Friday, August 28, 2009

Crossing the Mekong: My Excellent Summer Adventure

From the moment we left Chicago, our trip was packed with new and unexpected adventures. I was somewhat prepared for my first trip to Asia via prior reading, videos, and conversations, but the preview simply touched the surface of what we experienced. Our first stop, Hong Kong provided a night-time view of a crystal fairyland nestled among the mountains and proved to be only the first stop on an incredible eight day journey through crowded, litter-strewn streets, peaceful country sides, dimly lit markets, ancient temples, monuments to the martyrs of genocide and meandering rivers.

When people ask, “What was your favorite thing?”, so many pictures are etched in my mind like the city scenes of thousand of motorbikes; mile after mile of dwellings where generations of families sold their wares to passers-by from a storefront and lived in the back of the simple dwelling; a new definition of open-air dining where families squatted around a small grill awaiting the next meal; the ever-present vendors who urged, “buy something from me madam”. There were parks, monuments, buildings, and temples that serve as reminders of the ingenuity of ancient civilizations. The beautiful countryside dotted with rice patties, water buffalo, and gently rolling hills offered yet another, more tranquil scene. But if I had to choose, I’d say it was the quiet dignity, resolute manner, and spirit of the Cambodian people that left the greatest impression.

Our Cambodian guide, Rith, modeled the strength of his people. He shared the story of an idyllic childhood that changed so drastically with the reign of the Khmer Rouge who attempted to wipe out the population of educated Cambodians. After walking the Killing Fields, hearing the stories, and giving silent homage to those who had died there during the years of terror under the Khmer Rouge, I wondered how Rith could still possess such a positive attitude and outlook on life. It appeared that his Hindu faith based in forgiveness and looking toward the future was the source of his strength.
This positive attitude was also seen in the children we met. From the moment we arrived at the Bright Future Kids Home, we were bombarded with smiles and youthful giggles. The afternoon flew by as they sang songs; we shared games and visited with the children who called BFKH their home. There was no doubt that they were eager to discover as much as they could about us and practice their English speaking skills. As students, they were exceptional. Two fifteen year old boys shared their dreams for the future and the plans they’d mapped out to get there. Their focus and dedication to learning were inspiring. The talented students of the Sangkhum School demonstrated their talents in an awe inspiring presentation of Cambodian music and dance. Years of practice had resulted in their ability to expertly perform the music and dances of their ancestors and would eventually enable them to live independently.

While our trip provided the opportunity to learn so much about the people of Cambodia, their culture and history, I feel like there is another chapter to be written. I’d like to return and volunteer at BKFH and help the students there to achieve their dreams. With that in mind, I’ve added yet another item to my “bucket list” and plan to work diligently to see that the wish is realized.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


As the colorful spinning top of the Mekong adventure starts to settle, I realize that several thoughts keep resurfacing in my head.

I had done my pre-trip homework by studying the history of Vietnam and the history of Cambodia. I also had visited sites on YouTube which captured in pictures the lush Mekong delta and the amazing temples outside of Siem Reap. I knew that each country would offer its own separate, but enticing experiences. Therefore, I was unprepared to come away from visiting each country with a vastly different emotional response. The impressions were formed primarily by the urban areas and tour guides.

Ho Chi Minh City gave me my first impression of Vietnam. It is an exhausting city where my senses were constantly bombarded. While traveling by foot in the city, I found myself wedged between a sidewalk packed with parked scooters and the street alive with moving motor scooters. Shop fronts the size of garage doors lined the never-ending city blocks selling a very small stock of beverages to very few customers. Slung between poles, I observed resting shop owners and children. Interspersed between the shops stood the stalls of fruit sellers where mounds of exotic fruit of all colors and scents (both good and bad) blasted the passersby. Fruit rinds and garbage were strewn every which way. Masses of telephone wires hung between poles. Under the rooftop of the central markets hundreds of sellers stood in dark hot stalls poking customers and hawking their wares with, “Madam, madam, for you?” Open parks were rare. In this bustling city, there appeared to be no green spaces or buildings that offered tranquility.

Our guide in Vietnam, Mr. D, shared a lot of valuable information, but there was an edge to him. What was his real take on the American involvement in the Vietnam War? Did he appreciate his country’s economic system where every family member contributed to the household, and cash, not credit, bought your extended family a house? Did he really believe that it was okay when children didn’t attend school because their parents didn’t work hard enough to pay for the education? Was this communism or conservatism?

In contrast, Cambodia felt like a reprieve to the over-stimulating life in Ho Chi Minh City. Although Phnom Penh had some rough areas, there was room to breath. Flower-planted boulevards and parks graced the city. Families happily congregated at playgrounds on Sunday. Large and small shops lined the streets adding variety, not monotony. Shop owners and city workers were busy sweeping sidewalks and pruning weeds. When garbage was visible, it was swept into a pile to the side. The central markets were just as crowded as in Vietnam, but the sellers were more relaxed, less intense. Striking Buddhist temples were sprinkled everywhere.

Our guide in Cambodia, Rith, was an icon of gentleness. With the voice and poise of Sidney Poitier he shared information about the Cambodian culture. I was struck by the fact that he could maintain this presence in spite of being a victim of the Khmer Rouge in the mid 1970s. The love for his country and children was evident, and he supported his government’s decision to give amnesty to the Khmer Rouge people.

Was it just the luck of the draw that we landed two very different guides? Would more time in Vietnam and more visits to urban areas have given me a different feeling about the country? Having observed the death and destruction caused by the Vietnam War on the nightly TV news in the late ‘60s, I believe I was hoping in 2009 for the Vietnamese to be surrounded in a peaceful, heavenly environment. Perhaps they were.

