Ari Interns for MAG in Laos

Ari Interns for MAG in Laos

Our 19-year-old son, Ari, traveled regularly with us until this last year.  Here he submits his own summer ventures:

For the last two months I have been an intern in Vientiane, Laos for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a non-profit, nongovernmental organization whose mission is to help civilians recover from the atrocities of war – in Laos, MAG’s work strives to minimize the threat of unexploded ordnance (UXO) left from the Vietnam (“American”) War.

Ari plays with a child in Vietnam.

Ari plays with a child in Vietnam.

My primary mission was to complete the initial paperwork for establishing a visitors’ information centre (VIC) (yes, the English spelling since MAG is UK-based) in Vientiane.  I first had to do quite a bit of research to back up the fact that a VIC in Vientiane was a good investment.  This was the best part of my work there.  In order to establish that there was a demand, I stood in the tourist section of town and chatted with anyone who didn’t look local while explaining MAG’s mission, the problem of UXO in Laos, and getting people to fill out surveys.  It was fantastic to go out and talk with people about an issue that is pertinent to the everyday lives of locals.  I was amazed how many people were completely unaware of not only MAG’s work, but also the fact that there are UXOs littering Laos.

A variety of war paraphernalia on display in a guide service office in Phonsavan, Laos.

A variety of war paraphernalia on display in a guide service office in Phonsavan, Laos.

I also got to work with the established VIC in Phonsavanh, a town in the heart of the UXO crisis, whose small MAG-info center has been greeting visitors for years.  I spent several of my first days in Phonsavanh, familiarizing myself with the progress that had been made in the VIC since I had last been there as a tourist.  MAG really had spiffed it up!  The cinema for showing recently-made documentaries had been moved downstairs, the displays had been changed to be more visible, the merchandise had been rearranged and hung up, and a new sound system and projector screen had been installed in the cinema.  On my visits to Phonsavan I was able to offer that VIC some advice on attracting more western tourists, but getting a VIC established in Vientiane, where there is a larger tourist crowd, will offer MAG a lot more exposure.

The last several weeks of my time in Vientiane were spent assisting other NGOs.  I spent a week with the International Nongovernmental Organization (INGO) Network to update their directory of NGOs in Laos.  Another week was spent with an organization called Learning House (LH).  I went through their library and labeled the books so that they could be catalogued into a database.  This work was surprisingly enjoyable.  Since all of the books had been donated, some of them were a tad bizarre, like a book on why not to trust doctors and another on how coffee can kill you.  My co-workers everywhere made everything more fun.

Zall and Maren enjoy visiting with Ari (center) over dinner during his internship in Vientiane.

Zall and Maren enjoy visiting with Ari (center) over dinner during his internship in Vientiane.

My internship was productive and enjoyable; my supervisor and the MAG team in Laos were patient and supportive.  I owe special thank yous to Jennifer Lachman, director of MAG-USA, whose advocacy and support created the opportunity (I was MAG’s youngest intern ever, and the first from the U.S.), and Simon, my Vientiane supervisor, for putting me in a position to feel capable and valued.  I am going to miss Vientiane and the people whom I met there (and a big “Hurrah” to all Hash-House Harriers, from Vientiane to Earlham!), but, by the time that I finished my work, I was ready to come home.  I did miss my friends, family, and even Earlham College itself.

Off To Earlham! – by Ari, age 18

Off To Earlham! – by Ari, age 18

We have to bid good-bye to Ari’s regular stories as he commits to generating his own adventures.  This Fall, Ari joins Earlham College, a small Quaker-founded liberal arts school in eastern Indiana; we can report that he is already having a fantastic time living and studying without hovering parents.  His classes in social anthropology and psychology intrigue him most.

Ari on his first Asia trip, age 12!

Ari on his first Asia trip, age 12!

I have been traveling with my family for over five years now, but my time living with them has come to an end.  I am leaving for college.  Although this is incredibly exciting for me, there are going to be some major drawbacks, like not having anybody to cook me dinner, not being able to go to Asia for free, and having to buy my own laundry detergent.  I have taken a lot from my parents, but one of the things that has defined me to a huge degree has been our travel.

