It's been an amazing week, and I have been so busy that I haven't had time to update my private journal, let alone put anything up on here! So, I have lots to tell...
For the past two weeks I've been volunteering at the Allambie orphanage, which has been a moving and uplifting experience for me. Not only did I get to know the children more and more each day, I also grew closer to the founder, Suzanne (or 'Mum', as I have been calling her affectionately).
On Tuesday I took Thiet and Chuyen with me on a day trip to the Mekong Delta - Suzanne said it was our 'boy's day out'. We set off around 7.45am and after a two hour coach ride we got to the Mekong. We hopped on a boat and crossed to a series of islands (Unicorn, Turtle, Coconut and Dragon). The first one we visited specialised in producing honey, and we sat down and sipped some of their honey tea which was lovely. They also had fried banana chips and sugared ginger which they made there. We then walked through an orchard where they were growing pineapples, durian, jackfruit, mangoes etc (very interesting) until we came to a canal. From there we took little paddle boats and wove our way through the passageways carved out of arched water coconut palm leaves. It was so serene and such a change from the intense noise and madness of Saigon.
After that we went and had lunch, then me and the boys just messed around near the restaurant while we waited for everyone else to finish. Chuyen kept finding fruit to pick and take back home; we spent about 10 mintues trying to figure out a way to knock a star fruit down that was really high up. We tried throwing our water bottles at it, and despite hitting it a few times it didn't budge. So I cheated and used a dead coconut branch to knock it down with. I felt a bit naughty and like a kid again, trying my best not to be caught, but it was only one fruit and it was a pretty harmless game. And besides, Thiet and Chuyen were really enjoying it so I didn't want to spoil their fun.
We were taken to another island (I say island, but in England I think we call them ayts - land that has been eroded by a river to form a small islet in the middle). Anyway, on this island we were given some of the local fruits to sample, and had a short performance by local musicians and singers of the traiditional vietnamese music. The guide was telling us that the dialect in the Mekong is quite different to that of Saigon; one theory is that, because of the natives' close relationship with and reliance on the river, their language has loosened to accommodate the sounds and sibilances that the water produces...interesting. After secretly picking some more fruit (shh) from their orchard garden - this time longans, which are like a lychee inside but tasted like honeydew melon - we got back on the coach and headed home. On the way we made a quick stop at a garden/cafe place for a loo break and a coffee. I bought us all an ice cream and then me and Thiet shared some water coconut juice, which was different; the flesh is more chewy than regular coconut and tastes a bit like papaya almost. He said he hadn't drunk it in such a long time, and it reminded him of his family in the countryside. In fact, the whole day brought back memories of his childhood when he used to work in the rice fields harvesting the rice (he showed me a scar on his thumb from the scythe). It also made me think of home (on a much more superficial level) and I caught a glimpse of his longing to eventually go back, after finishing university and getting a well paid job in foreign trade, to help his mum and dad, who were too poor to look after him. It was great to spend some proper quiet time with Thiet; while Chuyen was sleeping on the coach we had a really good chat about 'stuff', and I felt like he was slowly letting me in to his world a little more, which I was very grateful for. I also have to note, just for the record, that we played cards on the way back (when Chuyen had woken up) and I won three times in a row! This is me, who didn't have a clue how to play vietnamese cards two weeks ago, and who always lost to the victorious Chuyen. Well, well, well, the tables have turned indeed!
The next day was spent with Sa and Ne, the two eldest girls. They took me on a bicycle tour of the vicinity, which included a stop at a pagoda not so far away from Allambie. We then went for a drink - a local beverage that most teenagers their age drink - which seemed to be sweetened soya milk with bits added to it (mine had little cubes of multicoloured jelly in, but the others had taro and some black gelatinous balls). That was a change. Then we went for a lazy drink and a bite to eat in a french bakery, and afterwards cycled to the bookstore: imagine a bookshop, a children's toy shop and a play/painting area all merged into one. Awesome. We spent an hour or so reading; the girls like to read romantic stories (especially Sa), but I chose to browse some cookery books and french poetry (a bit of Baudelaire, anyone?). Sa and Ne wanted to do some painting...ok I did too! So chose a plaster of paris firgurine from the many on the shelves and painted a couple of hours away. I have photos of mine, which was terrible compared to theirs. To be fair, I coated my little figure in what I thought was a base of white paint, only to discover later than it was actually PVA glue; so when my immaculate painting started peeling (maybe it wasn't that immaculate...) I decided to peel the whole thing off and start over again. Being pushed for time - and slightly grumpy at this point - I painted as quickly as I could to get something worth taking home. The results speak for themselves...
