Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Don't Read This If You Want To Feel Happy

This is such a quick update! I’m so proud. We just had a really interesting day. We split into two groups to go to different composting sites. My group went to a smaller site, then went to visit a resettlement area and an area soon to be resettled. The composting was really interesting. The woman we spoke to who worked there was saying she chooses to work there because she knows it’s better for the environment. Farmers in the area buy the compost, and the people who work there get some for free each year for their own gardens. It was all done manually; the women were wading around in disgusting garbage, separating the organic material. There was some really disgusting stuff in there.
The resettlement: basically, there are ‘slums’ in Qui Nhon, in this case inhabited by fishermen and their families. They live literally over the ocean. There are shaky wooden walkways with houses on top, with all the boats tied at the edge. While we were there a man actually half fell through the walkway when a rotting board broke. I had been assuming it only looked like it was all going to collapse, but I guess in this case appearances weren’t deceiving. There were babies running around there! The government is making the people move off the water, into the city. They buy the houses off them for what they are worth, which ends up being a little less than six hundred dollars. The government then provides free (not very nice) housing until the people can buy the house from them. I couldn’t tell if the motives for having them move were pure or not; half the time it sounded like the government wants to beautify the area, half the time it sounded like they were worried about the people living in such dangerous conditions and polluting the water. The people already in the resettlement area were largely unhappy to have been moved. They had also started out as fishermen, but some had switched to manual labor and service professions in Qui Nhon. The people living on the water were looking forward to better conditions, though they worried about being moved too far from the sea.
When we got back to the hotel, I finally watched GO!, the Invisible Children movie about the kids who went to Uganda the year before me. It was really interesting to hear about the people displaced in Uganda right after the talk of displacement in Vietnam. There are clearly infinite differences between the circumstances, but I guess people being forced out of their homes have some similarities no matter where they’re from or what the reason is. The people in the resettlement area here made a huge point of wanting to own their homes; living on the government’s charity wasn’t sitting well with anyone. I know from going to Uganda how important it is for people to be out of the camps, back in their villages on their own property.
It was wonderful to watch GO! and see all the places I went this summer, and some of the people I got to know. I never wrote about Uganda here, I know, and someday I really will type up some of my journal entries from then. Watching GO! made me think of two girls in particular, though, so I’ll write about them quickly. We spent one morning at Sacred Heart Secondary School, hanging out with the girls and then having a meeting about how to run a schools for schools club. I spent most of the day with two girls, Vicky and Agnes. We had a standard conversation to get to know each other- where are you from, what’s your favorite subject, etc. As part of that, they also asked if both my parents were alive. Neither of them had both parents. Their parents were dead, or had abandoned them. They discussed this as casually as they had discussed school, and quickly moved on to hair. They were shocked I’d never shaved my head. They were even more shocked to learn I shower every day. They invited me to spend the night with them in their dormitory, but Jolie (the country director) said it was too dangerous. We were supposed to be back in the gated compound with the security guard by nine o’clock. It was ok to be out later, as long as we were with the group and in a mutatu.
Yesterday, we went to the Son My (My Lai, in America) memorial site. Son My was a peaceful village, not involved with the Viet Cong. During the war, the American army went there and killed 504 women, children, and elderly people. Most of the males of military age were out working during the day. People were raped, thrown down wells, burned, and worse. There were pictures there of bodies piled in irrigation ditches, children with limbs cut off, women with no clothes lying dead, people on the floor with their intestines hanging out, and much more. I learned about My Lai a little in my US history class, but I was one of the few who had. One thing I hadn’t learned about at all was the rescue performed by Hugh Thompson and Lawrence Colburn. It was a big deal at the museum; there were pictures and articles and plaques on the wall. Hugh Thompson was a pilot who saw the massacre taking place and knew it was wrong. He saw a group of soldiers chasing 10 villagers, trying to kill them. He landed his helicopter between the two groups, and told his machine gunner (Lawrence Colburn) to fire on the soldiers if they came near. He brought the villagers into the helicopter and flew them away.
Something I forgot to write about last time: we went to the war memorial museum. It was so, so strange. They were showing all the horrors of war (including human fetuses deformed by Agent Orange, floating in a box), but they were selling camouflage helmets and war toys in the gift shop. They had all these paintings on display, done by children as part of a competition. The options were to draw something about world peace, or your feelings on war. They put the winners (all five hundred thousand million of them) on display. Many were of differently colored people holding hands and dreaming of world peace. But there were also some in the ‘your feelings on war’ category. These were titled things like ‘Oh God, Americans are bombing us!’ and ‘SOS’. They had people blown to pieces as American flag painted planes flew overhead and dropped bombs. There was one titled ‘Iraq-American War’, which had, again, stars and stripes planes dropping bombs on a city, with decapitated heads floating in a river of blood. There were drawings of deformed people in wheel chairs, with lots of orange around them.
Happy Holidays. I'm sure that helped get you in the mood.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh

