30 October 2011

ChildFund Vietnam Gets Muddy. And Drinks. And Shops.

We awoke on the last trek morning having had quite the celebratory evening the night before. What were we celebrating? Our own awesomeness, of course! Stories were told, deep dark secrets were shared, and our local guide Tung danced brilliantly to Kylie's "Spin Me Right Round." I wish I could share our antics but alas, what happens in Sapa STAYS IN SAPA. Except for things that happen to Van B. Or Alexis.

It could not have been any wetter, muddier, and more slippery than it was yesterday, or so we thought. The last trekking day brought the need for constant attention on each and every step taken. There was a great deal more sliding and mud skiing; both of which Marissa escaped by simply plopping down on her bum and cleverly (though muddily) scooching along on her bottom. The group decided to declare their prowess by slapping mud across their faces and doing a little photo shoot.

The grueling trek behind us, we then had roughly 24 hours to shower, shop, and eat before catching the overnight train back to Hanoi. It's never a dull moment on an Inspired Adventure! A lie-in meant quite a few of the group danced, drank, and was merry until the wee hours of the morning. I believe at one stage...like I would tell! Everyone did a little shopping then Krista came in last and bought up all the final bits and pieces. She may be solely responsible for Vietnam's fourth quarter growth rate of 7% and she has another week to buy buy buy!

Tomorrow we will be cycling and cruising along the Mekong. For now, it's time to drift away to the slow and rhythmic rumbling of the Fansipan Express. Sweet dreams!

28 October 2011

Wet n' Wild For Team ChildFund!

It was 6:30am and I was attempting to catch a few more Zzzz's before heading off on another big trek. Team ChildFund, however, were already up and buzzing around like a bunch of overexcited teenagers! Despite the rain, mud, and onslaught of local villagers this group couldn't get enough!

We munched on some wildly delectable pancakes which were complemented with bananas, apples, and fresh honey before once again putting on our sopping wet, mud-encrusted boots and setting off. Today's theme? WATER! It was falling from the sky, it was raging down rivers we had to cross, and it was sloshing around in our boots.

To say conditions were tough is a gross understatement. Still, after two days of intense trekking, it was clear that nothing would stop us. We went up, we went down, we went on and on! Kirby was totally wet through, her petite frame in need of a genuine ringing out. Sue embraced the rain and just let herself get soaked. Marissa got munched on by a leech. I nearly fell off the side of a mountain. Gary was still wearing those tiny shorts.

Once we got into it there was something almost enjoyable about the whole experience. We were in it, we weren't getting out of it, so we dealt with it. That includes the rock slide that missed us by no more than 100 meters. It's an adventure!

We arrived at camp around 3pm to find mattresses for everyone, a fully stocked bar, a western toilet, and HOT WATER! Five star all around. We drew up our shower roster, pumped some tunes, and really just enjoyed each other's company. Card games, celebrity heads, Facebook stalking, tarot card reading, eating, and drinking rice wine were all on the agenda.

Once again I couldn't help but notice the level of instant intimacy that seems to emerge on trips like this. This element of camaraderie and team spirit is probably my favorite aspect of our Inspired Adventures. As I have said before, you can take 18 near strangers, chuck them in a foreign land together, and within days they will think like a team, act like a family, and joke like lifelong friends. It is truly life-changing.

For now, it's off to bed as we still have one more rain-filled trek ahead of us! I would like to note that Alexis (the one who couldn't seem to get any lovin') was awarded with both a bracelet (for her humour) and the day's Miss Saigon statuette (for offering her jacket to a soaked-through team leader in absolute misery). Naturally, she promptly lost the bracelet and decapitated the statuette. And she wonders why nobody likes her. Just kidding! But seriously.

Until next time!

It's Teamwork (& Red Bull) Time!

If there is anything that will bring a group together, it's a giant slumber party in a barn and some tents in the middle of the Vietnamese jungle. We rolled out our mats and sleeping bags, bundled into our sleeping sacks, lowered our mosquito nets, and drifted away to the sounds of rather baritone snoring. The responsible party shall remain nameless.

