April 26, 2012

Looking at "Laos Scarred by Secret War"

Just a few weeks ago a group of our students returned from Laos, where they experienced first hand the ravages of the "Secret War," played out by the CIA during the 1960s and 70s. While the press covered the horors of what was occurring in Vietnam, the millions of tonnes of cluster bombs concurrently dropped on Laos went largely unrecorded. When American troops packed up and left Southeast Asia, they also left a legacy of unexploded ordinances (UXOs), polluting almost every inch of Laotian soil; a problem that has killed 12,000 people since the end of the war (the majority, civilians and children). 

In her article, "Laos Scarred by Secret War," Michelle Cooke details the daily struggles of contemporary Laotians to cope with the legacy of war that continues to plague one of Southeast Asia's most remote and beautiful countries. Her report begins with the story of a young man, Phonsavath, now blind and handless because of a "bombie": 

"On Phonsavath's 16th birthday a bomb blew his hands to pieces and caused him to go blind.

He was walking home from school when his friend picked up a rusty bomb, the size of a tennis ball, from the side of the road.

Curiosity got the better of him, and he attempted to open it, but it exploded in his hands.
His story mirrors thousands of others and is a permanent reminder of how although the Vietnam war ended nearly four decades ago, its remnants remain across South East Asia, especially in Laos, the world's most-bombed country.

The live bomb which injured Phonsavath was one of an estimated 80 million which lie in wait of victims.

At the same time the United States was fighting the North Vietnamese, it was dropping the equivalent of one bomb, every eight minutes for nine years, on Laos - more bombs than the allies dropped on Germany and Japan combined during World War 2.
But the outside world had little idea of what was happening: it was so covert it became known as The Secret War.

What now plagues Laos are the millions of bombs that did not explode on impact, so the tally of casualties adds up, year after year..."

Laguna Blanca students with Phonsavath at COPE 
Click here to read the whole article and learn about the real costs of war, as well as what has been and still needs to be done to heal the country. Cooke's article also includes a short, informative film that's well worth your time. 

April 24, 2012

Tuesday Travel Tip: Flying Affordably

With summer approaching and gas prices rising, many fear cheap airfare will be a thing of the past. But with a few tricks of the trade, finding affordable flights is still possible. In his article “8 Insider Secrets to Booking Cheap Airfare,” US News reporter, Daniel Bortz gives readers the scoop on how to snag the best deals.  So to help you get the most of your summer vacation without breaking the bank, we’ve listed a few of his key tips:

1)    “Book six weeks in advance” – on average, “most people booked the cheapest airline tickets 42 days in advance.” Buying your ticket last minute or too far ahead of time usually means that you are spending more than you need to.

2)    “Scan for morning deals” – in this case the early bird does catch the worm. Airlines tend to post their cheapest tickets overnight, so scanning deals early in the morning is the best way to grab them before they sell out.

3)    “Best time to buy”— if the morning deals elude you, try “Tuesday at 3p.m. Eastern.” Some experts say that there is no exact date/time correlation for cheap airfare, but it’s still worth taking a look.

4)    “Cheapest day to fly” – “Wednesday,” according to Farecompare.com is the best day to book for domestic flights. This is the day the least people fly, which means the airlines are more likely to release more deals in order to fill the seats.

5)    “Fly out early”— “The cheapest flight is typically the first flight of the morning,” says Bortz. This means flights leaving around 4 or 5a.m.. But booking times around lunch or dinner as well as red-eye flights will also help you to fly more economically.

6)    “Check low-cost airlines individually” – price compare websites don’t compare everything. Some airlines only release cheap tickets directly, so it’s important to peruse for deals through airlines like Jet Blue and Southwest. However, make sure these low fares aren’t a trap: remember to watch out for  additional costs like baggage check fees; they can add up quickly.

