Saturday, June 21, 2008

Turning Tables

A warning for all those whose interests in travel lie mainly in capturing heartfelt images of the locals going about their daily activities, in their element, with all their native strangeness made to amaze and awe your friends and families back at home – beware, the tables are turning.

As the local communities we visit become more and more prosperous, more and more of the people we go to photograph are acquiring cameras of their own. Take the case of the Vietnamese, who will be the last to be left behind in the information technology age. Almost every single member of my Cao Bang staff has a digital camera, and those without cameras have the more pervasive threat to privacy: the camera phone. Granted, their favorite subjects are usually themselves and their children in front of every edifice, tree, bush and landscape they pass. But when there isn’t anything left to entertain their lens in that bent, they are increasingly turning to another subject: us.

Vietnamese are ravenous tourists. They love visiting sites of historic and cultural interest to their country and to places of reputed beauty. And, in true tourist form, they often see the whole tour through the output of a three-inch digital LCD screen.

In my own visits to Vietnamese historic (and not-so-historic) places in the last several months, not fewer than ten times have I turned around only to discover a mobile phone or digital camera aimed in my own direction. I have been asked on an equal number of occasions if somebody could take my picture – sometimes even asked to pose with them.

My instinctive, gut reaction is to always and immediately refuse – or to duck behind something to foil the efforts of the local paparazzi. I am horribly camera shy, and often have to be coerced to pose in pictures with my own staff members. No way am I going to stand for a picture with a total stranger. Usually the requester is polite enough to accept the refusal, or at least take the hint when I say no and then hide my face behind something. But a few times they’ve actually been insistent – and who knows how many candid shots are out there floating around on Vietnamese mobile phones.

But each incident does give me pause. I’m generally equally camera shy about taking people’s pictures as I am about posing in them. And yet I love the up-close and personal pictures that really show individuality and can tell a story. Most organizations have rules about having to ask permission before taking a picture, but all too often that destroys a moment and makes pictures seem stilted and posed. And who hasn't wanted to capture the feeling of place – and record the oddities of the new place we’re visiting?

So, I suppose turn around is fair play – if we can take pictures of them, why shouldn’t they take pictures of us, awkward and strange looking creatures that we are, foreign enigmas wandering through their landscape? And yet, it still feels completely wrong when the subject of your next Pulitzer-prize winning photograph pulls out a cell phone and snaps a shot of you immediately after.

The fact is, the playing field is being leveled – don’t be surprised if the next time you travel, the “natives” you capture on your SD card turn out to have more GB and more megapixels than you. And they want your mug shot to prove it.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Rain, Rain, Go Away

Over the last several weeks, intense flooding has affected major parts of my old stomping grounds in the Midwest, even to the point of putting my alma mater under water. Many of my friends have had to evacuate their homes and have been involved in sandbagging efforts to keep the waters back.

Yet, even as my drought-plagued Australian friends here relish the sound and feel of a good, old-fashioned tropical downpour, it is always true that there can be too much of a good thing. It seems the weather here is intent on making me empathize with my home closer to me, even as I am halfway around the world. The rainy season is upon us here in full force, and in Cao Bang we were watching the river rise outside of our office windows. It's still far from anything near "flood" levels, but it is early in the season yet.

But the rains are chasing me – and they finally caught me last night in Hanoi. The Cao Bang team is currently in central Vietnam, enjoying their much deserved annual retreat. The CHIC project officer, Anh, and I stayed back in Hanoi for several important meetings on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. While we were sorry to be missing out on the action, we thought we had the perfect plan: a 7:30 PM flight to Hue on Wednesday night would still give us two full working days and a fun day with the team, before we all flew back on Sunday. Maximize productivity and efficiency, and everybody comes out, at minimum, satisfied.

A perfect plan until Wednesday at about 3:30. We received a phone call saying our flight had already been delayed until 8:10 pm, so we cancelled our taxi for 4:30 and moved it to 5. Five o'clock is never a good time to be traveling anywhere, as it is the height of rush hour, but even an hour and a half spent on the road would get us there in plenty of time for the domestic flight.

But at 4:30, the rain started. At first I thought it might be a brief downpour that would blow itself out by the time we left, but the rain kept coming. And coming. We ran to eat dinner in the rain, only to have the ceiling of the restaurant cave in with rainwater and us wading through rivers where streets should have been. Then, our taxi was late. And lost. Even as the rain let up for a bit, we couldn't move anywhere because we couldn't find our car.

When the taxi finally did come at 5:30, I was beginning to see the writing on the wall. I figured we'd grumble about a wet day and bad traffic, get the airport late, find out our plane was gone, rebook and have to return the next morning. This I was prepared for. What I wasn't prepared for was turning a corner two kilometers from our office and find ourselves marooned as part of a temporary life raft of motorbikes and busses and cars and taxis as the only high ground as rising water engulfed our entire intersection.

