Three flights took me from Chiang Rai to Bangkok to Saigon and finally to Phu Quoc Island in the south of Vietnam for the 2011/2012 Volunteers in Asia conference. As my NGO placement is tenuous at best these days, I welcomed a change of scenery, a break from Thailand, the company of my VIA family, and sweeping ocean views. Conference proved itself to be equal parts rejuvenating, supportive, collaborative, and inappropriately hysterical. I continue to be wowed and honored to be a part of such a dynamic group of individuals from all walks of life who are out here trying to effect positive change in the world. I’ve been in Southeast Asia nearly a year and one of the most powerful aspects of my experience has been being surrounded by people who truly care and who are willing to put themselves out of their comfort zones to actively engage in the global community. It doesn’t get much more inspiring than that.
As I reported a while back, my NGO has seen dramatic change since my return in September. Staff aren’t getting paid which has resulted in numerous resignations, funding is lacking, and the workload is unmanageable for those who are still standing. Tensions are high and for the first time ever in my year here, I’m seeing my Thai colleagues physically demonstrate stress. Usually Thais are so jai yin yin about everything. I guess there are cracks in the surface after all. There is serious talk as to whether this organization will survive. It’s a challenging situation to be in and one I never anticipated. I can’t predict the future and it’s disheartening to see such a large NGO that has been on-the-ground for 22 years flailing like it is. I hope the course will change…
I was able to step back from it all and let go at conference; to reconnect with my VIA people; to make wildly inappropriate jokes; to laugh until my sides split; and to eat the best seafood of my life. From nekkid nightswimming to delicious grilled squid to a Southeast Asian white elephant gift exchange to a cocktail party hosted by VIA’s own Skip and Gabi that included actual wine; to singing and tambourining with Philippino nightclub performers to sampling the liver of a shark. (Please refrain from the latter. No one wants to taste the Black Lagoon. I mean no one.) Conference was everything I needed and more. VIA is supportive in all the ways I need it to be in this critical time. They support me in whatever I do and it’s up to me if I stay, go, or ride it out for a while. I must give a big shout out to all my VIA colleagues who have given me feedback, support, mentorship, guidance, and friendship. You know who you are and you are all incredible in your individual ways! It’s been a sheer pleasure. Truly.
As conference drew to a close, I think it’s fair to say we each left feeling inspired, reconnected and closer as a group. We laughed, we cried, we reflected upon the moments we have had that have changed us forever. Most important are the relationships we have developed – with each other, with new friends the world over, with people in our communities and, ultimately, with ourselves. We all are quite fortunate to be living abroad, having new adventures at every turn, and overcoming the challenges and differences that cross-cultural experiences bring. Whether in Indonesia, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia or Thailand, we are out here. Living our dreams.
Many of us departed Phu Quoc and decided to weekend in Ho Chi Minh City f/k/a Saigon. And I thought Bangkok traffic was a bad! Fuggetaboutit. Saigon is motorbike mania. What you read in the travel guides is indeed accurate. I think I was involved in two accidents in two days. Thankfully no one was harmed. It’s hard to characterize a nation and culture when you see very little of it in a short time but I will say the Vietnamese seemed much more conservative and reserved than the Thais. I started missing aspects of Thai culture – the warmth, the smiles, the “anything goes” attitude and open homosexuality. We had our fun in Saigon including a lovely holiday dinner hosted by a VIA alumni who now works as one of Saigon’s top lawyers. I tried to locate the city’s finest graffiti spots to no avail but visited a sky bar and toured downtown Saigon which was lit up like a Christmas tree on speed. Damn, the Vietnamese really love Christmas! Families were out and about taking in the merriment. Children were dressed like mini Santa Clauses reaffirming my belief that Asians combine Christmas with Halloween. It was a great week in Viet Nam and I returned home to Thailand with a fresh perspective. Two things came out of conference for me: 1) I’m taking the month of January off to focus on photography and step back to reassess what is best for 2012; and 2) I’m headed to India!