Friday, May 7, 2010

So Long Sao Paulo

Hi all!

After a long long journey, I have finally reached home, back in the usa.

My last week in Sao Paulo was wonderful, checking out new museums, restaurants, areas of the city, and of course just having fun! On the final Friday night, my room mates, host mom, another host mom and friends went to a special samba dancing place where my host mom, Sueli loves to go. Although the facility was only 23 km out side of SP, with all of the crazy city traffic, it took us about an hour and a half to get there! When we arrived, we went to an 'all you can eat' vegetarian pizza restaurant, more or less, heaven! The restaurant was so cute and all of the waiters carried around trays of delicious gourmet pizza, and we could just choose as we liked. In addition to the millions of regular slices, they also showered us with dessert pizza, such as banana, apple, pineapple, and chocolate! After pizza, we entered the dancing room, where the regulars were doing circle dances from around the world, including Israeli dancing! Who would have thought. We had so much fun doing the dances with the other locals and then after a while the samba music began (Sueli on the tamboreen), and we all learned to samba dance. Although Sueli has hosted numerous students over the last seven years, she told me that we were the first to come to her dance studio, pretty lucky. The rest of the weekend, I enjoyed one last taste of the great markets, restaurants, parks, and shopping of the city! On Sunday night, Alison, Eliza and I cooked dinner for Sueli and Filipe - Vietnamese style, to give them a taste of our past journey. It was a big hit! Saying goodbye to the family and the city was definitely sad, but I wasn't too upset, because I know I will be back soon! Good thing my visa doesn't expire for 5 years :)

For the final four days, the group had a "retreat" in a remote area an hour outside the city in Guararema. We spent these days reflecting on our odyssey and understanding how it will influence our lives as we leave the IHP bubble. On our final night, we watched a slide show of our experience, presented awards to everyone in the group, and sang around a bonfire through the night. Our final flight came to a close as we arrived to Huston this morning to return to the reality of the US and life.

Now that I will finally have alone time again, I will reflect more on my experience and further internalize all that I have seen and learned. This trip was definitely once in a life time and I will cherish all those who joined me on this adventure, the places I visited, and those who helped me become a part of each culture. My eyes are now open to a whole new world, and now I am excited to have some free time this summer to read about world histories, theories, and tales to maintain my new inquisitive self.

On day 2 of IHP, I taught the group a saying Ariel and I try to live by, YOLO (you only live once) so basically experience everything. I have definitely YOLOed around the world and lived life to the fullest!

I am going to post all of my pictures soon, so I will post again with the link.

I hope you have enjoyed my blog!
Stay tuned for my next world travels!

Beijos (kisses),

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Back in Sampa

Here is a picture of my host brother Felipe. He is holding the sticker book I wrote about in the last blog post where he collects stickers of each player that will be playing on the different teams in the World Cup this summer. He has been doing this sticker book business since he was 7! After buying 500 stickers and filling the book in, he decided to give me a sticker to put in my journal as a token to remember him. What a cutie. On the right is a picture of me doing Brazilian martial arts, Capuera. I went to a lesson the other night to learn the movements and music. It was amazing and I really want to take lessons when I get back to the states!

Ituverava - Rodeo and more!

Last week, the group headed 6 hours out of Sao Paulo for our 'rural' visit in the country side, a town called Ituverava. All i knew prior to our arrival was that this town has many sugar cane fields and that the five days we were going to be there happened to be the five days of their annual Rodeo festival. Although in the country side, Ituverava much more developed than I had expected and like most of the country, has a small number of extremely wealthy families and many poor families living in favela-like conditions. We were placed with host families among the wealthy crowd, which my host mom refered to as the Brazilian Southern California (and indeed it was just that!) I roomed with my friend Jasmine at the Conti house hold with: Dad Gustavo, Mom Rosangela, Brother Gustavinho (20), Sister Laura (16), and Little sister Alice (12). The family was absolutely wonderful and I immediately felt like one of the Contis. While in Ituverava, we visited the towns hospital, clinics, went on excursions with local health agents, visited sugar cane fields and processing factory, and a school. We also heard from speakers about rural health care and lifestyle and how it has improved drastically in recent years. The city was so excited to have us (as their first American visitors) and made our stay more than amazing. Every night we went to party at the Rodeo festival VIP style. We had passes to watch the bull riding in the mayor's booth and had fun walking around the rest of the carnival (kind of like a giant state fair). I have never seen anything like this before so it was really exciting! Of course I wanted to fit in, so I borrowed cow boy boots and a matching belt to wear every night. After the bull riding would end (around midnight), a different famous performer would play a concert, both Brazilian country and samba music. And after the concert ended (around 2:30) the disco would begin in a venue across the street until the wee hours of the morning! The festival and my new host family were amazing and really made my stay in Ituverava so special! Luckily, the Conti's will be in NY this fall so I will have the opportunity to show them around in my neighborhood!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Continent #3: Sao Paulo, Brazil!!

