Monday, August 28, 2006

Hello All,

See below our last posting from our summer documentary project, this one from our last stop -- Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. We've also posted 2 new video clips. We're back in the US now to put our film together; we'll let you know when it's finished and how you can check it out.

Thanks for keeping abreast of our around-the-world adventure -- we've enjoyed sharing it with you, and hearing from some of you along the way.

-- Eleni, Scott, Steve

HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM: I'm not sure what I expected when I came to Vietnam. Perhaps classic scenes of rice patties, dotted with workers in their conical hats. To be sure, there are plenty of rice patties. But the Vietnam we've experienced is bustling with the energy of country embracing opportunity and making up for lost time.

Thanh Nguyen– our KSG profile – straddles the line between Vietnam's past and its future. His grandfather was a prominent military officer in Ho Chi Minh's army during the war with the States and his parents both studied and lived in Cuba with the support of the Soviet Union. Thanh has an unabashed reverence for Ho Chi Minh. Yet, Thanh also has an almost equal enthusiasm for the power of free markets.

Doi Moi – the "renovation" of the economy by the central government begun in the mid 1980s - is an ongoing, and thus far, enormously successful endeavor. Vietnam went from a country unable to feed its own people in the mid80s, to the largest exporter of rice in the world, the second largest exporter of coffee, and a huge exporter of fruit and fish.

We felt the energy of free enterprise in the markets and street vendors of Ho Chi Minh City as well as along the Mekong Delta, Vietnam's bread basket accounting for about one sixth of Vietnams annual GDP. The question of whether Vietnam's economic success will eventually result in political liberalization lingers. Time will tell.

Such weighty questions aside, it's been a fascinating and fun experience here punctuated by daily avacado smoothies, driving rickshaws through the city streets, market stalls of cleanly shaven pig ear, and a floating fish farm along the Mekong. Thanh's contagious and easy laugh, his willingness to share his insights and stories and his passion for moving Vietnam forward through education and policy research have been a great way to end our project. If political liberalization does someday occur, we wouldn't be surprised to see Thanh in high office.


See 2 new VIDEO CLIPS below...
GETTING AROUND HO CHI MINH CITY: Eleni explores Vietnamese cuisine (pig ear and sheep(?) brain); Scott and Steve race cycle-rickshaws through busy streets; the team takes a riverboat ride down the mighty Saigon river...

VILLAGE VISIT: Watch 150 adorable kids welcome us to a rural mountain village 5 hours outside of Darjeeling, with some seriously cute singing and dancing...

Thursday, August 17, 2006

DARJEELING, INDIA: Arjun, Germina, Menuka. I don’t think I’ll easily forget these names. We’ve found our way to a town called Darjeeling, where the thick monsoon mist seems to hold magic in it. Perched in the mountains at a height of 2200m, I’ve felt humbled by this place – not by the Himalayas proudly towering in the horizon – but by the purity, generosity and openness of heart of the KSG grad we’re profiling, Noreen Dunne, the “hill people” as she calls them, and her NGO Hayden Hall.

The trip here was a long one: a two-hour flight from Delhi followed by a four-hour steep car ride. The sticky hot air – even worse in Bagdogra, where we flew into, than in Delhi – quickly gave way to a cool mountain breeze as the temperature dropped a good 8-10˚C and our car laboured up the decrepit and landslide-prone road.

Darjeeling feels very post-colonial British. I can vividly imagine the Victorians sipping afternoon tea at the Windermere or Elgin hotels (the oldest and poshest here), inhaling the clean air (the town was a British sanatorium, as well as exotic holiday destination) and once at home exclaiming to their fellow socialites, you must visit Darjeeling, you simply must... The British legacy is in some ways here still even as India celebrates its Independence Day on August 15th. Union jacks adorn many of the taxi-jeeps, British-introduced tea plantations dominate the hills and British-style uniform-clad girls and boys rush to a St. Michael’s or St. Joseph’s school.

First impressions taken in along with a cup of tea, as soon as dawn breaks in “Darj” we head to Hayden Hall with our host. Hayden Hall, where Noreen is the deputy director, is an NGO that addresses issues affecting women and children, aiming to improve their quality of life. Among other things, it provides paramedic training for female villagers, health care facilities, housing, daycare for children so their mothers can work, schooling, weaving training and a shop to sell the handcrafted goods at.

The short walk over takes longer than planned; Noreen seems to be the most popular person in town. This, she tells us, is due to her being a teacher for over 35 years. Her students are everywhere: at the tourist information office, our hotel, the police and local government.

The first woman we meet at Hayden Hall is Kabita. She is weaving a colourful carpet that will take her three months to finish and will sell for 4000 rupees (just under $100) at the shop. Our next stop, of which there are many in the five days we spend at Hayden Hall, is the classroom. Nine-year-old Arjun sings us a Hindi pop song (though his features are Mongolian – same for most people here at Darjeeling who speak Nepali as their mother tongue - Hindi is learned at school and is the language of commerce), while his classmates crowd around Scott’s camera. Scott has made an incredible discovery that has lit up all their small faces: point the camera at the children and flip the digital LCD screen towards them and they are drawn to you like bees to honey, chuckling and clapping their little hands at their image. Next, the paramedic trainee women let us sit in one of their classes and film them learning about micro finance so they can be savvy when purchasing medical drugs. Their smiles, like those of the children, are genuine - there are definitely no fake niceties here.

