Friday, August 6, 2010

Swimming in the South China Sea

Mui Ne was the last weekend trip we took. The info that I read said that it would take 3 hours with stops. Great! Perfect! Sounds wonderful!! I can't wait to go to the beach!!!!

Apparently something was lost in translation because they meant it would be another 3 hours after the first stop.... which by the way, the first stop wasn't for 3 hours. So with awful traffic, distance, rest stops and lunch it took over 7-8 hours each way in a two day period. Not my most shining moments in Vietnam. I don't do well on really long car rides. I tried not to let the rest of the group know but they may have noticed I was a little irritated.

Now let's add to the fun. When we arrived, the weather was gloomy and rainy. Ok, I was really looking forward to this trip. Perhaps I played it up too much in my head. So I fixed my problem by getting a 45 minute foot/hand massage and a 45 minute fresh aloe facial in the spa at the hotel. They took U.S. dollars so I started spending. I think I spent $9 on my feet and $18 on my face. Big spender, I know. I almost went back for something else due to boredom and my inability to stop taking advantage of the great spa prices.

Had a relaxing dinner in the rain with Hillary, Paige, Judy and Ali. The power went out in the restaurant for 30 seconds. Got a weird bug bite that started to swell. At that point I think I was done. Went up to the room to play on the computer and that is probably why there were so many blog posts that night or soon after.

The next day redeemed itself. The sun was sort of out with less cloud cover and I was swimming in the South China Sea by 9:00 am. I stayed in for a long time. It was exactly like my dad said, bathwater. I didn't even flinch as I got in, it was like taking a cool bath. I stayed in for quite a while and let the waves hit me or just drift me back and forth. The hotel had an infinity pool looking out to the ocean but I only ended up going in it for a minute. Spent some time reading on the beach. Got a little sun burn but it was gone by the next day.

We left by noon to start the trek back to Thuan An. We made a stop or two along the way and had lunch. Overall, it took 8 hours to get home. We spent the last few hours singing summer camp songs in the car trying to come up with something good to sing for the teachers on our last day since it was a given they would sing something for us.

Overall, it was a quiet weekend and several parts of it were relaxing. I guess I shouldn't complain: great travel companions, yummy food, and killer spa services... and I did get to swim in the South China Sea.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Mekong Delta - Warning this is a long one!

Warning that this is a long post so that I can remember some important points to add to my scrapbook later.

Weekend in the Mekong Delta included an exceptional guide named Quang. He knows so many little tidbits about so many things. He told us about history, people, botany, geography, pottery, religion, linguistics and so many more things I can't even remember. He has been a guide for many, many years (probably over 20 but I can't remember exactly). I realize it's his job... but still! He went above and beyond. Quang's stories about the people he has met along the way are hilarious one minute and poignant the next. He was really an important part of the trip and I made sure to get his card for next time.

We traveled everywhere by boat on this trip. First we saw a floating market. People congregate their boats in an area and you ride up on your boat to make a purchase. This was a wholesale market so we didn't buy anything. Next we headed to cross the Mekong River. The river starts in the Tibetan plateau flowing through China, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and then into Vietnam toward the South China Sea. Mekong is actually the Chinese name. The Vietnamese call it Song Cuu Long (River of the Nine Dragons) because it splits into nine branches in Vinh Long (the town we visited) before it heads toward the sea. There are so many little branches of water to follow.

Quang took us to a candy making shop. They showed us how they make the Vietnamese version of a rice crispy treat, taffy, rice paper, etc. There was an artist there with oil paintings for sale. I purchased one of his paintings. It was a bright and colorful abstract representation of a typical marketplace in Vietnam. This took a lot of stress off my trip because I really wanted to bring back a piece of art for myself. It didn't matter what kind of art. It could have even been pottery or whatever. But that was all I wanted. When I saw this painting I knew it was perfect. So thankfully I have not had to do any more significant shopping since then. The picture of me with the artist and the painting is on Judy's camera so sorry I can't share until I get it from her. I guess you will have to come over to my place to see it when I get it framed.

We made several other stops including lunch and a bonsai garden where some of the plants were over 80 years old. One place that was particularly interesting for blog posting (because I was able to get a little video) was the tea at an old French colonial home. Performers there used traditional Vietnamese instruments to give us a flavor of the traditional music. However, my internet keeps crashing every time I try to upload. So never mind. You don't get to see the video.

After other stops we finally ended up at our home stay. I would say this would pretty much equate to summer camp. Four of us stayed in one big room on cots with pink mosquito nets! (Btw, our new favorite activity in the tour van taking us everywhere is to think of as many camp songs as we can.) We went for a walk in the rain so we wouldn't waste one single minute in Vietnam. Maybe it would have been a better idea to hang out in one of the hammocks. Covered in mud and some bug bites (deep woods OFF didn't even keep these things away), we made it back for a home cooked meal and stories with Quang. Turns out he knows a Speech-Language Pathologist, Charlotte, from New Orleans that works with Operation Smile. Our group has been conversing with her over the past few months to tap into her knowledge and experience in Vietnam. It really is a small world after all!!!

