March 30, 2012

Lessons in Love

Yesterday at Angkor Wat, we witnessed the definition of love.

To enter the highest level of the temple complex, you must cover your knees.  As we were in line to ascend, many were being pulled out of line for shorts that were too short, sarongs that showed a bit too much thigh, or other kneely infractions.  A couple in front of us were nabbed by the knee police.  The woman argued for a brief time but the rule was the rule and out of line they went. 
We finished our inspection of the top and when we came down, there was the same man, patiently waiting for his wife, with arms crossed and leaning against the wall of the temple.  Except there was something keenly different about him since last time we saw him.  He had given up his pants so that his wife could go to the top, calmly displaying his tighty whiteys in front of hundreds of people. 

Yesterday at Angkor Wat, we witnessed the definition of love...

Cambodia Guest Blogger,
Kevin Shertzer

Making New Friends at the Friendship Village

Santa Barbara students in Vietnam
Day 8 - Hanoi/Friendship Village

Today, our second full day in Hanoi, we ventured to the outskirts to visit the Friendship Village. As we were further informed by the headmaster through translation by our tour guide, Friendship Village is a completely free school for victims of Agent Orange. The school is funded half by the Vietnamese government and half by corporate and private donations. The school's main purpose in educating these children is to teach them skills that will help them make a living in everyday life. They set up classes for the children that have less mental restrictions that can give them the future opportunity to provide for themselves, such as embroidery, sewing, and computer technology.

Walking around these classrooms and visiting the children while class was in session was really an amazing way to see the effects of the war and how often it is still present in the lives of these people. Many of the children are mute and deaf, while others have physical deformities, all of which limit their opportunities in the real world.

After a general tour and brief introductions to the children, we ate a brief lunch at the school before heading out to do some service to the garden areas. On a full stomach we weeded all the grass and plants from the vegetable gardens as well as some quick weeding in the back of the school where they raise pigs. Finally we got to the part we were all looking forward to the most: playing with the kids and and teaching them about the gifts we had brought for them. As we were previously informed, there are two different groups at the school that are both in about the same age range; the first one is for children with very little mental capacities, where they learn very basic things like how to tell time, and the second group is for the more advanced students who can learn basic math and geography. I went to visit the  more advanced children, where we presented the class with a digital camera, art supplies, and balls. I got to teach the children how to work the cameras and share the art supplies with them, but the biggest thing that made this experience so rich, but also very challenging, is that very few of the children have the ability to talk and none of them have any english at all.

It was definitely a challenge to communicate with the children, which was something I was concerned about on our ride to the village, but as it was happening it became apparent that there really wasn't much that needed to be said. Just to be with the children and see how happy our simple and  small donation made a difference to them was quite touching. Making conversation with them was possible but not really necessary, just the fact that we were there was enough to make their day and everyone could see it.

I think I will take a lot from this experience because it was all so real and significant. It was almost as if  everything I had ever learned fell away and the reality of these people lives became my reality, as well making my own experiences and understandings that much more clear.

Excited to see you soon!


March 29, 2012

Summer Travel: Thailand Discovery

With lush rainforest, jungle-entwined mountains, legendary beaches and a wealth of culture and history, it is no wonder the Thai people are proud of their country and heritage. Taking the title, “land of the free,” Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that escaped western imperial rule, and its dynamic urban centers, beautiful countryside and smiling peoples are a testament to its prowess. This summer, journey with Friendship Tours World Travel (FTWT) on an adventure that takes you deep into the heart of Thailand. Filled with abundant opportunities for cultural exchange, volunteer projects and out-of-the-classroom learning; we ensure a unique experience that transcends ordinary tourism. 

Thailand Discovery: July 15-27, 2012
Live, learn, travel through Thailand

Starting in the steamy metropolis of Bangkok and ending on Phuket’s illustrious beaches, this 12-day itinerary takes students across Thailand, visiting the country’s highlights. Explore the floating market, visit the Tiger Temple, volunteer at two orphanages and kayak through arching sea caves. By combining key sites with volunteer projects and educational opportunities, we’ve handcrafted an adventure that promotes cross-cultural understanding while making a positive and lasting impact on the global community. 

  • Take a boat ride through the winding waterways of Bangkok’s floating markets and try out your best bargaining skills.
  • Explore the countryside on a mountain hike to visit hill tribe villages and learn about local culture.
  • Enjoy an elephant trek through Chiang Mai’s lofty jungles, then take a wet and wild ride down the river on a traditional bamboo raft.
  • Make new friends and help promote peace and healing on a volunteer project at Phuket’s Tsunami Orphanage.
  • Unwind on Thailand’s illustrious white-sand beaches. 

Activities & Lodging: 
  • Trekking, volunteer community service, urban exploration, boat trip, elephant ride & beach relaxation
  • 11 nights hotels & lodges

    Elephant Rides and Lessons in Living History

    From the time we heard the plan for today, all anyone could talk about was the fact that we would be riding elephants. After what was comparatively a late start (we left the hotel at 7:30), we headed to the temples for the third time. We were soon on the elephants and bobbing peacefully along the road, blocking traffic. As it turns out, riding an elephant involves a consistent rocking motion that makes it hard to believe that people once used these animals to travel long distances. Our ride ended up being a regular trip to the zoo: we were treated to a wonderful view of monkeys and a wild pig. We got a chance to pet the elephants and feed them bananas, but sadly we were not allowed to bring them home with us. In spite of a little snot, we all enjoyed seeing the elephants. 

    Afterwards we set out to our final Cambodian temple. Misnamed "The Women's Temple" due to its small size, unusually pretty color, and stunning detail, this was easily the smallest temple we visited. The carvings that graced all the temples were much deeper and more intense here. 

    After lunch came the real highlight of the day: The Cambodia Landmine Museum Relief Fund. It was here that we met Bill and Jill, Americans who had moved to Cambodia specifically to work with this organization. They gave us a vary scary history lesson about Cambodia and the legacy of landmines. They told us about the landmines scattered all across the globe from as early as World War I. We also met the founder, Aki Ra, who had been a child soldier during the rein of the Khmer Rouge and had been forced to set landmines. After the rein of the Khmer Rouge ended, Aki Ra decided to dedicate his life to disabling landmines, including ones he himself had planted. His cited goal is to makes his country safe for his people, and he has no intention of stopping until that happens--well aware of the fact that he will be working for the rest of his life. 

