Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Final Reflections*

In India they have a saying: everything will be alright in the end. If it is not alright now then it is not the end.

An entire year has elapsed since I came here to focus on Tam Ky. 
Tam Ky has changed my life on so many levels and facets that it would be difficult for me to begin to describe how without turning this into a 5 page essay!
Old habits die easier than we think. And new ones form. No longer do I reach out for the tv or stock up excessively on junk food. No longer do I buy items without checking the price first and evaluating if I really NEED it or just want it.
I have grown accustomed to the car horns, motorbikes, water buffalo traffic jams, the chaos and flurry of the markets and vendors.

Can there be anywhere else in the world that is such an assault on the senses?
Those who know about the country just go about their daily business. But nothing can prepare the uninitiated for this riot of noise and colour, the heat , the motion, the perpetual teeming crowds.

Initially I was overwhelmed but gradually I realised it's like a wave. Resist and you will be knocked over . Dive into it and you will swim out the other side.
This was a new and different world for me. Nothing like the world I live in and am accustomed to. The challenge was to cope with it. And not just cope, but thrive....
I slowly adapted to my new environment. And when one does adapt my god the riches that are available!
A country with so much history, a country that has defied occupation by so many intruders. A country that has suffered greatly and yet still remain so positive. When I ask them if they are angry and hate the Americans in particular for what they have done to their people, they tell me no. Always optimistic, they answer by telling me that if it wasn't for the Americans the North and South would not have united. They focus on moving forward. Their focus is only on a present that builds and creates itself as the past withdraws. 
'How can you bear this country? What do you see that I don't?' Are common questions I receive.
I see the colours, the light, smiles, joy and the way people see life as a privilege and not a right. It teaches me something.

The only real failure is the failure not to try. And the measure of success is how we cope with disappointment. As we always must. 
Can we be blamed if we are afraid to change? To scared of disappointment to start again? We get up in the morning and we do our best. Nothing else matters.
I have had numerous frustrations as you would have read in previous emails/blogs. But once I began looking at what I can do as opposed to what I couldn't achieve I saw things differently. Once I let go of all my pre conceived notions about this place and what I wanted it to be like, I found I was able to put my energy to better use. Yes I still feel like I take two steps forward and one step back but hey! T.I.V. as I get told..... This Is Vietnam....
Going through and reading past emails I only realise now how much WE have achieved. These children's lives have been drastically improved because of our combined efforts. Yes I am here on the ground, however, I would not have been able to do anything to help move these children forward without everyone's support and financial contributions.
The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing.
All I know about the future is that it will be different. Perhaps what I fear is that it will be the same. So I must celebrate the changes, however small. 
Everything will be alright in the end. And if its not alright, then trust me, it's not the end.....

"This is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. It is, instead, the end of the beginning" – Winston Churchill.

A million thank you's are still nowhere near enough to my amazing, wonderful and supportive family and friends (and friends of friends who have donated and I have not personally met) as well as all the amazing volunteers I have met along the way ...... I could not have done it without any of you!!!!
I leave you with a summary slideshow of what we have helped changed....

* written with the help of Judi Dench...

Monday, December 24, 2012

"Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened." – Dr. Seuss

There was an eerie energy in the air.
Tam Ky had its first big stormy, rainy night for December. Even the heavens knew I was leaving and let the clouds out for the occasion.
My final night in Tam Ky, the girls begged me to sleep over at the orphanage. Although 'illegal', I asked the Director and she consented.
I walked into the orphanage with my pillow under one arm, big bottle of water and a backpack full of goodies.
As usual, some of the children playing outside saw me, began yelling out 'anna' and ran towards me. They took my pillow and bags and guided me to the girls dorm. There was a heated discussion as to where to place my pillow, as this would determine where I was going to sleep.
In the end, we settled on Thanh's bed and my pillow was neatly placed aligned next to hers.

I felt like I was in a dream and floating through.... Was this is it? My last night with the children? How has this happened?!
The boys came up to me and everyone was aware I was leaving the next day and there seemed to be a strange vibe... I cannot describe it; the boys all wanted to be around me and so at one point, in the girls dorm, we had about 45 children in there!

