Friday, February 11, 2011

Letter of Thanks from Rwandan Municipal Gov't

Now that we're back in Canada, we can take care of some of the housekeeping details. Here's a scan of a document that was given to our at our last goat distribution session in Rwanda. A huge thanks to all of you who contributed to our goat project ! This is something we're going to frame and keep on the wall.

Letter from Jean-Marie who handled the administration for each of our goat distribution session.

I've also attached a scan of a list that Jean-Marie would bring to each goat distribution session. The headings on the list indicate name, district, # of children, financial status. The list would typically comprise of 20 names. He would inform each of the 20 ahead of time to be at the school at 2:30pm to collect their goat. At the school, he would then call them up one by one, we would give them their goat, take a photo and then they waited for the group photo. If someone showed up who wasn't on the list, he would take down their information and go back to the office to see if their financial status qualifed them for the program.

In this particular list, each of these people had a financial status of umukene which means these households typically have some land and shelter, but no means to save. They are self-sufficient in the sense that they live from their own labor and produce enough to survive from day to day. Their children do not always attend school, and they usually do not have access to health care.
This is an example of a list he's bring. It's organized by name, district, # of kids, financial Status

And here's a few more photos to remind you, and us, of the goat distribution experience.

Giving a goat to a very happy lady and a very happy baby.

Group picture for the 20 recipients
Unfortunately this is the only photo I could find with Jean-Marie. Very nice and honest man who managed the program really well.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

The purpose of our trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia was to see Angkor Wat which we had seen a documentary on just before we left for our trip.  Angkor Wat (Sanskrit for Temple City) was built between 1113 and 1150 by King Suryavaman II. The actually Angkor period itself was from 800 AD to about 1400 AD and was started by victorious Khmer Hindu king Jayavarman II who apparently formally declared himself to be a ‘god-king’ and a ‘universal monarch’.  I think we’ve all felt like a ‘god-king’ at some point in our lives. The Angkor period is littered with kingly battles and takeovers  so the temples reflect both Hindu and Buddhist influences.
Angkor Wat is the most famous temple in the area, however there is said to be over 1,000 temples built in the area, a small portion of which have been preserved fairly well.  Incredibly, no mortar was ever used to keep the stones together.
In terms of our logistics, our tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh told us that his ‘brother’ would love to be our tuk-tuk driver in Angkor Wat and the rate would be $15US per day. A tuk-tuk is required to get from Siem Reap to Angkor (about 30 minutes) and then to actually go from temple to temple as well.  The ‘brother’ Mr. Sun picked us up from the bus station and wound up recommending a guesthouse that was cheaper (by $8 a night) and roomier than the one that we had booked.  [Sidebar : In Toronto, it’s not uncommon to drop $10 for a drink, at least $60 for a decent dinner for 2 and $100 for a clean hotel.  The value of money changes in SE Asia..but the joy of getting a great deal does not.  In Siem Reap, our original guesthouse was $25 a night and Mr Son recommended a place that was $17 a night. That’s over 30% savings! We’d negotiate at the street markets from $15 down to $8. Sometimes down from $3 to $2.’s only a buck.  And sometimes we feel a little guilty because the vendor probably needs the dollar a lot more than we do. However we justified to ourselves that we don’t have jobs and we’re travelling for 5 months so each dollar is a little more important to us than usual. Additionally, there are scores of naive tourists (those who don’t negotiate or only try and get 10% off) willing to pay the inflated prices. We resolved to conduct our negotiations fairly and if the vendor accepted our price, he did so because he was making a profit. ]
We bought a 3-day pass to Angkor Wat and enjoyed learning about the history and climbing up some of the temples.  I’m not intelligent or passionate enough about architecture to accurately describe the grandeur we witnessed, so I’ll let the photos do the talking. However here’s a few of our stories.
The Girl and the Guidebook
As our Tuk-Tuk driver parked in front of Angkor Wat, about 15 children approached us selling various trinkets and books. One particular girl, about 12 yrs old, was uber-aggressive and pushed her book towards us.
Girl : You need book to enjoy temple. Where are you from?
Me :  Canada
Girl : Your prime minister is Stephen Harper. Your capital is Ottawa.
Me: Very impressive!
Girl : Thank you. Now buy book.
Me : How much ?
Girl : $20
Me : That’s crazy talk ! Too expensive.
Girl : No ! It’s very nice book ! See all the pictures !
Me: No. Too expensive. And I don’t want a book now. I’ll buy a book tomorrow.
Girl : But I’m not here tomorrow. I go to school.
Me : Ok. What’s your best price ?
Girl : Ok ok ok.$15.
Me:  This is Cambodia! Nothing is $15!
Girl : Ok ok ok. $12.
Me: $10 is my final offer. [It was a moment of weakness on my part. I was sure I could get it for $5 but the Harper thing and her school threw me off my game. Damn you, Stephen Harper]
Girl : Ok. $10
I opened my wallet and she sees I have Thai Baht currency. She wants Thai Baht instead of US, so I give her 1000 Thai Bhat (about $33 US) so I expect about $23 US in return. She gives me $10. I look at her and tell her to give me $13 more dollars. She gives me $3 more dollars. I ask for $10 more and explain to her that I know exactly how much 1,000 Thai Baht is worth. Her face falls a bit. She says something about having no more US dollars. I give her the change back, take back my 1,000 Baht bill and give her $10 US for the book . She looks a little disappointed and walks away.
This whole exchange embodies the good and bad of Cambodia.  Amazing sites and friendly people but poverty-ravaged hoping to make a buck anyway they can, honestly or dishonestly in some cases. BTW, 2 days late we saw some kid selling the same book for $2. D’OH !

