February 28, 2014

An eye-opening experience

At Harvard-Westlake, students get upset when they don’t get the Mercedes Benz convertible they asked for.  In Rwanda, giving a student an empty water bottle can bring them happiness for the next year.  We hear about the poverty and hardships that the vast population of the world faces.  However, this concept is hard to grasp until you see it, breathe it, feel it yourself.  I was granted this experience when I traveled to Rwanda during semester break.
We met a man named Kizito who, during the genocide, watched his mother get raped as his house was burned to the ground with his siblings inside.  The United States could have done many things to aid Rwanda during the genocide, but instead we passively watched and let it happen.  However, Kizito and the rest of the Rwandans do not hold this against us.  He welcomed us with open arms, spent time with us every day — and was brought to tears when we left at the airport.
Michael Mapes ’16 bonded with Kizito the most.  Their friendship grew stronger and stronger each day, and Mike was seen with him whenever we ate.  He never failed to ask where his Rwandan friend was, what he was doing — or if he was doing okay.  Kizito returned this affection, and their bond was evident.
At the end of the trip, Mike gave him $150 of his own money to help him get himself and his brother a better life.

The strength and forgiveness of the Rwandans was perhaps the most surprising. In Rwanda, the love is unconditional and non-judgmental.  Their ability to find this love, stemming from hate with roots so deep, is incredible and cannot be overlooked.  The growth of the people, who were once divided by hatred, is shown in everything  they do.  We were even able to see this in the children.
I have always been a horrible dancer, and when we went to do traditional Rwandan dancing, I was not very adept. After five minutes of attempting to look like a native African who is greeting the cows in a tribal dance, I opted out and sat down to watch.
I was approached by a girl who could not have been more than 2 years old.  She waddled over, away from her parents, and plopped herself down in my lap.  She wore a pink shirt and a pink skirt, both worn but still bright with life. Her large brown eyes, framed with long lashes, were sweet and innocent.  She grabbed my necklace and played with it, and I looked to her parents.  I expected them to grab her away from me — and scold her for being around a foreigner, someone they barely knew, someone who did not help them in their deepest time of need.  However, they laughed and smiled at me.  I stayed with the girl for the next hour, and could not have been happier.
This taught me a lot about forgiveness — and keeping an open mind.  I was able to take this with me back to Los Angeles, and I know that I will be a better person because of it.
I am going to work on being less judgmental and will try to find the good in everyone, because if the Rwandans can love us despite our ignorance, then we can at least do our best to try to be like them.
I also learned a lot about the value of education — and how fortunate we are to go to Harvard-Westlake.  I always used to take our teachers, their passion and our resources for granted.  In Rwanda, an entire school is lucky if it gets a secondhand dictionary.  As you look around the immense library at Harvard-Westlake, this may seem hard to grasp, but seeing it in person was truly eye opening.
Traveling to Rwanda has inspired me to work harder, not only for myself, but for those whom I met at the Learning Center.
The Learning Center is a school for young adults.  Equipped with 17 computers, the one story building hosts around 30 students eager to learn.  I brought with me a small 10-page book with basic phrases translated from the local language, Kinyarwanda, to English.  I met six women who were fascinated by the little book.  We spent hours laughing about the ways we mispronounced the languages, and they were eager to learn from their mistakes.  Their ability to make so much out of a book that cost me a dollar still stays with me, and I know I am trying harder with my classes here because of it.
We are so fortunate here, and it seems that we forget it often.  The things I will take from the trip — always cleaning my plate, giving money to the homeless, purchasing water that gives to charities in Africa — those are what I am the most proud of.  I have grown as a person and changed for the better, and as I move into the second semester with a new vision of life and a new purpose, I feel that I am at my best version of myself.  I wouldn’t change anything about my experience.
“My hope for the future is stronger than my fear,” a strong survivor of the genocide told us.
I see this quote as something we can all use as we go through our lives.  Because if the Rwandans were strong enough to overcome the brutality that they experienced, we can be strong enough to handle anything.
Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

