Tuesday, November 30, 2010

reflection on a year gone by

The warm air carries the Christmas jingles, the jangle bells and all that familiar sounding stuff. First Christmas away from home in years-away from the endless build up, the frenzy of shopping and those cold air smells. It feels odd, somehow-surreal being here not really aware of the time of year, just doing my day to day living here. Lately though, the children practice their beautifully pigeon English Christmas songs, swaying and smiling as they sing "oh tristmas tree oh tristmas tree". Lovely. Or the girls in the office downstairs decorating the Christmas tree, marveling at their work-for me the first glimpse of that Christmas feeling.

The year has brought an abundance of layers, mostly deeply gratifying-sometimes frustrating and moments that I will always cherish. Even today, while snowed under with reports and admin work, I leave my office for a breather and get hugged by a child. Those hugs always surprise me, always makes me feel appreciated and happy. Then I look beyond the hug and look at the child and what life they have here. I have some idea, the kind of lives they have, having seen first hand their homes. Imagine, the smallest room in your house. That was the last home visit I was on. A family of 4 crammed into a room that leaves you with no personal space, no space to call your own. This bedroom I write this in is probably bigger than most of those kids entire homes.

It is a sober reminder of the times we live in here-how people live so close to the bread line, how each day counts in terms of whatever they can do to feed their families. This is a developing city but in my eyes, it has a long way to go in terms of resources available and just support. I see vulnerable people every day in my job-mothers and their babies line up waiting for their medical check up's or medication, etc. Thanks to the work of CNCF-I believe it's on the right track and I think things are improving but it takes a lot of time...education is key to progress that will lead to these people's dignities and eventually they can carve their own ways in the world.

I hear all about the terrible situation at home and of course it makes me sad and so, so helpless. People must be terrified and very disenfranchised and just angry at how the country was let get into such a terrible mess. It is such a worrisome time and I hope we can get the country back on it's feet and give the people back some hope to hang on to.

I cannot capture this experience with words. I try to but I think I fail because it has given me a whole new perspective on life and how up to now I have been living it. Living in Vietnam is like been given a second chance, a real chance to grab life fully, take the good times with the bad and fully appreciate each day. At least I try to that and for the most part, I do and always no matter what-feel so lucky and privileged to know these humble, lovely people.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

a short snippet

Saigon in the rain soaked craggy streets as the swerving traffic splashes by avoiding deep flooded crevices in the badly run down road. My friend precariously has her luggage on her knee, her helmet is askew on her head and she clings on for dear life. Her driver oblivious to his back seat passenger who bumps along, not knowing if the next one would see her colliding into the street. These are the times here. The edgy, dangerous yet somehow perfectly normal road behaviour. In the centre of this crazy downtown street they have ripped up the road- so behind the tatty, useless barriers there is what seems like a cliff below the road. It defies belief that for months on end the incessant disruption for all who live there seems never to phase these composed, accepting people.

The day spent in a dark, candle lit cafe to some soothing background jazz and the rain thundering down outside. Reminiscent of Ireland, except the flowing pints of the black stuff nowhere to be seen. At one point, my friend noted that a lot of people just sat and nobody spoke. But it seemed as though everyone was collectively listening to the music, absorbed and lost in their worlds.

And a world away, I am. I think of home often and what must people be doing at that precise time. Time extends out and stretches and brings sometimes yearning for that banter, the laughter the slagging that is entirely unique to Ireland. These are the things that I miss the most. The humour that instictively and collectively we Irish seem to connect to.

Must be a day for reminiscing. Guess several thousand miles away from home will do that but all is good.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On the outside looking in

It is a hard thing to truely capture the life here so that people can really understand, get a true grasp on. My work is one such thing. I go into work every day and something magical happens-its that simple. It can be that I am feeling lonely or missing home or just having one of those days and there is an absolute certainty that when I take a child or baby in my arms that those feelings dissipate. Or just where I live, when I walk down through the alleyway and the mopheads curve past me like they are meant to be in the narrow street. The people at the Pho place look at me now recognizing me-some stare blankly, others now start to smile. All of these elements make some sort of sense to how I am here. No doubt, it can be bloody hard work, like getting tangled in the language barrier is a daily occurence and while a good sense of humour gets you through it most of time-there are times I could scream blue murder! I am an outsider here and that takes some getting used to, or maybe I'll never get used to it. People are still as welcoming and lovely as ever but I wonder if I will ever feel any way intergrated and part of this life here. It seems impossible right now, but who knows I might find a way to make myself feel more at one with this beautifully alien life.