The first time I went to Southeast Asia in 2005, my paradigm of what life is and how I define myself as a person and an American changed dramatically.  I had not realized how incredible different other cultures could be.  Sure, I had been told that other people had other beliefs and different life styles, but I didn’t know it until I had seen it first-hand.  Now, wherever I go, I bring my new paradigm with me, which has led me to a whole new set of experiences, from going to Korea with the Sister Cities program to volunteering in Sovie, Ghana to build a latrine.  None of these life-altering opportunities would have been available had my parents not taken the initiative to take my brother and me overseas.

A more pensive, thoughtful, older Ari.

A more pensive, thoughtful, older Ari.

Now, going into college and what seems to me as the tireless flatlands we call the Midwest and the big bad world in general, I have already seen my experiences shape my life’s direction.  I received the Bonner Scholarship from Earlham College.  This scholarship is awarded to students who demonstrate a desire to improve the world, and my international travelling and volunteering helped me earn the honor.  There are two components to the scholarship.  The first is that I will do community service work instead of a work-study (which the program will pay me for), and the second is that I will receive a stipend for doing social justice work during the summers.  The summer section can be done anywhere, so, although I may use it as an opportunity to come home to serve the Eugene community, I could also go abroad and work for a nonprofit organization that builds schools for impoverished girls in, say, Turkmenistan.

All in all, I am a very different person now than I would be had I not traveled.  Can I tell you exactly what about me is different?  No.  I can’t pinpoint the changes.  But every time I have come back from a trip my friends (and sometimes my family) have told me that I am a new person.  I have yet to fully define this new person, but I know that, as I head off to college, I am about to embark on another adventure that will surely redefine who I am.  I wonder who I will be when this next adventure comes to an end.  I also want to thank all who have traveled vicariously with us through Laos and Vietnam -  you have helped us look more deeply at our experiences through our writings.

 

Wham, Blam, There Goes Our Van – by Ari, age 17

Wham, Blam, There Goes Our Van – by Ari, age 17

“BLAM!”  Typical – our van has once again broken down in the worst possible location.  We back up a couple of feet so that we were not in the middle of a switchback and got out of the vehicle, expecting to see a flat tire.  We weren’t so lucky.  The left rear axle of the van was broken and protruding two feet out of the wheel well; black fluid stained the coarse pavement.  It wasn’t going to be a quick fix.  Luckily, Sho, our trusted Vietnam guide, knew the protocol for a van that has broken down on a switchback in Northwestern Vietnam.  She gathered some branches and rested them on top of a rock at the top of the steep switchback.  This theoretically alerted drivers who were coming down the mountain on the just-wider-than-one-lane road who would not have been able to see the disabled vehicle.  Our driver, meanwhile, whipped out his cell phone and, in a surprisingly calm manner, called friends and bosses for repair ideas.

Sho, our driver, and our broken axle.

Sho, our driver, and our broken axle.

After standing around for a while, convinced our van was not repairable, we decided to walk down the hill until we got to a village that could put us up for the night or found somebody who would be willing to give us a lift to a place where we could stay.  The driver, who because of our ample bags of Above the Fray procurements, knew he had to stay to guard the vehicle and our stuff.  Sho cheerfully announced that we had two options: she could talk a local into providing a home-stay in the small local village we had just driven through (the village was too small for a guesthouse), or we could ask anyone and everyone if they knew someone who could drive us forward, over the up-coming pass, to the next town large enough to have rooms to rent.

Walking toward the small town to look for a lift or a bed for the night.

Walking toward the small town to look for a lift or a bed for the night.

Sho led us down the road, inquiring with the several locals about sleeping or transport options.  In the meantime, the rest of us were entranced by the tree-sized hemp plants leaning over the road; this was, needless to say, incredibly interesting to my brother and me because they are illegal to grow in the United States.

The sun was setting behind the rocky hills and we felt a cool evening breeze.  Just when we were about to start asking if someone there could house us, a government vehicle passed by.  Sho, a most beautiful woman, was able to wave the driver down and detail our situation.  It’s a miracle – we are saved!  Almost.

