A Disaster Relief Volunteer in the Philippines: Part 1

A Disaster Relief Volunteer in the Philippines: Part 1

I wake up without an alarm. Unpeeling my sweaty shirt from my skin, I sit up on my mat. My sleeping space is directly in the middle of the giant hotel ballroom I call home with 40 other volunteers. This makes me the least likely target for the mosquitos that attack from the windows every evening, but the furthest from the fans. Seeing the itchy, red welts on the others, I decide sleeping in sweat is definitely the lesser of of two evils. It is my fourth day as a disaster relief volunteer in the Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan smashed into the country three weeks earlier, killing more than 6,000 people and leaving half a million displaced. Shortly after, I canceled my plans to travel through Cambodia and signed up to volunteer instead. I applied with All Hands, an organization that does deconstruction work in disaster zones – cleaning up debris, pulling down wrecked houses, and salvaging materials for rebuilding.  Their project was based in the city of Ormoc, in the hardest hit region of the country. As I have the upper body strength of a six-year-old, no experience using tools outside of hanging pictures, and define manual labor as taking the time to read all the instructions, I have no idea what made me think I was suited to do this. But I bought a sleeping bag, boots, and a flight to to the Philippines and set out utterly terrified. I’d never been to a disaster zone, and I’d definitely never wielded a sledgehammer, so I couldn’t begin to imagine what the next two weeks would be like. But...
Breaking Up With Vietnam

Breaking Up With Vietnam

Dear Vietnam, It’s not you. It’s me. Except, I think it might actually be you. I’m not sure you’re going to care, but I still wanted to take the time to tell you that I don’t think this is going to work. I came to you with an open heart and open mind, but after three weeks, I felt you were only interested in my open wallet. From the moment I got out of the taxi in Saigon, I was transformed into a walking ATM machine. The constant stream of “You want scooter? You want bracelet? You buy from me? You buy from me??” left me feeling a little beaten down. It’s not so much that you were asking, but that our relationship never got past that point. I know, I know. We had some really good times: scootering on deserted dirt roads in Phu Quoc; taking a boat through the backwaters of Can Tho; and riding the train along the coast from Hoi An to Hanoi. There are moments that I’ll never forget. The night I spent with my friend’s Vietnamese family was one of the highlights of my trip so far. We went to her aunt’s cafe in Saigon for Sunday dinner. The restaurant had been closed and cleared of all tables except two metal ones in the center of the room. Several bowls of noodles, meat, and vegetables surrounded a single boiling pot of broth, oil, and chili. We sat around the table adding raw ingredients and then withdrawing steaming cooked bites a few minutes later, the fire of spicy peppers cut with Vietnamese beer and...
Phu Quoc Island Has a Dirty Little Secret

Phu Quoc Island Has a Dirty Little Secret

By every measure, Phu Quoc, Vietnam should be paradise with its palm trees, warm turquoise ocean, and miles of deserted white sand beaches to call your own. But just outside of the picture-perfect frame, it’s hiding a very dirty secret. OK, “hiding” seem inappropriately mysterious. It’s not hiding it at all. It’s piled up everywhere for everyone to see – trash. The island (and you) are swimming in it. I booked a flight to Phu Quoc as part of my hasty retreat from the smog and sweat of Saigon, hoping for a better view of Vietnam. I got a motorbike taxi from the airport into town, passing through green, rugged hills and fields. The untouched scenery seemed worlds away from the well worn paths (they’re really practically paved with yellow lines at this point) of the Southeast Asia tourist. But once we reached the coast, I could see a smattering of resorts that grew thicker on the skyline the closer we got to the town of Duong Dong – the main city and tourist hub on the island. I checked into my hotel and headed down to the beach to catch my first ocean sunset in Asia. The sun was already low, and blues were effortlessly giving way to orange and pink hues. A group of Vietnemese men were spear-fishing on a cluster of rocks. I had stepped into a postcard. Then I turned around. My excitement withered. Piles and piles of trash collected on the sand. Between the rows of lobster-colored tourists and blue water lay an endless mosaic of rubbish. It was floating in the water, tangled with...
Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng: The Little Bus That Absolutely Could Not

Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng: The Little Bus That Absolutely Could Not

After four days in Luang Prabang, we decided to catch a bus south, to Vang Vieng. An hour of start and stop driving through the mountains later, we sputtered to a halt on the side of the road. A man emerged from a nearby hut to help. Brandishing rain boots, official looking badges, and a machete, he joined our driver to try to figure out what was going on. The driver could speak absolutely no English (and I think he was a man of few words anyways), but it seemed that the box filled with liquid responsible for cooling down the engine was broken. There was a lot of poking and pulling and eventually it was decided that the best course of action was to pour bottles of water into the box, watch the water leak out of the bottom, curse, and then repeat. Every so often the water would explode like a volcano out of the car. We took this as an excellent sign. The man from the hut gave up. We entertained the possibility we’d have to move in with him.  Just when we were about to start fighting over who got the top bunk, three giant Land Rovers full of badass looking Thai guys pulled over! Someone did something right and we were all loaded back into the van. We were off! And then we weren’t. We pulled over and the pour water/watch leak/curse method started up again. We were very alone.  But then the Thai guys appeared again! But then they told us “God will help you.” and they left. Alone again. The driver took out the...
Trekking in Luang Prabang: The Most Fascinating Place I’ve Ever Been

Trekking in Luang Prabang: The Most Fascinating Place I’ve Ever Been

“Will there be chicken for dinner?,” one person asked. “No,” our guide replied. “Chickens are very hard to catch.” With those words of wisdom, I thought our village home stay was off to a great start. The city of Luang Prabang serves as a great jumping off point for trekking to remote villages in the region – repeated every brochure, travel guide, or blog that we read. Because we were in fact in Luang Prabang, and because trekking (not hiking) to somewhere remote (not just far) sounded fairly badass we decided to give it a try. Early the next morning, we met our guide (and a French couple also trekking with us) to take a truck to the beginning of the trail. We’d hike for 12km and then spend the night at a village. Our guide had grown up in the mountains before his family moved into Luang Prabang. This was great because he was able to provide us with real insight into the everyday lives of the people we were passing. This was terrible because he clearly felt comfortable doing the kilometers of uphill climbs at a jog. We huffed and puffed through villages and spectacular views that changed faster than I could take pictures. Yellow rice fields ended abruptly at steep mountain passes. Dense, steamy jungle prickled our skin with sweat before releasing us into an open valley surrounded by jagged karst formations. I had no idea Laos was so beautiful. I could hardly keep up with the scenery (or our guide). We took a brief break for lunch in a tiny village with only six families...