Just as the roosters began to crow (the actually began at 3am despite it still being pitch black) we awoke to find that the rain had subsided, having washed the foggy mist away. The views were just stunning. Still, there was no time for dilly-dallying and we slurped down our noodles, refilled our water bladders, pulled on our dirty pants, laced up our muddy boots, and hit the road. At this stage Bianca got rather overexcited about a can of red bull, which she quickly skulled before proceeding to literally tremor with energy.

If I was to think up a theme for today it would be teamwork. The trail was tough and at times even treacherous. There was something to play on the fears of everyone: Teetering bridges for those scared of heights, wandering Buffalo for those scared of animals, and LOTS of slippery clay for those scared of getting dirty. Still, we stuck together and were joined by an army of Hmong village ladies without whom some of us would not have made it through.

Us all geared up in boots and packs with poles and prowess, them quite basic with plastic sandals and wicker baskets, we were certainly the odd couple. While we slid, slipped, and at times skied down the mountain their delicate footsteps and lifelong experience made it look like a leisurely stroll through the CBD.

Today we fought cold, rain, the flu, and some serious gastro. Once again we dined on fresh baguette, tomato, and ham for lunch, which we had perched high above the terraced rice fields. Krista almost stopped the trek then and there when I nearly slid down the mountain then actually stopped when she ran smack into a tree after picking up some serious downhill speed. Kerri and Lai overcame their fear of heights and did an incredible job navigating some pretty hairy bamboo bridges while Alexis made her usual attempts at being loved. Once more this plan was foiled when, at lunch, she slid right down a rock face directly into Sue. This was only the beginning for Sue. She first went bottoms up on her own, was followed by Alexis' oopsy-daisy and got finished off with a wet wipe to the face courtesy of Dani. Now that's teamwork!

We arrive in the afternoon to find a sparkling clean guesthouse waiting for us. I am now writing from one of the beds as the group plays celebrity heads just 20 feet away. At dinner we once again passed the bracelets (each day 4 people are recognized for being awesome and the following day, they pass them on to four new awesome people). It should be noted that I also awarded Sue today's "Miss Saigon" statue for surviving what appeared to have been a coordinated attack by some who were jealous of her natural amazingness (mainly Alexis). Off to bed. Another big day of trekking tomorrow!

The Trek Of All Treks For ChildFund

It all started with an overnight train journey that will probably live in infamy for so many reasons. Krista decided to ride with 3 Germans by accident. Gill thought she had lost ALL of her undergarments. Kerri and Wendy were pushing Baileys like they were getting a commission. The two couples ended up partying the latest and longest. It was approximately 700 degrees on board.

Thankfully we arrived on time and had 3 hours to nap, eat, shower, and recuperate before starting a very intense day of trekking through the very intense jungle of northern Vietnam. This isn't your country stroll. There are no paved paths, no ranger stations, and no alternative routes out. Once you're in you have to get to the other side, period. 8 hours, 15 kilometers, and 18 sore and aching bodies later, we arrived by torchlight to our tents and barn attics to eat, share, and most importantly, sleep.

We scrambled up rock faces, we slipped and slid down the damp rocks of a river run-off, we crossed rivers, we burrowed through overgrown ferns and bushes, and we did it all in support of ChildFund. Our walk took us deep into the misty valleys of mysterious Sapa. This region is steeped in the history and culture of Vietnam's 56 ethnic minority tribes, each with their own distinct language, traditions, and dress. While the entire day was full of memories, I decided it would be easiest to use a list:

1. When a red fire ant crawled deep into Peter's shoe and bit his big toe.

2. Eating gorgeous baguette with cheese, tomato, and ham alongside a stream deep, deep, deep in the jungle.

3. Finishing the trek long after sunset by torchlight with Kirby, Catherine, Wendy, Gill, and Rachel.

4. Alexis' sad attempt at using corruption, blackmail, and bribes to get a daily "super star" bracelet.

5. The amazing stacks. Namely:

-Sue sliding down the side of a rock face on her bum.
-Dani clinging to Alexis' private regions in an effort to stay standing.
-Catherine bending her trekking pole clear in half whilst sliding down a dried out river.
-Krista face planting into a little stream only to hear Georgia, her daughter, offer nothing more than "my Mom's scream is so ugly!"