Incredible landscape, steep cliffs.

Incredible landscape, steep cliffs.

We crammed a few small bags that we had packed with necessities and squeezed four immense Western derrieres onto the narrow rear seat.  Grandma got the comfortable front seat, which seemed like the throne of luxury to the rest of us.  We were so tightly squeezed in that Sho had to sit on my lap (Oh no!  The suffering!).

Another view of the gorgeous scenery of Ha Giang Province, Vietnam.

Another view of the gorgeous scenery of Ha Giang Province, Vietnam.

The Jeep-like vehicle began its slow trudge up the mountain. The landscape was stark with jagged rocks, and the one-and-a-half lane “highway” was crudely carved across the steep cliffs.  The narrow valleys had small lonely homes that seemed to squeak out a living from the crude rugged garden terraces.  Our weight was obviously making the drive far more difficult, and we crept up the incline at a fast walking pace.  Then we hit the downhill.  We were white-knuckling the person next to us, as there was no seat that we could grip, in an attempt to hold on.  Our driver zipped around the sharp turns tossing us to one side, then the other.  If I hadn’t felt so mortal, I might have enjoyed the many towering cliff faces that formed the majestic, cloud-topped mountain spires that surrounded us.  Then we were heading back up the next slope slowly; and then another hair-raising ride down.  The silent driver seemed to hardly notice our presence.

After a forty-five minute stomach-churning thrill ride, for which the quiet government worker adamantly refused any payment, we clambered out of the jeep and into the town of Dong Van, our new destination for the night.  We desperately forced our legs to remember how to walk, as they had fallen asleep during the drive, and found a guesthouse.  I don’t think I have ever been so relieved to have a place to lie down.

In our frou-frou beds in Dong Van, Vietnam.

In our frou-frou beds in Dong Van, Vietnam.

Oh, and here’s the most amazing thing.  Apparently our driver had phoned his boss some 15 hours drive away, who phoned a car parts store in Hanoi (12 hours away), who that evening put a new axle component onto a bus.  Our driver slept in the van, and then by 10 AM the next day the bus delivered the axle to our driver right at the incident site.  By 11 AM the driver installed the new parts himself, and picked us up before noon in Dong Van.  I was amazed to witness such efficiency and technical capability in what felt like such an out-back place!

Age is Just a State of Mind – by Ari, age 17

Age is Just a State of Mind – by Ari, age 17

All of us, including Grandma, at the Plain of Jars – it was COLD!

All of us, including Grandma, at the Plain of Jars – it was COLD!

At a family meeting before our most recent trip, my dad had expressed a bit of concern at grandma joining us.  She lives in Seattle, so we don’t get to spend a lot of time with her, and he thought perhaps she may be a touch more frail, being 79, than we were used to.  “Let’s be sure to not push her beyond her comfort zone,’ he had said.   “Someone should always walk in front of and behind her along bustling streets.”  “Let’s make sure we eat foods that agree with her.”  Although we kept these ideas in mind while traveling, we found that the meeting may have been a little overkill.  Grandma was amazing!  She ate everything, never complained about hard beds, saw the world through eyes that were understanding of cultural differences, and always made the best every situation.

Grandma toasting a village elder in Xam Tai, Laos with Lao-Lao

Grandma toasting a village elder in Xam Tai, Laos with Lao-Lao

We saw Grandma’s positive attitude and energy starting on our very first day, when everything was most new and foreign.  Our first stop in Hanoi was a tiny coffee shop that serves the thickest, richest Vietnamese coffees.  We sat on tiny plastic stools right on the road’s edge and grandma feasted on the scene of street vendors, overloaded motorcycles, and a woman in a bamboo hat washing dishes in the ditch.  Revved up on coffee, we went to our favorite bun cha restaurant.  Bun cha is a rice noodle soup with chunks of an unidentifiable grilled meat and sausage and slices of kohlrabi in a slightly sweet-sour broth.   The restaurant is a hole in the wall – a mildewy cement box on the side of the road that doubles as the entrance to a house.  Nonetheless, Grandma squatted down at the low table and relished the new flavors.  She didn’t hesitate to dig in to the unknown meal or to enter the restaurant that, in the United States, would have long been shutdown.