I just wrote this whole thing, then the internet messed up and deleted it. I'm so mad!
Ok, the main points of that blog:
We are out of Ho Chi Minh! Thank God. I hated that city. But I LOVE the rest of Vietnam! We're in Quy Nhon right now, which is a tiny, quiet, clean, city on the coast. We can see the beach from our hotel. It's lovely! Our bus broke down five hours into the 12 hour ride here. They had to send a new bus from HCM, so for the six hours we had to wait we rented rooms in tiny bungalows right on the beach. It was the bluest, most beautiful water ever! None of us had bathing suits so we all swam in our underpants for hours. The fishermen thought we were crazy. We didn't get to the hotel til three am but whatever, we got to sleep in the next morning.
Today we went to the crazy eco uber-resort today. A bungalow there costs as much as a small country but it's so worth it. Gorgeous! I've given up all dreams of changing the world. I'm going to be a trophy wife and live there forever. It's not as green as they market it as though- they just want the rich people who stay there to be feel like they are being socially responsible. They burn all their trash!
After we went to a meeting with an organization to help families affected by Agent Orange. We've been learning a lot about the Vietnam War (Resistance to the American Invasion per the Vietnamese) and Agent Orange, but it was the first time we've worked directly with people affected by it. It was awful. People here don't really understand it. They told us that if the parents had known the kids would have had these birth defects they wouldn't have 'brought them to life'. They said it's so hard to be the parents. Many of the kids were essentially babies in the bodies of nineteen year olds, but not healthy nineteen year olds; nineteen year olds with twisted bones, stunted growth, and sores all over their skin. The government sometimes give scholarships to the affected kids who can, technically, go to school, but it only amounts to about $30 a year. They ask the US government for reparations but nothing is happening. When I see what people here are going through as a direct result of Americans, I just don't understand how excited they get to see us. They are so, so stoked we're here. Everyone we see, especially the kids, yells 'Hello!' when we pass, and giggles and takes pictures. They love us. It makes me feel so, so, guilty for what I am. There are birth defects everywhere. How can they forgive us that?
We've had tons of seminars and all, but I don't feel like rewriting all that. I'm stoked for Christmas! We're going to a nice resort for the day. It'll be awesome. Happy Holidays! Love you all!

Monday, December 8, 2008

I'm Sorry!

