Archive for the ‘From Asia to Africa’ Category

I had a dreamy three week vacation after my volunteer work. Three days at the beach in Mui Ne, Vietnam stretched into a lavish nine days. I’m travelling on a $50/day budget and my maximum hotel budget is $30 which buys me the top-of-the-line budget accommodation (air conditioning, private bathroom, TV). I’m not 20-years old anymore and can’t handle a shared bathroom or rooms that make me want to cry when I open the door and the wave of mildew wafts over me. My remaining $20 is spent on transportation, food and of course, massages! Mui Ne was an absolute dream because our budget hotel was on the beach and I’d fall asleep and wake up to the sounds of the surf. Then we’d walk a few steps to the most glamorous restaurant and pool and felt like I was in a 4-star life. Cabanas surround a pool and the interior design feels like I’m a movie star in the South of France. Even though it’s super-fancy, there is a down-home family feeling with children and dogs running around.

We get to know the Vietnamese staff and ex-pats and even get invited to the local poker tournament and receive complimentary meals and drinks. We play endless games of cards, swim in the beach and pool, read and do absolutely nothing for hours at a time. We take a break from this life of luxury for the big tourist attraction in Mui Ne and visit the sand dunes. An 11-year old girl guide walks us to the top of the white sand dunes. We each have a long piece of plastic and the girl shows us how to use it to slide down the hill. When I get stuck a few feet down, she jumps onto my back and we zoom down the hill in a fit of laughter. At the bottom, we cool off in a lake filled with lotus flowers. This respite in Mui Ne is exactly what I need, and I feel a bit sad to leave.

Next up is Dalat, a cool retreat nestled in the hills. I have to pile on every item of clothing to stay warm (one long sleeved shirt, long pants, scarf) in the seemingly freezing 60 degree evenings. In my younger travelling days, I shunned fellow backpackers. These days I’m much more open, and Tiffany and I pick up travelling companions along the way. Neil accompanies us from Mui Ne to Dalat, and the two of us go on a three-day 300 mile tour of the Central Highlands on the back of motorcycles. Neil is half-Japanese from Canada and everywhere we go people ask where we are from. I begin to tell people in Vietnamese we are hai lai (two mixed people) because everyone thinks this is absolutely hysterical and it evokes an easy laugh. It’s Neil’s first trip to Vietnam and it’s fun to expose him to new things, like the amazing fruit of Southeast Asia. First time eating mangosteen and custard apple – YUM! I get to eat passion fruit for the first time and it’s tart and delicious. After a hot morning, our driver cuts open several passion fruit, scoops out the innards into a glass, adds sugar and ice and it’s the most refreshing thing I’ve eaten in years!

Our first night, we have a homestay in an ethnic minority village. The communal village toilet is across the road and I start to wonder if this is what Africa will be like. I fall asleep to the sound of gongs from a funeral, and wake up to the squeals of pigs. We visit many ethnic minority villages, most of them have access to water through wells, and have only recently gained access to electricity. Everywhere we go, the women are working so hard. It’s the same all over Vietnam, and it’s common to see men during the day in cafes and in the restaurants at night. Women are never around because they are working. Working all day and taking care of their families at night. We visit a brick factory, and again it’s women everywhere in what seems like the most masculine job. One of the women tells me her husband also works there and I ask where? She points to the one lone man, sitting smoking and watching all the women on the line. We walk through the factory and I find all the missing men – they are sleeping in hammocks in the shade.

In Nha Trang, our threesome becomes a foursome with the addition of Michel, a Swedish-Serbian traveler we met in Dalat. The next few days feels golden. We lounge on the beach, swim, get massages, play cards, eat street food and visit the pagoda orphanage for the last time. We go on a four-island boat tour which perfectly sums up my experience in Vietnam. The scenery is gorgeous with mountains and crystal blue water. We are all packed into a small boat and when we get to each island it’s pure chaos debarking amidst the throngs of other boats. After lunch, they convert the benches into a makeshift dance floor. The band is comprised of a drummer and guitarist, who are also the driver and deckhand. The emcee starts it off with a heartfelt song with his eyes closed. A 9-year old boy sings to his father. The father sings about Hanoi. When the emcee reaches his hand down to me to dance (I’m still wearing my bikini from the afternoon swim), I am feeling it and go with the moment. He spins me around this tiny dance floor and my head grazes the ceiling. We are laughing and the audience is clapping and smiling. He goes to dip me and I’m so relaxed that when he drops me onto the guitarist, we fall into a heap laughing and I emerge without a scratch. I coax my friend on stage and he plays the guitar and sings a rousing rendition of “Johnny Be Good.” I get a bit teary-eyed because I LOVE VIETNAM.

It takes me over 48 hours to get to Ghana, with four flights, 24 hours of layovers and a near panic attack when I discover there are two airports in Kuala Lumpur and I need to travel 20 kilometers to make my connecting flight. I have a 13-hour layover in Cairo, and unexpectedly go on a day tour of the pyramids. I am absolutely awestruck by the pyramids and the sphinx and happily pose for many cheesy photos.

By the time I get to Ghana, I am feeling pretty wrecked. I collapse in a guesthouse, and when it starts to pour rain I start to wonder if I’ve made the right decision. Many of my friends and family have told me how brave I am to go to Africa and I didn’t think anything of it. My volunteer assignment is fundraising and my homestay is in a local village. I obviously didn’t read the fine print because I’m surprised to learn that the home doesn’t have running water or electricity. The house is a beautiful bright blue, with a courtyard of sunflowers and okra. They have brought a generator to watch the World Cup game of Ghana vs. Uruguay. It seems the entire village is here, with about 75 people crammed around a 19 inch TV. When Ghana makes the first score, everyone is screaming and dancing and jumping up and down with joy. Everyone shuffles out silently when they lose.

On my first morning here, I wake up feeling very homesick. But I’m homesick for Vietnam, not Seattle.

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