Sunday, August 26, 2012

For the Love of Money

Ironically, as I was on the subject of "money can't buy happiness" last week, I happened to read the next chapter of my book "The Happiness Project" whose topic was Buy Some Happiness.  The author, Gretchen Rubin, is on a yearlong quest to find what makes her happier and she says, "Money satisfies basic material needs.  It's a means and an end.  It's a way to keep score, win security, exercise generosity, and earn recognition...It buys time - which can be spent on aimless drifting or purposeful action. It often stands for the things that we feel are lacking: if only we had the money, we’d be adventurous or thin or cultured or respected or generous.”
I agree with her that money alone can’t buy happiness, but it can help buy happiness.  The author says “Money, spent wisely, can support happiness goals of strengthening relationships, promoting health…having fun.”  To me, money does indeed buy things that make me happier – a gift that I can send to a friend for their birthday, a plane ticket home to spend time with my family, covering transportation costs of extensive travel, buying food that gives me so much joy and pleasure.
The author also mentions that, “When money or health is a problem, you think of little else; when it’s not a problem, you don’t think much about it.  Both money and health contribute to happiness mostly in the negative; the lack of them brings much more unhappiness than possessing them brings happiness.”  Preach!  Whenever I feel like I have a sufficient amount of Benjamins stashed away I feel free, more giving, more open to opportunities or adventures that arise, and generally less worried.  When my bank account starts depleting and I see more withdrawals than deposits, I feel anxiety, uncertainty, risk-averse, and quite frankly more like a hermit.
I’m thankful that I was raised in a family where I was taught the value of a dollar, and taught about hard work and dedication.  But as I’ve aged (just a bit), it’s been harder for me to manage the balance between working and playing.  Yesterday, as I lied on the beach soaking up a “play now” break, I was reminded of the beauty of working hard to achieve your goals.  And the satisfaction and happiness that comes from knowing how much effort you’ve put in to receive something you truly cherish.

Enjoying the Tel Aviv beaches
A young boy (maybe 9 years old), approached us on the beach with a backpack slung over his arms, resting on his stomach.  Beads of sweat trickled down from under his bucket hat as he asked my boyfriend if we’d like to buy some lemonade from him.  As I dug around for the equivalent of 75 cents for a small cup of lemonade, the boy shared with my boyfriend that he’s saving up money to go to Brazil for his Bar Mitzvah.  My heart melted and I wanted to buy the whole thermos.  He trotted off looking for his next prospective customers, targeting the women in the area – smart kid. 
As he walked away, marching in the heavy sand under the hot Israeli summer sun, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of happiness.  If this was my son, I would be so proud of his efforts, dedication, and hard work.  I’m sure by the time he’s 13 he’ll have enough money for that trip to Brazil – and can you imagine how proud and happy he will be? 

Cutest kid ever.
This young boy was a needed inspiration for me to remember that creativity and hard work can launch you towards achieving your goals a lot quicker than sitting around and thinking about them.  It’s very few and far between that somebody stumbles upon the luck to become wealthy, successful or accomplished without shedding some blood, sweat and tears.
Today is a reminder for you that not all things come easily, and not all things should come easily.  Buckle down, go to work, and focus on accomplishing your goals.  Don’t let the fear of hard work stand in the way of your achievements.
On a totally unrelated note (although I could stretch it by saying I used money to buy the ingredients), I made Pita Pizzas again the other night.  I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of using pitas (abundantly accessible here) for pizzas instead of trying to labor over my own dough, but now that a friend suggested it – I can’t stop making them!!


Pita Pizzas

A Middle Eastern twist on a fan favorite!  This recipe is once again an estimate - from the quantities to the temperatures (I don't think the dials on our mini oven actually work because it's either cold, or hot).  But this is extremely simple to make, and since it's pizza you can be creative with your toppings!