I have no idea how extensive the problem was, but on our side of the four-way intersection, traffic was at a standstill in ankle-deep or higher water for at least two city blocks – and we stood there, moving maybe twenty feet, for three and a half hours. We were the fortunate ones – we had a comfortable, air conditioned car and only three of us in the car. We weren't prisoners in a rush hour commuter bus, and we weren't trapped completely exposed to the continuing downpour on a motorbike. Yet, as we watched the time of our flight come and go, I knew that even making it to the airport to change our ticket was just an optimistic dream.

Finally Anh decided it was time to do something. I was still comfortable sitting in the back of the taxi – and the taxi driver wasn't fussed about us being there since he was as trapped as anybody. But Anh didn't feel like prolonging the experience, so she mustered me into chancing a walk back to our office, some two water-logged and traffic-choked kilometers behind us. Fortunately I hadn't bothered to bring my usual heavy rolling suitcase, but had opted instead for my unsightly-but-still-serviceable duffle bag from my Madagascar mission days, long since held together with duct tape. Perhaps not the greatest choice for plane travel, but suddenly it was a huge advantage in this situation. By tying up the top tight, I made a nice bundle that I easily lifted, and thanks to too many buckets of water hauled in my former life, balanced on my head for the entire stretch of our return trip. A second good fortune – on my last trip home my aunt encouraged and subsidized the purchase of a water proof messenger bag for carrying my laptop, so I wasn't in the least concerned about the state of my precious work computer or documents on account of the rain. A final good fortune – the week before when I took the garbage out a lady selling a humongous variety of flip-flops and house slippers was waiting at the end of the street. I strolled by and found a pair of nice looking, durable black flip-flops that have become my new best friend. They stuck to my feet almost like glue and weren't a second bothered by the amount of dirtiness or wetness we encountered. And with me thus attired (and poor Anh somewhat less fortunate with no shoes at all as leather high heels weren't going to cut it, and her hard-sided briefcase a lot more awkward to carry), we stepped out of the taxi into calf-deep rainwater.

It was a sight. We were a sight. The whole feeling of it was intense. An entire four-lane street and two wide sidewalks were toe-to-heel, wheel-to-wheel, bumper-to-bumper and cheek-to-cheek cars, bikes, motorbikes, busses, trucks, and people. I'm sure the sheer mass of vehicles raised the level of the water by at least six inches. Everybody and everything was soaking wet. Fortunately the rain had slowed to a heavy misty drizzle at this point, but there was no keeping anything dry. And obviously, nobody wanted to be there, but the lights were still on, and there was just enough movement to keep people on the near side of sanity.

We started up the street against the flow of traffic. I'm sure my own appearance scored us some points in the progress we made: here I was, a foreigner wading through an unfortunate mess, obviously not in a condition to be thoroughly enjoying herself (although I actually was, at this point), and, would you look at that!, balancing a bag on top of her head! My computer bag made my hips inconveniently wide, so it took a bit more jostling and moving to make space for all of me between the bikes, but there were lots of smiles and sighs and people readily shifted whatever way they could to make room for me to slide through. Anh and a few strangers drifted along in my wake, taking advantage of the temporary parting of the motorbike sea I wrought.

I think my passage was also aided for a while by the unbuttoning of my light-weight button-down shirt I wore…I'm not exactly sure how many people got a personal view of my bra before it was kindly pointed out for me by a young girl on a motorbike that happened to know the single word, "Button!"

Still, no pain, no gain, and I did regain the confidence in my ability balance a bag on my head – no handed, none-the-less – and to fight my way slowly and persistently, to higher ground.

One thing I was supremely grateful for was the fact that this was not – or at least not perceived to be – a true emergency of life-and-death proportions. Everybody recognized this to be a serious and annoying inconvenience that would leave people hungry and cold and wet and tired and long grumbling about the state of transportation in their city. Probably a few more cars will be bought out of the mess. But during the situation nobody acted in a way that would seriously endanger their lives or the lives of those around them (at least no more than they do on a regular basis – and perhaps even a lot less). The mood wasn't happy and wasn't exactly relaxed, but there was enough humor for people to make jokes as I passed (several men seemed to, by reflex, start to ask me if I needed a motorbike-taxi, until they realized their mistake – but I caught them and asked them if they would drive me – and we and all around started laughing). But had people actually been trying to get away from something and encountered this situation, I would not want to be there. There was an underlying intensity that spoke to the decided individual spirit – a survival spirit, that, had the situation been further provoked, would have aroused instinctual behavior and probably would have at the very least benefited a very few and more than likely left more than a few people dead or seriously injured. There were simply too many people in too small a place with motorized means of transport and a willingness to use it at all costs. It was eerie – and as fun as it was to experience, I was relieved to get away from it too.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Ghosts of Ba Be Lake