For me, the most difficult experience of the trip was spent at Tuol Sleng Cambodia, the detention center for the families of intellectuals, business people, and enemies of the Khmer Rouge. In this museum courtyard under the branches of the trees that produced simple white flowers, Rith told the story of the families that were victimized by the Khmer Rouge. Torture, separation from family, reeducation and eventual murder were institutionalized. Rith told us his own story of being separated from his family from age nine to 11. He remarked that it was his older sister who recognized him after a long absence and how they needed to hide this familial bond in front of the Khmer Rouge. Visitors to the Tuol Sleng Genicide Museum strolled through the buildings absorbing the horrors of this holocaust, weeping in silence. This event occurred just 30 years ago. How did it happen? How was it allowed to happen? How can we prevent other acts of genocide?

And then there were the children. The children who attend the ACIS schools without electricity. The children who smile and respond in spite of the heat. The orphaned children who live on the love from their community care-givers. The children whose only possessions are a change of clothes and a well-worn doll. The bright children who live 500 km from home, hoping to learn everything and give back to their countries. Out of our four visits with children’s centers, my most vivid memory with the Cambodian children was at the orphanage center. Here, the main care-taker had spent 30 years supporting orphaned children. These 15 or so children had a parent with HIV, had been struggling to survive and had been found and transferred to the orphanage. Prior to life at the orphanage, one boy of 12 had supported his three younger brothers and sister on tiny cakes he could sell at a profit of 2 cents each. Our USM team taught American games to the children on the dried mud in the blistering heat. The children caught on easily and there appeared to be glee in their hearts as we chased each other in “Duck, Duck, Goose” and waggled to the chicken dance. Why was no one whining? How is it that they could play so cooperatively? Where did this indomitable spirit come from?

My last most memorable experience was touring the temples outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia. It was impressive to discover how this 10 year-old government imposed a system of preservation in the enormous park that housed the temples. Entering the 400 square km of Angkor Archaeological Park, tickets were purchased from efficient park employees. Rules governed the park, one of which allowed the long-standing villages and people to remain in their modest ancestral homes. No new construction was permitted. A significant amount of park employees kept the Ankgor Wat moat clean and the walkways free of weeds. The temple ruins were surreal. Giant silk-cotton trees grew in and out of the Ta Prohm’s temple crevices creating dreamlike facades. Did the trees’ roots hold up the walls or did the walls hold up the trees? How was it possible that there was so much consistency in design throughout the temple? Did a general contractor race from one end of the 500 square acre temple of Angkor Wat to another, ensuring consistency in wall height and uniformity in the carvings of the apsaras? What else can we learn about ordinary life from the Angkor period based upon the carvings?

One strong indicator of a trip’s success is the interest that it continues to generate long after the experience has passed. I am deeply grateful that I was given the opportunity to experience Vietnam and Cambodia. My curiosity and questions continue. I look forward to learning more about these countries and sharing my experiences with the USM community.

Lori VanderVelde

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Final Thoughts

One of the pitfalls of being the last to post a reflection is trying to find something different to say from all of the previous posts. But after spending 11 days travelling with my colleagues and reading their reflections, I know exactly what I want to write about.

Throughout the trip I was continually struck by how much this group loves children and loves teaching. I've always known this fact about all of my faculty, but it was brought home time and again as I watched our interaction with the children whom we encountered. Of course we were impressed by the sights that we saw, we were saddened by the depth of poverty we observed, we were awed by the ancient ruins, we were engaged in trying to understand the differences in cultures, and we were constantly discussing and asking questions to absorb as much knowledge about Vietnam and Cambodia as we could. But this was all surpassed by the presence of a child. Whether it was the students at the schools or the children at the orphanage, or a child playing on a city street, it seemed as if we were drawn to them: we wanted to take their pictures to have them always in our memory, we wanted to teach them, to play games with them, to hug them, to engage in conversation with them. The love of teaching and the love of children is ingrained in us. We don't just work with children at USM from 8 to 4. Teaching isn't a "job" for us - it's a passion. Our hearts broke when we saw how little these children have. It was very difficult to leave the children at the schools and the orphanage - we would turn several times to wave good-bye, many of us with tears in our eyes, before getting on our bus to continue our journey.

The trip was a fabulous experience. I was so proud of my teachers - their responsiveness to the children, their desire to bring back all that they learned to enhance our USM students' learning, and their hope to create a service project that will help the children of Vietnam and Cambodia become the future leaders of their countries. Amazing how much impact 11 days can make in a person's life.....

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Yesterday morning I began organizing and sorting through my 1300+ images of Vietnam and Cambodia. While looking at the pictures several thoughts and reactions came to me as I remembered all our experiences during our ten day trip. First of all, the visit to Southeast Asia took me completely out of my comfort zone. The language, the food, the culture, the sounds, the smells were all so different from my life in Milwaukee.

As a member of the Vietnam generation, while we were making our descent into Saigon I could only think of my high school classmates who were drafted after graduation and their anxiety as they flew into Vietnam. They must have been terrified having left (for most of them their first time out of Missouri) the comfort of our hometown and arriving into a war zone. Like Joe, this trip was also a way I could see Vietnam and not always think of the nightly images that appeared on the 5 o’clock news.