For his last two tips and additional facts and figures read Bortz’s article in its entirety by clicking here. Or check out some of the best low-cost airfare and travel tip websites: Joe Sent Me, Airfare Watch Dog and Fare Compare. Students are also eligible for discounted tickets and can find the best deals with STA Travel. Now that you know the secrets for finding affordable airfare, you can save your money for your travel destination and enjoy your vacation to the fullest. 

April 12, 2012

Spring Brings Democratic Reforms to Myanmar

Myanmar (also known as Burma) is a country long marred by the corrupt oppression of a military government and after its disputed “democratic” elections in 2010, neither its people nor the global community expected much to change. In 2010, international monitors were banned from the country, and Noble Peace Laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as well as her party—the National League for Democracy (NLD)—was barred from participating in the election. The result was a fraudulent vote that elected Myanmar’s notorious junta, legitimizing their military majority rule through nominally democratic elections. As the New York Times bleakly forewarned in a 2010 article: “After years of deadlock and stagnation, change is coming, but strictly on the junta’s terms.”

But it seems that change might be coming to Myanmar sooner than expected and this time on the terms of the people. Two weeks ago, on Sunday, April 1st, Myanmar surprised everyone when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was elected (in a landslide) to parliament, securing over 80% of the votes. Of course, this isn’t the first time Suu Kyi has been elected; she and the NLD won by a huge majority in 1990, but the ruling junta refused to give up their power and instead placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she remained off-and-on from 1990 until 2010. She wasn’t released until shortly after the 2010 elections. Suu Kyi’s recent transition from political prisoner to elected official is an unprecedented change for Myanmar and one that has inspired hope for its people.

In the April 1st election, 6 million people were eligible to vote, deciding between 160 candidates from 17 parties all running for 45 parliamentary seats (source: Al Jazeera). While the number of open seats was not enough to threaten the junta’s majority rule (less than 10% of the seats in parliament were up for grabs), the vote nonetheless remains symbolic of democratic reform within the country.

In an unprecedented step for this regime, the government even invited foreign observers to ensure a legitimate election. But despite the reforms that Myanmar’s president, Tien Sien, has taken, which include the release of hundreds of political prisoners, the road to democracy remains a long one. While international monitors and reports were allowed in the country, they were still blocked from the polling booths and the vote counting. Rumors of coercion by government officials and complaints of tampered voting sheets also marred these recent elections, which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi described as  “not genuinely free and fair” (source: Al Jazeera).

The question remains if this poll’s symbolic step for democracy will translate into real changes. Suu Kyi, an emblem of the democratic hopes of her people, will have a lot to live up to in these coming months. But in the meantime people are hopeful. As Daw Kyi Kyi Tun, a former schoolteacher told New York Times reporter: “We used to fear speaking with foreigners about democracy. Now we have courage.”
Two weeks following the election, Myanmar’s president seems committed to making positive democratic changes. On Saturday, Sien Tien hosted talks with the ethnic minority rebel group—Karen National Union (KNU)—that focused on reintegrating the KNU into the political system. Sien Tien explained that he “viewed the rebels as brothers rather than an enemy” and a member of the negotiations described the talks as “warm and open” (source:  Al Jazeera). The KNU has been fighting with the government since 1949 (Myanmar has only been independent since 1948). Like the recent elections, these dialogues represent a dramatic shift towards peace and transparency, leaving Myanmar’s people and the international community cautiously optimistic. The regime seems committed to implementing the social, political and economic reforms Western nations have demanded since placing international sanctions on the country in the 1990s. 2012 has been a year of political reform and with Western powers currently reviewing their sanctions (source: Al Jazeera) it’s possible Myanmar may once again be opened to international trade and travel. 


April 11, 2012

Luang Brabang: Reflections on a Journey through Laos

Founder and head of FTWT, Alethea Tyner Paradis, muses on the end of a journey through living history and the hope for future peace and healing. 

