Vietnam Packing

Hey friends! After visiting Vietnam on four separate occasions here is my honest advice on how I get ready for that trip. Hope this helps!~ Amber

CLOTHING: While working on construction projects I would recommend wearing as comfortable of clothing as possible- think of gym clothes, breathable clothing, sports bras. I wear comfortable and relaxed clothing the entire trip. For shoes I bring one pair each of tennis shoes, flip flops and keen's sandals. It is not necessary to bring clothing for every single day of your trip- the ladies are able to hand wash your clothing in Mai Chau. 

CASH: Please bring money for souveniers, extra curricular activities outside of those provided, snacks, alcohol, etc. US dollars must be in good condition or they will not be accepted- cash cannot be torn, too old, or written on. You can also use an ATM to safely withdraw cash in country, but please notify your bank ahead of time that you will be traveling. 

VISA: You will need to apply for a visa online before your trip. The website I use to apply for a visa is https://www.vietnam-visa.com/ . Currently the Vietnamese government is giving all Americans an automatic 1 year visa- there are no shorter visa options at this time. 

IMMUNIZATIONS: Before my first Southeast Asia trip I made an appointment with a travel clinic to get all the immunizations they recommended. My first couple trips I also took the anti-malaria pills. 

OUTLET CONVERTERS: Have never needed to use one in Vietnam. 

OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDER:

  • sunscreen
  • bug spray
  • all paper printouts- printed copies of your visa paperwork, passport, airline schedule, reservations to have on hand for when you don't have internet access
  • two prong headphone converter- necessary on about half of Asian airlines in order to use your headphones, only costs a few dollars
  • swimsuit
  • baby wipes
  • snacks
  • travel beauty products- I bring everything I need during the trip but don't worry if you forget something you can find replacements in Vietnam
  • plastic bags/ ziplocks- every liquid I have is in several ziplocks and I pack my shoes in plastic bags so they don't make my other luggage smell
  • any type of medication that you could possibly need- immodium!, allergy medicine, etc

Zanzibar Packing

Hey friends!

Here are my thoughts about packing for Zanzibar! Please leave any questions in the Facebook group and we can discuss. Hope this helps! ~Amber

Dress code: Zanzibar has a 99% muslim population. When in Paje it is fine to wear what you want while on the beach, but once you enter the village where the locals live it is important that women have their shoulders and knees covered. No one will be there to check you every day and tell you how to dress- but it is very important that you be respectful to the locals who live here, especially the ones who's homes we are entering and the people who we are helping in the village. RAKlife wants to have a long relationship with the people of Paje- and some of the village elders are still weary of having outsiders come in to help. 

While working on construction projects I would recommend wearing as comfortable of clothing as possible- think of gym clothes and breathable clothing. I wear comfortable relaxed clothing the entire trip. 

Every day I wore comfortable athletic shorts and covered them with a light wrap. I also think the spandex type capri pants would be perfect. 

Sweating in the middle of Africa's summer but still was asked to be covered. 

In Stone Town you will see many tourists dressed in different ways. I think when you are around the hotel area it is fine to dress how you want. But I was told by other women that they were heckled for wearing shorts too short while wandering the streets away from the hotels.

Other things I think are important:

  • Cash: again there are no ATM's in Paje. Please make sure to have all the money you need for personal items before you leave Stone Town. I would recommend just bringing all your cash with you upon arrival as many of the ATM's we found in Stone Town were broken or empty. 
  • Outlet converter- needed for pretty much all of Tanzania
  • All paper printouts- printed copies of your visa paperwork, airline schedule
  • RAKlife shirt: please bring if you already have one- if not Matt will be checking in about this soon
  • Bug spray
  • Sunscreen
  • Swimsuit
  • Baby wipes
  • Immodium
  • Earplugs
  • Flashlight/headlamp
  • Medicine: bring whatever you think you could possibly need

RAKlife Romania Recap

We had an incredible journey through Romania, mainly helping the Roma people (also known as the "gypsy" population) in Baia Mare, which is in northern Romania.  We were able to spend a couple weeks supporting the mission of a local community center run by Caritas.  They provide a safe learning and development environment for the children - also including parenting classes for the adults and providing showers and laundry for the families as they have no running water in the community.  Awesome work they are doing for these Roma people.

A special thank you to travel blogger Carey Carpenter, who runs CareBear Abroad  (https://www.facebook.com/carebearabroad) for her awesome video skills!

Walking through the Craica slums, where the Roma children we helped live - you can see the horrible living conditions.

Walking through the Craica slums, where the Roma children we helped live - you can see the horrible living conditions.

There was a Roma slum in the news a few years back because the Mayor put up a wall that separated them from the surrounding neighborhood.  We visited and loved the children we saw!

There was a Roma slum in the news a few years back because the Mayor put up a wall that separated them from the surrounding neighborhood.  We visited and loved the children we saw!