February 27, 2014

Huber Matos: Cuban revolution leader dies in Miami

The only exiled dissident among the original leaders of the 1959 Cuban revolution, Huber Matos, has died in Miami at the age of 95.
He was arrested in 1960 and sentenced to 20 years in jail for sedition.
Human rights groups campaigned for his case until his release and expulsion from Cuba in 1979.
Mr Matos eventually settled in Florida after a period in Costa Rica, where his remains are to be taken after a funeral in Miami.
Mr Matos fought the troops of general Fulgencio Batista in 1959 alongside Fidel Castro but later fell out with the communist leader.
A statement released by relatives said Mr Matos had died on 27 February at Miami's Kendall Regional Hospital of a massive heart attack he had suffered two days earlier.
'Return to Cuba'
The former revolutionary fighter's funeral will be in Miami on Sunday before his remains are taken to Costa Rica, as he had wished.
"I want to make my return trip to Cuba from the same land whose people have always showed me solidarity and care. I want to rest in Costa Rican soil until Cuba is free before I go to Yara, to join my mother and father and other Cubans," he had said.
Born in Yara in 1918, Huber Matos graduated as a teacher in Santiago, before pursuing a PhD in the capital, Havana.

The first time Costa Rica welcomed him was in 1957, when he had to leave Cuba because of his opposition of the rule of Gen Fulgencio Batista.
He is thought to have been instrumental in the Cuban insurrection by Fidel Castro's Sierra Maestra rebels by smuggling the weapons they used from Costa Rica
But when Mr Matos stepped down as a rebel military commander, Fidel Castro ordered his arrest.
Sentenced to 20 years in prison for sedition, he was released in 1979 and immediately left for San Jose, Costa Rica.
In an interview with the BBC, Andy Gomez, a former Miami University scholar and friend of the former revolutionary, said that Mr Huber had suffered terrible torture during his jail term.
But he also added that the prison sentence itself was a testament to how close Mr Matos must have been to Fidel Castro.
"Many people claim that when Huber Matos fell out of favour, Fidel put him in jail and did not kill him... he assassinated other people that were close to him," he said.
Mr Matos eventually settled in Miami, where he became involved in Cuban politics.
The former military commander considered the government led by Fidel and Raul Castro a "dictatorship".
27 February 2014

All of her six children were killed

Feb 12

One thing was immediately noticeable as I stepped off of the plane: the smell of smoke, hanging thickly in the air. Later, I would discover that it was the smell of burnt trash, but at that time, my only thought was, “Finally. Rwanda.”

I found out about the Investigative Journalism Adventure to Rwanda last summer and immediately committed myself to the trip. During all of first semester this year, I researched how the country led itself to the point of mass murder.

It didn’t hit me until I was standing in LAX at 5:30 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 24. that I was going to Rwanda, a country I had only heard about once or twice in the news prior to the trip.

I realized that even though I knew much about the country’s torn past, I knew nothing of its current situation.

My dad’s safety briefing, minutes before we separated — always walk around with a buddy, check in with an adult every night, don’t eat things that strange people give you, if you get lost, call the United States Embassy — did nothing to ease my nerves.

The minute we arrived in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, we were met with stares. We were a group of 18 tired Americans in the single-terminal airport, 10,000 miles from home.

In the morning, we caught our first glimpse of Rwanda. The sprawling hills provided the same breathtaking view everywhere in the country. Rwanda’s second name, “The Land of a Thousand Hills,” was definitely not a misnomer.

We saw the culture and lifestyle of the Rwandan people whizzing by as we traveled on the bus. I saw people carrying water to their homes and women carrying babies on their backs, a basket on their head. We began to wave at the Rwandan people, and most made a welcoming gesture back at us.

Much of the anxiety I felt about going to a recently violent country fell away.

These people were happy and open. They weren’t the hostile and closed-off culture I had imagined that they would be. I was beginning to feel accepted by these people.

Before the trip, each of the students chose a specific topic they wanted to focus on during and in the follow-up activities after the trip. Some compared the Rwandan genocide to the Holocaust, others focused on the children in Rwanda and one group brought soccer balls to distribute and document how the sport was helping the country heal. I decided to turn my attention to the women of Rwanda and what they were doing to heal their country and shape its future.

As I walked through the exhibit on the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis in the Kigali Genocide Memorial, I was hit by the magnitude of the killing.

I realized the pictures and descriptions I had come across in America did not even begin to capture the true nature of the genocide. When I came across a certain line of text in one of the descriptions, I sat against the opposite wall, staring at it, reading it over and over again until I couldn’t bear to look at and imagine it any longer. Even when we exited the memorial and got on the bus to go to our next destination, the line wouldn’t stop flashing in my mind as I closed my eyes and rested my head against the window.

Hutu and Tutsi women were often forced to kill their own Tutsi children.