    The Fund works both to inform and raise money. They send groups to villages to safely remove the landmines. In addition, the museum grounds house 37 children who were injured by landmines, have parents who are unable to care for them due to landmines, are otherwise orphaned, so poor their families cant feed them, have polio, or were victims of thalidomide or agent orange. These children are fed, clothed, housed and taught on site. They go to public school in the morning, do additional work including English in the afternoon and do chores. Because of Cambodian law, a person must begin school in first grade, regardless of their age. As a result, the high school English class we visited ranged in age from 15 to 22 years old. 

    Although they lead, what would be by our standards, impossible lives; these were some of the happiest kids we had ever met. They were thrilled to practice their English with us, and quickly pulled us into their games. Teams were created and volleyball, the most popular sport in Cambodia, was enjoyed by all who participated. Several of us were dragged into some traditional Khmer games. Their first game was played rather like horseshoes, except that 5 seeds (about two inches in diameter) were set up, the goal was to throw more seeds at the four outer seeds and knock them down without hitting the center seed. A team lined up behind each configuration and the losing team would be hit on the knee with two seeds by each member of the winning team, which was clearly the highlight of the game. After a game that was something like organized tag, we played a quick round of their version of duck duck goose, in which there was no true winner and the chaser's only goal was to hit the chased with a cloth as many times as possible (we began to sense a theme). It was amazing to watch a girl with one arm, or a prosthetic leg participate in a game that involved running, but nobody seemed to mind and everyone had a great time.

    More to come soon,

    Historical Hanoi

    Santa Barbara students in Vietnam

    Day 7 - Hanoi

    This morning we woke up in Hanoi, after some failed wake up calls and early morning runs, we finally boarded the bus a little late and sleepy.

    We drove off past Hoan Kiem Lake where we saw the floating pagoda and the preserved 500 year old turtle, who's 500 year old female mate still resides in that same lake. Our first stop was to Vietnams First University which was built in the 11th century. The architecture of the pagodas and the pools and flower structures were quite intricate.

    We had planned next to go to Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. As it happens, today was a Vietnamese holiday, and the lines to the mausoleum looked a dozen blocks long and would have taken at least two hours to get through, so  instead we went on to the Hoa Lo Prison, more commonly referred to as the "Hanoi Hilton." As in the mausoleum, we were surrounded by small children taking a field trip from school to see some of Vietnam's most culturally significant landmarks.

    The prison, as the Vietnamese presented it, did indeed seem to have many of the luxuries as a hotel, but we had to keep in mind that we were in a place used by the government for the torture and imprisonment of American pilot-- so the real treatment of the detainees (especially of the political prisoners) would most likely not be accurately shown. The propaganda was obvious in some parts, mostly with the pictures of Americans decorating a room with Christmas decorations and playing games like cards, chess, and volleyball.

    After the "Hanoi Hilton," we stopped at the One Pillar Pagoda, the sole pagoda atop a traditional square koi pond, with the usual offerings of crackers, candies, and burning incense. Next we went back, but did get to witness the switching of the guards, which was a surprisingly formal affair, involving some extremely coordinated steps and gun routine. Despite his strong wishes for a humble burial and equally posthumous remembrance, the Vietnamese government erected a massive and elaborate tribute to him, and his name and face cover the entire city. Ho Chi Minh's palace near the Mausoleum, bright yellow and a very beautiful building, was actually not used by him in his daily life, but only used for formal state affairs and to house visitors. We saw his "house on stilts," where he lived until his death, the huge pond next to it, and more housing quarters. The grounds of the entire palace were very impressive and definitely fit for the king-like figure Ho Chi Minh represents for the Vietnamese people.

    After the mausoleum and lunch we went for a fun yet slightly terrifying pedi-cab ride, whizzing through afternoon traffic, and then out to the shopping streets. After some free time and dinner, everyone went in for an early night. All in all, we had a wonderful, and jam packed day! Looking forward to our full day at the Friendship Village tomorrow. 

    We are all doing great and send everyone our love!


    March 28, 2012

    Exploring the Angkor Temples

    Laguna Blanca School in Cambodia (Cambodia & Laos Highlights Tour)

    Days 4 & 5

    Yesterday we woke up really early to go to Siem Reap. After settling in at our new hoot,l we ventured to the temples. The ones we saw were considered the smaller of the complex, but several were fairly large. These temples reminded me of the ones in Tikal, Guatemala; they were large, mossy, intricate, and just plain awesome. We were taught that some were made in 6 years, and when you think about it, that's really a short amount of time to build something like that, especially all the way back in the 12th century. After exploring, we had free time to go to the market and bargain for cheap local products. It was very hot and sweaty in there. 

    Once we were all fished with spending our money, we went to an orphanage. The man that started the orphanage was inspirational. As a child he was left to be the sole care taker for his family because his parents had both passed away. Because of traumas such as that, he decided to take in children who were/are in similar situations as he once was himself. Now housing 80 children, his orphanage is seemingly successful. The children are taught to make shadow puppets to carryon the traditional craft as well as support the orphanage. The kids taught us how to make the extremely detailed puppet, of course we all had a difficult time and were not nearly as good as them. :) Many of us purchased the pre-made puppets to support them. The kids were absolutely adorable we watched them put a little show on with the puppets, Dalton played volleyball with a few of the boys, and in the end the kids sang American childhood songs such as If Your Happy and You Know It. Overall it was a great first day.

    Today was another early morning and we woke up when the sun had literally not risen yet: 4:15 am. We then slowly got ready to go to the greatest temple of all--Angkor Wat. Once there it was pitch black and all of us were slightly delirious. There were hundreds of tourists there as well, but somehow we got the best seat in the house right in front all to our selves to watch the glorious sunrise behind the giant ruin. The view was amazing!! The temple was a silhouette with the sun; it seemed almost surreal. 

    Once it was completely light out, we set out to explore the surrounding complex. Inside the temple there was so much detail it was crazy. Every wall had a carving that probably took years to make. There were different rooms and amphitheater type areas. The buildings seemed to go on forever upwards and outwards. Elise, Lauren, Dalton, Ryan and I found  a great spot to sit and take it all in. The sun was red at that moment just behind the massive temple. Everyone else set out to the other side only to discover that monkeys would open your water bottle and bite your pants. 
    Bayon Temple

    Unfortunately, we had to leave and set out for another adventure. We missed to last Elephant ride :) but were able to book the next ride for tomorrow morning. We then went to Bayon, which is the temple of Angkor Thom with the faces carved in the top. It was absolutely amazing, Shertzer says its his favorite and I'd have to agree; it was spiritual in a way and I felt it was enigmatic--how is it that so long ago this amount of detail, this high off the ground in such was crafted into perfectly carved faces and reliefs? It blows my mind! 

