Posts Tagged With: orphanage

All the Way to Hué

The dynast Nguyen Anh – he after whom nearly 50 million Nguyens are currently named — unified Vietnam in 1802, as I mentioned earlier, and the question arose as to whether he would keep the capital in Hanoi. One of the first foreign emissaries to present his credentials to Nguyen was the Mexican ambassador, Jose Valdes Bolano, who posed that very question. Nguyen famously replied, “No, Hué, Jose.”

(OK, I invented that conversation just to go for the cheap pun. If you don’t like it, go write your own damn blog.)

(Does it help if I tell you that the current Mexican ambassador to Vietnam is a woman named Sara Valdes Bolano? I didn’t think so.)

Nguyen did in fact make Hué the capital in 1802, and it remained such until the French showed up and started knocking over the furniture in 1945. It’s our first stop in what used to be South Vietnam, i.e. the part of the country south of the 17th parallel that defined the infamous DMZ. The contrast with Hanoi is striking, a legacy of the  contrasting paths of economic development that the North and the South took prior to the unification in 1975 when Saigon finally fell to the Communists. Hué has a population of less than 400,000, about one-twentieth the size of Hanoi, and yet has the feel of a fully developed Western city: a glitzy downtown with lots of neon and a thumping bar scene; lots of English language signage and stores that would be at home in any American mall; and (slightly) less random traffic. It’s an attractive town, threaded by the placid and scenic Huong (“Perfume”) River.

The historical centerpiece of Hué is the Imperial City, a.k.a. the Citadel, whose planning was begun by Nguyen around the time he took over. It sits near the river, facing southeast for both feng shui and political reasons, which is to say that it faces away from Beijing. In its heyday it was an enormous thriving complex, dominated by a fort with cannons but, very much like the Forbidden City in Beijing, containing over 150 buildings containing the residences of the royal family and their retinue, attendants, and hangers-on. It’s surrounded by a moat — formerly populated by crocodiles, per our tour lead Phil — nearly 10 km long.

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The Citadel started to fall on hard times when the Viet Minh (the forerunners of the Viet Cong) occupied it in 1947, and was pretty much devastated during the Tet Offensive in 1968 when both sides variously occupied or bombed the living hell out of it. There are only about 10 buildings left today. Fifty years later, the destruction is still a source of hard feelings among the families and descendants of the antagonists. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and is the subject of a fair amount of restoration. Much of what’s there is beautiful but it still contains a lot of overgrown fields.

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In keeping with a very Buddhist yin-yang, war-piece paradigm, we traded the Citadel for a nunnery, in this case a nearby small Buddhist nunnery housing ten nuns ranging in age from 16 to 73. Our guide was a 24 year old nun who had been there since the age of 16; she spoke no English (Phil interpreted) but served us a typically wonderful lunch — vegetarian this time — and answered our questions. You are well aware that male Buddhist monks shave their heads but it may never have occurred to you that the nuns do as well, though this is frequently hidden by their headpieces. It makes some of them surprisingly androgynous.  Our guide spends long days running errands, chanting, and going to college in town. She comes from a poor family — not uncommon among nuns and monks — and traveled a few hundred miles to be here.

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Religion, of course, is kind of a no-no in Communist countries, but the authorities here have lightened up a lot and about 20% of the population is observant of one or another religion, the most common (about 11% of the total population) being Buddhism as you would suppose. But there are others, perhaps the most oddball being Cao Dai (sometimes written Caodaism), which is a Bahai-like amalgam of all sorts of sorta-monotheistic stuff. It was founded right here in Vietnam in 1926 and claims something between 2 and 6 million adherents, almost all of them here. (If the higher number is accurate, there are as many Cao Dai followers in Vietnam as Jews in the US. No reports on whether they can find a decent corned beef sandwich.) Caodaists believe that the word of God has been revealed repeatedly through the writings of Earthbound prophets, whose numbers include Sun Yat Sen and — go figure this one — Victor Hugo. I mean, I know that Les Miz was a big hit, but c’mon.

I mention all this because we visited a Cao Dai temple, which I am happy to report was as loonball colorfully crazy as you would expect from a religion that encourages you to communicate with two of the their other revered figures — Joan of Arc and Vladimir Lenin — via seance. (If they ever adopt Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, I’m converting.)

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Our next religious experience was a somber one. Overseas Adventure Travel is part of the Grand Circle Foundation, a nonprofit that supports about 100 various social projects (schools, orphanages, etc.) in some 59 countries. They’ve given out something like $200 million, and a small part of each OAT trip cost is sent to them. Each such trip — and this is our sixth with OAT — includes a visit to a Grand Circle project, which yesterday was the Duc Son orphanage. Grand Circle has a provided computers, lockers, beds, sewing machines, and other stuff; we brought along gifts of school supplies. (Click on the thumbnails for the full size images.)