Later that day we ran into a crowd of children in a village. They smiled and pointed at us. When they came closer, we took pictures with them and taught them how to use our cameras. It was then that I first saw the effects of the healing process with my own eyes, the happiness and acceptance of the new generation.

At the Learning Center, an institution that provides English, music and computer classes for Rwandan youth, we met Kizito, a survivor, who watched his mother get raped and his siblings being burned alive in his house when he was a child.

His mother and brother survived the genocide, but his mother is now bed-ridden with HIV.

He traveled with us for most of our trip, and everyday it amazed me how he could look so happy, smiling and laughing with us, even with his painful past.

We visited other survivors who were willing to relive the pain and share their stories.

One woman said that she prayed every night for God to forgive her and to watch over her attackers. I was dumbstruck by her ability to pardon those who had wanted to kill her. Her prosthetic eye rested on me as she said, “Thank you for coming to learn.”

Another survivor’s story was truly heartbreaking. At 82 years old, she had survived two major genocides in 1959 and 1994.

All of her six children were killed, and she lives with one grandchild. She remembers having lost at least 1,000 people in both genocides, all of whom she knew by name.

What affected me most from her story was the fate of one of her daughters. The woman’s daughter was a Tutsi who married a Hutu man before the genocide. Together, they had a mixed child. When the genocide began, the Hutu son-in-law killed the Tutsi daughter and grandchild. The son-in-law has recently been released from prison and taunts the woman in the streets of her village.

One of the most uncensored genocide memorials made it apparent to me that, under the healing, the scars still remain.

Murambi Genocide Memorial is a picturesque university that never opened and now showcases the preserved bodies of victims killed there. In the bodies laid down side by side, I could see the wounds, the machete cuts and the forms these people were in as they died. Some have their arms above their face, blocking their attacker even in death. Seeing these bodies was the final step in my realizing the sheer brutality of this genocide, merely 20 years ago.

On the way to Musanze, where we would go gorilla trekking, we visited a school for the deaf. Even though they couldn’t hear the music, they danced to our laughter. As we blew balloons and bubbles, they looked happy. I recalled something that each survivor had been telling us throughout our trip. Education is the way to prevent a future genocide and provide a hopeful future for Rwanda through its younger generation.

The last night yielded a spectacular lightning storm less than five miles away. The sky lit up an electric purple as the night wind blew around us. We watched from the hotel balcony as the thunder boomed.
It was another experience that was purely Rwandan, something I couldn’t witness back home in Los Angeles.

The day we went gorilla trekking, we woke up at 4:30 a.m. The hike through the Rwandan jungle was harsh, and the plants and insects foreign. But the first glimpse of the silverback gorilla made up for all the fears and worries.

The animals were not even five feet away. A baby with a missing foot came closer, and at one point he emptied his bladder on himself. Adolescents in the troop were playing, a mother was cradling her baby and the silverback was napping. It was amazing seeing these creatures who are genetically similar to us in their natural habitat. I had the feeling of being welcomed into their home as we observed them. I reflected back on my time in Rwanda, all the things I experienced and the new world view I had obtained on the hike back down the mountain. I was surprised by how much I had changed in the course of 10 days.

The bus ride back to Kigali was rushed, the possibility of missing our flight hanging over our heads. We arrived at Kigali International Airport, back where our adventure in Rwanda began, on time to make our flight. As I took one last photograph of the airport, I came to the conclusion of the thought process that I had begun on the hike down the mountain.

Somewhere along my journey, I fell in love with this country.

Rwanda and its culture accepted and changed the unlearned me into a cosmopolitan human being. 

Someday I wish to go back, experience more of the culture and help make the country’s goal of “never again” a reality.

Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

February 24, 2014

Student Reflections on Rwanda


This trip changed my life because now I view the world differently.  I experienced history first hand in a rare and exciting way.  I'll never forget the people I met and the stories they told.  The things the Rwandan people went through were horrific and should never happen to another country.  Seeing the bodies of the victims made my skin crawl.  These images make me want to become more active in global affairs to help prevent future genocides or conflicts.  I felt more engaged going to Rwanda than just learning about their history in a classroom.  The people were so loving and welcoming that it's hard to believe such a horrible event happened there.  I have become more humble and learned to forgive people more easily.  I'm really glad I went on this once in a lifetime trip.  If I didn't, I would have missed out on the opportunity to meet people who have truly impacted my life.

