Thursday, September 06, 2007

EcoVillage of Hope: My volunteer experience at an Orphanage in China

During my time in Hong Kong, I decided to volunteer at the Taishan Orphanage in China through a non-profit organization in Calgary called the EcoVillage of Hope. I thought I’d get sick of Hong Kong and while I was in still in Japan, I had a vision to volunteer at an orphanage. Coincidence has it, I told Liz and she told me how she met two women from Calgary during her trip in China and how they were planning to start a non-profit organization in China and it involved work at an orphanage. Well, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. In between spending time with my family in Hong Kong, I would go up to Taishan by bus to help get the orphanage project started.

The project is quite complicated but I’m going to explain it as best I can. The first part of it is to help build sustainability in a village called Nam On. From Nam On, we hired some women to work as caretakers of the children in the Taishan Orphanage. This is a method of providing the women with an income. Further, we’re going to look at the methods of cultivation in place and see how we can help the village build sustainability. Here I have to add that I learned that peanuts grow from the ground and not on trees. I pulled some up myself! Also, volunteers who come from abroad like myself got to live in a house in Nam On village and the organization paid for the rent, which is another method of income for the villagers. A woman from the village also cooked our meals.
There is a whole lot more to the project such as helping the government to build tourism in Nam On and North Mountain (where I went white water rafting!) Also, the organization is looking to build an orphanage in Nam On Village. In October, a director from Canada will be filming a documentary of the area too. There is much to be done and after this project is done, the hope is to move into more remote areas of China to help build sustainability there as well.

I wish that I had more time to spend in Taishan because a lot of help is needed. Also, it was kind of a shock to me when I saw the children in the orphanage. I hadn’t expected them to be physically or mentally handicapped. Also, there was only 1 caretaker to 14 children, 3 of them which were only months old. But once we got the women in, we changed the whole place. On the first day, there was no color in the room, no smiles, no laughter, and barely any movement. By the time I left, the kids were laughing and playing with one another and showing more emotion. The disabled children were responding to our touch and were able to move a little bit on their own. It left a very good feeling.
However, I felt uneasy when I left because the 3 new volunteers did not even last 3 days. I think the culture shock was too much for them having to live in a village were the bathing water sometimes comes out yellow and working with children with disabilities and ugly heat rashes all over their bodies. Honestly though, if you have the heart to help, you can get through anything.

Anyways, I really hope that this organization can find the people that it needs. I would go back in a flash if I weren’t so broke at the moment. If you or know someone who would be interested in this, please get into contact with me and I will get you in touch with the right people.


Monday, September 03, 2007

Hong Kong Once Again: June 22 - July 22

So after backpacking through a huge chunk of Asia, Liz and I had a week in Hong Kong together before she returned to Canada. We shopped, partied and took it easy. The best part was a boat trip with her friends (AIESEC members and interns). About 30 of us rented a boat and set out for a day of sunbathing, swimming, wick boarding and banana boating. It was so much fun and we got some really great pictures out of it.
After Liz left, I helped the MC and interns move to their new flat. It took forever for us to pack things up and only so little time for the movers to empty out the apartment and move everything to the new place. The new place is amazing. It’s actually two apartments that are above one another that are connected by a spiraling staircase. The rooms are bigger than the old place and there are more so there will be double the amount of people living there. Plus, there is so much space to just hang out and of course, have parties. I forgot, half of the roof is theirs too. I’m sooo envious!

Whilst in Hong Kong, I met up with Godwin who was on his way to Adeline, Australian to start his AIESEC internship. We spent a day at Stanley shopping and looking at scenery. And I got to spend time with Liz's friends who took me to shek-o beach, Lamma Islang, the golfing range, 10th anniversary handover fireworks, etc.
Two of my aunts and 3 cousins (from Vietnam and Canada) had arranged to go to Hong Kong too so I decided to extend my Asia stay longer to spend time with them. It was a good decision because we had so much fun together. My uncle Lex’s friend had an empty one-bedroom apartment that he let us use. It was a beautiful place and perfect for a couple to live in. My aunts slept in the bedroom and us cousins slept in the living room. We had just enough space. Let me mention now that we were 6 females but we had no problem sharing the one bathroom. The atmosphere was great and we were always laughing and amusing ourselves. We shopped our hearts out, went to Disneyland Hong Kong, went to Ocean Park, gorged in yummy food and saw what needed to be seen of Hong Kong (The Peak, Lantau Island, Avenue of Stars, etc.). Now we’re plotting to all meet again in Hong Kong in 3 years.