    Well so far thats it for our last two days in Siem Reap. What we have done for the past two days? Nothing much, right? Nah! this trip has been amazing! I LOVE IT!!!

    Looking forward to our next adventures,

    Traditional Homestay on the Mekong Delta

    Santa Barbara students in Vietnam

    Days 4 & 5

    The home stay for us was a really great experience!

    We arrived at our home stay late at night to a wonderful dinner and buzzing mosquitos complemented by mosquito nets for the beds. The night we spent there was a fantastic bonding experience, but we woke up with throbbing bites. After we ate breakfast, we had the opportunity to learn how people in the countryside did their laundry. It was a interesting experience that strangely was enjoyed by all.

    After learning to do laundry, our day's adventure started out at a local market, where we we saw the exotic dishes and treats that the native Vietnamese prepare for sale (and for us tourists). Following our culinary lesson, our awesome tour guide, Mr. Hau, set up a game for us which involved using 150,000 dong (roughly $7.50) to bargain our ingredients for dinner. Communicating with the locals wasn't easy and after several very expensive turnips the winning team (as well as the losing) received delicious mangos.

    After the market, we took four person canoes through the canals of the Mekong delta. The scenery of the surrounding landscape was incredible. The lunch we had after the boat ride was both exotic and traditional, as well as filling. Thankfully we burned it off with a six mile bike ride. The bike ride was such a great, fantastic experience; it was almost everyone's favorite. The ride wound through backstreets and over lots of narrow bridges with no handrails; this made everyone nervous, especially Justin who's bike riding experience was limited to that day. But after some wrong twists and turns, and scenic routes, we all made it back home safely.

    Our reward  for returning safe and sound consisted of cooking the first course of dinner, traditional Vietnamese flour pancakes. They were delicious, as was the rest of the dinner that followed. With bulging bellies we all played Mr. Hau's signature games, a twist on pin the tale on the donkey that involved smashing ceramic pots, and then a two person potato sack race. Losers were faced with face painting from the grimy under side of a cooking pan.

    We all miss you and love our friends and family back at home and thank you for this wonderful experience! 

    Saavan and Naomi wish there mothers a happy birthday!

    More to come soon!

    Mica and Gabija

    March 27, 2012

    Tuesday Travel Tip: Crossing the Street in Vietnam

    Crossing the street is one of those things, like lacing your shoes, that hopefully, by the time you’ve reached adulthood, is second nature. We’re trained to cross the street safely from the time we can walk. Form holding your mom’s hand to journeying on your own, the method is the same: pause at the corner, look both ways, make sure all cars are stopped and no one’s coming; and if you live in a city, stop when there’s a red hand and walk when the green “walk” is flashing. But if you’re traveling in urban Vietnam, the rules are a little bit different. First off, there are next-to-no crosswalks or lights for pedestrians. Secondly, if you wait for a pause in traffic you might be standing on the street corner well into the night. So what exactly is the first step?

    Traffic in Saigon

    Before you take the plunge into oncoming traffic, it’s best to acclimate yourself with the new environment. Traffic in Vietnam is notoriously bad and can make navigating LA’s 405 seem like a breeze. Here are a few things to keep in mind about Vietnamese rules of the road: there are none. Forget whatever you’ve learned at home, here honking is like saying hello and street lines and red lights are mere suggestions. Think of the road as a Hobbsian state-of-nature: whoever is biggest has the right of way, no matter what side of the street they’re supposed to be driving on. In other words, above all, watch out for buses. If this makes being a pedestrian seem scary, you’re not alone, but believe it or not there is a way to safely cross from one side of the street to another.

    When I first moved to Vietnam at the beginning of 2011, it took me a good two weeks before I picked up the rules of the game and felt comfortable and confident stepping into what seemed like unorganized chaos. At first I trained myself by shadowing locals, observing their method and often following closely so as not to get hit myself. But after six months in Hanoi, I  became a traffic traversing pro, so here are few of the methods to the madness to help you on your own adventures.

    Crossing the street in Vietnam 101:

    ·       NEVER make eye contact. Looking a scooterist in the eye will only greatly increase your chances of turning yourself into their moving target.

    ·       DON’T STOP, no matter what, keep walking. Drivers judge your walking speed so they can move around you without having to stop. You pausing like a deer in the headlights in the middle of the street is guaranteed to get you whacked and definitely yelled at. This should go with out saying, but NEVER stop in the middle of the street to take a photo.

    ·       WATCH the locals, they know what they’re doing, don’t take your cue from fellow tourists (they often have no idea).

    ·       TAKE a deep breath. This might just be a placebo effect, but it helps me calm down and center myself before I step out into the madness.

    ·       LET cars pass. Scooters will move around you, cars and buses are much less likely to, so let those guys go first (remember the first rule of the road: the biggest thing has the right of way).

    ·       NO sudden movements. Just as you shouldn’t stop in the middle of the street, you also shouldn’t change your pace. Sprinting to the end or slowing down is only going to mess up the drivers’ anticipation of your speed and location.

    So take a deep breath, find your moment, look straight ahead and start walking. You can do this. 

    For more tips about safely crossing the street and having a positive attitude about it (like smiling into oncoming traffic), check out the LonelyPlanet’s “Top Ten Tips for Crossing the Road in Vietnam.”

    Enjoy your travels, have fun and be safe! 

    Siem Reap: Temple Tours and Shadow Puppet Orphanage

    Greetings from Cambodia! 

    Today Milo and I reunited with the Laguna Blanca School group in Siem Reap, where we’re all having a great time. 

    Today’s activities involved visits to some of Angkor’s “lesser” temples, if you can call them that—even the smaller, more remote complexes are staggeringly beautiful, juxtaposing human artifice with the power of nature, where the tenacious jungle weaves through the ancient stone monuments. Students had the opportunity to climb and explore the ruins first hand before we headed out to an afternoon volunteer project with the puppetry orphanage. 

