Thursday, January 29, 2009

When I Was in 'Nam: Take 2: Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh

Back in Ho Cho Minh, or Saigon (as we affectionately called it, just like the Vietnamese), we strolled the city to check out the outdoor night life. There was a park right by our hostel that people were playing a hacky-sack like game with a giant shuttlecock.

Tons of people were hanging on on their mopeds on the sidewalks or having snacks and drinks at toddler sized tables.

In the city center, there was a huge neon winter wonderland. It reminded me of the opening scene of "A Christmas Story" with the automotive train going around the winter scene, but with a lot more neon.

Strolling around near the markets led us to my favorite staple of Southeast Asia: the fruit stand! Seriously, I can't get enough of the variety and colors and textures and tastes of these fruits and they're so cheap! Mmmmm.

That night we headed to the parishioner's house we'd be staying at for the next three nights. We knew little about our volunteering position or where we'd be staying or really anything at that point in time. I was the one communicating with Father Thahn after our arrival and while he spoke some English, there was some miscommunication early on. We eventually made it there and had some incredibly awkward conversations and gesturing to try to sort things out. Eventually we had oranges, a nice room and somewhere to lay our heads that night.

The next day was Christmas Eve. Father Thanh continued to introduce us to many people. They were so kind and interesting. We got the 'grand tour' of the church, which included one of the priests stellar collection of antique lamps. Sweet.

Walking through the city streets, I couldn't help but notice an agrocrag-esque nativity scenes: everywhere. The nativity scenes were, ummm, vibrant. Brooke realized it was not Jesus in the moon, but rather Jesus in a cave... which is probably more historically correct than in a barn.

Around lunch time, we got to help out in the church's annual Christmas Eve tradition of serving lunch to local community members who may not have had much food that day otherwise. We got to meet Thao, who spoke perfect English and explained all the outreach programs the church is involved with from activities she runs at an orphanage in the Central Highlands to flood relief in the Mekong Delta. This was a real joy for me. It was totally motivational to hear her passionately speak about the programs. Amazing woman. The community the church is based in is very tightly knit. An 'everybody knows everybody' kind of town, namely because most of the people are related.

Although I couldn't really talk with most of the people at the luncheon, their faces really lit up at the event. I did get to sit down and talk with one woman for a while. She was 70 some years old and made the effort to use the little English she knew. What a sweetheart. We then joined Father Thanh and another Father from the US for lunch together.

After lunch we went to Ms. Thao's family's house to help make and organize the food bags we'd be delivering to homeless residents later that night. Her neice wanted to steal the food. I wanted to steal her niece.
Everybody in, now!

At night, we attended the Christmas Eve Mass at Father Thanh's church. It was a spectacle, to say the least. There was traditional dancing, a nativity play, singing...
and five Santas? I'm pretty sure that was the real reason all the kids were there, as each got a present from a Santa. Apparently I was not as unique as I thought I'd be with my Santa suit.

The families all hung around the Christmas clad church for quite awhile after mass.

After church we ate dinner and strolled the streets. Extended families were gathered in their living rooms with their doors wide open showing a massive food spread and people laughing and talking together. Others were dining outside at tables. And others were posing with one of many nativity scenes in the city. Awwww, what a happy family we are.
Oh, and in the Japanese tradition of Christmas, we had Christmas cake... and in my tradition of desserts we had ice cream.

11pm was the rondevous time for our cyclo caravan around the city to deliver the food bags and Christmas cards and presents I had brought. Rewind: when I found out we'd be volunteering in Vietnam I thought it'd be a great way to get my Japanese kiddos involved in internationalization by communicating in English and donating if they were interested. Several of my classes made stellar Christmas cards to donate and the staff at my schools really pulled together to donate a ton of school supplies for the orphanage and a financial donation as well. Fast forward: I thought I'd be super unique by donning a Santa suit for the delivery. I was not, but several parents forced their kids to take pictures with me anyway.

Back at the church, Kristine is my sexy reindeer.
Hitting the streets!

Ahn wishing this woman a Merry Christmas.
After delivering all the food bags around 2am, everyone came back to our host family's house for yet another meal. I think our host mother ran a catering business, so she had the food and service down to a T. It was awesome. We got very little sleep that night.