Grandma’s first motorcycle ride!

Grandma’s first motorcycle ride!

A couple days later, in Luang Prabang, it rained – really hard.  When the downpour began, we were wandering through the night market seeking a dinner.  We wove our way through the vendors’ tents and jumped when the rain-soaked light bulbs sparked and died; buckets of water held in the tent folds gushed onto the street shorting out electric lines and we felt crunched between the anxious people desperately packing their wares and tourists scrambling out of the now-chaotic market.  Despite the discomfort, Grandma, drips rolling over her glasses, was laughing at the hustle and bustle of the soaked market.

Our third homestay, at Babe Lake, verified our belief that grandma was born to travel.  After a fantastic, homemade dinner, we crowded into our host’s kitchen to share traditional toasts of rice whiskey.  Grandma joined us as the host passed around the seemingly magically refilled shot glass.  The men in the room were transfixed by the television, which was showing “Vietnam’s Next Top Model.”  They decided that yet another toast was necessary – to “long legs,” much like those parading across the screen.  Sho, our guide and family friend, quickly interjected, “And to men’s broad shoulders.”  Grandma couldn’t just let this stand alone, so she added, “And big muscles!”  After a round of applause and a decent amount of head nodding, we drank to beautiful bodies, something that all cultures can appreciate.

The very next day, I watched grandma hop on the back of a motorcycle – her first motorcycle ride ever.  She hooted “tally-ho” and waved as she shot off down the road. Now, whenever anyone asks me about my dad’s mom, these and other travel scenes are going to pop into my head – some of the best grandma moments ever.

Making A Difference in One Small Place – by Ari, age 17

Making A Difference in One Small Place – by Ari, age 17

Our oldest son, Ari, had the good fortune to volunteer overseas this summer.  While we are most jealous that he got to have international adventures without his parents and brother, it only seems reasonable that young adults get to grow into their own lives.  Here is his report: 

Ari and companions shoveling materials for making brick in the hot sun.

Ari and companions shoveling materials for making brick in the hot sun.

This summer I spent 7 wonderful weeks in Sovie, a small community in rural Ghana, serving with the American Jewish World Service, an organization dedicated to international social justice issues.  As one of fifteen high school volunteers selected from across the United States and Canada, I gave my summer to build a latrine alongside the people of Sovie.  This jungle community of about 2000 people had, at the beginning of the summer, no usable facility for the safe disposal of human waste.  Our team was charged with providing labor, alongside some local workers, for building a facility that would meet the long term needs of the community.

When we arrived local workers had already dug and cemented the three by five by fourteen-foot holes for the “10-seater” latrine. Although the project had commenced, there was still a lot of work to be done.  We spent the first three days learning how to make bricks like the locals do – by hand – and creating the base that spanned the trench.  Although we celebrated like it was quite an accomplishment at the time, looking back I realize that we had barely started.

Locals in front of the finished latrine.

Locals in front of the finished latrine.

With the base constructed, it was time to create our building blocks: bricks… lots and lots of bricks.  I am very proud to proclaim that we made 186 bricks in one day.  Not only did this number exceed the local expectation of 150, but it was also a vast improvement over the fifty bricks that we created on our first day on the worksite.  Then we had to move all of the bricks – again, local style on one’s head -  an eighth of a mile, to the construction site (which doesn’t sound like much until you have to haul a 50 lb. block 186 times).  Next we had to mix cement and concrete – yep, local style with shovels -  which we used as a mortar to hold the bricks together and, later, as a plaster for the walls.  After weeks of running through the cycle of making, moving, and building, we finally completed the structure of the latrine.  Then came the roofing… and the priming… and the painting.  Needless to say, by the time that we had finished the latrine everybody, local and volunteer, was exhausted, but proud.  In celebration, every worker returned to our house and had “minerals” – the local options being Pepsi, Coca Cola, or Mirinda.  Even today I feel good knowing I had a hand in the enduring health of this friendly community.

Ari with some of his students. .

Ari with some of his students. .

