Making a difference while traveling the world

Archive for July, 2011

The World Out There

One of the first things I do every morning when I arrive at the orphanage is take some of the kids “out for a spin”. That’s basically pushing them in their high chair on wheels around the second floor of the orphanage. It’s such a shame there’s no ramp or elevator to take them downstairs to escape the monotony and explore the empty courtyard and playground below.

But one special part of the second floor I’ve realized the children especially enjoy gives them a glimpse into “the world out there.” It’s a fenced-in hallway that overlooks the bustling street below epitomizing Ho Chi Minh City – the buses roaring by, honking their multi-tuned horns every 3 seconds to part the sea of motorbikes.

Hien and his huge grin

One boy in particular, named Hien, loves sitting perched up there. Even with the double fencing, electric wires and trees obstructing his view, he seems to lose himself in all the activity below. He points at the buses and cars while giving me his huge open-mouthed grin I love him for. I wonder what goes through his head. He cries every time I have to tear him away from his perch – his little hand grips the wall as I try to move him.

Hien watching "the world out there"

Today, another volunteer and I carried Hien downstairs so I could push him around in the new stroller we bought for the orphanage. I ran around the courtyard with him, doing donuts with the stroller, till I could hear him laugh. And, of course, I had to bring him to the orphanage’s front gate to give him a ground-level view of the street he’s so mesmerized by. I wish I could’ve escaped with him – just for an hour – so he could live it, instead of just watch it. I can’t help but think about how he – most likely – will never be able to experience that world out there first hand. Only 2 out of the 32 children we work with can talk, and only 5 can walk with some or no assistance. That means most of the these kids will live at the orphanage till they’re about 18, then move onto another center for disabled adults, if they live that long. I just hope and pray they get adopted or get the chance to go to school, beat the odds and find opportunities to live their own lives.

Hoa - one of the oldest girls I work with confined to her bed

The good news is that one of the little boys we work with, the clever one named Tam – a.k.a. “Naughty Boy” – is now going to school, outside of the orphanage, with other children who are more his speed. I also found out that we can sponsor children to attend school at the orphanage, which I plan to do.

For now – as I wrap up my month as a volunteer at the orphanage – I’m leaving behind some resources that I hope will help the kids live more comfortably. This past weekend, Lorraine (the volunteer from Ireland) and I bought the stroller, 2 high chairs on wheels, 2 walkers and 5 padded helmets for the orphans – all with donation money from our friends and families.

New walker

The new stroller

New high chair on wheels

Today, we bought 20 more cylinder-shaped pillows and velcro straps to be delivered next week when I’m already gone. I’m glad to know these donations will make some sort of an impact on these kids long after I’m gone…and, at least, the stroller can help Hien continue to imagine a life outside those walls.


Cultural Exchange

One of the best parts of traveling is the people you meet along the way. Even better – as a volunteer traveling the world, you get to meet and live with other volunteers with whom you share a common bond and become friends.

I’ve been living in one of three volunteer houses Volunteers for Peace Vietnam provides – known as Peace House 3 – for almost 3 weeks now. Since then, I’ve learned that flip flops are called “jandals” in New Zealand, tank tops are known as “singlets” in Australia and “Are you all right?” is how the English ask, “How are you?” When I came to Vietnam, little did I know I’d be learning so much about other western cultures from countries I have yet to visit!

Despite our slight cultural differences, we’re all devoting our time, energy and money here in Ho Chi Minh City for one purpose – to love and care for disabled orphans.

Marie Claire feeding lunch

Marie Claire is from England and is half Vietnamese. So during her 2 months volunteering here, she’s also getting to spend time with family members who live in Ho Chi Minh City and has never even met before!

Alice and Nghia

Alice is a 19-year-old university student from China, who’s never traveled outside of China before this. She and this little boy, named Nghia, have formed quite a bond as she helps him practice walking every day. This is her last week volunteering and she says she doesn’t want to go home yet. I have a feeling this won’t be the last volunteer trip for Alice.

One volunteer from Ireland, named Lorraine, is spending 10 weeks volunteering here – and get this – she doesn’t even like Vietnamese food! She’s willing to live off rice, bread rolls,

Lorraine feeding lunch

smoothies and candy bars for the kids. She just bought the children paints, paint brushes and paper so they can unleash the creativity within them. She also plans to buy more high chair/strollers and clothes for the orphans with the money she raised at home.

