Monday, August 2, 2010

Fun Run and A Day Trip in Ben Tre

This weekend was quite a busy one:

On Saturday, we had a Fun Run - a 3k race where the benefits went to scholarships for poor children in the area. We were in charge of organizing the event. We got t-shirts and invited people from Saigon to participate and donate. Teachers and students from VLS (where we learned Vietnamese at the beginning of the program) and the US Consulate were in attendance including Angela Dickey, second-in-command at the consulate. Five from our program actually ran in the race (as well as countless locals and the visitors from Saigon) and four of us placed in the top 10! Yours truly was number seven and the first lady to finish, but the true star was my morning running partner Jing was finished in first place 12 seconds before the next runner (who happened to be Kevin). After the race, we awarded the scholarships to the present students and then brought the Saigon visitors to our work-sites via bike. They were quite eager to hear all about our efforts here and were super impressed with the positive impact this project has. Although I have expressed cynicism regarding this topic, it was rewarding to hear only positive comments. One idea that, although I suppose I knew in the back of my head, had never been put into words by anyone on the trip was the idea that this program pumps money into the local economy and brings recognition to the area. Arriving at my work site to 6 kids jumping me with hugs also contributed to my positive feelings from the day.

On Sunday, we took a bus ride into "downtown" Ben Tre and went on a tour that, for lack of better description, can simply be put into the old people friendly column. We paid 50,000 dong for a tour that brought us by boat to an area where there were free samples and stuff to buy. We walked a super short distance to more stuff to buy and then another short distance to an awaiting horse ride. We got off the horse ride at an area where there was complimentary fruit and tea with honey and oranges (possibly the best tea I've had) and Vietnamese singing (as well as more stuff to buy). There were ample picture opportunities here including with quite a sizable snake and then we took a small boat back to the large boat back to the start where we got back on the bus and returned home. Although slightly contrived, I had a lot of fun and purchases some cool coconuts carved into monkeys (truly'll have to see them). I also left with an awesome picture of my with a snake around my neck and several delicious samples in my tummy. All in all, it was nice to have something to do on a Sunday.

Ben Tre Cultural Exchange

After many failed attempts to put the videos directly on the blog, I bring you links to videos from our Ben Tre cultural exchange.

To begin, one of the roommates Huy (also my partner in crime in the dance classroom) choreographed a traditional Vietnamese dance that the roommates sang to. The song is supposedly about a spider and is quite pleasant and catchy.

Next up, we have all 20 of us singing "I Want it That Way." Let's just say that the amount of times I had to hear this song was enough for a life time. Mark's dance moves make this video memorable though...

Six of us had a ton of fun learning a hip-hop dance. The two main sections were choreographed by myself and Huy and the intro was inspired by Margaux and Jing. Inspired by Step-Up 3, we decided to make an "intro" music video with "bios" and aliases for each of us. Unfortunately, the final version with typos fixed and English narration did not make it into the video on youtube so unless you speak Vietnamese, you will have to use your animation. It is quite epic though... (if I can find the complete version, I will put that link up instead)
And for the actual dance

Finally we taught the Vietnamese roommates a "country" classic - The Cotton Eyed Joe. This is the video from Quang Tri (sans roommates) because the more recent version appears to be missing, but the two were quite similar. Enjoy the awesome duet at the end!

Feel free to look through the other youtube videos which include some clips from practices, soccer games, and more!

The cultural exchange, though it started over an hour late due to Vietnamese "elastic time," was a huge hit with the audience. They loved our dances (especially the flip in Cotton-Eyed Joe) and it was a lot of fun preparing for it. I think it brought the Vietnamese and Americans a bit closer together.

Signing off,

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Post Related to Food

So I realized that I haven't dedicated much time to talking about food lately, and seeing as how food is of the upmost importance to me, I felt it necessary to dedicate today's post to the appetizing subject.

On Monday, our work sites were quite quiet and in fact, we only had an hour at work and then had a nice long break. Because of this, the ladies (and yes it was just the ladies) were invited to go behind-the-scenes at our lunch venue. Lunch here is no one's favorite is much more repetitive than dinner, but I was excited by the prospect of helping to cook because it has been far too long since I have gotten to heat up a kitchen (minus guacamole day of course). The hour spent was definitely cooking light: I chopped up some vegetables, cracked and whisked an egg, and skimmed the fat off the soup into which I added the chopped veggies. Nevertheless, it made me desperate to cook again, and I have visions for when I get home.

In the mean time, we have been enjoying an over-abundance of fried foods the past week. Fried mushrooms, fried chicken wings, fried rice, etc...after yesterday's fried rice, I finally went to Hahn (who is in charge of the meals) and asked her to please limit the fried food! Maybe once a week! I was amused by her response "oh i was told that americans love fried food." oy. Nice stereotyping there. Don't get me wrong - fried food can be delicious. It's the stomach hurting, guilty thing I don't enjoy. So chicken curry tonight and I'm ever so excited!