To bed now (it is 8pm) so we are sufficiently rested for whatever tomorrow may bring!

25 October 2011

Team ChildFund Gives Back

As I write we are careening towards Hanoi en route to catch our overnight train to Sapa where we will begin our four-day trek through the majestic terraced rice fields, over rolling hills, and deep into plunging valleys.

Regardless of what adventures may lie ahead, I think it's safe to say that every single person had a day they'll remember. We started at the Commune headquarters, where the communal chairman and his vice-chairs joined Deb Leever, the ChildFund country coordinator, to give us an overview of the projects being taken on in this incredibly remote and incredibly poor community. We heard in great detail about the exact preschool that funds this group have raised will help build before heading back into the village to see the current school and the site of its future replacement.

We arrived to find two dozen adorable little munchkins waiting with great anticipation. The look on their collective faces said to us, "who are they? Why are they here? Will they play with us? Did they bring candy?" Thankfully, we did bring sweets and we had every intention of playing with them! Imagine the cutest kid you have ever seen then multiply it by 100, put a Hawaiian shirt on him or her, and offer up some delicious chocolate coffee cookies and you've got these dudes and dudettes!

Once again we laughed, we played, and we chased. There were singing games, dancing games, chasing games, and games that involved blindfolds. Gary was doing somersaults and Nordic tracks, still in those shorts. He was about one level removed from Richard Simmons! We ran in circles, we ran around rings, and we even hopped on one foot at one point. Why? None of us are entirely certain.

After being run totally ragged, we split into two groups to meet some families in the local community. My group arrived to find a lovely family of four (plus grandpa) waiting with a warm welcome and a delicious cup of green tea. We had the opportunity to ask questions about their life, their hopes, and even their fears for the future with the father noting that his biggest wish in life is for his children to have the chance to go to university. It is amazing how quickly we grow accustomed to our lifetstyle, our luxuries, and our norms. These kinds of experiences certainly put things into perspective.

We continued our visit after lunch as the comunity and ChildFund arranged a donation ceremony to officially "hand over" the group's donation. The entire community turned out for what was a brilliant show of dance, song, and several speeches (including one from Peter, who gave his translator a real stress with his pace and giant vocabulary). Money handed over, children hugged, and hands shaken, we hopped back in our vans where we are now dodging trucks, water buffalo, and more motor cycles in an effort to make our train to Sapa in just a few short hours.

Just a quick word on vans. As there are two, each has a distinctive feel. Van A have deemed themselves "van awesome" and fill their time with sing-alongs, dancing, and paying out van b, which they have deemed "van boring." Van B, on the other hand, are referring to themselves as "van brilliant" and enjoy, as Sue put it, intellectual conversation and topics far above van A's understanding. Where do my loyalties lie? I couldn't possibly say!

Stay tuned for a great deal more adventure from this wild group of generous misfits (especially Sue and Georgia).

24 October 2011

Lets Visit Some ChildFund Projects!

Today's 6am start meant we were all up by 5:30am bustling around, rearranging, sorting, and feeding coffee into our veins via an IV. Like clockwork, however, our two vans zoomed away right at 6:30am with all of us inside but just barely. You see, as Krista walked out I told her to hop in the other van. She obliged and I hopped into my van, chatting with the folks in the back. I decided to do one more head count and zipped up to the other van. Only to find that Krista was not there. No one had seen her either.

I quickly checked the lobby, the other van, and this van yet again as my anxiety levels began to rise. She was traveling with her 15 year old daughter Georgia. What would she do? How would I explain this to her husband? "Hi, I lost your wife on the way to a van. Sorry?"

