Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Dawn over Quang Ngai

I got up about 5 AM and quietly tip-toed to the window, taking care not to waken Mrs. Tinh, our translator, in the other bed. The window faces east toward the sea and the rising sun. A rosy glow on the horizon and mist-shrouded lights on streets below tell me the sun has not yet risen. A single motorbike moves slowly along Hung Vuong street while a light blinks on a taxi parked in front of our hotel.
Soon, as day dawns, I will be able to see Thien An mountain in the distance. This is the site of Thien An pagoda, the earliest Buddhist pagoda established in the province of Quang Ngai. It is quite famous and draws pilgrims not only from Quang Ngai but also other parts of Vietnam. During the war it was the only place outside of the city where we Quakers could go safely for a quiet picnic or Meeting for Worship on a Sunday. It was a simple temple with a few graves marked by gray stones in the field beside it back in the 1970s. Now, with contributions from Vietnamese Buddhists around world, it has been refurbished and many of the graves are now marked by large and colorful monuments.
Later this morning we will take the road past Thien An mountain out to Tinh Khe where we will be working for the next three weeks. We spent much of yesterday afternoon working on our presentation to the local teachers and officials with whom we will meet this afternoon -setting out proposals for them to consider as to how we can best contribute to the efforts of the English teachers.
We learned from Mr. Quy and Mr. Tien during our visit to their prosthetics center yesterday that the Quang Ngai Province Hospital has been moved to a new site. The old hospital where the Quaker Rehabilitation center was located is now closed. We welcome the progress but it makes us realize that we are becoming a 'part of history'. I marvel constantly at the development of the city. Last night a local acquaintance took us out for 'coffee' at a cafe.
"Vietnamese like to drink their coffee at a cafe and not at home." he explained.
We went to the cafe, on the second floor of a nearby building: up a flight of stairs past huge pots of yellow flowers standing 3 feet tall, through glass doors to a lounge full of easy chairs arranged around tables. The chairs were upholstered in bright colors. The windows looking out on the street (ceiling to floor) were curtained by dangling strands of beads. Across the street, a neon sign blinked advertising another cafe.
"Are you sure we are in Quang Ngai city?" I asked humorously. It is amazing the changes in the city from when I lived here 40 years ago.
Not wishing to be kept awake by coffee or tea, I had a mango smoothie. Wonderful dessert after a light dinner in the hotel. We chatted for about an hour then made our way back to the hotel. Today our work begins in earnest.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

In Quang Ngai

We left Hanoi this morning for a one hour flight to Danang. From there we took a taxi to Quang Ngai City, a trip of almost 3 hours. Traffic on the roads is crazy! If you were to mute the horns on all the cars, trucks and motorcycles, no one would be able to drive anymore. We saw one accident, almost certainly fatal. The only surprise is that we didn't see more.

Our hotel here is very comfortable, right in the city center. I was amazed to see this bustling, vibrant place. I recognize almost nothing from 40 years ago. The old water tower is still here, but instead of looking at it across a rice paddy, it's to one side of a busy traffic circle.

The best part today was finding the Catholic church. Forty years ago it was a half-finished shell and was home to hundreds of Catholic refugees who built their shelters out of old cardboard cartons, pieces of thatch, and whatever else they could find to scratch out a home. Washing, bathing, drinking water, all was achieved by means of 2 or 3 faucets out in the middle of everything. Now, there are paved sidewalks on all the streets, the church has been finished and newly painted, there's a rectory behind it and a peaceful garden beside it. We spoke briefly with the priest, but he's only been here 21 years and so doesn't remember what it was like back then. We were trying to find the building that used to house our children's day care center. It's someone's home now, so we didn't spend too much time searching for it. Tomorrow we'll meet with one and maybe two of the men who are nearing retirement now, but 40 years ago were prosthetics maker-trainees in our hospital project. They've achieved positions of importance in the rehab center, which moved to Qui Nhon after the end of the war.

This is very healing for me. I'm so happy to replace an old image of sorrow and suffering with a new one of peace and beauty.

Later we stopped by a shop to buy motorcyle helmets for ourselves, since we will be driven to the Middle School in Tinh Khe on the back of the teachers' motorcycles. I'll probably just have to ride with my eyes closed!

Peace and love to you all, my friends.

