Welcome to South Africa: summertime, fresh veggies, and lots of still-relevant history

Greetings from Johannesburg, South Africa! Our flights were uneventful, thankfully, and even though we traveled for 29 hours, it felt significantly shorter than our 43-hour journey to Vietnam. Not only in terms of length, but this time we only took two planes (we flew through Singapore), instead of four (NYC to Frankfurt to Singapore to Hanoi). I realized I forgot to include the following list on the last post, so I’m putting it here:

Things I’ll miss about Vietnam:

  • Outdoor markets with fruit and vegetables of every shape, size, and color
  • The delicious dinners at my homestay
  • Using chopsticks at every meal – I was surprised at the beginning of the trip when my host mom complimented me on my use of them, but my skills have definitely improved over the past 4 weeks.
  • The prices – getting lunch for ~$1 every day, maximum $2, is a great feeling.
  • Water water everywhere…in terms of lakes. Hanoi is filled with them.
  • The mountains in Lac Village – waking up to that view every day was an incredible feeling.
  • My host family, especially my little brother. Even though we couldn’t communicate more than a few words with each other, we definitely developed a sibling bond (he called me “Sister Rachael” in Vietnamese and it was adorable).

Things I won’t miss:

  • The smog – you definitely realize how bad it is when you’re there, since you feel yourself breathing more through your mouth than your lungs (aka not breathing deeply) but I’ve never appreciated clean air more now that I’m out of Hanoi.
  • Almost getting hit by moving vehicles while crossing the street and scaring other pedestrians as I curse while weaving in between motorbikes
  • The constant gray weather with no sun

And now, SOUTH AFRICA! We’re here for 5 weeks total: 1 week in Johannesburg, 3 weeks in Bushbuckridge (specifically, Islington Village), and 1 week vacation in Cape Town. We arrived in Johannesburg as the sun was rising, around 6am on Tuesday, February 17th. As soon as I walked out of the airport and felt the sun, a breeze, and breathed in fresh, clean air, I knew I could handle South Africa. I didn’t realize how much the clouds in Vietnam affected me until we got here, where there’s a blue sky every day. This weather totally affects everyone’s mood here in such a positive way.

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Villa?? Almost.

We drove to the hostel where we’re staying, which is in Germiston, right outside of Johannesburg. (Side note: people here drive on the left side of the road, and the steering wheel is on the right.) We’re actually staying in a seminary called the Mazenod Centre, and there are a few priests who come in and out during the week. The seminary looks like a villa from the front – it is a very large brick building with a courtyard in the center, and covered walkways all around it. The rooms are beautiful, and most people actually have singles (though I chose to be in a double, which was definitely the right choice because it is HUGE). We were all really surprised at how nice the seminary is, since our hostel in New Orleans was very small for all of us, and we were always (literally) stepping on each other’s toes because of the proximity.

Our first full day started with a 6am run with our country coordinator Jan (pronounced like “Yan”), who has run the program here since 2011. He’s lived here all his life, but has also worked with universities in the U.S. multiple times, along with working for IHP. He is SO COOL, and so was the jet lag that allowed me to get up at 6am! We’re staying in a colorful neighborhood of villa-like houses which all have gates and electric fences. We have also passed by some pretty poor areas while on our bus – the wealth gap in South Africa is one of the biggest in the world, with one of the highest levels of inequality according to its GINI index.

I’m very glad to have Jan as our coordinator here. I was also very interested to find out that he’s a vegetarian, and has been for almost 30 years. Since all I’ve heard about the food in South Africa is that it’s mostly meat, which he confirmed is true, I was surprised that the food served at the seminary isn’t as meat-heavy as it was in Vietnam. They also serve a delicious vegetarian dish every night, which is devoured by everyone, and reminds me of the dishes my parents make at home. I have no clue what to expect in my homestay in Bushbuckridge, but hopefully they’ll be able to make vegetarian dishes just like the seminary.