I must say my fondest memory was the Cambodian children. Whether we met them in the schools, the orphanages, the streets it did not matter. They always would greet us with a quick smile and a beautiful friendly face. I began talking to a woman from St Louis as we were waiting for our boarding call in Thailand. Once she heard about our trip she immediately responded by saying that her first goal would be to bring the Cambodian orphans to the United States. I immediately responded that if she saw the love and care those children receive she would not think an American adoption would be the best for these children. The Cambodian children are cherished and it is obvious that the adults see the children as the hope for a better future for Cambodia. They may not have the material belongings that a life in the United States would give them but they are loved, nurtured and most importantly happy in their homeland.

Francine Eppelsheimer

The summer of 2009 is surely one that will stand out in my memory for years to come.  Three days into summer vacation, I found myself 8615 miles (as the crow flies and the map service tells me) from Milwaukee.  Even though that fact alone might cause one to think of the trip as “memorable” there are numerous verbal, physical, emotional, and intellectual experiences that I encountered on my 10-day trip to Vietnam and Cambodia that are much more significant.

            Right now, as I sit with my journal and nearly 1000 photographs that I’ve taken, I will begin the on-going process of reliving and reflecting further about the things I saw and heard while on this journey.  Mind you, this is only the beginning……….

            On our first full day in Vietnam we visited the Viet Cong Cu Chi Tunnels.  As I overcame my claustrophobic tendencies and crawled (bent over) a short distance through one of the tunnels to the next exit, I thought about the lengths people will go to survive.  I couldn’t wait to reach the light of day. With over 200 km (that’s about 124 miles, you know) of connecting tunnels and rooms, I begin to try to imagine what it would have been like to stay, live, and eat down underground for months at a time. After a brief five or so minutes of crawling around in the dark, I was ready to exit!  We saw a diagram of the ingenious layout of the tunnel system – the four-chambered system which would allow smoke from cooking and heating fires to escape slowly to the outdoors, the ventilation holes placed strategically near huge termite hills for camouflage, and the parts of the tunnel that were placed near the river in order to hold the livestock near.  Well laid-out – well thought-out……….hard to imagine living in them.

            As we walked the grounds, seeing (or rather having the guide point out the various entrances to the tunnels) I also thought about our soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War and what little chance they really had in defeating/surviving here.  Viewing the assorted booby traps and devices used in the jungle against other human beings turned my stomach.  What horror – war.  What a dichotomy – killing and striving to stay alive.

            In the cities we visited I was taken by the juxtaposition of old and new.  Old, shanty-like homes and store fronts intermingled with brightly colored, modern homes and apartments – some palatial.  Apparently no zoning laws, at least none like those in the US.  Perhaps more striking is the fact that no one seems to mind.

            The foods of Vietnam and Cambodia were, for the most part, delicious.  I know that I will be searching the bookstores and the Internet for some of the recipes of the foods I enjoyed.  (Although I have little hope of being able to find Elephant Ear fish here in the U. S.)  Perhaps, I’ll even make more frequent visits to the Mekong CafĂ©!

            The trips to Unicorn Island, the Cham village, and the floating market will not be forgotten.  The lifestyles of the peoples in these communities contrast heavily with those in the U. S.  The reliance on the river, the rain, and the natural resources in their surroundings provide them with a strong sense of cooperation and connections to family and community.  All work together to survive, all the while maintaining a friendly, welcoming demeanor – despite their hard work and struggles.  Their pride is evident in how they conduct themselves and the daily efforts they put forth to provide for themselves and their families.


            The visits to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields were the most harrowing.  Our guide was seven years old at the time the Pol Pot Regime evacuation of Phnom Penh and separated from his family for four years.  My eyes swelled as he told his story.  It’s hard for me to imagine how and why such senseless killing could occur.  How possibly justify the killings of so many innocents, the indoctrination of children? How very evil.  That history should repeat itself in such a form is the deepest of tragedies.  I know that it’s important – much like the Holocaust Museum – to make these inhumanity-to-man crimes public in the hopes that such things will not happen again.  I am now reading a book I purchased at the museum on the Pol Pot Regime, in an attempt to find out more facts about this time and place in history, knowing that despite what I read there will never be a “reason” for such travesties.  This period of time in Cambodia will continue to unnerve me anew each time I reflect on it.  It will never find “a place” in my mind.  The suffering of the Cambodian peoples has, however, found a place in my heart.


            I was delighted with the visits to the ACIS school in Khprob Village, the Sangkheum Center, and the Bright Futures Kids Home and A New Life Orphanage.  These visits were definitely highlights of the trip. I was impressed with the difference one person or a handful of people can make in the lives of children.  The sense of family and community prevailed in all of the facilities. Whether teaching, playing games, or simply talking with the children at these locations, the fact that children are children (and the hope of the future) no matter where you are in the world was brought home.  I hope someday that I will be able to return to Siem Reap and spend more time with the children and teachers there.  In the meantime, I will have to contend myself with maintaining communication via email with those that I met. (Oh! The wonders of technology!)
            One high school student who I met at the Bright Futures Kids Home had asked if I would like to exchange emails with him.  Of course, my reply was the affirmative. By the time I returned to the hotel later that evening a message from him awaited! Since that visit I have received three more emails from two other students and a helper at the orphanage who is studying to be an accountant.  I fantasize about meeting all of them again.

            The new ACIS school is only beginning to develop.  (I believe we are the first Americans to visit the school.) Many of the students are from the poor surrounding villages and bike to school. Class sizes are large – about 50 students – and there are no computers.  Perhaps USM can continue to assist and support in the development of the school.  Both students and teachers were excited about our visit and our contributions of Harry Potter books (written both in Khmer and English), school supplies, balls, and, of course, American candy!