Greetings from Sao Paulo, one of the biggest cities I've ever seen, filled with sunshine and romance! I am absolutely loving the life here! For the third time, I moved in with my Brazilian host family. I am living with a mom, Sueli, her 18-year old son, Filipe, and the maid, Maria. Sueli is so sweet and has been helping me learn Portugese and Filipe is also really nice. My new room mates (Eliza and Allison) and I are working really hard at bonding with him (he showed us his world cup sticker book yesterday so we are definitely making progress!). Sueli is a dentist and is also studying the laws of the universe, and Felipe just started dental school. Our apartment is right off of one of the main streets in Sao Paulo, Avenida Paulista. The location is amazing and I love walking around the area. There are two awesome parks with in a 15 minute run from the apartment so I am having a lot of fun exploring them. It is crazy to think how green this city feels compared to polluted Hanoi!

I am taking classes at the Santa Casa medical school which is about a 20ish minute bus ride from my home, but with the crazy traffic and the gorgeous weather, I prefer to walk to school. We have had a lot of great guest lecturers and site visits during our stay so far. We visited the Butantan Institute that makes vaccines from snake venom, obstetric hospitals, pro-choice NGOs (abortion is illegal here), an AIDS clinic, and have heard from speakers about Brazilian history, maternal and child health, the universal AIDS treatment program, and the universal health care system. All of this has been really interesting. All of our lectures have highlighted much of the inequalities that exist in Brazil between races and socioeconomic classes. Although there is an extremely large Black (Afro-Brazilian) population here, for the most part these people remain in extreme poverty and live in favelas, slums. I had the opportunity to visit a favela on the outskirts of the city last week which was really eye opening. Until 2 years ago, there was no infrastructure (running water or electricity), and the public elementary school was only built five years ago. This 1 school must cater to the needs of the 47,000 people that live in the favela, which leaves long lines on the waiting list. It was definitely something to see.

I also went with some people in my group to a ritual ceremony for the Afro-Brazilian religion called Candombe. The religion is based on a lot of African rituals that came to Brazil during slave trade. It was really cool to see the traditions and made me miss my life dancing around at church in South Africa.

Ive had so much fun exploring the city and all of the streets and shops. The city is covered in artistic graffiti which adds a lot of fun and excitement to the city buildings. There is horrible traffic 24 hours of the day, which makes sense in a city of 10 million! I have visited a lot of markets and quite a few museums, but still have so many more to see. Over the weekend, I went to the beach with some friends and my host brother which was absolutely gorgeous.
The water was a perfect temperature to swim in and I enjoyed laying out and drinking from a coconut in one hand and a caipirinha (the classic Brazilian cocktail) in the other. I also had my first real sea food experience - with shrimp, crab, and calamari. The city is filled with amazing tropical fruits and every restaurants sells delicious fruit juices! Ive been getting them almost every day. Yum!

Also, I have been making up for having no night life in South Africa and Vietnam here - which has been extremely fun! There are endless options for things to do at night, so I have been exploring different bars and clubs. Nothing even really starts until midnight and goes until all hours in the morning, basically just in time for breakfast the next morning. The city is also filled with so much PDA! People are kissing every where, on streets, in restaurants, even in the supermarket! This is definitely such a change from Vietnam!

All in all, I am loving this city!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Mai Chao Valley!