I didn’t know that I had relatives in Hong Kong but it turns out that I do. One of them is my uncle Lex who’s a director and producer of Hong Kong movies. He took us to a karaoke bar one night that turned out to be a night to remember. Two of my cousins left their passports at home and had no other forms of ID on them. It just so happened that the police arrived to check everyone’s IDs…just like in the Hong Kong movies. The lights were turned on, the music turned off and one by one, we handed our IDs over. My cousins got taken back to the police station and I had to go home to retrieve them so that I could get my cousins out. Not to be mean but I thought the whole thing was really, really funny. I mean, they got to ride in a police car and they saw the inside of a holding cell. The cops were doing a shift change and were about to lock my cousins up but Lee Lee challenged them and said that they didn’t commit any crime. They let my cousins back out before they got their pants sued.

Anyways, after the police station, we went back to the bar because my uncle invited his celebrity friend to hang out with us. It was so cool. The whole night I felt like I was in a movie or something. You know, having the police take my cousins away, partying with celebrities. I never thought much of this guy but after meeting him in real life, I realized that he was pretty good looking!


Saturday, August 04, 2007

Thailand, Chiang Mai: June 15-20

To get to Chiang Mai from Bangkok, we took the overnight sleeper train. I found it quite comfortable but the train broke down in the morning and arrived a couple hours late. Also, don’t expect first class bathrooms. Instead, you get to watch the ground go by as you peak into the hole so be careful of dropping something important down there.

Once we arrived, we saw people with a sign for Libra Guesthouse and I remembered someone we met along our trip telling us good things about it. The people offered us a free ride to check out the guesthouse whether we stayed or not so we had nothing to loose. Libra Guesthouse is family owned so the atmosphere is really good. Liz and I got food poisoning at one point and they took care of us. They even postponed a trek that we had signed up for because we and two other people were too sick to go.
There were many things to do in Chiang Mai. We went to watch a Muay Thai Boxing match, which I thought would be more interesting. I thought it’d be more elbows and knees action like the movie Ong Bak, but it was like regular boxing with the gloves. There were musical instruments accompanying the fight though so that was a bit different. Plus some of the sets had 12 year old boys fighting so that was a little bit of turn off. One guy got knocked out but I was in the bathroom. Also, the judges kept talking to Liz and I. One of the judges found it heard to believe that I wasn’t Thai and everyone who walked by him, he would ask what race they thought I was. I guess I stood out in an audience full of foreigners. Most of the other Thai people were in the standing area betting or in the bleachers further away.

Since Thailand was our last stop, we did a lot of shopping. There is a huge night market that I think is open every night and a Sunday market which is of course open on Sunday’s. Just ask your hostel and they’ll direct you to those places. I like shopping in Thailand. The style of clothes is nice and it’s cheap if you know how to bargain. Even if you don’t, it’s still cheaper than home. It’s a good thing I’m too lazy to carry too much stuff home, otherwise I could open a shop back at home!
Liz and I both really wanted to see some Thai dancing so we booked a dinner at the Cultural Centre and we even got a free shuttle there and back from our hostel. The food wasn’t great but the dancing was really good. Liz even volunteered herself to go dance on stage with the dancers. Back to the food, I think this is where we got our food poisoning so be careful if you do decide to go this route.

We had wanted to learn some Thai cooking but with our food poisoning pushing our trek a day back we ran out of time. Instead, we opted for some relaxing Thai massage. I had a massage in Hong Kong and came out in more pain than I did walking in but this one was different. The girl hit all the right pressure points and I came out perfectly relaxed and happy.

