Saturday, August 14, 2010

Laos: part 1

I love Laos. Love, love, love it. It is so relaxing and calm here. The people are sweet. The food is spicy and delicious. Even the street vendors who are so aggressive in other countries (madam, come look, come buy. Lady, this is not so much money for you!) are so chill. Someone asks you to buy something, you say no, and they smile at you and walk away.

I flew into Vientiane, the most chill Asian capital city ever. It's a nice place, but not a ton to do or see. I spent day there and then took the bus to Vang Vieng. Originally, I had planned on taking the bus straight to Luang Prabang, but decided to break up the 11 hour bus ride with a day here. Vang Vieng has a reputation as a party town. It's set among limestone karsts and on a beautiful river. The biggest pastime here is to rent an inner tube and float down the river. This has become such a popular thing to do that there are now tons of bars and restaurants on the river. So, people tube for a few minutes, stop and have a beer or a shot, tube for a few more minutes. The result is a lot of hurt people. I ran into so many people that had huge scrapes, sprains, and cuts from tubing a fast moving river, drunk or high. Every menu in town has a "happy" option. Meaning, with methamphetamines included. It truly boggles my mind, who would take drugs in an Asian country....haven't they seen "Locked up Abroad"? One guy I met, got caught with marijuana and had to pay $1000 fine to get out of prison. Anyway - I heard the scenery is amazing, as long as you stay away from the river. So I booked a bungalow about 10 minutes out of town. It was really basic. No a/c, hot water, tv, or internet. It was right on the river and had a great balcony overlooking the river and mountains. It was great for about 5 hours. Then I finished my book, updated my journal, and had enough self reflection. I wanted to rent a scooter and head out to explore some Buddha caves. But, it started raining. And I decided that probably wasn't the smartest thing to do. If you get hurt here, you're only option for good treatment is to fly to Bangkok. Night fell, the jungle moved in to my bungalow. All sorts of weird insects I've never seen. At one point during the night, I heard this weird screeching noise, and then a thump as something landed on my balcony. I didn't sleep so well that night. The next morning, I made a snap decision to get the heck out of town. I took a taxi to the bus station, and caught a bus right as it was leaving the station. The drive to Luang Prabang is one of the most beautiful in Laos. It winds up through the mountains and jungles and rural villages. I was looking forward to all 7 hours of it. And lucky me, it ended up being about 9 hours instead. (Mom - if you are reading this, you may want to skip this section :)  This ended up being the most dangerous bus ride I've ever been on. It had been raining heavily and there were several mudslides. We ended up stopping for a couple hours because of a huge mudslide ahead. When it was finally cleared, we watched bus after bus, drive through the remaining mud and fishtail all over....dangerously close to the cliff on the other side of the road. I wish I would've taken video of the buses because it was seriously horrifying. People were gasping and turning away because it looked like they were going to go over the side. It only took a second for me and a few other people to decide that we were going to walk instead. A few foreigners got off. The Lao passengers laughed at us. Our bus made it through with just a little slipping and sliding so we jumped back on, and then off a few more times as we drove through more mudslides. At one point, we were driving through a village, hit mud, and nearly slide into some poor man's house. About 15 people were in and around the house, and once we started sliding their way went running like crazy. The house was set right off the side of the road on a steep hill. Our bus kept sliding into it and hitting his roof. We all got off again, since it looked like we were going to take this guy's house out, and there was a power line that we were precariously close to. The bus driver fought the bus and scraped the house again, but finally got it out. It was insane. Such an eventful and dangerous drive. No American bus would ever have been allowed to drive in those conditions.

One of the buses fishtailing and sliding through the mudslide.

Other passengers from my bus that decided to walk rather than risk the sketchy ride through the mud.

My bus nearly taking out someone's house and a power line. Our bus broke it's rearview mirror and scratched up the entire ride side.

I spent a couple days in Luang Prabang which is a great place to relax. There are more temples and monks here than in any other city in Laos. Herbal saunas and cheap foot reflexology treatments abound. I treated myself to a few of each, just to test our which was best :) I also signed up for a four day trek through the Lao mountains where we spent two nights in rural villages with the Hmong and Kamu people. I'm looking forward to it!

Huge reclining Buddha outside of Vientiane.

Buddha in Vientiane.

Buddha with sticky rice offering in Vientiane.

Wat Siskatet in Vientiane.

Buddhist wat (temple).

