My fist weekend led to a little touring o the town and a visit to Mr. Dang family in a nearby town. Oh, an I can't forget an evening out with our fellow teammate. Take note, Mr. Dang and his son are supporting UofG. An everlasting partnership through WUSC.
Just to add a little classroom time aside from my assigned mandate.
Can't go without saying that I had a great visit with Kim Chi in Ho Chi Minh at the start of my mandate. She arrange a city tour with local students where they got to practice their English. Two great students. They even gave me an opportunity to take a few photos. Also thanks to Trevor (another volunteer) for the great afternoon.
What a great week at Kien Giang College in Rach Cia. I've been treated so well and have been working with the group in setting up their syllabus in preparation to expanded their Tourism program. After work this evening, I had th privilege of celebrating Mr. Dung's (driver and head of site security) birthday with his family. They have invited me into their home and lives. Awesome family.
So I know so far I've been ranting about the kindness and love shown by the wonderful people of Peru. However, now it's time for a bit of a confession: I have a Type A personality. This basically means that I plan...everything...days in advance. I plan, I'm productive, I prepare. And if I don't...well I tend to go a bit loca. Now, this is all fine and dandy in the Canadian economy where everyone is always connected, but as I very soon found out, this isn't exactly how Latin Americans work.
The organization that I was working for - La Asociacion Aurora Vivar - only worked Monday, Wednesday, Friday (10am (ish) - 5pm) with the obligatory lunch hour where everyone would stop working and have lunch together. This left little time for being productive...or preparing...or planning. In addition, outside of the workplace, nobody was connected to their email.
There were days I woke up not knowing what the plan would be for the day. Do I have a workshop today? What material should I prepare? Should I prep? Should I practice? How many people were attending? How are we getting there?
Eventually, at the risk of having a nervous breakdown, I said to myself:
Rebecca: Just. Go. With. It.
So I did just that. I stopped that incessant need to plan everything days in advance. I enjoyed having my lunch hour and not being connected to my cell phone when I wasn't working. How many of us actually separate ourselves from our desk at work and enjoy our lunch? T'is but a rare thing - am I right? In actuality, there was one day where nothing (and I mean nothing) went as planned, but everything turned out pretty darn well in the end. However, that's a story for another post...
Why is it that those who have the least are usually the ones to give the most to others?
In my most recent post, I spoke of the people of Chacrasana, who didn't think twice about welcoming 3 Canadians into their community. They fed us, they kept us safe, they gave us shelter and they adourned us with gifts - simply because they were happy to have us in their homes. In fact, throughout the night, they even kept thanking us for being there!
In this post, I'd like to take the opportunity to pay kindness forward. If you're reading this blog, please take 2 minutes out of your day and maybe $20 out of your pocket to welcome someone into our Guelph community. Use the link below and help UofG sponsor 2 Syrian refugees and help give them the tools and the opportunities they need to make a better life for themselves as well as the world.
“You’re going to Peru – So you’re going to Machu Picchu, right?”
As I only had one full weekend in Peru, my sights were set (and very determined) to make it to the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. A week before I left Canada, I had mapped out a very tight, but still do-able, itinerary to get me to and from the Inca Ruins in 2 days. I needed to have that cliché picture with the sun setting over Huayna Picchu in the background.
Well, unfortunately I didn’t get to Machu Picchu – but where I did get to, was worth so much more than altitude sickness and the combined hours of taking a plane, bus and train.
When he was 15 year old, one of my housemates came to Peru and stayed with a family in a small town outside of Lima known as Chacarasana. Travelling 4 hours in total, Marino came to pick up myself and my 2 housemates, to take us back to his house; a house which he built from the ground up with his bare hands. After getting settled, Marino, his family and the Chacrasana community took us over to La Sala d’Musica where the kids in the community came together, connected by the universal language of, and their love for, music. Every Saturday they practiced incessantly, for 3 hours, playing the drums, flute, guitar, bass. Song after song they performed for us, when suddenly Luis (the music teacher) announced that we would probably know the next one they were about to play; Zombie by The Cranberries.
The people of Chacrasana, compared to all that we have in Canada, have little to nothing. And yet, they gave us an experience that was worth so much more than material possessions, so much more than that picture at Machu Picchu. Without even knowing us, and without even thinking twice, they opened their arms and invited us into their community. They showed us love and compassion and opened a door for us to step right into their lives.