Ok, I know I haven’t updated in forever, I’m sorry! There are no excuses. I’m a terrible person. This’ll be a long one, or maybe I’ll make it two. I’m in Vietnam right now, but before I get to that I should do Shaxi and Cambodia.
Our last week in China we went to Shaxi, a tiny town in rural China. It looks like something out of a movie or a time machine. There’s a little town square with a Buddhist temple, a market, a bunch of little family run stores, a school, a few guesthouses, and not much else. The houses are large and well taken care of, with three walls of rooms built around a courtyard and the curved roofs that I associate with Chinese buildings. Shaxi was recently restored by a European architect or something so it’s really nice, but it hasn’t yet come to the awareness of many tourists so it’s still quite and very real.
I lived with a family on the edge of town. I literally mean the edge- the town was to our back, if you left our gate you faced the fields and mountains, and had to walk to a gate to enter the main town. The stars were amazing, because we didn’t even have the town’s light pollution in our way. I lived with a mother, father, grandmother, and two girls of fourteen and eight. They spoke not a word of English (just like my Kunming family!), but were so friendly. I felt way more at home in their house after a day than I did in my Kunming house after three weeks. The kitchen had this huge pit for dumping waste, and two enormous stone bowls over a fire for cooking. The parents gave me their room while I was there, which was beautiful. Oddly enough, it had optional red, yellow, and green mood lighting. There was a latrine, and no shower.
Shoot I have to run, I need to go follow some scavengers around and collect trash for a couple of hours, I’ll be back later and finish this. I promise!
Ok I'm back, and I just remembered you can edit these posts so I can keep going! Quick break from Shaxi- that was so interesting. We went to the place they bring all the trash and hung out with the people who pick it up and sort it. They are all very poor. They work about fifteen hour days, or fifteen hour nights depending on what shift, collecting trash from families in Ho Chi Minh. Then they bring it back to the center and pour it onto the sidewalk, to sort out all the things they can make money selling to a middleman (who then sells it to the recycling companies). Up until about five months ago they were making 7,000 for the kilo, now they are making 4,000. They don't know why, they just accept the prices given by the middleman. Our interpretation is that it has to do with the economy, but the middlemen are running a very tight (and illegal) operation, so it could just be that they felt like having a little more for themselves. We tried to talk with some of the middlemen afterwards, but they ignored us, and as we persisted started cursing at us. One woman we spoke to had been working there 31 years. She has a lung disease from breathing all the disgusting fumes. One woman said she'd been to school through third grade. She wants her children to go to school, but with the cut in wages she doesn't know if she can afford to not have them working.
Back to Shaxi. Teaching there was very different from teaching in Kunming. The students were far behind their peers in the city, and the classes moved at a much slower pace. Zach and I were teaching together. In our first class we moved at a normal pace for Kunming, maybe a little slow, but at the end of the lesson were told by the teacher that we'd covered five lessons worth of material and had not been understood at all. Our second class was much, much better. We did an easy lesson on prepositions, and got all the kids involved and active which they really liked.
Our last day there was market day. I woke up around five am to hear my family slaughtering a pig. When I actually got up hours later there was pig blood all over the courtyard, and a dead pig in a wheelbarrow outside the gate. I helped push it to market! The mother, father, little sister, and I all pushed the wheelbarrow dripping pig fat up the hill. I wish I could have taken a picture of all of us.
Our last night, there was a concert with traditional dancing and music. The costumes and dancing were so interesting. At the end, we were asked to perform a traditional American dance and song. We danced the Macarena while Isabel sang it in Spanish. We couldn't think of a song everyone knew, so we sang the 'Let's get down to business' song from Mulan. We were not nearly as impressive. I think Robin got it all on camera, so that'll definitely be blackmail in a few years.
I had the plague literally the entire time we were in China. When we were in Shaxi, it moved into my lungs which really sucked. I got some medicine which kicked it back out, but it didn't actually go away for ages after. I still have a slight cough. Hopefully I'll be cured by the time we leave Vietnam- I think carrying the plague across two continents and four countries is more than enough.
Cambodia. I spent most of my time chilling in my room. I did very little. I totally didn't take advantage of it being Cambodia, I just wanted to rest. I mean sure, I did some things, but overall I stayed in the hotel. One of the things I did do was go to Angkor Wat at five am to see the sunrise, which was very cool. I got a couple of traditional massages, which were very odd and somewhat painful. You have no idea how much I miss traditional Swedish massage!
We went as a group to the killing fields and genocide museum, which was incredibly sad. The things that happened in Cambodia are incredible, all the more so because of how little we learned about it in school. I don't remember even hearing about it, although realistically they could have mentioned it during one of the many lessons I spaced out during. There was one tree they showed us at the killing fields, which was used to kill babies. Soldiers would take them by their feet and swing them against it. The museum was in a former school which had been a jail during the genocide. They had on display all the mug shots of the people kept in the jail. Some were of very small children.
Vietnam. We're all staying in a large guesthouse. The guys are two each in a hotel type room with bathroom. We girls have two rooms with five girls and a Vietnamese student in each, and we have one toilet/shower set up to share for the twelve of us. Whatever. Our rooms are nice, and we've decorated them with Christmas lights and hung our socks on hatstands serving as fake Christmas trees. We're reading books about social entrepreneurs and how to make a big impact on the world, as well as books about the environment. Our seminars are so interesting! I'm also reading The Fountainhead just for myself, and I love it. It's maybe my favorite book I've ever read.
Everyone here drives moped things. There are hundreds on the streets, and they don't follow traffic rules. They go every which way, on both sides of the street, at all times. The honking is incredible. To cross the street you basically just wait for a small gap and walk slowly and consistently, and hope they know to avoid you. You almost don't even have to look, it's not like that helps at all. I really, really, hate the traffic situation here. Also the pollution. We keep getting hit by things, though not badly. I got hit by a bike. People drive on all the sidewalks too. You have to be aware at all times of everything around you. I wonder how people live like this their whole lives? The food is good though.
We talked to a guy who runs a landfill here, and he had some really interesting things to say. He talked about how, with the economic crisis and all, people aren't buying toys. So China isn't making them. So they aren't buying the cardboard to package them. So paper, which used to be a huge commodity for the scavengers, is no longer useful. No wants wants to buy it to recycle, because it won't be bought off them in the long run. So the scavengers no longer separate it, which means the trash going to the landfills is not as separated, which is bad for the environment, and they don't make money off it. The man was telling us how recycling is market driven, and interestingly the next day there was an article on just that in the New York Times.
OK, thanks for reading all this. I promise to be quicker about updating in future!