I began shuffling up and down the street peeking into shops and restaurants. A few minutes passed before my eyes made a passing glance into the window of a small van and spotted her. There she was sitting in the back seat right next to a Vietnamese man who had the most perplexed look on his face. "Krista," I said, "what are you doing? That's not our van." Her jaw dropped and I escorted her to her van before returning to mine to tell everyone one had happened before blogging it for the whole world to know.

That little hiccup behind us, we were off! The tiny winding roads of the Old Quarter quickly became wide highways that were filled with cars, trucks, and 4 million motorbikes. The congestion slowly faded away, revealing a wide open road lined with small stores, billboards, and never ending jungle. Before long even the pavement disappeared, as Tarmac turned to gravel and gravel turned to rocks and rocks turned to dirt. We had definitely arrived in the country.

Our morning turned out to be a great deal more difficult than any of us had expected. The road was washed out, which meant a solid 7km round trip walk through a village, across several rice fields and up, up, up, up, up to visit one of ChildFund's water purification projects that provides clean, potable wate to nearly 300 families. It was over 30 degrees and about 1000% humidity. The sun was beating down on us as we litany scrambled up loose scree, around trees, and through gullies before reaching the top. The walk took nearly 4 hours and by the time we were done, the sweat build up left everyone looking like they had gone for a dip in the pool! Still, the ability to see EXACTLY whe donor funds go felt incredibly empowering.

After lunch in a local house we headed to a second village to visit a primary school, pre-school, and community health center that were all made possible by donations and support via ChildFund. Once again, we were amazed by how tangible the direct impact of funds raised felt. You could feel the impact those sites have had on the community as well.

The children were warm, bubbly, chatty, darn polite, and SO EXCITED to have foreign visitors. We laughed, we ate cookies, and we even chased them all over the place. There was lots of talking of stealing some to take home. Could you say no to that face?

At the community health center we learned that infant mortality rates in this province had been reduced to ZERO over the past four years, with people having necessary access to medications, treatments, and expertise that did not exist before 2007. It was sensational and the entire group were quite moved.

From here it was onward to our hotel for showers, dinner, and an extensive briefing from the ChildFund Vietnam country director. Tomorrow we head back out to three other projects before our night train to Sapa. It's all happening!

On one final note, what year would you say Gary has fallen out of? Please leave guesses in the comments section. GO TEAM!

23 October 2011

ChildFund Vietnam Takes On Hanoi!

Team ChildFund have officially arrived in Vietnam! After more than 16 hours of transit the entire group of 18 amazing supporters who have raised more than $73,000 landed fe and sound in Vietnam's frenetic capital, Hanoi!

It was straight to bed for most with a few of us taking a late night stroll through the bustling streets of the Old Quarter and around the city's central lake. We watched as right at 12 midnight the city's curfew came into effect. Doors shuttered, lights flicked off, and nearly all music stopped. It. Was a city transformed!

Today's big exploration started with a delectable breakfast on the ground floor of the Sunshine Suites Hotel (not to be confused with Sunshine Hotel, Sunshine 3, and Sunshine Hotel and Suites - there is a lot of repetition in naming here)! First stop was the Ho Chi Minh complex, including his mausoleum (which was sadly closed as the body had been airlifted to Moscow to be touched up), his old palace, and his stilt house that he called home for the final years of his life.

With a group of 18 I was forced to make my usual threats of matching hats, flags on poles, and name tags should they fail to keep up, be on time, and do as they are told. Thankfully, all complied (except for Rachel, who we have sorted out).

The hot humid air of the city combined with jet lag meant that come lunch time, this was a VERY HUNGRY BUNCH. We ate at KOTO, an amazing nonprofit restaurant that employs and rehabilitates both underprivileged and underserved young people in the city. The food was divine, as were the wonderful (and shockingly affordable) cocktails.

In the afternoon we all hopped in rickshaws for a scenic spin around Old Hanoi. The bustling traffic, honking horns, smells of street food, and chorus of "hellos" from children really made this entire experience sink in. We are certainly not in Australia anymore!

