Thursday, December 10, 2009

And my thoughts turn to...

Leaving Hawaii behind with my new ukulele in hand, I'm thinking about all the things I have to look forward to. Playing "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" on the uke for mom and watching her eyes glaze over a bit from nostalgia, cooking some practical and hearty Dutch dish for David (reading "Julie&Julia" has put me in the mood), bobbling babies, looking for part-time work, renewing my residency permit - the list is long, believe me. It ALL makes me happy - there IS a purpose to my life after all. Now, I just have to while away the minutes between meals and happy hour for the next 4 days. David should be in Los Angeles as I'm writing this, settling in to his parents' house to recover from jet lag.
There are a few final activities scheduled these last days. A staff/faculty "party" (a very loose use of the term, believe me!) tonight, logisical pre-port tomorrow, the alumni "ball" on Saturday, Convocation on Sunday. What with packing and all, I'll probably survive. I should work on posting the rest of my neglected journal entries! Maybe tomorrow....

Monday, November 30, 2009

Japan - the 21st century

Nov. 20, 2009
6 AM
Writing with a hazy sunrise view of Mt. Fuji on our port side - worth the early morning wake-up indeed. With two hours left to travel up the waterway to the port in Yokohama, there are already signs of industry all around, both on the shore and at sea. Half the population of the US crammed into a country the size of California, and much of that mountains. And I've been thinking California has too many people! But even with all those smokestacks and port cranes in the way, Fuji's a beautiful sight. Reminds me of Mt. Rainier.
Japan, which I think of as hyper-modern, heartily embracing the future of civilization, or, at least, one version of that future. We'll see how that impression is confirmed or not.

Later the same day

Experiencing a new culture and country is so much more fun if you have an "in" - Kevin and I go WAY back (I think he graduated from Evergreen around '86), and he's lived in Japan for about 20 years now, marrying a lovely woman named Ayumi about four years ago. The two of them bought a house in Chigasaki, located not far south of Yokohama on the coast, in a popular surfing area - Ayumi surfs!

Kathleen and I are having SO much fun already. After meeting up with Kevin in Yokohama, we took the train directly to Kamakura. The first order of business was lunch in a tiny restaurant recommended by Ayumi, after which, suitably fortified, we headed to one of the city's many Shinto shrines and then the Hase-Dera Temple. Things we're learning - Shinto has shrines, Buddha has temples. Sake is blessed in Shinto shrines. The impressive large wooden structures are built with no nails. You can buy little white strips of paper with fortunes on them - if you get a bad fortune (which happens often, I hear), you can tie it up and hope the gods see fit to change it.
If you get a good fortune, you can keep it if you like. There are also wooden pieces for sale on which you can write your own wish and tie it up at the temple. We saw one specifically directed to SAS - that was sweet!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Last Day in Vietnam

The last full day in Vietnam I spent exploring Ho Chi Minh City on my own, first stop the War Atrocities Museum. Surrounded by studiously note-taking but cheerful Vietnamese school kids, I stood in front of the photographs and cried. Cried for our violent responses to fear, mis-guided interference in a country's right to self-determination, needless loss of life, general degradation of human goodness and spirit. On leaving, I thought a walk through the Botanical Garden would be just the balm my soul needed - wrong! As is often the case, the Botanical is combined with the Zoological Garden, in this case full of unhealthy animals in dirty pens.

I did run into a valiant group of SAS students, trying desperately to keep track of a large group of deaf Vietnamese children running amuck through the zoo. Not an easy task!!
Once outside the Botanical Garden, I made my way to the city Post Office, a beautiful French colonial building with the usual prominently placed portrait of Ho Chi Minh. Once back outside the Post Office, I happened on a Dutch couple, offering to take their picture. I really have seen Dutch in almost every country we've been to so far!

Can Tho, Mekong Delta area

Wed. Nov. 4 2009

So far, Vietnam is a lovely place - relatively modern, clean, safe, and full of lush beauty. Today's Mekong Delta trip has been relaxed but interesting. Fascinating how the Vietnamese seem to be so practical, using every byproduct for something - fuel, fertilizer, path coverings, etc. For instance, in today's demonstrations of extracting salt, making coconut candy, and popping rice in hot black sand, the fuel used to stoke the fires was always rice husks, which they have an abundance of.