The orphanage houses 135 children, which is not exactly the right word since some stay into adulthood. The youngest are infants, and most have been abandoned. The place is run, heroically (there is no other word) by only 12 nuns. There used to be 18, but burnout is a real problem because the work is literally non-stop. The older kids help take care of the younger, which is the only way that such a place is even remotely workable. We were very, very impressed: the staff is nothing short of superhuman, and it shows in the kids’ behavior, which was raucous, cheerful, well-organized, and… normal. The kids receive Buddhist religious instruction, but not very extensively; although the staff are all strict vegetarians, they prepare and serve the kids non-vegetarian food in order to avoid any nutritional or developmental risks. That’s a big leap out the staff’s spiritual comfort zone and is one of the many measures of their extreme commitment. (The kids do get two “vegetarian days” per month, however.)

Of the 135 charges, 16 are handicapped in some way (we saw one Downs infant, being played with by a rambunctious non-handicapped boy of about 3). The orphanage receives gratis twice-weekly visit from a nearby doctor, another critical lifeline that makes the institution manageable, but only just. We left the place awed at the nuns.

Our final outing of the day (yes, this all happened yesterday) was a musical interlude. The Perfume River is home to a large number of touristy “dragon boats”, basically raft-like dual-hull houseboats decorated with dragon heads on the front.

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In this case Phil had chartered the boat and the owner family had brought aboard an ensemble Vietnamese folk musicians, who played some traditional stringed instruments, one of which appeared to be a Japanese 16-stringed koto. The other three were variously banjo- or violin-like, though each had only one or two strings. Here they are in action:

Note the gal who’s using teacups as castanets! They played and sang for about a half hour whilst we lay at anchor in the middle of the Perfume River. And when they finished they lit some candles in paper containers folded into lotus shapes, and one by one we set them adrift in the river…..

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Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Saving the Children

We flew via Cessna from Kulala International Airport — not really, I mean the dirt landing strip I showed you yesterday — back through the desert for the 45 minute hop to Walvis Bay. A century or so ago, Walvis Bay was the happening place, the radiant of German colonial expansion into Namibia. It was the whaling and commerce center. Today it is still the major shipping center, an industrial port for the export of salt, copper, and uranium; there is a recreational beach and a lot of fishing, but otherwise from our limited perspective it had little to recommend it outside of our restaurant lunch on the water.

With one exception: the flamingos of Walvis Bay Lagoon. There are hundreds of them, pallid pink on their bodies but the flaming color of the inside of a blood orange on the tops of their wings.

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Those guys in the top image who look like they’re recreating the cover of the Abbey Road Beatles album are in fact doing a Michael Jackson imitation. Seriously, they don’t just stand there but rather work their feet back and forth in what looks for all the world like MJ’s moonwalk, the objective being to stir up the silt and thus scatter the small fish and shrimp that are their preferred food.

Since we didn’t have any significant amounts of copper or uranium among us, we left immediately after lunch, driving the half hour north to the resort town of Swakopmund. Swakop draws a lot of German tourists — most of the restaurants seem to be German — and has a long and inglorious history as a German enclave; it is only since independence in 1990 that the all-white, all-German private high school was repurposed into an integrated public school, and the locals — including our driver Joe — still bear a great deal of animus towards them. The town’s former industrial base was the large Hansa Brewery, and the layout of the town still reflects this: the streets are very broad, wide enough for beer-carrying freight trucks to maneuver.

Our hotel is another avatar of this colonial history, its architecture resembling European colonial mansions everywhere, with whitewashed colonnades, an English garden, and sweeping staircases. It’s just a tad different from our Namib desert camp. Its name, aptly enough, is the Hansa Hotel.

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With this uninspiring historical background, today was very much a cultural immersion day. Our first stop was the Festus Gonteb Primary School, a K-7 institution educating nearly 1100 students, nearly half of whom walk the mile distance from “DRC”, the sprawling 15,000-person shantytown Democratic Resettlement Community down the road. (More on DRC below.)

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We received background information about the school from FGPS’s earnest if longwinded principal, who then turned us over to two 7th grade “prefects”, i.e. top students (both girls) who are given assorted academic, outreach, and disciplinary responsibilities for their achievements. (The “disciplinary” part kind of weirded us out, in truth; the principal’s description made it sound like they girls were being promoted to some kind of stool pigeon, and we wondered darkly whether they still had any friends left.)

We split into two groups, one with each prefect. I went to a 3rd grade class with our impressively poised and articulate prefect Jennifer; Alice was in a group that visited a class of 6th graders. The students were nothing if not enthusiastic to see us.