Our day finished in the most delicious way. We did dinner backwards, gorging on the phenomenal ice cream of Fanny (yes, it's called Fanny). Krista, Georgia, Bianca, and I managed to finish off TWENTY scoops. Yes, TWENTY.

After a short recharge we dined on a nine-course Vietnamese feast accompanied by the wonderful folks from ChildFund's Vietnam office. W also took a minute to surprise Alexis and sing her happy birthday. She thought she could keep that a secret. No way no how!

Its off to bed now, as we have a 6am start tomorrow to get to the CildFund project by nine. Wish us luck!

16 October 2011

Team Chopper Conquer Beijing!

We awoke from our afternoon turned evening barbecue haze just in time to scarf down roughly 376 pieces of egg and chive pancakes before it was back on the bus for our dramatic return to Beijing. The first hour wars calm, cool and collected.  We were zooming along winding country roads at what felt like the speed of light, horn occasionally honking away just for fun.  Then, just as we reached the 6th ring road, our inertia pulling us forward came to a screeching halt.  We were back in the city and traffic was TERRIBLE.  Thankfully, we were all still on a "buddy" love fest high from the night before so we filled the time going on about how much we love each other.  Except for Rodney.

By noon we were at the Summer Palace taking in the sweeping views across the pristine lake to the brilliant Buddhist temple set high up on the hill. You could understand why it made such a perfect summer retreat. Just 20kms outside the city, there was something very "oohhhhh...ahhhhhh" about the place.  Weeping willows, col breezes, and a genuine temperature decrease left me wishing I could summer there!

The afternoon found us eating. And eating. And eating.  Oh, and sleeping and martial arts-ing too.  It was hotpot lunch followed by afternoon naps followed by the wild and crazy tastes of Donghuamen Night Food Market!  Some of the boys met us there, as they were busy fulfilling their dream of having a suit tailor made to fit in just 2 days.  Its always something with these blokes!  They then fulfilled a second dream of scarfing down scorpions, snakes, starfish, and sheep's testicles!  We finished the day with a martial arts exhibition and what can only e described as the most perfect foot massage of all time.  I won, sharing with Daryl and Chris while the rest of the gang bunked up in other rooms.  We could hear Michelle's cries of pain from the down the hall.

We started the last day of our Chinese adventure on Saturday with a visit to Tian'an'men Square. There is something quite intense about standing on the  site of such a significant moment in modern history.  So much has changed since then yet the entire experience feels so real and so recent.  Our next adventure was riding the subway.  You can only imagine what it looked like as we - 15 very white tall foreigners - traipsed through the underground network.  8 days in and we were doing it like the locals: heads down, elbows up, and charging forward!  They didn't stand a chance.

Next up we didn't stand a chance as the lot of us hopped on bikes for a leisurely midday cycle through the manic roads and charming lane ways of old Beijing. Once again we found ourselves heads down, elbows up only this time we had some serious speed and a vehicle that could inflict a more serious blow. Still, it's safe to say that Beijing won on this one.

We finished the day in true Team Chopper style - shopping until we dropped at the pearls, bags, clothes, and electronics market.  I can safely say, without question, that this group of people is having a measurable (and sizable) affect on the Chinese economy.  I still don't understand why Paul, Pete, Rod, and Brendon needed so many handbags.  Something about matching all their different shoes, I guess.  Shout out to Ben, who got the best deals. I have ever seen on pretty much everything he bought.  Woohoo!

No event for this group would be complete without a proper farewell dinner and happy hour!  I had put together short photo slideshow and proceeded to knight each person with a different royal title.  Rod was deemed Captain Baijiu while Agnes will now forever be known as "Angus, Warrior Princess.". From there we hit the town and unfortunately, all post 10pm antics have been forever banned from publication.  After all, this blog is rated PG!Now it's back to Oz we go. We have been challenged, we have been tested, and we have been shopping (FOR EVERYTHING). Now, at the other end, I believe we have also been profoundly changed; something we may not start to feel until we attempt to rejoin the world after a brilliant 10 days in our China bubble. Team Chopper, you will be missed!