Carey painting her Care Bear - started as an Ewok, but turned out great!

Carey painting her Care Bear - started as an Ewok, but turned out great!

The Director of the center, Alexandra, is an amazing artist and decided to get in on the fun - she painted this free-style by just looking at the RAKlife logo!  Thanks Alexandra!

The Director of the center, Alexandra, is an amazing artist and decided to get in on the fun - she painted this free-style by just looking at the RAKlife logo!  Thanks Alexandra!

The Roma children during recess - they were all amazing to work with and help and simply couldn't stop smiling for the camera and hugging us!

The Roma children during recess - they were all amazing to work with and help and simply couldn't stop smiling for the camera and hugging us!

With our new partnership with Everyone Eats (https://www.every1eats.com) we were able to feed the entire community center! Most of the children had never had spaghetti and only eat a hot meal once every couple weeks.

With our new partnership with Everyone Eats (https://www.every1eats.com) we were able to feed the entire community center! Most of the children had never had spaghetti and only eat a hot meal once every couple weeks.

Matt's favorite Roma man walking through the community!  He was sassy!!

Matt's favorite Roma man walking through the community!  He was sassy!!

The masterpiece the team worked on - Team Unicorn leaves it's mark for the enjoyment of the children until we return next year!

The masterpiece the team worked on - Team Unicorn leaves it's mark for the enjoyment of the children until we return next year!

RAKlife team with the leaders of the community center - middle is Alexandra, the Director; the right is Roxana, the psychologist.  Also pictured is Carey from CareBear Abroad, and Glenn, who has helped RAKlife a couple times in the past!  Thank you so much to all for all your hard work.

RAKlife team with the leaders of the community center - middle is Alexandra, the Director; the right is Roxana, the psychologist.  Also pictured is Carey from CareBear Abroad, and Glenn, who has helped RAKlife a couple times in the past!  Thank you so much to all for all your hard work.


RAKlife Nicaragua Experience

Our Nicaragua playground project is now complete! See the video below to learn about what the new playground means to this small community and hear right from our volunteers about their experience in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua! 

A big thanks to Shannon from Hoo Films for joining us to volunteer and document our journey in Nicaragua.

Part of our RAKlife team finishing up the playground construction.  Shannon (left) is an amazing videographer that put her skills to work by creating the volunteer experience video, Jamie (second from right) is a management consultant that decided to take time out of her busy schedule to RAKpack with us, and Megan (right) is a the RAKlife ambassador for Texas and Southeast

Part of our RAKlife team finishing up the playground construction.  Shannon (left) is an amazing videographer that put her skills to work by creating the volunteer experience video, Jamie (second from right) is a management consultant that decided to take time out of her busy schedule to RAKpack with us, and Megan (right) is a the RAKlife ambassador for Texas and Southeast

The beautiful beach of San Juan del Sur (upper left), Megan during our scavenger hunt with the BPP children (upper right), Jamie taking a much needed break in a beach hammock (middle right), Digging new foundations for the playground (bottom left), and the whole Nicaragua RAKlife team on our final day together on the celebration catamaran cruise (bottom right)

The beautiful beach of San Juan del Sur (upper left), Megan during our scavenger hunt with the BPP children (upper right), Jamie taking a much needed break in a beach hammock (middle right), Digging new foundations for the playground (bottom left), and the whole Nicaragua RAKlife team on our final day together on the celebration catamaran cruise (bottom right)

Click below to see more images from our Nicaragua RAKlife adventure:

RAKlife Guatemala Recap

RAKlife Guatemala 2015 is now complete! Our major RAK's in Guatemala were finishing a school building for the small fishing village of El Paredon and visiting the children of the Guatemala City dump. Watch our video diary below to hear RAKlife founder Matt talk about what we did on the ground in Guatemala.

Some of the highlights from our trip to Guatemala: 

We had such an amazing experience throughout our entire time in Guatemala. Cannot wait to return to this country soon and continue to grow our relationships with all the incredible people we met here! 

Click below to see more images from our Guatemala RAKlife adventure:

Vietnam RAKlife Adventure - April 2015

Mai Chau Valley

Mai Chau Valley

Yet again I am given more from a country than what I came to give as part of the RAKlife adventure.  This time it was in Vietnam, specifically North Vietnam – a place where the generation of my parents lost so many people.  The Vietnam War (to us Americans) is long past and Vietnam, like Myanmar, ranks as one of the friendliest areas I have visited to date.  Partnering with Jim Kennedy Photographers out of Orange County, California, the RAKlife team went 7 strong into rural North Vietnam to change the life of a deserving family and their little village.

Three of us got to Vietnam a couple days before the others and took the opportunity to explore the northern capital of Hanoi.  The highlight of these two days was getting RAK’d by a couple young girls, Pie and Thuy, who took their Sunday to show us around the city.  Out of the goodness of their hearts, they take tourists around Hanoi on weekends.  Like most Vietnamese, they cannot afford to really travel outside of Vietnam. So they give these tours for free in order to meet people from all around the world and “experience” other cultures by meeting foreigners.