            The temple visits were somewhat overwhelming.  Although I have quite extensively documented each of these visits (Angkor Wat, et al) photographically, I found it necessary to purchase a book that not only contains the correct spellings of the names of the temples, god, and goddesses, but also includes a history and explanations of the multitude of carvings and buildings on each site.  My mind raced as my ears heard and attempted to catalogue all of the information that simply rolled out of the mouth of our knowledgeable guide. 


            So, it seems that at least my early summer reading has been selected.  The trip was a confirmation of the fact that the more I learn, the more I realize that there’s so much that I have yet to learn.  My head is filled with so many new facts and experiences, but my heart is filled with a new sense of wonder, of knowing, and of anticipation of good things yet to come.  I am so appreciative of having had the opportunity to take this journey – one that will impact my future and, hopefully, make me a better person for having had the experiences it provided. 


I’m (Edie) not very good at expressing myself with words….especially when the words I’m looking for reflect the things that have touched me the most. I am so incredibly thankful for the opportunity of being with the “Crossing the Mekong” group, and for learning and experiencing all that we did. There are so many memories and moments that I will carry with me forever. There are memories that I hope will change me forever. The Cambodian genocide has touched me deeply. To hear the story of our tour guide first hand while standing in the courtyard of the facility that once housed thousands of Cambodians before they were slaughtered, and now houses their pictures and stories in a museum, was so overwhelming. To play with the children left behind from this tragedy… to talk and interact with the orphaned… to see their spirit and hear their dreams was so encouraging. I am going to choose the better words of a songwriter to express what it all means to me. The following is part of a song called, “I Saw What I Saw” by Sara Groves, who wrote these words after a similar visit to Rwanda.

I saw what I saw and I can't forget it
I heard what I heard and I can't go back
I know what I know and I can't deny it

Something on the road, cut me to the soul
Your pain has changed me
Your dream inspires
Your face a memory
Your hope a fire
Your courage asks me
What I'm afraid of
(what I am made of)
And what I know of love


Friday, June 26, 2009

Reflecting on Southeast Asia

I know I will have other reflections, but I want to put this down now so I will remember.

First, I appreciate the opportunity to share an experience of a lifetime with eight fine colleagues. The trip was great but made greater for the time spent with each other.

Since I was young-a while ago-I have always thought, when hearing the word "Vietnam," of war, the enemy, communists, and the Vietcong. The context for thinking about Vietnam and Cambodia has been about war and killing. Now, after spending 10 days there, I have a better more positive context-the people. They are kind, considerate, polite, and gentle. They harbor no bitterness to us for what happened in the past, at least none that I noticed. The children are beautiful, knowledgeable, articulate, and made us feel welcome. I was honored to meet them and they made me feel that they felt the same way. My son-in-law is from Laos and I now have an understanding, though limitted, of his life before he came here.

The other reflection is of Cambodia. Their tragic history and the terrible crimes committed against their people I knew a little about before going. What I never knew was how the people feel about that history now. Our guide, after showing us the Killing Fields, talked about the Buddhist tenet of forgiveness. He had strong feelings that the right path for Cambodians was to forgive and move on, but not to forget. The only way for the killing to end would be to forgive and accept even those who might have done evil. He was an impressive man and will remain in my mind the Cambodia of today. Cambodia was my favorite place and I hope to return there one day and make a contribution.

I will remember the places, the temples, the cities, the traffic, and what we saw. But, my impression of Vietnam and Cambodia will always be more about the people we met and talked to and who made us feel welcome in their country, the people who in spite of tragedy in the past look forward to a bright future.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Heading Home

After a very quick stop in Bangkok for some shopping, dinner, and cultural dance performance, we are finally on our way home. The 3 AM wake up call is a beast. We will try to update everyone from our layover in Tokyo, but if not, the next time you hear from us will be from the US!

One Night in Bangkok ...

Remember that song in the 80s? We lived it, as we arrived in Bangkok around 3:oo PM, stopped at the hotel, hit the streets for some final crazy shopping and sightseeing, and then to dinner for a traditional Thai meal and cultural dancing. Joe got his curry that he desired! We enjoyed our brief stay in the capital of Thailand, but everyone was dead tired and dreading the impending wake up call for the long flight home ...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Photos-More than you can imagine!

This will be the most photo and audio documented trip on record, I think. When one battery goes down, 8 others take its place. Same thing with memory cards-fill one, or "run out of memory," and someone else fills in the breach.

So, in that vein, since none of my photos have been uploaded due to technical issues, I put here a link that would be another source for you to see where we are and have been.

Here is the link:

These are just pictures. I have some video to share of the kids we have seen but that will have to wait until we return.

Kids steal the show, again.

A hot day in Siem Reap was followed again with a visit to a school-actually an orphanage. The students live there, in families, about 7 per family. They stay in a little house (bunk beds, no indoor plumbing) and eat on picnic style on their campus-on picnic tables. They performed some traditional Cambodian dances-4 of them- little girls doing doing a dance that symbolized a garden and flowers, a group of middle school age kids acting like middle school kids but doing an intricate dance, and a group of older students dealing with the theme of dating and such. Again, even after seeing the wonders of the world at Angkor Wat, and the other temples, which are truly wonders, these little kids with their smile and friendly faces put everything in perspective.

I read before coming here that Cambodia people are the most friendy in the world. That is truly an understatement. What a place and what a people!

Sangkhem Center - WOW!

We ended the day with a visit to Sangkheum Center, an orphanage in Siem Reap that provides education, vocational training, and care to disadvantaged, neglected, and orphaned children in the area. The center is a beautiful complex with great people doing great things for children in Cambodia. Besides serving as a home for over fifty children, the center offers extra tutoring in English, health care, sports, leisure trips, and training.