To start, I sliced a few pitas in half and opened them like sandwiches.  I love thin crust pizza so this is perfect for me - without the work of making dough.  I spread a thin layer of red sauce (recipe below) on each side and then drizzled a bit of olive oil on top.  Then I added a thin layer of shredded cheese - I think it was Monterey Jack cheese but I couldn't exactly tell.  I added the toppings, and threw them in the oven.  My best guess is to put it on a 'broil' setting - I just did it long enough to heat the toppings and make the pita crispy. 


Pizza #1 - chopped spicy salami, sliced mushrooms, and tomatoes.

Pizza #2 - sliced tomatoes, feta cheese, and right before the pizza was done cooking I pulled it out and added fresh basil before letting it cook for a minute longer

Red Sauce
1 part tomato paste
1 part finely chopped tomatoes (and all the juice and seeds)
fresh, finely chopped basil
a dash of garlic powder
-- Mix all ingredients together.  If it looks too thick, add more fresh chopped tomatoes. --

I love pizza, and now that I have an easy way of making it, this is going to be a dinner regular!  Plus since they're small, you can have make a few with different toppings.  Enjoy!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Boodle Boxes

I know that money isn’t supposed to buy happiness….but I can’t contend the fact that I was OVERJOYED when I received a pile of goodies that my mom sent me with a friend of mine who travelled to Seattle recently.  I’ve spent the last week noshing on honey roasted cashews, Mentos, sour Jelly Bellys and cinnamon gum, while savoring my Sour Patch Kids and Mint LifeSavers till the bitter end.  However, I keep reminding myself of my childhood Halloween habit where I’d save my best candies for last…and then they’d go bad after a full year of looking forward to the sweet chocolate outside and that smooth peanut butter filling of my beloved Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

My new goodies from home!
Along with my munchies, Mama Bird packed a new t-shirt (thank goodness – I think I’ve sweat through all of mine here), a Platypus water bottle, deodorant (see aforementioned sweating), tea tree oil, my beloved Target chapstick balls, and other fun things.  The original intention for this “boodle box”, as we refer to it in our household (a term adopted when my brother started at West Point – families are encouraged to send new cadets little goodies and treats to keep their spirits up), was to exchange my broken Kindle.  However, when I found out there was going to be a “transport of goods”, I figured I would throw in a few other requests of things I’m hard pressed to find in Israel.

My new t-shirt and my goodies!  So excited!

After spending a week enjoying my new goodies and playing with my new toys, I’ve realized that although this is an indulgence for my materialistic side, I believe boodle boxes also bring joy for another reason.  It’s the same kind of joy you get when you give or receive a gift.  For me, it’s not JUST the fact that I have a fancy new water bottle which fits so nicely in my purse, but it’s that my mom spent the time and energy to find something that she knew I’d like.

A while ago I read the book “The Five Love Languages”, which came highly recommended to me by multiple people.  The author talks about the different ways that people intend and perceive love.  Giving gifts is one of the five ways people express love, as a sign of their thoughtfulness and care for somebody else.  It doesn’t have to be a big, fancy gift like a car or a TV, it can be something small and meaningful like a hand written card, a person’s favorite candy (mine is Sour Patch Kids!), or flowers.  It’s not the size or the cost of the gift that matters, it’s about the thought and care you put into it.
Today I challenge you to find a small, inexpensive, yet meaningful gift to give to someone you love and care for.  After all, it’s the little moments in life and the small gestures that bring great joys and memories. 

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

My Best Friend's Wedding

I was elated to hear that on a late Saturday night, way past my dad’s bed time, both of my parents were making the 40-minute jaunt down to the airport to pick me up.  And I was even more excited the next morning when my mom realized that she’d accidently bought 2 more packages of bacon when we had 1 already stashed in the fridge. 

Once it hits your lips....

That was the beginning of what seemed like a very quick trip to the U.S.  I started my three weeks in Seattle, surrounded by friends and family.  The weather gods blessed the beautiful city and gave us gorgeous, sunny weather almost every day.  It was the perfect time to catch an M’s game with my lovely ladies, where I got my first ever foul ball!  Notice….it says ‘got’, not ‘caught’…if I had stuck my hand out for that ball it would have drilled a hole right through my palm (or my head – I’m not great with hand eye coordination).

