Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Train Wreck

At the end of our amazing adventure in Hue, we were to catch a night train to Hanoi.   A train had derailed, though, delaying the entire train line headed north.  As a result our train was delayed.  It wasn’t until 2:30 in the morning that our train finally arrived.  Vietnamese sleeper trains are very clean and pleasant—I have absolutely no complaints.  To this day the worst trains I’ve ridden on were in Italy.  We were supposed to arrive in Hanoi the next morning, but because of the delays it was going to be evening of the next day. 

After a long night and day, our train stopped about 15 minutes outside of Hanoi.  We were in the third car from the front.  Outside, we could see a car had been severely damaged by a collision, and we quickly discovered that it was from our train.  There were five people in the car, not including the driver.  They were in a taxi, a family returning home from a wedding.  The taxi driver decided to cut over the train tracks, and the car got stuck.  Seeing the train coming, the driver bailed from the car, but the family did not have time.  Three of them were instantly killed, one was severely injured, and an 11 year old boy was pinned in the car.  We could see some of this from our window.  Our guide, Phuong, and a former Australian military member of our group, Justin, jumped out to help.  People in nearby houses also rushed to help.  Train officials jotted down notes on their clipboards, and took photos, but did not get involved.  Phuong, Justin, and a few others worked tirelessly to free the boy.  They did, and it was another 45 minutes before a cab was flagged down and sent to the hospital.  He most likely lost his legs.  We were delayed for about two hours.  There was absolutely no damage to the train. 

It was heart wrenching, and we were all shaken from the experience.  It is hard to not feel responsible, in a way, for those deaths, even though it was far beyond my control.  It is frustrating to see no ambulance come in response to a huge tragedy like this.  It was inspiring to see a community jump in to help, immediately.  We were ending our vacation, and were looking forward to sailing in Halong Bay for a few days, before wrapping it up in Hanoi.  We did have an incredible time in Vietnam, but I will absolutely always remember that train wreck with sadness and grief. 

We are so lucky to have so much help at our disposal with a moment’s notice.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Adventures in Vietnam

We had been on the road for four weeks without a single incident.  China, Cambodia, and a week left to check out more of Vietnam.  We had visited Hue, a former capitol, complete with its own forbidden city-like complex and several tombs of former Vietnamese kings.  The highlight of our time in Hue was a day where we spent the first part of the morning on the water, as there is a river that flows through the city.  We traveled to an ancient Buddhist monastery.  It was serene.  Our guide, Phuong, dug in the ground and quickly found a shell from an American gun left from the war.  Hue is filled with scars from the American war. 

Going through the monastery, though, was peaceful.  It was a bit overcast, and Rick and I enjoyed wandering the grounds on a hill rising above the river.  There was a rusted car on display, the car that had been driven to Saigon in 1963 to protest the treatment of Buddhist monks by the Southern Vietnamese government.  The driver, a Buddhist monk, borrowed it from a college student, parked the car, doused himself with kerosene in the middle of the street, and lit himself on fire.  He committed suicide to send a message that the war was unjust.  His home was the monastery in Hue.  At least two Americans copied his act of protest—Norman Morrison, a 31 year old father, burned himself outside the Pentagon in 1965, and Alice Herz, an 82 year old woman, set herself on fire the week before Morrison on a Detroit, Michigan street corner. 

After the monastery, we got back on the boat, headed up the river a bit more, taking in several fishermen.  We got off the boat and got on the back of a motorcycle, each of us with our own Vietnamese driver.  It was awesome.  The rain started to let down.  It didn’t really stop the rest of the day, only occasionally giving us respite. We continued on, and I enjoyed the views of rice paddies, interrupted by narrow roads and alleyways in neighborhoods.  Our next stop was a coliseum like structure.  It was erected during the French occupation (starting in the 1850s) for their amusement.  They used it for animal fights, we were told.  As we peeked through the locked gate, a group of kids came running up to us to check us out.  Having spent some time in Cambodia, I assumed they were trying to get some money.  They didn’t, though.  They were just curious, and according to Phuong, they were on a school holiday, saw us, and just wanted to check us out.  In Cambodia, where poverty is really bad, many children do not attend school because it is much more lucrative for them to sell goods to foreigners.  I did not find that to be the case at all in Vietnam. 

Next, we were off to see some tombs of the Nguyen family, who had officially ruled Vietnam from the early 1800s, but had huge influence in the region for hundreds of years.  We stopped at one of the more impressive tombs, and it was in disrepair.  Having spent time in China, I saw many parallels, but this tomb looked neglected.  Hue is the major crossroads between North and South Vietnam.  Unlike Korea’s 38th Parallel, which is man-made, Vietnam’s division between the north and south had existed for centuries.  As a result, Hue became a crucial part of the war between the Viet Cong (Communist North) and the United States, who supported the South.  There were a lot of major battles fought throughout this region. 