Breezy riverside Luang Prabang is a refreshing cleanse for our war-conscious-weary souls. The heart of downtown is cradled by the lazy S-curves of the Mekong River, bamboo bridges and boats offering quick navigation across and around. Saffron-robed monks make their barefoot morning pilgrimage through town. Gorgeous temples radiate ancient gold designs, dancing apsara buddha figures and serenity. Lush green trees and flowering bougainvillea frame each narrow street. Old French colonial architecture refreshed as gourmet eateries or day spas boast fresh paint, WiFi, espresso and romantic patios. Friendly people practice their English, issuing us earnest invitations to come back again soon.

A day-trip outside of town takes us over rolling, jungle-embraced hills of an acid-green vibrancy to the cascading waters of the Khouang Si Falls. Here the current, surging over a lofty cliff, collects in refreshing turquoise pools, where locals and tourists alike come together to bathe themselves in the clear, cool water. Khouang Si feels like an Oasis from the war-scarred reality of Xien Khuang. Its beauty is a haunting, and the still, jade pools inspire peace and reflection. 

On our last night, torrents of rain crash down upon our palm-treed Eco-friendly resort. Frightful winds, lightening, rolling thunder conduct an appropriate symphony to all we had witnessed in this beautiful, haunted, land. The following morning is initially grey, wet, foreboding, and then, more optimistically, dew-drop bathed with sunlight in time for our farewell. 

We leave with heavy hearts and opened minds. With only 1% of the UXOs cleared from the Laotian countryside, heartbreaking and backbreaking work remains ahead. But despite the tragedies we’ve encountered, hope hangs in the fresh air and watery sunlight of early morning. On our way to the airport, passing a line of saffron-robed monks, I take a deep breath of fresh mountain air; I know this trip is only the beginning. “Laos,” I promise, “I’ll be back, with more students, more compassion and a commitment to make your voice heard.”

April 10, 2012

Tuesday Travel Tip: Avoiding Culture Shock

Dog, sold at the market in Hanoi, Vietnam
Culture Shock is an affliction that affects all travelers to varying degrees; it is a form of anxiety that occurs when we lose the familiar social cues and norms with which we daily orient ourselves. Dr. Lalero Oberg, cultural anthropologist, explains: “These cues, which may be words, gestures, facial expressions, customs, or norms are acquired by all of us in the course of growing up and are as much a part of our culture as the language we speak or the beliefs we accept. All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of these cues…” But when we travel to a different country, all of these bearings are stripped away and we lose the most essential method of orienting ourselves. This makes traveling to a country with different traditions, languages and social norms a stressful and even traumatic experience. Struggling to communicate and function within an unfamiliar place can make even the most basic tasks (e.g. buying food, crossing the street, shaking hands) seem as daunting as Herculean labors.

The idea of culture originates with the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder and his concept of Volksgeist, which means “the spirit of the people.” Cultures are a complex network of social identity, which includes symbolism, language, religion, social rules, fashion, art, &c. They are developed over time through particular historical circumstances and traditions and shape the way we identify ourselves and conduct ourselves within the social community. But when we leave the comfort of our familiar culture and step into an alien one, it is easy to become frustrated by different customs, because they don’t make sense to us.

At its essence, culture shock is a lack of understanding. And a common reaction to a culture we don’t readily understand is to belittle and stereotype its country and its people. Unfortunately this type of response is an easy trap to fall into; this attitude not only prevents one from integrating and participating in a new culture, but also perpetuates the sense of alienation and discomfort that goes along with being an “outsider.”

So how do we visit and participate in a new culture without falling into the negative cycle of culture shock?

Bagan, Myanmar
Completely avoiding culture shock is impossible. Relearning a new understanding and approach to life is difficult and you are guaranteed to make mistakes and feel homesick. That’s natural. But what you can control is your attitude and mindset. Culture shock is lessened when you gain knowledge of the new language and the culture and accept the customs of the place you are visiting. So here are a few tips to help mediate the effects of culture shock and make sure you get the most out of your experience abroad:

·       Learn about the culture before you leave. Doing some research about the place you are visiting and making an effort to familiarize yourself with the new language, history and traditions will help to smooth the transition. Of course there’s no way to truly experience and understand a place until you’ve been there, but at least this way you won’t be taken completely off guard by the unfamiliar.

