Thursday, January 20, 2011

Award Winning Story

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Happy Birthday

We arrived safely in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam around 11:30 PM on Thursday, December 16th. I turned 55 (Philadelphia time) in the air above the Alaskan tundra on a flight from Chicago to Tokyo. I just finished watching a wonderful movie called 'I Am Sam.' You have to see this for the great writing, and Sean Penn's stellar performance. I was deeply moved and soaking in tears when all of a sudden the flight attendants surrounded me with Japanese accented birthday wishes and three big bowls of some kind of choppy, pale, water ice. It was citrusy sweet, refreshing and definitely good enough to eat! Too bad Amity was totally dead to the world at this point. So Tony had two bowls of the sugary stuff. (??!!) The flight attendants presented gifts of candy, playing cards and an inflatable airplane. It was all so unexpected. They made me feel great. I was high all the way to Saigon. By the time we landed, my birthday was just about over, (Saigon time.) I lost 12 hours of the day, but a fragrant bouquet of flowers waited for me at our hotel room. It was the shortest, sweetest birthday I've ever had. I think, flying through the sky, watching movies high above the heaviness of the world, is the best way to celebrate life.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

We slept late on the 17th and eventually ventured out on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. We stayed right in the heart of things. Street life starts very early here and sleeps very little. Night and day our greatest challenge was racing from one curb to the next. Amity was cowering, crossing the street in a slouch with her hands over her ears until she discovered that the best way to manage this was to get right out there with your hand in the air and stop traffic. It works well. You become the rock around which the river of motorcycles flow. The motorbikes are everywhere, brazen and unafraid, but rarely is there an accident. You try to remember this as you dodge for your life. Ben Than Market is a trip. Stall after stall, row after narrow row of souvenir chachkes with the most persistent sales people in the world stepping on your toes to wrap you in their wares. Right now it's about 20,000 dong to the dollar. Try to calculate that conversion within the chaos of this airless, stinking, claustrophobic, makeshift, seething, heavy-breathing, self-contained city. One visit is enough but somehow you can't stay away from the market. There definitely are bargains here.

Chi Chu Tunnels

On the 18th we went to the Chi Chu Tunnels but not before stopping for a bowl of Pho first thing in the morning. Pho is a bubbling broth into which tons of exotic and undeterminable vegetables and meat has been tossed. It really is a great way to start the day. There's no mid-morning lag after this. Especially if you chase it down with thick, strong Vietnamese coffee. The sweetened condensed milk turns it into almost a coffee pudding. I like mine over ice. The Chi Chu tunnels were where some people lived and found safety during the Vietnam War. They are narrow, dark, airless places where 200 babies where born and grew up. This includes the famous 'napalm girl' who now is living in comfort and fame in Canada. God bless her! The tunnels have been widened for the tourists who tromp through them day after day but I came up short of breath, feeling blanketed top to bottom and grateful to be able to emerge from the darkness. Imagine only knowing this as life. By the way, the tour guide on this trip told us that there are 9 million people in Ho Chi Minh City and 7 million motorbikes. In the afternoon, we met with Mr. Thanh (Amity's middle name but no relation that we know of. In fact it is a very common name. )Mr. Thanh accompanied us to the school and orphanages. (More on that later.) He speaks English, arranged our hotel reservations and permission to photograph at the school and orphanages. He's an affable, good-looking man of 35 who works with Paul's Kids-the foundation formed to help Vietnamese children. Mr Thanh has a wife and two sons. He lives in a modest, one-floor, three room house next door to his parents', where he grew up in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon.

Mekong Delta

On Sunday and Monday the 19th and 20th, we went on a two day tour of the Mekong Delta. The best part of these tours are the people you meet on the bus. There's a lot of down time to gab and share war stories of being spoiled, American 'Ex-Pats' in this strange/familiar, rapidly developing, third world country. We toured a coconut candy "factory" along the river, really just some big bowls of bubbling sugar stirred by men with oars over open fires and a line of women cutting and wrapping the taffy by hand. We got to try everything and spent the rest of the day picking it out of our teeth. We also saw rice noodles and rice paper being made-everything labor intensive and definitely not automated. We learned that most people live on boats where they fish for a living or farm and bring their wares to the floating market early in the morning. Actually, the reason they bring them to the floating market is to sell to the tourists! That's the industry which sustains. The tourists are urged to come and see the floating market. People from all over the world float by on rickety old boats everyday to buy pineapples and a cup of coffee from the people of the Mekong. Otherwise they just get by farming or fishing to keep their lives afloat. No money, no technology, just the sunshine, the wind in your sails and your family surrounding you. Perhaps they've got the right idea. Perhaps they are less stressed out. Life is certainly simpler but most would choose to have more. And many do leave(or some of their many children do)for more education or to find opportunity on the crowded streets of Ho Chi MInh City.