On the drive back to Lima, it scared me to think that I might forget these feelings of compassion and unconditional love once I returned to the hustle and bustle of Canada. However, all of a sudden Marino’s wife Laura slipped her bracelet onto my wrist. “Para ti.” She told me that this bracelet was made of Huayruro seeds, which in Peruvian culture, symbolize the origin from which all living beings are derived: the earth. They are used as amulets for abundance, fertility, as well as good luck and are said to drive off any negative energy.
I didn’t get to Machu Picchu – but what I did get was a whole new perspective on life and love.
I don’t think I’ll ever feel the same way again listening to that Cranberries song.
My first day and introductory meeting with Leadership at Kien Giang Technology and Economics College (KGTEC) in Rach Gia. I was also invited to attend an English class with Teacher Tho and Long term Volunteer John.
After a flight from Toronto to Hong and then to Ho Chi Minh city, I finally with some sleep. The plane ride wa great and I was able to get a half decent sleep believe it or not. After getting through customs and security, I exited the airport to find my taxi driver. He turned around and made me wait as we were also picking two other volunteers from Canada. Trevor and Kelly soon arrived and we were off to the airport. We had time to relax for a bit before meeting up with Kim Chi for the start of my mandate. We had dinner and then we planned for our initial mandate training. She arrange a city tour with local students where they got to practice their English. Two great students. They even gave me an opportunity to take a few photos. Also thanks to Trevor (another volunteer) for the great afternoon.
Well everyone, I'm off to Vietnam once again. I made my flight with Cathay Pacific from Toronto to Hong Kong. It is now 5:30am and what a flight it was. 15h40m. I still have a 3 hour wait before boarding my next leg to Ho Chi Minh city. Once I get there, I will have a few hours to unwind before meeting with other local volunteers and my coordinator. Keep checking for by the minute postings.
Funny how quickly time moves. It seems as if it were only yesterday I was seated at the Leave4Change Orientation over the May 2-4 weekend. Quite possibly (and obviously) the youngest person in the room, I was humbled to be seated amongst the likes of UofG all-stars such as Andrew Vowles, Mario DesChamps, Sandy Smith. And it was at this precise moment, looking around that room at everyone munching casually on their chocolate croissants, I thought – What the heck am I doing here?
Born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, I arrived in Canada at 19 years old. By this time, I had already been through the Secondary School system in Trinidad where the girls all took courses such as ‘Clothing and Textiles’ and ‘Food and Nutrition’ and the boys were enrolled in ‘Technical Drawing’ and HVAC training. For years I wondered what that object was that they all carried around (and admittedly, it was only a few days ago my partner told me it was a T Square…).
The years of discrimination I’ve felt from the education system, (not only in Trinidad), have culminated and ultimately joined forces with a M.Ed. in Adult Education and Community Development. In fact it was only on Friday that I quite literally tossed on my M.Ed. regalia and shook hands with the Chancellor at my UofT Convocation (He says ‘hi’ by the way, Franco).
But, there I was on Saturday evening: with an –er - apple juice – in Pearson Airport about to board the Air Canada flight for Lima, Peru. To the people at WUSC and La Asociación Aurora Vivar, thank you for welcoming me before I’ve even stepped foot off the plane. I can’t wait to learn with you and to learn from you. You may not know it, but you already hold within you all the answers you’re looking for.
On Thursday, during my first week in Lilongwe, I met with the Malawi Milk Producers Association to determine their needs and expectations. I met with Herbert Chagona and Philip Chidawati. Herbert studied at Memorial University in Newfoundland before returning to Malawi to manage the MMPA. Phillip studied at the University in Lilongwe.
We discussed the issues concerning milk quality and arrived at the 3 following areas of focus:
IMO 1- Review milk quality control systems through assessment and validation of testing procedures. Provide training to milk handling groups including MBG milk buyers and executive committee.
IMO 2- Ensure equal representation of women and men in training activities to reflect their participation in the milk management chain
IMO 3-Prepare reports for the Malawi Milk Producers Association (MMPA) and Uniterra. The milk is delivered by the farmers to the Milk Bulking Groups (MBG)where it is tested using a alcohol test and a lactometer.