IMG_4759On Wednesday, we went to the Apartheid Museum, about 25 minutes away from the seminary. It’s so crazy to think that this only ended 20 years ago, right after I was born. This is so recent, yet I barely learned about it before this trip. We touched upon it briefly in 9th grade in African-Asian Studies (which is a HUGE topic, in retrospect), and all I really knew before this museum visit is that it was a period of intense segregation and discrimination, similar to the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. I knew Nelson Mandela was involved, as well as the British and Dutch, but not many further details. I was completely unaware that there were tons of student protests, that people were displaced from their homes and forced to move to separate townships and “homelands”, or that people were arbitrarily classified into race categories (Black, White, IMG_4760Colored, Asian, or Indian). The museum was huge (we were there for 4 hours) and packed with pictures, posters, newspaper articles, film clips, models of solitary confinement cells, and enormous pillars at the front of the museum engraved with the key principles of the new constitution of South Africa: equality, diversity, democracy, responsibility, respect, reconciliation, and freedom. As one of the walls in the museum displayed, “Apartheid is exactly where it belongs – in a museum”.

On Thursday, we had 4 lectures, both class and guest speakers, which were all awesome. Our first guest lecturer was about the history of South Africa, which helped us understand more of the roots of Apartheid, and definitely helped me understand why the first thing we did in South Africa was go to that museum. Our second lecture was by a mother and daughter discussing NGO resistance to Apartheid, and the third was about education in South Africa. Sorry that I’m not including descriptions of these – I’m tired and have too many other things to discuss. But they were great!

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Soweto

Friday was our busiest day. We visited Soweto township and the SKY (Soweto Kliptown Youth) Center, the Hector Pieterson museum, and got to see both Nelson Mandela’s and Desmond Tutu’s houses (from the outside). Soweto is a township to which blacks were forced to move during Apartheid, and it is still predominantly a black community. The SKY center in Kliptown is run by Bob, an inspirational man who has been through many tough challenges in his life; he lost his mom at age 4 and dad at 6. The center provides food, shelter, and education to underprivileged youth, especially orphans, in Kliptown. Bob cares deeply about his community, and truly believes that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. He talked about not taking anything for granted, especially water, after explaining that the community has 120 water taps for 60,000 people. While this is clearly a challenge, Bob is extremely positive about Kliptown and what they do have: “That’s survival. We survive here”.

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Adorable kids dancing with us

However, many of us found it slightly uncomfortable to be touring this village as a bunch of privileged, American college students, looking at a poor, African town with the inevitable tourist gaze. But after we debriefed and discussed our experience there, it was easier to realize that while we may not have given back to this community the way we would’ve liked to, we definitely had a valuable experience. This was a similar experience to one we had in New Orleans, after one of the leaders at a site visit mentioned the phrase “prostitution of a community”, referring to tour busses coming through and taking pictures of impoverished people who were hit extremely hard by Hurricane Katrina. Here in South Africa, talking with Bob and other community leaders, as well as playing with little kids, allowed them to show us what they are proud of and what they’re doing for themselves. We don’t want to victimize these communities because they don’t have much water access or enough food, because that’s the first thing we can do to set us back and make the tourist gaze seem real. But by recognizing what they’re proud of and standing in solidarity with them, I become aware that this experience helped me immensely. Our role is to recognize that community prostitution happens and exists, and, in theory, we learned something in our experience here that will allow us to give back more in the future. And now a shameless plug: Bob gave a TEDx talk a few years ago, check it out here!

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Iconic image of Hector Pieterson in 1976

In the afternoon, we visited the Hector Pieterson museum, which highlighted student protests in the 70s, resisting the brutality of the government during apartheid. Hector was 12 when he was shot during one of the protests, and this picture became iconic. The girl in the picture is his sister, and our group was actually supposed to meet with her, but something came up and it didn’t work out. That would have been a very moving conversation, I’m sure.