Hanoi traffic circle madness!

Hanoi traffic circle madness!

They were taken aback when we mentioned we wanted to see Hanoi like a local – saying tourists typically only want normal sightseeing.  Off we went to explore, coming across Hanoi’s infamous temple of learning during school picture day.  Great to see the smiling faces and joy of graduates just the same as we see in America.   They took us to a local coffee shop that I think no foreigner would ever find – we went in an unmarked door, up 3 flights of stairs through homes, and into a place overlooking the busiest intersection in Hanoi (see picture for the absolute craziness!).  Everyone in the city sits on little kid plastic chairs and naturally the group thought it was quite hilarious when mine cracked and I fell in the middle of conversation – not easy being a big guy!

Once we picked up the others on Monday, the real RAKlife journey began.  Mai Chau is a poorer farming region located in the mountains about 4 hours west of Hanoi.  One of the most beautiful areas of the world I have ever seen with everywhere looking like Eden- the most beautiful green.   Staying in a homestay all in one room, we rented motorcycles and traveled an hour everyday to construct the restroom/shower/clean water facility for the family we came to help.

The RAK

On Tuesday we finally met the family who we’d been planning this RAK for.  I cannot put into words the emotions that went through me when I saw the current situation and sat down to talk with them (through our guide Quy).  Making eye contact with Amber, we immediately teared up knowing already how much this facility would change their lives.

The family is one of the poorest in Vietnam.  The dad has never had use of his legs, crawling on hands to move around the property.  The 85 year old grandmother lives with them, but has minimal mobility and has never been more than 15 minutes outside of the village!  The mother is the only one that can work, and must spend most her time providing food for the family – so there is no opportunity for any income outside of the very basic of necessities.  Anything more than food is given to them as charity from local villagers.  It’s one of the worst situations I have come across in my travels.

Every day, we worked doing various construction activities alongside the locals.  Digging deep holes, mixing cement, laying bricks – we did all but the technical tasks left for the locals that were helping oversee our work.  For 5 photographers and a management consultant, it was certainly an eye-opening experience to see first hand how much work construction is.  I gained a very healthy respect for the industry, especially in countries like Vietnam with no advanced tools to work with.

Day 1 digging!

Day 1 digging!

Houses in this region are built on stilts to protect against flooding and animals; however our family’s was not because there were so poor.  Around the entire structure was a large gap between the bottom of the walls and the ground, allowing chickens and other creatures to constantly run into and around the home.  With our bathroom project we had extra bricks, so we spent some time closing up the holes along every wall of their house as well.  The mother couldn’t keep a smile off her face when she saw what we were doing.

We finished on Saturday, 5 days after beginning the construction.  We decided to make this a special day for the entire village who had already all come by at some point during the week to say hi, share laughs and make us feel welcome in their homes.  We were able to bring 3 duffle bags full of donated children’s clothes from the States.   The village children numbered around 25 and it was a thing of beauty to see the children “shopping” for the first time in their lives as we allowed them to pick and choose items from the piles we layed out.  In addition, Megan, Cheryl and Jim had brought a bag of toys and goodies including a football that we handed out – one child threw a pretty good spiral every time!

Dedication ceremony with the fam!

Dedication ceremony with the fam!

But the real highlight of Saturday was the dedication of the finished facility to the family.   No words will ever do justice what we all felt and the atmosphere in the room as we thanked them for the opportunity to serve them.  They each told us in tears how much this will improve their lives and what it meant to have a facility that most of the world takes for granted.   To top off the dedication, we gave a new bike to the daughter – her first ever.  She was shocked and could not believe that she could have something that every other child had already.  I truly hope that everybody reading this can join RAKlife and experience the happiness of giving a new life to people with so little.

Trip Highlights and Adventures

The construction RAK we performed was by far the highlight of this trip, but what made it one of the best weeks of my life was all the memories in between that happened while we were not on site…

Adventures to falls and cave – one thing you will never see in America is a family allowing a group of adult strangers to take a child to explore.  But the trust and honesty is so great in Vietnam that a mother let her 10 year old daughter lead us on a 45 minute motorcycle and hike through the forest to a local waterfall.  It was gorgeous and a place that only a handful of foreigners have ever step foot.  It’s the off the beaten path adventures like this that make us really appreciate the beauty of another country.  And later that week we climbed over 1200 stairs to a hallowed cave – it was huge and incredible.  In fact, during the French war in the early 20th century, the entire valley population hid in it to escape the French soldiers!

Our dedicated "tour" guide to the secret waterfalls

Our dedicated "tour" guide to the secret waterfalls

Cheryl doesn't like climbing stairs to caves...

Cheryl doesn't like climbing stairs to caves...