The alcohol test makes the assumption that if the milk coagulates when mixed 50:50 with a certain concentration of alcohol it is unacceptable. This theory is base on the possibility that increased protein in the milk, caused by bacterial growth or somatic cells present due to mastitis in the cow, will clump in the presence of alcohol. The lactometer test is a measure of specific gravity, which may be low because the farmer has added water to the milk. MMPA is concerned that the processor, who provides the alcohol, is testing the milk with a higher concentration of alcohol than required and therefore, rejecting milk unnecessarily. When that happens the farmer does not get paid.
The work plan included visiting 2 MBGs, one which cools the bulked milk using electricity and the other which cools the milk using diesel. During these visits the test results from the alcohol test would be compared to those achieved from using known percentages of alcohol from pre-prepared dilutions. Following the visits to review testing practices we would return to provide training for the farmers and the farmer's committees who run the MBG.
The first two full days in Malawi were spent in orientation at the WUSC office. Orientation included security and communication training, a visit to the African Bible College clinic for a health briefing and lunch with other volunteers on both days which provided an opportunity to get some first hand knowledge of their experiences. A highlight of the orientation was the language training given by Mr. Saili Mwale.
Chichewa is the language of Malawi. We learned to say basic phrases such as Muli bwanji (how are you?), Ndili bwino, kaya inu (I am good, and you?) and Ndili bwino, zikomo (I am good, thank you). I used these phrases on everyone at the hotel, at the milk bulking groups, at the Malawi Milk Producers and at WUSC. Even though the responses were too fast for me (lesson learned), especially at the beginning, the people that I talked to were surprised and pleased that I made the attempt. And it was good fun.
The orientation also included a trip to the chitenje market. It was a bit chaotic. The aisles were very tight and full of people going in and out. There were used goods everywhere mixed in with raw meat and of course the chitenjes. A chitenji is a length of fabric that the women wear as a skirt. The fabric is bright and beautiful; it makes it very hard to choose. I bought 2 metres of fabric and wore it for a training session at one of the milk bulking groups out of respect for the women farmers. The best advice was to wear the chitenge over your clothes because it is held on by a simple tuck and it would be quite embarassing if it fell off.
Travel to Malawi included an overnight flight from Toronto to Amsterdam, and after a day (9hr) in the airport, another overnight flight to Nairobi, Kenya. The next flight was from Nairobi to Lilongwe. the capitol of Malawi. In all the trip took about 40hours. However, I traveled with my fellow WUSC volunteer, David Prescott, which made it a very pleasant trip. We arrived in Lilongwe about an hour late but were immediately met by Yanara Marks, our contact in Malawi. Thank you Yanara!
From the airport we travelled immediately to the Riverside Hotel. As we walked down the hall to our rooms the power went out. Power outages are very common in Lilongwe because the demand on the power grid exceeds capacity. On Sundays, we discovered, the power goes off for most of the day, presumably to do some maintenance on the grid but it may be for power sharing.
The Riverside Hotel had WiFi. That is, there is WiFi when it is working. Generally speaking, it does not work in the afternoon probably because that is when the demand is the highest. It also does not work when the manager of the hotel changes the password. And it is not easy to find out what the new password is as we found out the hard way.
Here are Vietnamese work colleagues and acquaintances at a farewell dinner at a colleague's home in Ho Chi Minh City given for me and Uniterra volunteer Jeff Winch from Humber College. They used three tabletop stoves and piles of fresh ingredients -- the basis for any meal here -- to concoct a multi-course dinner including pork- and shrimp-stuffed crepes, crab legs, leaf-wrapped shrimp and more.
In my Guelph Mercury column (From the Second Storey) written in my final week on Uniterra assignment in Vietnam, I reflect on lessons learned in this country. From learning how to cross a road (no small feat in Saigon's scooter-clogged streets) to gaining empathy, humility and respect, I've gotten a few things from this experience.
Here's a view from the top floor of the house, located in a more affluent part of Ho Chi Minh City. Located not in one of the city's warren of alleys but erected on a main street, the house -- like its neighbours -- is a tall narrow building block that houses several generations up and down its five storeys. Top floor is home to a glassed-in dining space, rooftop garden and religious shrine. The last two items are common in many homes here.
I've written here already about the huge numbers of young people here in Vietnam. Today in my Guelph Mercury column (From the Second Storey), I invite a few young voices to share their thoughts about their studies, their city, their goals and their pet peeves. No surprise: the latter include traffic and attendant pollution in this scooter-obsessed city of nine million souls.