Everything is going great! It's 9:30 pm, dinner is done, we are having a great time, I'm thinking I would love to get my book out and read to relax.... but they basically put us to bed. They started turning the lights out and locked us in our "room" which really wasn't a room because the walls didn't go to the ceiling and the windows didn't have any glass (see pic). I'm wondering why they even bother to lock the door. So now, I'm sitting on my cot (bottom left in pic) with the mosquito net pulled down perfectly around me, it's pitch black and I'm not tired. It's like I'm in jail b/c I don't want to mess with the net (even though it doesn't really matter if I do). 10:30, 11:30, 12:30 1:30. Now I can't sleep b/c I'm stressed, uncomfortable, and irritated and I don't want to venture into the night to use the bathroom. Who knows what time I finally fell asleep, all I know is that a bunch of roosters woke me up when the sun rose.

We spent the next day on a canoe trip and then headed back across the river to go to a market where we ate a banana wrapped in sticky rice and a banana leaf. It was grilled, then the leaf was taken off and a coconut sauce was added on top. OMG I wonder if I can google the recipe?? Made a few interesting purchases and received a lesson in unknown vegetables from Quang. Did you know that bird's nest soup is a delicacy? I'm not really sure about this and I didn't ask too many questions. I really don't want to know. We also found out that this market is like the breakfast club for the ladies in the area. This is where they find out all of the gossip in the morning.

On our way home we stopped at a famous Buddhist temple with an enormous Buddha and a really yummy lunch at a very westernized rest stop that we were thankful for.. and I bought Pringles (I was so happy it was pathetic)... but I didn't buy the seaweed flavor.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Maisy - Mary Grace - MG

Let me tell you a little bit about Maisy and me. Maisy was born in China and adopted by her family in Indianapolis before she turned three years old. After getting to the U.S. it was confirmed that she had a mixed conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. As a result she wore a bone conduction hearing aid. Around the same time, St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf was about to open a satellite preschool in Indianapolis. I was the first speech-language pathologist, Janet was the first teacher, and Maisy was there the first day we opened. She was one of two or three students we had that day.

I remember asking her mom if she had any words. She told me she could say "good girl". So I thought, oh good she is talking a bit, she has some words. Maisy didn't say anything the first day except "good girl". I didn't think anything of it since it was only first day and she was just getting to know us. The second day she went into the little kids bathroom in the dark. I said, "turn on the light". She didn't do anything. Hmmmm. "Maisy, turn on the light." She looked up at me and said, "good girl". OHHHH... her mom failed to specify that was ALL she could do/say. She wasn't able to follow that simple command.

I spent at least two years working with Maisy on a daily basis either in her classroom in tandem with her teacher (Janet) or in pull out therapy sessions. She did so well and made expedient progress. So much so that we mainstreamed her into a regular classroom pretty quickly. I visited her classroom once a week to help with the transition. We really missed her when she left, she had become like a daughter to us and her family became our extended family.

Life changed for the family several years ago. Her mom was offered a position with her company in Singapore. The whole family moved and I had heard somehow that Maisy made a comment that finally they were going to live somewhere everyone looked like her and not the rest of the family! LOL!

Flash forward to last night. I have to say thank you to Facebook. The family has since moved to the Philippines with another promotion for her mom (congrats!) and they were going to be taking a short vacation in Saigon for a few days on their way to Cambodia! I was able to work it out to meet them for dinner in the city!!!

Not sure I can explain the feeling of when I saw them. Tears were coming out of my eyes (and I don't cry that often). It was overwhelming because I haven't seen them in so long and then to see them on the other side of the world from Indianapolis while I'm here working on this project for children with hearing loss. I spent countless hours working with Maisy, she really was a huge part of my life plus not to mention becoming friends with her whole family. Plus I have been away from home for three weeks now and it was so nice to see a face from home.

I'm happy to report the whole family is doing really well and they are enjoying their time in Asia! Her dad has started his own company that is growing quickly and he is traveling now all over Asia for his work. They have traveled all around now as a family and the girls had so many hilarious stories to share! Maisy is 11 years old. She is a beautiful young lady. She loves school and reading. Her spoken language, listening, and speech skills are tremendous (we did good Miss Janet). She would prefer now to be called by her full name, Mary Grace; however, it doesn't seem like she can shake her nickname (and now the fam started calling her MG). She has friends at school from all over the world and she is learning Mandarin.

A long time ago, right before I moved back to Chicago from Indianapolis, our summer school did an oceans thematic unit. We planned a field trip to the aquarium in Cincinnati. Maisy was in my group. After I moved I made her a little scrapbook of pictures from that day and sent it to her in the mail. I found out last night that not only does she still have the scrapbook, she actually has it with her in the Philippines! How do I even respond to that? When sorting out what she gets to bring with her from home, she chose that scrapbook. To say that I was touched would be an understatement.