Adult and child hawkers ready to pounce on tourists
After-hours at Angkor Wat
After walking around for a bit just past sunset, the security guards informed the tourists that visiting hours had come to a close. We lingered for a little bit longer at one particular spot because the views were breathtaking. A guard approached us and asked if we wanted to get even better views. Intrigued, we prodded him and he offered to take us to a higher level for $10. Again, I was a little stunned by the security guard making such an offer so I didn’t even think to negotiate down to $5. We followed the guard into an area undergoing construction. We stealthily climbed a couple sets of stairs, navigated through some scaffolding and walked on a wide ledge until we were at the top. He was was an marvellous view. The security guard then offered to take photos of us. So we gave him our camera, although I watched him like a hawk ready to chase in case his plan was to ditch us and steal our camera. In fact, he took photography quite seriously to the extent that he would lay on the ground to achieve the best angles. It was completely surreal..but we’re happy with his photos.

So this is safe right ?
Photo courtesy of the friendly yet corrupt security guard
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
We heard that sunrise at Angkor Wat was a must-do, so we abided by a 4am wake up call, which was a challenge given that our usual hours were 9am-1am.  Strangely enough, the guide that Mr Son had arranged for us that day informed us that he had 2 Red Bulls for breakfast because his sister was married the evening before and he had gotten very little sleep. I actually thought this sunrise experience was a little overrated as there were a lot of other tourists chattering about so it wasn’t exactly one of the euphoric moments where a bolt of clarity reveals itself upon you as you sit in amazement at the wonder before you. It was more of a moment where I struggled to maintain focus while the Chinese tourists beside us yapped at full pitch and our guide tried to overcompensate for his stupor with some fun-facts that weren’t that interesting.

Unfortunately this was the best shot I got. I wasn't kidding..I was half asleep.
Running into the Slowboat crew
We had traded Facebook messages with Ed and Maria (2 Brits we bonded with on the 2-day slowboat trip from Thailand to Laos. We discovered we were both in Siem Reap but prior to getting a chance to organize a get together, we actually ran into each other at a temple ! I LOVE when that happens. It also happened to us with our other slowboat friends Jeff and Christiane when we were in Phnom Penh. Dal and I were at a restaurant and somehow she spotted them walking past.

