Abeir El Arqusosi's blog
Although I'm very excited to go back home, I'm sad to be leaving Vietnam tomorrow. The country has a certain "je ne sais quoi" that makes foreigners fall in love with it. I woke up early this morning and decided to make the most of my last day, so I did some serious site-seeing on foot to burn off the croissant I had for breakfast at Tous Les Jours. I visited Ben Thanh Market, the Reunification Palace and had a long stroll along Saigon River. It seems that I overdid it because my face turned beet red from the heat although I had my hat on.
Things that I've enjoyed in Vietnam: Coffee, tropical fruits, seafood, the crisp air in Phan Thiet and the beaches in Mui Net. Things that are cheaper than back home: spa treatments, food and taxis. I've found Vietnamese people to be gracious, patient and pleasant.
My flight tomorow is at 11:25 a.m. I leave Saigon to Hong Kong, then catch another flight to Vancouver and then Toronto. It's been an amazing experience.
I arrived in HCMC yesterday afternoon; it’s different this time as I’m completely on my own. The thought that I know no one here and have no one to go to for help if needed was pretty scary. All the “what ifs” started rolling in my mind but I decided I won’t allow fear to take over. So as soon as I checked into my hotel room I consulted the Saigon guide prepared by Elaine, a WUSC long-term volunteer, and decided on where I want to go, things I need to buy and where to get them, and of course where to eat. I took a map of District 1 – where I reside – marked the hotel and figured I had a couple of hours before dark to familiarize myself with my surroundings and I did. I survived my first night in Saigon, on my own, and actually had a blast.
This morning I went on a second exploration mission but with more confidence this time. I had my cafe latte in a coffee shop around the corner from my hotel, went shopping at one of the biggest malls in Saigon, Vincom Mall, had lunch at a French bakery on Ba Le Chan Street, and had dinner at La Brasserie de Saigon. Yes, I know, there’s a French theme going here. Well I really needed to treat myself after 2 weeks of food loaded with MSG and salt, and daily doses Advil to conquer headaches triggered by MSG. I had a fun day today but also managed to squeeze in a skype call with WUSC and completed my End of Mandate report.
The great thing about Saigon is that language barrier does not constitute a big issue for foreigners as many people speak and understand English. Also because there are so many tourists in Saigon, tourist police in their clearly identified green uniform is everywhere. I actually approached one of them this morning to ask for directions and he was able to help me.
As soon as I set foot into my hotel room the unexpected happened; a big fat cockroach found its way into my room on the eighth floor. I panicked for a minute but quickly picked up the phone to ask the reception desk for help. The staff who took the call first thought I was asking for coconut but I repeated my plea for help to send someone with Raid spray bottle asap, but in less panicky manner an in slower English this time, and the person at the other end, a young gentleman, laughed and assured me help was on its way. The bellboy with a big bottle of Raid walked into my washroom and emerged out a few minutes after with a huge smile on his face, “I got it madame”, he said. He had the roach wrapped in tissue paper to show to his boss. So here's the thing, as you may recall I was known at the hotel in Phat Thiet as the poached egg lady, and now the staff in this hotel will probably refer to me as the roach lady. Great, what better nick names can one ask for!
My leadership Prof. Chuck always encouraged us to step outside our comfort zone; this whole trip was just that. But the icing on the cake was going out on a night tour of Phan Thiet on a motorbike. Wow, what a feeling. Being my last night in Phan Thiet I invited the nice ladies from the International Relations office and an English language faculty member to dinner at my regular dining place, the clubhouse at the nearby golf club. After dinner the four of us went around the city on motorbikes. I rode behind the English language teacher with the other two on their motorbikes behind us. It was so much fun. I think this little adventure will stay with me for a while.
Earlier that day the college organized a site-seeing tour for me to Ta Cu Mountain and sent 2 representatives from the college with me. It was great; the cable car took us all the way to the top to see the 49 metres long statue of the sleeping Budha. The air was so crisp; a group of monks climbed their way to the top as we were climbing down.
There are so many nice places to see in Vietnam but more importantly it's the people that make it so special. I have found most people that I've interacted with have a sense of contenment that brings them that inner peace that a lot of people spend their lives looking for and never have. Family bonds are very strong; it's an extended family arrangement in most homes where the older generation shares resources with the younger couples, and the young couple look after the old. Children are well-looked after by the entire extended family. I can't stop thinking about this extended family notion. Who has a better system, us with our nuclear families or them with the extended families? I'm sure each has pros and cons, but which has more benefits? I should speak to a sociologist.
I'm into my third week in Vietnam and the country is growing on me. I have to admit before landing here I had low expectations - a strategy that I employ to avoid disappointments - and was prepared for the worst. But things have turned out well. Here are a few examples:
- I expected the locals to stare at me with scepticism. Well they do look because I am after all a foreigner. So to transform an uncomfortable situation into a good interaction I usually smile at the "inquisitive" folks and greet them with a friendly nod; so they nod back with a bigger smile. I sometimes greet them in Vietnamese by saying xin chao, means hello.
