Archive for February, 2012

Finding Family

My friends from Seattle and I travel to Nha Trang, a beach town in Central Vietnam. In 2010, I’d visited a friend who was volunteering in Nha Trang at Chua Loc Tho, a Buddhist orphanage and school. I return to the orphanage with my friends and look for the main nun, hoping she will remember me. Several Buddhist nuns are huddled around a baby and seem very concerned. Through my limited Vietnamese and lots of miming, we discover the 3-month old baby has just been dropped off to the orphanage earlier in the day. The nuns peel back the blankets and his shirt to reveal he doesn’t have any arms — the lingering effects of Agent Orange after almost 40 years. The baby’s face is a splotchy red and he’s agitated, his gaze bouncing around the room. I scoop him up, try to burp him and cover him with kisses. When I put him down, his eyes meet mine and he smiles. This kid has spirit, and I know he will be okay, being raised by these loving Buddhist nuns. My friends and I present the head nun with our donation and shortly thereafter, the baby is whisked away to the doctor and through our support, they can also obtain his documentation. In addition to the orphanage, they also operate an on-site school for 80 poor children from the surrounding villages. We walk over to the school and are quickly bombarded by children lunging for our Iphones after we take a few shots, expertly using the touchscreen to scroll through our photos and laughing. The head teacher lines up the children and they sing songs for us. The head nun invites us to lunch and we eat in silence, moved by our experience.

My friends return home to Seattle and I travel to a yoga and meditation center in Cu Chi, Vietnam. The driver picks me up from the airport and doesn’t speak any English, responding with stony silence at my attempts to make conversation in rudimentary Vietnamese. I stare out the window, passing thousands of signs that I can’t understand. And suddenly I feel panicked. Can I really handle living in Vietnam, when I can’t speak or understand the language? Will I become totally isolated, the way I feel at that moment in the taxi? I know it’s just a fleeting feeling and will myself to sleep.

I wake up as we arrive on the grounds of Sivananda Yoga Vietnam. I quickly walk past ponds filled with lotus flowers and am ushered into a 2-hour yoga class that kicks my butt (I’d spent two weeks overeating with friends and zero exercise). During the 2-hour evening meditation and chanting, my body silently screams in pain and I briefly contemplate leaving early (I’d booked for five nights). The wake up bell is at 5:30 am and the last lecture ends at 10pm. This isn’t exactly the restful retreat I’d envisioned… The daily schedule includes four hours of yoga, four hours of meditation/chanting, karma yoga (work = cleaning), lectures and two vegetarian meals. I’m on the yoga “vacation” (although it doesn’t feel like much of a vacation!) and there are also 70 students attending a month-long yoga teacher training class. One of my favorite activities is the chanting. It’s in Hindu and people are swaying with their eyes closed and playing the tambourine. I’m cynical for a scant 10 seconds and then give in and am singing loud and proud, stumbling over the words and loving every minute. I meet some amazing people and in the rare moments of free time there are massages, acupuncture, warm walks in the evening and many showers to cool off from the heat. The days fly by and suddenly it’s my last day and I’m so sad to say goodbye.

I take the local bus back to Saigon and am the only foreigner. An old lady keeps turning around in her seat to look at me. After 10 minutes, she must conclude I’m a safe bet and moves herself and many bags next to me and settles in for the long ride. She’s chatting away at me in Vietnamese, smiling and offering me mangoes. My limited vocabulary and the predictable questions are always the same: I only speak a little bit of Vietnamese, I’m from the United States, my mother is Vietnamese and my father is American, I’m 42 and not married (this is always stunning to them), and I have four older brothers and two younger sisters. And I repeatedly say “I don’t understand.” Vendors hop on and off the back door of the bus, selling sugar cane juice, snacks and raffle tickets. There is even a musician with a microphone duct-taped to an electric guitar singing Vietnamese love ballads. And I’m not afraid anymore of moving to Vietnam. This is the country I know and love, and I’ll just take language classes!

In Saigon, I stay with friends who have two children and I love the family feeling. I hug the kids and ask about school. Play with the kitten and dogs. We eat home-cooked meals of breakfast and dinner and after 2 ½ months of travelling, it feels good to be part of a family routine. I ask them many questions about adoption, travel visas and residency status and am so encouraged by my options. And I even give them parenting advice – a bit cheeky since I’m not actually a mom yet!







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My five weeks in Bali are complete bliss. I’ve been travelling alone for such a long time and so internally focused, that I’d almost forgotten the importance of human connections. Resuming my social self, I begin meeting fellow travelers at guest houses, sharing meals with new friends and going on outings. Most of them are on their own personal journey, and it’s wonderful to connect and share stories. One of the highlights is staying at Ashram Gandhi in Candidasa, Bali. My cottage is a few feet from the beach, and I can hear the waves crashing all night long. We eat our vegetarian meals communally, and yoga class overlooks the beach with cows softly moo-ing in the background.

At long last, my friends from Seattle arrive in Bali and suddenly my days are jam-packed with adventures. We return to towns I’ve already stayed at, and locals and travellers call out my name on the street. My friends are astounded that I seem to know everybody. On our first day, we hire a boat and head out to the small islands dotting the horizon. While we are snorkeling, the fisherman uses a spear gun to catch fish and a massive 11 pound squid. Later, we grill the fish and squid on a beautiful white, sandy beach.

In Ubud, Bali, I visit a healer with a delegation of six friends. The 82-year old healer is rail thin, and has a clean, bright energy. He takes short smoke breaks and cracks jokes between healings. The healer is in a chair and I’m sitting on the ground facing away from him. During the initial diagnosis, he places his fingers in my ears, probing my head, neck and shoulders. Before he hits a tender spot, he exclaims, “Ow!” predicting the pain. He tells me my head, heart and gut aren’t connected. That I need to swallow my smile and smile from ecstasy. It’s sometimes difficult to understand his English, and he tells me I’m from outer space (later, my friends have varying interpretations: I was abducted by aliens, I’m psychic, I live on another dimension). Then, he pauses and tilts his head to the side in deep thought. Everyone laughs, “Annie stumped the healer!” He asks me to lie on the ground, and takes out a twig, really a mini-wand and presses the twig between my toes. At first, I don’t realize I’m screaming out loud. The pain is excruciating and I’m yelping and laughing at the same time.

When we first arrive at the compound, we observe the healing sessions of a group of Swedish tourists. We exchange glances of horror when they scream and convulse from the twig. Then, the healer stands over me, splaying my feet with his, uttering Balinese words and motioning with his hands (I think this is the actual healing portion of the session). Afterwards, he uses the twig on my toes again and the pain is considerably less. His final words to me are “Don’t’ worry, be happy” – trite but true.

After a brutal all-night layover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, we arrive in Da Nang, Vietnam exhausted with no sleep. We visit a friend in Da Nang, and in a manner of minutes we are all laughing hysterically. It feels so lovely to be back in Vietnam.

I use my 200-word Vietnamese vocabulary to make arrangements at hotels, with taxi drivers, and in restaurants. And I’m continually moved by the gentle, funny and strong souls of the people; easy to spot in a crowd of hawkers. The 50-year old man renting bicycles with the sweetest smile. The 18-year old boy carving bamboo roots into artwork. The 80-year old woman selling quail eggs and peanuts. The young women hold my hand, wrapping their other arm around my waist or stroking my hair. Vietnam is a part of my soul, and my new life starts today. I’m so grateful my Seattle friends can see me in MY Vietnam. They even email my mother that I have supportive aunties in Vietnam looking after me.











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