Balancing a load of mortar for the bricks.

Balancing a load of mortar for the bricks.

I  also spent an hour each day teaching English to the fourth grade class.  The kids were awfully squirmy and, although I really enjoyed their smiles and energy, getting good lessons taught was tough.  It sure made me appreciate my regular teachers’ abilities!

The biggest thing I learned is that one person really can make a difference, and a lot of small differences do add up to a significant effect.  Sovie is cleaner and healthier today thanks to the efforts of our whole team of volunteers and locals.  It also confirmed that good people exist everywhere, and that the differences we see between individuals, ethnic groups, and nations really are minor compared to the ways in which we are all alike.

The World Is Not a Fair Place – by Ari, age 17

The World Is Not a Fair Place

Our older son, Ari, is spending the summer in Sovie, Ghana, a remote town of 2000 people, volunteering with a service organization; now his days are filled with constructing a latrine at an elementary school (a 10-seater!), helping the 4th grade English teacher (who apparently knows little English), and studying international social justice issues with a small group of other fortunate young adults.  Like Laos, Ghana is under-developed and struggles to provide for its citizens.  One of the toughest challenges for both these countries is to ensure that its most vulnerable citizens are treated fairly, safely and with dignity.  Throughout Laos (at least in the parts tourists tend to visit) are signs in English stating that child-sex crimes are illegal and that if anyone hears about or witnesses such a crime, to alert the authorities.  Sadly, such heinous crimes are not unusual in Laos, Ghana, and many other under-developed nations. Ari managed to get a few minutes at an internet café and sent us a report on a vital program fighting child-slavery in Ghana:

Ari dancing with Katu villagers during their New Year’s celebration (no pix yet from Ghana!).

Ari dancing with Katu villagers during their New Year’s celebration (no pix yet from Ghana!).

Today, our group visited a program called Challenging Heights.  Challenging Heights was started and is currently run by an ex-child-slave named James Kofi Anan (nope, not related to the previous UN President).  This program “rescues” child slaves from the communities where they were enslaved and returns them to their families.  To ensure that the ex-child-slaves are getting an education that is appropriate for them and that they are welcomed back to their community, Mr. Kofi Anan has established schools that they can go to.  We visited one his schools located in a town that has one of the highest rates of children who are sold into slavery in the world.  The school was mostly made of cement and had random English words on the walls.  Inside, the rooms were separated by simple walls of cardboard.  Despite the limited funding and difficult learning atmosphere, the children were almost all literate in English (even at the first and second grade levels) and were studying math, science, government.  This school seemed to do an incredible job.

After visiting the school, we shared a lunch with Mr. Kofi Anan.  He described in great detail many of the abuses that he had to suffer.  These abuses were physical, sexual, emotional, verbal…  His speech brought me near tears and made me really think about the situation that so many children are being forced to live with in Ghana and elsewhere.  He also told us that many of the child-slaves whom he rescues are in the same area as Sovie.  This brought to mind images of all of the children who I have taught and worked beside being whipped and sexually assaulted before they go out to labor endless hours on Lake Volta fishing.  It’s hard to say all that I want to with a simple email.  Words are insufficient when it comes to describing feelings like the ones that I experienced while working with Mr. Kofi Anan.  The best image that I can conjure is of a boy I saw sitting at the school.  When I asked why the boy was not playing with everyone else he said, “My head is spinning.”  This was a result of the abuse that he suffered.  This boy is now unable to be a full participant in games, even in a school that was specially designed for children who have suffered like he has.

Inescapable Homework (by Ari, age 16)

Inescapable Homework (by Ari, age 16)

Each winter trip to Laos and Vietnam takes my brother and me out of school for several weeks.  This sounds like every kids’ fantasy, but in addition to day-long bus trips, uncomfortable beds, and controversial cuisine, completing required school work has been challenging.

Since I entered South Eugene High School, the workload has grown exponentially and simply not doing the work is not a possibility.  So I have had to actually communicate with my teachers to find suitable alternatives to being in the classroom.  Inevitably, my teachers require that I do all missed homework and projects while I am traveling, and that I make up any missed exams upon return.