Thursday, August 5, 2010


I've gotten a little behind on keeping this updated. The last 3 weeks have been jam-packed. After India, I flew to Phnom Penh where Ryan was supposed to meet me on the 11th, but ended up getting delayed by a day. So, I did some sightseeing on my own that I didn't think he would mind missing: Wat Pnomh, the Royal Palace, and a few other historical sights. He finally made it into town and we took off immediately and went to S-21. It's a former high school that was used as a prison by the Khmer Rouge. Anywhere from 17,000-20,000 passed through the prison and were held and tortured before being sent to Choeung Ek (the Killing Fields) where they were killed and buried in mass graves. S-21 has a heartbreaking museum and writings of survivors about their experience. It's really eerie walking through the rooms where people were held. They have the chains and shackles and there are even still bloodstains on the walls. It rained and rained while we were there which seemed very fitting and added to the mood of this sad place. We also headed out to the Killing Fields. They've exhumed most of the bodies from the hundreds of mass graves, but there are still bone, teeth, and clothing fragments all over the ground that come up when it rains. Because it had been raining so much, we saw fragments everywhere. The pathway winds between hundreds of depressions, which were where the graves were. It's an eerie place. The rest of the day, Ryan and I were both pretty muted. An astonishing quarter of the entire population was killed. The former commander of the prison, Duch, has been on trial for years and was just sentenced last week. The trial was in the news a lot while we were there so it was interesting to hear Cambodians talk about it.. He was sentenced to 35 years, but the court shaved off 11 years for time served, and 5 years more for being illegally detailed. So he will only serve 19 years. Most of the people I talked to were very disappointed in the ruling.

Some of the people held and killed at S-21. The Khmer Rouge was meticulous in their record keeping and took photos of every single person that came through. Some of those killed were just babies and kids. There are thousands of photos in the museum and they are heartbreaking. Some have the most scared and confused expressions and others are openly defiant. Many have bruises and bleeding faces from torture before the photo. 

It's the rainy season in South East Asia. This is the road outside our hotel in Phnom Penh. The water was up to my knees!

Kampot is the pepper capital of the world. All the best restaurants use their pepper.

The next day we headed over to the seaside town of Kep. We found a great little hotel with a beautiful view of the ocean. We headed out to some nearby caves that have some temples and buddhas inside, ate some great seafood, and generally just relaxed. We moved onto the riverside of Kampot and took a boat tour up the river, and again, just relaxed. There's a chain of massage stores all across Cambodia that train blind men and women in shiatsu. It costs $6 for an hour so we eagerly signed up. It was seriously the most painful hour of my life. I didn't realize that shiatsu is all about thumbs and these men and women are especially strong. They're all about popping your fingers and toes and if it doesn't pop at first, they just keep pulling and pulling. I thought she was going to dislocate my big toe. I almost called it quits at multiple times during the hour. Afterwards, I did feel good, but I never signed up for another shiatsu massage again.

After Kampot we headed up to Battambang. The town itself is pleasant enough, but everything in this region is about getting out into the countryside and seeing the rural villages and farms. We lucked out and got the best tuk-tuk driver. He had just gotten married a few weeks earlier to a girl who worked the front desk at our hotel. We went out with him two full days and he showed us so many things we would've never seen without a local. We stopped at a rice paddy and got to try harvesting rice plants (I suck at it), see how they make spring roll rice paper, fish sauce, rice whisky making, visit Cambodia's only vineyard, and a whole slew of other things. We went to the "killing caves", one of many around Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge used it to dispose of bodies. They would tell prisoners that they were taking them out to the country to work, blindfold them, and push them into the caves. The caves had been used as Buddhist temples before, which the Khmer Rouge promptly destroyed. Today there is a memorial with some of the bones and a new buddha and temple. Pretty much anywhere you go in Cambodia is a memorial, killing field, killing cave, or stupa with a reminder about this tragedy.