I could go on and on, but I will stop now. Seeing Maisy and her success and happiness and that of the whole family gave me so much joy.

Finally Pho

Pho = Fuh? (rising inflection like you are asking a question)

We have been so busy we have been eating all of our meals at Thuan An. It took a couple weeks but we finally had an official bowl of pho in Vietnam! Hillary, Judy and I set out on a journey to specifically get pho.... which makes no sense because everywhere you look you can find a food stall that sells pho.

Unfortunately for us, there are too many pho places and deciding where to eat turned into a somewhat stressful event. I don't know how many we passed by and kept walking in hopes of finding one better. [Insert clever metaphor here about always thinking there is something better out there, but I can't think of one right now because I'm too tired.] Anyway, this method of thinking on the search for pho is futile because we had no basis of comparison and there is a choice every time you turn around.

Finally, Judy asked a local guy which one he thought was best. Thankfully it was close. It looked clean and it was large with lots of tables and sturdy chairs that were clean and nice; however, there was no one else in there eating (not always a good sign). I figured they must have all these tables and chairs for some reason, otherwise why waste the money on purchasing them (either that or they had "if you build it they will come" written in Vietnamese on the wall). Plus I was pretty much done with wandering around trying to decide so we were eating there no matter what.

You can eat pho for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It is usually beef. It has rice noodles and they bring you all kinds of fresh herbs, lime, peppers, sprouts, and other green looking things to put in it after it is served. I really like the mixture of cooked food with raw food thrown in at the end. Oh yeah, I have to say the local guy was right. Great pho at a place that I'll be lucky if I find again!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Finishing up lectures!

As of yesterday I finished all the lectures with all three groups of teachers. We even had a group that several parents joined. The parents took the full three week course along with the teachers and they are also taking the exam.

The teachers and parents have been so appreciative and they make sure to let us know. It really makes me want to come back again next year. How could I say no when I get greeted by a song everyday and a heartfelt thank you from every group?

This video (that I hope works for you because it doesn't really work that well for me b/c my computer is about to bite the dust) is the second group that I worked with over a four day period.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Saigon Cooking Class & Weasel Coffee

Posts are slowing down and this is over a week behind now! So it will be short and sweet since I won't be able to bore you with all the little details I don't remember! We spent a morning/afternoon in Saigon at a cooking class! This was a blast and I highly recommend it!

Our group started out at the market with the chef. He took us around and showed us all the things he had purchased for our meal. Banana blossoms, herbs, etc. We got a short lesson in several vegetables and things you don't see in our supermarkets. They eat all the parts of the vegetables. For example, they had the flowering part of the zucchini as a veggie you could purchase.

This is the day we found out about Weasel coffee at the market. The chef told us that this is THE BEST coffee you can buy. As the story goes, weasels are very picky coffee berry eaters. They eat the berry and digest the flesh. The coffee bean comes out the other end (obviously because it can't be digested). The beans are "harvested", cleaned, roasted... and well you know the rest. We all had to buy some, we couldn't help it. I did a little bit of internet research after I got home and found out that it is something about the digestive enzymes of the weasel that make this coffee good. They can now induce the process with enzymes (no weasel butts needed) or in some places they keep all the weasels and feed them the berries and then "harvest" them. I don't which process was used to make my coffee grounds, but I'm going with the no butts needed version. Anyone coming over for coffee??

We went back to the class and spent the rest of the day cooking and eating! We made spring rolls, peanut sauce, fish sauce, a banana blossom salad and fried rice. For the fried rice we each had our own wok and propane burner. I was impressed with the entire process and we really had a fun time. After we couldn't eat another bite, the chef brought out a passion fruit dessert he had made for us. Subsequently we found out that our chef has been invited to be on a Food Network show but he has had difficulty getting a visa so he hasn't been able to do it yet.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

God forbid we don't have internet

The dates on the blog are really screwed up now! I was trying to catch up but now I don't think it will ever happen. I've been writing by hand (OMG what a concept) and typing it in when I can. It is scary how much we rely on the computer/internet.

There was a huge storm and the internet went out at the hotel. After several stories and translations it seems that lightning was the problem. Internet has been spotty at the school on top of the fact that it is a govt run school and the govt doesn't seem to allow the use of Facebook on their Wi-Fi.

The internet here is driving everyone a little crazy. Imagine ten ladies all sitting around with their laptops in front of them during a break trying over and over to get a wi-fi signal so they can check emails from work while they are here on a volunteer trip working all day and evening. Imagine the same ten people, maybe 10 years ago, just sitting around chatting and having some coffee during the break and relaxing without any of this distracting stuff since it couldn't be dealt with anyway. Today I was feeling at bit at odds for finally getting the internet back. I probably should be taking more time to explore during my free time rather than sitting around on the computer.