But it was worth it!

But it was worth it!

Motorcycling near misses, and one crash -  I’ve never been on, let alone drove a motorcycle before..  But that’s the only mode of transportation around so I had to learn VERY quickly.  Not all went perfectly though… on one day Amber and I crashed into a ditch while making a U-turn.  We were pinned right between a fence and the bike and are very lucky to have come away with only minor scrapes.  Even MORE lucky was one day when we had the irrational idea to take the bikes across a very old wooden bridge.  After the entire group but 2 made it across safely, Cheryl and Megan were the last ones left.  It was Megan’s first time driving and with Cheryl on the back she sped across the bridge while swerving and accidentally speeding up. I can honestly say I’ve never seen somebody so close to death as I witnessed that day– we quit the bridge stunts after that!

Right before our big crash into the ditch!

Right before our big crash into the ditch!

When you break down, might as well have a pitcher of beer in a local house!

When you break down, might as well have a pitcher of beer in a local house!

Meeting the locals – Everywhere you go, you hear “xin chao” (hello) and people waving.  The Vietnamese love to welcome strangers into their lives and homes.  Tea as well as rice wine, the Vietnamese form of moonshine, is in every home you visit.  We must have sat in over a dozen homes taking rice wine shots with people we stopped to say hi to along our daily journey and listened to their stories and answered questions.  One day the mayor of the local village even came to our lunch break and sat with us taking numerous shots while doing the local cheers. 

Jim and the mayor

Jim and the mayor

Local customs – If there’s anything I could recommend to all of you, it’s to immerse yourself in local culture when you travel.  The more I explore the world, the more my barriers break down and I open myself up to the customs and joy of the differences that make each culture unique.  A couple years ago, I would have NEVER put an insect in my mouth, but the local villagers in Vietnam convinced me to munch on a beetle!  It tasted like popcorn!  We stayed at a local homestay while in the village – everybody sleeping on floor mats in one room.  Homemade local cuisine every night and even traditional dancers coming to visit us the last night there.  The highlight being us involved in the last dance!

These little beetles taste like popcorn! 

These little beetles taste like popcorn! 

Until next time…

It’s impossible to both describe in one blog the numerous experiences we had as well as articulate the emotions we all felt as we helped some of the poorest peoples in the world.  I hope I did a little justice and more than anything hope that through these words, every reader is inspired to join RAKlife at some point over the next year during our travels.  Experiencing first hand the impact that a simple random act of kindness can have on someone who has almost nothing will change your life forever.

Mingling in Myanmar

by Amber Miller

There are so many things to say about our trip to Myanmar. It’s so difficult to even know where to begin that most of the time I don’t even say anything other than “It changed my life forever”.

For those of you who don’t know the backstory: Myanmar, once known as Burma, is located between India and Thailand and has a population of more than 50 million people. It’s been the second most closed off country next to North Korea for years due to a strict military government in rule. In 2010 the country finally switched over to a “more democratic” way of government, anda flow of tourists began to trickle in.

Because of the fact that so few tourists have gone to Myanmar, the people there are still in somewhat of their natural state. For many, life has gone on largely unchanged for over 2500 years. Hence, why we decided to go there at the exact time that we did.

The thing we didn’t realize before going though, is that because of Myanmar’s long self isolation to the world, the people there are now both very welcoming and also extremely curious of the outsiders who come to their land. Take a trip outside of the major cities and its easy to be the only non Burmese person in any given place. One of the days of our trip we actually visited a village where no outside person had ever set foot. Get that? No outside person had ever set foot. The story of that experience on that day is a whole different blog post of its own, but let me just say that this is something I didn’t even realize was possible in our world today.

Anyway, there are 2 things that I’d like to tell you about here that I think will explain more than enough.

UKI

Many people have asked me about the story of Uki, my now sponsor child from Myanmar.

Uki is 6 years old and is currently in her first year of schooling. She comes from a very poor family living in an extremely poor village outside of Ngapali, Myanmar. When I say poor, I mean that they have no electricity, no roads, and very few toilets in their village. The few families that do have toilets are just the Asian style toilets dug into the ground. Uki’s father is very ill and can no longer walk. Her mother works all day each day to be able to feed Uki along with her older brother and sister.

Like many of the children in her village, Uki attends English school 6 evenings a week after already spending the daytime at her regular school. The children do this because they are so eager to further their education and have big dreams of a brighter future. Many of them show up to the English school hours before their classes even begin. Does this make you think a little about kids here in America? What we were like growing up?

This English school she attends in Lintha Village was started by a woman named Sue originally from the UK, known by the locals as Mama Sue. The rumor is that after a trip to Myanmar in the late 1990’s that Sue sold everything she owned and moved to Myanmar to take care of the locals in Ngapali who’s hearts she fell in love with. She was first touched by the plight of a boy who’s mother couldn’t afford to feed him or send him to school. Sue decided to sponsor that boys education… and now fast forward to today where Sue has built an English school that is now a safe haven for almost 400 children.