Today, Monday, we had a site visit at the Aurum Institute, which is a male sexual health clinic that provides free medical circumcisions and information to males before making the transition to manhood. It is definitely a cultural concept here, but this clinic does a fantastic job at providing other resources and guidance besides the actual IMG_4833surgery. They run youth programs, have HIV testing and counseling, and psychological services for young men going through the circumcision process. The staff is also extremely candid and enthusiastic about what they do, which is how people should be when talking about sexual topics – hiding or being embarrassed by it only perpetuates the problems. Just before this site visit, my lunch table had a very detailed discussion about different cultural, religious, and medical reasons for and against circumcision, including the procedural details, which was a lovely topic while we were eating.

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Our beautiful courtyard

Irrelevant to South Africa but extremely important on this trip: BOOKS! I didn’t bring any books with me solely because I didn’t want to add extra weight to my suitcase, but luckily a lot of other people did. We read a lot in our free time, especially outside in the beautiful courtyard of our seminary, and we’re always passing around books for others to share. So far I’ve read Wild and re-read The Kite Runner, and I just started a new book called Little Bee. Among others on this trip, we have Inferno by Dan Brown (I am PSYCHED to read it after reading both The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons in the past few years), The Language of Flowers, A Thousand Splendid Suns (definitely re-reading), The Glass Castle, The Monkey Wrench Gang, and many others that I’m forgetting because it’s 10pm and I am EXHAUSTED.

Last few notes of things I’m loving here:

  • Hellooooo SUMMER! Sorry again to everyone in the cold weather…I am writing this as I receive a text from my mom that Mel’s show was cancelled because of snow and that the temperature is in the single digits. Well, it’s been in the 80s and even 90s here in South Africa, and we all started getting tan (and burned…) on our first day here, after realizing how strong the sun is.
  • Rooibos tea – an herbal tea that’s very popular here. I highly recommend it.
  • VEGGIES – I decided to forgo not eating fresh, uncooked fruits and vegetables once I got to South Africa and found a lack of cooked vegetables and an abundance of fresh ones in our seminary. We have apples, oranges, and bananas at breakfast, and salad at lunch and dinner, so how could I say no? (A few of my friends started calling me the vegetable whisperer, and I have to admit that I like it.) Additionally, everyone is drinking the tap water here because it’s said to be very safe. My only hesitation wasn’t about whether the water itself was safe, but at how different it was from the water in the U.S. and whether or not my system would have trouble adapting to it. But so far so good! (Others are having some trouble adjusting, if you know what I mean..)
  • People speaking English / no language barrier – this is a huge load off after being in Vietnam. Our site visits have been such a different dynamic because people are speaking directly to us instead of through a translator.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, ends our stay in Johannesburg. On Wednesday, we’re driving 8 hours to Bushbuckridge (I’m desperately trying to download the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince audiobook with very limited wifi), where we’ll stay in a homestay for 3 weeks. And also apparently the bathrooms are just holes in the ground. Yay for new experiences (and that I brought toilet paper with me)!

One of Bob’s amazing quotes regarding being selfless to end this post: “When you live for other people, you live and live and live. Bob did it. And if Bob did it, I can do it.”

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Rural Vietnam: mountains and rice paddies

We spent the past week, our 4th and last week in Vietnam, in the Lac Village, which is northwest of Hanoi. This week was absolutely fantastic!

Monday morning (Feb. 9): we moved out of our urban homestays and crowded onto a coach bus to the Hoa Binh province of Vietnam. We drove about 3-4 hours there, then got off at the end of a dirt road, when we proceeded to wheel all of our luggage down about a quarter of a mile. EvenIMG_1 though moving the luggage was tough, the view was INCREDIBLE.       I’m one to get excited even at the sight of one mountain, but we were surrounded by blue mountains and green rice paddies in all directions. There was even a tiny patch of blue sky, which I haven’t seen since being in the U.S. ~~~amazing~~~! Walking into the Lac Village, I felt like my soul was taking a hot shower – it felt fantastic to be able to breathe deeply and not inhale smog, and spread my arms out and not hit 5 people in the face while also having multiple motorbikes racing toward me. This week was relaxing and a great way to end our stay in Vietnam.