Phat, Tam and me

Here I am with two of the more independent kids of the nursery – Phat (the boy in green on the left) and Tam (on the right). Phat usually wears a sort of padded helmet on his head, but isn’t in this picture right before his bedtime. He can speak, but not very clearly, and walks with a bit of a jerk. He can never remember or pronounce my name, so he always comes up to me saying, “My name – my name.” Phat’s the oldest in this part of the orphanage and acts as a little assistant for us volunteers, the nurses and caregivers. He helps us volunteers identify which kid goes in which bed or helps us find the kid that matches the name labeled on the bowl for feeding.

Tam is a monster – but so adorable. He’s known as “naughty boy” around the nursery. Even Phat calls him that. He’s blind in one eye, but other than that, he seems to be a smart and agile kid. He can repeat the English words and phrases we tell him perfectly – no accent. Even when they had two French volunteers a couple of weeks ago, he could mimic their French! Tam loves to be tossed, spun, swung and hung upside down. He takes a lot more energy to play with than the other kids, but we have enough volunteers to pass him around when one of us gets worn out.

Aside from being co-volunteers, we’re also travel buddies. After taking a couple of trips by myself in Thailand, it’s nice to have others to check out the other

The lake in Dalat's city center

parts of Vietnam with. Last weekend, 7 of us girls (4 from England, 1 from New Zealand, Lorraine from Ireland and me) took a tour up to Dalat – part of the Central Highlands region of Vietnam and a 7 hour bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City. It was a much-needed getaway to lush, green trees, clean air and cooler weather after living amongst the intense heat, sweatiness and crowded streets of Saigon.

View from the top of the Crazy House

One of my favorite parts of the trip was visiting the Hang Nha guesthouse, better known as the Crazy House. Lonely Planet says walking through it makes you feel like Alice in Wonderland – and it’s true! The gnarly tree designs, the funky animal-themed rooms that you can actually stay inand the twisty, maze-like staircases and hallways. The view from up top was gorgeous, too.

Another highlight – after the mostly boring bus tour comprised of flower gardens and parks with cheesy plastic animal figures, Lorraine and I hired two motorcycle tour guides, known as Easy Riders, to take us to Elephant Waterfall – one of the biggest

Easy Rider and me

waterfalls in the area. They took us on a one-hour ride through the beautiful countryside till we reached the thunderous waterfall pounding down on boulders that resemble a herd of elephants bathing in the water. First, the Easy Rider guide showed us the waterfall from up top, but then he took us on a hike – climbing down the slippery and muddy rock paths to get a side view of the waterfall and through a cave where we got sprayed by the mist. There was the adventure I was looking for!

Elephant Waterfall

Five of the girls I went on this Dalat trip with are leaving tomorrow – a bummer, but we say our goodbyes to different volunteers every week and welcome in new ones, as well. And this week, we got two more Americans! They’re both Vietnamese American and can speak the language, which helps a lot. One of them is even from Nor Cal! I know I’ll get to learn more Vietnamese from them (already learned “toi qua” = “I’m hungry” and “no qua” = “I’m full” from one of them) and eat more of the authentic stuff with them – maybe even dog?

So many little blessings

It’s been a whirlwind week here in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – living in a house full of strangers-turned-friends and travel buddies, working with children with conditions I’ve never encountered before and trying to stay alive while crossing the street in this hectic city!

I’ve been working at the orphanage I was assigned to by Volunteers for Peace Vietnam for 6 days now and I’m still getting the hang of how to care for the kids. I work with children who range from about one to 8-years-old. As many of you can understand, taking care of children is no easy task. I’ve been a babysitter, a camp counselor and, most recently, an English teacher in Thailand – but when the kids can’t talk, don’t understand the language you’re speaking and can barely move on their own, the challenges multiply. Most of the nurses and caregivers at the orphanage don’t speak any English either, so it’s been tough to figure out what they need us to help with.

