Sunday, November 30, 2008

Trip in Review: Part 3- Central America and Home

We left Thailand and enjoyed a short stop in San Francisco, catching up with friends and taking in all those American comforts we'd grown to miss. Then it was off to Belize, for the last chapter (if chapters are organized by continents) of our trip.

We headed to Dangriga, Belize because Kris knew some people who had volunteered there. Our taxi driver took us to the one guest house we'd heard of, the Jungle Huts. The Jungle Huts is run by Phil, who is an all around great guy. He and his wife have four daughters, who are among the world's cutest children.

Here I am with Samara, Alexei and Nyera.

Nyera and Mariah:

And Samara again, because this is just too cute not to post:

While we were in Dangriga, we volunteered at the Holy Ghost school. It was a flexible volunteer stint, to say the least. We filled in for absent teachers, gave extra help to kids who need it, and had a bunch of rain days because of the tropical storms and flood warnings. Thankfully, the floods weren't as bad in Dangriga as predicted and everyone was fine, aside from a lot of cases of cabin fever. Here's a group of the students from Holy Ghost, lining up after lunch:

These two girls continued to work on math problems during recess.

Right now all the classrooms are in trailers. The building behind the kids playing is scheduled to be demolished and then work on a new school will begin.

Recess fun.

It's easy to meet people in Dangriga. There's not much to do in a traditional touristy sense, so Kris and I spent a lot of time walking around and chatting with locals. We became fast friends with G, who then had us over for a traditional Garifuna meal. He and his friend Cliff cooked up a delicious feast. Here's Kris pitching in to "organize the mash", AKA smush up the plaintains.

While on one of our aforementioned walks, we spotted this pathetic little guy.

When we first got to Dangriga, the river was crystal clear and bright blue, but the heavy rains made the water muddy.

Along with G, our wandering through town led us to Fabrizio, who became another fast friend. The four of us, on the surface, seem completely different, but we had a great time spending an insane amount of time together. Here's Kris with Fabrizio and G on our last day in Dangriga.

After our time in Dangriga, we spent a week taking in the fun and the sun of Caye Caulker and San Pedro. Simply delightful.

From there we headed to Costa Rica, and more specifically Purasuerte. There was a recent post with the details of our time there, so I'll keep it brief. Here's Kris planting some stuff:

And here's a Heliconia that was on the property:

My friend Anne (of JVC roommate in Montana days) met up with us in Quepos, Costa Rica. It was so great to see her. The three of us girltalked nonstop for about 5 days.

We three of us also checked out the jungles and beaches of Manuel Antonio. We heard the howls of howler monkeys and saw squirrel monkeys and some other type of monkey that's name I'm forgetting. We saw a sloth from afar and some raccoons up close. And this cute iguana:

Before Anne had to head back to San Diego, we, along with John our Purasuerte pal, squeezed in a trip to a coffee plantation outside of Alejuela. Carlos, our tour guide, was fantastic. Here he is demonstrating coffee picking.

Then Anne flew off to San Diego, and a few days later Kris and I took off to New Orleans. We originally planned to volunteer in New Orleans for about a week, but some of the people we know there were headed to Fort Benning, Georgia for the annual vigil to close the School of the Americas. Joining them seemed like a great way to wrap up our trip. Before we went, Jocelyn, founder and Director of Contemplatives in Action, (an all around great gal!) gave us a tour of the city and we stopped in at some the places we'd worked on the last time we were there. The trip produced lots of mixed emotions. There's clearly so much more that needs to be done.

But, there's also so much that has been done since we were last there. The daycare we worked on is finished and many of the streets that were full of debris and rotted out houses are now full of new homes. Here's a street in Habitat for Humanity's Musician's Village.

Kris and I joined Jocelyn and Matt (a current Jesuit Volunteer in New Orleans) for the road trip to Fort Benning, GA. For those who aren't familiar with the School of the Americas and the push to have it closed, there's plenty more info here. This was the first time Kris and I had been to the SOA vigil. Having both gone to St. Joe's and done JVC, and generally mucking about Jesuit circles, we'd heard a lot about it. The Ignatians are a social justice enforcing kind of crowd. So, it was interesting to learn more, especially having just been in Central America. It was also great to run into old friends from college and JVC, because both places were a huge influence on why we got into all this volunteer stuff in the first place.

From the SOA Vigil (a solemn procession in which the names of those who were killed by graduates of the SOA are sung out):

A highlight of Fort Benning was meeting up with our friend Andrew. It's always a laugh riot when that guy is around. Adding to the hilarity was the addition of Andrew's instant new best friend, Christo. These two are a buddy movie waiting to happen.

Andrew, Kris and I drove up to Atlanta, where we met up with my fantastic cousins. Here I am with my cousins Loretta and Michael.

It was great to wrap up a long trip in which we met so many new people, by reconnecting with friends and family.

I feel particularly thankful this year. I'm so thankful for having the opportunity to take a trip like this. I'm thankful to all my friends and family (and some strangers!) for generously supporting us in all kinds of ways. I'm thankful to the many people who literally helped us find our way. I'm thankful for all the great people we met while volunteering- the people that run the organizations, the other volunteers, the Habitat homeowners, the kids at the orphanage, the people taking our English classes, and everyone in between. I'm thankful for friendly strangers chatting with us at bus stations and park benches. I'm thankful for interesting architecture, and ancient ruins and tropical wildlife. I'm thankful for delicious food and fresh fruit. I'm thankful for oceans and mountains and everything in between. I'm thankful to live in a place that I love yet still be able to see the world. I'm thankful for all the new friends I've met and all the old friends I return home to. I'm thankful for hope and change and all that stuff that sounds so trite and corny but is truly the stuff that changes the world. I'm thankful that, just from this experience, which in the grand scheme of things is a drop in the bucket when it comes to really understanding the world, it seems that we're all way more similar than we are different and that if we'd just stop and listen, peace might not be THAT hard.