- Knowing I'd be staying in a small city - fishing community - I pictured unpaved roads and slums. Reality is far from what I've envisioned. Roads in Phan Thiet are paved and have decent sidewalks. The seafront is actually quite nice and great for taking long walks
- I had expected the traffic to be horrific, survival for the fittest kind of traffic. This is true of big cities like Saigon but in Phan Thiet there's hardly any traffic to begin with and I'm actually able to cross the street safely.
- I had expected I'd love the food here because I like Asian cuisine but the excessive use of MSG, salt and sugar do not agree with me. Food is very cheap though and the seafood in particular is very fresh and tasty, if cooked nicely.
- Fruits in Vietnam are delicious. My favourite fruit has to be the Chom Chom; it's this reddish fruit with soft spiky exterior that has a transparent and tasty flesh inside. The papayas and pineapples are like no other that I've tasted anywhere. I also like the dragon fruit.
- In terms of weather, I had expected extreme heat and humidity but was happy to find that the weather is quite pleasant and fresh in Phan Thiet on most days. Yes, there is monsoon rain but just for a couple of hours then it clears up very quickly.
- I had thought that my skin and hair would be a mess at all times. Not true; my hair likes the water here and my skin is happy, it's like being in an outdoor spa.
- I've had nightmares about the hotels. Well, this was quite true of the first hotel I stayed at in HCMC; I call it the "RED" hotel because everything is red including the exterior of the building. But the colour wasn't the issue, everything smelled of mould, the reception, the room; I wasn't able to sleep at all on the first night and was totally grossed out. The restaurant where I was supposed to have my first breakfast was terrible. The glasses and cutlery smelled funny, I just couldn't trust having a meal there or even a cup of coffee. So I skipped breakfast and thought to myself these are going to be the longest 3 weeks of my life. However as soon as I casually mentioned the situation to the L4C program coordinator she immediately moved me to another 3 star hotel around the corner that's actually very new and quite nice. In Phan Thiet, I'm staying at a very good hotel.
- Partner organization: I really didn't know what to expect so I went there with an open heart and mind. Reality is everyone at the college is so very kind to me and they are eager to learn new ways of doing things. Other than the welcome dinner and breakfast, the Vice-Rector for the College took me to a new tourist attraction, the Wine Castle. She also asked staff to arrange a site-seeing trip for me to Ta Cu Mountain and to accompany me back to Ho Chi Minh City to ensure that I arrive safely.
I return to Canada in less than a week. Do I miss my family? So much, it's very lonely here. Am I looking forward to returning to Canada? You bet. Would I do this again, i.e. another Leave for Change mandate in Vietnam? Absolutely. The experience has been enriching and rewarding in many ways. I've had a great opportunity to touch the lives of the people I've worked with, share knowledge and exchange experiences. It's been a great opportunity to interact with people from a different culture and learn from them about their way of life, their values, and their hopes and dreams.
I know; it's been a week since I've made a new entry into my blog. I haven't forgotten about you but it's just been, and still is, insanely busy. There's just sooooo much to do and sooooooo little time. So here's an update.
I left Ho Chi Minh to Phan Thiet on August 13. This was a 4 1/2 trip in a small sedan that was sent by the partner organization to pick me up from Ho Chi Minh. I checked into the Park Diamond Hotel in Phan Thiet and got ready for an informal meeting with the partner organization that was followed by a welcome dinner on the same evening and a welcome breakfast the next morning. The official triangle meeting took place that morning and I excitedly agreed to take on additional capacity development activities outside my mandate. How could I have declined after the warm and generous welcome I’ve received? I left the comfortable air-conditioned meeting room and marched to the International Office on the second floor of another building. Although the office is not air-conditioned there’s a nice breeze that comes from the sea as the office overlooks the beach. I had a long discussion with the two international officers, Nguyen (pronounced as Win or like the name of our Premier Wynne) and My, pronounced as “me”. By the end of the day I noticed that my feet were swollen from the heat but luckily they went back to their normal size after staying in my air-conditioned room at the hotel for 30 minutes.