Every morning, 5 of us volunteers leave our house to catch the bus to the orphanage. The whole place serves about 400 children whose ages range from infant to teens. The group we take care of is made up of more than 30 kids, about one to eight-years-old. It’s hard to tell just how old each kid is, though. One little girl has such thin legs and arms and looks about 2-years-old, but she’s actually 6! Their disabilities range from blindness to cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, hyrdrocephalis (extra fluid buildup in the brain) and birth defects caused by Agent Orange (herbicide used during the Vietnam War). This little boy, named Hao, has hydrocephalis, but when you meet him, you barely notice, since his smile takes up his whole face!

Hao and his big smile

When we arrive to the second floor section where our group of kids is located, we greet them in their stroller/highchairs or in their cribs. I like to say hello with a little song, like Good Morning to You (to the tune of Happy Birthday), Twinkle Twinkle, Row Row Row Your Boat or Itsy Bitsy Spider. I also


play with their hands and feet to get them moving. This little girl, named Lien, likes it when I stroke her fingers, which she can’t really move. The splints help keep her fingers outstretched.

This little boy (I haven’t figured out his name yet) loves it when I slide my hand across his. I also play a simplified version of paddy-cake with him.

Paddy-cake boy

Play area

If they’re in their chairs, we push them around the 2nd floor hallways to give them a change of scenery – somewhat. From what I’ve seen, they have no ramps or elevators to take the children downstairs to play in the playground or courtyard. We can also play with them on removable mats we lay out on the floor.

At around 10:00am, we feed them their lunch, since they go to bed and wake up so early. For the babies who can’t chew, it’s a green vegetable mush. For the intermediate eaters, it’s a rice porridge with chopped vegetables and bits of meat. And for the advanced eaters, it’s soup with short noodles, vegetables and pieces of meat. Not an extensive menu, but I’m sure it contains the nutrients the kids need. Each of the kids’ bowl is labeled with his/her name – that’s the best way for us to learn their names, since it’s hard to communicate with the caregivers.

I think I’m the slowest feeder of the bunch. So many of the caregivers shovel huge spoonfuls of food into the kids’ mouths – one after another – to the point where the mush is oozing out of their mouths, like lava out of a volcano! It’s painful to watch, especially when the kids are practically choking! That’s why I don’t mind allowing the kids time to chew and swallow. Even then, they often cough, so the food ends up on my face and clothes, or they can’t keep the food in their mouth, so they drool it all out onto their bibs.

After feeding, we wipe up their faces (and anywhere else they got food stuck on them) and put them back in their cribs for changing. We kind of have a diaper change assembly line going on. We volunteers take off the kids’ shorts and cloth diapers and dump them in a bucket. Then a caregiver follows to put a clean cloth diaper on them. Then we put a clean pair of shorts on them. Last week, I found a big piece of poop as big as the head of the little boy who made it. Once I got the diaper off, the boy stuck his foot in the poo, then peed on himself and on the floor!

After the kids settle down for their nap, we leave for a 2-and-a-half-hour break. Almost all businesses in Ho Chi Minh City shut down between 11:30 and 1:30pm for a siesta (Vietnamese-style). So we hop back on the bus to our house, eat lunch and take a break. Many of the other volunteers take a nap, but I haven’t yet, since I’m afraid I’ll wake up too groggy.

We leave the house for the orphanage again at 2:00pm and when we arrive, it’s pretty much the same drill as in the morning. We play with the kids in their cribs or take a few out to play on the mats. By this point, I’ve sung each of my children’s songs a dozen times, so I’ve also added Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours to my repertoire. I figure it’s a happy and upbeat song and they don’t understand the words, anyway. We feed the kids dinner at around 3:15pm (same menu) – most of them stay in their cribs for the meal, but I try to take the kid I’m feeding out to their high chair so they can eat upright. Then it’s clean up and diaper changing all over again before they go to bed. We head home at around 4:30pm.

There’ve been a few moments this past week when I’ve gotten a little choked up while playing with or holding one of these kids. To think how sweet and beautiful they are – but unwanted and abandoned by their parents – just breaks my heart. I remember reporting on a story about a daycare center in San Diego that helps nurture disabled children. I interviewed parents and teachers who talked about how these children are such blessings, no matter their disabilities and the extra care they need. I’m beginning to understand what they mean now. In the 6 days I’ve known them, these children have touched my heart, like no other children I’ve met before. Most can’t say please or thank you, but I’m happy to give them the love and affection they deserve and so desperately need – poop, pee, drool and all.