    The puppetry orphanage is located a few miles out of town, adjacent to some of Angkor’s most ancient temples. Here the children learn to carve shadow puppets and revive an ancient storytelling tradition in order to help support the orphanage and defray the costs of their education. Everyone was deeply moved by the sweetness of the kids and how humbly they live (dirt floors and group bunks), not to mention their motivation to acquire an education and learn English in hopes of gaining a better life. While visiting, our students had a chance to make their own puppet carvings. We also had time to interact with the children and help them practice their English. None of us wanted to leave, but as evening approached, it was time for us to return to Siem Reap for dinner. As we left, the children gathered to see us off, singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” as they bowed, hands at heart center. 

    Tomorrow we’ll be exploring the temples of Angkor’s “Grand Circuit.” The students are all eager to visit the illustrious Angkor Wat and jungle-entwined Ta Phrom. 

    More to come soon. 

    Peace and love,

    March 26, 2012

    Legacies of the Vietnam War: Learning from Living History

    Santa Barbara students in Vietnam

    Hi everyone,

    Just a quick update to let you know that the group is doing fantastic! The kids are great and their enthusiasm is inspiring!

    Yesterday was a full day of unprecedented educational opportunities. Nick Ut and Chris Wain gave the group an exclusive conference room for an eyewitness play-by-play of the fateful napalming that burned Kim Phuc and killed many others during the Vietnam War—the kids were mesmerized. Thereafter, we went to the War Remnants Museum where students were free to discover the Vietnamese version of the history of the “American War” along with supplementary lectures. Not surprisingly, the chemical warfare exhibits were the most haunting. 

    Journal writing and reflection in the park followed, and students shared the complexity of their thoughts with each other and the journalists.

    In the evening, we took a lively walk through Saigon's steamy streets to visit the key sites of wartime journalism: the Rex Hotel—where the famed "5 O'clock follies" press conferences would take place, and the Continental Hotel—where The Quiet American is set. The kids were impressed with both venues.

    Today we visited Trang Bang for a walk through of Kim Phuc's tragic accident. We met her family, and enjoyed a lesson in living history from both Chris Wain and Nick Ut.
    Thereafter the kids went to the Cu Chi Tunnels where they had a chance to crawl through the underground labyrinth dug by the Vietcong. They were positively giddy with enthusiasm afterwards!

    After exploring the Cu Chi Tunnels, the group made its way to the Mekong Delta for home stay. Please note that they will not likely have Internet service in the Delta, but will check in from Hanoi when they arrive there on Thursday.

    I fly to Siem Reap tomorrow and won't be reporting further on this group, but Spencer Barr will be posting updates as Internet service allows.

    Much Love,

    March 25, 2012

    Cambodia: First Impressions of Phnom Penh

    Good evening or perhaps good morning all,

    First and foremost, please know that your children are happy and safe. They have quickly connected and it has been wonderful to see them care for each other. 

    We have been keeping busy. After shopping yesterday afternoon we let them rest for a bit and then went to dinner. Though some of them were very tired, we all hung in there and managed to stay awake until about 8:15pm. A notable triumph after 24 hours of travel and half a day of sightseeing.

    Today we visited the Royal Palace, Tuol Sleng prison, and a memorial built at the sight of the Killing Fields. We then returned to the hotel and had a time of journal writing and sharing about the day. Students asked great questions and were honest about their emotions and reflections. They are now having some free time before dinner. 

    I asked them what they wished me to share with you and here were their responses.

    First, there is no cell service here at all. So even if your son or daughter has an international calling plan, do not expect to hear from them via telephone. 

    It's very hot and humid. 

    They will admit to experiencing culture shock. The contrast between Santa Barbara and Phnom Penh is dramatic. The sights, smells, food, and driving are all a bit more intense. There are omnipresent signs of poverty and the lack of zoning leads to an incredibly chaotic environment. 

    Nadia gets the prize for best bargaining skills, she is a natural. Ryan and Tiana were adventurous with hot peppers at lunch and came to regret it quickly. Tristan and Hughes beat them though for most unusual food item by trying chicken foot.   

    We will send more soon. 

    LAX to Saigon

    Santa Barbara students in Vietnam

    We departed LAX as scheduled and spent the next 14 hours trying to get some sleep. All of us were spread throughout the main cabin, but there were quite a few seats unsold, so most of us got the chance to spread out and occupy multiple seats. Definitely made the sleeping a bit easier.  Just ask Naomi, who got 3 full seats to herself! I, on the other hand, only managed about 5 or so hours, which caught up with me later, I might add. After a 2 hour layover in a rainy Taipei, we launched once again into the air for 3 more hours on Vietnam Airlines. We encountered quite a bit of turbulence, but other than that, this flight was great too.

    We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City to mid 70's and probably 80 percent or so humidity. Quite different than what we are used to. Rejoining with Nick Ut and meeting Mr. Hau (our tour guide), we loaded onto a tour bus and drove into the city with Mr. Hau narrating the whole time about sites we passed. The click, click, click, of camera shutter fires as the students were actively engaged in photographing anything they could was just music to my ears.

    After dropping our bags off at the hotel, we gained our first experience crossing the street in front of hundreds of motor-bikes and taxis. Quite contrary to what you would think to do in the states, here, you have to just head out in the stream of traffic and walk slowly and deliberately. The motor bikes seamlessly move around you. I have been told that as long as you don't speed up, or slow down, everything works like clockwork. Even after cross the busy streets dozens of times yesterday, this process still doesn't feel quite natural.

    Lunch was spent a couple blocks away from our hotel and after an hour or so, or rooms were all ready and we gave the students some time to get themselves cleaned up and showered. All of us, including myself, Susan, and Nicola were longing to wash away the long hours of travel built up on our bodies.

    Mr. Hau then lead us on a tour of the Reunification Palace, Notre Dame church (which was built by the French and modeled after Notre Dame in Paris), and the post office. All were great sights to see and learn about. Mr. Hau narrated our little tour through the Reunification Palace and explained its history. We saw the front gates, where the famous photograph of a North Vietnamese tank crashing through it is displayed inside. We also saw the very same tank on display outside the Palace.

    Our group split up at this point and half went to see the Opera House, whiles the others went to experience Ben Thanh Market for the first time. The best way to describe the market is "utter chaos." Vendors selling food stuffs, clothing, tickets, movies, jewelry, coffee, and everything else you can imagine are packed so closely together that almost everywhere, you were forced to walk single-file. A vendor on one side of a path just had to reach out and could touch the vendor across from them. This is the place where nearly everything is over-priced and you need to work on your negotiating skills to get your wanted item for a good price.