If all my life consisted of doing is what this woman has done, I would be extremely happy for the rest of my days.

Children in front of the schoolhouse before class begins

Children in front of the schoolhouse before class begins

Through Mama Sue’s English school is where first I met Uki, and where I met countless other children who shared their stories with me. The children there dream of someday becoming doctors and architects. Although many of them have never even been into town (just a bigger village) that is only 6 kilometers away. Many have never been inside a car. Let alone have they ever seen an elevator or escalator… Most of them have never even heard of California before.

By meeting Sue and through contact with her I will now be able to sponsor Uki’s education and medical expenses until she’s an adult. Words can’t describe how proud this act of kindness makes me every day along with the tremendous affect this opportunity has already had on my life.

In Myanmar public school is not free and many children are forced to drop out due to their families financial status. They will get a job at a young age or start working for their family just to help them survive.

Healthcare as well is a severe concern for the school. Several children a month are brought to Sue’s door with a condition called encephalitis- an infection that causes swelling of the brain which causes the body to become paralyzed. They know when the children have it because they are no longer able to walk. Encephalitis is very common in this area, and just one example of why health care is so vitally important.

Uki sitting in the front of her class

Uki sitting in the front of her class

Many children at the school already have sponsors- which are just a number of other tourists who have stumbled upon this very special place. And many children are on a waiting list, just hoping for a better future. If you are ever in Myanmar, please I cannot recommend this experience enough. Sue has a tremendous task at hand and she cannot do it alone.

HAPPINESS

Everywhere we went in Myanmar. Every city, every village, every. single. day. Everyone was smiling.

How is it that people who have so little can be so happy? Why is everyone in Myanmar SO happy all the time?

I once posed this question to a local friend there who explained:

Because of the fact that the people of Myanmar have had so little for so long, they have been forced to figure out something that the rest of us spend our entire lives trying to do.

What is it that they understand?? That Happiness is on you.

It doesn’t matter what you have: material things, relationships, health… It’s still going to be a decision that only you can make every day. Fortunately in Myanmar this has become a collective mindset. A way of life. Just the same way that we as Americans are born to be naturally proud of our country. The people of Myanmar are born with a Collective Happiness. They smile all day every day. They laugh with their family, and friends, and neighbors. They spend their lives outdoors in nature being grateful.

The unfortunate thing though is that this collective happiness is also what has allowed the people of Myanmar to be treated so poorly by their government for so long. They allowed it to be okay, because inside, they were still happy. And unfortunately, they just didn’t know any better.

They have no idea what its like to live in a country where you’re free to do what you like. To be what you’d like. To say whatever you’d like. You know, like the country where we live. America… Where so many of us still struggle to find happiness in every day. And why is that??

For me, being in Myanmar has shown me first hand what it is like to be like these beautiful people- absolutely unequivocally happy no matter what you have.

My friend May. Made a promise to this girl that next time I come to Myanmar I will hire her to come with me as a translator. May hopes to be a tour guide when she grows up and probably had the best english of anyone that I met there.

My friend May. Made a promise to this girl that next time I come to Myanmar I will hire her to come with me as a translator. May hopes to be a tour guide when she grows up and probably had the best english of anyone that I met there.

The lessons I’ve learned from this trip will carry with me for the rest of my life. I can’t wait to go back in a few years and visit Uki and see how she’s grown.

If you are traveling and you want your travels to be able to change your world, please spend your time away from the resorts. Spend it with the people of that place. Not looking at them from your tour bus. But talking with them. Laughing with them. Doing kind things for them. I guarantee you you’ll be repaid in more ways than you’d ever expected.

Myanmar RAKlife Trip - Part 2

Amber, Heather, Jim and I continue on our RAKlife adventure to another one of Myanmar’s sacred places, Inle Lake.  Home to a melting pot of hill tribes from the surrounding mountains, Inle Lake also will increasingly become a tourist “hot spot” due to numerous places of interest on the lake: a vast floating tomato garden, hand-rolled cigar making, lotus plant weaving, a floating market, and perhaps the most intriguing, a monastery with the promise of cats that jump through hoops!

Christmas eve we find a man in town who dedicates his time and money with a group of villagers to helping various organizations around the area that support the needy.  He is wary of our desire to help our the Inle Lake people, but after explaining our mission, finally he opens up, explaining that many orphanages in the area are currently sustained by foreign organizations - this is obviously a good thing.  He wanted to ensure that if we were to help, that we would be helping a place with no current support.  He lists one an hour bike ride from town, but warns to call the headmaster prior to coming to ensure we give what is needed, which we do.

