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 meal...it 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 Thao....here 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.

5:45am Runs

When staying up til 1am at Duke University, it's hard to imagine how our parents arise sometimes before the sun has even risen. Yet here in Ben Tre, life is different. This past week, I added 5:45am runs to my schedule. Bedtime is usually before 10pm and there's a certain repetitiveness in day to day activity that college life seems to avoid. Is this real life then?

Not quite.

This past week we have seen progress at both house sites and in our teaching abilities. The house that I am working at - the one owned by the blind lady and also inhabited by her blind son, his wife, and his daughter - is almost done with the process of laying bricks. This process requires patience and is both harder and easier than you'd imagine (I'm not sure how to explain this...just try it sometime). The language barrier of course makes it harder: the contractors insist to our Vietnamese roommates that we should be standing on the other side of the wall even though we've been doing it the same way since day one and our line of bricks in the straightest somehow resulting in our bricks being deemed the least straight and professional looking. Frustration ensues. The other house is not quite as far along - the foundation is coming along nicely though no bricks have been laid and a small money issue seems to have popped up that threatens the size of the house. Yet the atmosphere at the worksites is upbeat and friendly. The owners of the houses serve us jackfruit or coconut juice or tea or durian flavored crackers, and the children love to help us by loading our bikes with bricks or holding the bag for us while we shovel sand into it.

In the classroom, we are beginning to find a steady stride to our teaching. In dance, we have shown the kids salsa, hip hop, jazz, israeli dance (turkish kiss!), and kbop (a popular korean style of dancing). Some classes work well and other seem slightly over the kids heads, but every day we have had lots of kids seemingly eager to learn. The art class has made masks and oragami and amazing pictures of their houses that have 3D elements I never could have mastered in elementary school. PE is completing their soccer unit and finding that the girls here are more than willing to play despite some misgivings on the part of our roommates. English had a review day on Friday that went quite well - the high schoolers have even been taught "what's up," "yo," and a few well chosen pick-up lines. In science class, animals were the focus on Friday, which is quite a cool topic considering I know almost no animal names in the foreign languages I took.

Yet it might be the 5:45am runs I enjoy the most. When I start, there's a mist all over that is the promise of the day's humidity, and the small dirt road I run on still has puddles from the daily thunderstorm of the night prior. The people watch me, a white girl in running clothes, and laugh and sometimes yell hello (which I must admit still irritates me). Sometimes dogs threaten to jump up and bite me but they always seem to lose interest at the last moment. Half an hour later, I return to the guest house sweaty but satisfied and ready to face the day.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Ben Tre Beginnings

We have now been in Ben Tre for four days, and I'd say we are mostly settled in. To begin this post, I must say a huge HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Kristi, who turns 20 today :-) The problem of how to make a cake in the middle of Vietnam has been on the back of my mind since I found out we had a birthday to celebrate this summer. We ended up buying some angel food like circular cakes and layering them with strawberry jam, ice cream, and bananas. Though perhaps not quite up to par with the cakes I make back at school, I think we did pretty well sans oven and we will celebrate in the Karaoke room tonight (ssssh Kristi doesn't know!)

Our first two days of work showed us Americans how in shape we've gotten...or at least how much easier it is to engage in manual labor in a shaded area for only half the day. We've been divided into two groups with each group in charge of building a house. Before getting here, countless interviews were done with prospective families. The house that I am working on has a tragic story: the woman who owns the house is blind. When her son was born, he had normal sight but at age 8, his sight began to worsen. She used up all her money on what she thought was an operation that would save his eyes. The operation did not work. Now the son has a (super cute) daughter of his own who currently appears to have normal eye sight. Time will tell.

Day 1 we took down the old "house" which was basically wooden and aluminum planks tied together with metal wires. On day two, we began to make the trenches for the foundation and move the materials to the work site. It became immediately apparent how much easier the conditions are heard compared to Quang Tri - the ditches we dug in under an hour in Ben Tre would've taken an entire day of work in Quang Tri. Transporting the materials was repetitive but straight forward enough - more 50kilo bags of cement to use. Come Monday, we will begin making cement...our favorite.

In the afternoons, we have begun teaching. Our dance class was a pretty big hit on day one, and we have planned a "kbop" (Korean pop music) dance that is easy but super fun. On Friday, dance had its day off, so I got the chance to see how English, Science, Gym, and Art were doing. In art class, the kids LOVED the origami lesson. In gym, football (soccer) drills and scrimmages let the kids release some energy. The English class was surprisingly easy for the kids - they already know many basic words and phrases as well as the numbers and letters. Science is planning some cool experiments for this week including a volcano (baking soda and vinegar of course).

This weekend, we went to a coconut candy "factory" which is really a big house with lots of kids and adults wrapping and molding these caramel/fudge/taffy like concoctions that I am absolutely addicted to. In the afternoon, we played football (soccer) against some of the locals, and for the first time in DukeEngage history, we won!! And let me say that after watching first the USA and then Germany lose in the World Cup, this win was much appreciated.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Planning for Ben Tre

We leave for Ben Tre on Wednesday and we've begun preparing for the teaching that will occur there.