For lunch, we continued to a Buddhist Nunnery, where we had an amazing vegetarian spread.  The rain got far worse, and so we stayed for awhile.  The nuns encouraged us to take a rest in their beds.  Their beds consisted of a bamboo mat—the kind you purchase to hang out on the beach in Hawaii—on the concrete floor.  This was typical throughout Asia—I saw this in several Chinese homes, Cambodian, and Vietnamese.  The rain wasn’t getting any better, so we jumped back on the motorcycles to take a look at an old covered bridge. 

There also happened to be a “history museum” next to the bridge, so of course I dragged Rick in to see it.  An old Vietnamese woman, probably in her 80s, took us around to each exhibit and showed us how traditional people in the region lived through pantomime.  She was wonderful, and when she smiled, her teeth were black.  At the end of her tour, she took some green leaves and chewed them, pointing at her teeth.  Then she offered them to me.  Usually not one to refuse, I did this time.  Thank goodness!  When I asked Phuong about her teeth, he shared that it is popular for older people to chew leaves that turn their teeth black.  It is considered a mark of honor for the elderly.  She was definitely proud of her teeth. 

After wandering through more beautiful countryside, we stopped at a shop selling all kinds of things, but most importantly, incense.  Here I received a lesson on rolling incense.  It’s difficult!  From there we went back to civilization.  We visited a friend of Phuong’s, a woman named Thuy. 

Thuy’s mom was pregnant during the war, and her mother was exposed to Agent Orange.  As a result, Thuy’s arm never fully developed, so Thuy functions with one arm.  Because she was exposed to Agent Orange, no one will marry her, as they fear her children could also have genetic issues.  Because she cannot marry, Thuy, a woman in her 30s, still lives with her parents.  For a living she makes beautiful hats.  Here we would call them rice paddy hats—the conical shaped hats that are stereotypical for those working in rice paddies to wear.  The beauty of her hats is when you hold them up to the light, there is a silhouette of a typical scene in Hue.  I bought a few different sizes.  Thuy was lovely, and spoke reasonable English.

I really enjoyed Hue. The Vietnamese people were so gracious and welcoming.  I think of Thuy often.  She was filled with love and joy, in spite of the life of restriction she leads.  She did not appear bitter, but accepting, and at peace.  I hope to be more like Thuy in my day to day life.

All photos taken by me or Rick McDonough 1) Perfume River, Hue 2) Thien Mu Pagoda  3) Car at Thien Mu Monastery  4) Tiger Arena or Ho Quyen Coliseum  5) Nguyen Tomb  6)  Buddhist Nunnery near Hue  7) History Museum near Hue  8) Thuy & our guide, Phuong  9) Countryside outside of Hue

Saturday, July 7, 2012


It was a very moving moment.  At the train platform at Auschwitz, a group of people draped in the Israeli flag spent some time here, on the tracks.  They sang, embraced each other, cried, and left behind the candles.  To be at Auschwitz is overwhelming and you don't know quite what to feel or do to take it all in.  Watching people mourn their loved ones made it much more of a tangible experience.  While Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel's stories popped in my head, the survivors and their pain, along with the clear connection to Israel's fight, was so vivid on that hot July morning.

A few years ago I started teaching the Arab-Israeli conflict to my senior IB World History class, and it was right after a summer trip to Israel with the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teacher’s Program  Teaching the situation in the Middle East is difficult.  I often have Arab students in my class who have family in the midst of the situation, and occasionally I also have Jewish students who come at it from a different angle, so it is important to let the students take charge of the learning.  We read The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan, an amazing story that teaches the history of the complex conflict, while telling the true story of a Palestinian family & a Jewish family who occupied the same home at different times.  We also watch an excellent documentary entitled Promises, which traces the lives of seven children on both sides of the conflict.  Each child’s family comes from a different perspective, so it is valuable in conveying that there are not only two sides, but several valid points of view.  I also recommend seeing Paradise Now and The Lemon Tree (which has nothing to do with the book) for more insight.

Going to Israel was an amazing experience.  On the one hand, I felt the emotion behind Holocaust survivors to fight for protection from anti-Semitism, for there to be a safe place for them, and a place where they can practice their beliefs in the open, with pride.  However, it was hard to understand the wall surrounding Jerusalem—a barrier.  I have a hard time with barriers, especially physical ones.  It was also powerful to see Muslims, Christians, Jews, and secular, non-religious people living in harmony in a holy city with so much history.  It is possible for there to be peace. 

Friends of mine lived in Jerusalem for a couple of years.  I had a chance to see them briefly, while I was there.  They were not Jewish, and as we sat on a bench eating ice cream,  they shared the woes of finding an apartment to rent since they did not practice kosher eating.  When they returned to the States, I remember Peter telling my husband that he was having a hard time re-adjusting.  He felt guilty for the ease in going about his day.  No one cared what religion he was, what he was wearing, or much else.  In Israel, this determines everything. 

