Raderstorf World Wide Adventure

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Watch out for the Purple Lady and more

Here I sit at the beach in Hoi An, Vietnam, seeing a large body of water for the first time since the tsunami. It’s hard to say how I feel as I hear the tiny waves crash at the shore. The anxiety I’m feeling has more to do with the inequities I see all around me. This place is exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. Competition to sell to foreigners is so fierce and I feel like a walking dollar sign.

I have seen so much in a short time. The morning frenzy at the Central Market is my favorite. The market sits next to the river where small, wooden ferry after ferry arrives and departs loaded with 20 motorbikes, almost as many bicycles, passengers and their great variety of wares. It is an unbelievable site to see so much piled atop a small moving vessel. I am reminded of news broadcasts showing the Vietnamese boat people.

I envy the produce of such fresh quality and variety with its accompanying aromas. Food is beautiful, bountiful and affordable for everyone. Most of us seldom grow or eat food like this anymore in the US. The women in their conical shape bamboo hats, the quick pace—no one running, but everyone moving at an accelerated pace—is something I could sit and watch all day.

We met a couple of women from Colorado today in front of an elementary school, retired school teachers who seemed way too young to be retired. The woman I spoke to shared her husband’s story. He had been a helicopter pilot here in the Vietnam-American War. After two weeks here, he wrote to her that the war was a big mistake. He was shot down once, and later requested to be on non-combatant flying missions. When he returned home, he reacted as John Kerry did, discarding his medals. He died some years ago of cancer brought on by his exposure to Agent Orange. This was her first trip to Vietnam and she loved it, especially the people, the children. Her words filled with wisdom: she felt communism would have taken care of itself because the human spirit to succeed is too strong and if that didn’t do it, consumerism would have.

On the streets of Hoi An, passenger-ladened motorbikes and bicycles race down small lanes converging at corners in random chaos—a system that surprisingly works. At the few seldom-obeyed traffic lights, you can always count on a young moto-driver hitting the accelerator to reach maximum speed through a solid red light. In spite of this madness in the eyes of a Westerner, I have yet to see any kind of collision. (Knock on wood as I have a 4km bicycle ride back to our hotel.)

I was the only one interested in seeing the ocean this morning as the boys are not ready to hear the sound of the surf. For me the sound is strangely soothing after the emotion of the last ten days, seeing how hard people work and how little they are paid.

The nice young guy who runs the internet/travel agency two doors down from our hotel makes $45/month. He works seven days a week from 8 am until well past 8 pm. He has not had a day off in a year and found out he will not get the Lunar New Year off this year. He studied electronics in school and hopes to be employed by a government factory where he will earn $200 a month. He cannot quit his job at the internet café because it is too hard to find another. He can survive on his salary because he lives with his aunt and food and clothing is cheap, but there is no extra to consider getting married or to travel to Halong Bay. In spite of his situation, he is so happy and always smiling.

Just now on the beach, a young woman named Louise (her English name) came to sell me bracelets even though she knows I have no money with me. She is 18 years old and attending English classes. When she graduates, she can get a license which will allow her to get a job as a hotel receptionist. She used to work in a dress shop, but because she worked every day (all day) she had no time to study. Now she has a license from the government to sell on the beach every other day. She tells me that on Feb. 1st (tomorrow), it will be cloudy all day, as it’s the day when all the spirits in the burning incense will go up into the sky to report the events of the year and who will be lucky. She says it is cloudy every year, and if it’s not cloudy it will be windy all day and if not windy all day, it will be at 1am in the morning.

She tells me that some people might think she is only talking to me so that I will buy something, but she says she is not. Then she shares stories of people buying lots of bracelets after talking with her for awhile because they want to help her. And how she gives people bracelets and then picks the money up later when she is in Hoi An for English class.

For two days now, I have been hunted by the purple lady (today she is dressed in red) who wants me to come to her dress shop to have clothes made. She jumps out from every corner to give me a big hug reminding me that she will only be lucky if I come to her shop. Because I didn’t say “NO” immediately, I am a stalked woman. This experience has shut me down, and now I don’t want to buy anything from anyone. In the end, all I can do is wish Louise luck and give her my email address. She hides her disappointment because she did not sell me anything.

Some time ago in Boulder, I found myself wondering if we would end up in a world where we are all trying to sell each other something as I was trying to turn everyone into a political activist. It made it difficult to have an authentic relationship. Now I am in that world, but the difference is that for the people I have met it's a matter of survival.

Leaving Hoi An with a new custom-made wardrobe for cheap, cheap, cheap, I have no answers, only more questions.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Ha Noi, Vietnam

Ben's Journal Entry - Feb 8th, 2005

Hanoi has to be one of the noisiest cities in the world. All of the streets are tiny but are entirely filled with motorcycles, so they can move ten times as many people through the streets. For dinner on the first night, Mom, Quin, and Max ordered pizza while Dad and I went on a quest to find some real food. Our efforts were rewarded by the Cyclo Restaurant, a lovely French place that let us in even though it was two minutes to closing time.