Now the adventure begins and it wasn’t a pretty beginning. I still felt a little bit sick and it didn’t help that we rode in the back of a truck through a winding road for 2 or 3 hours. I wasn’t the only one sick too. Another girl just got food poisoning and one girl was sick from her malaria pills. The hike on the first day wasn’t a pretty one. We got to a waterfall for lunch but I couldn’t eat and I’m sure a few other people couldn’t. Then we hiked to the village were we’d be staying but it had started to rain so it felt like, well you know. I felt so relieved when I finally got to lay down in our flimsy hut with chickens and dogs running beneath our floor. Of course, the most annoying thing were the roosters that started crowing early in the morning. I’m thinking like 4am, maybe even earlier and it’s not just a single crow. It’s about 40 roosters crowing for at least half an hour, right beneath us and all around us.
That was crappy day number 1. Day 2 gets better but a few of us are still in pretty bad shape. Remember, I had only managed to stomach about 2 spoonfuls of food for the entire day before. We hiked for 3.5 hours before stopping for lunch. Lunch I was able to manage. Instant noodles! I can’t digest rice when I’m sick I think. Anyways. After lunch was a 2 hour bamboo raft ride down to the next village. For 2 hours, our feet were submerged in the murky river water. Our guide hit a log and I saw a rat jump into that water. And to think I was going to jump in for a swim. We arrived at the next village and after settling in, the villagers had set up a mini market for us to buy souvenirs. Also, after dinner some of the men sat with us and played some card game with us.
The next day was much better. We got a truck ride to a cave, which I didn’t find that interesting. The exciting part of the day was the elephant ride. The one that Liz and I rode on was called Spicy Girl and she was smaller than all the other elephants. Also, our elephant guide kept saying, “Oh my Buddha” and I thought that was funny. These elephants kept picking things up along the way to eat and splashing us with stream water. I didn’t see the elephants being mistreated, which was good because we were worried about them using hooks to scratch the back of the elephants’ ears. The only threatening thing was a thin bamboo rode that our guide usually used to hit a tree branch to make our elephant move on.

And that concludes our trip in Thailand!


Sunday, July 29, 2007

Thailand, Bangkok and Tiger Temple: June 11-14

Bangkok: We found Asha Guesthouse on the internet and it turned out to be a decent place with nice surroundings. The only drawback was that it was in an inconvenient location. Despite that, we still stayed at Asha’s for all three days that we were in Bangkok.

On the day that we arrived, we saw everyone wearing yellow shirts in honour of the king’s 80th birthday so on our way to the Suan Lum Night Bazaar we picked up some for ourselves. Somehow, the moment that we put on the shirts we instantly felt happier. Maybe because our shirts were bright yellow or maybe it was because we fit in so well.

Some of the sightseeing things we did: Grand Palace, Emerald Buddha, Reclining Buddha, Dusit Palace (because we got free tickets from our Grand Palace tickets), Wat Arun Wararam and Chinatown. And of course, people tried to con us. Outside the Grand Palace, someone tried to tell us that it was closed and that he could get a tuk tuk for us to take us to the “Lucky Buddha” which, lucky for us, is open only once a month and that day happened to be that day. We stuck with our plan and then as we were walking into the Grand Palace, we saw a sign that warned us not to listen to strangers who talk about the “Lucky Buddha” and that the Palace was open everyday. Another time, we tried to take a tuk tuk to the train station so that we could buy tickets to Chiang Mai but the driver took us to a travel agent even though we kept arguing that we wanted to go to the train station. We ended up getting off and walking the rest of the way.

A friend told Liz and I about how in the movie theatres in Thailand you have to stand for the king’s anthem. Out of curiosity, we went to watch Shrek 3 and as a treat we got popcorn and some Bacardi Breezers. We wanted to try the first class tickets but opted for the regular priced tickets. Apparently though, you get to go into a VIP room before the movie and you get unlimited popcorn and drinks.


Tiger Temple: One of the things that I really wanted to do during our trip was to visit the tiger temple and pet some tigers. My aunt had a picture with one when she was younger and I always wanted to do the same since I was a kid. Who thought I’d actually get the chance to! We took a bus to Kanchanaburi and then we got on another bus to get closer to the temple. From the main road, it was about a 15 minute walk on a dirt road. Once you get to the place where the tigers are, there are lots of staff that will take your camera and your hand and walk you to each of the tigers so that you can take pictures with them. You can take as many pictures as you want. You can also get a picture with the tiger’s head in your lap but you have to pay a little bit of money and wait until the tiger falls asleep. If you stay till around 4:30pm, you can watch the tiger feeding but we left before that time. I think the tigers are vegetarian too.
Back in Kanchanaburi, we also visited the Bridge over the River Kwai. There’s a whole history behind this bridge and how the Japanese used prisoners of war to build it. Google it for the whole story because I’m not even sure myself.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Vietnam coast: June 4-11

Mekone Delta: We did a day trip to the Mekone Delta hoping to do something active but we were a little bit disappointed. We booked a tour and ended up spending most of the day sitting on a slow moving boat with a really loud motor. We went through the Cai Bai Market, which I thought would be more interesting based on the description given by our tour guide on the bus. It’s a market were you need a boat to go through and you buy item off of boats. The way you can tell what each boat is selling is by what they hang on their bamboo stick lifted into the air. I thought there would be more activity and we would actually get to go shopping but we just drove through it quickly. After that, we went to see how rice paper, coconut candy and popped rice are made and do some taste testing. The tour also included a lunch and a little bit of live Vietnamese music for entertainment. At least this tour was cheap ($7USD including bus to get there and back to Ho Chi Minh)

Nga Trang: After our day trip to the Mekone, we hopped on an overnight but to Nga Trang. Not exactly the most comfortable ride in the world but again it was cheap (a few dollars). We stayed at a place called Truc Linh, which wasn’t too bad but I wished we had picked the room with the balcony instead of the one with a tiny seaview.