The noises, the smells, the heavily polluted air once held me in a trance, like some sort of stronghold. But now, I feel part of them or just used to them. I remember coming out of the airport when I first arrived and onto the streets and just gaping, eyes wild not really believing what I am seeing. I clearly remember a man and a snow white dog on a mophead-what a sight that was. And being left to try and find my way home after 2 days here, forget it. There was no way I was going to find anything-I was dizzy, amazed and scared shitless all at once.

Once more about work-I will try to set the scene. The children all gather at the gates of the centre all playing games, eating sweets, school bags in tow all in tight groups-crouched down, chatting-playing, laughing-always laughing.The street vendors are all busy making coffees or dishing out various rice noodles and other delights. People sit around on plastic chairs. I get dropped off by Viet my Xe Am driver-a small boney man from the Mekong Delta-he has a tough life fending for himself and his sick wife. He worked at the airport for years and is why his english is so good. We chat on the way about my weekend or his wife or sometimes about family or sometimes we don't chat at all. I will usually crouch down and say my few words of vietnamese to the kids outside, they will say their 2 words in english and off I will go. Or sometimes, this one little boy in particular will come over to me and give me a hug for absolutely no reason. How to start a day on the wrong foot after that..

Hellos to all my hard working, brilliant colleagues and off I go to start my day. I won't go into detail about the in's and outs of the admin side, but it is a necessary part to keep the wheels in motion. Emails, interviews, classes, schedules....all part of the job. But more, much more it is about giving these children a creative outlet that will take them away from their often difficult lives. Sometimes when I am editing a report and reading about these same smiling faces that I meet everyday-it is very hard to make these 2 pictures fit. One picture sees the hardships, the long hours, the substandard living-the other sees gifted, talented creative beings who put all their imagination into their art work, their dance class, their singing. It is a piece of magic that will honestly stay with me for the rest of my life.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

neighbourhood watch

A soaring seering heat, sweat dripping, mind a fog yet somehow in the midst of this trying climate I have much reason to feel alive, happy and have a blanket of calm around me. It seems ironic to me that in the most chaotic place I have ever been to that people are unphased, almost serene. Even when out on the road in the middle of the honking madness, people aren't aggresive or perturbed they are just getting on with it. This city for all it's vibrancy has a harsh, uncompromising enviornment and breathing in the toxins, the polluted air is all part of living here. That said for this past month, I have taken a battering from this relentless weather and the body gradually fell under it's demise. But now I have turned a corner and am ready, fighting fit and ding ding round 2 of the match-me against the hot season.

Even though I say people are calm, which they are- I also see their quiet, silent suppressed anger and yes, they get on with it but they have no way to express or fight what raw deal is handed to them. I keep a close eye on news from home, and yeah things are really shit, but if one thing living here has given me is a reality check. We are ok, we have resources, we have access to education, we have comparitively speaking, a health system. Very often, these people do not. If you feel hard done by-fair enough, but imagine this: this is just one example. A man, 20's, emaciated, ribs visible-asleep outside your nice, modern home (mine). Just him on his mat. If that doesn't give me reason to be thankful than nothing will.

On a lighter note, it fascinates me here how unselfconscious people are when it comes to noise pollution-there are no restrictions here. I often wake up in the morning with the loudest most horrific sounding plastic pop music-never have I heard so much Kenny G or Enrico Iglesius before. Or sometimes, in the alley near to my place, I will hear some tone deaf kareoke singing, oblivious as to how utterly awful they are sounding-it can be hilarious or at times annoying depending on the mood. One time recently I went on a bike trip with a great bunch of friends and we stayed in this mainly Vietnamese resort by the beach. Was lovely and we had a great night. Except for one thing-the kareoke went on ALL night. Lying in that tent, it was loud as any festival have been to-although I would much rather listen to the thump thump techno than listen to horrendous renditions of Boys II Men for the umpteen time. Ah but in hindsight, it's funny.