I set up different game areas and they had an awesome buzz going as they all cooperated, played games, made bracelets, arts and crafts, read comics, coloured in pictures, put tattoos on themselves and made xmas cards.
I had to write out 35 carer cards for their Xmas Tips and Ngan, Tram and Tuyet (oldest girls) sat patiently with me and wrote them all out in Vietnamese and English!

Most of the children gave me a card each and some bracelets they had made, random toys and things they have collected along the way. Even Duc and Dung, the two oldest boys here who are about 13 years old and play it very cool gave me a card and told me "I miss you". They stuck to me like glue all night, just following me around, threading their arm through mine as we walked around the rooms.

I gave the 5 oldest girls and 2 oldest boys some money in a hush hush way as a goodbye gift. Thanh refused for 5 minutes and began crying when I tried to give it to her. She kept saying no, no no. She hugged me and I told her it would make me happy and if she didnt want to spend it on her, to keep it and buy something for her brother or sister. or give it to her Grandma next time she saw her. It was $2, but I can imagine it would have been like giving them a million dollars. Tram refused as well until I made her take it and she was squeezing me. And the others had no problem taking it from me! Phuong's eyes went really wide when she saw the 50,000 note.....

It was interesting being at the orphanage at this time and watching their routine. They eat dinner at 5pm and at about 8pm boiled potatoes/yams and taro came out where they got one and munched on it.
They had to be in bed at 9pm and about 8.45pm, all the mosquito nets came out and everyone set up their nets around the perimeter of their beds and climbed in.

It was just so exciting that I was there that we didn't actually get to bed till 10.30pm.

Thanh and I lay on her small wooden bed talking. She was getting upset I was leaving and asking me questions about what I was going to do when I got home. She knows I am facing some challenges when I return and she was so concerned for me. Slowly, slowly, I could hear the girls drifitng off... the chatter dies down, the creaking of the wood ceased as they stopped tossing and turning. The two girls above us shook the entire bunk everytime they moved, so I was awake every 20 minutes!
Gai was then sick and vomited everywhere, so the poor mother had to get up and clean up at 1am. Lights came on, talking in normal voices went on and most of the girls didn't even stir. I could hear the babies crying one after another at different intervals and could hear the carers getting up every so often. Woah! This was hard.

I do not know how they sleep two to a bed... you can barely roll over. I was conscious of Thanh all night and literally had half my body on the ledge, as I wanted her to have her room and at one point in the night, she rolled over, mumbled something in her sleep and leant and cuddled me. I was laying there fighting back tears.

So, lights came on at 5.30am for wake up! They all turned in my direction to see if I was awake and I was and waved at all of them as they smiled and said good morning! They brushed their teeth, splashed water on their faces and my last day had begun....

As soon as the boys were up they came running in to see me.....I set up some more games and activities which kept them entertained for a while...

They kept asking me what time I was leaving and I told them 10.30am..... the energy was as heavy as the weather. It was pouring with rain which I found quite poetic.

I left at about 9am and went to Peace Village to say final final goodbyes. Truc understood I was leaving and he held onto me so tight saying "No" every time I tried to let go and move on.
Son shed a few tears and said he was going to miss me. He kept squeezing me and kept pulling me into him for a hug. The carers were in tears and they all stood at the entrance waving at me until I was out of sight. I tried to keep it together whilst saying goodbye, but a few tears escaped. When I turned the corner, I let a few more tears escape. And by a few, I mean a lot.
I walked back to baby orphanage and I must have looked a sight. I could not help but think how this will be the last time I would be walking down this dirt road. That it was the last time I would get all these 'hello's' yelled out at me from the locals, the last time I would have to wait for the water buffalo to cross over for me to get down the little street that led to my other 74 angels.

Some of the older boys were out playing in the field with the neighborhood kids when they saw me walking back up to the gate. They all yelled out and ran up to me and came back with me. I found this poignant as all year, I would see them but they would not run back to me; they would stay and play. Today, I think the reality and intensity of my looming departure, made them come back and spend this final hour with me.

How I wish I could stop time even for a while......Half an hour to go and I began saying goodbye from youngest to oldest. I began in the baby room, where all the carers cried and when I turned, I had about 20 older children following and watching.

I kissed all my little babies goodbye. Some snuggled into me and others cried.... Lan never cries! But when I said goodbye to her, she had the saddest face and began crying when I put her down.....