Kien Phouc School

Tuesday was the big day when we visited Kien Phouc School in Tien Giang Province. Public school costs money here and 15% of the children do not attend for lack of funds. It costs $50 per year, per child. This is the school that Paul's Kids supports. Amity raised money (with help from many of you) to send 8 children to school this year. We met the children, photographed them with their friends at school, went home with them to meet their parents and view their communities. What a wonderful day! We spent the morning with the children at school. Photographically speaking, the light was right, the background was great, the children were natural (no one said "cheese" like American children are constantly being urged to do), and we were actually given some time to take pictures. The kids adored Amity and circled her. She was the local celebrity and we were the paparazzi. Going home with the children, hiking through the rising dust of their rural communities, made us feel like we were National Geographic photographers and truly gave us a sense of how little people around the world exist on and how much we think we "need." These are great kids - smart, sensitive, wiser than their years and thrilled for the opportunity to relinquish the daily work of home life, carefully dress in their freshly washed and unwrinkled school uniforms and march off to school in the morning. We intend to make sure they're back in school next year! The head teacher treated us and the children to a sumptuous lunch at a roadside makeshift cafe in the province. Apparently, all localities have their own unique style of Vietnamese cuisine. One of this area's specialties is hard boiled eggs with an actual hard boiled chick inside. To be polite, I turned off my mind and ate one. It tasted like chopped liver! Our hosts were so happy to see me enjoying the local favorites that they kept feeding me more, which I of course ate. There was pho, shrimp and stir-fried beef. Always there were noodles and steamed white rice, which Amity lived on. She never complained about all the rounds of Pepsi forced upon us. We all know how Americans love their Pepsi. Even we, the no sugar/no junk food family, did our part to keep that image alive.

Go Vap and Tam Binh Orphanages

I had high hopes for Wednesday and I was not disappointed. We visited two orphanages with Mr. Thanh. The first one, Go Vap is where Paul's Kids has donated a physical therapy room. We were allowed to photograph children receiving therapy for various challenges. I was impressed with the love and commitment - the relationship that the therapists have established with the children living there. Ultimate trust and joy resides in this clean and happy place providing these most unfortunate children with a home and a hopeful future. After lunch, (more pho, sweet coffee and actual french fries for Amity), we arrived at Tam Binh Orphanage. This is the place that you may have seen in our original "Vietnam Video" where Amity spent the first year of her life. We retraced our original steps and had fun quoting ourselves from the narrative, "Finally...Tam Binh Orphanage, once a name on paper..." We were greeted by the director who had been on staff 13 years ago when Amity lived there. I brought out our pictures of Amity from that time and she remembered her. She was thrilled to see this beautiful American girl, grown so confident and strong. I could taste her pride and my own. She accompanied us upstairs to where the babies hang out with their caregivers. We held and hugged lots of gorgeous little boys and girls starting their lives in this loving environment, waiting to become citizens of the world. In fact, there were three boys about to leave to be adopted by French families. "This guy may grow up to be a famous French chef," I said to Amity. "This one a doctor, and this kid who knows?" Amity said, "I love France!" as we fantasized about what was ahead for them. Then Amity's primary caregiver walked in. She remembered Amity well. When I saw the light of recognition in her eyes, I knew I was standing in a moment I would never forget. We hugged and held on to each other long and hard. She spent time just looking at Amity, beaming with pride like a grandmother at her grandchild's coming of age. We asked questions about what Amity ate, her health and how she was cared for. "Just like this," she said with a wave of her hand. We sat in the dappled light on that terrace surrounded by loving caregivers and their bouncing charges, laughing, 'kibitzing,' listening and understanding the universal language of women 'kvelling over' Amity in Vietnamese. The discussion revolved around her braces, her tanned skin, her dimples, her American sense of style and expression. Amity handled it with grace and aplomb as if it were her graduation party. We distributed cheerleading pictures, 6th grade school portrait (with Obama for President button pinned to her shirt), 8th grade school portrait from Haverford Middle School, and as they held and fed the babies, these loving women nodded in recognition and beamed with pride sharing the window on this blossoming young woman's life. They knew her when...
-A great day, and for me what this trip was all about.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

