We are happy to feature a guest blog post by former Traveler, Kaitlin Kall. If you are also interested in guest blogging for FTWT, please let us know.
I traveled to Vietnam with Friendship Tours World my junior year of high school. Vietnam was a name I had grown up hearing: a place my father had tried to avoid, a war he and my mom had protested against, the battlefield where my uncle lost his sight to a landmine. When I heard about the spring trip to Vietnam, I knew immediately I had to go. I wanted to see first hand this mythic land of family chronicle and better understand the history and place behind the stories. In preparation for our trip, I took Ms. Tyner’s Vietnam War Seminar Class in hopes of widening my perspective on US history and our global relations. But it wasn’t till I stepped off the plane and into Hanoi’s sweet, humid air did all the pieces-the histories, stories, images and statistics-start to weave together.
As we drove into Hanoi, a sat silent, my face glued to the window-I was trying to take in as much as possible, to chronicle each blade of grass. Our first stop on the way to the hotel was to a restaurant downtown. I sat, still shocked from the long flight, the unfamiliar air, and watched as waiters brought plate after plate of again unfamiliar, but delicious smelling food. FTW used immersion to integrate us into the country: eating local cuisine, listening to the stories of the local people, walking through the market and haggling for goods and most importantly, seeing and participating in the everyday lives of the people who lived there. With each day that passed, I felt more at ease with the country and its culture. By visiting the sights we had learned in class, by engaging our tactile senses, through tastes, smell, sound and sight Vietnam, in its dynamic complexity, came to life in a way that far outstripped my own imagination.
The memories that have always stood out most clearly for me are ones associated with our work at the Vietnam Friendship Village. VFV is an orphanage founded by two former Veterans, one American and one Vietnamese, for children and veterans affected by Agent Orange poisoning. The majority of the residents are orphans born long after the end of the war, but who were still harmed by the lasting effects of the American-sprayed defoliant. Many of the children had mental disabilities or were physically disfigured. And I arrived to the facility with a daunting sense of guilt and sadness that we had once been enemies, able to dehumanize, to shoot and kill one another. But VFV was not about guilt. It was about healing; bringing people together from both sides of the battlefield to work in common, to understand one another and to find a shared thread within their mutual humanity.
On my trip we worked to build an organic garden for the orphanage, clearing a plot, tilling the soil and planting seeds. We ate a simple lunch at the orphanage and in the afternoon, painted and played with the children. Despite language and cultural barriers, play provided a space where everyone could come together: a language through which we could communicate and connect. It was at that point that I really understood the importance of travel. Not for the romanticism of an exotic adventure, but to meet people, to make friends, to understand different cultures, to humanize people who were once dismissed as the “other” and to work together as human beings for our mutual benefit.
When I returned home from Vietnam it was with a new understanding and perspective, not just on one country, but on the importance of friendly global relations: seeing people as people no matter where they come from. My trip with Friendship Tours World inspired in me a passion for world travel and international relations that took me on trips around the globe and influenced my decision to major in Anthropology. Now working on social justice in the prison system, I still look back on my travels with FTW as the source of my desire to work to help build a better community, to look past social constructed stigmas and see the real people and issues that lie beneath.