The next morning I awoke in complete darkness. I looked oat my watch and was surprised to see that it was after nine. Our room was like a cave. The only light came from under the door. The breakfast was complimentary, but you couldn’t have paid me to eat it; cold scrambled eggs, disgusting fake orange juice and toast that wasn’t even toasted. We all decided that we weren’t hungry and would wait until lunch.

Two blocks from our hotel was a lake with several temples in the middle. Even though the weather was foggy and rainy, we had a blast walking around the lake and exploring the temples. They of course were crowded on the week before Tet (the Vietnamese lunar New Year).
Hanoi is famous for its Water Puppet Show. Figures of dragons and fishermen dance through the water controlled by bamboo poles hidden just below the surface. Villagers chase foxes away from their ducks and peacocks sail majestically around. The tradition of water puppets was created by fishermen in the red river delta during the flood season. The coolest is when fireworks are used.

On the way home from the theatre we stopped at a lakeside restaurant for desert. That triple dark chocolate cake sure was good, but the moment it hit my stomach, I regretted it. I still can’t believe Max and Quin ordered ice cream (the temperature was less than 10ْ C)
I was hoping the noise was going to die down but it didn’t. Hanoi is truly “the city that never sleeps”. Those earplugs came in very handy.

Click Here to see the pics :

Monday, February 07, 2005

Hoi An:The land of a million tailor shops

Ben's Journal Entry from Feb 1st,2005

Hoi An is a very cool town. What makes it special are the tailor shops on literally every corner. People come from all over Vietnam to have clothes custom made. We were going to take a picture of all of them, until we realized we’d run out of disk space. Not wanting to miss out, we all got some things made. Can you believe that my mom shipped my long pants for Nepal back with her silk dresses? I guess it doesn’t matter because we aren’t going anymore due too bad political situations. Max and Quin spent much of their time at the internet Café playing “Age of Empires”, but hey, at 100 dong per minute, who can blame them. Our time in Hoi An was way to short and we were soon on the bus to Da Nang International Airport. We were all sad to leave, except for Mom, who was happy to escape the clutches of the evil purple lady. If you visit Hoi An, steer clear of a slightly plump lady dressed in purple. If you get caught, buy from her shop, or else!!

Click here to see the Pics : http://www.flickr.com/photos/raderstorfwwa/sets/127765/

Friday, February 04, 2005

Falling in Love in Cambodia

In 1975, I was a carefree 12-year-old (the age of my oldest son) and knew nothing of the brutal takeover in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. Through execution, starvation, disease and forced labor, the regime killed an estimated two million Cambodians, almost a fourth of the country’s population. I also knew nothing about the half million Cambodians killed as by American warplanes bombing the borders during the American-Vietnam War. (Many believe this action, in part, aided the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s rise to power.) In truth, I knew very little about this country before stepping on its dark, red soil.

We came to Cambodia, like most tourists, to see Angkor Watt, one of the most amazingly beautiful and spiritual sites in the world. Siem Reap, home of the 200 temples of Angkor, is filled with stark contrast: luxury hotels alongside bamboo shacks on stilts, big white buses storming through a sea of families on bicycles and motorbikes. Tourists pay $60 for a one-week pass to the temples and yet many Cambodians can’t afford the “moto” gas money it would take to get there (admission for locals is free). Everyday outside the temples, Cambodian children sell souvenirs, postcards and books.

We met Srei Yah, Le Hieng and Diet when we wandered into food stall #27 in Angkor Thom looking for rest and a bit of nourishment. They immediately approached us speaking perfect English, hawking their wares: postcards, bracelets, books, flutes and more. Their ages mirroring my sons, I purchased bracelets on the condition that they would stay and chat for awhile. Like many of the children at the temple, they work half the day and spend the other half at school, six days a week. On Sunday, they work all day from 6 AM to 5PM. They laugh and smile non-stop, and know an amazing number of country’s capital cities. We all bonded that first day and spent the next three days talking, playing freeze tag and even touring our favorite temple together as an ever expanding family of 10! We all parted with tears hoping we would be together again soon.

According to UNICEF, Cambodia is still one of the poorest countries in Asia, with some 34 per cent of its people surviving on less than US$ 1 a day. Nearly half of all Cambodian children are malnourished, and one in eight dies before their fifth birthday, largely due to preventable causes. Because more than half of Cambodia’s 13 million people are under the age of 18, the countries biggest challenge is to ensure that the children will grow up strong and educated, able to contribute.

We met a Swiss doctor, Dr. Beat Richner (Dr. Beatocello) who’s committed much of his adult life to this cause. Besides overseeing three pediatric hospitals in Cambodia, he gives free cello concerts every Fri and Sat night to tell tourists about the hospitals’ work and why they should contribute. Dr. Beat worked in the Kantha Bopha Pediatric Hospital in Cambodia in 1974. He had to flee the country when the Khmer Rouge took over. He talked about the health care system being equal to that of Singapore in 1974 and how the population of doctors went from 950 to 50. (I assume 50 survived because they kept their true identity a secret from the Khmer Rouge.)