I spent this past week in the gorgeous Mai Chao Valley, about 4 hours outside of Hanoi. In this village, one of the 53 Vietnamese ethnic minorities live - the White Thai people. In efforts to both preserve their culture and tradition and integrate minority groups into the new Vietnamese market economy, the government has made many ethnic minority villages into tourist attraction. Our group questioned the 'commodification' of the minority as a form of increased tourism, and although this is true, I also feel that tourism is a major way these ethnic minorities can still thrive as a people who preserving their culture. There are no official "hotels" here. All visitors stay in the villagers stilted homes. All 34 members of my group slept on the floor of one families home - it was one crazy 5 day sleepover! The first night we arrive to Mai Chao was the first night of Passover, and of course, I seized this opportunity to host one crazy alternative seder in the middle of rice patties. I managed to get hold of three pieces of matzah - which was an adventure with in itself! I called Chabad in Saigon, who told me there is no matzah in Hanoi, but said to call the Israeli embassy, who told me to call a man Gaby, who told me to call a lady, Suzanne - who was leading the Hanoi seder and told me she would give me three pieces of matzah from the box she got from London! These pieces made it with me to Mai Chao, and with some fun songs and the 4 Questions in Vietnamese, I lead an awesome seder for about 20 people in my group. It was really special for me to share this with so many people in my group for their first time, and reflect on why Passover is still relevant to discuss and celebrate today. During the week, we explored the livelihood of the villagers. We learned about the rice seasons and how to manage the patties and saw where the silk products sold to tourists are made. I also went on a beautiful hike into caves and on a bike ride with my room mate Marian to another village. At night, we saw a great traditional dance show, competed in a volley ball game against the locals, and had a bond fire. Being in such a peaceful and beautiful place for the week provided me with the space to reflect and really rejuvenated me to return to Hanoi for one last weekend before leaving for my last stop, Sao Paulo BRAZIL!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Ha Long Bay

Last weekend the group went to Ha Long Bay - a gorgeous area of caves and mini islands on the coast. We got a private boat for our group which sailed us around the bay and made different stops so we could get off and check out the caves - they were amazing! We also went to a shore area and went on an awesome hike to look out over the whole area. Incredible nature. We had an awesome karaoke party at night, and in the morning kayaked around the bay to hang out with stalagmites and stalagtites! It is definitely a wonder of the world!

Pasta with chopstics, Shabbat Style

Last Friday night, Marian and I decided to cook an "American" dinner for our host family, with a Shabbat twist. We cooked pasta with tomato sauce and parmesan cheese, a side dish of garlicy eggplant, and grilled cheese. Before eating, we did all of the Shabbat traditions - lighting Shabbat candles, making motzi over makeshift challah bread, and saying kiddush, the prayer over the wine.
Since they have never heard of Judaism before, it was fun for me to explain what the various customs symbolize and how I practice with my family at home. Our 13 year old host brother Doung, loved the grilled cheese and proceeded to buy every type of cheese in the supermarket (about three kinds) over the weekend so he can now make it for him self easily. Dinner was a big success! Everyone loved what we made, including grandma who was nervous to try the food.
Who knew eating bow tie pasta with chopsticks in rice bowls could be so fun!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Stars do exist in Vietnam!

This past weekend, I went with a few friends up North to see three of the 53 ethnic minority people living in Vietnam. After a 9 hour train ride and 1 hour bus ride, I finally arrived to my destination of Sapa just in time for the morning markets! In this mountainous region, the Black H'mong and Red Dzao people live. After browsing the markets for a few hours and being bombarded by many women in traditional dress convincing me to buy things from them, the girls and I went with a tour guide, Hiep, to trek to a Black H'mong village. We treked through Cat Cat village, and saw their beautiful waterfall and streams, and among their few houses, tons and tons of rice fields! (and of course buffalo in the fields as natural plows). The homes they live in are relatively small, complete with an indoor fire for cooking, mini bedroom, large roof storage area for food, a sitting area, and an area for clothing. They cultivate rice for one season of the year, and in the last few years, survive mostly by entertaining the interests of tourists from all over. To my surprise, most people spoke English because they have picked it up from so many tourists! We then went with Hiep on a hike up a mountain to look out on all of Sapa for sun set. Seeing as Sapa has now become so touristy, I ate my first non Vietnamese meal at a delicious Indian buffet! I finally saw a few stars at night! I've been missing them so much since arriving to Vietman.