So, now I wonder what the neighbours think of me playing Martin Hayes and Denis Cahill at full blast...

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Day in the Saigon life

I write this directly under my godsent Aircon. It is my saviour these hot Saigon days. For the past 3 weeks the temperatures have soared to the high 30's and I have suffered but endured it. It seems to be particularly hot even to the hardy Vietnamese so I don't feel so bad.

Life here feels somewhat normalized and I feel part of it now as opposed to merely observing it. I am now taking Vietnamese classes, which are challenging to say the least. Words that sound the same but mean completley different things; tones that feel impossible to get the right pitch; and just the alien feeling in my mouth as I attempt to say the odd word here and there. We spent about 15 minutes once on just one word-me desperately trying to get pronounciation right. When I finally got it, I asked my teacher what it means-"strain" she said. Sounds about right, I joked.

I now have my own place and finally feeling more settled and at ease with my life here. I get a Xe am-motorbike taxi-to work every morning because even though I live close by it is simply too hot to walk. I arrive to the Sunshine school kids gathered around in their little groups. They play together, chat, jump over a giant elastic band (some reach quite impressive heights) and every morning without fail one of them will come over and hug me with a hello.
Some mornings I get a small baguette from the stall lady who is full of warmth and good humour. Or I might have a cafe sou da. Its just those first moments before I start my day that put me in good stead. There is little chance I can have a bad day with that sort of beginning. But then if I am feeling low or my day is not going to plan, I will nearly always go to the ground floor of the Social and Medical Centre. These babies all at once clock eyes on me, all smiles, all wanting to be held. I put myself among them and hug as many as is humanly possible and once I have had my baby fix, all is restored again. This may sound selfish and unfair that I breeze in, show some love and leave. But the level of care, love and attention they get daily really is remarakable. I'm sure it must be hard, particularly for the older kids on the second floor. They forge bonds with the volunteers, often becoming very close. And then the volunteers leave and the cycle continues. If I spend too much time thinking of this, it can make me feel very sad. But the reality for these kids is that they are in the best possible care and no question-a much better life than before.
Last night I went to the girls shelter to visit their dance class and just see how they are getting on. They are the happiest, most positive people you can count yourself lucky to meet. They danced, beamed their smiles, joked, said their few words in English and by the end we were all dancing hand in hand around a circle. Do I love my job? I think most definitely.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Loved up on Cambodia

The first thing you notice about Cambodia is just how different it is to it's close neighbour, Vietnam. You cross the border into that fantastic country and immediately you can sense a clearing, an ease a more relaxed atmosphere.

To think about what all Cambodia has been through, to visit the Killing Fields and feel the evil deeds that went on. To go to Toul Sleng Prison where all the tortures took place and feel the palpable energy of what went on. To know all of these things and just try for a moment to comprehend it, which of course is impossible. And then the people. These people after all what went before are still picking up the pieces of that awful time not too long ago but have this resolve, this lovely warm spirit that makes the country so fascinating. To be there was a privelege I have never experienced before.

The journey to Chi Phat (West Cambodia, Koh Kong Province-Cardamom Mountains)

We left Pnomh Penh early and set off on a long day of travelling. After 5 hours on a bus we arrived at a river where a wooden engine boat waited for us to board. Soon into it, I knew just how remote a place we were heading to. With just a peppering of small bamboo houses along the way things started to look very intriguing. The boat was full and the sun absolutely belted down, sweat pouring at a steady rate. A falcon flew overhead and these swift fish bounced and tripped along the water's surface. We chatted to this seemingly nice guy, who in hindsight had a bit of an edge to him. Later his Jackyl was firmly replaced by Mr. Hyde. But more of that later.

We disembarked the boat grabbing our bags and baggage (no pun intended.) Some kids started to gather and excitedly shout their hello's and beam out their smiles, which were to remain steadfast for the rest of our time there. We were tired, hungry and in need of a cold beer. So we take ourselves to the Eco centre, which is for all intensive purposes is the life line of the island. The project supports local industry through eco tourism and has been up and running for the last few years.

