching English to the locals for 2 hours. God help them. A transplanted Vietnamese American educated by the American inner-city school system, teaching them about English grammar. I will try my best to not butcher their learning experiences.

13 days...

Friday, November 19, 2010

Ironies of my current life...

Recent, I was facebook messaging a special friend, AN, and it started to sink in that in less than 18 days, I will be in yet another continent this year (not counting N. America, it will be my third). I think it was the discussion of Buddhism, monks, beads, and family in Cambodia that brought the realization that I will soon be physically there. Ever since, the recognition of little ironies of my current life started.

I love to travel. It allows me to meet new cultures, live with the people, absorb all that I can, and in a miniscule way, help as a volunteer. However, in transplanting myself to a new place (for any prolonged time), I am exposed to culture shock. Regardless of how often a person travels, that phenonmenon always strike. It is understandable. Although the ears, eyes, and all of my senses may have been mentally prepared by the act of flying or the active mental reminders that I will be in a new place, it is still shocking to me to be walking among people that no longer speak my language (at least not well). All of the senses that I have come accostumed to are no longer there as I step out of my guest house door. It is hard sometimes for the mind to accept the fact that all of my comfort zones have been completely stripped away and in the new place, I have to get used to the new senses, the new ways of life, and redefine my new temporary comfort zones. The irony of it all is that, it is this set of newness that makes this lifestyle exciting, while at the same time, too much of it may make me just want to go to a private corner somewhere and regroup. For me, when that happens, I would call home, go to a cafe or bar that is known to have others like me there (aid workers or volunteers), read a book, listen to my iphone music, or just watch recorded episodes of my favorite shows (two and a half men or How I met your mother. I love my iphone). That little "alone" time is normally enough, and I would re-engage the new temporary life.

Another thing I have come to anticipate is that in traveling to certain places, I just have to let go of worries about personal safety. I know due to the distance, the locales and the conditions of healthcare and/or security in those locales, if anything serious should happen to me, not much can be done. It is amazing how mentally and emotionally liberating it is to accept all that could come. Suddenly most of the fears that the western world has taught me to carry in my daily life, no longer exist. But ironically, I feel my most secure while abroad. This is because I am my sharpest, most alive, and most aware while abroad. Also, as I live longer in a place, I quietly learn my ways around, learn little tricks, etc.. So, in a sense, I think it is harder to get hurt while I am abroad. Besides, I think that not truly worrying about one's safety is a requirement of this career choice.

Although the comfort of home, knowing friends, having my dog around (love my Milou, the mini-schnauzer that like his Dad, still acts like a young puppy), etc.. can get boring, it is something that I do miss while abroad. It is a double-edged sword really. While I am in the states, these comforts and luxuries make me feel connected and close to my immediate surroundings. However, I feel disconnected from the rest of the humanity of the developing world. Also, I just feel as if I am just floating through life, not doing much meaningful things. When I am abroad volunteering, despite feeling distant from the local comforts, I feel connected to humanity, and feeling as if I am doing something constructive. I guess it comes from the daily exposure to truly impoverished people. Hearing their stories, touching their lives, and seeing their lives and feeling their sufferings, make me grounded. There, I feel truly connected to their lives, lives of complete strangers. I guess these experiences in a great part, help make me feel "alive".

Finally, in terms of the heart, while I am far away, there is a physical distance with the special people like my Mom, AN, and some of my close friends. However, because I emotionally and mentally carry them with me wherever I go, I don't feel that far from them. When I was in Uganda, when I looked at the smiling eyes of the children, I thought of my Mother. When I saw little dogs running around, I thought of Milou. When I visited Kitgum and spoke to the people at an IDP camp, I thought of RU. Some beautiful Ugandan sunsets made me think of AN, wishing she could have seen them. And when I was in Kampala, I visited a bar carrying my best friend son's name, Mateo. I know that while I am in Asia, there will be constant reminders of those special people. Buddhist monks will remind me of my Mom. Cambodia and its children will remind me of AN (she has family there and she loves to volunteer). Running children and adults with broken english will remind me of RU (she was an ESL teacher in DC). I guess, sometimes the loneliness when I am abroad makes me think of them more. Here, in the US, I am inundated by so many unimportant things that I never truly get a chance to think of them and/or appreciate them. So, yet another irony. Close physical promixity yet far in thoughts. Distant in bodily touch, yet close in mind and spirit.

16 days left...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Introduction of a haphazard mind...

Second time doing this so I am hoping that I will do a much better job of blogging this time around. Last time, I spent 6 weeks in Uganda and yet, not one blog made its way to my "official" blog. Very sad indeed. Instead, there are tons of Facebook statuses with additional comments giving my friends, and notably my mother the chance to track me (Asian mother with only son, so it is expected).