This past week the READY project marked the culmination of the year’s peer education activities with a summer camp for the top peer educators. We took 70 students and eight of their teachers from 17 schools to Ba Be National Park, about 3 hours south and west of Cao Bang Town. This year our activities were taken to a whole new level not only by a big step up in location, but by the efforts of a team from Canadian University College in Edmonton, Canada. Two instructors and three students presented a large variety of teambuilding activities, games and first aid education to the groups of students. Everything was so new to the students – from the mind-bending requirements of the teambuilding puzzles to the location deep in a real rainforest complete with weird insects to regular interaction with foreigners and with a whole slew that I think everybody was really quite overwhelmed – and of course, quite wound up.

I arrived at the camp mid-day Monday from Hanoi with two additional translators in tow right behind the two buses with the Canadians and students/teachers and ADRA staff. The afternoon was filled with orientation activities and recovery time for the students who had all gotten horrible carsick on the ride down. But by 7:30 pm they had bounced back and were effectively bouncing off the walls.

Somehow, though, the camp quieted down not long after the 10 pm curfew, and I was rested enough to get up at 5 the next day to do the 4 km roundtrip down to the lake. Oh, the hills!! I have been so spoiled by the flatness of Hanoi and other places I’ve been that, while I pushed myself to keep on pace, it hurt. So I went into the morning’s activities already a little behind the well-rested students. The Canadians, too, were at a disadvantage thanks to breakfast at 6:30 and the day’s event starting at 7 am – the birds might get up early here, but it’s hard, even with jet lag, to adapt to an Eastern style of early rising.

Still, the day was fun and we steamrolled the kids right into the night playing a large group tag game under streetlights until 9:30 pm.

We adults all stumbled back to the guesthouses ready to collapse into bed immediately. The camp settled down almost at once – leaving only the cicadas to lull us into sleep.

Until 12:00 am. Rachael and I awoke to the sounds of girls and boys screaming and lots of pattering of adolescent feet. Not a good sound. And it went on – and on. This was not an isolated incident – it sounded as if every girl and boy in the neighboring guesthouse was involved. Where on earth were the teachers and field staff?

So – on went the flip flops and sarong and off I went. The balcony of our guesthouse wraps around and give a clear view into the open-air second-floor hallway of the neighboring building. And a clear, if midnight-colored view of large numbers of monochromatic boys, silent now, slipping, like so many ants, in and out of rooms and dashing up and down the hallways.

I observed for about 2 minutes – and then, feeling for all the world like Professor Minerva McGonagall, shouted across the divide of the buildings.

“Get back into your beds now! If you do not get to your beds or if I hear single additional boy-or-girl sound, I am ordering the busses and taking you all back to Cao Bang first thing tomorrow morning! And if you need a translator to understand this, then all the more reason to take you back to Cao Bang immediately!”

Wow, when did I become the adult? I still feel like I should be the one sneaking around next door.

The boy-shadows melted back into the darkness, and not another noise was heard.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean I (or Rachael) could fall asleep after that. When did that part of getting old happen too?

The next morning my internal alarm woke me up for the 5 am walk, and so off I marched myself to the lake to gather my thoughts for the lecture I was about to give. 6:30 am found a very foot-sore me standing at the door to the dining hall informing the students that nobody was to begin eating as I had something to say.

And, so, with that, I launched into the speech older and more often repeated than the commencement address: the I-am-disappointed-in-your-behavior-and-disrespect-for-others-and-the-rules-and-don’t-you-appreciate-the-privelege-we-are-granting-you speech. At the end I asked them if they cared to accept responsibility and what I should do about the situation.

And amazingly, about 12 of the boys stood up – and in front of the whole group, made the less-often speech – the acknowledgement of wrong speech. I really have to give it to this country – they have drilled the concept of personal responsibility and personal ethic home, and while the kids might screw up, they also as quickly own up to it. George Washington would be proud.

In the end, the boys had dressed on of them up as a ghost and had intended only to give the girls a good scare. As boys in a co-ed camp situation will do. And I stood in front of them and called them out for their poor decision making, as the leader and the first responsible for all things at the camp will do in response.

And I sentenced all the boys to a noon-hour of trash picking in the camp, followed by KP duty for the kitchen staff the next day. All accepted, not with grace so much as outright rejoicing. So, the boys had made a spectacle of themselves and now got to wallow in their achievements. We all did what was expected and got what we wanted: attention for the boys, and the Ba Be Ghosts granted the adults a good night’s sleep (because they were worn out with activities and no noon hour nap).

Everybody got what they wanted except one: I only got to learn that I am now the old one. Next time boys – make me the ghost and then we’ll all be happy!