So back to Mr. Hyde. As we settled ourselves in and while we waited for food we were given a brief on the island and the treks that were on offer. Our "friend" began to unravel and spout blood curdling rudeness at the locals. From commenting on their basic English to actually raising his voice to another. One of those ground swallow me up moments as the locals presumed he was our friend. After a few firm words from us, we parted ways and bid good riddance to him.

So onto our trek. Or in my case trek attempt. We had decided on a 3 day 2 night option, which on paper looked fantastic-sleeping in the jungle, cooking, swimming in waterfall-all brilliant. Except for one thing. The actual doing it part! The intensity of the sun knocked the stuffing out of me. 10k and 5 hours later, I threw in the towel. A little defeated and downtrodden, I was picked up by a local man and returned to the village on the bumpy dirt roads we had just walked. But for the next 3 days as I waited for my friend to return I had the one of the most enthralling experiences of my life. I hung out with the locals, skipped hand in hand with some kids, drank cafe sou da at the vietnamese joint (that was hilarious the 3 words of vietnamese I know was used here and they loved it! they almost whooped!), chatted to a buddhist monk about spirituality, was incessantly asked why I wasn't married, went to a buddhist service where same said monk was trying to conduct it as what seemed like all eyes on me. Saw a colorful wedding procession, swam alone in the most tranquil lake have ever been. And so, so much more. Mad. Brilliant and utterly inspiring.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Never a dull moment

Sitting listening to Billie Holiday, chilling and hearing the low drone of traffic in the not too far distance. I am well and truely in the thick of it now. I look like a true pro crossing the road with confidence while inside I am petrified as one wrong turn and I could be toast. Then on the back of a motorbike, I relax, hands free, no longer white knuckled grip on the handle. That is apart from one night when I got a truely insane driver who was going 90 on the motorway, swerving in between trucks and heavy traffic. That was scary and weirdly kind of thrilling! Ah, yes taking it all in my stride. I eat rice like a local and my daily ration of cafe sou da is a staple part of my diet. The lady that sells me coffee now warmly greets me, not like at first when she was shy, a little suspicious. 

My work is growing all the time, building momentum, building new friendships, building all the time. The kids at the Social and Medical Centre start to recognize me now and tug at my necklace or just want a hug. My haggling skills are improving but marginally-I am sure have been ripped off many times over, but all part of the story. I took pictures the other day of a small Tet (lunar new year-it is a magic time of year and the atmosphere is electric and a big family time) party at CNCF. These people were the poorest from the sponsorship programme and were invited to recieve gifts and give them the chance and right to celebrate like everyone else. That's what's amazing about this work. It works to help people with their confidence, their sense of pride in the world. A disabled man in a ramshackle wheelchair moved me to tears. There he was with his young son, probably travelled a great distance to get there. He proudly wore the most immaculately clean and ironed shirt and his whole demeanour was that of gratitude. I went to shake his hand and was recieved warmly. These are the moments that keep me in check. That make it all absolutely feel like this is the right experience for me now. Ok, so homesickness starting to creep in but I guess that's normal. I am off to Cambodia at the weekend to sleep and trek in the jungle and take this adventure to new and dizzying heights. Never a dull moment in SE Asia and that is for sure.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Listening to Blue Lines by Massive Attack-makes me realize how much I miss good, decent music. Here, live music does not seem to have it's place yet but I went to a cool yet stiflingly smoky bar (smoking ban a long way off by the look of things!) the other night called Yoko to listen to a fairly cool singer called To Phung. She had a great voice and a funky, unique look. Everywhere you go here there is "music" blaring. I described it to a friend as worse than eurovision music. But each to their own.

Yesterday was my first taste of being a tourist. While I loved the scenery and watching the life here, seeing it through tourists eyes was a tad depressing. The poverty here is pretty hardcore and I don't know if I will ever get used to it. We came back into Saigon at sunset by boat-stroke of luck-we got it for free and was wonderful to watch the many industries on the river and the lines of people waving at us as we went by-just brilliant. At one point along the way, the boat chugged and stopped abruptly. One of the boat staff stripped off to his boxers in front of us, slipped into the filthy water and went right under. He surfaced and threw a basket which had tangled on the motor. He did this with such ease, it was really impressive! And off we went.