As it grew dark outside the girls were planning to take me on a food tour of the city, getting me to try different delicacies from the local area. First up was barbequed eggs. We couldn't work out how they cooked them to start with, as they didn't seem to have a yolk. So we asked the lady cooking them and she said they pierce the top, break the yolk up and mix it all together inside, bung the whole with either a small chilli or a beansprout, boil the egg, then barbeque it in its shell. The result is a slightly blackened, speckled egg that you peel and then dip in a sauce of lemon juice, chilli and salt. I can only describe the taste as 'barbequed egg' - maybe a little smokey. We also had some vietnamese coriander on the side, which I've grown at home before but only ever used as a herb in small amounts, in stir fries etc. In Vietnam they eat it more as a vegetable, eating the whole stem along with whatever else they are having.
Next up was a mixture of delights. We rode down lots of backstreets - one on which they were cooking dog! - and stopped off to get some barbequed squid and chicken feet. This was after having traversed the traffic by the way...oh my goodness, what an experience that was! The roads of crammed full of motorbikes so you have to be really alert, and I had Sa on the back of my bicycle for half of the journey so it was more difficult to set off and pick up speed without wobbling around a bit. I think she thought she was going to die! We got to where we meant to be going anyway, and settled in a little side alley with small metal tables and plastic chairs where we ordered some pho (noodle soup) which I had still yet to try, and with that they brought beansprouts and lots of other herbs. I didn't think much to the chicken's feet - mostly bone and gristle, a bit of waste of time if you ask me - but the squid was delicious, and so was the pho. I was very full after all that, but I still wanted to try and advocado shake, which they seem to have quite a lot. It's basically avocado blitzed with sugar, condensed milk and ice. We shared one of those, along with a Sapodilla shake (a brown fruit that's soft inside and tastes like rich brown sugar). What a nice way to round off our culinary adventure.
On Thursday we all went out as a family to Dam Sen Park, a hybrid water and theme park about 35 mins bus ride away. We did the smaller theme park in the morning , then ate our packed lunch and did the waterpark in the afternoon so we could cool off. The theme park wasn't quite Alton Towers - there were a couple of rollercoasters and a haunted castle - but not bad for SE Asia. But the waterpark was immense! So many slides! They also had a wave pool and a circuitous river part that you could float round in rubber rings (or swim round and chase each other, as we did!). It was so funny to see the others coming down the slides; the expressions on Suzanne's face were a mixture of exhiliration and absolute terror! On one of the slides you sit with two other people in a boat-like inflatable dinghy and are then pushed over the edge; you shoot down a pretty steep side and then whoosh up the other side and back down again. There were lots of screams on this one I can tell you!
We got back and were pretty exhausted (most of us fell asleep on the bus home). After a cup of coffee and a look at the day's photos I hopped on a motorbike with Thiet and made the 1 hour journey to District 12 to meet some of his friends from the old orphanage. They occasionally visit a poor family in the area, whose daughter has a severe disability (her left leg is contorted and much shorter than the right). Thiet had asked me the day before if I'd like to go and see them, so I said I would. It was heartbreaking to see the conditions the family lived in: they had a thin matress on their 'living room' floor, and old and worn sofa, a cabinet someone had given them because it was too big to take, and a tv. They sleep and live in one room, and the house (if you can call it that) is made of corrugated metal. The lady's husband is too ill to work, and her daughter can't attend school because they think that the disability is contagious. It would cost only $40 dollars for the little girl to have a prosthetic leg fitted, meaning she could attend school like all the other girls her age, but the family can't afford it. I was so tempted to just give them some money, but Suzanne forewarned me that it would be unlikely to go where it was intended. Unfortunately, given such a huge amount of money (comparitively speaking) most families would sooner buy food and clothing than spend it on something so seemingly useless. We took them a watermelon and they were so grateful. I promised Thiet that if there is some other way I can help the family I will do, so I will ask Suzanne what the best option is. So sad.