One of the training programs the Center provides is traditional Khmer music and dancing. The idea is to not only give the children an appreciation of their culture, but also give them a skill for future employment. The students are given formal instruction every Sunday and perform throughout the area. They gave us a performance at their school, and it’s nearly impossible to put it into words. Beautiful, entertaining, impressive, touching … it really has to be seen and heard to understand.

Sangkheum Center is an example of great people doing great things for great kids. We can help by staying in touch, connecting our kids with their kids, and providing some financial support. It’s a perfect service learning connection for the middle school.

If there is one thing I learned on this trip, it's that kids rule.

Amazing Angkor

Just when you thought you’ve seen enough … you go to the temples of Angkor and get blown away. We took a short (and incredibly early) flight from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap this morning and went directly to the Angkor complex, home to some of the most amazing works of architecture/art in the world. We began at Angkor Thom, the old capital of the Khmer Empire. Built in 1181, this city was home to 1 million citizens at its peak – more than any European city of the time. The reliefs on the temple walls at Bayon are incredible in their detail and tell stories of Khmer history and devotion to both Hinduism and Buddhism.

From there, we headed to Ta Prohm – something none of us were expecting. The temple to the mother of King Jayavarman VII, this temple has basically been swallowed by the jungle. Walking through the corridors led to one view after another, each one surpassing the prior in wonder. Seriously, we were all in a state of awe. To get an idea of how cool this place is, Think of the temple in Tomb Raider … because it was shot at Ta Prohm.

After a delicious lunch at a restaurant for culinary and restaurant management school students, we went to the largest religious structure in the world – the famous Angkor Wat. We toured the temple for over two hours in the heat of the afternoon, examining bas reliefs of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, marveling at the architecture of the Khmer, and seeing the overall devotion to the gods of the Khmer people.

Picture and video really don’t do the temples justice … but we still collectively took over a thousand shots during our tour. I was personally awestruck by the sheer size of the temples and the Angkor complex, and found myself wanting to learn so much more about the Khmer Empire. I never learned it in school, never taught it in my old world cultures class back in the day, and am looking forward to finding out more about a culture and empire that dwarfed some of the great civilizations of its time.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Highlight of the Trip!

These are reflections and represent our thoughts on this day representing why we are here - a collective post. Check out all of the images and video here - we will add a ton more!

We started today at the ACIS school, greeted by appreciative students and teachers that were expecting us, and glad to see us. They were asked to line up in straight rows, and they did it, outside on the school grounds. We spent time in classrooms either playing games or, in my case, Chuck and I taught an origami and math lesson. Imagine, even though history rules, today Chuck helped me with a math lesson. We folded paper, counted cubes, found some number patterns. There were 50 kids in each classroom. The temperature was really hot, as has been the case all during this trip. But, students listened and participated and smiled and made us feel like we were “gods.” After two class periods of about an hour each, with teachers (us) switching classrooms, we passed out the gifts we brought. Each student got a book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer Stone, a USM pencil, a small packet of paper and other school supplies, and some candy. I did get a video of a young boy chewing on a tootsie roll. He was thoroughly engaged in the act of chewing.

(Becky) Dolores and I played games with two classes: Simon Says, Charades, Hangman, and “I Spy with My Little Eye”. The students were shy, at first, then quickly got involved with the playfulness of the game – whispering, giggling, and readily volunteering answers to the questions and participating in the games. All were anxious to learn and very engaged. When we gave them their gifts, each student thanked us, and many began experimenting with the scratch “magic” paper before we exited the room.(…one student scratched, “ I love you) Our small gifts were so appreciated. The children once again were the teachers, and we were reminded that when we serve others, both sides benefit.

We had the opportunity to visit the ACIS school, the orphanage for children of parents with HIV and the Bright Future Children Center. At all sites, the children were respectful, yet smiley . The teachers were paired up to present lessons to students in class sizes of 30. Given little time to prepare, we played games including 7-Up, Simon Says, and“Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”. Even though some of the students at ACIS were 17 years old, they were delighted to learn the American games. It was hotter than blazes and the teachers were rehydrated with water. After students sang their appreciation with the Cambodian National Anthem, we gave then simple gifts of books and candy.

We ate at a floating restaurant and took another ride in a boat on the Mekong. I wondered what the chances were that we could get stranded on the Mekong again, but we did have to turn back after a thunder storm approached us.

The afternoon proved to be more heart wrenching. Kids, again, stole the show. We visited the Bright Future Children Center. First we saw kids who have lost one or both parents through HIV. All of us would agree, our hearts were tugged by these kids. I will let others explain more in detail. We played games-duck duck goose, hocky pokey, simon says, heads shoulders knees and toes, and Paul did a juggling demonstration. The kids were very appreciative and fast learners. They learned the games and were great sports. After that we visited students who were selected for attendance at a high level of instruction, the brightest of the bright. We gave gifts again and again, even though they were older students (teenagers) they were appreciative and made us feel like kings. It is difficult to put it into words, but we all left with strong feeling about how special and valuable these children are and how they moved us in ways that we will never forget.

Connections were made with the staff and students at the school. By the time I (Becky) got to the hotel, one of the high school students had already sent me an email! Life – long friends and correspondences are two of the things I look forward to this coming year. Thoughts abound as to whether it would be possible to return to visit this group of promising young adults and children.

(Joe) This is my reflection: Why did we come to Southeast Asia? We found the answer today in the kids we met. They were priceless. Among all the beautiful temples and buildings, and the tragic history of the people in Vietnam and Cambodia, today showed me what is truly the most valuable resource that any culture has, its children. Hopefully, although it will be difficult, the video will partially explain the where the strong feelings come from. But, we all left with those strong feelings about the value of the young people here, and anywhere.