The slowboat crew debating the socio-political philosophies of 12th century Indochina.
Overall, Angkor Wat is simply splendid. It’s definitely worth the trip. However don’t feel obligated to spend 3 full days looking at temples. There are about 7 main ones and after that, they all somewhat blend together.  Dal and I spent one full day and 2 half days and that was more than sufficient for us to get our fill.
This group of musicians are victims of landmines. They were near Ta Prohm temple.
Ta Prohm
I was able to hold that pose for about 4 seconds before it hurt.
Ta Prohm. One of the coolest temples because it's been left the way it was discovered in the 19th century, with trees growing through the temple.
Mr Son, our Tuk Tuk driver catching a nap while we're temple hopping.
Climbing Ta Keo
Ta Keo. Notice the lack of hand railings and general safety.
Someone's obviously not using a moisturizer.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cambodia - The Good

In our last post, I painted a pretty dismal picture about the history, present state and future of Cambodia. I hope you’ll find this post a bit more uplifting as I briefly recap our experiences with those brave souls who have successfully committed themselves to providing hope by creating schools, employment and awareness of the issues.
Our friend Robin who volunteered with us in Rwanda suggested we visit Friends Restaurant when in Phnom Penh. So one afternoon, we lunched over there and read about all the good work the organization does ( ). We spent about $25 (which was easily the most expensive lunch we had had since we had left Canada) but it absolutely worth the price. It was continental food with a Cambodian flair and it was scrumptious. The restaurant is staffed with street teenagers who are being groomed for employment in the hospitality industry. Their attention to detail, genuine politeness and sense of self-esteem reminded me how a little faith and investment in an individual is sometimes all that’s required. After our lunch, we went next door to their training school where other students are learning various vocations. Upon learning the beautician students were offering manicures and pedicures for about $6, Dal sat down for an hour long pampering. She noticed I looked bored, so she arranged for a foot massage and a male pedicure for me. I sat down..and after about 2 minutes, my beautician called in for backup and her manager came to provide additional support. I have no idea why. Nor do I care to speculate. [Sidebar – What’s appropriate facial/vocal encouragement for a male to give a female masseuse during a massage?  I’m always fearful of either coming off as unappreciative of the effort or, at the other end of the spectrum, as a creepy, lecherous old man looking for extra services. I typically wait for them to ask how it is and respond with ‘very good’, a 60% smile and head waggle (if in India) to show my appreciation and then go back to closing my eyes. And that brings me to another question. When the masseuse is in front of you while massaging, where is a male supposed to direct his eyes? Ideally, I’d be focused on reading my BlackBerry or a magazine. If those aren’t available, I just close my eyes to avoiding staring at the masseuse. But then I worry about how blissful I look…again trying to avoid looking like creepy, lecherous man. Anyone have a definitive/helpful/funny answer to the etiquette ?]
After our experience in Rwanda, Dal and I had decided to look for other volunteer opportunities during our trip. While in Luang Prabang, Laos we met a wise Dutchman named Leonard. He also went to McGill, had a career in advertising and consulting, was an avid globe-trotter and provided support for a couple of students and tuk-tuk drivers in Siem Reap, Cambodia (more details at . We traded contact info and when we arrived in Siam Reap, he let us know he was staying at Seven Candles guesthouse. I googled this place and discovered it was run by Ponheary Ly who was a finalist for CNN’s 2010 Hero of the Year! As a tour guide at Angkor Wat, she witnessed children skipping school to sell souvenir trinkets to make money and this drove her to start her foundation ( . Step by step, she allocated her tips to children’s education and raised awareness to tourists. She now supports over 2,000 kids through four primary and five secondary schools. We called them up and told them we wanted to visit one of her schools for the day. The next day, we showed up at the guesthouse to meet Ponheary and her business partner, Lisa from Texas, and took an hour-long tuk-tuk ride into a village where one of the schools had been set up. The school reminded us a little bit of our Rwandan experience with Cathy and PREFER.  Shiny, smiling faces eager to learn led by enthusiastic local teachers intent on helping the children with the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. Lisa explained some of the administrative and political finagling they’ve gone through in order to grow the foundation and acquire support from other major NGO’s such as the World Food Programme. Additionally we had an insightful discussion on the psyche of the Cambodian kids and parents and how poverty and living for daily survival drives their decision making. Recognizing the importance of children’s education is an evolving process itself amongst the communities. Writing this blog post reminds me that I’d love to connect Lisa with Cathy from Rwanda so that they can share their best practices on grassroots education programs.