When we got to the actual village farther down the road, I was surprised to see a bunch of other tourists there. While the Lac Village is a rural village a good distance from the touristy city of Hanoi, it still attracts a lot of tourists. All 36 of us moved into a wooden house on stilts, where the open first floor was a dining area with bathrooms, and the second floor was filled with thin mats on the floor, every 7 or so beds covered by a mosquito net. Our house was connected to one another (also used by people in our program), and we were in a row of many houses. The whole village is a bunch of rows of houses, with rice paddies around the houses and mountains around the rice paddies. Before our first meal, the village headman told us (through translation) that many tourists visit the village, and the income from tourists is 4x more than they make normally, exporting mostly rice.

Tuesday, Feb. 10: We packed lunches for the day and divided into groups to hike varying IMG_2distances to some nearby Thai villages. I went in the group that would hike the longest distance (they approximated about 1 hour). We ended up hiking 3 hours to get to the village, much of it being steep, dirt trails that required a lot of bushwhacking and scrambling up the trail. There were also cows on this skinny little trail, and many cow pies, which made us a lot more cautious of where we were stepping. But it was such a great time – our group of about 15 was sharing and solving riddles, playing games, taking pictures, and talking a lot. The mountains were absolutely beautiful. We stopped along the way to eat lunch, and I laughed at the fact that our translator and local man (who led the hike) packed a full bottle of soy sauce for the road.

IMG_4When we got to the village (which was even more rural than the one in which we are staying), we spoke with 2 families (originally we were supposed to speak with 5, but we had no time because of how long the hike took). These houses were also on stilts with bamboo floors, and they were pretty spacious on the inside. I was surprised to notice that every house had a TV and electricity, especially because it seemed to far from our village and the rest of the population in the area. Some of the questions we asked (through translation) referred to our case study topics (which I’ll cover later). There are about 300 houses in this village, which means it’s very spread out, since I only saw a few in the spot we were in. I also learned that women who want to give birth in the hospital travel 6-7km by motorbike (and sometimes taxi) to get there. Talking to the villagers definitely make me question how honest they’re being because of the fear of the government control. Their stories and information may be skewed because of our presence, and sometimes the presence of a government official (more on that in person when I come home).

When we walked back from the Thai village, we ended up taking a paved road, which only took an hour or so, so it’s good to know that the villagers do have a faster, easier way to get to the main part of town than climbing down rocky trails. All in all, our supposed 1-hour hike took 7.5 hours, and it was by far my favorite day in Vietnam. It was our first full day away from the smog and craziness of Hanoi, and I couldn’t have imagined a better way to spend it than surrounded by mountains.

Wednesday, Feb. 11: We drove to a health clinic in a H’mong village about 20km away and got to speak with the only doctor in a village of 10,000 people. We learned about their typical practices and how they treat patients, but what was most interesting to me was learning about the poverty level there. The Vietnamese poverty line is 600,000 VND per month (about $30/month), but the average income for people in the commune is about 6 million VND per year (about $25/month, or $300/year). The wealth level in Vietnam is drastically different than the U.S., but they are also living with much less stuff than we have.

After speaking with the doctor, we divided into 3 groups, with 2 case study groups in each one so it would be easier to stay on a few topics with the families, instead of bouncing around asking very different questions. My Environment & Health group was paired with Infectious Disease, so we started out by asking about common illnesses in the village or in their families, and then we transitioned into asking about water (my group) and HIV (the other group). Our questions were about where they got their water and if they do anything to clean it. Most people said that they use water from the mountain that is provided by the government through a sort of piping system, but not everyone boils it. Some of the people we talked to here (and in the Thai village on Tuesday) said they always boil their water, but one of them said she only does because she got sick the one time she drank it without cleaning it. For the most part, it seems like all of the villagers believe that the mountain water is very clean, and only boil it because they learned from their parents or something seen on TV. Another interesting thing I learned from visiting both villages is that they mostly use and trust Western medicine over traditional medicine.

Friday, Feb. 13: We had our case study presentations on Friday, and my group talked about our visit with Dr. Hanh in Hanoi (previous post) and how her knowledge of water quality and safety in Hanoi and rural villages compared with what we observed in our host families and in the Lac Village. We also threw in a song, dance, and limerick to spice things up.