(Chuck) We are waiting for our plane to Siem Riep to see Angkor Wat, so we will need to post more later if we have time. Bottom line - our visits to the school were the highlight of the trip for all of us. We have already received emails from some of the students, and we plan to continue a relatinship with the ACIS school, the orphanage, and the Bright Future Children Center. There is so much we can do together, even halfway across the globe.

The Royal Palace

Today we went to the Royal Palace. My first impression was opulence. Because it was a Sunday the palace grounds were packed with Cambodian visitors. Sundays are devoted to the family - it was fun to watch the interaction between the family members. There were also many Buddhist monks; we were told by our guide that they study very hard throughout the week and have Sunday afternoons free. Some of the monks seemed very young. Rith, our guide, explained that the monks don't always stay as monks but they may return to secular life and become teachers.

Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy and the king still lives in the palace. He is a monk and thus is unmarried. His parents also live in the palace. The king is elected by the royal council so thus is not an inherited position.

I asked Rith (our guide) if the King new what was occuring in his country during the genocide. Rith's answer was that the king was under house arrest and would only be allowed to leave the palace grounds when the Khmer Rouge wanted him to make an official appearance. The king was told when he would see the empty villages he would be told that all residents were working in the fields. He guessed that bad things were happening but did not realize at what level.

More later ...


Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Difficult Morning

This morning was probably the most challenging part of the trip - visiting Toul Seng Museum and Cheoung Ek Genocide Center. Before the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975, Toul Seng was a high school. Once Pol Pot came o power, the school was converted to Security Prison 21 (S-21), a place for imprisonment, interrogation, and torture. Cheoung Ek was once an orchard and Chinese cemetery; under the reign of Pol Pot, it became the killing fields.
It’s difficult to summarize my (Chuck) emotions and reaction to the two locations, and there is no way that I could come close to giving an overview of what everyone else thought and felt. Our guide, Rith, had some personal memories of the time and locations, adding to the emotion. I really think it will take a while for each of us to make sense of the visit, but I can say that we were all affected tremendously. Images and video can be found at this collection – please view with discretion.

The Boat Story - with a little more detail

So here’s the whole boat story. We were cruising up the Mekong at a pretty solid clip when the boat conked out, in the middle of proverbial nowhere (well, it was in the middle of the river, but not by bustling metropolis). Our boat guys tried to get it to start but to no avail. Thankfully, cell phones have been invented, and our guide had a solid enough phone plan to have coverage. He hailed a passing fishing boat that towed us to the nearest dock, where we actually had a van getting prepped for another hour ride to Phnom Penh. We strolled up a muddy embankment into the back of a family home, grabbed something to drink, loaded the van, and headed to Cambodia’s capital. We are looking at it as a blessing in disguise, as we were able to take in a lot of the countryside and some smaller villages that we would not have seen without the engine dying. As Paul said, it just added to the adventure of the trip.
So if you are ever in the village of Nek Leoung, don't worry - you can find a ride. Check out some images and video!

Found it


Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Cham Village

After the fish farming, we stopped at a small Cham village off the Bassac River (part of the Mekong system). The Cham people are adherents to Islam, something not very common in Vietnam and Cambodia. Their village seemed remote and olny accessible from the river, but a stroll through the main path led straight to a main street with a mosque only a few hundred feet away. the people were beautiful, make maginficent cloth, and as you can see by the video, loved Lori's gum.

Farming on the water?

We all knew that farming was the base of the economy in the Mekong River basin, but we really didn't understand how a small family could have a fish farm ... until this morning. We toured a small fish farming village of about 300 families. Their houses are built on the water (usually on pontoons) and connected by planks and ropes. Under the houses, tanks are constructed that go about four to six meters underwater (we are becoming so metric). In the tanks? You guessed it - fish - tons of fish. The families open a door on the floor of the house, drop in some food, and it's feeding frenzy time. We saw the feeding and the harvesting and were amazed at such a different way of life.

Check the video ... more info later!

Sorry for the goofy face.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Temples of Chau Doc

The city of Chau Doc, close to the Cambodian border, hosts many holy sites for the people of the Mekong. The Ty An Pagoda is the most prominent pagoda at the base of Sam Mountain. The pagaoda has an interesting history and is home to over one hundred statues of Buddha. We leared a bit about Buddhism and watched the actions of Budhist monks in the pagoida. An additional temple to Xu Lady was across the street. We also visited the tomb of Thoai Ngoc Hau the Vietnamese leader that reunited the area and established settlement. Many visitors from outside of the area were paying tribute to him.

What's for dinner?

I think one of the fears that we all had upon embarking on the trip was food - what would we eat, would we enjoy it, would it be too spicy, and would we need to dip into the trail mix and granola bars? So far, we have all been fed incredibly well, offered and trying new dishes, and bringing back some new favorites to the states! Breakfasts have been at the hotel and consist of some local and Western fare - and always a ton of fruit. Our lunches and dinners have all been together (and we are all still talking with one another). We are given a few courses at each meal, and we each take a sample of a dish and pass it on. Various spring rolls, including some made at our table from a grilled fish, soups with different ingredients, different pork and fish dishes, and prawns. The fruit is so incredible - dragonfruit, pineapple, pomelas, rambutan, papaya, tiny bananas. Hopefully we can help Tony develop an authentic menu for lunch one day in the Middle School!

No fried cricket yet ... but the search continues ...