Me, Ponheary Ly and Dal

One of classes in the primary school learning English

Lisa explaining to Dal about the area designated to teach farming

A volunteer (we can't remember her name) from Minnesota introducing the kids to sock puppets

My debut as a sock puppet king

I'm not sure if she's more unimpressed with my sock puppet, my raspy King voice or my Leafs ballcap.

The pose on the left is pure poster bad-ass

Mackerel donated by Saudi Arabia. This came from the World Food Programme
After leaving the school, Lisa took us to visit a family to inquire why one of their children had not been attending class lately. The child was confined to a wheelchair due to a case of Muscular Dystrophy. The family of six children were very poor although the father worked as a labourer to feed his family. The child in the wheelchair had a fantastic spirit and show off his skills manoeuvring a ball with his feet. Apparently the child hadn’t come to school because his wheelchair was broken so Lisa provided a bit of money to assist with getting the wheelchair repaired.
A clean-water project supported by Canadians !

The family house

I love the nonchalant lean against the wall. You lookin' at me ?

This child was amazing. Huge smile, huge spirit and nimble with his feet

One of the tours we did in Siem Reap was of the Cambodian Land Mine Museum. My entire knowledge of landmines had been acquired through watching the movie “The Hurt Locker” which made this tour even more riveting. It’s estimated that there may still be up to six million land mines scattered across Cambodia which cause around 35 deaths a month. Already 40,000 people have lost limbs due to land mines giving Cambodia the dubious distinction of having the most amputees per capita (about one in every 275 people have lost a limb!). A treaty to ban land mines was signed by over 100 countries in 1997. However, the USA, China and Russia who are the main producers all refused to sign the treaty so production continues to this day.
The museum ( was started by a former Khmer Rouge child solider, Aki Ra, who used to lay mines for the army. In 1995, he received UN training on removing mines and began to clear them from his country with simple tools such as a knife and stick. The museum is a place to show all the decommissioned mines, bombs and other weapons and the impact they’ve had on the country. Proceeds go to Cambodians that have suffered loss due to landmines.  Aki Ra was also a finalist as a CNN 2010 Hero.

Cambodian service station. Not exactly Shell or Petro Canada.

Getting ready to fill the tank of our tuk-tuk
Child + wife beater shirt + messy bowl haircut + Fanta = awesomeness

A display of decommissioned bombs and mines

While Cambodia has many extreme blemishes to its name, there is good to be found. We’re in complete awe of heroes like Ponheary Ly and Aki Ra who have dedicated their lives to daily swimming upstream in their efforts to improve the lives of others.
- DP

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Cambodia - the Bad

I’ve never been a big history buff but this trip has me contemplating about subscribing for the History Channel. What’s particularly fascinating about SE Asia is that many of the seminal moments laden with civil war and mass bloodshed that define their socio/economic/political state have taken place during my lifetime or just before.

South Vietnam and the US attacked Cambodia in the early 70s in an effort to weaken the rebel communist forces of the Khmer Rouge and the Viet Cong. These attacks backfired as it created 2 million refugees that streamed into the cities, many of whom who joined the Khmer Rouge with a strong resolve against the US.  In 1975, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, took power and ironically renamed the country Democratic Cambodia. In the back drop, the nation was going through a devastating famine that required external assistance to overcome. Pol Pot, however, took a dastardly approach to this problem. He decided to evacuate the cities and focus solely on agriculture, through manual labour rather than technology assistance. He effectively eliminated arts and culture in his country by destroying temples, libraries and schools and looked to rid his country of all intellectuals so that he could maintain power. We visited a school which was converted into a prison and interrogation centre, called Security Prison 21 or S21. During the four years of Pot’s reign from ’75-’79 over 17,000 prisoners were tortured in S21 with the goal of getting them to give up names of their family and friends that could threaten the paranoid Pot. Again, it was mainly educated people and those from the previous regime that were subjected to this horrible treatment. Ethnic Chinese were cleansed, and those with glasses were targeted because they were likely to be educated or professional. Eventually, Pot even turned on some members of his own government whom he suspected may undermine him and sent them to S21. The forced confessions that prisoners gave were a mix of true events and fictitious accounts of their links to the CIA, KGB or Vietnam. One of the displays at S21 showed the last sentence of one prisoner’s particular confession: I am not a human being. I am an animal.