Phat Thiet is nothing like Ho Chi Minh. Everything is just so simple. The biggest thing in the city is the over-crowded Co-Op Mart, a very basic supermarket that has basically no food items that I can buy other than bottled water. Food has been a challenge for me here; I usually don’t add any salt to my food but all entrees come with some kind of sauce that includes either fish sauce or soy sauce and MSG, a big trigger of wicked headaches. Another food challenge is sugar; almost everything has added sugar: bread, yogurt (there’s no such thing as sugar-free yogurt), juices etc. And the last food challenge is breakfast; I'm only left with eggs as an option since I still cannot eat noodles and rice for breakfast. So in a desperate attempt to maintain a healthy diet I ordered poached eggs one morning, of course without the rich hollandaise sauce. My request caused a commotion in the hotel restaurant as no one knew what I was talking about. To make things worse poached eggs are not listed in my Vietnamese phrases pocket book. After several failed attempts to get someone to understand what I want, Tri came to my rescue. Tri is the young restaurant captain, what we would call a maitre d’; he speaks and understands English and knows what poached eggs look like. He took on the responsibility of explaining to the chef and staff how to prepare poached eggs and I’ve become known as the poached eggs lady at the Park Diamond Hotel. A small price I had to pay to get a healthy meal.
With the first week being quite intense and the following week loaded with work I decided to escape to a beach resort on my first weekend to recover from the trip and recharge. This was also an especially difficult weekend for me with my mother’s first birthday since her passing last December being last Thursday. Well, this turned out to be a very wise decision. The escape to the Mia resort in Mui Net, a 15 minute trip by taxi from Phan Thiet, was all that I needed and more. Food was great, beach was wonderful and atmosphere very relaxing. I couldn’t help but notice how the staff felt bad for me being the only solo and sad person at the resort who buried her head in her book any time I was not eating or swimming. I really wasn't looking for company, I needed solitude. I woke up at 4:00 am every day that weekend to watch the sunrise by the beach and enjoyed the refreshing coconut water that I’m told is very nutritious and has multiple health benefits. On Sunday afternoon I reluctantly checked out of the resort and returned to Phan Thiet. After four trials to check into a functional room – first room the AC was not working, second room the in-room safe was broken, third room the connecting door to the adjacent room did not lock and the fourth room had ants and was a smokers room – I spent the entire afternoon and evening working on my presentation for the upcoming workshop.
I learned a Vietnamese word that I felt would probably need with all the MSG I’m eating, đau đau, which means headache. So to avoid more dau dau I’m working on getting the restaurant chef and staff prepare steamed fish and vegetables for me without sauces or rice. Wish me luck with this. Will report back shortly so stay tuned.
P.S. I wanted to share photos with you but forgot how to upload them. Louise will be disappointed in me. Will probably connect with Mario for a quick refresher.
Two days in Ho Chi Minh and I'm hooked. The city is lively and full of buzz. Very interesting mix of people; there are a lot of foreigners here that don't look as lost as I do, which means they've been here for a while. Anything and everything is available in Ho Chi Minh. Locals are friendly and helpful in spite of the language barrier. I had expected traffic to be more chaotic than it actually is but it's not that bad; well, other than there's really no safe haven for pedestrians even on the side walks as motorbikes are everywhere. Motoebikes are considered the main means of transportation for a lot of people in Ho Chi Minh. It's very common to see a woman get off the motorbike in her work uniform - often some kind of suit and heels - and just park in front of the hotel or store where she works.
Language is definitely a big barrier; if I didn't have Ngoc, WUSC program officer, help me communicate with locals I don't think I would've been able to get what I need.Another interesting thing is the currency; cash is used very often and CAN $ 1 is equivalent to 20,000 Vietnamese Dongs, so I'm constantly carrying millions of Vietnamese Dongs. It feels nice to carry millions even if they're only Dongs.
Food here is quite cheap; I can easily have lunch and dinner for $10 or less. Breakfast is included in the room charge; so every morning I take my breakfast at the hotel restaurant. I usually go with an egg and a Banh Mi - very nice mini baguette - because I haven't been able to venture Vietnamese breakfast yet, which consists of noodles soup and other items that look quite rich to eat so early in the morning. Coffee is quite strong, it's like a punch in the face and one immediately wakes up unwillingly. Ngoc and I have been on the go for the past two days, so for lunch we usually have Pho soup with noodles, which I quite enjoy. As to dinner, we found this nice Thai restaurant that makes very nice curries. On the first night I had green curry with chicken and steamed rice and yesterday I had the red curry version of it. Ngoc tried to take me to an authentic Vietnamese place that makes very good soup but I wasn't ready for it. It was this tiny place, not very inviting, with tables set up on the sidewalk and some grumpy man cooking noodles soup. I mean I did take my Hepatistis A & B shots and Dokural before departure but I knew I was going to get sick if I ate there.
Ngoc and I met Michael, WUSC regional manager, for lunch on the first day. The three of us had very interesting discussions about international development. It's amazing all the work that WUSC is doing in this part of the world and the effort put into working with the local partners. It made me feel great about my decision to participate in the program.
