asia

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.