S21 Museum
One of the room where prisoners were held and tortured
One of the prison cells
This is worth clicking on to enlarge. Simply barbaric.

After suffering from torture inflicted daily for 2-3 months, prisoners were taken to the Killing Fields where various weapons were used in their execution. They were then buried in mass graves in the grounds. We visited the Killing Fields which was another excruciating but necessary emotional experience. We saw the sites of the mass graves and read the descriptions of the savage executions that made us question how one human being could do this to another human being.

During the Khmer Rouge reign, it’s estimated that over 2 million Cambodians or 25% of the population was extinguished.  The war only ended after Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia in ’79. Yet due to corruption and very slow movement from the UN and the tribunals, it took 31 years before the first Khmer Rouge member was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and was sentenced to prison, shockingly only for 19 years.

A very tasteful display to commerorate those who died in the Killing Fields

Some of the mass graves


Having visiting Rwanda and learning about its scarred history, there are several parallels to be drawn about the genocides both countries have endured. Essentially both countries suffered due to the whims of barbaric government leaders that were driven by a large dose of paranoia and craved indefinite control at any costs. There were so many illogical decisions yet so much coldly-calculated brutality.

However the post-war period shows some stark differences between the two countries that left us feeling incredible optimistic about Rwanda’s future and completely depressed about Cambodia. In Rwanda, they a president with 95% approval (some of it may be coerced) who’s intelligent, well-respected both internally and by foreign leaders and seems to have the well-being of the country and his people as his main priority. He wants Rwanda to reduce its dependency on foreign aid and for the people to have an urgency that drives them to do better. He’s a strong believer in education and is encouraging business development. His government has been quick to lead Rwanda to forgiveness so that the country’s collective psyche could move onto brighter days.

Conversely, Cambodia simply doesn’t have its shit together. It’s still in the infancy state of reconciliation. In the 80’s, the Khmer Rouge continued to exist and attack local resistant territories. This brought upon sanctions from the Western power and coupled with the impact of these attacks, reconstruction was halted and the country remained incredibly poor. It’s very dependent on its Asian neighbours, and goes as far as to outsource much of its commercial administration to Vietnam. It’s ranked 127th in the world audit corruption rankings (Rwanda was 51st) and we could sense the frustration amongst Cambodians. We spoke to a few locals who wanted to start businesses but kept running into roadblocks from the government. Education is available, but there’s not as much importance placed upon it as in Rwanda. And the sickening distribution of wealth is evidenced by the massive Lexus 570 SUVs which are apparently owned by government officials and NGO’s driving along the roads of Phnom Penh as poor children beg.

Unfortunately I don't have a photo of the BIG 570's so this will have to do
I know this is a depressing post and it took a while to gather my thoughts for this one. I promise the next post, Cambodia – the Good, will be more uplifting as I’ll focus on some of the amazing people who are making a difference there.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

After the shopping spree in Hoi An, we flew further south to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), better known as Saigon, but also known as the Paris of the Orient as it was a key French colony. “The Fall of Saigon” or “Liberation of Saigon” (depending on your viewpoint) happened in 1975 at the conclusion of the Vietnam War and the city was soon renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the communist leader of the Viet Cong.

One of the most disturbing tours we took on our trip was that of the War Remnants Museum. The Museum was actually opened in 1975 and was known as “The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government of South Vietnam”.  An inoffensive, neutral name that rolls off the tongue eh? The name evolved into the Museum of American War Crimes, then the War Crimes Museum and finally the War Remnants Museum. The museum grounds had some of the large tanks and helicopters that the US Army used. Inside the museum were various themed rooms. Some showed domestic and international art and media portrayal of the war, with an obvious anti-US or pro-Viet Cong bias. One of the toughest exhibits we digested was the one focused on chemical warfare, covering the effects of Agent Orange, napalm and defoliants used by the US to remove the jungle advantage the Viet Cong fighters had. Horrid deformities continue to be experienced by the newest generation of Vietnamese whose parents or grandparents were harmed by the chemicals. Another exhibit covered the My Lai massacre which can only be described as a few maniacal American soldiers taking gross, barbaric liberties with Vietnamese civilian children, women and men. I’ve never felt that emotionally charged walking out of a museum before and when I asked Dal what she’s do if she saw an American at the moment, she angrily replied “I’d punch them in the face”.  [Sidebar :  I know a few of our American friends check our blog but since you’re all reasonable people, please rest assured you won’t be wearing knuckle imprints after our next encounter]