All along the river we encountered many many shacks that people call home and I'm sure some of the kids I work with come from. When I tried to engage in conversation with an American backpacker about this, I was met with a one word answer. It really got under my skin. If travelling around the world can't inspire you to take in the rough with the smooth, then what's the point? I wanted to talk to them about it and express how sad it was to see how people live but I knew it wasn't worth it. So, introspective I went. I think it's a big reason why I have never felt compelled to travel because it seems to dim a lot of people's view of culture-almost like they block it out. Baffling stuff.

The Mekon Delta is really beautiful and one of the highlights was rowing down the river in the jungle in an old wooden boat. Again we met the people there all wanting money from us, the rich westerners. But aside from that, it was really fantastic. We sampled the local industries from honey, coconut and fruit and again the level of innovative streaks these people have is great. I lazed and slept on a hammock for a while and then went on a short bike ride (bicycle). That was cool, cycling along the narrow road soaking in the roasting sun and catching a glimpse of the sleepy locals as I whizzed by.

Life here has it's ups and downs. Today it is in the high 30's. I hear the endless construction noises, the relentless barking dog next door, a cock crowing and even sometimes I hear people singing in an eerily similar sean nos way! I have moments when I wonder what I'm doing here but these moments come and go. Fear is not something I see in people here. At home, people worry all the time, fret about the smallest of things. Here, they live from hand to mouth with a smile. I hope to take a leaf out of all their books.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

the only gay in the village

Most people will know that this phrase comes from Little Britain- the comedy sketch show. It depicts an overtly gay welsh man who announces and proclaims his pride of being the only gay man in the village. This is not unlike my life here now as I continue to immerse myself in this boiling pot of cultural difference. I am followed with stares everywhere I go and there is a real sense of thrill in that! In that sense, I am the only gay in the village!

I have never had a fortnight like this one just passed. Stepping off the plane this time 2 weeks ago into the balmy Saigon evening and into this as yet unknown territory. My first thoughts were that things felt orderly, official yet tinged with something askew, chaotic. Waiting for my landing visa as the young, stern official struggled with the microphone, which fizzled and feed-backed. People quietly chuckled at this. The heat now really kicked in and sweat began to pour rapidly, sticking my clothes to my skin. There was no orderly queue, no instructions-just a random group of people all awaiting the green light.

Since then it has been a non stop marathon of processing, adjusting, absorbing. Without sounding too cliched or new agey-it feels like I am being reborn! Everything I have ever known has been discarded and washed away replaced by this drive to learn and breathe the life in here. Whenever I step out onto the hustle and bustle of the streets, I take in the newness of it. I walk around, smile at people, pinch a baby's face and I never cease to be amazed by the lines of people sitting, selling anything from shoes to cigarettes to fruit. All in very close proximity to the next trader. There is a real sense of community here, people look out for each other because they have to.

Last night I went to the backpackers district, which was full of westerners all huddled around smugly and professing to loving the culture here. I am pretty certain that a lot of people who choose to live amongst themselves have little perspective on the culture although I could be wrong.

My work at CNCF

I find it quite hard to convey in words what I have experienced in this short time in the job. The Chistina Noble Children's Foundation has the most exceptionally dedicated team of people, which keeps the wheels in constant motion. The children are beacons of hope and are to me what my work here is all about. My job as Art and Music Coordinator is a very privileged position. I get to work first hand with the kids, forging bonds with them and seeing where their many creative talents lie. These kids work harder than your average Joe soap at home. They work long hours making as much money as they can to help their families. What CNCF does is to provide them with stability in terms of nourishment, a home, love and in my project the chance to shine creatively. Meeting them yesterday for the first time, I was blown away by each and every one of them. I was greeted by them with huge smiles, all full of fun and enthusiasm. Knowing their profiles and their very impoverished backgrounds, it was amazing to meet them and see how confident they all seem. I can only put this down to the work of the foundation from the ground up they have made this possible.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Mui Ne

We set off on our journey early. This place never sleeps and at 6.30 people are buzzing around as normal-time never playing it's part. It feels like the people here are built to work constantly yet they always find time to smile and just get on with it.