He returned to Cambodia in 1991 at the King’s request to restore the hospital and has since then created 2 other pediatric hospitals (one located in the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh and one in Siem Reap). He takes pride in the fact that the hospitals employ 1500 Cambodians and only two foreigners. He continues to lobby for quality health care for poor children arguing against a common belief that it’s too sophisticated and expensive. With first rate laboratories and diagnostic equipment, it cost only $170 for a 5-day hospital stay. As the tone of his voice intensifies, he passionately repeats in Swiss-lish, “without this laboratory you get to be criminal”. He’s referring to the many blood transfusions required for to treat children suffering from advanced TB. Without the lab, there would be no way to test for HIV or hepatitis. His love and commitment to the children and families of Cambodia brings more tears to my eyes and a desire to tell everyone I know to send money to help support the work of Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital (90% of the funding comes from private donations).

You don’t have to look far for other sheros and heros in Cambodia. They are all around.
In Phnom Penh, Sokhary Yim founded SCADP (Street Children Assistance and Development Programme) after seeing a great need to help street children, beggars and orphans. On SCAPD’s website, Sokhary shares, “I really wanted to do something sustainable to get them out of poverty. I never have a BA, I did not know what an NGO is and first and foremost I did not have money. But I had four-year experience in the killing fields in my own country and I had the love and pity for all the victims.” After spending the early years working with individual children, Sokhary and her co-hearts realized that the focus needed to be on the whole community as well as the child. While in Phnom Penh, we visited 3 non-formal education centers in one of the poorest slums. Imagine the most meager, crowded (and in one case downright dismal) physical locations occupied by smiling and extremely attentive children all facing a committed and compassionate teacher and you will see through our eyes. Each class greeted us with song and traditional bowing as they stood in unison from their places on cement floors or crowded benches.

Besides preparing children for formal education in their 25 village-based non-formal education classes; committed staff of 60 provide vocational training, interim housing, community awareness, health support and youth group programs. The highlight of our visit was being the honored guests at the Cambodian dance performance given by the children in the program. It was a performance truly fit for the King, complete with brilliant choreography and costumes. At the end of the performance our hosts (the children) showed us graciousness beyond what I have or will ever experience in my life—more tears. SCADP confirms my belief in community-based models funded globally!

Serendipitously, news from the World Economic Forum hit the streets the same day we visited SCAPD. A business titan, a rock star, a former president and heads of many states demanding we address poverty and disease as TOP priority. The world proved it could come to the aid of tsunami victims and now it’s time to address the “silent tsunamis”. To me, it was a sign that the collective efforts of activists all over the world are starting to pay off. The cynical side of me could say, “It’s about time!” But the side that is out here viewing the world in it’s splendor and sadness is saying, “Yes!!! The people of the world are calling for global responsibility; AND the governments will have no choice but to follow!”

Today as the US Senate debates the nomination of Alberto Gonzales, I think about our visit to the Tuol Sleng genocide museum and how torture was a common and accepted practice in extracting information from perceived “enemies” of the Pol Pot regime. It sickens me to think that anyone could still think torture is still a viable method. A woman my age led us through the prison, repeating that most of the regime’s leaders had still not been tried for their crimes. Both her parents were killed, yet she survived and now has two children. She is not allowed to talk about politics, only the history as democracy has not yet come to the people of Cambodia. Again with tears in my eyes, I was grateful to her for sharing a painful history, in hopes that history will not repeat itself.

In spirited partnership,

P.S. To learn more about life under the Khmer Rough, run (don’t walk) to your neighborhood library and check out “First They Killed My Father: A daughter of Cambodia remembers” by Loung Ung. While you’re there, refer to the history sections of Lonely Planet Cambodia and Vietnam guide books for a quick lesson.

P.S.S For the shopping activist in you, consider supporting the rich handicraft traditions of Cambodians while also lifting entire villages out of poverty. We visited a couple of these projects learning all about how to make silk. Log on to their websites and order directly from Cambodia:

VillageWorks is “building the lives of the villagers. Behind every piece of work, you get the whole person and his family, more than what you see, more than the hands that made the product.” I can vouch that each and every piece is beautifully crafted and reasonably priced. As the say, “Your support helps the villagers break free from their poverty cycle, and find hope in life.” Anak, the beautiful Cambodian woman who runs Villageworks, hopes this program will allow villages the option to give their children a good education and to freely move around someday.

Artisans d’Angkor was created to help young people find work in their home villages, allowing them to practice their crafts and providing them with a vocation and a role in society. Thet, our English-speaking guide, lost his parents as a result of the Pol Pot regime. He and the young people working at the silk farm were illiterate and without prospects before they became a part of the project. He beams when he tells us that this joint-government-initiated project is now fully self-supported.

Click here to see the pics :