    To culminate our very busy first day, we visits a traditional Vietnamese restaurant where food was brought to us in courses. By the time we were brought our 6th or 7th course, I was stuffed to the gills. I was very happy to experience such a traditional Vietnamese experience. I tried everything and walked away very satisfied. Talking with a few of the students afterwards, it seems that they were as well. Cecily and Gabi both seemed very happy with their Vegetarian meals and Christian dove right into every dish without even an explanation of what it was.

    That culminates our first day in Vietnam. Stay tuned for more info of our adventures and experiences. The rest of the blogs will be written by our students and I will be sure to provide you some photographs as well.

    Take care everyone!

    March 22, 2012

    Reflections on Cambodia: The Long Road to Recovery

    As we’ve learned from our friends at Cambodian Living Arts, recovering from the legacy of the Khmer Rouge is a long and on-going process. After years of debate between the UN and Cambodian government, a war crime tribunal, designed to persecute those culpable for the mass slaughter that killed 1.7 million Cambodians between 1975-1979, was established in 2003. But it wasn’t until 2006 that proceedings against Khmer Rouge officials formally began. Unfortunately, rather than bringing justice upon those who killed and closure for those who suffered, the war tribunal has been marred from its origin by corruption and resistance from within the Cambodian government. In 2009, “Duch,” the notorious leader of Phnom Penh’s torture center Tuol Sleng Prison, who was responsible for at least 14,000 deaths, was sentenced to a mere 19 years in prison for his crimes against humanity.

    Even now, corruption continues to plague the proceedings. The New York Times and Al Jazeera reported on Monday that UN judge, Laurent Kasper-Ansermet, has stepped down from his post in the tribunal. Kasper-Ansermet cited interference from the government as his reason for leaving and stated, “The situation is completely blocked.”  This is not the first UN Judge to give up on the proceedings, in October 2011, Judge Siegfried Blunk also stepped down, when faced with similar resistance.

    While the continuation of corruption and resistance within the Cambodian government to persecute those responsible for the Khmer Rouge’s bloody reign is extremely disappointing; it does demonstrate just how important public awareness and pressure is to ending the long legacies of war. It has been over thirty years since the Vietnamese stormed Phnom Penh, ending the official rule of Pol Pot, but Khmer Rouge influence continues. Peace is a long process and often feels like a steep uphill climb, but it is something that we must continue to work towards, despite the odds. Last year’s Arab Spring demonstrated the power of the people to unite against tyranny and corruption. If official proceedings fail, then we must turn towards grass roots approaches and show the world that we as fellow human creatures will no longer stand for the continuation of human rights abuses. It may be a long road, but through education, awareness and the extended hand of friendship, we can work together to build a global community and “unblock” the path to peace and recovery.

    March 20, 2012

    Cambodian Living Arts: a Catalyst for Peace

    Cambodian Living Arts(CLA) is a nonprofit group dedicated to the revitalization of Cambodia’s rich arts and cultural traditions. Founded by Arn Chorn-Pond, a Cambodian-American refugee and human rights leader, in 1998, CLA’s mission is to positively transform Cambodia through the arts.  But to fully understand the scope and significance of Cambodian Living Arts, we have to go back in time to the mid 1970s and the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge.
    As global attention shifted away from South East Asia following the Vietnam War, in neighboring Cambodia another tragedy was only beginning to unfold. From April 17, 1975 to January 6, 1979, Cambodia was subjected to the brutal tyranny of the Khmer Rouge. In those four years alone, 1.7 million Cambodians were either killed or starved. No family survived unscathed.
    The Democratic Kampuchea (the official name of the Khmer Rouge state), lead by Pol Pot or “Brother number One,” originally advertised itself as the savior of the people: ending poverty and taxation rooted in French colonial policy by erasing all economic and class distinctions. In fact, most Cambodians supported the revolution, a movement founded in anti-capitalist and anti-colonial propaganda, which only gained more support as a result of the devastation caused by US air raids during the Vietnam War.
    But despite trumpeting itself as a movement of the people, once the Democratic Kampuchea took control of Cambodia, Pol Pot quickly turned against his own. Religion was outlawed, families forcibly separated and intellectuals, artists and politicians persecuted. Under the guise of “rooting out CIA agents,” the Khmer Rouge cleared out the capital city of Phnom Penh and sent all men, women and children to rural work camps. All schools were closed and everyone was forced to either work in the rice fields, or, if you were a “lucky” young boy, join the Khmer Rouge youth military. Following the urban purge, the once thriving capital of Phnom Penh was reduced to a population of only 70 people (all high ranking Khmer Rouge officials—prisoners of war were not counted as human beings).
    Under the regime, men, women and children were forced to work 12-14 hour days and fed only two meals to sustain them. A “meal” consisted of one spoonful of porridge or one small bowl of water lily soup. The urban populations, unused to the physical labor and long hours, were the first to die off: succumbing to sickness, malnourishment and exhaustion.  My friend Rith, who was 6 years old when “Brother Number One” came to power, recalls his four years in the work camps with a creased and hardened face. “At least one child died each day,” he told me, voice cracking, “how can we survive in such conditions? We cannot!”
    Artists and intellectuals were particularly targeted by the regime, which saw them as a threat to their power. Most were sent to the notorious Tuol Sleng prison (S-21), where they were tortured and then shot; only a handful was kept alive to entertain the officers. At S-21 Suspected “enemies” and “traitors” (principally intellectuals, politicians and artists) were brutally tortured until they “admitted” to having ties with CIA or KGB. Pol Pot wasn’t picky: women and children were also detained at S-21 and tortured under the guise of suspected espionage.
    This four-year slaughter effectively robbed Cambodia of its once thriving arts and culture and nearly completely destroyed many of its ancient traditions and art forms. Approximately 90% of Cambodia’s artists were killed under the Democratic Kampuchea and the two decades of economic hardship that followed made it essentially impossible for the remaining masters to survive by teaching and performing. Although it’s been over 30 years since the Vietnamese troops marched on Phnom Penh, calling an end to the Khmer Rouge, the tragedy still lives on and Cambodia’s once rich and diverse arts and oral tradition is still recovering from the devastation.
    Arn Chorn-Pond
    The story of Cambodian Living Arts begins in the midst of Pol Pot’s tyranny. Arn Chorn-Pond, born and raised in a family of musicians, was taken from his home in Battambang and sent to a children’s work camp in 1975. While the majority of his peers died around him, Arn was able to evade death by starvation, over work or execution by playing his flute to entertain the camp’s officials. In 1979 when the Vietnamese stormed Phnom Penh, Arn successfully fled his captors and made it to a refugee camp on the Thai border, where he befriended an aid worker and Lutheran minister, who ultimately adopted him and brought him back to the United States. Educated in the US, Arn began founding a series of organizations to help those affected by the trauma of war. It wasn’t until the mid 1990s that Arn was able to return to Cambodia. On a mission to uncover and restore the musical legacy of his family and heritage, Cambodian Living Arts was founded.
    Just as Arn’s musical knowledge literally saved him from death, so the mission of CLA is to resurrect Cambodia through the arts. By revitalizing these almost-lost traditions and teaching them to Cambodian youth, CLA hopes to create “an environment where Cambodian arts empower and transform communities.” Culture is expressed through creative outlets and the dynamism and wealth of Cambodia’s artistic traditions can provide a common ground for the production of a positive cultural identity.
    Cambodia Living Arts, Phnom Penh