·       Keep an open mind and be flexible. As I have discussed earlier, this is a new place with different norms. But just because something is different, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Don’t judge immediately; remember your culture is just as bizarre to the people you are visiting as theirs is to you.

·       Laugh it off. Humor is the best approach to frustrating situations. Laughing at yourself and your own difficulties will prevent you from getting hung up on what’s different and will allow you to enjoy every step of your adventure.

Bagan, Myanmar
·       Try to speak in the local language. Even if you only know a few words and your pronunciation is horrible, just making the effort to communicate with locals in their own language will make a HUGE difference. It shows that you respect their culture by making an effort to participate on their terms.

·       Be a participant observer. Join in local activities, talk to local people and try to learn about their history and perspective. This will help you familiarize yourself with the new culture and will help you to re-orient yourself within the terms of new social norms.

Overcoming culture shock isn’t about rejecting your culture for the acceptance of another; as Dr. Oberg explains, it’s about developing “two patterns of behavior,” so that you can accept multiple ways of life and participate within more than one “spirit of the people.” 

April 9, 2012

Living Legacies: the Human Cost of the "Secret War"

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

A special guest blog by FTWT's founder, Alethea Tyner Paradis, reflects on the lingering effects of the CIA's "Secret War" in Laos, while traveling with a group of students through Xien Khuang and the Plain of Jars. 



We travel the bomb-riddled mountains riding aloft in our air-conditioned private bus, views of a struggling existence rolling along like scenery recycled indefinitely. I watch our students capturing mental snapshots of this other-worldly poverty. Hallow-eyed Laotian children hauling water along pothole-punctuated roads, slash and burn agriculture torching the landscape and skies, elderly women bent with gravity of firewood bushels, thatched roof villages perched precariously over unstable cliffs, all one major rainstorm away from catastrophe.

As we approach a humble preschool, clutching cameras and quiet apprehensions, the people welcome us with genuine grace, hands-at-heart, bowing a prayer-like greeting  "Sabaidii!" "Hello!" Their tiny pupils are mesmerized by our group of fair-skinned pilgrims offering gifts of clothing, art supplies, balloons and nursery rhymes. The pure sweetness of their curious spirits enchants us all.  Would a roomful of forty American five-year olds sit as patiently for these tedious introductions and tri-lingual translations?   Hmong. Lao. English. Mutually unintelligible tongues require the universal language of play. Laughter, it turns out, sounds the same to every age and ear.  Older students crowd in through windows and doors, hoping to glimpse the novelty, joy by proxy. 

Regions bombed are highlighted in red
(source: National Regulatory Authority)
It's unthinkable that these beautiful, simple lives are lived in fear of subterranean munitions.

The Xien Khuang villagers, and thousands like them along the Laos -Vietnam border, subsist in history's shadow, deadly threat of UXO littering their landscape.  The last of their victims, mere "Collateral Damage" from the United States' "Secret War" and 9-year bombing campaign remain, as yet, unborn. 

Here, the moral calculus of a deliberate versus an unintended target is meaningless. Body counts matter no more. Cold War Games whose players have long abandoned the field, left a deadly scorecard for generations of innocent spectators.