--Kennedy Long

Francis Parker - Vietnam 2014

Day 12: There and Back Again

The last two weeks have, undoubtedly, been a life-changing experience for every Francis Parker student in this group. Not only have we broadened our horizons culturally, but we also have grown as individuals and gained a better global understanding as well as understanding of self.

When our group arrived in Vietnam we all had our expectations for both the trip and the country: how living with each other in a very foreign, communist country would be. As a whole the group has come together, like "sticky rice," as we have taken to saying since being in-country, and become a sort of family. Now, two weeks later we're on our way back to America, and we have found that two weeks is much longer than any of us thought, but in a good way. None of us are quite ready to leave the busy streets, the bustling cities, the vibrant culture, or the kind people of Vietnam. We also have transformed our views of Vietnam as a whole, politically and culturally, and especially have a more complete view of the American War, as it is known to the people here. 

Many of us knew Vietnam as "the jewel of Southeast Asia" because of our history classes with Mr. Taylor. Now, we all truly understand his love of this country. The culture in Vietnam is so rich it is nearly impossible not to share his love of Vietnam. In the North, we experienced a strong political presence and were fortunate enough to spend time with Hanoi University students, bonds that many of us hope will be lasting, as well as give back to victims of Agent Orange. We found that in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese people don't hate us, as they could. Rather, they have focused on healing and unifying their country. In the South we spent time in the Mekong River Delta, easily a high point of the trip for every student. During our home stay we all became very close, as we lived together, cooked together, and tried to completely immerse ourselves in the culture. After our couple of days in the Vinh Long province near the Mekong Delta we traveled to Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, to spend the last few days of our amazing trip in another city. Though Saigon and Hanoi did have similarities, there were also many differences. Most obviously, Saigon had a warmer climate and also a much stronger Western influence, allowing all to identify with the city as more "friendly" in some ways, as well as more familiar. 

In addition to the obvious cultural exposure we have gained by being in Vietnam, the group has made so many memories together. We came together in new ways and have become so close: be it through rooming situations, our adventures, our jokes, or everything we've learned. Every member of the group is coming back to the States and to Parker with new friends and two weeks of memories we will never forget. 

Vietnam has opened all of our eyes to a completely different way of life and exposed us all to a very different part of the world. We were forced, due to the different culture and huge language barrier, to communicate largely with gestures and actions, which led us to one of two major conclusions for our trip: despite being thousands of miles away from each other geographically, having very different histories, and being raised with different ideas of "right" and "wrong," as humans we are more similar than many of us could have believed without coming here. Our time at the home stay, with the Hanoi University students, the locals, and the members of the Peace Village allowed us to realize this, as we were able, and lucky enough, to form meaningful relationships with them, even if some of them were only temporary. The second is that we have all gained such an important skill in just two weeks: we have been lucky enough to become more globally aware and take a step towards understanding that service learning does not just mean we, as Francis Parker students, give to the people we are visiting; it also means they have an immense amount to teach us. 

This, for all of us, has been an experience of a lifetime. Many have said they could, and would love to, live here for many months, just to learn more about the history and culture of Vietnam, as well as see more of the country. The memories made in the last two weeks have been more meaningful and lasting than any of us could have predicted and, for that, we are all so grateful. So, tonight, though we journey home, we have all agreed we would love to someday return to Vietnam and we feel so lucky to have had such an amazing opportunity, trip, chaperones, and, of course, companions. 


February 21, 2014

Francis Parker - Vietnam 2014

Day 11: Saigon and Environs

Reconciliation is a complicated yet necessary part of humanity.  Being able to let go of the past and stay focused on the future makes living in the present easier and more enjoyable.  It is often a challenge for people to move on, especially when it comes to war.  Today we had the privilege of witnessing the hardships of the war through the eyes of Kim Phuc's family and how one of the most iconic pictures of the Vietnam War affected the family's image in society.  

After a long rest and a filling breakfast we got on our bus and began the drive to visit Kim Phuc's family.  During the two-hour drive, Mr. Hau gave us a detailed explanation of the history of Vietnam and how different religious influences have affected the nation.  When we arrived at the Phuc family's house, we were greeted by Kim's sister in-law.  We sat down at the family-owned restaurant below the house and watched a detailed documentary about Kim and the bombing of her village.  The documentary contained actual footage of the Napalm bombs being dropped on the village and showed the reaction of the journalists as Kim ran from the inferno.  After explaining Kim's recovery from her third-degree burns, the documentary focused on Kim's forgiveness and her ability to move on.  The most inspirational part of the documentary was when Kim visited the Vietnam War Memorial and met with an officer who had been involved in the bombing of her village 25 years earlier.