There was a lot to do in Nga Trang and my cousin Ly Ly would say that it’s the best place to go for the beach in Vietnam. On our first day we decided to go to the spa to rejuvenate. Hot weather also makes us pretty lethargic. We took a taxi to the Thap Ba Hot Springs and enjoyed a pretty unappealing mud bath, soaking in mineral water, and then swimming in mineral water. Yes, we paid money to sit a tub full of mud, mud that is normally associated with dirtiness and we were neck deep in it. I really hope that our bodies got some benefit from it, otherwise it’s pretty gross.

The next day, we went snorkeling around Mun Island with Vinadive. We had a decent lunch on the boat and we got to go into the water twice. It was my first time snorkeling and it was so much fun. I used a lifejacket because I’m not a very good swimmer and it felt like I was flying above the sea world. By the end though, the current was getting too strong and I almost got seasick. After that, we looked for a place to shower because we hadn’t booked a room for the night. We ended up going to a beauty salon and Liz got a massage while I got my hair washed and the shower came free. Liz’s massage was only $5USD but when it came to tipping, the girls were expecting $5 but we would only give the percentage that we were used to. The service really wasn’t that good, otherwise there’d be no disagreement.

Hoi An: After another overnight bus, we arrived in Hoi An and actually let a guy convince us to stay at the hotel he was trying to market. It turned out to be a great place, called Phuoc An Hotel. There was a swimming pool, free breakfast, free bicycle rentals and the rooms are great. The only downfall is that all the staff are desperate to make commission so they are always trying to get you to go to their sister tailor store or get you to book a tour through them.

Hoi An is known for its tailors who custom make clothes and even shoes. We tried to get some things made but it takes a bit of effort because you have to keep going back so that they can make adjustments. Also, the things we had made weren’t really spectacular. I think next time, we’d have to go prepared with the right pictures and think through what we really want.

Aside from shopping, we also signed up for a cooking class and learned how to make pho, tofu and vegetables and lemon grass chicken. Our food was delicious and it was nice to have someone prepare all the things for us and then clean up after us. I can’t remember what the restaurant was called but the woman was really really nice. We made sure to leave a really good tip. Also, two famous dishes in Hoi An are Cao Lao and White Rose. Make sure to give it a try if you’re in town because I haven’t really seen it around in other places.

We went on a My Son tour of the Chum Ruins one day and it was absolutely baking that day. It was kind of a substitute for missing Ankor Wat this time around. I know it doesn’t compare but it was still pretty neat to see. I think restoration is in place but it’s difficult because the technique for building the structures have been lost. Nothing is used as mortar to hold the pieces together.

It seems like we did a lot in Hoi An but we actually had a lot of free time, mostly to hide from the heat of the day. Liz took mid-afternoon naps and I swam in the pool and actually read a book. It felt like how a relaxing vacation should feel like.

Hanoi: After a painful night bus to get to Hue and then transfer to get to Hanoi, we discovered that our plane ticket out of Vietnam was for June 11 and not June 10 so we had to stay a day in Hanoi. It was just our luck to check into Joy Hotel were our hotel room flooded and we ended up in an argument with the employees. I came down in the morning to let someone know that our room flooded and a guy had the nerve to hand me a mop. Mop or no mop, there was really too much water for me to try to clean up on my own. The guy told me someone would come and after a few hours, no one came and we had to check out to rush to the airport. I left a backpack on the floor so some of my things were wet. I asked to borrow a hairdryer from front desk to blowdry my documents and that was later used against me saying that I used a high power consumption device. I still think the staff was being unfair and irresponsible and it really makes to mad to think about it. So spread the word and warm people about the Joy Hotel in Hanoi in the Old Quarters.

Before our bad luck with the hotel, we visited the Museum of Ethnology. There are sooo many different tribes in Vietnam to read about that eventually my mind glazed over until we got to the part about the stamps being used when things were rationed. I can’t imagine life were consumption was controlled beyond the point were your needs are not met.