We walk through the adjacent village where these lovely preschoolers call home, parading ahead and behind us with giddy chatter. Pigs, cows, chickens, ducks, dogs and water buffalo share terra firma with humans. Tidily swept hard-packed dirt spaces offset by bamboo stick fences demark one family mud hut from the next. The average family has over 5 children. Giant, rusty satellite dishes occupy every yard. Old steel US bomb casings are repurposed for their utilitarian value: water troughs, planter boxes, porch supports and walls. Everywhere: bare bottom children are dashing about, chasing animals. Roosters squawk in competition. Women are working: weaving, washing, wearing babies. Men are using heavy tools, engaged with the industry of wood, resource processing, imparting machete tutelage to young boys. Other men are slouching around small tables, glassy-eyed with conversation and bottles of Beer Lao, oblivious to indignant women with backs turned in disapproval. We stride with purpose through this uncomplicated place to meet two mothers whose lives are simple no more: they lost their 5-year-old children to UXO in 2008.

We are all a little nervous. This feels too personal, and yet like the allure of a highway traffic accident, we cannot bring ourselves to avert our gaze. The women speak quietly in turn, eyes downcast. They were in the rice fields working that day. The kids were playing in groups, ostensibly supervised by their elder peers. They found a “Bombie.” Ignorant of its danger, they tried to crack it open. The blast killed  our children and injured two others.

While exceedingly polite and compassionate, our students' reactions to the first hand testimonies we offer on this edu-charity adventure have been cautious, muted, understated. As teachers, we couldn't risk an awkward silence this time.   
"Think about what you want to ask someone in their situation." 

The students brainstorm brilliantly: 
"How do you feel about Americans?" 
"How have you found the strength to go on with your lives?"
 "What do you want us to tell people back at home about the problems here?" 
"How can we help?" 

Though we had rehearsed questions to follow the recounting of the tragic stories, we had not anticipated the editorial license of our interpreters. A one-line response from the grieving mothers yields a long-winded translation, the content of which does not match the facial expression of the speaker. It is evident that our visit, though well-intentioned and purposeful in the long term, requires a painful reflection on the permanency of loss—the persistent fear and danger in their futures. When it is revealed that we have donated money to put their surviving children through school in preparation for college, there is no joy recognizable on their faces. How could this generous gift remotely approach an easing of their pain? Our guide listens to her short response and translates into English: "Thank You. We are very happy you came to visit and speak with us today." 

It is estimated that 30% of Laos remains contaminated with UXO. At the current rate of bomb removal, it will take over 2500 years to restore the land to safety. (source: COPE, Vientiane) Politicians are quick to remind us that the US is taking responsibility and appropriating funds for cleaning up its cavalier cruelty. After all, we spend more annually than any other country on UXO removal in Laos: in 2011, 9 million dollars. Sounds like a lot? We spend more before breakfast every day occupying Afghanistan and Iraq.

Decommissioning UXOs is expensive, tedious, dangerous work. Mines Advisory Group, (MAG), a British NGO does so admirably around the world. In 2005 they cleared the Laotian equivalent to Stonehenge, a mysterious UNESCO World Heritage site known as The Plain of Jars. As we walk through, speculating on the meaning of these Iron Age vessels that survived the air raids, the natural losses are evident. Denuded forests. Bomb craters. “DANGER!” signs caution us from venturing a field.

One of our students inquires about the narrow ribbons of land threaded between the MAG safety zone markers: "Why did they only make pathways this wide rather than clearing the whole place?"  Clearly there exists the technology, the expertise, the desire to vacate more land. His question strikes me as precious:  Of course we should make every footstep free of deadly ambush!  Inexplicably, I feel like crying. "It's expensive," I say, knowing the price tag: $1,000 US dollars will clear 5,000 square feet of flat ground. In a developing country where people live on $1.50 per day, UXO removal literally costs a fortune. Simple instincts of value and logical action seem obvious to a young mind: He says: "Yeah, but so what? It's worth it."

Our group later patronizes the MAG visitors' center on the dusty main street of Phonsavan. Students are treated to a personal revelation by the lone employee, who shows them his chest and stomach scars from a "Bombie" detonation he suffered as a pineapple farmer, hoeing the soil. Though externally perforated with shrapnel, his internal organs survived. Our group is speechless. Searching for a hopeful remark to fill the silence, I say: "Wow. You are lucky to be alive." Understanding perfectly, he shrugs, "Perhaps."