    The human tragedy of the Khmer Rouge can never be erased, but it can be learned from. CLA’s goal is that by 2020 Cambodia will once again have a vibrant and dynamic arts tradition, and that this medium for positive development will also inspire other societies around the world. Organizations like CLA bring new hope to Cambodia and all war torn nations. Peace is a process, but it is perhaps the most important one we can undertake. By uniting a country around creativity, we can develop as human beings, living together through peace and understanding, rather than torn apart by hate.  

    March 15, 2012

    Summer Trip: Vietnam Discovery

    Who says education can’t be fun? At Friendship Tours World Travel (FTWT), we understand that the most important learning goes on outside of the classroom. That’s why we’ve handcrafted unique adventures that explore South East Asia’s diverse beauty through educational and volunteer opportunities. Join us this summer on a trip through Vietnam and explore Saigon’s urban chaos, float down the lazy coils of the Mekong and climb dazzling fog-woven mountains. With FTWT, educational travel transcends ordinary tourism, by actively engaging with Vietnam’s living history and vibrant culture. This summer, receive college credit and apply your education to the world around you as you discover Vietnam’s natural beauty, history and the consequences of war, while giving back to the community through personalized volunteer projects.

    Come live, learn and travel with us this summer in Vietnam!

    Vietnam Discovery:  June 15-29, 2012
    A cultural, educational adventure from South to North

    This 14-day, handcrafted itinerary combines cultural exploration, education and community service in an exciting adventure of a lifetime. Designed to help spread peace in a world increasingly at war, traveling with Friendship Tours guarantees that you get the most out of your experience abroad, while making a positive impact on the global community. Our local guides and firsthand experience ensure a unique experience that takes you off the beaten path and into the very heart of Vietnam.

    ·       Crawl through the intricate Cu Chi Tunnels used to house 10,000 Vietnamese during the “American War”
    ·       Experience everyday agrarian life along the Mekong Delta with a home stay with a local family
    ·       Make new friends and help promote peace on a volunteer project at the Vietnam Friendship Village, an orphanage for veterans and children affected by Agent Orange.
    ·       Trek through Sapa’s rice-terraced mountains and yawning valleys with a local H’mong guide.

    Activities & Lodging:
    ·       Trekking, volunteer community service, war education, cross-cultural interaction, urban exploration & boat ride.
    ·       13 nights hotels, home stay & night train.

    March 14, 2012

    Travel Reflections

    Day 10 - Final Moments in Thailand

    On our final day in Thailand, many of us woke early to take advantage of the beach for the last time in the morning. The sun was out and hot by 8:30AM and we soaked in as much sun as possible. The ocean was cool and refreshing as we all floated on top of the water, staring at the blue skies, taking in every last moment. Some girls stayed at the hotel and took advantage of the pool, or slept in. Regardless of how you spent your final moments in Thailand, we were all thinking the same thing. How can we return to NY and school after such an amazing trip?!!! 

    We all agreed this trip was one to remember. There were many special moments and many of us are already thinking about how we could return, especially to work at the orphanages where we volunteered. At 12PM, we checked out, hopped in the vans and made our way to the airport for our long travel back home. Our words and pictures have tried to explain and show you the experience we all had, but nothing can compare to actually being present for all the moments we shared. We all know we are blessed to share in this adventure together. We learned about a new culture, we were welcomed with open arms and treated like family with all of our tour guides and we will forever be in awe by the special moments we shared at the the orphanages we were privileged to visit. A million thanks to Friendship Tours World Travel for creating such an amazing experience for Emma :)

    Forever grateful,
    Stacey, Judy and the Emma girls :)

    Last Day in Phuket

    Emma Willard School in Thailand

     Day 9 - Hongs, James Bond Island & the Ocean

    This morning, we had the wonderful luxury of doing whatever we wanted whenever we wanted. Some of us woke up early and headed the beach to watch the sun rise, while others took advantage of the opportunity to sleep in. Those who didn't go to the beach spent their time by the hotel pool, relaxing and drinking one of the amazing fruit smoothies offered here! 

    After our relaxing morning, we took a short drive to the pier where we boarded a larger boat that took us to the island where one of the James Bond movies was filmed. The view was beautiful and it was so wonderful to get to see such perfect scenery! After that, we headed toward our first sea cave. We split up into pairs and hopped on an inflatable kayak with a tour guide paddling the way. The caves were basically underneath an island, but because the tide was low, we were able to kayak through them. However, at some points, the caves were so low and narrow that we had to lie flat on our backs, because if we made the slightest movement to get up, we would hit our heads on the rocky ceiling of the cave. After traveling through these narrow caves, they opened up into bigger open spaces, where the sky was visible, called hongs. We visited three different hongs, and each time, the natural beauty amazed us. As we went through one of the caves, bats hung upside down above us, flying back and forth, screeching to each other. Another time, we were able to see a family of monkeys on the shore, running around playing with each other. We also saw jellyfish, a baby crocodile, crabs, and cool little fish that could breathe both in and out of water. 