We will be teaching: English, PE/Health, Science, Arts/Crafts, and Dance/Music. We will also be building two houses for two very poor families, one of which has both a blind mother and a blind son. Our daily schedule will look like this:
6:00am breakfast
6:30am bike to work site (5km)
7:00am begin work
11:30am lunch break
2:00pm first period of teaching
3:00pm second period of teaching
4:00pm bike back to guest house (5km)
6:00pm dinner

Feelings about the project in Quang Tri suggest that many participants felt the project to be less than beneficial for the inhabitants. The projects were very aesthetic and without the teaching component, we did not feel as though we really interacted with the people. Hopefully people will feel more fulfilled from this project. The question remains though...is the purpose of this program (and really any Duke Engage) to help others? Or is it really more to give us fortunate kids from the states an "experience"?

Two Firsts

So here's a quick overview of some firsts:

In the world of culinary delights, I've tried weasel, wild boar, deer meat, intestines, pigs ear, and now duck embryo! This concoction tastes a lot like eating an egg halfway between soft-boiled and hard-boiled...but there's definitely something else present. I think the best way to eat it would be...at night. when you can't see what you are eating. Connie tried it the night before me and she quite enjoyed it, thus encouraging me to take the leap. We both got some the next day, and she admitted that it was better when she couldn't see it...couldn't see the black blob that definitely isn't in your typical egg...the black blob that. has. feathers. which I ate. oy. Nevertheless it was a good experience

Back in Saigon, I finally got the chance to ride on a motor bike! My new roommate took me to the market today. How was the experience? Well I know for sure I would never want to drive one myself....especially in Saigon where the traffic is out of control. That said, it was awesome. I wore a dashing yellow helmet and away we went. It's crazy how there is nothing keeping you down except gravity and I must admit I was gripping the hand hold located behind my butt rather tightly, but I definitely wasn't ready for my ride to end!

Today we also went shopping and I bought a Germany Jersey...gearing up for the Germany-Spain match! Go Deutschland! (yes we are avidly following the world cup even here...we stayed up til 1:30am to watch the USA game and even though we lost, we're still following the excitement). Kevin bought a Spain jersey to rival mine and Garrett decided to buy local and purchased a very awesome looking Vietnamese jersey. Obviously we will be wearing these jerseys when we play soccer against the locals in Ben Tre next weekend

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Quang Tri in Pictures

The completed small road

The completed fence
Students in their classrooms
During the closing ceremony - cotton eyed joe
Our roommates with their certificates
A typical classroom
Hot Pot!
In front of the pagoda in Hue
The forbidden palace in Hue
The caves!
Boat ride to the caves
Opening ceremony - The Americans!
Vietnamese sunset
Seafood meal!
The Beach near Quang Tri where we went during the first week

Cultural Exchange

The final day in Quang Tri also featured a cultural exchange with the students of Quang Tri. This exchange had a showcase of American and Vietnamese performances. The students of Quang Tri performed two traditional dances, a song, and an awesome boy band like rendition of a popular Vietnamese song and dance. Our roommates prepared an American Idol/America's Got Talent skit featuring Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, and Batman. We performed two songs - Hakuna Matata and I Want it That Way - accompanied by Jing on the guitar and Eric on the harmonica and two dances - Billie Jean and Cotton Eyed Joe. After the performance, we split into teams and got to interact with six different classes. Various activities included teaching Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, Simon Says, and Rock, Paper, Scissors.

The dance portion was especially fun. For Billie Jean, we used the electric slide as a basic movement and then finished with a soul train. Highlights from the soul train included human bowling ball and pins and Tony putting his shirt over his head for no apparent reason. Cotton Eyed Joe featured the traditional line dance as well as some Texas hoe-down and culminated in Mark and I sharing in a little duet. Do-si-do and spins ended with Mark literally flipping me. Let's just say, we kicked it.

Goodbye Quang Tri

On Friday, we had our closing ceremony in Quang Tri. I was selected to read a speech on behalf of the American students and one of the Vietnamese roommates named Tao translated for the Vietnamese public. The following includes excerpts from that speech

It's strange to sit and reflect back three weeks to our first few days in Quang Tri. We were so unfamiliar with each other, with this town, and with the task at hand.

The night before biking to the elementary school for the first time, we divided into two groups: the painters and the fishpond fence slash small road builders that I have discussed in previous posts. Our choice to be in our respective groups was largely arbitrary and unknowing of what exactly of what our jobs would entail.

Before we knew it, the school was surrounded by a freshly painted sunny yellow fence. At the same time, the builders had become concrete making pros completing the small road, the bike station, and the fish pond fence which is now eagerly awaiting paint in order to match the bridge that is now a whimsical blue and yellow.

We've learned a lot from these three weeks together. We've dealt with language barriers and stomach flues and tonsilitis. We've had to redo work we've already completed and add unplanned projects to our task list. We've learned who among us are good leaders, who to go to when the work is tough and we need someone to make us smile, who can carry a 50 kilogram bag of cement, who is the best at painting circles, who will always be first to work (and who will always be last).

Before I got here, I received a letter from my roommate in which she addressed me as "friend." "It may seem strange" she wrote "that I am calling you friend before we have even met, but I'm confident that is what we will become." Her words couldn't have been more accurate. We are now accomplished builders and painters. But more importantly, we are friends - friends of Quang Tri and friends of each other.