Telling the story with pictures

So far, we have collectively taken well over a thousand pictures and 100 videos, and I am posting as may as I can to flickr. When you look at the pictures, you will see that we are all seeing common places and sites, but often through different perspectives. At various times, we may be looking for an example of advertising, bridge structure, historical visuals, math in action,food, and pictures of the people and countryside.

It is taking a long time to load all of the pictures, so we may be a day behind or so on the first round for each day. I will continue to load them every chance I get! Always check the slideshow on the top right, as it changes from time to time and new images are added. It is hopefully chronological, and gives you a quick idea of our activities.

We will also try to get a few more perspectives in the posts over the next few days (enough about the history, right?). We should have some time today for varied contribution.

the marketplace on the mekong

Today, you almost had to be there to appreciate it. I need an economics lesson without a doubt. We traveled the Mekong River today, check out the pictures, and saw an economy in full bloom. There were boats with just about any vegetable you might want to see: watermellons, potatoes, and fruits almost beyond imagining. All of these on relatively small boats with a family delivering or selling them to someone. Maybe they are what we ate for lunch or dinner. But, the whole process, and the amount of work and workers involved, are amazing. The pictures tell the story better that I can. I would say you have to be there, but that is an understatement.

What a trip. I am impressed with the Vietnamese people more each day. I would not say it is a life I would like, but they work hard to do what needs to be done, to support themselves and their families. It seems like nothing is more important.

I have ended the day, and our time in Vietnam, with thousands of Dong. This might sound like a lot but it only a few dollars. There is a great math lesson here. I will work on that.


Remembering the Fallen

On our way to Chau Doc, we stopped at a comfort station, and I (Chuck) ran back the street about a half a mile to see a military cemetery. The Vietnamese have military cemeteries across the nation, similar to the US. According to our guide, each cemetery has a common obelisk or marker in the center with the words “To Quoc Ghi Cong”, or “a nation remembers”. The cemetery is set with graves divided by the villages of the soldiers, and officers have a separate burial location. The markers for the soldiers are all common and set in a formal military configuration. The Vietnamese obviously honor those that fight for the country … but the cemeteries only have markers for the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong – the “winners”. That may seem strange or, in a sense, wrong, but a similar policy is followed at our national cemeteries in the US in regard to the Civil War. I have been to many, and you don’t see many (if any) markers for the members of the Confederacy.

The war in Vietnam had its issues, and our nation still has issues with the war - but those who fought on both sides should have the honor of their country. My patriotic tome for the day.

Can Tho

Our day started with a trip to the market - one different than any of us have every experienced. Can Tho is famous for its floating market at Cai Rang. We jumped on a small motor boat and journeyed up the Mekong, past hundreds of small boats and river houses. After fifteen minutes, we arrived at a logjam of boats in the river – the market. Sellers advertised their produce by hanging samples on a pole over the boat. Pumpkin, cabbage, sweet potatoes, sugar beets, and pineapple were the most popular items. I bought a Diet Coke (a Coca Coal Light, to be precise), and we also purchased some fine goods on the boat. Ask Joe to model his silk robe for you when you seem him after the trip.

We also had a chance to explore Can Tho for a few hours. Some of us went across the street to the museum commemorating the Vietnamese army in the fights against the French and eventually the United States. There was also a separate museum / shrine to Ho Chi Minh. It was tough to read, since it was all in Vietnamese, but it had hundreds of pictures and some cool artifacts from the life of the great leader.

We are now on our way to Chau Doc near the Cambodian border. Traffic doesn’t move as fast in Vietnam as it does in the US. We are currently peaking at about 55 - that’s km per hour, not mph – as the infrastructure isn’t as modern (especially bridges) and cyclos mob the streets and two lane highways. At Chau Doc, we will be visiting a few temples, check out Sam Mountain, a holy location for the people of the Mekong basin, and also go to a Cham settlement of Muslims. We also hope to see some floating fish farms before we head up the river to Cambodia.

Pictures are slow to upload, so please be patient ... I am working on it!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Fun on the Mekong – and important things we learned today:

From Pam and the crew -

-If you Middle School students at USM ever think you have it bad, listen to this: in Vietnam, Middle School students go to school every day of the week! They go from 6:30 am to 9:00 pm every day but Sunday. Their parents bring them home from school each day for lunch and for dinner. Then they are up until midnight studying. On Sundays they go to school from 7am to 11am. They take 18 different courses. Parents have to pay for their children’s schooling, hence many children do not go to school. 40,000 kids in Ho Chi Minh City dropped out last year because their parents couldn’t afford to send them.

-You must pay cash for everything – there is no credit here. You can also use gold for cash. American dollars are taken everywhere. There are no mortgages or loans of any kind. If you don’t have the money to pay for something, you don’t buy it!

-The females in our group liked this fact: if you have a car accident there is a hierarchy of protocol as to who has to pay for the damages (no matter who is at fault): first, if there’s a woman involved, she never pays. Second, the richer of the two people involved pays. Third, the younger of the two people pays.

-Today we actually “crossed the Mekong!” It is a very muddy and polluted river. There are hundreds of boats on it and palm trees, thatched huts and rickety houses line its banks. It would be a beautiful site if it were a cleaner river. It was so dirty that we made sure that we turned away from the spray from the waves so that no water would go into our mouths.

-For lunch we ate in a thatched roof open-air restaurant on the Mekong. We ate elephant ear fish spring rolls in rice paper, seafood fried rice, prawn dipped in vinegar sauce, pasta soup, pork and vegetable crepes, fried sweet rice papers, and jasmine tea. An hour later we were all hungry again – really! Before the boat ride back, our boat captain hacked off the tops of coconuts with a machete, stuck a straw into a small hole in the coconut, and handed each of us one – refreshing!