In the afternoon, a bunch of us played volleyball with a few of the villagers around our age. Since you probably know I’m very athletic, I scored most of the points for my team and neverIMG_5 missed a ball. (More realistic account: I was unofficially dubbed the worst player on the team, but I did manage to send out a few good serves, which gave me red forearms for the rest of the day.) Since the court was right at the end of our row of houses, it was in between rice paddies, and the ball went into a rice paddy 5 times and got stuck in a tree twice. Luckily, one of the villagers was extremely deft at climbing and wading into muddy rice paddies, so the game continued.

Saturday, Feb. 14: We had an optional hike and spelunking trip to a nearby cave, and a group of about 15 of us went. We walked about 25 minutes from the village to the IMG_6foot of some stairs, where we were told there were about 1,000 to get to the top. It was raining when we started walking, so the rain + sweat + humidity left us in a fabulous looking state by the time we got to the top. The cave was huge and dark in some higher areas, where we made good use of our headlamps. In order to get to some of the higher areas, we had to shimmy up (and later, down) extremely smooth rock, which took some time and a lot of dust on our clothes. When we climbed down, I counted 1,215 steps, and 2 days later, my calves still hurt. Overall, it was a great way to start the day and explore more of the beauty of Vietnam. At night, we had a final dinner in the village, and some local performers showed us some traditional dances. We then proceeded to hastily finish all of our assignments.

I am so glad we visited Lac Village – it was a perfect way to end our stay in Vietnam, and I enjoyed every second of it. Waking up to mountains and fresh air every day made me even more grateful for this experience, since I had much more time without background noise to distract me. Being able to hike, walk, ride bikes, talk to locals, and explore caves is exactly the way I want to spend my time. I’ve heard that our 3-week stay in Bushbuckridge, South Africa, will be similar to the Lac Village in that we’ll be around mountains and immersed in nature, which makes me SO EXCITED.

Sunday, Feb. 15: We drove back to Hanoi in the morning, and spent the afternoon finishing assignments,IMG_7 unpacking, packing, getting our last lunch, and wandering around the nearby lake. At night, we had our farewell dinner with our host families, and it was so nice to see mine! Tom, my 5-year-old host brother, was causing a ruckus as usual, but we had a great time. Mariam and I gave our 3 host siblings (our host mom couldn’t come) some dessert for Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, which is this Wednesday. Similar to New Orleans, we left both countries just before the big holidays begin (Mardi Gras is this week, as well as Tet). However, it was a really cool experience to be able to see all of the buildup. Stores, houses, and every advertisement are filled with colorful decorations for Tet, and all the schools are closed down for almost 2 weeks.

I can’t believe my stay in Vietnam is over already…it actually feels like I JUST got here. I’m IMG_9sitting in the Singapore airport now, since we have an 8 hourlayover before we fly to Johannesburg! The Singapore airport is incredible – so far I’ve been to a sunflower garden, a butterfly garden, and a koi pond. It’s also 86º here…sorry to everyone in the negatives!

While everyone is talking about how excited they are for South Africa, I still can’t believe I just spent a month in Hanoi, in Vietnam, in Southeast Asia, almost as far away from my home as I could be. I’m incredibly grateful for this experience, and I can’t wait for the next chapter.

To Vietnam: Pho real, this has been a phonomenal 4 weeks and I won’t phoget any of my experiences. My homestay phomily, phun weekend excursions, and learning the phondamentals of the Vietnamese healthcare system has been interesting pho sure. What’s up next? SOUTH AFRICA!

Weekend travels with clean air and colorful views. And more things.

Disclaimer: this post appears to be VERY long. It may be a tad long. But hopefully you’ll still read it YAY!

