Thursday, July 21, 2011

Coconut Wonderland

I distinctly remember hearing a former DukeEngage participant mention at our training session that he regretted not blogging enough about his summer. If I ever become one of the training session assistants next year, I suspect I will end up saying the exact same thing.

Our fine travellers are now in Ben Tre, which is located in the Mekong Delta in the southern part of Vietnam. The difference between Ben Tre and Quang Tri is immediately obvious. Like a Starbucks on every corner of an American city, there are coconut trees everywhere. You can drink coconut milk straight from the coconut -- it costs only fifty cents to buy a coconut here. Our assistant told us not to go under a coconut tree at midnight -- apparently, people have been killed by a falling coconut. He also mentioned that the same applies to durian trees, which I personally think would be a worse way to go. For those unfamiliar with durian, a durian is a melon-sized fruit covered in hard spikes and is infamous for its smell. I cannot stand the smell, but durian is actually quite popular in Vietnam. The thought of being impaled by the spikes of a durian before succumbing to its smell is quite gruesome in my mind.

Instead of being split into two groups like in Quang Tri, here all 22 students work on building the same house for a three-person family. It takes us about 40 minutes to bike and walk to the work site -- we actually have to stop at a certain point and walk the rest of the way because we cannot bike across the multiple monkey bridges that lead to the work site. After lunch, we lead a summer camp for elementary school children in the village. I and two of our Vietnamese roommates teach art; the other five classes we are teaching are physical education, health, English, geography, and science. Dance was originally a class, but now instead the dance teachers (Katie, Devyn, Xuan) lead a group exercise with all of the children outdoors for the last fifteen minutes of camp.

Art has actually been quite a pleasure to teach. Our first lesson plan has had a music focus, and so we've taught each class of children to sing both the Vietnamese and English versions of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." Consequently, my voice has had quite a workout from singing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" multiple times per class. In the future, we are planning to have lessons on origami, paper cutting, drawing, and painting. The children have very short attention spans, but they make up for it with their ability to melt your heart like butter with their cuteness.

The wireless internet connection is finally working at our guesthouse, so hopefully I will be able to update in Ben Tre much more frequently than I did in Quang Tri. If you're reading this in America, cross your fingers! But don't do that if you're in Vietnam -- it means something else here.  ;]

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Provincial Life

Anyone who has encountered me during finals week has probably figured out that Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite Disney movies. To maintain a good mood, I will usually cycle in a ton of Disney songs into my playlist while I study. Consequently, I know almost all of the words to the song "Belle" -- you know, the one with all the "Bonjours" and that hilarious bit where Belle sings, "I want much more than this provincial life" -- right before Gaston announces, "Just watch as I'm going to make Belle my wife!" and the townspeople go "Pftttt yeah right" and completely ignore him.

Yes, I'm getting somewhere with this.

I've grown up my whole life in the suburbs, and I cannot tell you who my neighbors are beyond two doors down. Thus, the small town mentality here in Quang Tri is completely new to me. It's awesome in literal sense of the word -- you know, awestruck. There have been quite a few instances here that have are perfect examples of this, but I suppose it's probably better for me to talk about my own experience instead.

On Sunday night, a group of kids came by the guesthouse to play. Unfortunately, the majority of our group had not yet returned from dinner, which meant the rest of us were left to entertain the kids while they waited for the others to return. We ended up playing a number of group games with the kids, one of which was called "Chicken and the Fox." At a certain point in the game, I was the fox and Kathy was the chicken. I was chasing her around the pavement when my foot got caught in one of the cracks on the ground, and I ended up spraining my ankle. Which is quite sad when you think about it -- I'd been working on construction for an entire week with nary a bruise, and strangely enough I end up spraining my ankle from playing games with children.

In any case, by Monday morning my foot hurt enough that I could not walk without limping. My Vietnamese roommate had to bike me to the health center to get my foot checked. At the health center, two things struck me:

1. People knew who I was. This was pretty bizarre for me -- because of my looks, I don't get the head-turning or second-glances that someone like Allison or Juan Pablo gets whenever we bike along the main street. According to my roommate, a bunch of people at the health clinic saw me and said, "Oh, she's the volunteer!" I have a feeling that by the afternoon, the whole town knew I had hurt my foot from playing games.

2. Health care costs are stupefyingly inexpensive here. I paid about 4000 dong to see the doctor, and 40.000 dong to get two X-rays done. That is equivalent to about 20 cents to see the doctor and 2 US dollars for the X-rays. Those two X-rays are my coolest souvenirs thus far.

In case you were wondering, I recovered quickly and was back to work by Wednesday, just in time to be present for our Parking Team's last day, as we completed the parking structure on Wednesday. Nevertheless, my sprained ankle caused me quite a few problems in those two days of recovery.

The most notable example happened on Tuesday night. My foot was already feeling much better, but at my roommate's insistence, I agreed not to bike to one of the Vietnamese roommate's house for dinner. Instead, her close friend, another Vietnamese roommate in the program, offered to carry me on the back of his bike.

At this point, I think I should mention that by Vietnamese standards, I am ridiculously heavy. I should also mention the fact that this bike ride involves at least 20 minutes on a bumpy dirt road in the countryside.

Not only did this poor gentleman have to carry this American girl who probably weighed more than him across a bumpy unpaved road, the useless girl who had just visited the house a week ago also forgot to tell him where to turn right. As a result, the two missed the turn and ended up biking for forty minutes until they realized they were lost and had to turn around and ask for directions.

In my defense, for a girl who grew up in the suburbs of one of the biggest cities in California, the Quang Tri countryside starts to look all the same when you see all those rice paddies one after the other.

To end on a positive note, the ride back home to the guesthouse was much better. It's actually quite nice biking through the countryside at night. There are no street lamps and no light pollution in the countryside, so we carry a flashlight as we bike home. The only sounds are from the nocturnal creatures and the occasional motorbikes. I would say the tranquility is what I like best about this little town.