Kim's forgiveness of the event was a very important of how Kim's sister-in-law described her story as well. We asked her what information we should take back to the United States, and she kindly requested that we express how peaceful and trustworthy the Vietnamese people really are, which is interesting considering that most Americans do not view the Vietnamese that way.  We then walked to Kim's old temple and observed a Cao Dai service which incorporated concepts of Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism.  Mr. Hau explained that followers pray for 30 minutes every 6 hours, starting at midnight.  After lunch at the Phuc's restaurant and an ice cream treat from Mr. Hau, we drove to the Cu Chi tunnels where we got a completely different perspective on the war.

The complex consisted of much more than just the tunnels.  We entered a small bunker where we watched a documentary on the history of the Cu Chi area and its resistance to American forces.  The film commemorated Vietnamese soldiers for their efforts and viewed Americans as heathen.  Propaganda like this was one of the many effective tactics used by the party to influence the people's view of their enemy and how they believed their enemy viewed them.  This is similar to the War Remnants Museum we visited yesterday and to the factors Kim Phuc's sister-in-law brought up about why Americans do not like Vietnam.  We then got to experience the life of a resistance fighter in the jungle by dropping into small tunnel entrances, observing the significance of each bunker (kitchens, workshops, etc.), learning how booby traps work, shooting guns, and of course maneuvering through a full-length tunnel.  The thrill of going through a Viet Cong tunnel is like nothing we had ever experienced before.  It wasn't until we left the tunnel that many of us realized how fast our hearts were pounding, how much we were gasping, and how hot it was in the tunnel.  The highlight of the experience was without a doubt Mr. Holbrook's attempt to get inside a tunnel entrance designed to keep average-sized Americans from entering, let alone a big friendly giant. 

After spending eleven days in Vietnam while being exposed to both Northern and Southern influences, it is very obvious that the Vietnam War that ended almost 39 years ago is still a central component of this nation.  It is still not safe to say which side was just in their motives for fighting in the war; however, if one thing is for certain, it is what Kim Phuc said: "nobody wants war."  George Washington strictly believed that Americans should never fight unless there was an absolute certainty of victory.  What was the victory Americans were fighting for in Vietnam?  Our visit to Vietnam informed us of the North's motive to fight and made us question whether Americans knew what their motive was.  All of Vietnam (North and South) has managed to move on from the war, yet Americans still fail at one thing that prevents them from moving on.  Recognizing defeat is a challenge that America as a nation will continue to struggle with for who knows how long.  The day that we learn to accept defeat is the day that America can proudly move on from the past and set our eyes for the future. 


Day 11: Photo and Video Highlights

After watching a documentary about Kim Phuc's reconciliation with the war, Kim's sister-in-law explained to us the aftermath of the bombing and how it has affected the family. Although Kim left the country many years ago, the Vietnamese government still closely watches them. The government also continues to be a burden to the family especially by making them move their house when the government decided to expand the road in front of their house. But even with so many difficulties that have inflicted them, Kim and her family seem to be happy and looking forward to the programs that Kim is starting up.

The street where Kim Phuc ran down after the Napalm bombing of her village.

The Cao Dai temple where Kim's family used to worship. This was also the temple that Kim and her family hid in during the bombing of her village. Cao Dai has about 3 million followers; the religion combines ideas from Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, and Confucianism. These people gather at the temple four times a day for thirty minutes praying and singing songs worshiping the different faces of God.

The Cu Chi tunnels are an amazing network of tunnels and bunkers spreading over 70km that the Viet Cong used to fight first the French and then the US military. Before we toured the different bunkers and even climbed through one of the tunnels, we watched a documentary praising the Vietnamese soldiers for their efforts against the Americans. Many of us were stunned by how blunt the documentary portrayed the Americans as hellish. But even after that entertaining and eye-opening documentary, we still enjoyed firing guns, climbing a tank corpse, and especially crawling thought the dark and damp tunnels.

Rubber trees were planted extensively by the French. They are only harvested during the rainy seasons. The tree is tightly bounded in latex and then a slit is made. Through this small gap, a rubbery liquid substance is then collected in bowls. This liquid is then sent to factories to be processed and turned into the rubber we recognize.

During an interview with Kim Phuc's sister in law, she explained to us the hardships that their family has had to face, especially after Kim's defection to Canada. Phuc's family is endlessly pestered for money by the local government because of her choice to leave her home.