    We had a nice lunch on the boat, one that didn't include white rice, which was a happy change for our group, who was beginning to miss American cuisine. We had some time to swim and jump off the boat as well. As we headed back to the pier, we had a traditional thai dinner and watched the sun set from the boat. When we returned to the hotel, we bought yummy banana crepes from a nearby stand and split up to enjoy our last night in Thailand. Our options were to go to a local night market, go to the beach, or just hang out at the hotel. This was a truly amazing and unforgettable trip and this was such a perfect way to end it. Tomorrow we get on the planes that will take us back to New York! Before that, many of us plan to take advantage of our free morning by taking one last dip in the ocean :)

    Carmen & Grace

    Making Friends and a Difference

    Day 8 - Tsunami Orphanage

    Ban Nam Khem Tsunami Memorial Park
    The events of today were not at all as I expected. Before we got to the orphanage we were taken to the Ban Nam Khem Tsunami memorial park, that was dedicated to all the people that died in the tsunami that occurred in Phuket in 2004. It was an eye opening experience to learn about all the suffering inflicted on these people because of the tsunami; people did not only lose their homes, many lost jobs or even family members. It was a shocking experience to learn about the suffering of these people, and it really made me realize how fortunate I am for all that I have.

    After learning a few things about the terrible tsunami, we were ready to go to the orphanage and interact with the kids. I was expecting it to be like the orphanage in Chiang Mai, where we spent most of our time painting some of the buildings in the orphanage,  but it was not. When we got there, we immediately began interacting and getting to know the kids. It was amazing to see how much love these children were willing to give, and how fast they were able to open up and begin communicating with us, even if we struggled to communicate back. They made us coffee and helped us create tie dye t-shirts. It was such a touching experience spending the day with them. They had lived in situations that I could never relate to, but somehow we were still able to click in such ways that seemed almost impossible for such a short period of time.

    We also had gifts for them!!! Before we left, we the Emma community created Jester Bracelets of Hope. These friendship bracelets are meant to be a source of encouragement to those who may be going through difficult times and simply just need an extra push or support. We gave each child a Jester Bracelet and as we tied them on their little wrists we explained to them the meaning of the bracelets. they all loved them!!!

    After spending the day with them and taking a lot of pictures, it was time for us to part ways. Leaving our kids was the hardest thing to do in the whole trip. I could not stand the idea of leaving after just one day of falling in love with them. This amazing experience is definitely something I will take with me for the rest of my life, and I  am really glad I was able to go and help the Khao Lak orphanage.

    After having a day full of learning, reflecting and helping little kids at the Khao Lak orphanage, it was time to relax and have some more fun after such an eventful morning. What is a better way of having fun than going to the beach with all of your friends? After a long car ride from the orphanage to the hotel in Patong, all the Emma girls were ready to have some beach fun. At the beach we had the chance to see the sun set. We took pictures together to capture this amazing moment. 

    After the beach, we went to dinner, and then I was excited to try the banana pancakes that were being made in the stand outside our hotel. I ate two banana, coconut and Nutella  banana pancakes, which were kind of like crepes. After that, some of my friends and I went to the night market that was about one mile away from the hotel. While we were walking to the market we had the chance to see the active night life in Patong and do more shopping. 

    At 10:30pm it was time return to the hotel to check in with Stacey. When we returned we spent some time in the lobby. I ordered some virgin piña coladas and we shared some fun stories and experiences from our trip thus far. This day was a day full of fun and sharing good memories with  friends. The Thailand trip has been a really special trip for me in which I got to meet new people and experience  a new culture. Every day has been special in different ways. Some days we were at orphanages helping little kids and teaching them, but at the same time they were also teaching us about their culture and lives. Some days we were having fun alltogether at the beach or riding elephants or swimming in a waterfall.  I will never forget all the time that I had and all that  learned on the Thailand trip. 

    Dani & Vanessa

    March 13, 2012

    Tuesday Travel Tips: Avoiding Jet Lag

    photo by William Eggleston
    Jet lag might seem like a small price to pay for the adventure of international travel, but it can still be a huge inconvenience, especially if your travel time is limited. There is nothing more annoying than wanting to discover the sights and sounds of a new place, only to be struck by jet lag’s paralyzing, mid-afternoon exhaustion. Not to mention the horror of being wide-awake at 3am with nothing to do but watch MTV Asia. But how do you stop jet lag from plaguing your trip? Every savvy traveler has their own solution, ranging from homeopathic remedies to superstitious rituals, but the key is always the same: stop this cycle before it begins.

    One way to successfully combat jet lag is through homeopathic remedies. No-Jet-Lag is one of the most common brands and is available at almost any travel store for about $15. While many travelers swear by its efficacy, this miracle cure has its drawbacks. In order for No-Jet-Lag to work, you need to take one pill every two hours throughout the international flight. For those who don’t sleep on airplanes, this is a great solution, but if you are anything like me, and try to sleep away the discomforts of economy air-travel, the benefits of No-Jet-Lag are voided.

    Jet leg isn’t just about changing time zones; it’s also a bodily reaction to being inanimate for 12 hours in a pressurized cabin. So it’s important to start battling jet lag even before you step on the plane. One thing to remember is that pressurized cabins and recycled air suck all of the moisture out of everything, including your body. There’s a reason airplane food looks freeze-dried and is smothered in unidentifiable sauce. So if you decide not to go the No-Jet-Lag route, or even if you do, here are a few tips to keeping your body healthy, happy and ready to acclimate to the new time zone:

    ·       Hydration is key! Drink lots of water while you are on the plane. Most airlines skimp on providing you with bottled water, so bring your own. Since security won’t allow you to carry water into the airport, you will have to buy it at your gate. I know it’s expensive, but it is worth it to have at least one large bottle of water for your flight. Remember, many of you will be in the air for at least 12 hours, so keep drinking.

    ·       Avoid airplane food! This might sound like a no-brainer to most of you, but it is still worth reiteration. Not only do we have no idea where that food came from, it is also jam-packed full of sodium, which will only dehydrate you more. Some people prefer to not eat at all on the airplane, but I like to bring at least a snack to munch on. Dried fruit is a good option or even trial mix; something small that will help tide you over until you can get a real meal that wasn’t microwaved twice in the air.

    ·       Move Around. Being cramped in one position for hour-upon-hour is no friend to your body. And no one outside the airline industry has ever tried to claim economy seats are comfortable. Make an effort to get up and walk around the cabin at least once during the flight. This will help keep your blood circulating and ward off swollen feet.