I'm leaving Ho Chi Minh to Phan Thiet this morning. It's currently 6:04 am and we leave at 8:00 on a four-hour drive to Phan Thiet. The triangle meeting is taking place this afternoon. This is a meeting where the three partners- the local partner (Bin Thuan Community College representatives), WUSC (represented by Ngoc) and the volunteer (myself), meet to discuss and finalize the mandate. It's going to be a long day but it'll also be exciting. I'm looking forward to meeting my new city, Phan Thiet.
Will report back shortly.
Woke up at 5:30 am on departure day (D-Day). Saw the kids briefly before they were off to work and was able to keep a brave face. But totally gave in to tears when I waved goodbye to Mostafa at the gate; goodbyes are always hard for me. Flight to Seoul was on time, service and crew were great and my seat was not bad at all. As you can predict I was well-prepared; I had noise-blocking headsets, comfy loafers and a great travel pillow. Somehow I managed to kill 13 1/2 hrs on the flight; I divided my time between reading a book, reviewing some material related to the volunteer work, watched a movie, and dozed off for a few hours without the help of sleeping aids. Flight from Seoul to Ho Chi Minh was on time as well, layover was not long and I arrived in Viet Nam as scheduled.
Representatives from the Dong Do Hotel picked me up at the airport. High humidity hit me as soon as I stepped outside the air-conditioned airport. It was close to mid-night so traffic on main streets was quite light. My first impression of Ho Chi Minh city is that it reminds of Cairo, except that Cairo has traffic jams 24/7 and is a city that never sleeps. Perhaps things will look different in daylight.
I've been travelling for over 21 hrs and I am beat but cannot sleep. My meeting with WUSC representative is tomorrow at 9:00 am. and it's now approaching 2 a.m. I really ought to get some sleep.
Two more days to go! Shopping is done, my travel pillow that I ordered online arrived from Montreal yesterday and my passport with the visa was delivered this morning. Does this mean I’m set to go? Oh no, here they come, travel jitters.
I received my work schedule from the field office and exchanged a couple of emails with Annick. I was warned about cockroaches in Phan Thiet, there's just too many for anyone’s liking, so I wasn’t surprised to read about these unpopular creatures in the Volunteer Guide p. 17 under Special Health Precautions in Viet Nam – Mosquitoes and Insects. Apparently the best way to extinguish roaches without spreading their microscopic eggs is to leave them on their back. Hmmm, gone are the days when all I needed to do was cry for help when I saw a roach and my lovely husband would come to my rescue. Action plan: purchase some Raid upon arrival to prep for unfriendly encounters with roaches. With my counter attack plan in mind I smiled as I thought to myself, “I can do this; when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
More to come, stay tuned...
Great news! My visa has been issued and my flight is being finalized. WUSC staff has put me in touch with the Sectoral Programme Officer for Uniterra in Vietnam. Wow, it feels real now and I'm very excited. I hope I can sleep tonight.
July 28, 2013; 13 days away from my scheduled departure date of August 9 and still no word on my visa or flight. Advice from fellow volunteers "Be patient and trust in the system; it'll all fall into place". Apparently last minute arrangements are quite common. Reminder to self: "The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choice less as a beach - waiting for a gift from the sea." Acknowledged. Modified course of action: chill....
I had a very nice get together with my fellow Leave for Change (L4C) volunteers last Wednesday at Mario's house. It was a welcome home party for Mary and send off party for Mario and myself. Theme: Vietnamese food; there was soup, shrimp hors d'oeuvres, noodles with chicken and shrimp, stuffed vine leaves (not Vietnamese cuisine, but we really didn't mind as they were delicious), fruits with fried coconuts, cheese and crackers (again not Viet, but what's a Canadian party without cheese and crackers, eh), and for dessert, crème caramel. We exchanged experiences, anxieties and survival tips, but there were also lots of laughs and good stories. It's amazing how shared goals, dreams and hopes bring virtual strangers together - although we are all University of Guelph staff, we had never really met prior to the L4C orientation in Toronto last June - and create strong bonds and friendships among people.
I chatted with Annick for an hour that same evening. We discussed a number of things and I'm really thankful to have her as a resource. I was asked to prepare a presentation about myself, my organization and international partnerships in a Canadian context and best practices to apply in a Vietnamese context. I'm very excited about this presentation; considering the language barrier and time needed to translate content to Vietnamese, I'll use visuals and illustrations as much as possible. Plan: Block off Sunday afternoon to work on the presentation.
I received another email from Annick with more tips:
1. bring some books to kill time, it can get quite boring and lonely - check, I already have 4 books backed in my suitcase and a few marked for downloading on my iPad;
2. bring Ziploc bags to store snacks and fruits; uncovered food will attract ants - yikes, great tip;
3. bring a small flash light, power outages are frequent - this is worrisome, I'm afraid of the dark.... But then I quickly remembered what my amazing Prof. Denis Shackel noted about FEAR, it's False Evidence Appearing Real.