And I'm thankful for Kris. Not only would I probably be too chicken to take a trip like this alone, but I wouldn't have laughed nearly as much, or overanalyzed every aspect of life or had so many incredible experiences. Here we are on our last night of the trip.

I'm looking forward to settling into a routine for a while, but I'm pretty sure this is not the last time we'll travel together.

Trip in Review: Part 2B- Southeast Asia

After our excellent time in Thailand, Kris and I made our way (via bus and taxi on very bumpy roads) to Siem Reap, Cambodia. It was there that we met up with my friend Debbie, who was on her own whirlwind trip around Asia. We had plans to meet at the WLS volunteer house, but happened to run into each other on the busy streets of Siem Reap. Here's Kris and Debbie, standing on the corner outside the house where we stayed. Our neighborhood took a little getting used to, but after a few days it began to feel like home. A weird temporary home. But home.

There were five of us staying at the WLS house. Debbie, Kris and I, along with Michelle from England (and NY) and Annabelle from Sydney, Australia. We all had trials and tribulations when it came to adjusting to life in Cambodia and the poverty and difficulties we witnessed through our volunteer work, but we all shared many amazing experiences and laughed a lot. Here we are at dinner in downtown Siem Reap. Me, Annabelle, Debbie, Michelle and Kristen:

Most of our time in Siem Reap was spent volunteering at the ACODO Orphanage. We taught English to the children who lived there (67 in all) and also taught English classes for teenagers who came in the afternoons. Here's Kristen with some of the kids:

Here I am getting beaten at thumb wrestling by Chai:

This is the bedroom for all 67 of the orphans:

A bunch of the ACODO crew, including Sobean, an awesome staff member who is amazing with the kids:

After some lessons on body parts, clothing and colors, we traced this little guy and the kids colored and labeled him.

I swear I don't play favorites.

The kids line up every day for a lunch of rice and some soup.

We were lucky to be there for the premiere of the kids' dance performance. They practiced every day for the big show and planned to perform a couple times a week as a fundraiser for ACODO. We were beaming with pride for those guys. They did so well!

Our bracelet making craft project was such a hit that even the security guards wanted one. Here's Kris presenting one of the guys with his bracelet.

At the end of our time at ACODO, we were each presented with an "Expression of Appreciation" from the ACODO President.

Vanna, the director of SOID (Another group we volunteered with while in Siem Reap) invited us to his son's first birthday party. A great time was had by all.

I'm a party animal.

Traveling around Siem Reap usually happened via tuk tuk because Debbie, Kris and I were too chicken to ride on motorbikes. Here I am with Sokun, one of our favorite tuk tuk drivers.

The gas station in Siem Reap was a shelf on the side of the road stacked with some old bottles filled with gas.

And a trip to Siem Reap wouldn't be a trip without a visit to Angkor Wat. Impressive and awe-inspiring is an understatement.

Here we are on our last night in Siem Reap, with Bob and Meriam (great folks from Holland that were also volunteering) and Tom and Maureen, the couple that coordinates WLS in Cambodia.

Following our time in Cambodia, Debbie, Kris and I made our way to Vietnam. We took in the sights and sounds of Saigon which included the motorbikes filling the streets, a Water Puppet show and a very educational yet disturbing visit to the War Remnants Museum. From Saigon we traveled north through Na Trang, and then to the small town of Hoi An. Hoi An is known for tailoring clothes. We had a bit of a field day with that, and also enjoyed the quaint surroundings and delicious food (might I recommend the White Rose and the Cao Lau). Here's Kris and Debbie in the streets of Hoi An.

Here's Debbie and I biking back to town from the beach.

Our cooking class...

An adorable mother/son duo we met at the market:

From Hoi An, we went to the nearby city of Hue for a couple days, and then we headed north to the Hanoi airport. After a bizarre interaction with an airport security guard who really wanted to take our passports, we finally flew out of Hanoi and arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos. I love that place so very much. Rivers, mountains, smiley monks, a great market, delicious food, and friendly people in Luang Prabang was grand.

Debbie and Me in LP:

The place we stayed was right next to a big Temple, so we'd often stop in and chat with the monks there. It probably goes without saying that monks are nice people but, good grief, were these guys nice. This sums it up:

Every morning the monks get up bright and early (or still dark and early), and then collect alms. They eat and live on whatever they collect from alms. But no eating after 11am. We got up one morning to see what the alms collection was all about. This picture is the result of some fiddling with the color adjustment feature on my camera.

While in Luang Prabang, we took a boat trip to some nearby villages. The poverty there was really extreme. I believe this family has 15 children.

Our boat driver, Mr. Thungdy, is awesome. Our trip was fantastic and educational. We got back, and Mr. Thungdy invited us in and served up peanuts and beer. That turned into more beer, and then fried seaweed (best stuff ever). We chatted with Mr. Thungdy for hours and laughed hysterically. Mr. Thungdy summed it up well with, "You funny! I funny! We friends!"

Bars in Luang Prabang close at 11:30pm. If the clock strikes 11:30 and you're still in the mood to hang out, then there are two options. The bowling alley and the dance club. On one of our first nights in town, we went to the bowling alley and met Grant the American butcher and Tim the English farmer. We became fast friends, and pretty much hung out non-stop for the rest of the week.

It was very sad to say goodbye to Luang Prabang, but it's definitely a place I plan to return to someday.

Next stop: Central America.