Outside the War Remnants Museum
One of the exhibits from the tours
A couple of days later, we took a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels located at a pivotal jungle area where much fighting occurred. We were amazed to see the intricate 75-mile long network of tunnels that the Viet Cong used during combat to hide, eat, move, transport supplies, treat injuries and sleep. It was even used to lure and trap the burly Americans who would get stuck in the tunnels.  There were several highlights of this tour including seeing the various methods of trapping the enemies and getting a chance to navigate through the tunnels. At the end of the tour, they have a shooting range where one can try firing an assault rifle. I chose to make my mark with an AK47 (10 bullets for about $12…I missed the target 9 times) for the first, and likely last, time I’ll ever shoot a gun.

Navigating the Cu Chi tunnels
Sniping the enemy
Dal was the only one who fit into this tunnel. Note the blue Crocs.
Continuing the trend from Hoi An, we did some shopping. After searching 2 months for a rain-jacket that fit AND was under $100US AND was waterproof, Dal finally found a sweet North Face jacket for $22. I was astonished by the prices but given all the tags on the gear as well the conversations I had with people in the market, it seems to be legit. I wound up buying a pair of Croc shoes for $8 [Sidebar : Yes. I’m one of those people who have made fun of people who wore Crocs. Now that I own a pair and have worn them continuously for six weeks, they’re easily the most comfortable, versatile pair of sandals I’ve ever had. I bought a beige pair so they wouldn’t stand out too much. A Russian dude on our Cu Chi tunnels tour took a different approach and bought a pair of bright, garish aqua blue Crocs. What a douche.]

Lastly, I’d like to recap the strangest of the many massages we had in South East Asia. There was a sign in our hotel that massages were available for $8. The photo and text on the poster looked appropriate and the hotel was classy enough that we assumed we were in for a legit massage. So we spoke to the hotel front desk and ordered 2 masseuses for a couples massage at 9pm. At 9pm, the doorbell at our hotel rang and a petite Asian woman in a top and miniskirt holding a small towel and baby oil smiled at us. Dal and I looked at each other quizzically and then asked her where the other masseuse was. She didn’t speak a lick of English so all 3 of us went down to the front desk to find out what happened. The woman at the front desk didn’t speak much English but after a few minutes, we figured out the 2nd woman would be coming at 9:45pm. So we told the first girl to come back at 9:45 so that we could get our massages together.  As we returned to our room, Dal worriedly asked me if we should just cancel. I quickly soothed her doubts and assured her the massage would be relaxing and the experience would be fun.  I sprinkled in a few foursome jokes which probably didn’t help the cause…but I couldn’t help myself. At around 10pm, both masseuses arrived and we got started. They basically laid a bath towel for each of us on the double bed and Dal and I lay there in our underwear. I had the petite masseuse who showed up early and she attempted to pulverize me for the next hour. Dal received a much gentler massage from her larger masseuse. At times, it was a little too gentle as the masseuse was deeply engrossed in a phone conversation and was basically delivering a half-assed one-armed massage. I looked at her..and then at my masseuse. Thankfully my masseuse clued in and asked her friend to put her phone away and get back to work. However Dal’s friend didn’t turn her ringer off and we heard beeps repeatedly throughout the hour. At another point…I felt my masseuse standing on my back so I told Dal to turn her head and take a look. She did and burst out laughing as mine was basically dancing a Thai jig while using the ceiling to maintain her balance. photos. At the end of the massage, we tried tipping $1 to each of them. Suddenly, their English skills improved dramatically. “Not enough. Give more please”.  We gave an extra dollar each and sent them on their way.

The bed, prior to the doubles massage.
Bonus photo : Note the striking resemblance to the real Mona Lisa. You can barely tell the difference eh ?
Overall, we enjoyed Saigon more than Hanoi because it was a much better walking city. Many, MANY people warned us about safety in terms of bag snatching and pick-pocketing so we took the necessary precautions and really enjoyed ourselves here.