In the past few days we’ve consistently come across clear smiling eyes that warm your heart, stark colours and joy-filled “namaste”s. All this from children with white stains on their cheeks due to malnutrition, children and their caretakers at Hayden Hall’s sick ward, women picking tea leaves for ten rupees a kilo (less than 25c) and 250 village school kids and their teachers that welcomed us with songs and laughter - though they have to walk 4-6 hours daily to get to school. The “hill people” are truly remarkable in their strength.

And of course, Noreen. Motionless words on a page could never quite capture her energy, enthusiasm and love for her people, which she has so generously shared with us.

We’re back battling with road potholes down to Bagdogra and on to Delhi tomorrow, before we head on to Vietnam. We’ll be up at 3am to film the sunrise for a second time – maybe this time we’ll be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Everest if it’s a clearer day. But even if the clouds roll over and obscure that perfect shot of the Himalayan mountain range once more, I won’t mind too much. Even without seeing Everest, I’m feeling very lucky already.


Our blistering hot trip to the TAJ MAHAL, due to a "critical mistake" with our taxi's air conditioning system... Look out for our Indian tour guide, who preferred speaking JAPANESE with Steve instead of giving us a tour in English...

CLIMBING THE FOOTHILLS: Our twising van ride up to DARJEELING, INDIA -- famous British tea town in the foothills of the Himalayans (almost 5,000 meters above sea level), and location of our next profile, Indian KSG alum Noreen Dunne...

SEE US IN ACTION: A look at our documentary work at HAYDEN HALL, the social services organization that Noreen Dunne, our Indian KSG profile, works at. CUTE KIDS abound...

Our 4 AM trip up TIGER HILL outside Darjeeling, with views of the HIMALAYAS -- including Kachenjenga and MT. EVEREST... accompanied by a rowdy group of religious singers determined to sing in the sunrise...

Our journey on Darjeeling's famous TOY TRAIN: Built by the British, it runs on steam at the blistering pace of about 2 miles per hour... marvel at the harrowing camera work as we chug along the foothills of the HIMALAYANS...

Monday, August 07, 2006

NEW DELHI, INDIA: Hello from India! We're back to blogging, and with a twist: VIDEO. Check out this 3-minute clip, as well as the 90-second clip at the bottom of our first dispatch from Delhi...

NEW DELHI, INDIA: We're back in blogging land, after a 2-week break from our KSG film project. Eleni was in Greece with family and friends; Scott in New York (for Boogs and Lisa's wedding), and Rome and Croatia; and I was in Bulgaria (visiting my Peace Corps buddy Maxwell Woods), and Greece.

We enjoyed our time away, but were excited to meet up in Athens and board a GULF AIR flight here to New Delhi, to begin the next leg of our documentary. (Oh, we had a layover in Bahrain -- yes, its a country, look it up; its also so hot that in the 12 meters we spent outside (between our plane and the terminal) we each lost six pounds of sweat. Seriously: Bahrain is an oven).

India. What can you say? A land where all the cliches become truth: mine-boggling contrasts, incredible diversity, and a frenetic pace make every move an exercise in sensory overload. We've only been here one day but are already feeling the pulse of an extraordinary country in our veins.

First impressions of Delhi: a harrowing 4 AM cab ride from the airport to our hotel. This driver was seriously crazy. At one point, he almost killed a mo-ped driver and a riskshaw driver (not to mention us) as he accelerated into traffic; then he cackled like some character out of a horror movie when we begged him to slow down.

The images that sped by us as we careened towards the city were hard to place in the morning light. People waking up from trash-strewn slums near the airport. A man taking a shower underneath a spigot in the middle of the street. A rickshaw driver taking a wizz on the side of the highway as his passenger patiently waited inside.

A day of walking around Old Delhi's markets confirmed our initial impressions of the city: pure chaos. It's almost impossible to comprehend how many people, cars, trucks, cows, horses, bikes, rickshaws, busses, and dogs use the same streets in this jam-packed city. Packed shoulder to shoulder with literally thousands of other people doing their business, we looked around and saw no order to the madness. But the people around us seemed perfectly content with the crazy pace of life here. There is obviously some underlying order to the chaos.

We ended our day at Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in all of India. Delhi -- before the partition of India and Pakistan that took place in 1947 -- was primarily a Muslim city and though today it is largely Hindu, it retains considerable Muslim influence. Jama Masjid was stunning: a courtyard big enough for 25,000 people to kneel and pray, surrounded by beautiful red stone walls and towering minerats, one of which we climbed up to see a beautiful view of the sunset, including the hundreds of kites that dotted the sky as children got in their last hours of play-time before the daylight faded.

Eleni and Scott are enjoying their first taste of India. For me, I'm enjoying time back here in Delhi, one of my favorite Indian cities during the time I spent here 3 years ago. We currently have a bet going (100 rupees) to see who can last the longest without getting "Delhi belly" (you can guess what that means).

Despite all the traffic and the chaos, New Delhi is a robust city with a lot to offer. Walk 50 feet with wide eyes in this city, and you can collect enough facial expressions to span the entire spectrum of human emotion. Much to see and much to learn.

We're here for a few more days and then off to Darjeeling, a mountain-stop village in NE India which -- along with being famous for its tea - is home to Noreen Dunne, the next KSG grad we're featuring in our documentary. Noreen is a college professor who also works with a charity she helped start called Hayden Hall, whch assists women and children in the Darjeeling area.


Here's our second clip from Delhi, our first impressions of the city...