    ·       STAY AWAKE! Traveling for hours is exhausting. When you land, it’s tempting to go straight to your hotel and sleep. DO NOT DO THIS. It’s important to acclimate to the new time zone on day one. So stay up, go sight seeing, get some food and don’t go to sleep until at least 10pm local time. You shouldn’t have trouble falling asleep on this first night, but if you do, try taking natural sleep aids, like Melatonin, to help regularize your sleeping pattern. By aligning your sleep schedule with your new time zone on day one, you can avoid the aggravating cycle of jet lag before it begins. 

    Chiang Mai to Phuket

    Day 7-Khao Lak 

    Today we woke up and packed, we were all excited to get to Phuket and the beach. It was quiet during breakfast though, as we realized this was our last day in Chiang Mai and with Mr. Nok. After breakfast we got into a new bus and went to the airport mall. The mall was HUGE!!! There were five floors! We all spread out through the mall, but we didn't buy too much there seeing as we couldn't bargain. Most of us also ended up inside the Doi Chang coffee shop, enjoying various drinks and the free wifi. We were supposed to be on the bus by a certain time on order to catch our flight, but a few girls couldn't find our entrance seeing as there was about fifty and they all looked very similar. After a quick call to Stacey for directions, they made it out and we headed to the airport. We rushed inside, got our boarding passes, and headed to security. Before we went through security though we had to say goodbye to Mr. Nok and Mr.Tong. We were all very sad to leave them, we had been through so much together and had really connected with both of them. We hugged them and said our goodbyes. 

    After a few tears we headed through security and made it to our gate with about a minute to spare. Being Emma girls, in that one minute we had already made new friends; a couple from Pittsfield, Mass who were on vacation in Thailand. Soon we wished our new friends a good trip and got  in line to board. We were spread throughout the plane, from rows three to row thirty-one. After a very short plane ride the pilot announced we were getting ready to descend. We all looked out the windows and stared in awe as we watched islands pass by in the clear blue water, we even saw a rainbow. After we landed, we got into vans and watched the beautiful scenery pass by. We reached the orphanage's hotel about two hours later. 

    The orphanage and the hotel are in Khao Lak, about 1.5 hours north of Phuket. The building was beautiful and the view from the roof was breathtaking. Before dinner we enjoyed three amazing dances preformed by children from the orphanage dressed in traditional clothing and viewed a video about what the orphanage (Baan Tarn Nam Jai) does. We learned about the devastating effects of the tsunami in 2004 and how the orphanage was quickly set up after to provide a home and an education to those left without parents. We saw clips of children learning practical skills like gardening that would help them throughout life.

    After our delicious dinner of southern thai food, we then got ready to go to the night market. As we emerged from our hotel rooms, it was pouring! The rain slowed quickly, then stopped as we got into the vans. At the night market we looked through various shops and used our new finely tuned bargaining skills to get the most bang for our buck. As we headed back to the vans the rain started with a newfound strength. Some made it to the bus only damp, others tumbled in soaked completely through and laughing. We headed back to the hotel dried off and got ready for tomorrow's adventures. 

    Kaela & Elaine

    Chiang Mai: School of Life Volunteer Project

    Emma Willard School in Thailand 

    Day 6 - School of Life - Final night in Chiang Mai

    "Our first day of community service would never top our elephant/rafting/waterfall experience," I thought to myself as we left the hotel. The ride there was about an hour long and my expectations of a Thai orphanage were far from what we were all about to experience. As soon as we parked the vans and used the "happy room" (Thai for bathroom), we were greeted by the founders of the SCHOOL OF Life and really nice girls who served us an exotic iced tea. The orphanage also made a banner that welcomed the EMMA gang that they hung with a rope tied around two huge trees. The weather wasn't too hot in the morning, but as our day continued, it got really HOT (Tropical/Honduran hot). We spent the morning painting the building where they hold school meetings.  Once we were finished, we had a yummy picnic lunch, and after we learned how to dance traditional thai dances. We also showed students what step was, how to dance to Beyonce's "Move your Body" and the infamous Cha Cha Slide. 

    Before we left, we wanted to interact and play with the children so EMMA challenged the SCHOOL OF Life to have a soccer match. Eleven EMMA girls against eleven kids of all ages. Since we were more than eleven, I had to be a sub. As I waited for someone to ask for a sub, a girl with short hair, dark skin and a green heart plastic ring sat next to me. Without saying a word, she smiled and pulled me towards her to show me her bracelets. Even though we didn't' understand each other, we instantly clicked and started to have a "sign language conversation," sharing our hate for ants, blisters and heat. When I took out my phone to take some pictures of everyone playing soccer, I saw her curious face and started to teach her how to use my iPhone. In a matter of seconds she learned how to take pictures, go through them, delete them and she had fun playing fruit ninja. After a while together we became best friends, and the idea of leaving our new best friends so soon made all of us really sad. What we have experienced every single day has been unique and the days just keep getting better. Leaving felt terrible, as we glanced back and watched  "our" kids wave goodbye for the last time. This definitely topped anything I had previously encountered during our Thailand adventure.

    It was very hard to say goodbye to all of the friends we made at the orphanage. All of us got so much more from that experience than just getting exercise by playing soccer or painting a room bright orange, because we really felt a connection with the kids, and after everything that occurred that morning we left the School of Life feeling moved and empowered to do more.

    After the hour drive back, we returned to hotel and tried to rid ourselves of all of the orange paint that stubbornly refused to leave our skin. I still haven't managed to get it all off!! Then we drove to a nice hotel for dinner, where we all compared photos and swapped stories of our different experiences at the School of Life. After an amazing dinner, our new friend in Chiang Mai, Mr. Tong, announced that there was a surprise in store for us. Excitedly we followed him back to the parking lot, where there were what looked like six large garbage bags lined up on the sidewalk. Noticing our confusion, Mr. Tong explained that these were floating lanterns, and that Thai people believe you can store all of your inner frustrations and biggest hopes into a wish you make when you release your lantern into the sky. It was no doubt the best way to end an incredible day. We excitedly gathered in groups of four around each lantern, and as their flames were lit, we closed our eyes and made our wishes, casting the glowing lights into the night, carrying our hopes and dreams away with them. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to Chiang Mai, a wonderful city that had provided us with lifelong memories and unforgettable experiences. Phuket, here we come!!! We can't imagine what you have in store for us.

    Raquel & Caroline