More Pictures to Come

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh: May 30 - June 3

I had no idea what to expect when we got to Ho Chi Minh. I tried to call my dad in Singapore to find out if my uncles even knew that Liz and I were coming but the payphone wouldn't connect so we just had to hope for the best.

When we came out of the airport, I had the feeling of being a celebrity because there were so many people sitting and standing and watching us while waiting for the arrivals to come out. Some people even brought their own little stools so it really seemed like they were in an audience and we were on the stage. Anyways, I scanned through the swarm of people not really knowing what to look for since I have never met any of my family members in Vietnam and all of a sudden I saw a sign with my name on it - the only English name in the vicinity. That was very exciting. I pointed to the sign and then at me and that's how I met two of my cousins, Khanh and LeeLee (English name Ruby).

Liz and I met many of my relatives and it took us a long time to remember who was who. It was pretty interesting. My aunt from New York was there and it was so good to see her again. Even though I've never met my other aunts and uncles before, they all treated me like they knew me my whole life. They definitely took good care of Liz and I but it got a little bit confusing when one uncle calls me up to tell me to get ready so that he could take us out and another uncle shows up at our door telling us that he'll take us out. My two aunts and one uncle from Calgary flew in a couple days after us too and it didn't feel like I haven't seen them for months. It was kind of neat. A thing about my family is that not everyone can speak Chinese, especially the wives of my uncles and also their children.

Now the reason why Liz and I were (and a few other relatives) in Ho Chi Minh was because my cousin MiMi was getting married. Only my parents and my grandma were missing. My parents are hard workers and spend money to go anywhere far and my grandma was just there a month before to celebrate her 80th birthday. Anyways, everyone was preparing for the wedding but someone was still always available to babysit Liz and I. My cousin Hoa took us for some sightseeing like the President's House which gave a different perspective on what happened in Vietnam War, which someone told me is called the American war there. One of my uncles took us out to his bar and then a nightclub. I thought that was really funny but it was a fun night because Liz and I got to ride on motobikes in this city that has really crazy traffic. My cousin Khanh took me out to a nightclub one night and I realized how cool it was to have cousins the same age. Ruby would also take us out a lot with her friends. They even took us to the Cu Chi tunnels , which were used during the war to defeat the US. The people lived in these narrow tunnels that had many levels and rooms underground. Unless you were the size of Liz and I, you would not fit through the opening.

Back to the wedding. On the wedding day, everyone was so busy trying to get ready that they all forgot about Liz and I so we had one day of freedom to ourselves...kind of. In the morning, the groom and his party would come to the our house but in order for them to gain access, they had to give a red pocket full of money to the bride's party. There would be some negotiating and teasing but once that is done, everyone goes into the house and the newly weds have to bow to the ancestor table, exchange rings, offer tea to the parents, grandparents and anyone else in the family that has a higher "rank" than the newlyweds. Then the bride leaves to go to the grooms residence to prepare for the banquet at night.

At the banquet, the bride and groom get to pour champagne down a pyramid of glasses, offer wine to the parents, cut the cake and take a lot of pictures with the guests. Also, the bride changes her dress a couple of times during the evening. The people would just show up, eat, sing some karaoke and the evening would be over before 10pm. Liz and I found it weird that the party would end so early but that's just what we are used to I guess.

I really miss my relatives now. I want to know more about them since they know so much about me. I can't wait to go back in August to see them again. Also, they know where all the best food is in Ho Chi Minh!

Wedding Pictures:

Sightseeing Pictures:

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Singapore, May 29

I think we ended up in Singapore because we found an affordable plane ticket back to Vietnam from there but it was worth dropping by to see what it was like. We took a bus from Melaka to get to Singapore and we headed straight to Little India to look for a cheap and clean hostel. We checked into something called Fragrant House or something which had an IKEA feel to it.

To keep ourselves busy, we decided to walk all over town. We did such a good job at killing time that we almost missed the Night Safari. The last train back into the more central area of Singapore ended around 11:30pm. We didn't get to Chinatown to have some hawker food for dinner until 7:30pm and the zoo is kind of near the edge of the city so it took a long time for us to get there afterwards. I think we had less than an hour to whip through the zoo so we hopped on one of those carts that takes you around the zoo with a girl narrating in a voice that seemed like it lacked true expression. We even managed to get some pictures with some animals in the end too. You know, the ones where you get to pet the snake and look like you're pals with a little cub.