Toddlers and Disability room were next; I could not hold it together anymore. Picking up Sen and hugging her opened the floodgates and my tears free flowed and stained my cheeks. My little following had grown and now the 30 children behind me were watching silently.... Putting her down and walking out was really hard....

I went back to the girls dorm and Thanh was standing in the doorway when I said its time for Anna to go. She just shook her head from side to side and said 'no. no, no' and then she began crying. And not just crying, the wailing and the sobs soon followed after. By now, all 50 of the children had gathered and were all silently watching. Thanh got worse and worse and her sobs were choking her.
I turned and saw the other 4 eldest girls crying. Two were hugging, and the other two had sat on opposite ends, on the ground, hugging their knees, just crying. I hugged each one of them tight and told them not to cry, I was going to be back. "Thanh miss Anna alot" was what she said.
Tram's tears increased exponentially. At one point she was heaving and gasping for a breath that I had to sit her down and put her head between her legs. Nothing I could say or do would stop them.
By now, my middle girls all about 7 - 10 yrs old had formed a circle and were sitting on the cement, each one of them with their heads buried in their laps crying.
I felt like I was going in slow motion: I took a look around and there were just girls crying everywhere, boys standing with sullen faces, looking towards the ground as they had their arms on each other for support.
All you could hear was the gentle patter of the rain and many different cries that had come together in unison.
I just stood there and cried. I hugged each and everyone of them, told them I loved them and that I would be back.

It was another force that made me walk to the front gate. As I walked, everyone got up and followed me, with tears streaming down their faces, keeping up the song of lament.
The carers then emerged as they heard so many cries they were not sure what was going on.
We all stood at the front of the orphanage and cried. The carers were all crying, the girls were sobbing uncontrollably by this point. I didn't know who to comfort first.

Some of the younger boys had joined us now and they seemed perplexed as to why everyone was crying. Some came up to me and laughed and hugged me and then were teasing the others crying. They did make me laugh for a second amidst the tears.
The older boys, although didn't cry were very sombre, looking down towards the floor. Duc stared straight into my eyes with a pained expression when  I gave him a final goodbye hug that I had to turn away.

I physically could not move. I was rooted to the spot, just watching them all watch me.

It took one of the mothers to physically take me, lead me away, put my raincoat on, load up the motorbike and get me out of there.

I drove off with the last image of 60 children standing there, under the rain, most of them sobbing... And the final sounds coming from that orphanage was a choir of different ranged sobs and wails.....

Saturday, December 22, 2012

"We only part to meet again"

This was going to be huge.....
Everyday for the last 10 days the children were doing a countdown and asking me about the party.....
They would confirm with me everyday if they were still going.
The excitement was palpable. The day before the party, there was a buzz in the air.
The party is on tomorrow!!!!!
I was asked many times if I was taking everybody as they were all in disbelief I was attempting an outing with all 54 children from baby orphanage.
When I told the older girls that all of Peace Village and Phú Ninh Orphanage were coming too, their mouths were agape.

Everything was confirmed:
Restaurant was ready to go with a five course meal.
Ice cream was bought for desert.
7 buses booked and ready to go for coordinated pick ups.
Karaoke and music man set up.

I stood at the entrance of the restaurant as the buses pulled in.....I wish I had a video camera to record their faces.

Everyone was dressed in their best. Everyone was clean and presentable and I cried at how much pride and effort the carers took to ensure they were all ready and looked as presentable as they could. If you didn't know any better, you would think they were just regular kids, out in the community. You would not be able to tell how much these young lives have seen and how much pain and suffering they have endured already. It makes me look at my problems and issues with a new perspective....

 The younger children were astounded and fascinated with everything......
Peace Village residents were so excited that the carer told me no one slept, they all got up super early and bathed and dressed in their best.
Phủ Ninh were just one big ball of excitement with the widest smiles you have ever seen.

I made a short speech in which I cried of course telling them all that this year has been one of the best years of my life; I was so proud of each and every one of them at how far they have come and what they have achieved. I told them that I loved them all and they were not allowed to say goodbye to me but say see you later!

I stood on the stage as they all erupted in huge applause for me..... I scanned the room and watched all my children, the carers, friends I have made since being here.... And my heart swelled.....I am not sure I have the right words to describe that feeling I had at that moment.

