Thursday, January 29, 2009

Getting Books to Village Children in Laos

We have discovered that it is even a bigger challenge in Laos than in Vietnam to get books to children in the villages. Not only have many village children not seen a picture book, but there are few in print throughout the country.
An organization called Big Brother Mouse is working towards correcting that situation. This small NGO encourages young adults to write children's stories and also publishes and prints the books. Many of the books include the English translation on the page. The books are introduced to the villages in much the same way as we do with Global Village Foundation in Vietnam.
Happily, JoAn and I found the office of BBM through a booklet called "Stay Another Day" which promotes responsible travel, supporting locally made, fair trade crafts and environmentally friendly tours ( such as the elephant ride we took). BBM makes it very easy for short term visitors such as ourselves to be involved. In the office there are bundles of books, which one can buy on the spot and put in the box. As soon as the box is full it is delivered to a village. How easy and thanks to our friends on Salt Spring, we were able to contribute a very big bundle to the box!!! Posted by Picasa Thank you from the kids of Laos.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Messengers to the Ancestors' Spirits

I'm not sure that I have the legend straight, but when I saw these little birds in cages at the stupa on top of the hill which dominates this small city, I knew that the practise was to buy them and release them. This could be for luck or as I chose to think, to carry messages to the spirit world. As they went fluttering away, I knew that they would indeed tell Mom and Dad, that their middle daughter is well and happy in Luang Prabang.

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May all Beings Be Peaceful

How could one not be at peace in a city where monks wander the streets in their robes, reminding us of the contemplative life. They move with such grace, their shoulder bags perched carefully on one shoulder or in the heat of the day, shaded by black umbrellas. There is a wat or temple almost every block and the monks like most citizens, garden on whatever patch is available to grow basic vegetables and greens. The river banks are skillfully cultivated in steep rows. We have determined that it takes about three days for lettuce to ripen!!

We have visited many wats and offered flowers and incense. JoAn and I have joined the monks in the wat across the road from our guest house to meditate while they chant.

It is so lovely, to sit on our tiny porch at our guest house and be able to gaze on the huge lotus flowers flanking the stupa.

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Sabaidee means "hello", "goodbye","be happy", "blessings" in the Lao language.

Luang Prabang is a one hour flight and a world apart from frenetic Hanoi. We were immediately struck by the absence of motorbike horns...they are here...but the volume is considerably less. The pace is slow and no one seems to be too intent on working. Today, I spied some very beautiful cards made of hand made paper, with images of elephants, but as it was shortly after noon, siesta time, there was not a soul to be seen in the wide open shop. Sometimes the proprietor will be snoozing on a cot in the back of the shop...but not this one!

Luang Prabang is at the confluence of two rivers, so it is easy to find a shady spot to sit and watch the river flow slowly by and sip a cup of really bad coffee or a really good bottle of beer.

The taxis or tuk tuks are three wheeled vehicles, with rows of seats in the open bed. We piled into one of these at the airport and were transported to the centre of town and had a real tour. Our driver, so willing to please, as are all Laoations that he just kept saying "yes,yes" "OK OK" as we cruised to several guest houses, which were not our destination. After many false stops, he finally succumbed and phoned the hotel from his cell phone to get us to the right place. A marvelous introduction to the city of 26,000 people, 178 hotels and about 400 monks.

This World Heritage site is a treasure, but will we fear ,too easily slip into a tourist Mecca, where traditional culture pales. Meanwhile we are lucky to be here at a time when by walking over a rickety bamboo bridge or putt putt across in a slow boat we can see village life where the only evidence of the modern world is unfortunately the plastic bag. They are everywhere, on river banks, in ditches and low hedges. The streets of Luang Prabang are quite clean, but this clean up is a facade, one only has to walk along the river and peer over the embankment to see the detritis.

Such a contrast to the beauty of the woven fabric, it's precision and glorious color speak of a pride of place and culture; silk, cotton, and hemp all with exquisite Hmong embroidery.

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Ba Be National Park...a trip back through time

The pictures of our trip to this remote, wild and primitive place, (which can be viewed on our web clicking on the slide show to the right), do not do justice to the experience. The van ride was billed as 5 hours, our friends told us maybe 6-7 and in reality it was 8 gruelling hours north of Hanoi...over rough roads and a mountain pass with dangerous "S" curves and steep prespices down unguarded gulches.

Posted by PicasaWe were so glad to arrive safely, that we accepted without question that we would bed down in the crumbling and decaying park lodge, which may have at some time been a fairly posh retreat for the French, during their occupation of this tiny country.
Our river trip the next day took us to remote villages , where we saw people living as they have for thousands of years, no mechanization, tilling, spinning, weaving all by hand. The best part was being invited into a village house, where Mama was making the rice wine for Tet, and although it was only 10 am , protocol dictated that we sample.
At our home stay that night, our meal was cooked on an open fire which the cat seemed to love, but his proximity to the same flame which cooked a duck...did not singe his fur.