We woke up very early Sunday morning to head out with other people staying at our hotel to visit another area where the Flower H'mong people live, in Bac Ha. Their Sunday market is very famous, as they sell both souvenirs to tourists, and this is where they do their food and clothing shopping. Many of the stalls were filled with fruits, vegetables, meats, fish... the usual. AND they had an area where people bought and sold live dogs, pigs, and chicken! I had tons of fun looking at the material they use to make their elaborate outfits and bought a few ribbons as memorabilia. After the market and lunch, we visited a local village where the Flower H'mong live. In their very rural rice patty area stood a very new and fancy looking school, that almost seemed out of place. It was in this village that I realized I really enjoyed seeing the way they live but feel as though globalization and especially tourism is detracting from their simple way of living.

On our way back to the train station to head home, we made a pit stop at the China border gate. I initially though this would be lame, but it was actually pretty cool, and it was fun to notice the differences between the Vietnamese side and the Chinese side. Of course, there was a pagoda right before the crossing point for anyone who would like to make a last minute prayer.

Before getting on the train, Marian and I stopped to buy some fresh vegetables for the family, which we have been eating all week :) The train home was definitely an experience! There were no more sleeper cars left by the time we booked the train, so the 4 of us girls sat in the lowest class, on the hard 90 degree angle wooden bench for the 8 hours home. Although I needed a serious massage after the ride and used two days to catch up on the sleep, it was at times fun, frustrating, and educational/ cultural to ride in this class. People were smushing extra bodies on to every bench, sleeping on the dirty floors (after a few hours I gave in and curled up on the floor), sold random chachkies in the aisles and made so much noise the whole ride. At least four different times, people tried to kick us out of our seats claiming it to be theirs. After a bit, we realized that of course people were trying to trick us as we were the only non Vietnamese on the train, but that all of those people had scammed tickets! Apparently it is a huge industry here, even the conductors sell these tickets. By the end of the ride, I felt truly delirious but was glad to have had the experience. And arriving to Hanoi at 4 am really opened my eyes up to a new side of the city.

Great weekend. Great to get some fresh air, enjoy the beauty of Vietnam, and soak in much of the traditional culture the country has to offer!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner!

Wow! So much to say since I last wrote. This past week and weekend were really great and I will share some highlights with you, starting with my first weekend with the Lai family.

On Friday night, I had my first Vietnamese Karaoke experience which was so different than anything I've seen before but really fun! I went with a bunch of friends, but Son (my host dad) told Marian (my room mate) and I that he will definitely come with us in the future. On Saturday morning, we got to sleep in (until 9:30) and then went to breakfast with Son and Thao to their favorite weekend eatery, where they go every week to eat Thao's favorite dish, fried eel and noodle soup! We rode their motor bikes there and showed up at a little hole in the wall restaurant, all got bowls of soup, and devoured it all. It tasted much better than it sounded to me when they first proposed the idea of fried eel for breakfast. We then went shopping in areas where all of the products are 'made in Vietnam.' In the afternoon, they took Marian and I to a silk village where there are tons of small market shops where silk products are sold. Son snuck us into the back area where we saw the silk worms, their borrows, and how the women turned this into fibers and wove silk products together. After seeing the process, I knew I had to buy something, so I got a fun dress that Son helped me choose. We then continued on to outskirts of Hanoi to meet Son's grandparents who are 94 and fully functional! They were so cute and old and it was so amazing to meet them. I have never wanted to speak Vietnamese more in my life than in the moments with the great grandparents because I am sure they have so many stories to share and have seen complete transformation of Vietnam and Hanoi. They truly welcomed us into their home as the first foreigners to enter their house ever. Fun fact: the great grandpa rode his bicycle until last year (at 93) when his daughter, the grandma I live with, made him stop! For dinner, we went to Thao's mothers home for their typical Saturday night dinner. We met Thao's sister and her children, her mother, and younger brother. While the women prepared the dinner, Marian and I joined Son for Hanoi draft beers at a local street side stand. For dinner, we ate their family's special food: noodle soup with pork, chicken, shrimp powder, vegetables, and salty egg yolk. Marian and I ate the vegetarian version of this dish, but this was my first exposure to shrimp! Trying new foods :) We joined some friends to walk around in the night market, and made sure to be home by our 10:30 curfew (which is late for our group!).

Sunday morning, M and I accompanied Thao to the big market to buy all of the meat, fish, and vegetables for the week. We headed out at 8 am, which Thao told us was late for the market. This excursion ended up taking a whole hour and a half, and by the time we got back, we were all exhausted from carrying bags and bags of food. Most of the produce comes from either the South or the country side and is so cheap! Watching all of the animals being killed, chopped and sold was a little too much for me to handle.