The other day, I was reading my friend’s abroad blog (an “ablog”, if you will) and saw that she made a list of specific goals for this trip, in general and for each country. I had goals and hopes going into the program, but never wrote them down, so I decided to put them here. Some of them have happened already (and I’m sure I’m writing some of them because of that), but I’m excited to see what happens in the other countries. I played around with the settings and made 2 new tabs at the top of the page, one with these goals (called Travel Bucket List) and another with some of my favorite travel pictures. Check them out if you want to see the creative juices that emerge when I procrastinate! If you’re getting this post by email, click on the title link to get to the actual website, so you can see the tabs. In case you’re: 1) Too lazy to click on the links, or 2) Not electronically savvy enough to figure out how to click them, I’ll post the list here. But keep checking the bucket list tab throughout the semester to see what I’ve crossed off the list!

Semester-long goals:

  • Send out a blog post once a week.
  • Form individual relationships with every person on my program, including the traveling staff.
  • Learn the basics of each language and try to improve my vocabulary throughout each country (except the basics of Spanish – I’ve taken it for 5 semesters, hopefully way past the basics, so I really want to solidify my speaking skills in Argentina).
  • Try lots of new foods, especially if I won’t have the chance to have them at home.
  • Cook with each of my host families at least once.
  • Don a traditional outfit in each country.
  • Do something really touristy in each country
  • Do something crazily spontaneous in each country.
  • Visit areas outside of our main location.
  • Visit at least a few museums in each country.

New Orleans:

  • See the Mardi Gras floats
  • Go out with friends to local bars/clubs
  • Do something crazy on Bourbon Street
  • See a King Cake/beignets
  • Listen to live jazz music

Vietnam:

  • Eat pho
  • Ride a motorbike
  • Run around a beautiful lake
  • Visit the Temple of Literature and Ha Long Bay
  • Hang out with Vietnamese students
  • Go to a Vietnamese club (do they exist?) [update: it’s mostly karaoke]
  • Take a bike ride
  • Visit a Buddhist temple

South Africa:

  • Hike Table Mountain
  • See wild animals (from afar) in Kruger National Park.
  • Explore Cape Town and Johannesburg
  • Go on a really long hike with friends
  • Safari??

Argentina:

  • Drink lots of mate
  • Go to a salsa/tango/any Latin dance club multiple times
  • Speak only Spanish with host family (ideally)
  • Go wine tasting

Last weekend (Jan. 31 – Feb. 1), everyone on the program went on a weekend cruise (about 24 hours) in Ha Long Bay, an incredibly beautiful tourist trap that’s categorized as one of the seven wonders of nature (evidently, they made 3 new subcategories in the official seven wonders of the world, which I think is awesome, since there are far more than seven amazing places to visit). Of course, the weather got really cold over the weekend (cold meaning about 55º…sorry to everyone at home, but it’s prettyIMG_4435 cold when you don’t have the coat for it), so we were all in allllll the layers and fleeces and jeans the whole time. We drove 4 hours there, passing countless rice paddies and stopping in an extremely overpriced rest stop, probably built just for Ha Long Bay tourists. We also reminisced over our favorite Arthur episodes, since so many of us didn’t have cable growing up (PBS Kids 4 lyfe!!!), and also sang the best Arthur episode song ever (please click link to experience the sheer brilliance). Once we arrived, we got on the boat, ate lunch (surprisingly good vegan options), and made our way across the water to our first destination; one of the many caves in Ha Long Bay. Our tour guide, who asked to be called Mr. Fly (he was pretty fly), told us a little bit about the cave’s history while leading us through it. It was enormous and full of stalactites and stalagmites (thank you Magic School Bus for teaching me the difference between them), however, there were also lots of colored lights all over the inside of the cave, illuminating different areas of the ceiling and walls. While they made the cave look really cool on the inside, I would rather see it without the lights (or at least without very artificial colored lights) in its natural state. I know I don’t have much say over it, but I don’t like the alteration of natural landmarks all for the sake of tourists and profit.