Hectic Hanoi

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Hectic Hanoi

Hanoi was a rapid immersion in South East Asian culture for all four of us.....even though our travelling companions JoAn and Michel Maurer had visited ten years ago and Bruce and I thought that we had become acclimatized through previous visits, we were all breathless within the first day!!! The sea of humanity, millions all living, working, eating and careening around the dusty streets on motor bikes, was an assault on our senses.

Thank goodness we were immediately diverted by our excursions with Quyen ( the retail Manager of Reaching Out in Hoi An) and her Hanoi representative Yen. With them we visited two sites in Hanoi where goods for RO are made by disabled persons. Quyen was delivering Tet( Lunar New Year) bonuses, so everyone was glad to see her, and of course they remembered Bruce from his visit to their shop last year with Binh. The seamstresses were busy with the cotton carry bags which have been such a good seller. At the second facility, the workers were also blessed with a plot of land, where they were able to grow vegetables. They were happy to share the bounty with Quyen, who somehow was going to manage to get them home on the airplane to Hoi An!!!

Dinner was at the home of Tue and Yen ( another one) whose gracious hospitality and sumptuous meal typified the warmth of a Vietnamese welcome. Tue and Yen both speak excellent English and were very open and candid about their life as professional, European educated Catholics. They characterize so many of the contrasts and contradictions in this society.

Tue and Yen's second son is Autistic. Their love for him is tender and because there is little understanding of autism and absolutely no resources in Vietnam, they have educated themselves and developed and funded a school. Eight Autistic children have prospered under the guidance of their seven teachers.

Another dinner which we will remember always is that which we shared with the other Yen at the home which she shares with her mother Phuong, a married sister, husband and two very charming daughters. The special Tet food was lovingly prepared and delicately presented. Phoung, who is our age, had been a young mother during the war and shared openly the hardships and terror during bombing. On learning that Bruce had served near Cu Chi and Na Trang she said" I am so happy that you were not killed". Bruce, with tears in his eyes said the same to her.

Our next day was spent travelling with Quyen and Yen again, this time to a village which specialized in the art of pottery and ceramics. We visited a "factory" where disabled people create goods for RO. This entire village is devoted to the productions, sale and distribution of the most amazing ceramics. The village itself, a labyrinth of lanes through ancient neighborhoods, was fascinating.

After a great lunch at a Vietnamese version of a food courst....fabulous open air place, with specialties all around the perimeter being cooked before our eyes....we did a little "market research" at fair trade shops aand a bakery/restaurant where street kids learn food service...what a nice vibe in the place.

we are again in love with these dear people.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

We are Off!

With the winter snows, which have had us confined to quarters for almost three weeks, slowly receding, our attention is diverted from shoveling, to our Journey of the Heart.

We depart from Vancouver very early in the morning on January 15th. The long flight, through Taipei and on to Hanoi, will be one of contemplation and anticipation. After a week of travel in northern Vietnam and Laos, with our dear pals JoAn and Michel Maurer, we will arrive in Hoi An on Febraury 1st. Our work at Reaching Out and with Global Village Foundation will begin almost immediately.

Thank you to our "home team", whose generosity has already made possible four, yes four!! portable libraries for the GVF's project. Although we do not go to the village schools until the week of February 15, the funds have assured that the boxes for the books are now being built. Four boxes will provide 1000 books for these villages. Our friends and family have also contributed enough so that we have sent Le Ly Hayslip of GFV, $2500 to buy much needed equipment for a hospital in Que Son. We hope that we, along with a delegation of Japanese, will have the opportunity to visit the hospital and see your dollars and theirs at work.

Weaving looms have been ordered for the workers at Reaching Out and we will also be sponsoring at least two disabled persons to pursue training. While in Hanoi we hope to visit a new producer for the shop, located about 60km from Hanoi.

All this and we haven't landed yet!!!

Our next blog entry will probably not be until we are settled in Hoi An, with the family at Vuon Trau. Several of the Canadian contingent will stay at Vuon Trau as well, JoAn and Michel and Stan and Marie Teitge. Brenda Smith from Sussex will hang her hat with us at this family homestay. Sharon Brewer will be at the Ha An Hotel. We look forward to their participation in our projects and of course sharing wonderful meals and adventures.

Your messages from home are so important to us, while we are in Vietnam.....they keep us grounded and motivated, so please send us an e-mail or add a comment to this blog by linking on the "Comment" icon after each entry.
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