I spoke to three students at Ho Chi Minh City College of Economics, where I'm completing my Leave for Change assignment. From left with me here are Yi Nguyen, Nyugen Trong Tuan and Quhyn Nguyen.
And I talked to Tran Min Tam, below, a university grad and accountant whom we met at the local cafe near our college. Like many Vietnamese we have encountered during the past four weeks here, he smiled and began conversing. An opportunity for him to practise his English -- and a chance for me to learn something of this place through younger eyes.
It was the tallest building in Vietnam. The Bitexco Financial Tower stands in downtown Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) near the Saigon River. 262 metres tall. 68 stories. You can see it from all over the city, especially at night with its array of lights like a beacon.
It's a lotus bud made of steel and glass. Curving to its peak, it's designed to resemble the unopened bud of a lotus flower, Vietnam's national flower.
The Vietnamese view the tower as a symbol of progress and ambition. A sign about the tower reads: "It's ambitious and in your face, much like its host city."
It takes only seconds for the elevator to whoosh you up to the observation deck on the 49th floor. A couple of ear pops on the way, both up and down.
Up on the deck, you get a full 360 view of this city of some nine million people, a Lego-land sprawling out to the horizon. Smog haze: all those vehicles and buildings down below burning carbon.
Vietnam's Bitexco Group owns the skyscraper, built between 2007 and 2010. For a time, the Bitexco tower was this country's tallest building. It's still the big daddy here in Ho Chi Minh City, the nation's financial capital.
In 2011 it was surpassed by the 336-metre-tall Keangnam Landmark 72 in the country's capital Hanoi. Slightly taller than Bitexco is the Lotte Centre (272 metres) also in Hanoi.
Just this week another project began here in Ho Chi Minh City, also on the Saigon River. That's the planned Vincom Landmark 81, which will soar 81 stories high. At its planned 460 metres, it will be the tallest building in the country when it's finished in 2017.
Down on the ground, among the hotels and office towers here in the city's District 1, they're also building a new subway-monorail. The 20-kilometre stretch to District 9 -- scheduled for completion by 2020, but who knows -- will be the first leg of a planned transit network for this city.
That inaugural leg will run through a vast stretch of cleared land directly across the Saigon River from downtown (photo below). From the Bitexco skyscraper observation deck, that open space in District 2 is a bare island in this city's Lego-land. But not for much longer.
Look closely and you can see a few construction cranes and other signs of activity down there on that blank slate. They plan to develop about 650 hectares there into the Thu Thiem New Urban Area -- basically a brand-new downtown. Up in the Bitexco tower, they describe the planned area as HCMC's answer to London's Docklands urban centre.
Vu Quang Hoi is the developer who bankrolled much of the Bitexco tower. He's quoted as saying, "Vietnam is not an isolated war-torn country anymore, it is an integrated part of the global economy."
As usual, that development doesn't come without concerns. Look past the hoardings into most construction sites here and you see appalling health and safety conditions. Guys without hard hats and wearing sandals churn in the muck, carrying rebar over their shoulders in pairs as though they're back in the early 20th century.
Vietnam is recreating itself as a developed nation but with developing country conditions.
Scooters and bicycles lined up in the courtyard means back to school here, Monday August 3. A new term has begun today for some 3,500 students enrolled at Ho Chi Minh City College of Economics (HCE).
Entering my fourth and final week in Vietnam. I'm working on a Leave for Change assignment for Uniterra, an international development organization in Canada. You use vacation time to volunteer to work in a developing country.
I'm helping with marketing communications here at HCE and at Saigontourist Hospitality College here in town. Presenting workshops about interviewing, writing, content management to college teachers and admins in both places. Also helping with writing of text and scripts for school promo videos being shot here by Jeff Winch, another Uniterra volunteer and a media and photography instructor at Humber College.
We're working with a core of about four teachers and admins here on these projects. Workshop participants involve some 20 people. Working through a translator, so sessions require more time and flexibility. Also need to exercise personal flexibility and patience: turns out schoolteachers themselves -- here at least, maybe also in Canada -- dislike doing homework assignments.
Just returned to Ho Chi Minh City early this morning from a weekend train trek to Nha Trang on the east coast of Vietnam. Didn't take my laptop on that journey. Some posts to share here from the weekend: will do soon.
Ho Chi Minh keeps getting me into trouble.