Christmas day we wake up heavy with anticipation to show the children a piece of the Christmas spirit we grow up with in America.  Finding a couple toy shops near the market, we shop until we can’t fit anymore on our bikes.  Naturally, we stock up on soccer and volleyballs - a staple of children’s joy around the world.  Many smaller gifts like Barbies, hacky sacks, toy trucks, hula-hoops, Tetris-like hand-held games, and others fill our bags.  Incredibly, we find a couple skateboards and even a gaming system for their TV.  My favorite was a keyboard that included a microphone input for singing!

Loaded up, we head off for our hour bike ride to the orphanage in the country.  It took some effort, but we made it up the final hill and arrive to the orphanage to find the boys all waiting patiently at their desks.  The girls were on a field trip to a market in the hills and would be back in a couple hours.

Similar to the monastic orphanage in Bagan, the headmaster was eager to show the discipline of the children.  One by one, ages 6 to 16, they stood and addressed us with their name, village, favorite hobby, what they want to be when they grow up, and closing with “it is very nice to meet you, Merry Christmas.”  Adorable as anything I’ve come across in my travels.  As a mathematics and engineering degree holder, it made me so happy to hear that at least 50% of the children aimed to continue on to a university and become an engineer.

More impressive than the discipline to me was the lack of intolerance or acceptance seen in almost every classroom in the US.  Naturally, many of the younger boys struggled to work through his introduction.  Each child ages 6 or 7 had an older one sitting next to him and patiently helped the little one overcome his struggles.  You could see the in the faces all the others empathizing for the child and willing him to do well.  There was no snickering, no talking when it was another’s turn, and no cliques.

After introductions, it was time for the fun - gathering around the table explaining that although there was enough for everybody, our desire was for the children to share all gifts.  They nodded anxiously in agreement and began investigating the packages.  It was quite evident that most of the gifts had never been seen by the little ones’ eyes as we showed how most of the gifts worked.   The next couple hours we spent playing with the boys and the highlight for me was a 30 minute soccer game on the dirt field north of the orphanage.

As we were heading out, the boys sat down again and gave us the best present of all.  Several songs sung in unison to us was an amazing treat to thank us for everything.  A couple were traditional Myanmar songs, however I think even One Direction would be impressed that the children sang every word to “What Makes You Beautiful.”  Hands down, the best was a performance of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” coupled with a dance.  It was priceless and if I can figure out a way to get the video on RAKlife website, I will let you all know!

That night, we sit down with our hotel owner, Daniel (his English name), for our second interview for the People Project; a documentary RAKlife aims to produce which hears the voice and expresses the thoughts from the local communities that we help.  Daniel grew up in Inle Lake, spent a few years in Australia, and now is back to help his family run the hotel they built in October.

I will save most of the commentary for the final film, but I think it’s important to share a couple points discussed.  Asked about the current government and the satisfaction of the citizens, he explains that nothing has really changed since the military government was ousted in 2010.  Bhuddism has created a submissive Myanmar people, one that is content with very little and doesn’t mind status quo if they are left to live in peace.  Although the  pre-2010 government was run by a financially corrupt few, it wasn’t until they began the beatings and killings of 2008 that the people called for a change.

Daniel states that although there is a supposed electoral process, his lingering issue remains there is no transparency given on anything - from the electoral process to where they spend tax money.  He calls for a foundational right we Americans have, the right of accountability from the government to its people (another debate on the merit of the American government living up to that can be taken offline!).

I ask Daniel what the hopes and dreams of the parents are for their children.  His answer is beautifully simple; one that I believe will ring true as I continue interviewing people around the world-  Parents want to ensure their children are raised in a safe environment and given an opportunity to succeed, whatever that may be.  Anything short of those two things and parents have an obligation to question the government and their purpose for the people.

We end our journey doing the little acts of kindness that we have filled our time here with between the larger acts I have written about:  seeing market stall owners eating sunflower seeds so bringing them bags of more seeds, paying for somebody’s lunch here and there, tipping in a country where it is not custom, etc.  No amount of kindness can amount to what we received from a country with so little.

The highlight of the last couple days was exploring a random island off the southern coast of Myanmar.  We stumbled across a village wedding and were instantly invited to partake in festivities and treated like the guests of honor - yet another act of kindness from the Myanmar people that we would never see in America!  The newlywed couple, Aung and Myat, were so friendly to us and Jim took a few professional photographs that we will be sending to them in honor of their extreme kindness to the RAKlife team!

We were able to provide many people with a brighter day and hopefully a better view of Westerners as we continue to infiltrate with increased tourism.  But the universal kindness shown to us will be carried in my heart forever.  Never in my travels have I encountered a society that offers to share what little wealth they have, all the while possessing a general happiness and contentment rarely seen in the everyday American.  I challenge anybody reading this to visit Myanmar and see for yourself the amazing country, especially before tourism takes off in a few years.  I’ll close with a simple quote recently heard that has stayed with me as I continue this RAKlife journey:  “Knowing what something is, is not the same as feeling what something is.”  Experience everything - you’ve only got this one life to do it.