I don't have the time to repost everything from Uganda here. Instead, I will just briefly state some of the things that, to this day, 6 weeks after I have returned, still stay with me. Before I do so, let me give a brief description of who I am.

I was a major lab rat. I did my graduate studies in Molecular and Cellular Biology (typical asian eh?). However, throughout my college and graduate career, I never truly felt as if MCB was something I wanted to do. It was more of something that would satisfy my father's wishes and perhaps, secretly, gain his respect. When one day, he became ill (long story), while taking care of him, things within me changed. It further changed when he passed away and gradually, I felt as if the roadblock for what I have always wanted to do was removed. Losing him was devastating and for a while, emotional and mentally depressive. However, recovering from it gave me a new purpose in life. However, I should say that without the three people that I met or know before, during, and after my father's death, the seeds of change as well as the final impetus for change would have never taken place.

The first person that has always been my number one cheerleader has been my mother. Without her constant support and constantly reminding me to be something better, a lot of the steps taken would have been virtually impossible. The second person I met was Rachel. My mother brought her home for thanksgiving dinner years ago. Meeting her reignited the idealistic fires in me that had long disappeared through years of self-gratification filled with false arrogance and selfish aspirations. Knowing her for the brief few months made me realized that to be someone that matter in this world, you have to be willing to make sacrifices as well as be willing to be fearless and take the first step into the unknown. Finally, the third person that greatly affected me was Ashley. Ashley came into my life when I was mentally and emotionally exhausted and defeated from my father's death. Our brief friendship was what I needed to wake up from the fog and start to climb out of the self-imposed abyss.

So from all of all of my experiences, the people I met, and finally, my realization that there is one thing in this world that makes me completely happy, I decided to quit my career in MCB and started on a journey of becoming an international aid worker. From reading Rachel's blog, I recognize that it would be a very tough career to break into. But, I thought to myself, if I can waste so much of my life doing something that meant little, then no cost is that big to start on something that would mean a lot. That, was how I got myself to Uganda.

From the beginning of August to the middle of September of this year, I spent a wonderful 6 weeks in Uganda. 4 of those weeks were spent volunteering at an orphanage named Ekayro Kaife (Our Village) 10 minutes boda-boda ride from Iganga town. The remaining time, I spent travelling around Uganda, which included northern Uganda, visiting towns such as Gulu, Lira, and Kitgum. The north is still recovering from the 24 year war with the LRA (Lord's Resistance Army). I had a chance to visit some of the remaining IDPs (internally displaced persons) at a recently closed down IDP camp. I will not go into the specifics of my travels here as I am sure there are much more wonderful and exciting stories out there that belong to either aid workers or those that volunteer longer. However, I will give my brief impressions of my short time in Uganda:

1.The Ugandans are some of the most beautiful people in the world. Despite poverty, governmental neglect and depravity, they are so generous in terms of spirit and hospitality. Befriending them and living with them, I was truly taught on how to be a better human being.
2. The government of Uganda needs a lot of improvement. Corruption run rampant and it is a systematic problem, infecting almost all aspect of Ugandan political and social hierarchy. iNGOs are everywhere and Ugandans know that there are a vast sum of money being floated into the country. Unfortunately, the money gets to the top but by the end of its journey, nothing much is left for the common people. Remote villagers are often left to fend for themselves. That is a tragedy and something that truly irks me.
3. The country is a lovely country. During my time there, I travelled extensively throughout the different regions (except the West as I ran out of time) of Uganda. There are differences in culture and perceptions as you cross different regions (ie., the north Ugandans have tougher demeanor and there are less smiles than those of the south, etc). However, wherever you go, be it the big cities such as Kampala, Jinja, Mbale, or Gulu or the small villages in far off districts like Namatumba, there is always need. I call Uganda a sea of need. Which leads me to the last point:
4. Uganda is a country of need. I am sure that I as travel to the Congo or the Sudan next summer, I will be opened to a greater level or exposed to a higher urgent level of need. But for now, it seems as if everywhere you go, if you have eyes and are willing to see, you will see need. This means that if you are willing, there are always things for you to do. While I was waiting for my flight back to the US at EBB, I met Moses who worked for the UNHCR and he said something that I will always remember. Moses said "Uganda and to most extent, Africa, is a place of many opportunities. The opportunities are not for personal gain like professional or financial improvement. Instead, if you have a heart and want to spend your life helping, there are endless amount of opportunities to do so here."

So, I will be back to Uganda. But for now, to improve on my resume so I can apply to, and be accepted into, UPeace, in a few weeks, I will be volunteering in Laos. It would be an eye-opening experience to gain a different perspective on the kind of need exhibited by the impoverished people of Laos. But first, i will be heading to Cambodia for a few days.

This has been a cursory introduction to this blog. It stays empty until the day when I can fill it with my experiences in Cambodia...