On a lighter note, my last day at Allambie was fun, if a little random. Suzanne had cooked a 'farewell feast' lunch for me, which included MASSIVE, juicy prawns, breaded fried shrimp and squid, chicken in a sweet soy sauce, fresh spring rolls to wrap, and soup. Unfortunately I was late as the taxi driver took me to the wrong place. I felt so bad as Suzanne had obviously spent so much time and effort in the kitchen (they went to the morning market especially for fresh produce). It was divine, and such a lovely send off. The kids had all decided they wanted to buy me a present, so they gave me two pairs of cooking chopsticks (really long ones that you can use to turn meat and stir fry with) and a mug that they had written personal messages on. It got me a bit choked up if I'm honest. I didn't expect to feel so part of the family. Since the day I walked into Allambie I've been welcomed with open arms (and open hearts) and i can't tell you how satsifying it feels to know that I have made a connection with all of the children, each in different ways, and with Suzanne on a deeper level.
After lunch I took Truc, Mung and Chuyen to the local zoo. Chuyen had to be home by 2pm for his maths lesson, so I left the girls at the zoo, took him back on the bicycle and then went back to the zoo for another hour. Truc and Mung have been the most reserved with me out of everyone, and it's been nice to see them slowly open up to me. We had a nice afternoon together just looking at the animals and trying to chat as best we could with the little vietnamese I know and Truc's english (which is actually far better than I gave her credit for). We did some painting and then came home, where I met Sa who then took me out on another bicycle ride to a street that I had asked to show me, where they sell lots of plants. I had an idea to buy Suzanne a little plant - or tree, really - that could act as a symbol for Allambie. I wanted it to symbolise growth - from the small seed that was only a dream in Suzanne's head, to the maturity of Allambie and the potential 'fruits' that it would bear in the future. We had a rummage around and found quite a few fruit trees, but they were huge and we didn't think we could get them back (I now regret not buying a big pomegranate tree and taking it back in a taxi - it would have looked lovely on Suzanne's veranda). In the end we decided to get a small bonsai starfruit tree, and some cacti for Sa's room. Sa held the tree on the back of the bicycle, and I rode with the cacti in the front basket. Since the roads are often quite bumpy, and you have to stop and start so often with the mass of traffic on the roads, the four fruits that were on the tree were gradually dropping, one by one. We kept laughing about it, and I said that it could represent the ups and downs of the orphanage. About halfway there, with one fruit remaining attached, I decided to get a taxi back with the plants, leaving Sa to ride her bike back. On arriving at home I carefully got out of the taxi, only to find that the last fruit had dropped aswell. Nooo! Sa got 'Mum' out of the way upstairs, and we went to buy some string so we could tie the fruits back on. We got some string but couldn't figure out a way of making it look real, so Sa used superglue and glued them all back on! lol! They actually looked really good. I gave it to Suzanne afterwards, with a little card, and we confessed about the fallen starfruit. I said that at least it meant they could eat them sooner rather than later!
To round off my final day Suzanne and I went for dinner at a lovely little French restaurant called 'Le Jardin'. It felt very romantic (lol) and was so special to spend the last evening in such a relaxed place. We shared moules marinere to start, which was goregeous. Then for mains I has salmon with courgette sauce and sauteed potatoes, and Suzanne had Steak with mushroom sauce and pomme frites (or chips, as we like to call them). Then we shared a little apple crumble and ice cream. Ahh. As we were chatting we got onto the subject of fate. All along I've said that this trip has been a huge undertaking for me, and has taken a lot of trust of my part - in god, the universe, fate, whatever you want to call it. I really believe that the feeling I had when I first read about Suzanne's venture brought me to her for a reason, and she said the same. The many 'coincidences' that happened while I was there (too many to put down here, and many of them too subtle to describe sufficiently) make me believe even more in something greater, something overarching and wholesome that is within and protects us all. I have been so uplifted by my experience at Allambie and am so grateful to have had the opportunity to make this trip happen (at one point I thought I might not come at all). If I were to cut the rest of my travels short and get on a plane home tomorrow I would still feel triumphant. Trust and gratitude are such powerful things: trust, in the sense that there is something bigger than yourself at work all around you, you just need to let go and give in to it; and gratitude, for the good AND the bad moments, the happiness AND the pain. Contentment (or 'elightenment') seems to reach beyond simple joy and pain, at the place where they intersect, and understand life as a series of lessons which we can learn from. I took a huge leap of faith coming on this trip, and I feel that faith is being rewarded by experiences like this. Peace x