This past week's theme was "Intro to Vietnam and Environmental Issues." I have learned a lot about Vietnam's history, the past wars, and how Chinese and French colonialism and globalization have shaped the nation today. Hanoi is way more modern and high tech than I expected! In regards to environmental issues in Vietnam, we discussed topics ranging from nutrition, water safety, soil contamination, pollution, and the affects Agent Orange, the herbicide sprayed by the US during the war in the 60s, has had on the nation. As a group this week, we visited the Ministry of Health, the National Traditional Medicine Hospital, and a Hanoi land fill. All three of these sight visits were really fascinating. I loved visiting the Traditional Medicine Hospital and seeing how traditional medicine and modern medicine are used together to treat patients depending on what their condition is. I also really enjoyed visiting the land fill, because I have never seen one before, and now feel that it is something everyone one should see at least once to know what happens to all of our waste.

Other funny event: as I mentioned in my last post, Son has a large alcohol collection, all of which he brews himself from sticky rice. Most of them have an extremely high proof. Last night, Son poured Marian and I two shots of his different alcohols. The first tasted like wine and was sweet, but the second tasted more like wisky - which was too much for me to have at dinner!

Next weekend, I am planning a trip to Sapa, a region in the northern most mountains for a fun get away, and cant wait to breathe fresh air again! All of the pollution and constant hustle and bustle of the city is still feeling quite overwhelming.

Well, until next time!!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Hello Hanoi!

It is only my 4th day here in Hanoi and I already love it!!

The streets are always packed and crowded. Women left and right are popping out of shops trying to sell you things, and everyone here is speeding away on a vespa! Seeing as there are very few traffic lights, motor bikes with the occasional car thrown into the mix, just dart each other and some how successfully manage to avoid car accidents. Crossing the streets was terrifying the the first few days, but now I've realized that you just have to charge into the road and hope that the bikes will just swerve around you - otherwise they will never stop and you will be stuck on the side of the street for hours!

The food is also quiet the experience! There is so much street food everywhere - I can't get enough. Some typical foods are 'Pho' - noodle soup, and rice. Pineapple and mango slices with chili powder and salt are also sold everywhere and so delicious! The meal in the picture above was 15,000 Dong (18,000 = $1) so it was around 80 cents!! All of the food and everything in general is incredibly cheap. Yesterday I decided that I may break my normal eating habits and try some of the crazy and exotic foods here. Last night I was served fish head as a delicacy and tried it... step by step.

On my first full day, I visited the Vietnamese military museum and the 1,000 year old Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius.
I moved in with my wonderful host family yesterday. I am living with Son (father), Thao (mother), Zun (13-yr old son) and Grandma, and have a new room mate, Marian. The family lives in a 3-story house, 3 bedroom and 3 bath, quite a change from the village! I already feel so comfortable with my new host parents. Even though we officially met and moved in yesterday, they were so excited for our arrival that they greeted me on Saturday at my hotel. As our first day, Thao prepared us a traditional Vietnamese lunch, with fish spring rolls, soup, and noodles. All meals are eaten communally and each person serves them self small portion in tiny bowls through out the meal. Son showed me his alcohol collection - complete with various beers and sea horse and scorpion wine! I will let you know how that is! After our post lunch rest, we went on an outing on their motor bikes! Marian rode behind Son, and I rode behind Thao. I felt like I was in a Mary-Kate and Ashley movie, driving through an unfamiliar city and seeing all the sites. They took us to the supermarket to buy breakfast foods that we like, to buy pillows, because they were not sure which style we would prefer, then around the whole city to tour around, and our last stop was to the one pillar pagota. As a Buddhist family, Thao and Son shared with us how to pray in the pagota, mostly for things like wealth, happiness, and longevity.

Of course, I already found the daily night market! I am sure I will visit this a lot. Very few people speak English in the city, so I am practicing my non-verbal cues of pointing and smiling. Luckily, I have a Lonely Planed mini language guide book so I have used that to explain to people what I am trying to say. If I want to practice my great bargaining skills, I need to learn some key phrases fast! My biggest struggle so far is to make sure the tones are correct, as there are 6 tones here and the same word can mean so many things!