-We visited a snake farm, which really should be called an animal research center. Snakes are raised to produce anti-venom and for their skin to be made into purses, belts, shoes, etc. Check out our pictures – Mrs. E really loved holding the python!

-Finally, it is very unnerving to see the Communist flag flying and Vietnamese soldiers guarding the military bases, which seem to be everywhere. Not sure how we were chosen, but thank God we were born in America.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The War Remnants Museum

I (Chuck) took solo excursion to the Vietnam War Remnants Museum this afternoon. The museum used to be called The American War Crimes Museum, and it has a pointed anti-American perspective to the war - with some evidence to back it up. I am a big fan of perspective, especially in teaching history, and I took the museum and its exhibits with a proverbial grain of salt. I think I was the only American in the museum at the time, and I found myself looking around for reactions of people as I examined the photos, remnants, and artifacts from the war. Obviously the Vietnamese have a different perspective on the war and American involvement, and I don't think any of the combatants would agree that the war (or any war) is better than peaceful resolution. I also could see through the heavy propaganda in many facets of the exhibit, and I hope that all visitors from any country can see the bias as well. Overall, it was a difficult and somewhat emotional hour and a half, but very valuable and one that I can share with students in the future.

My biggest issue with the museum is the selling af American dog tags in the gift shop. I thought about complaining, thought about buying all of them and trying to have them returned, thought about finding another American to discuss it ... but I let it go by walking out of the museum and thinking about it on my travel back to the hotel. Before I left, I did look at some of the local childrens' pictures of their view of war and peace ... a fitting ending to my visit.

I took pictures and some video of some of the exhibits. Many of the photos were ghastly - some for real impact, some for shock value - and I chose not to take those images on camera.

Water Puppets - definitely different than middle school drama class

Our evening entertainment was something new to all of us (almost all, since Edie has been to Vietnam before) - a water puppet show. Live music and narration, puppets, and water - that's the set up. Our story included a dragon dance, a water buffalo, some frogs on the run, a boat race, and a battle royale between the four Holy Animals (the dragon won, since it spit fire). Check out the pictures and video as they get posted, and you can also see a little bot about the show at On to Mekong River, sampan rides, and the snake farm tomorrow!

A Trip to the Tunnels of Cu Chi

Our first full day in Vietnam did not disappoint. Most of us began the morning with an early stroll to the local market. The place was hopping by 6:30 AM, as locals put out fresh flowers, produce, meat, and seafood. It was fascinating to see an entirely new way of shopping, and also to see some food you just can't get at Sendik's or Pick and Save (cuttlefish, pig brains, some crazy looking fruit ...) The city is huge - 8.5 million people, all of whom seem to be riding a scooter at any given time. You will all have to check out the pictures of what people carry on the scooters (Joe is amazed) and also the wiring system of the city.

We hopped on our coach and headed through an incredibly congested Ho Chi Minh City and went out to the countryside to Cu Chi. Our first stop was a lacquer and woodworking craftshop. We saw how the local citizens made the beautiful products and then dropped a few dollars (or dong) in the gift shop. Many of the people working at the factory are former Viet Cong or children of Viet Cong, greatly affected by the war. The proceeds of the sales help them improve their lives in a pretty economically challenged part of the city. Their craftsmanship is amazing.

From there, we traveled to the tunnels of Cu Chi. The tunnels were originally constructed by farmers during the French resistance after World War II and were gradually expanded to be used in the war between North and South after 1954. The tour, led by our personal ACIS guide Mr. D, was pretty amazing. We learned about the construction of the tunnels, their impact on the war, and the challenge the United States had in dealing with them - even with finding them in the first place. We also experienced the tunnels first hand, entering them in two different locations, including an original opening that was a bit challenging for at least one guy's American belly. Talk about walking (or duckwalking) in the footsteps of history! The tour also provided examples of booby traps and the creative weapons of the Viet Cong - one of the favorite topics of 8th graders. It was an amazing way to learn about a different perspective of the war.

We enjoyed a beautiful lunch in an outdoor restaurant, headed back to the city, and stopped at the Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral for a quick visit. From there, a few hours of free time took us all to different locations. Look for reports on silk scarves, the War Remnants Museum, and elsewhere. We are heading to a water puppet show this evening, followed by dinner and more exploring. The group is in great spirits, having a fantastic time, and so thankful for this incredible opportunity. And we are sweaty - it's hot here in the tropics.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Hello from Hong Kong

What we learned on our first flight ...
  • 17 hours on a plane really doesn't seem like 17 hours - it seems more like 1,000 hours.
  • To get from Chicago to Hong Kong, you need to go over the Arctic
  • If you taxi for an hour waiting for the right wind, you burn enough fuel to need refueling
  • Hot noodles make a tasty airplane snack
  • Hannah Montana is not very funny on little sleep
  • If you go outside the plane at a high altitude, it's 57 degrees below zero - so don't do that
  • You can go to the bathroom 10 times on a 17 hour flight

We are awaiting flight 869 to Ho Chi Minh City!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Anticipation ...

Obviously, we don't know everything that we will see quote yet, but we all have some idea of what we will experience on the 11 days of the trip. What are we looking forward to on the trip? Take a look ...

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

It's only a few days away ...

As we count down the final days of school, nine of us are also counting down until June 15 - the day we depart for an 11 day journey to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. Hopefully the Internet access will be flawless halfway around the world and we will be able to share our experiences with everyone back home!