Thank you Jim Kennedy Photography for everything on this trip!

Cheers,

 Matt and the Myanmar RAKlife team

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Myanmar RAKlife Trip - Part 1 (December 2014)

Myanmar (me - an - mar), was the second most reclusive country in the world until 2010. (It  trailed only to North Korea.) Since 2010, the country has shifted to a sort of democracy - as much as one can at least during the transition from having such a brutal government. Naturally, there are still many of those in power that won't allow a true democracy. Thankfully though, the citizens are no longer subjected to jailing, beatings and murder as they were so often during the military reign.

Minthu, our local Myanmar tour guide in Bagan, tells the story: In 2007 gasoline pricing was as low as 200 Kyats (about $.20) per gallon. This low pricing was critical as the average Burmese income was $300 a YEAR. Putting this country in the top 20 poorest nations of the world. The then strict Burmese government watched as for the rest of the world oil pricing skyrocketed and made the decision to stop their subsidies for oil, natural gas and many other commodities. This drove prices in Myanmar up anywhere from 50 to 500 percent. Gas prices in some regions grew to over 2,000 Kyats per gallon, without consideration to citizen incomes.

These increases halted locals’ ability to travel to work and drove many businesses to the point of closure. It also directly impacted the hundreds of monasteries and orphanages in the country that implicitly rely on the donations given from local villages.

The helpless Burmese citizens protested but the military immediately quelled their protests with arrests and brutal beatings. Following this, many of the most well respected Bhuddist monks from across the nation took up to protesting for the people instead. In a shocking event, the Burmese military again came out to brutally shut down the protests by the monks, and in doing so many people were murdered. (No official count was determined but it’s been said that over 200 of the peaceful monks were slaughtered. One devastating event included the military firing bullets into a school, killing both children and their parents as well.) Following these brutal events, coupled with increased pressure from around the world, the strict military government was finally outed and new democratically elected officials took their place.

Our guide, Minthu, teared up as he recalled the tragic deaths of these Bhuddist monks. As you see, the citizens of Myanmar hold their monks to the highest esteem, praying at village temples and offering alms daily even though they have so little to give.

After learning of this tragic history, we decided that an important RAK for us would be to help a monastic orphanage in Bagan. At the orphanage that we found, most of the children came from conflict areas along the border of China or Thailand and have escaped from being forced into becoming child soldiers. Their parents have given the children an opportunity to make a better life for themselves in exchange for most likely never seeing them again.

We spent the greater part of a day there serving these young orphans by helping them prepare lunch, observing their prayers before the meal and cleaning up after. The discipline of these young children was impressive. Without speaking, each child performed their preparation role seamlessly. The head monk explained to us that pre-lunch prayers consisted of 15 minutes straight of unison chanting until they’ve given enough thanks to warrant eating the meal. After lunch, the monks and nuns were surprised whenever we insisted to wash the dishes. After Amber and I were shown the proper method, we cleaned over 100 dishes while the nuns watched over us smiling graciously. - Some of the greatest joys of random acts of kindness come from the humility of serving others by doing some of the most basic tasks.

The best part of this experience was giving the monastery some supplies that we bought them. Minthu explained that all supplies the monastery receives are donated. So to each child we handed out a package of writing books, pens, pencils and toothbrushes. The young orphan monks were silently grateful for such basic supplies, gracing us with smiles and little bows of the head. And I can’t even put into words the controlled excitement when we brought out 3 soccer balls at the end. Over my travels I have realized the impact soccer has on the world and was ecstatic to see that even those living a monastic lifestyle love playing this game.  The headmaster explained that the children have an hour of “free” time from 4 to 5pm everyday and that these balls would certainly go to great use for a very long time.

The following day, on our first day of having no tour guide, we rented electric motor scooters and explored Bagan with no destination in mind.  We first found ourselves at the end of a road that led to a small village along the river. It was Sunday, so the locals were out and about. Women were cooking, men gambling on a local card game, and kids of all ages playing around like only kids can do.

Acts of kindness don’t always require money or gifts - sometimes the most important kindness one can provide is the gift of time spent. So for about an hour we played various Myanmar children’s games with the little ones of this village. It was a special time for us as children all over the world are the same - they just want attention and to be loved.  None of them spoke English so communication was limited to hand signals and gestures, but that was all we needed on that day. We got dirty, jumped from heights only a child could be fearless about, jumped rope and even played airplane (they definitely loved me running around holding them overhead!).  But most importantly, we all laughed together. There is very little in this world more satisfying than hearing a child truly laugh, and being able to provide that for these little ones along with Amber, Jim and Heather was a great gift to our hearts.