Here in his namesake city, you can't go far without running across Vietnam's father figure. Make that uncle figure. Uncle Ho -- his nickname is a sign of affection rather than disrespect -- smiles at you everywhere: from billboards, banners, currency.
He's commemorated in a number of places around this city of 13 million souls. One is a namesake museum in the port district. The building, known as the Dragon House, was built by the French in 1863 as the former custom house.
Ho was just 21 when he embarked from here in 1911 on a voyage to France, the Soviet Union, China and the United States that ended up lasting some 30 years. He spent much of that time trying to rally support for Vietnamese independence from the French colonists. When he returned to his homeland, he led the Viet Minh war that overthrew the French in 1954. He died in 1969.
I toured around the old custom house one grey morning.
Place is full of photos and captions of his life and times. Pictures show him speaking at political and labour gatherings. Meeting foreign dignitaries. Visiting a hospital, an air force unit, teens and farmers.
Outside is a white Peugeot presented to him as a gift.
And my trouble?
A couple of weeks ago, I drew official whistles from guards at another Uncle Ho shrine: his larger than life statue located in the plaza fronting the People's Committee building (another former French edifice). That time, I had gotten too close with my camera.
Now in the museum I had my camera out again, this time to catch the statue and shrine picured above. No whistle this time, but a guard motioned me back. I had neglected to remove my shoes at the room entrance.
That's two strikes. We have a week and a biit left here in Uncle Ho's city before we head back to Canada. Looking to avoid a third strike before that...
No photo with this post but maybe better to imagine it for yourself...
We visited a new restaurant the other night. "We" are myself and Jeff Winch, media and film instructor at Humber College who is also on assignment for Uniterra here in southern Vietnam. Both working at the Ho Chi Minh City College of Economics. He's helping produce film for the school. I'm working on marketing and promotional materials.
We found a seafood place. I'm not big on seafood, but as Jeff likes to say, it's an adventure.
Like many places here, this restaurant's size is deceiving. Small street frontage but inside it opens up into a cafeteria-size space, high ceilings. Din of voices. Rows of tables. And stacked rows of fish tanks along the walls, all bubbling away. Elsewhere, aquariums are just part of the ambience of a place. Here they contain dinner.
Before now, we've found eating places where the menu has English subtitles, even if not quite correct English. Our favourite last week -- not the entree itself but the menu listing -- was the sign announcing the daily feature: "Penis and ball of goat with medicinal herbs."
And usually the wait staff are able to help us figure things out. Tonight it was all Vietnamese.
We thought we made out a picture of shrimp on the menu. Still, we weren't sure whether the waiter was playing back shrimp or squid. And why was he offering chicken feet? At least, that's what we thought he was offering, although it made no sense in a seafood place. Having asked for shrimp and rice with greens, we sat back with our beers, listened to the rain battering at the galvanized roof and waited to see what came...
It didn't take long: it never does here.
The server brought us cooked shrimps all right. But then she brought another plate. Jeff and I looked at each other and back at the plate. Big shrimp this time: six of them. Each about as long as a pen. And still with appendages waving. Kind of slipping around on the plate. Well.
Along with the shrimp came a stainless steel hot pot. Popular thing for the table here. DIY dinner. Unless you're foreigners who need help. The server lingered throughout the meal to help.
She slipped what looked like a fat paraffin candle into a separate pot, then placed the cooking pot on top. Waited for it to boil. Opening the lid, Jeff said, There's something in there. Some kind of soup.
A few minutes later, the server emptied the plate's occupants into the pot, replaced the lid, let it all simmer for a few minutes. Threw in handfuls of greens for just a minute, the way you do broccoli or asparagus here.
She fished out the shrimp -- now reddened and still -- on a plate between us. Ladled the soup and greens into bowls along with fine noodles like spaghettini. Never did see any rice: maybe they were rice noodles.
I had a couple of the shrimp but they were a bit rich for me. Stuck mostly to soup and greens, all nice and spicey as so much of the food is here. Jeff ate the lot.
Late Friday we're booked on the overnight train to Nga Trang, a beach place on the South China Sea. An eight-hour trek from Saigon Railway Station. Will get there early Saturday morning, stay overnight and catch the overnighter back to Ho Chi Minh City on Sunday, arrivng early-early Monday morning.
I expect this beach place will feature plenty of seafood. Will look for something a little less DIY than the other night.
It's an adventure.