We'll be in Quang Ngai tonight and tomorrow, then on the 25th we'll go to Tinh Khe to start our teaching role.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Familiar Haunts in Hanoi

Margaret and I arrived at Noi Bai airport without incident about noon on Friday. We were met by Victor from the travel agency we are using. He was glad to see me again and to meet Margaret. It was a cloudy, cool day. Victor kept up a cheerful commentary as we drove the 25 kilometers to Hanoi. His older son is nine now and in third grade. He has begun study of English and is also learning to play the piano.
"What is the average class size in his school?" I wanted to know.
"Over 30." Victor replied.
We are staying at Hong Ngoc Hotel on Ma May street in the old quarter of Hanoi near Hoan Kiem Lake. We are still in the final days of Tet. Tet greetings are everywhere and hotels and shops have small mandarin orange trees in their foyers - laden with lovely small orange fruit. There are some changes from last year. The nice pharmacy on one corner of Ma May street near our hotel is gone - replaced by yet another tour agency office. The streets and sidewalks are the cleanest I have seen in all my visits here - probably because everyone has really cleaned up for Tet.
I took Margaret for a 'walk-about' the first afternoon so we could get some exposure to daylight, if not sun, and make our transition to a time zone which is exactly twelve hours from Eastern Standard Time. After a short nap, we went to my favorite little restaurant a couple of blocks away. Here we ordered a great meal of Vietnamese food: spring rolls, fish cakes, and a corn french fried onions with catsup! Well, we need a little reminder of home. Then we nursed our tea and watched life go on in the street outside. There is a small open air restaurant just next to ours. They do their cooking in the open and patrons sit at plastic tables set out on the sidewalk and across a busy street on another sidewalk. A waiter will balance 3-4 dishes on his arms and make his way carefully across the street between motorcycles whizzing past to deliver to patrons over there.
It was a remarkably quiet night. Victor had informed us that firecrackers have been banned this year. Many Vietnamese apparently feel that this has diminished the celebration of Tet, but I really enjoyed the quiet. Another new thing was to see large colorful balloons floating on lines across Hoan Kiem Lake. Very colorful.
Saturday we met with Victor's wife, Linh Chi and discussed our travel plans. She has arranged our tickets to fly to Danang on Tuesday. From there we will go by taxi to Quang Ngai. After she left we met with Tinh, who will be travelling with us as our interpreter. She has worked with me for the past two years and we were glad to see each other again. Margaret, Tinh and I gathered in my hotel room. I fixed peppermint tea and served a couple of little snacks to go with it. We sat around and caught up on each other's lives since last year; then discussed our tentative plans for our teacher-aide program in Tinh Khe. Margaret has brought some wonderful new ideas to use in classroom in addition to some of the activities we did last year.
This morning Margaret and I got up early and took a taxi to the Tin Lanh (protestant) church a short distance from our hotel for their 7 AM service. They hold three services on Sunday AM: 7, 9, and 11 AM. A good mixture of elderly, middle-age and youth in attendance. We had a visiting pastor from Saigon this Sunday. He was introduced by the regular pastor of this church. They use power-point presentation in this church. The words to hymns are projected. I know most of the tunes so can sing along as merrily as those around me. Having my own English bible with me I can follow the text from which the sermon is drawn and catch at least part of what the pastor is saying since he uses power point as well. We walked home from church, giving us time to explore some more parts of the city.
We have a busy day ahead of us tomorrow - the first business day after a week of Tet celebrating the Year of the Tiger. I'll try to get another post in before we leave Hanoi. Hope you are all keeping warm in those parts of the U.S. that are "snowed under".

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Countdown to Launch
I am in the midst of final packing here in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos Islands. I share a home with my brother here. Tomorrow I will leave for San Francisco where I will rendevous with Margaret Roberts. We have received the initial approval from the local/district offices of Education to work with three teachers of English in the Tinh Khe Middle School. The National Ministry of Education has a designated curriculum for English which is used throughout the country. We will be using those books as the basis for our work in consultation with the teachers. I expect Margaret and I will have our heads bent over one of those books as we wend our way across the Pacific. We are both very excited about this undertaking. As far as we know, this pilot project of ours is unique in Vietnam. Keep us in your thoughts and prayers as we begin this work.