While we were out and about on our tuk-tuk tour we came upon an accident. There was blood on the road and a damaged tuk-tuk and a group of locals huddled around a a doorway of a building. Whatever happened, it looked bad. Ryan went over to see if we could help and it turned out to be a Finish couple that was in the tuk-tuk. The tuk-tuk swerved to avoid a car that had turned abruptly without using their signal, and the tuk-tuk turned on its side and landed on the girl's foot. It was bleeding and she was in a lot of pain. Nobody was doing anything but watching them. We ended up helping the get to a medical centre nearby where they did a quick cleaning, but it was obvious they didn't have the facilities to do much. The whole thing was really frustrating because it was so hard to get anyone to act. Everyone just stood around and watched this poor couple. Ryan finally got them to call an ambulance to take her to the hospital. The ambulance pulled up and the driver got out and didn't do anything. Just stood and looked at her foot. Finally Ryan asked him if we should move her into the ambulance and he just looked at us like "oh, yeah, we probably should." Then before he would leave, he told us it cost $15. The whole thing was crazy and definitely made me appreciate healthcare in American. The ambulance only had the driver and he wasn't trained in medicine. He was just a driver. I can't imagine what happens when there is a life threatening emergency. She ended being ok, no broken bones, and she just needed a bunch of stitches. The poor tuk-tuk driver had some horrible road rash all over his hip and back from sliding on asphault when the tuk-tuk turned over. This is the second hospitalization that I've been close to since I arrived. My roommate at Rising Star in India, had a diabetic emergency one night and her blood sugar got down to 12 when it should be 100! They had to rush her to the hospital and get her on an IV. All the guidebooks say if you need serious medical attention, to get yourself to Bangkok asap. It definitely has made me a little more cautious in my activities here because the outcome could be catastrophic.

Our last stop in Cambodia, of course, was Angkor Wat and all the surrounding temples. They were pretty phenomenal. We had a great guide and learned and saw so many things I never would've known if we were just on our own. We spent two days exploring the temples and then our last day in Siem Reap. We took a cooking class and it definitely was one of my favorite parts of the trip. They took us to the morning market and we learned the names of all the local produce and fruits. Then we went back and learned how to make fresh spring rolls, fried nem (like fried spring rolls, fried rice, a delicious Cambodia meat dish, and mango and coconut sticky rice. All this for $12 a person and we got to eat all of it for lunch. It was quite a feast!

Our hotel offered cheap massages and spa treatments so we definitely treated ourselves to a few of those after hours of walking around temple complexes.

Ryan flew back home and I had another day on my own in Phnom Penh before flying over to Vientiane, Laos. I splurged on my last day in Phnom Penh and got a room at a nice hotel, with a great pool and wi-fi.

Beautiful Angkor Wat. Unfortunately the scaffolding from renovations detracted slightly...

Hand carving at Angkor.

Hanging out with the elephants at Bayon.

The carving is exquisite at the temples around Angkor. They look like they were just carved yesterday.

Angkor Thom - the famous temple from "Tomb Raider." The jungle is literally engulfing the buildings. It's so interesting to see.

Deep fried insects at the rest stop on the way to Phnom Penh.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Goodbye India

My last week at Rising Star flew by! The day I flew out, Saturday, they were having the dedication for the new wing of the school and the eating pavillion for the kids. Currently the kids eat all their meals outside. So the last week, we were busy with all the preparations. Lots of last minute cleaning, finishing up half done construction projects. I couldn't believe how much work the kids and staff put into beautifying the campus. They strung home made flags all over campus. They put up twine and then folded and glued thousands of individual flags of crepe paper onto the string. They also folded hundreds of bamboo leaves into hundreds of pretty decorations that we hung with the flags. With the festivities, a whole slew of people have come in. So our little group of 12 people has quickly become closer to thirty! The founder of RSO, Becky Douglas, and a bunch of the key people have been staying at the hostel and it's been really neat to hear their stories and get to know them.

I also got to go pay a visit to Bindu Art School, where the leprosy afflicted paint and sell their paintings. A few of them have gone to Europe for international exhibitions. Their paintings there sold for thousands of dollars. I ended picking up a small painting and got to talk to the artist and have my picture taken with her. My roommate, Sarah, was nice enough to pack it home for me since there's no way it would have survived the next part of my trip.

With the the artist and the picture I bought.

Saturday morning we were up early to help clean up the campus and sweep the road before all the guests arrived. The kids' families were invited too. Families are invited to Rising Star once a month, but many can't even come that often due to the cost involved in getting to campus. And if you can believe it, the leprosy afflicted aren't even allowed to ride buses. So, Rising Star sends a van to the train station to pick all the families up and bring them to campus. It still baffles me that India treats their own people like that. They are all cured of leprosy and are now just living with the results from it going untreated for so many years. Luckily, it does seem like attitudes are changing and I have no doubt that Rising Star is a big part of that.