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Ha Long Bay in all its glorious beauty

After leaving the cave, we got back onto the boat and made our way through the bay, surrounded by breathtaking views of (almost) blue water and mountains beyond mountains (this was not meant to be a public health pun, but I’ll let it be). The mountains were endless, and I couldn’t believe my eyes as we kept moving through the bay. There were also incredibly deft mountain goats that we saw from afar – dem goats have very impressive feet to be teetering on the tippy tops of extremely tall rocks. It was by far one of the most beautiful places to which I’ve traveled, and it definitely felt strange not to be with my family, since every other big trip I’ve taken has been with them. But it was exhilarating and fantastic and reassuring all at the same time, because everything just felt right. I’ve mentioned having “moments” throughout this trip on a previous blog post, which I describe as “feeling all da feelz and being happy”, and this weekend was definitely a plethora of moments for me. I still can’t believe I got to experience that incredible landmark with such incredible people.

Once we anchored for the night (around 3pm), we prepared to go kayaking. I have to admit, I was a little apprehensive about kayaking when it was 55º and windy out, I was freezing and didn’t have any extra clothes, and I couldn’t imagine being wet on the boat for 24 hours. The last time I was in a kayak was a little over a month ago, when I had the incredibly liberating experience of paddling down a Costa Rican river in the pouring rain for almost an hour. But that was when the air was 80º and I had other clothes for afterward (well…quick honesty hour…we packed so few clothes for that trip and they were all hiking clothes, so afterIMG_4461 10 days, the Norr/Metz crew was NOT a pretty sight). But back to Ha Long Bay – I knew I’d probably never have this opportunity again, so I partnered up and got in a kayak – and I am SO GLAD THAT I DID. That water surprised me – while my legs did get soaked, the water was warm. My kayak partner, Emily, and I had a great time paddling away from the boat into the foggy abyss, sitting back every once in a while to enjoy floating in a colorful foreign land while simultaneously sneaking glances at the surrounding boats of attractive European men.

The rest of the night was so much fun – a few of us got drinks at the 4-hour-long happy hour (do they know me or WHAT?) and sat on the top deck of the boat talking about our parents, our futures, and getting all the feelz during it. It felt so great to just live in the moment and enjoy it with friends I’ve only known for a month but already feel so close to. Someone mentioned a quote that I want to live by this semester, and going into the future: “Everything has happened, and everything is happening”. There is so much going on in life and it’s so easy to get caught up in it, but it feels so good to not think about homework, jobs, or any responsibilities and just enjoy where I am right now.

On Wednesday, we had a free afternoon, and a few friends and I went to an enormous IMG_4529underground mall with a full water park inside (what??). After wandering for a bit, we went to a traditional water puppet show in the old quarter (touristy area) of Hanoi. This type of show has a bunch of wooden puppets (men, women, and all different types of animals) performing in a waist-deep pool, with a musical band on the side. You never see the puppeteers who control the puppets, as they’re hidden behind a screen. This performance was incredible – you would think the puppets were moving completely on their own, as they move all over the pool without any indication that they’re on sticks controlled by people.

Case study – I think I mentioned earlier in this blog that we’re each in a case study group throughout the semester, which means we’re with the same people studying the same research question in a general area of public health throughout the 4 countries. My group is the Environment & Health group, and we chose to focus on water quality and sanitation. Water is necessary all over the world, and the access, filtration, and practices will no doubt be different in each country we visit. We’re particularly interested in water sanitation understandings and practices across all 4 countries, especially the differences between urban and rural areas, and if these understandings and practices are reflected in policy. We’ll be looking at people’s awareness of water safety, such as if there are informational/education programs and what type of infrastructure/policy is in place. In terms of practices, we’ll be looking for those like handwashing, boiling water, lead testing, using bottled water, etc. I’m really excited for this because it is such a pressing global issue, but MOST importantly, I’m now catching up to Jordin in terms of continents visited, number of countries visited, AND topics studied while traveling abroad! (Twin competitions don’t exist…or do they? hehehehe)

at HSPH 3

Hanoi School of Public Health

On Thursday, my group (4 of the 5 of us) met with Dr. Hanh, a professor at the Hanoi School of Public Health, and her recent PhD was focused on the risks from dioxin (one of the main components of Agent Orange) in food. She was very knowledgeable about water quality and practices in Vietnam, and it was so interesting hearing about (and experiencing) the differences in Vietnam versus the U.S. For one, no one drinks the tap water here because it’s not safe; people boil it and/or buy bottled water. There are various programs that aim to distribute information, educate, and communicate with Vietnamese citizens about clean water practices, however, they’re not run by the Ministry of Health, but another ministry with members who don’t have the necessary knowledge to make it a successful program. Dr. Hanh emphasized that the most important aspect of water sanitation is behavior change (which I believe is a necessity to improve various global issues): people need to be comfortable boiling water, changing water filters consistently, not using straight rainwater or water from wells (mainly in rural areas), not throwing trash in lakes and rivers, etc.