When I was in 'Nam Take 1: Cat Tien National Park

Winter break in Japan is one week where there is no school and families get together to celebrate the New Year with activities like pounding and eating mochi, sitting under a kotatsu together to stay out of the blithering cold while watching TV, cleaning the house, going broke from the huge money donation given to children in the family, reading New Year's cards that are delivered specifically on the first and going to shrines and temples. Basically, everything shuts down and it's family time in Japan. Sans blood relatives in Japan, my adoptive family (Kristine and Brooke) and I went to Vietnam!

The nearly two week trip was a brain child of ours born almost a year ago. I went to Thailand during last year's winter vacation and while I had a good time with great friends, saw some truly amazing sights and had memorable experiences, I ultimately left a little disappointed. I was saddened by how overwhelming prevalent tourism was and disgusted by the degradation it had created. I had a lot of fun with the 'activities' I did, but didn't feel like I had experienced "the real" Thailand.

SO, I had it in my mind from the onset that I wanted to volunteer and hopefully do some sort of home stay throughout to really make some connections with Vietnamese that were not in the tourism industry. I researched, researched, and researched some more, and couldn't find any reputable, worthy volunteer opportunities for our time frame that were under $1000. Yes, it costs $1000 to volunteer in a third world country. That's in addition to the $1000 flight ticket it costs to get there from Japan. We make a good salary in the JET Programme, but not that good. I felt deflated but didn't want to let my vision go.

Long story short, a friend of a friend of a friend had a connection with a priest in Ho Chi Minh City. We got the communication ball rolling and had the opportunity to partner with a great church and amazing people in Ho Chi Minh for a few days. This was one of the highlights of the trip, which I'll talk about later.

What's important is that that connection kept us centered around Ho Chi Minh, so although we had 12 days abroad we had an epicentre that made the travel distance minimal. Vietnam is a pretty long country geographically, so we never made it to the Central Highlands, East coast beaches, or it's capital city Hanoi.

That being said, what we did see and do was pretty spectacular. SO, if you're up for it, relive my time in Vietnam (and Cambodia) with me.

On December 20th, Kristine, Brooke, and I jetsat (what's the past tense of jetset?) from Tokyo, Japan to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.
We got in late that night, found our hostel, and immediately hit the streets for some grub and to stare mindlessly at the backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao. We got about 3 hours of sleep before waking up the next morning to head out on our tour of Cat Tien National Park. My experiences with national parks have always been good and Lonely Planet heralded this one as,

"One of the outstanding gems of the region.. [which] comprises an amazingly biodiverse region of lowland tropical rain forest. The hiking, mountain biking and bird-watching are easily the best in Southern Vietnam" (393).

So, being the only real 'activity' we booked in advance, we were off on our excited way. It takes about 3 hours to get from Ho Chi Minh to Cat Tien, apparently without traffic. Peak travel season = lots of traffic = lots of time. Our tour guide, Ninh, was awesome though and pulled off for little educational breaks every now and then. He was so knowledgeable and willing to share his experiences. We stopped off at a bridge over a big river near a war monument and he shared with us a snippet of his experience during the war. After two days with him, I learned more about the Vietnam War than I'd learned in all my history classes combined. He was completely optimistic and smiling the whole time though, which was a little surprising. Some pretty jacked up stuff happened to him during the war, but his positive outlook on life not only got him through it but makes him the successful individual he is today.

Anywho, this was a stop at a rubber plantation.
Pretty 'rudimentary' collection techniques, but it works!
After finding out what these were by doing a taste test, Ninh taught us about pepper cultivation.

A local tobacco 'industry'... fun for the whole family!
These are the freshly picked leaves...
These are all dried out.

After crossing a little river and making it to park quarters, we unloaded into our little huts, had our first real Vietnamese food (mmm), and got ready for what was advertised as a "trek".

Kristine and I didn't really care if these things on our legs and the gel spread all over shoes protected us from leeches or not - the important thing is that we looked, HOT!

We started out the "trek" by viewing caged bears. Not what I was expecting. This was by far the largest, most were in cages the size of their bodies. Apparently the bears had been rescued and were being treated and cared for now. I was saddened. Also, this was the only good look we got at animals we saw in a park that is said to house the Javan Rhinoceros, crocodiles, Asian elephants, gaurs, banteng, wild water buffalo, tigers, leopards, dholes, gibbons, languors, macaques, loris, and civets. We did hear a bunch of birds though. Too bad I'm not a birdie (?).