The weather maintained for a fabulous Mother’s Day BBQ with my family.  And even though Dad stands strongly by his belief that Mother’s Day is a ‘Hallmark holiday’, he still slaved away on the grill, perfectly cooking my brats and chicken…uhhhhh I mean “Mom’s brats and chicken.”  I put myself to work in the kitchen, and played head chef as I bossed around all my cousin ‘sous’.  We ended up with quite the feast, including this delicious corn salad with chili-lime dressing.

Corn salad with Chili-Lime dressing

Dad grilling - don't worry about the creeper in the's just my cousin

L to R: Me, Momma, and Auntie Janet on a beautiful Mother's day

Dig in!!

From Seattle I jumped down to San Francisco to visit my brother and his girlfriend.  I had forgotten how lovely the smell of fresh brewed coffee was until the aroma lifted me off the air mattress in the morning.  We spent one day scouring the city for goodies and snacks as we walked to the park.  We ducked in to an empanada shop, and gathered delicious banh mi sandwiches for “lunch round 2”.  After I removed the peppers from my sandwich, the remaining juices still sufficiently seared my insides. Those little suckers packed a punch, but the sandwich was delish!


The following day, we really did look like “hunters and gatherers” as we decked out in costumes for the Bay to Breakers race as “the three blind mice.” (Although I guess mice aren’t really ‘hunters’…just ‘gatherers’).  Anyway, any day that I get to wear a costume is fun for me, but it’s not the average day that my brother allows me to draw a pink nose on him with lipstick. 

Mice refueling with Korean BBQ

After a fun filled weekend, it was on to Arizona for “the main event” – an honorable walk down the aisle at my best friend’s wedding.  I had been looking forward to this wedding for over a year, and was so excited to be reunited with my two best friends, Jess and Katie, and a new little addition to our crew – Jess’s adorable 8 month old son, Carson (the cutest baby ever). 

The three of us met in middle school – where you kept your friends close, and your best friends closer.  :)  It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come since the days of overalls and braces, and yet it’s refreshing to know we still have the same friendship that has endured the years and the distance. 

We laughed as we shared old memories – class projects we worked on together, crushes on boys whose names we hadn’t thought of in years, embarrassing stories, and nerdy rituals like our beloved “friendship notebooks” which we circulated between the three of us in high school instead of passing notes.  We even called out each other’s home phone numbers in unison – a testament that we were raised in the years before cell phones and text messaging (and perhaps also a testament that we talked on the phone too much).

High SOMEBODY went to Mexico for break!

Nerdy but sweet - friendship notebooks

On the day that I watched Jess walk down the aisle, I witnessed a new chapter of our lives unfold.  I felt truly blessed to be standing next to a beautiful woman, who’s stood by me ever since we were little girls.  It brings me great joy to be sharing my life journey with wonderful friends – both the milestones, and the little moments.  (Photos courtesy of Jason + Anna Photography)

Today I ask you to take some time to appreciate your friendships that have stood the test of time.  Life is a beautiful adventure, but it’s even more wonderful when you share the journey.

Corn Salad with Chili-Lime Dressing (from home)


Fresh corn on the cob, boiled
Cherry tomatoes
Yellow peppers
Orange peppers
Fresh basil
Fresh chives, finely sliced
Crumbled feta cheese


Cut the corn off the cob, chop all ingredients and mix together. Top with chives and crumbled feta cheese.

Chili-Lime Dressing:

Mix together:
1 part fresh squeezed lime juice
1/2 part honey
A drizzle of olive oil
A dash of garlic powder
A few shakes of crushed red pepper flakes

Add extra ingredients to taste.