This trip was a good choice for me - even though it's still clearly designed for tourists, we're not surrounded by thronging hordes, the villages are real, women holding babies smile shyly from their doorways as we walk by on the muddy pathway through the dense delta vegetation. So much more fun to shop in a tiny village, assuming (perhaps incorrectly) that the money will go directly to those making the product. It was fun finding more Christmas stocking stuffers here - cocunut candies I'd watched being made, for instance!

Our hotel in Can Tho is quite upscale - the dollar still goes a long way in Vietnam. Breakfast, included with the room, is a wonderful combination of Eastern and Western, with your choice of, for example, French Toast and croissants or fish soup with assorted Vietnamese condiments.

This area is noted for its floating markets and fruit orchards. We motored through hundreds of boats literally bursting with bananas or pineapples, yams, or cabbages. Apparently, these are wholesale vendors. On our little sight-seeing boat, we had a plentiful supply of local fruits to try - fresh coconut milk, rambutan, dragon fruit, dragon eyes, monkey finger bananas - I liked all of it, though the notorious Durian was conspicuously absent. I think they assumed, probably correctly, that we wouldn't easily get past the initial stink of the thing.

When we stopped in one of the Delta villages for lunch, we were treated to a performance of Vietnamese folk music, including singing, which I enjoyed much more than I would have expected. I had memories of finding Korean folk music almost impossible to listen to, but I was an intolerant teen then, and this just seemed charming and not all that strange anymore. Back in Ho Chi Minh City, I followed up on a restaurant recommendation, The Blue Ginger, because it included live folk music. Now THAT was magical! I went out the next morning and bought 4 CD's!
Speaking of shopping, I have actually enjoyed shopping here. Good prices, really friendly people, not unbearable pressure, and fun goods - I'm looking forward to Christmas! Oh, and the traditional Vietnamese dress, the Ao Dai, is perfect for me! Small upper frame, and right where the lower bulge starts, an all-forgiving slit on each side - Very comfortable.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

At Home in Vietnam

Nov. 3, Mekong Delta

Jungles on both sides, little fishing boats, passing tankers - we're heading up the river toward our "home" for the next five days, Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. Our first communist country. Terry Bangs, a faculty member who served in the airforce flying bombers and supplies out of Tuy Hoa (Dad was also based there) tells me it was a bit of a jolt passing a Vietnamese ship proudly flying the "enemy" flag. Another reminder that we actually lost that war (which, by the way, is known as the American War to the Vietnamese). Yesterday in the Global Studies class (which the entire shipboard community is expected to attend), a statement was made which struck me: Vietnam has moved past the war much more quickly than the US has. I have no way of knowing if that's really true, but it certainly makes me think. Vietnam has a long, fierce history of battling for its independance - the American War wasn't the first or the last, probably. But the US experienced the kind of inner division over the war that scars a national psyche, AND we, the all-powerful, lost that war. When we played music chosen by the student panel during Global Studies, it all came back in a rush - we were so proud of our resistance to the war - I'm still proud in fact. The voice of a generation: For What it's Worth, Ohio, Give me Shelter.
I had hoped to be able to visit some of the areas where dad was stationed from '64-'67, but it's apparently not all that easy to get there in a limited time and Tuy Hoa was hit hard last week by the typhoon which has caused largescale flooding. Too bad!
Now that I've had some time on shore in the city, I have to say that Vietnam surprises me. It seems so clean, calm, and friendly. Funny, to feel so at home so far away from home. I've been thinking lots about all the wonderful Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Thai people I've had the pleasure of meeting since the streams of refugees began arriving in the '70's. All those families who made their transition to life in the US by staying a while with mom and dad - my life was enriched, my world expanded by each of them. Makes me really miss Nareth, who first moved in with mom and dad when he was a teenager after a long time in a refugee camp. A special person to our family, he recently died after a long battle with cancer. Although I didn't travel to Cambodia, his home, on this trip, people who did go said it was an amazing and beautiful country. Next time!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Dalit Village Overnight, India

Oct. 27
6 am
From the landing where I slept (loose translation of the word!) in a small Dalit (untouchable) village south of Kancheepuram.
Up for an hour after finally giving up trying to catch naps in between shifting my weight around to find comfort when there's nothing separating me from the hard concrete but a thin bamboo beach mat. Ox carts have been passing by since the wee hours of the morning - really, since 2 or 3 am! Now that it's getting light, villagers wander by returning my waves with a sudden smile and a wave. Arriving here last night after dark, we were immediately caught up in absolute festive pandemonium, or so it seemed to us anyway. Everyone in the village was waiting for us, with flourescent lights strapped up to trees, plastic chairs arranged in front of a make-shift stage, and children thrusting out a hand to shake, chanting happily "Hello! How are you? I'm fine thank you!" Every villaer wanted to shake our hands. As we began what turned out to be a complete parade around the wide circular route through the village area, some of the men would periodically shoo away the children and women because, apparently, they were slowing things down too much. There was a schedule to keep!