We decided to wear saris for the big events since there would never be a another time in our lives we'd get to wear them. The hostel has a bunch of saris to choose from. I ended up getting a blue 60's print that was fun. The housemothers at the school helped us put them on with the help of many safety pins. Didn't want to take the change of anyone's yards and yards of carefully folded and tucked fabric, coming undone during the program!

The dedication has a whole of great speakers and dignitaries, including a $25,000 from the Marriott family! But the most exciting part was definitely the dances performed by the kids. They did a couple of traditional tamil dances that were so good. And then they performed to Michael Jackson's "Black or White" and they killed it. It was so cute to see the boys just rocking out. After the dancing and singing, all the families got lunch catered by the Marriott. We got to eat lunch with the kids and their families. It was so fun to meet their families and see how excited they were to have their parents there. It was so sweet to see how the families just spoil the kids. Many of them got new outfits to wear and candy. I think they were all thoroughly sick by the end of the day.

All the volunteer sessions get to paint a mural on a section of the wall surrounding the hostel. So we finished up our painting and then I left for the drive to Chennai and then onto Phnom Penh! It was sad to say goodbye to India, but I'm really exciting to meet up with Ryan and explore Cambodia.

Decorating the campus for dedication.

Playing dress-up.

Two of the dancers before their tradiational Tamil dance.

Sardi, one of the boys in my "family" and his family. There was a noticeable lack of fathers at Parent's Day.

Me and Ruthish...a boy in my family and one of my favorite kids. He's so funny for such a young kid and is so good at imitating people.

One of our kids in a brand new dress and matching hair bows.

I love giving kids my camera and seeing what pictures they take. Sometimes they're the best shots!

With a woman at a leprosy colony. She was so sweet and looked beautiful in her green sari.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Pondicherry & Beyond

On Friday, the other volunteers went to Delhi and Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Since I had already been there, I stayed back and went to the coastal town of Pondicherry with the summer volunteer directors, Raegan and Jenny. We got the cutest hotel room - all bright colors, antiques, and a swing in our room. It was amazing. We had a great time shopping and walking around. It's a former French colony so it has a really different feel than most of India. We went to the local temple and got blessed by an elephant. In the picture, it looks like the elephant is whacking me in the head. But mainly we ate and ate....everything non-Indian that we could find. We found an Italian restaurant owned by an actual Italian who was also the chef. He sat down with us and we had a great talk with him. After we told him we were from Utah, he asked us if we were Mormons. We said yes and he said "Fantastic! You are the first Mormons I've ever met!" Then periodically during dinner, he would burst out and say "fantastic....Mormons!" It was so funny. He asked us to email him a photo we took with him so that he could hang it up in the restaurant. It was really funny. We took the bus back to Chengalput and it ended up being a lot longer than we planned because of traffic and trains and construction. I had a good time chatting with the locals. I was listening to my ipod and this little kid asked if he could listen too so I gave him an earbud and put "Jai Ho" from "Slumdog Millionaire" on. He loved it.

On Monday I got to go to Bethel Nagar, another colony. Three of the boys in my "family" are from Bethel Nagar. It was mindboggling to walk around the village and imagine my boys living there. The kids at Rising Star are really westernized and speak English and are dressed well and are really clean. The kids in the village look poor and unhealthy. The kids go home to their families a couple times a year and I wonder how they cope being back in that environment - are they popular because of all the knowledge they have of the western world, or are they resented because of all the opportunities that they have.

I washed feet and got to interact with some really neat people and hear some amazing stories. One man, in his 80's had been blind for 20 years. Our doctor, Dr. Kumar, convinced the hospital to do an eye surgery on him even though they'd turned him down several times because they said he was going to die soon anyway. They finally agreed to do the surgery after Dr. Kumar told them that they wouldn't hurt anything by trying. The surgery restored his sight and he was able to see again. He said his wife looked more beautiful now than the day he married her :) Before the surgery, he was really unhappy and depressed, but now he's so joyful. He tells everyone the story and always raises his arms up to heaven and says "halleluiah, halleluiah". It's such a great story and his joy is palpable.

This is the man who could finally see again after twenty years. His surgery was last year and he's still ecstatic about his restored vision!

His happiness is contagious.

I got blessed by the elephant at a temple in Pondicherry.

Our Italian so delighted by his Mormons.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The end of Week 2....