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50 tons, 11 kilos of gold

On Saturday, a group of 11 of us took a day trip to Ninh Binh province to visit the Bái Đính Pagoda & Tràng An, about 3 hours away from Hanoi. Bai Dinh Pagoda is a complex of Buddhist temples, and the biggest Buddhist pagoda in Southeast Asia. There are 250 Buddha statues in the walkways around the complex, and besides these statues, there are 2 enormous Buddhas (I’m talking 50 and 100 tons, painted with 11-15 kilos of gold), to which thousands of people flock to each year during Buddhist pilgrimages. After visiting the pagodas, we went to Tràng An for a 2-hour boat cave tour. There were 4 of us on each rowboat, plus a woman who paddled the entire way (with some weak paddling from us…sometimes). She also paddled with her FEET IMG_4564sometimes…mad respect. We passed through 7 caves and beautiful waters, and it was extremely relaxing and a great way to catch up with one another. I was on the boat with 3 people with whom I haven’t hung out in a while, so I was really happy to be with them.

Fun fact of Saturday: when Mariam and I wanted to get off the tour bus on the way back, the bus didn’t even fully stop where it said it would – it kept moving forward and we hopped right off. But all is well.

Sunday: Last day in Hanoi/the day of checking things off my Hanoi bucket list

IMG_4611Mariam and I went out with our host siblings (2 sisters, ages 19 and 17, and a 5-year-old host brother) to visit the Temple of Literature, which was the first university in Vietnam. There are multiple courtyards and gates throughout the complex, and it’s all beauuuutiful. While walking around, a young Vietnamese boy walked up to us and asked (in English) if we could tell him anything we knew about the temple for a project he was doing. He also had some homies behind him who were straight up filming us on an iPad and a phone while this was happening. I told him the only thing I knew about the temple and proceeded to laugh nervously…it was an interesting experience. On the research side, I probably should’ve consented to that video, so let’s hope that 12-year-old’s research project doesn’t end up on YouTube.

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Jordin’s response: “THAT’S SO AWESOME WOW!” Mom’s response: “………..”

In the afternoon, we finally got to ride MOTORBIKES! Our host sisters took us to the big parking lot across the street to drive us around on both the motorbike and electric bike (a smaller version of the first). We also may or may not have had the thrill of driving ourselves around. I can’t disclose any information now, but it’s a real possibility. Stay tuned for more information about this hypothetical event when I return in May.

Tomorrow (Monday), we leave Hanoi after 3 weeks and stay in the rural Lac Village for 1 week. Hanoi has been a fantastic experience, and I’m so sad to leave my homestay, but I am so excited to be in nature, with clean air and trees. Hanoi is bustling, condensed, and pretty gray (because of the smog), so I’ve definitely felt a bit claustrophobic and nature-sick at times. Ha Long Bay and the cave tour in Trang An both felt like a (literal) breath of fresh air and exactly what I needed. I miss grass and trees and blue skies, so I’m hoping we’ll find that this week.

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Too sad to leave this dude

One last note:

  • The other night a man walked by my friend and me, in a very touristy area, and asked, “You want wit?” I didn’t realize for another 5 minutes that he meant weed. Language confusion AMIRIGHT?
  • Someone from my program sent this to all of us – it’s a list of “14 American Habits I Lost When I Moved to Vietnam” – I highly recommend checking it out. It could not be more accurate for me except #10 (…I wouldn’t spend more than $3, max) and #14 (I wasn’t here in December so I can’t speak to this, but Christmas music does not end at Christmas. Never.)

Cheers to our last week in Vietnam!