The train was from the 70's yet comfortable and oh bliss of blisses had aircon. I am struggling to sleep without it at the mo, so any time it's there I lap it up! Ciarna has a magnetic field around her when it comes to the people. The fact that she has some vietnamese is a bonus. We saunter up to the dining carriage, where you can smoke (hard to get used to people puffing away on a train) drink coffee and have the craic with the staff. My red hair and pale skin is always a bit of a mystery to them and often I would just be spacing out and the next thing I look around and I have about 5 pairs of eyes looking my way! It's a weird one. They all ask do I have a husband, which is funny too. Last night on our way back, I encountered a not so nice element to that and one of the staff, a sleazy oul fella who was drunk, wanted some special time with me. Exit stage right. But I think even those kind of encounters are rare.

The train journey took about 5 hours to Mui Ne but felt shorter. The scenery along the way was more interesting than pretty-just the small ramshacked houses, the buddhist graves (i had to get the swastica looking emblem explained to me-apparently it's in the opposite direction and is buddhist symbol for life), the people working the land were all fascinating to me. We arrived to literally a throng of taxi guys, some gently touching my arm-was a little intense to say the least. The heat from the sun was also intense but unlike Saigon, the air was clear and no smog. Saigon is the most polluted city I have ever been to. It's sad that the canal river is so polluted that every time I pass it, I feel like retching the stench is that bad. I guess, it's a lack of education but everywhere you go there is rubbish strewn-seems to be no system in place to counteract this. Anyway, it's all par for the course here and taking a leaf out of the people's book-I will just get on with it and keep smiling!

Mui Ne was very chilled-we just soaked it up, ate amazing food, drank for Ireland and hung out-it's the best place to just be in the moment. Feel so relaxed and happy-the first time in a long time. Long may it last.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

eye opener

We sat in this seafood place last night, sampling the various delicacies on offer. I even braved the raw squid and wasabi-delicious!

They began to approach our table at a steady pace. Elderly women, destitute-a boy of about 8 with a disfigured face, disabled- all trying to sell their various bits and pieces. The extent of their desperation was palpable. I struggled to come to terms with their appalling and undignified place in the world. I struggled with my own response to them and as I recoiled in shame-Ciarna rightly pointed out to smile, give them dignity, look at them. By me reacting as if they aren't there is not going to solve anything. Something I think we all can learn. A bit of human spirit and dignity goes an awful long way to these people.

On a lighter note-I know have mentioned before but the mode of transport here has me transfixed, enthralled and terrified all in one go! Everyone has one. They bring families, dogs, furniture, babies-you name it! The trusty mophead! Yesterday we travelled from the city back to the house. Throngs of them lining up-swerving, honking but nobody-not one person showed any sign of impatience or as we have in the west-road rage! A miracle when at one point we had to push our way through on the footpath cos of roadworks and literally I was in the middle of a sea of bikes. Hilarious and brilliant. Love it! All par for the course here and has made it all the more exciting to be in.

Monday, January 4, 2010

day 3 adjusting...

It's 3.20am and I am wide awake. There is an upturned cockroach behind me who stopped wriggling some time ago, hoping this is so anyway. The heat is sticky and uncomfortable and is probably the main factor why I am awake. But here I am. Thousands of miles away from home and family, friends and my life. The love and support I got before I left was overwhelming-helps so much when the ones I care about the most gently edge me closer to this, the start of my Vietnam story. And already, it feels like quite a story. The first night I was here we (Ciarna my gem of a host) went to this little cafe, by cafe I mean small plastic chairs and tables outside this lady's house. She was so welcoming and had a sadness about her that I twigged straight away. As her story unfolded and was being relayed to me-I knew that this was one of many many stories I am likely to hear. At first, she said her husband died and then later she quietly admitted that he ran away with an american woman to the states in 1979 and so he is dead to her. She is 57, looks 40 and very beautuful. There is a profound gentleness to these people-a serenity that I have never encountered before. Many of them have little but live their lives with such dignity and grace it is hard to fathom. It makes me think of home and the recession and how we really have no clue what hardship is. But that's another story. For now, I am ambracing life here with all the bumps and uncertainty along the way.