Ninh spotted this exoskeleton of some nasty bug which was kinda cool.

The "trek" was not so much of a trek, but much more of a nature walk. We also had a park ranger with us then, although I don't think he said anything to us the entire time. It was pretty, and peaceful, but for an avid trekker like myself, didn't quiiiiite cut it.

This was a nice river we had a few minutes to chill nearby.

We went on a little night jungle safari that night and saw some deer and I think this is a treeshrew or a civet up in the tree. It was vague.

We had what I thought was a delicious dinner that night with what was quite possibly the best seasoned lemongrass chicken I've ever had. Also tried the local drink specialty of banana rice wine. One of those two elements at dinner left Kristine basically incapacitated for the following few days. Being our representative foodie, this was probably the saddest realization of the trip. A slow but sure remedy of pho, soup broth, and western medication brought Kristine back to life and we had her cured in time to roll in the New Year.

Nature hike day two: parasitic trees on age old trees look awesome but probably don't feel that great for the oldies.

Brooke and I playing with the biggest tree in Vietnam.

The view of Crocodile Lake (sans crocodiles).

I think they were calling this Chinese Checkers... but it was way more chess-esque in my book.

Tease... it was all a tease. But, it did make it much more relaxing in the gorgeous weather.

Waiting for some other "hikers" to return (it was so NOT hiking), we got to see these park employees rigging up this bike like thing which can carry more than an elephant apparently. Ninh told us about how it was invented during the war to transport ammo through the jungles. Crazy.

The sunset on the way back from the park that night was spectacular.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Take me to the Farm... for Sweet Potato Peeling

I can never get enough of going to the Kobayashi's farm, so anytime they have anything I can do to help out I beg, plead, and bribe Tomomi to let me go. December is the month when the sweet potatoes are ready to be steamed, peeled, dried, rotated daily, and then finally packaged. Last year we had the honor of peeling and I was really looking forward to having 'the claw' again for weeks and at least halving how many Alex peeled. We got to peel a little, but also had a hand in some of the other parts of the process which was really cool.

Getting ready to start, Shyoma clearly has his game face and outfit on (thanks to my Mom's sweet find!). The whole crew ready to start it up!
What a team player our little Brewer is.
I started out by weighing and packaging the potatoes. I guess if I would've sent these air tight bags to the parentals, they would've arrived without mold. Oops.
A few freshly steamed taters coming up to the 2nd floor.
Tea time!
We also got treated to a delicious lunch of vegetable and udon soup, made all with ingredients from the Kobayashi's garden. Sooooo good!
SO CUTE! Shyooma's talking and shrugging his shoulders for pictures now.
After going through and flipping each and every one of these taters, we got to go through and handpick a bunch for our taking. I love how the dried potatoes taste so different from the day they are steamed (which I like best) to weeks later. They're all delicious, though!

Christmas Enkai at Haruna

As the year comes to an end and the national holidays of the Emperor's Birthday and the New Year approach, employee's all across the country gather for one of many annual enkais (work related drinking and eating party). Our Gunma JET crew organized an enkai for us ALT's up at a ryokan at Lake Haruna.

Their set dinner meal was delicious and pretty extravagant with an appetizer plate, pickled vegetables, a small spicy mayo salad, tempura vegetables, sashimi, a thick udon nabe, a seafood soup, and an egg custard dish.

Before anyone can eat or drink, you have to kampai! (Cheers!)And then the fun begins! Most pictures from this event were totally inappropriate for this blog, namely because of the embarrassment that would ensue, but let's just say fun was had by all.

We threw in the American tradition of Secret Santa. I got American soda (not pop, soda).
And then the karaoke machine was brought out. This was our spontaneous rendition of "Like a Prayer", which looks more like a modern day "We Are the World" op... minus all the famous people.

Dedicated to our marathon training schedule, Ronan and I even woke up the next morning for a run around Lake Haruna. There was frost/ice on the ground and I could see my breath, but it was still absolutely gorgeous.

Swimming in the lake post run was optional and INSANE, so I opted out.