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My camera alone was a big hit, and I made the mistake of allowing one of the kids to take a picture of me with it, instead of the other way around, which of course meant that I was swarmed by every kid in the class who also wanted to take a picture with it and look at the resulting image. I now have about twenty lousy pictures of myself, none of which show my windmilling arms as I frantically attempt to keep about two dozen pairs of enthusiastic hands away from my very expensive lens.

The kids sang songs for us — and we sang Row, Row, Row Your Boat as a round in return — then said a prayer and sang us farewell.

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We in turn left behind a load of school supplies that we had purchased, and received a boatload of hugs in return. We were impressed: these kids were enthusiastic, well-behaved, curious, and very affectionate. They have a lot to offer; we hope that there is hope for them.

As I mentioned, about half the kids walk to school from the “DRC”. It’s an interesting phenomenon, basically a government-sponsored shantytown. The government provides the land and lights the wide dirt streets, but provides no electricity otherwise. Residents scrounge materials to build shacks, and are given a metal ID token that, when inserted into a hydrant-like water station, allows them to access to water. The shanties are otherwise without plumbing, though a sewer line is in the works.

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At the edge of the shantytown is an actual (very) low cost housing development being built by the government, with rows of simple roofed conventional houses that rather like military base housing. The long term plan is to build more and more of these and gradually replace the shanties with actual small houses that the DRC residents are able to own.

Our destination within DRC was a soup kitchen, a rather remarkable three-room operation run by the inhumanly formidable Miss Katrina (a.k.a Mother Katrina) in the form of the Dantago Communities Rising organization; see the link for their Facebook page. Katrina has a day job as a restaurant manager in town but appears to operate in some kind of spacetime warp as she also runs Dantago as a combined soup kitchen/day care/community garden/craft store. Here she is with some of her charges, the latter taken in — sometimes during the day, sometimes semi-permanently — from parents who cannot care well for them. In a few cases those mothers, e.g., disabled by alcoholism, actually work at the center making jewelry for sale, or tending the garden to sell vegetables (the latter not so easy during a four-year drought). “Center”, by the way, is a rather strong word for the structure, which is a three-room shanty with no electricity or running water.

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Our contribution was to bring a load of vegetables, cut them up, and watch Lloyd and Katrina’s helpers make stew, which we then ladled out to the kids.

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My contribution was to start a riot by showing my camera to the kids as I took their pictures, thereby triggering the same grabfest that I had experienced (and caused) at the Festus school an hour earlier. Here I am in full Sensitive Tourist mode, trying to keep those grubby little hands off my goddamn lens. (Thanks to Sherryl for this picture, which I shall perhaps forward to Angelina Jolie.)

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I should mention, by the way, that I asked Katrina whether it was OK for me to take pictures. Her response: “Take as many pictures as you can. Send them to everyone you know. The more people that know about us, the better!” So consider yourself informed. It seems trite and mawkish, but I truly could not look at these kids without thinking of my own three grandchildren (ages 9 months, 21 months, and 5 years), who of course want for nothing and in all likelihood never will. Katrina’s reserves of energy, compassion, and patience are virtually inconceivable to me. (And she is not unique, as I’ll get to in a moment.)

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Grinding poverty notwithstanding, things are apparently never too dire for a makeover, and travelmate Wanda went to work with gusto. We soon had a soup kitchen full of juvenile, brightly painted nails.

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The child in the above photo, by the way, is from the San tribe, i.e. the Bushmen.

Our final stop was an actual orphanage, the “Tears of Hope” in the nearby township of Mondesa, run by the no less formidable Naftaline Maua, whom you see here in sort-of-traditional Himba garb.

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I say “sort of” traditional because actual Himba garb consists of very little indeed, plus red ochre hair coloring. The original German colonists — or more accurately, the original female German colonists were none too crazy about this, first because their husbands’ eyeballs were bugging out all the time, and second because those same husbands kept coming home from a hard day of oppressing the natives with red ochre stains in very difficult-to-explain places. So they strongarmed the men, in particular the clergy, into forcing the native women to wear Victorian dresses. As a sop to the actual Himba culture, however, they developed headwear designed to resemble to cattle horns, since the Himba were cattle farmers. Hence Naftaline’s hat and dress.

Naftaline has an interesting history of her own as an AIDS counselor, which you can read a bit about by clicking here. Now she runs a 6-bedroom home that houses 21 orphans (none, fortunately, with HIV). She is an outgoing energetic woman who apparently needs no sleep, and who with her daughter prepared a wonderful lunch for us in her dining room, featuring lamb and polenta seasoned with spicy tomato-y chakalaka relish. (Here’s the recipe if you’re interested.)

Turns out that a couple of her wards attend the Festus school we had visited that morning, and indeed a few came home and said hello to us since school was ending (or on lunch break) while we were there.  We left behind some household goods and clothing for her, then returned to our hotel to contemplate our spectacularly non-poverty-stricken lives.

 

 

 

Categories: Africa, Namibia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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