After this we needed some down time to plan the rest of our stay, and Amity needed to get that last homework assignment done before Christmas. We spent Thursday immersed in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and planned our trip to Halong Bay.

Halong Bay

We departed for Halong Bay in the early morning of December 24th. We flew Vietnam Airlines to Hai Phong, just south of Hanoi in the north of Vietnam. Our excursion around Halong Bay was in a traditional boat called a "Junk." This junk was named, 'The Jewel of the Bay.' We spent two calm and carefree days slowly cruising the bay surrounded by a spectacular view of mountains and caves formed by thousands of years of interplay between limestone and salt water. Everywhere you looked astounding beauty, and other boats with tourists from all over the world with their cameras. Christmas Eve found us sharing stories with a smattering of international travelers. We befriended some musicians from California, born in New York of course. (Wherever in the world you go, it seems you're never far from home.) Turned out that our new friend Jared is the guitarist on Saturday Night Live. In fact, Amity had a song on her Ipod that Jared co-wrote with one of her favorite bands, Honor Society. This made all the trials and tribulations of a journey across the world well worthwhile for Amity. The steep climb to the top of a mountain to gaze across the hallowed expanse of Halong Bay energized us all and filled me with an optimism for the future and the conviction that mine would include more of such treks to beautiful and mysterious world venues. Jared's impromptu ditty, "Jewel of the Bay...." quickly became Amity's theme song for the rest of the trip.

Back in HCMC

Back at our home base, The Bloom Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City by late Christmas night, we fell into bed still clinging to the sounds of the soft, gentle lapping of the bay's cool waters (yes, I swam!) and the vision of peace and majesty that our minds would not soon relinquish. It's a good vision to keep close to your heart and mind, when you are again the dodge ball on the teeming streets and sidewalks of Saigon.

The Grand Hotel

We spent our last two nights at The Grand Hotel. This was our home base 12 years ago, where we first bonded with our tiny, new daughter Amity Bess Van Thanh Le Wood. It was fun recounting the initial challenges ("of eating, sleeping and staying dry") memorialized on our 1998 video and to luxuriate in this elegant, French-style, historic hotel in the nicer, (designer-shop-lined street) part of town. As before, it was from here that we took the time to shop for "nifty souvenirs for the folks back home.

Can Gio and Monkey Islands

The day before we left, we headed out of town for a tour of Can Gio and Monkey Islands. This "Eco-Park" and island whose residents have been fishing and harvesting rice (Vietnam is the 3rd largest exporter of rice in the world), with the same labor intensive methods for hundreds of years, is home to bats, crocodiles, and the infamous wild monkeys. This is the actual 'Monkey Jungle' where unchecked monkeys run free across the landscape and your back. They'll steal your shirt and hat, if you don't watch out. Amity and our delightful tour guide, Phou, forged a universal bond as they clutched each other in fright when the monkeys came too close. Phou was born and raised in the Mekong Delta and moved to Ho Chi Minh City with her parents for more opportunity. She attended school in the city, learned flawless English and a wealth of information which made her by far our favorite guide to this incredible, resilient, mysterious, ancient, modern, elegant, primitive, scary, warm and welcoming country and its people. Phou became part of our family by the end of that day and we would liked to have brought her home with us. On our last night, Mr. Thanh, his wife and sons invited us to their home for dinner. We had yet another banquet provided by people who own little and share all. Even Amity nibbled at the sumptuous home made spring rolls, shrimp salad and glazed chicken wings filling our bowls. And just when we thought we'd done justice to the feast, out came the ever-present bubbling hot pot of broth and endless, nameless vegetables for simmering. We learned one culinary maxim if not many on this trip. The rice noodles go directly into your bowl with hot broth poured over them. Any other method leads to over cooked noodles, which would be unfortunate.