          This clip captures a prayer session of the worshipers of the Cao Dai religion.

--Esther and Mark

Francis Parker - Vietnam 2014

Day 10:  Saigon

 Our first full day in Saigon came and went like the speeding motorbikes that surround us. In the midst of great economic development, rapid industrialization and a global outlook, we discovered flourishing religious sites as well as efforts to redefine violence from the recent past.         

After an early breakfast, we journeyed to the Cathedral of Notre Dame to gain a more practical understanding of religious minorities in Vietnam. The building itself, based on a gothic cathedral in France, sharply contrasted with the modern, fast-paced setting of Ho Chi Minh City. Amidst the bustling markets of Saigon, individuals and families from the city congregate in this transplanted religious and cultural center to worship. In the cathedral, dim lighting, colored by red, blue and yellow stained glass, shone on the few churchgoers bent on pews in silent prayer. Just as Vietnamese Catholics find solace in the cathedral, Vietnamese Buddhists do so in a nearby pagoda of Chinese origins. Located in the 24th district of Saigon, the temple exists as a safe haven from the noise of city life. Upon entering the grounds, we were drawn in by the captivating aroma of insence and ornate shrines. Distant echoes of hymns and prayers served as the backdrop for belief similar to that of the Catholic faith, a belief in afterlife. Post-mortem punishment and resolution guides believers in their everyday lives. Unlike the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Buddhist temple was full of life. The cathedral appeared sparse in comparison to the many bright colors, large crowds, and ponds for fish and turtles of the temple. In addition, the temple was buillt just in the last century, making it more concurrent with modern times in Saigon.        

In District 3, a section build by the French and intended to house a mere 1 million people, a number that has swelled to 9 million, we observed variegated infrastructure ranging from secondary schools intended for the very wealthy to charity centers and hospitals for the poor. It was here that we found the War Remnants Museum. We were greeted by an array of American tanks, helicopters and planes shot down during the Vietnam War. On the first of four floors, international perspective of the "American imperialist" and "U.S. aggression" were met by accounts by American protesters and American veterans denouncing the war effort. In one of the most disarming displays, an American veteran donated his war meddles with a note saying, "I was wrong, I am sorry." A second display demonstrated the horrific consequences of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant containing dioxine, which has engrained itself into the DNA of the Vietnamese people. Shocking images of grave disfigurements in infants and paralyzing ailments in teenagers and adults brought further perspective to our recent visit to the Peace Village. In another startling display, a gallery titled "Requiem" featured documentary photographs taken by 134 journalists of 11 different nationalities who were killed during the war. We were taken aback by one image in particultar, labeled "Silhouette of Death." In it, an American soldier falls limp from a spiralling helocopter. Against the sunlight, the man is virtually unrecognizable as an individual, implying that his descent reflects that of many. The purpose of war as well as the need for people to die this way are obscured in the glaring, white light, and the crossed, diagonal lines created by the falling man and the helicopter illustrate the confused, chaotic nature of the scene. In a sense, Vietnam, despite its rapid growth in the modern era, is still subject to this silhouette of death. Names of those passed are immortalized in shrines and segments of Saigon, like the wide expanse of grass once serving as a cemetary for officials of a dead government but now serving as a park in the 20th district. Reminders of the past are never far behind in a culture and infrastructure that places such a profound emphasis on history.        

Our final destination of the day was the Reunification, or Independence, Palace. Though Ho Chi Minh City is characterized as being an economic powerhouse, it is also home to this political site rich in historical significance and modern symbolism. After it was built during French occupation, the Norodom Palace was used by the Ngo Dinh Diem regime and renamed the Independence Palace. Following this short-lived government, the palace changed hands again to the dictatorship of Nguyen Can Thieu. During the Vietnam War, the Palace became a strategic machine, targeting the Viet Cong with American communications and spying devices as well as tracking military sizes and loyalities of foreign countries. Today, the Independence Palace hosts foreign diplomats and leaders as well as attracts tourists. At first glance, the architecture of the Palace seemed outmoded, though grand in size. However, after crossing into the main enterence, we were stunned by intricate room designs with ancient Vietnamese accents. In the presidential room, we were left awestruck by the unique blend of European-style hardware and allusions to Vietnamese cultural symbols. One of these symbols, found on a floor rug, was that of two dragons facing the moon, an ancient symbol of happiness. In the palace basement, we were reminded again of the building's deep connection to the war, where we found the preserved remainder of battle plans.        