Periodically, we would stop in front of a cluster of thatched huts, a wick floating in oil would be lit and passed in circles in front of us to the frenetic beat of drums, water was splashed on the ground, a leaf was placed on the dirt in front of us with the flaming wick placed in the middle, and we would be urged onward. This happened at least 10 times in the course of the parade before we arrived back where we started. Eddie, our trip leader, was then bedecked with a HUGE garland of flowers and we were seated in chairs with women and children on the dirt surrounding us, more villagers standing outside of them. Let the show begin!
And what a show - dancers with elaborately sequined parrot headdresses, dancing horses on short stilts, fire breathers and jugglers, martial arts demos, hip-hop dancing and acrobatics, all in our honor. Then Eddie and I, as trip leaders, were called to the stage and presented with small trophies and silk scarves ceremoniously draped around our shoulders.
As soon as the show ended, the villagers were hustled off and we were loaded back into our vans for the short ride down the road to our "compound" - the walled concrete complex where we would spend the night. But first, just one more ceremony! This one was quite lovely - Dalit nursing students joined us in a big seated circle, each of us holding small clay vessels of oil with a flaming wick. A meditation led by the director of the Dalit re-training center about letting our lights shine in the world, after which we all placed our lights in a tight circle in the dirt to see what a strong light they created when put together. Wonderful!
After eating our pitiful boxed dinners packed by the ship, we unrolled blankets on the floor while the village men attempted to manually wire a couple of flourescent bulbs and 2 very rusty, clanky fans. Here's a photo I took the next morning to give you some idea of the town wiring state.

Power goes out on a regular basis here - in the last village it just wasn't even turned on til 5 or 6 in the afternoon. There was one waterless squat toilet which many students couldn't talk themselves into using (creepy concrete cubicle, no light, spiders), but there was at least a trough outside with cold running water for washing up.

The sleeping rooms were stifling, so I moved my mat to the landing of an outside staircase, where I could stand up to look over the walls of our compound at villagers going by, if I was so inclined. That was a good decision - not pestered by insects (bats flew constant guard overhead), I was much cooler and always love the chance to admire the night sky. Although real sleep was not possible, I did relax, listening to music from my iphone to drown out the voices of our Dalit guards, who talked loudly until late into the night - guess they couldn't sleep either!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Child Labor Bridge School Overnight

Oct. 25
Kancheepuram, Tamil Nadu

With such a massive proportion of India's population living on less that $1 a day (estimates vary, but generally agree on at least 25%), the existence of child labor should come as no surprise. And before getting too self-righteous about it, I reminded myself of the situation in the US not more than a hundred years ago, when poor families also ended up sending children to work in factories under horrible conditions. That said, it is still a terrible situation, but this SAS trip gave cause for optimism. The RIDEINDIA organization was formed in 1984, initially focussing on the widespread use of children as laborers in the silk industry. At that time, more than 40,000 children worked in silk factories - today, the number is 4,000! Progress is being made. The school we visited acts as a bridge school for children between the ages of 5 and 15 who are transitioning from the world of work to school. They can't go straight to normal classes, being essentially illiterate. We visited with 2 very different groups of young students: the first group had been silk workers, and were now in school full-time, the second were still working in rock quarries, and only attended the bridge school sporadically. This little girl was particularly engaging, I thought, grubby as can be, and still works in the quarry hauling out whatever rocks she can carry in her basket after the dynamite goes off.
A huge hurdle, of course, is the situation and attitude of the parents which, in the case of quarry workers, is not good. Desperately poor, many families are essentially indentured, having borrowed money at some point (typically to pay for something like a wedding, or to support an addiction to drugs or alcohol), and then offered the work of every member of the family to pay the interest on the loan.
Apparently, a record number of these quarry children actually came to school the day we arrived - they don't see all that many Westerners, although there are regular groups of volunteers from a volunteer Jewish-American group that work with the school periodically.