Toss the salad and dressing together.  It makes the perfect fresh, summer salad with a bit of kick.  Enjoy!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Working Hard or Hardly Workin'

I’m pretty sure it’s safe to say that most people are wondering what I actually DO here.  At the beginning of my ‘move’ I was excited about the prospect of finding a job in Tel Aviv, and putting my skills to use and hopefully making a meager salary to pay for travel expenses.  Lo and behold…just as my mom predicted…that has not happened.

During my first week in Tel Aviv I got a false sense of how easy it would be to find a job (and was really excited to prove Mom wrong).  I found a job-posting site for foreigners in Israel and sent my resume to a few companies.  I surprisingly got a call back from one of them and was called in to an interview. 

I was offered a marketing position on the spot, but was a little taken aback by their quick to move offer.  Given my experience in the ‘professional world’ in the U.S., I had certain expectations about the standard procedures of a job offer – job description, salary, company policies, hours of work, etc.  When I couldn’t seem to get a clear answer on the things that I deemed commonplace, I moved on.  Although I may have been a little picky in this circumstance, the short story is “I didn’t think it was a good fit.”  Since then, I haven’t had so much luck on the job front.

However, that’s not to say that I’m not working…or doing anything with my time.  I find that it’s quite the opposite actually.  “With what?” you might ask.  Well, first off…these blog posts don’t write themselves.  And because I’m the truest definition of a perfectionist, it takes significantly more time than I’m sure it would for the average person to pump out a few paragraphs and pictures.

In addition to this blog, I’ve maintained my Hebrew studies – 2 hours a day, 5 days a week in class, and usually another 2-3 hours of studying per day.  Today marked my last day of the “Level 3” course, which means that I can now successfully say, “I want tomatoes and hummus on my pita, please,”  and a variety of other useful (and not so useful) phrases.  I mean…who really needs to know how to say, “A bus flipped over on the Ivory Coast” three months into studying a new language??

My homemade Hebrew flashcards

And as my Hebrew has improved, I’ve been able to start helping more and more in the boy’s business as well.  It’s definitely refreshing to be back in a business environment – analyzing numbers, creating Excel spreadsheets (like a true nerd), strategizing and planning, and reviewing tools and systems to help with operations and sales. 

Even though my lack of Hebrew can be a major handicap (and quite frustrating) when I’m trying to read documents or communicate with employees, helping in his business has also given me some major “Hebrew breakthroughs.”  I’m now able to type in Hebrew (not as fast as English…but I’m getting there!), and can understand much more of the conversations I listen to in the office.

The more interesting part of the work I’ve been doing, however, has turned out to be the things that I wouldn’t have ever considered as my strengths.  I’m now editing videos, trying to learn PhotoShop, working on the website, learning SEO, and reading about employment laws (okay…admittedly the last one isn’t quite as much fun). 

AND in exchange for all this hard work, I’ve cut a deal for free private dance lessons.  (Oh…did I mention that the boy in fact has a dance studio and performance group?  Mostly breakdance and hip hop – FUN - I know!)  Thus far I’ve gotten way better at editing videos than spinning on my head (not at all), but seeing as how I’m not 18 anymore, I’ll take what my mind and body can give!

This is...obviously not me.

Recently I reflected at my increasingly busy days, and wondered where all the time is going…undeniably with some thought as to whether I’ll have enough time to take advantage of the beach this summer (the answer is…no matter what, I’ll MAKE time!). 

As my 'work' begins to take shape (in terms of projects, goals, responsibilities), the lines between ‘work and home’ and ‘work and play’ are becoming blurred.  Ideas are constantly on my mind, I'm jotting down notes or making small changes, or getting occupied with projects until the wee hours of the morning. 