I am so thankful for the thoughtlessness that we have in going about our day, but I am also glad that I had a glimpse, a moment merely, of seeing something else.  

All photos were taken by me on my trip to Poland and Israel.  1) Auschwitz 2) Jerusalem  3) Jews dancing at night in Jerusalem with loud Jewish music meets techno  4) Guns being guarded outside of a Holocaust Museum outside Nahariya.  It is mandatory to serve in the Israeli military, and part of that service includes Holocaust education.  5) Kibbutz outside of Nahariya

Friday, July 6, 2012

Musings of a Parallel Universe

I wrote a couple months ago about being inspired by Mark Twain to go out in the world and try the things that you always wished you had given a shot.  A friend of mine has been talking about being a writer for a living since I met her almost eleven years ago.  At the time we met, she and I were classroom neighbors just setting out to try the teaching thing, and we were both teaching freshman English.  She dreamed of writing, and I dreamed of being a travel writer or host of a show like Globe Trekker.  Neither of us has really changed our minds.  Both of us are still teaching, only I have switched into teaching all history classes, and she has moved to teaching 12th grade English. 

Now she is going out there and doing what we have always talked about doing, and here I am with nothing to show for myself.  Don’t get me wrong—I feel great about my life choices.  I just feel like there is a parallel life or two out there that I could have, would have lived, had I not chosen this particular path.  Sometimes I wonder, too, if my wandering and exploring will lead me to that path, just in a matter of time…I just have to find it. 

Please check out my friend’s journey.  It is very inspiring, and I hope to jump start my own dreams, so please follow my musings as I explore here, on my blog!

All photography by Rick McDonough taken in Shanghai, China

Monday, July 2, 2012

Planning Puerto Rico

We ended up deciding on the Fort Lauderdale beach cottage.  We like the idea of being closer to the city, which gives us more flexibility in making day trips around Southern Florida.  We’re excited about checking out Florida.  I know it’s crazy to go in the summer, but it’s our vacation window, and so we’ll take it!  We will be celebrating our fifth anniversary there, too!

For our next leg, we’re off to Puerto Rico.  I spent a lot of time sifting through different vacation properties.  The end of our time in Puerto Rico will be spent at Wyndham’s Rio Mar Beach Resort and Spa, a beautiful hotel with a AAA four diamond rating.  I’m using almost half of the points I won from the Women on Their Way travel blog contest to stay at the resort for three nights (90,000 Wyndham Rewards points of my 200,000).  We are super excited about staying there, so we made that our last three nights.  That left us a full week to find a vacation rental. 

Here are the two we deeply considered.  The Rio Mar resort is on the northeast part of the island, close to San Juan, so we will explore that part of the island and El Yunque rain forest while we stay there.  Because of that, I looked for an entirely different area of the island to make our base for the week.  I looked at Fajardo, on the east coast, a couple of places on the southern coast, but I kept going to properties that were on the west coast in Aquadilla, or the northwest, in Isabela.  Here are the two properties that were available during the week we needed.  We went back and forth on them several times while deciding.

Option 1:  Aguadilla 2 bedroom condo with ocean views, beautiful pool, free parking, wi-fi, children’s playground, and a 3 minute drive to the beach.

We really liked the size of this unit, not to mention the amazing views.  We usually stay at more budget friendly places, but I looked at this week as the highlight, big budget item of our year, so I justified spending more money than usual.  We really like this one because Ele would have her own room.  It seems silly, as she is in a crib, but it would be nice to close her off at bed time and have the run of the place without sneaking around her or moving her. 

Option 2:  Isabella 1 bedroom condo with ocean views, pool, free parking, wi-fi, and it’s on the beach, but it’s a 15 minute or 20 minute walk to beaches that are safe for children. 

We couldn’t get over the balconies and views from this unit.  It’s right on the beach, which is really appealing, as vacation is the only chance for this type of view or experience to happen!  The down side is that Ele will have to go to sleep in our room, and then we’ll have to either sleep with her in there, or transport her after we’re ready to go to bed to the living room.  The thing we kept coming back to when debating the two units are the amazing views from the balcony, even better than the Aguadilla unit.  There’s really comfortable furniture on the balcony, and a grill, so we can also have meals out there.  It’s more expensive, though.

When it came down to it, I was going over the options with my dad, and I realized that we will not be able to stay in a unit like that the next time we go to Puerto Rico, unless it is just Rick and I.  We hope to grow our family soon, so we could potentially stay at the Aquadilla unit with more kids in tow.  With that realization, we opted for an amazing week on the beach, option 2.  I am super excited about our Puerto Rico vacation.  Now I just need to research what to do to keep my 1 year old bug bite free!  We also need to rent a car, still. 

***This picture isn't our exact unit, but the views are similar.  Click on the vrbo link to see the unit.

Photos:  1) Wyndham Rio Mar Beach Resort and Spa  2) Wyndham Rio Mar  3) Aquadilla balcony view  4) Isabela condo complex  5) Isabela balcony view