Despite the heat and despite the length of our day, we felt the enormity of our luck and our privilege in receiving such an opportunity to go to these places, both physically and metaphorically. To be born into the safety and peace that allow us to analyze and reflect on our lives and surroundings is more than most can relate to. The silhouette on our horizon appears less imposing and more distant than that of Saigon. But maybe we share a horizon and the difference rests in perspective.


February 20, 2014

Francis Parker - Vietnam 2014

Day 10 Photo Highlights

In the morning, we briefly visited a pagoda that blends the religions of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. We saw people burning incense in front of shrines of the Buddha or a renowned Confucian scholar, while Taoists brought turtles to put in the pagoda's pond in order to atone for their sins.

After the pagoda, we proceeded to the War Remnants Museum. Outside the museum were tanks, missiles, and planes used by the American military in the Vietnam War. These were not as startling as the exibits inside the museum, especially since we saw several similar Russian-made tanks (used by the Viet Cong) later in the day at the Presidential Palace.

 The first exhibit showed posters from solidarity movements all around the world that were protesting the Vietnam War.  For instance, we saw posters from Finland (as seen above), all over Western Europe (Italy, Germany, France, etc.), Japan, Cuba, and of course from Berkeley. Many of us had previously thought that the Vietnam War was an unpopular war only in the United States (a very limited point of view), so it was eye-opening to learn that it was unpopular all around the world.

In the American War Crimes Exhibit, we saw pictures of the results on the Vietnamese of dioxin poisoning (most significantly Agent Orange), phosphorus bombs, and massacres of entire Vietnamese families in the name of rooting out the Viet Cong. We saw the plaque shown above in the same exibit, and it resonated and shocked us because it used our own words to denounce the atrocities our soldiers commited in the War.  The extent to which the Americans were desperate to root out the Viet Cong shocked us again was we read this quote from an American bulldozer operator: "From now on, anything that moves around here is automatically considered VC and bombed or fired upon."

We followed that visit with a tour of the Presidential Palace, now known as Reunification Palace, which is most notable for hosting the American-backed Diem regime. The palace featured lavish rooms used for receiving foreign diplomats and the president's living quarters.  We ended our tour with a walk through the bunker underneath the building, where we saw a map room by Diem's and America's generals.


February 19, 2014

Francis Parker - Vietnam 2014

Day 9: Arriving in Saigon

"Thank you and goodbye." It may seem easy to say, but today, it is one of the toughest phrases to utter as we departed our beloved homestay. As we boarded our faithful boat, we reflected on these past few days with our hospitable host family and how this immersion has provided insight into one of the most vibrant cultures in the world in a way that is unparalleled to any book. Despite reluctant farewells, we departed the Mekong with a full head of steam, ready to embrace a rising economic power of the world: Saigon.

As we floated away from our home-away-from-home, our minds began to wonder what's in store for us? After experiencing the heavily monitored chaos of Hanoi, we didn't know what the streets would be like in a city far away from the political capital and the center of the party's power. Will the people dress as conservatively as they did in the north? Will the people look at us differently? What will the food be like?

When Mr. Hau announced that we reached Saigon, our eyes immediately fluttered to the glass as we watched skyscrapers tower above us, streets widen to fit five cars abreast, and other tourists stop to take pictures. Wait, tourists? One of the most drastic differences that we noticed between Saigon and Hanoi was the impact that tourism has played in shaping the culture of this city. More people were dressing like us, speaking like us, and acting like us. The streets were nicely maintained and the buildings and shops were catering to the Westerner. However, that did not stop us from stopping at the famous restaurant Pho 2000 for lunch. In November of 2000, Bill Clinton ate pho at this restaurant, which symbolized the steps he had taken during his presidency in reconciling the American-Vietnamese relationship, such as lifting trade sanctions in the mid-90s.

Many of us retired to our hotel after lunch, but a few explorers ventured out into the city of Saigon. We stumbled upon a looming business tower across the street from a 200-year-old French colonial building, and a Chanel adjacent to a previous U.S. CIA building where the final extraction of U.S. troops occurred. Saigon surprised us with its tourist-oriented feel, but it still retained the distinct elements of history and socioeconomics that were present in Hanoi. There is still a feeling of government presence (observable by the many green police jackets), but there is also a greater feeling of individualism and expressiveness displayed in the infrastructure and interactions. 