Homework time at a homestay in Vietnam.

Homework time at a homestay in Vietnam.

Often, while sitting on what might be a 10-hour bus ride, I would try to do my assigned reading.  The buses there are not like the buses that you see tooling around town in Eugene.  They are disproportionately large for the road, extremely rickety, have no shocks and a bumpy terrain to follow, and have more puking people on them than anyone wishes to imagine.  I guess I’m fortunate in that I do not get queasy when reading in a vehicle, but it is difficult to concentrate on To Kill a Mockingbird when the woman sitting next to me discretely vomits – for the fourth time – into a plastic bag and then leans over me to toss the bag out the window onto the shoulder.  And while they call some of the roads “sealed,” the endlessly windy routes have potholes that effectively, and repeatedly, jar my butt a foot off the seat.  By force of will I have learned to narrowly concentrate on text and blank out the chaos around me.

A local bus.

A local bus.

If I had a favorite time to do homework, it would be during a homestay.  On the first night of a two-night trek near Sapa, Vietnam, we found ourselves in a dusty local home that was filled with more smoke than air and one of the kindest families that I have ever not been able to talk with.  I sat down at their unlit, uneven wooden table, next to the family’s ten-year-old son, and began to chug away at my geometry.  I hated proofs, so the assignment was taking a long time.  However, the line drawings and English text of the photocopied text delighted the schoolboy who leaned closely over my shoulder slurping a 7-Up (such an odd combination of “primitive” and “modern”).  Never again will I see someone so excited about geometry!  He later showed me the reading and writing homework he had copied into his thin, stapled notebook.  The burden of homework was our common bond.

Ari and his geometry buddy at a homestay near Sapa, Vietnam.

Ari and his geometry buddy at a homestay near Sapa, Vietnam.

Though the work was sometimes tedious and the conditions were… well… not horribly accommodating, I have always been able to finish and submit it all upon return (not that mom and dad leave me any choice).  My teachers may have been pleased I completed my work while away, but they have had no idea, until now, of what it really took.

Dogs for Sale, by Ari (age 16)

Dogs for Sale, by Ari (age 16)

Ari prefers fresh coffee beans to dog.

Ari prefers fresh coffee beans to dog.

Americans generally see dogs as being man’s best friend and house pet, but many Vietnamese have a slightly different idea of canine possibilities.  We accidentally stumbled upon this discovery when looking for dinner in the town of Tam Duong.  It was late for eating (7:00 is considered late there) and we could not find a place to eat.  We were getting desperate for dinner when we saw a light shining out from between two closed shops – YES, it was a restaurant.  We sat down at a table and were, relatively quickly, brought our meat plate.  We thought that we were served pork, so we instantly began to grub.  After chewing the spiced, porkish meat for a few minutes we realized that it did not taste quite like any pork that we had ever eaten before – Dad thought maybe the pork had been sitting out too long.  The only other customer at the restaurant happened to speak a little English so we asked him if what we were eating was pork.  He replied that it was not, because he had ordered the pork and his serving looked different.  “What is this” we asked him, holding up a chunk of our meat with chopsticks, and he pointed towards a dog that was picking at scraps around the tables.

Dogs are also well-loved, well trained motorcycle partners!

Dogs are also well-loved, well trained motorcycle partners!

This was our first of two surprising dog moments during our travels.  The other took place while we were sitting on the side of a Laos road, dust flying in our faces, waiting for a vehicle to pass by that could take us to our next destination.  Several full cars passed us and time seemed to be crawling by at a snails pace.  Then, an immense truck that looked like it should have been carrying timber rumbled by.  As this monstrosity passed, we noticed that the truck was weighted down with (instead of logs) hundreds of cages occupied by yapping dogs.  After our initial thought of “look at all the cute dogs!”, the light dawned.  We slowly turned to each other and, after confirming what we had all just seen, turned back to the road to see the truck disappear over a small hill on the way to Vietnam.  Once the initial shock had worn off a little bit we recognized that the dogs were being taken away to be used in the place of beef.  The end of the month, the traditional time for eating dog, was about to arrive and we were witnessing the preparations.