April 2, 2012

Laguna Blanca Students Support Lao UXO Victim’s Children – April 2012

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

Dori Shimoda, founder of Give Children a Choice, guest blogs about his experience in Laos meeting the Laguna Blanca students traveling with Friendship Tours World Travel.

Barbara and I were very fortunate (and we thank our good friend Fred Branfman for the introduction) to have met Ms. Alethea Paradis. She’s an attorney, turned teacher, turned entrepreneur who started a tour company, called Friendship Tours World Travel. It offers experiential and community involvement tours to countries of former adversaries*. This is her first tour to Laos.
“Friendship Tours World Travel is an educational tour and community service program focused in the countries of our former adversaries. Founded by teachers and students for students and teachers, we believe that educational travel should transcend ordinary tourism by engaging travelers with the living history and modern culture of peaceful nations once at war.”
Even more fortunate for Barbara and me is that we met 11 young adults, who have already developed an awareness of intellectual curiosity and exercised the act of social responsibility at a young age. They are Laguna Blanca students from Santa Barbara, California, USA. Their tour to Southeast Asia encompassed visiting the mine-torned country of Cambodia and the UXO-littered country of Laos. Their enthusiastic teachers Katy and Kevin joined the tour as well.
We were very happy to have them visit us. Barbara and I hosted them for some American fare (with a local Lao twist because of the available ingredients). We were surprised to learn about their knowledge of Laos and their awareness of what happened to Laos during the Secret War.
We were more surprised that they had personally worked hard at home to raise almost $2000 to help UXO victim families’ children with their education.
They also brought from home hard-to-get items for UXO victims, including Neosporin, Ben-Gay, ibuprofen and other pain relievers. They also brought clothes for the children in poor, remote villages.
We’d like personally thank and congratulate each one of them for their generosity and courage: Clarissa Coburn, Dalton Smith, Elise Scheurmann, Hughes Williamson, Milo Hensley, Lauren Conk, Nadia Belton, Ryan Green, Tiana Bonn, Tristan Prinz, and Vera Lopez.We are very proud of them. They should be recognized for their individual leadership, setting examples for their peers and American young adults.

In Vientiane, they spent time at the COPE Center and National Rehabilitation Center. They met a young boy, who foolishly and regretfully lost his hands and eye sight playing with a bombie in his home town in Vientiane Province.
They will be traveling to Xieng Khouang Province, which is the most bombed location per capita in the world. 2 millions of bombs were dropped. This included 260 million bombies during the USA’s Secret War in Laos. Most sadly is that 80 million of live bombies are resting somewhere to be discovered by some unsuspecting victim, who will be maimed or killed. Fortunately, the annual number of victims are dropping through ongoing education and UXO removal program efforts by the Lao government. As well, their UXO removal efforts continues to progress, as one of the country’s high priority.
In Xieng Khouang, they will be visiting Tham Pui Cave in Kham District, located about 35 miles east of the Xieng Khouang’s capital city Phonsavan. The students will also visit Thachok Village on their way back to Phonsvan. Thachok is a Hmong village. It is also known as the bomb village
Finally, the students will travel from Xieng Khouang to Luang Prabang by bus. The will spend their final days in SE Asia in Luang Prabang, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From there, they will return home to California, USA.
In closing, I want to thank the Laguna Blanca students for their leadership, maturity, their sacrifice of their free time to learn more about Laos. We hope that sometime in the future, they will come to visit us again. We appreciate their coming to visit Laos to learn about this very peaceful country and its very peaceful people. We appreciate their efforts to help the children of UXO victims in this war-torn country. Barbara and I felt blessed to meet such wonderful people: the students, the teachers Kevin and Katy, and Alethea. Korp chai lai lai. Ua Tsaug.
(source: dorishimoda)