We finished the day by stopping by random pagoda. Outside this pagoda, named Pya-tha-da, were a few Myanmar families who had set up shop there. They were hard at work preparing different types of local cuisine. (We had some of the best soup I’ve ever experienced, made by 3 sisters…for only $.50 a bowl!)  As we relaxed and drank tea, the local ice cream man came through. Now this was not an ice cream truck like we grew up with in America, but simply a man on a bicycle with a frozen 5 gallon container strapped on the back along with a bag of cones and a bell. Seemingly the universal sound for frozen treats! Anyway, anyone that knows me knows my greatest weakness in life is ice cream.

What better RAK than treating the locals to my favorite desert? So I slowly got the message out that to anyone who wanted ice cream- I was paying. Children and adults alike came out of the woodwork with joy on their faces. One of the littlest of the children there knew no English and stared at me like I was a big monster, so I knelt down and challenged him to an ice cream eating contest. All his time spent giggling and laughing at me allowed me to come through with the win!

On our final day in Bagan we headed back to Pya-tha-da to do an interview with the father of one of the families we had met. This is part of a new RAKlife idea to create a documentary of the people we help around the world. I asked the man, Tun Tun, if I could sit with him and ask a few questions. What I thought was going to be a quick 10 minute interview while drinking tea turned into him inviting us to sit down to a full traditional Myanmar meal (rice with about a million options to mix with laid out on the table…SO good) with his family.  We all sat around the table together and Tun Tun, his wife, and his father graciously answered my numerous questions about their history, family and thoughts about various Myanmar topics. Once again, on this day, we were awed by the incredible hospitality of the Myanmar people.

The Bhuddist belief in karma has shown through every local Bagan person we met during our 5 day stay here. While RAKlife was able to perform several acts of kindness to those we came across, we were met with just as much kindness from the Myanmar people in return.  It was so amazing to see such happy people willing to share what little they had with a group of Western “tourists.”  While I am sad to leave such a spiritual and special place, I am excited to see what acts of kindness we can help with for the second half of our trip.  We will be visiting another monastery on a lake, trekking to some hill tribes, and if time allows, venturing down to a remote beach town. Looking forward to sharing our story with you all!

RAKlife Nicaraguan Thanksgiving - San Juan Del Sur

In the south of Nicaragua, there is a small fishing town called San Juan Del Sur that is rapidly becoming more and more frequented by tourists.  The decision for multiple Survivor season filmings will inevitably continue this trend over the foreseeable future.  Despite the influx of international spending, Nicaragua is still one of the poorest countries per capita in the world!

A group of 19 of us spent a week in SJDS for Thanksgiving last week.  It was a great opportunity to spend time with family and friends in a non-traditional Thanksgiving environment.  With such a large group, people were free to plan activities and days as they wished-  with the exception of Thanksgiving itself.  As my first trip internationally since forming RAKlife, I wanted to ensure that our group gave a little back to Nicaragua.   Knowing that we were going to have a family style Thanksgiving dinner post volunteering, I set up a day of working with a local organization that acts as a school for the poor children of the area.

The school had just finished the week before, so knowing the large group size we had coming, the school put together a game day.  It was described to us when we get there that these children do not interact with tourists and non-Nicaraguans often, so this became a perfect opportunity to give them a fun opportunity with a large, young group of Americans!

The children ranged from 2 to 14 and were naturally shy and hesitant to interact with their new arrivals.  However, the first activity was to break into team, create team names and a team cheer.  Within 15 minutes, all teams of Americans and Nicaraguan children were howling with laughter at both the continuous mistakes in language barrier as well as the team names and cheers we were coming up with.

The rest of the day was a blast – we had several relay races of types and even had the children smash a piñata, but perhaps the best activity came when we went to the beach for a while and the soccer ball came out.  The children were breaking into two teams when I yelled out, “Gringos versus Nicaraguans!”  This immediately sparked their energy up and we lined up sides and played “football” for the next 20 minutes.  Inevitably, talent won out, and the Americans lost 1-0!

The first RAKlife event was a success.  Even if it wasn’t a typical activity of random act of kindness, it showed me how much people simply need in this world.  On the Nicaraguan children’s side, the children’s faces were lit up with smiles and happiness throughout the event.  We brought them little toys as gifts (bubble blowers, yo yo’s, etc) and gave them out at the end – it was like Christmas morning for them.  Such simple gifts mean so much to the less fortunate.

For our group, the same happiness was felt for different reasons.  To a person, everybody came up to me at some point after the day and said how great an experience it was.  I try to focus RAKlife on the benefits for those we are helping, but it would be ignorant to not mention the positive effect the random acts of kindness have on us as well.  In fact, for the rest of the trip to Nicaragua, I witnessed several more random acts of kindness from our group to the locals.  That chain reaction is what RAKlife is all about!

As a result of this day, RAKlife would like to help the school build a new playground.  You can see the shape of the current one in the pictures below.  No child should have to play in an unsafe environment like this.  RAKlife would like to create a sustainable gift for the new generation of children, but we cannot do so without your support.  Please help us raise money to construct a new playground for these awesome little ones.