"Hello, it's me." Without knowing it, we all kept Todd Rundgren's words in mind as we stepped off the bus. We were all smothered with a wave of heat, but we welcomed it and lost ourselves in a city that has experienced one of the most rapid economic, societal, and cultural growths in the world. Embedded in the buildings, the faces of the people we encountered, and the enviroment of this city, we could sense a vibe that is different than Hanoi. We cannot place a finger on exactly what it is, but we have two more days to figure it out. 


Day 9 Photo Highlights

Today we left our homestay and traveled by bus to Saigon. Halfway there we stopped at a gas station for a bathroom break, and little did we know that our air conditioner took a break too and refused to go back to work. So we decided to head for the shade.

While our drivers fixed the AC, we enjoyed ice cream from the local store and wondered around the area to marvel at the roadside wonders.

As we arrived in Saigon, we were greeted by the modern marvels that make this city an amazing mixture of the new and the old. 

We stopped at a restaurant called Pho 2000, where we enjoyed the soup and enjoyed the fact we got to eat in the same restaurant as a previous American president. 

We arrived at our luxurious hotel, which was breathtaking and exciting, and we worked our way up to the rooms where a beautiful balcony view greeted us.

Before our amazing dinner, we wondered around this amazing city at night and enjoyed all the sights and sounds of downtown Saigon.


Francis Parker - Vietnam 2014

Day 8: Final Day at Mekong Delta Homestay

Continuing with our efforts to reach out and socialize and thus gain a more intimate understanding of life in the Mekong River Delta, we hung out with several students at a local high school this morning.  Though the school was only a short ways away, riding our bikes through the precarious, narrow, and bumpy  passages while dodging oncoming motorbikes took some time.  Upon reaching the high school, we were greeted with the sight of many students in uniform playing various sports.  At first we were rather intimidated by this unfamiliar environment, but the friendly smiles and gestures of the students encouraged us to engage in badmitton, high jump, and volleyball. We were not necessarily coordinated in our badmitton attempts, but the students were patient and nothing but kind.  Some students also partook in a game of soccer (which we won), and a spirited game of duck duck goose explained though gestures and lots of laughter.  The only downside to all of this activity was the heat.  Our friends natrally took no notice of it while we were huddled in the shade downing entire water bottles.  Though most of them spoke no English, and we could only say hello and thank you in Vietnamese, we managed to reach a common understanding though playing these simple games.  Language is, of course, a large barrier to communication, but it can be overcome. And, of course, it was fun too. 

As is typical in the Mekong Delta, we caught and cooked our own dinner.  Fish, specifically mud fish, are caught with bare hands in canals.  Each day, a series of canals is filled with water.  Certain sections are dammed on either side and then drained, leaving fish swimming in shallow water and lots of mud.  Lots and lots of mud. So we had the oppurtunity to go into knee-deep mud (if not deeper) with baskets and catch these fish just as many local farmers and fishermen do daily.  We were muddier than we had ever been before.   There was plenty of high-pitched shrieking ("Something touched my leg!"  "It moved!"  "Eeek"), but after watching our guide grab a big one, catching fish became a competition.  Within minutes we were diving through the mud grabbing fist-sized fish with our hands.  This eventually devolved into covering ourselves in as much mud as possible, which logically meant that is was time for a swim in the Mekong.  Unsuprisingly, the muddy river did little to clean off the mud.  It really just made sure that we were all covered in a uniform layer of dirt left from the river.  Nonetheless, playing catch with a coconut in the Mekong river was an experience none of us will soon forget.

The fish were put directly from the basket and placed, still flopping, over the fire.  We the ever-hungry students gathered around the fire anxiously waiting for them to be cooked.  Once it was done, after an agonizing few seconds, we decended on the fish like locusts, chopsticks in hand, to eat the fish with salt and lime.  Fresh shrimp were also grilled, and some adverterous students ate the brain.  

The common thread thoughout our experiences at the Mekong has been immersing ourselves (literally) in a world radically different from our own.  We have been staying at a home in the Mekong, we have caught and cooked our own meals in the traditional way, and we have furthered our understanding of life here though simply hanging out with people. Though our worlds are so different, socialzing with the locals was a reminder that we still have much in common.  Words are important and would have made things (much) easier, but they were still ultimately unnessesary.  We all understand smiles, laughter, and the occasional ridiculous gesture; the rest just fell into place. 

--Emily, Alfonso, and Hannah