We also returned to the coconut factory this weekend, where I bought the best peanut brittle I have ever tasted. I also got a spring roll at the market which was one of the best I've had (though I realized half way through I probably shouldn't be eating raw food from the street), and we've tried several varieties of chips including "new york steak," "alaskan crab curry" (which I have yet to personally try but I've been assured tastes distinctly of crab), shrimp, and even this weird green coconut flavored puff chip. Of course, avocado smoothies are always a welcome accompaniment to dinner, and as I mentioned, I am reallllly yearning for some ice cream (though don't get me started on things I absolutely can't get here like mexican food and whole wheat bread with turkey and cheese....). This weekend we are trying to get together the ingredients to make cookie dough. Though we have no oven, raw cookie dough is definitely as good as it gets.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Veterans and a Drunk Man

On Sunday, we were required by the government of Ben Tre to be listen to a speech given by a Vietnamese veteran of "the American War." It was a slightly uncomfortable experience. He told us how many Americans he killed and how great his squadron was, and we asked questions about how he viewed Americans now and whether he was proud of the people he killed. Even though this easily could've have come across as propaganda, it was actually a fairly interesting talk. The man was very nationalistic. He fought for his country and thus was proud of how he protected it. He believes what it past is past and does not begrudge Americans as all. Most of all, he emphasized the Vietnamese people's love of peace. Especially interesting was his - rather standard- view of Americans not valuing peace...or at least of sticking their noses in other country's businesses. He said it without maliciousness and he spoke from the heart, but the message was clear. Americans don't seem to value peace as much as other countries do. Perhaps this is because we don't have to fight so hard to achieve it on our own soil. I felt like he was generalizing a bit - grouping all Americans into this "police" role, but it's not completely out of the question to see where he was coming from. Regardless, the best comment of the day was when he said he put on bug spray before swimming across the river. This was to keep away the sharks.

In other news, today's dance class (already strained because of a power outage that left us struggling to teach the kids "step" which turned out to be far too rhythmically challenging) was interrupted by a drunk Vietnamese man. Smelling strongly of alcohol, he continually spoke in slurred Vietnamese that I of course did not understand. Being the only white person in the room, he sought to shake my hands, which was rather less than appealing. Nevertheless, he caused no harm and was soon escorted from the premises. Strangely enough, the kids seemed undaunted by his presence, merely giggling at some of the words he was spewing. Perhaps the drunk man is a normal visitor...

The Best Part of Work in Ben Tre

The best part of work in Ben Tre is interacting with the kids. Quite simply, they are adorable. At our work site, one of our big jobs is transporting the materials from the drop off site down a small road to the house. We have developed a relatively efficient manner of transporting the materials using our bikes to speed up the process and increase the amount of weight we can easily carry. Whenever we begin this conveyor belt of material delivery, the granddaughter of the owner of our house as well as many of her cousins and friends run to help us. They hand us bricks, they hold the bags of sand on the back of our bikes, they hold the bags while we fill them with rocks, and they give us candy or coconut juice or fruit. They invite us to their special place by the river or to play cards. They delight in being the subject of pictures and they are eager to take pictures of us. They poke and tease and jabber away at us in Vietnamese that we clearly don't understand.

The children we teach are also quite excited for us to be there. They decorate our hair with flowers. The little girls especially are enamored with the boys and are always hoping for a piggy back ride or a high five or really any attention of any sort. They seem eager to learn, saying hello and goodbye to us. They even know all our names (even though I don't think I know any of theirs). As hard as teaching can be, when I hear that they liked or lesson or request to practice the dance from last week, it feels a bit more worthwhile.

Pictures of the finished fence in Quang Tri

Courtesy of Margaux's roommate are the pictures of the finished fence in Quang Tri. I know that some on the program felt that the work we did in Quang Tri was not that beneficial, and I know I have certainly painted a somewhat pessimistic view of our work there. However, I truthfully believe that the fence we built is quite important as is the paint job that the painters completed. The aesthetic integrity of a landscape or a building is quite important for those that work and play in the space. It improves standard of living and people's moods. The fence turned out quite beautifully, and I'm really glad I can say I helped to construct it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Guacamole in Ben Tre!

Today's mission: Make Guacamole.

We set out with a list of ingredients and there Vietnamese translations.
Mangoes (for some added fun)
Chips of some sort

Through the market we meandered. We stopped for some 2 dollar adidas knock-off long pants, some bar soap, and a lufa. The daily rain shower threatened to soak us, but in the end we recovered it all. How is it that all of these ingredients exist so easily and yet guacamole has no tradition here?

All in all for 3 avocados, 3 limes, 2 tomatoes, a bushel of cilantro, one onion, one jalapeno, one mango, and 3 bags of chips, we paid only around 3 dollars. Wow. We borrowed some bowls and spoons and a knife from the guest house as well as the salt/pepper mixture and got to work. The guest house staff assumed we were making "salad" and brought us mayonnaise (which apparently is what every good American salad uses). They also helped us to cut the mango (a fruit I previously did not enjoy and thus had never diced before). Before we knew it, we had a little taste of home in Vietnam. The chips left something to be desired but the intention was golden. Oh happy day.