I've gotten the chance to go to another three leprosy colonies over the past couple days. We basically go out with the doctor and two nurses and help them with whatever needs to be done. We take turns testing blood sugar, blood pressure, and then washing feet. Leprosy destroys the nerves, often in the feet and hands, and as a result, patients will get an injury or wound and not realize it. Many lose their feet because they will injure their foot and keep walking for days and weeks until there is a huge ulcer in it. So, at clinics, we remove their bandages, wash their ulcers and then the nurse re-bandages them. I was a little nervous the first time I washed someone. Some of their ulcers look incredible painful, but most can't feel it so it makes it easier to clean it thoroughly. And the patients are so sweet and kind. One of the colonies, Bhatapuram, is like a senior citizen's home for leprosy patients. One lady was so cute, the whole time I was washing her feet, she kept pinching my cheek and then kissing her fingers and smiling at me. I was trying to communicate with her, but she only speaks Tamil, no English so we weren't getting past "hello" and she just kept staring at me blankly. Then a Tamil speaker came over and interpreted that she was asking me what I had eaten that day. Here, after you say "hello", the next question is "have you eaten today"? It's like asking "how are you" since the answer will dictate how you are doing. So, I told her yes, and she asked what I ate and when I said "toast" she burst out laughing like it was the funniest thing she'd heard all week. A couple of other ladies sitting near us started laughing their heads off too. So there must be a Tamil word that sounds like "toast" that is really funny. I also cut a lot of toe and fingernails. We only had fingernail clippers and I was having a hard time cutting a man's toenails because they were so thick. But every time I managed to clip some off, he'd say "oh, very goooood". It made me laugh every time.

Bindu Art School is in the colony we visited as well. Some of the leprosy patients are amazing artists and even though many have no fingers and little or no feeling, they are producing amazing words that sell for hundreds of dollars. We got to visit the school and see some of the artists work and talk to them.

At one of colonies we went to, a man in his 80's, had had a heart attack that morning and was taken to the hospital. Dr. Kumar was talking to his wife and she started bawling because she was so worried about him. Then she came around to the three of us volunteers and one by one, took our hands and then laid her head against our chest and just cried. It was heartbreaking. All of us were fighting back tears. Even though we couldn't communicate with her, I think she understood how concerned we were about her and her husband. Aye...I know it's a cliche, but I think all the time about why I was so lucky to be borbn in America in this day and age. These kinds of experiences really drive home how fortunate and blessed I am.

One of the volunteers, Raegan, trimming toenails.

Leprosy patients.

Artist at Bindu Art Center.

One of our sweet patients. She was so nice.

My little lady who laughed so hard at "toast." When we had our picture taken, Kaci told us to say "toast" and we both started laughing again.

My little toast lady.

One of the patients.

A Bindu artist.

Bindu's seal on their paper.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Last Saturday we got to be tourists and go to the beach town of Mamallapuram about an hour away from Thottanaval. Mamallapuram has some ancient rock temples from 665 AD. The other girls shopped while I browsed....I spent way too much money when I was North. Then we went to the beach and kicked back and relaxed. On the way home, we stopped for dosas. You're not in Southern India if you haven't had a dosa. It's basically like a big rolled up crispy crepe. So yummy.

Monday and Tuesday I was at the school and did some tutoring in reading. I like the one on one time with the kids. Most of the time when I see them, it's at recess or at night when we're in our "families" and they're running around like crazy people. One of the greatest benefits of having American volunteers is that the kids get to practice their English and we help them with their accents. Without Rising Star, most of these kids wouldn't have much of a future because of their status here. They would stay in the colonies and many would be out on the street, begging with their parents. But, Rising Star is giving them a good education and lots of practice in English so that they can succeed when they leave school. In fact, many of the huge companies that have outsourced jobs here in India, have already agreed to hire Rising Star students once they graduate and have passed their exams! That is a huge deal because these companies pay really good money. It's really exciting to be a part of this, alebit a tiny part. The founder of Rising Star got here a couple days ago and has been telling us the most fascinating stories. Some are horrific and tragic. Others are funny and about how hard it is to get things done here in India. But, it's been really inspiring listening to her because she started Rising Star not that long ago, and they're already seeing huge changes. Pretty heady stuff!

Krishna's Butterball in Mamallapuram.

Naveen - one of kids in my "family" and one of my faves.

The kids put a book in a cardboard box and pretend they're watching a movie. So creative!

Recess time. The kids loving having their pictures taken and using our cameras.