And then the party was in full swing! So much food, endless drinks.... I handed out balloons, Xmas hats and then their Xmas presents.....

Their smiles said it all.
Many children got up and sang and I was so proud of them for braving an audience of 180 to get up and sing.

Tram sang a song about orphans, a song which describes how hard an orphans life is. She had tears streaming down her face and as I tried to comfort her and looked around the room, every single adult and some of the older children were in tears. You could feel the love and compassion in the room. It was very moving.

Seeing them all out saw my heart break into a tiny million pieces all over again..... Every single one of them said 'hen gap lai', see you later. Most of the carers were in tears, I got squeezed and hugged till I couldn't breathe.
The five oldest girls at baby orphanage whom I am very close to gave me a bag full of gifts and they all broke down. They were all crying hugging me, I was crying and I wasn't sure who was comforting who. These girls have been an amazing support for me recently and they know I don't want to return home at the moment. They told me to stay and they will look after me. I explained to them that the adult real world was calling me for now but that I would return.... We each did a pinky promise and stamped it and sealed it.

My older boys from Peace Village who comprehend what all this is about were so emotional they hugged and squeezed me and said thank you. Darling Truc who sometimes has no idea what is going on, hugged and kissed me and said very clearly 'I understand Anna loves me'.

I watched them all get on the bus with them waving to me as they drove off.
As they turned the corner, I exhaled deeply and then fell into a ball and sobbed.....

Next week's final 'see you later' is going to require some super strength. However, I must keep in mind at how lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard...

All pictures from the party can be seen at:

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

To market, to market....

'Lets go looking for pigs today'.... Mrs Hanh's good morning to me!
Ok? Sure?
I assumed we would go to the pig farm, pick out a pig we liked and pay for it. Easy!
Not quite.... We ride out of Tam Ky to the next district and stop at a restaurant.....
'Yes here!' Mrs Hanh exclaims.
We go in, sit down and a man emerges without pants on.... He stops dead in his tracks, looks at us and back tracks for his pants.
Meet our pig broker! Mrs Hanh whispers in my ear 'he marry before have two children, now he no more wife, he like man!'
Ok, so we have a gay pig broker. Am n ot sure why that info was relevant, but anyway!
We sit and discuss logistics. How much do we want to spend? The price of pigs here are based on the pigs weight. 65,000VND per piggy kilo. That's about $3 a kilo.
We had to determine if we wanted a breeder pig or an eater pig next!
We needed both however I was not buying pigs without seeing them first!
So on the bikes we go out to the pig farm I guess.....
I guess not.... We end up at some ladies house!
We head out back to the pig sty where there were two breeder pigs we could choose from....
Thank God for Dee, a former volunteer who has grown up on pig farms and knew what to look for.
It was hilarious to say the least!

We ended up choosing the pig we wanted and I handed over the money to him to give to the lady.
Dee and I were heading back in to take one last look at our pig when all of a sudden there was yelling, a flurry of arms and hand gestures and us being told to turn around and head out!
Mrs Hanh was laughing so hard she fell on the floor, our pig broker was talking very animatedly and the lady was teasing him and his hand gestures.....
Dee and I had no idea what was going on!
Turns out, when the lady saw it was us that wanted the pig, she changed her fee and increased it to western price!
So our lovely pig broker had a tantrum and said no way, we weren't buying the pig now etc etc.
All's well that ends well though and she left her original price intact. Everyone had a laugh and off we went....

Who knew buying a pig would be so entertaining!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Birthday Celebration 9 Years Late...

Luan has no known birth date, we only know the year he was born in.
Chances are that by now, his actual birthday would have already passed, so we decided to adopt December as his new birthday date!
His beautiful smile was radiating for a week at his first ever birthday celebration with cake and a wrapped gift just for him.... alongside 50 fellow orphans smiling and singing at their top of their lungs "Happy Birthday".

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Time of Your Life...

As my year comes to an end, I dedicate this slideshow to all the wonderful children and young adults at Baby Orphanage, Peace Village and Phú Ninh Orphanage. 
Every little person, young adult and adults at these placements have taught me more than I could have ever taught them....and for that, they all have a place in my heart....