Time management is a challenge for many of us…how do we choose to spend the few precious hours in our day (and life)?  When do we decide there’s something important enough at work that we must finish it at the expense of our personal lives?  And when do we put our personal lives – dinner with your spouse, your daughter’s birthday party, or your weekend trip to Napa – above that report that’s due on Monday morning?
Believe me that as I’m writing this I’m struggling with these issues myself…I don’t have it all figured out.   I don’t have the answer.  I might not be working for a salary, I might not have a boss to answer to…but I do have to answer to myself.  And usually that’s my harshest critic.  My only ‘advice’ today is to remember that life is precious, your time is a gift, and you have the blessing of doing with it what you choose.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Do More With Less

I plopped down in front of the T.V. for my mid-morning snack of toast with peanut butter.  (Unfortunately, it’s Skippy peanut butter and not JIF…my mom was always a choosy mom.)  But I quickly found out that television was not going to happen today.  It’s Memorial Day here in Israel, and let’s just say that it is celebrated very differently than in the States…although I don’t think “celebrated” is the proper term to use. 

In fact, as a day of remembrance for fallen soldiers, “celebration” is strictly forbidden.  Last night at 7:00, all businesses, stores, and restaurants closed.  If you didn’t already have food at home then I hope you weren’t hungry because you wouldn’t be able to pop into your local corner store. 

All T.V. channels pause broadcast on Memorial Day

I was told you’re not allowed to play music, or to have your business open, or you could be fined.  Additionally, the T.V. channels all show blank screens that state it is for Memorial Day, and broadcasting will resume at 8:00 this evening.  There was a siren this morning, signaling everybody to stop what they’re doing and give a moment of silence.  Although I wasn’t on the road…I hear that cars stop, even on the freeways. 

Actually, I was also in Israel last year (on the Hebrew calendar) during Memorial Day, but I think my memories were overshadowed by the Independence Day celebration (which is the day after), and the last few days of travel with my cousin, Robin.  It's interesting to be here again, under a different circumstance, experiencing these holidays again.

On a completely unrelated subject…now that Passover is over, I’ve begun to experiment with my cooking again.  I will admit that there are additional challenges I face here, in no particular order:
  1. Two electric burners rather than a big gas stove
  2. Grocery shopping – I can never read the labels for the things I want to buy to know if it is in fact what I’m looking for
  3. Decreased variety of brands and products
  4. The brands and products that I can find are usually imported, and significantly more expensive than they would be in the States.  Case in point – a 10 oz. bottle of soy sauce was about $6.50 USD.
  5. We have a mini-fridge with a small freezer cabinet, rather than a regular sized refrigerator
  6. No dishwasher = hand wash every utensil, dish, pot and pan

As a result of these differences, the good news is that I’ve become much more creative with my cooking.  I’ve learned to boil my water in the tea kettle heater before using it to cook pasta so that it doesn’t take too long to heat on the burners.  We did a major IKEA run (bless them) to maximize the space in the kitchen, I use chicken as a frequent substitute for pork, and I’ve learned to mix and match sauces and flavors to get closer to what I want – even if I can’t find it already bottled at the store. 

Just last week I recreated Za Jiang Mien, a ‘recipe’ that I copied down while visiting my grandfather’s friend in Texas a few months ago.  It was a labor of love, but with a few substitutes and a lot of patience, I finally got something that was stomach-able.  I’m not often proud of my cooking…but this was actually pretty tasty.

My bowl when we ate Za Jiang Mien in Texas

Wang Yeh Yeh dishing up noodles

Recreating Za Jiang Mien in Israel - with a few substitutions

Life doesn’t always hand you everything in a perfect Kikkoman soy sauce bottle, so it’s important to learn how to substitute and make do with what you have.  Today I challenge you to pick something in your life that isn’t exactly as you’d like it to be – whether it’s a broken heater but you need heat, a job that’s not perfect, or a cake that needs to be baked but you don’t have sugar – find a way to fulfill the need with the things you have at your disposal.  And if it’s the latter…try not to go all “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” on me… J

Za Jiang Mien (from...Texas?)

Technically I stumbled upon this "recipe" in Texas, although it is a Chinese dish.   I was there visiting my grandfather's childhood friend, and he was whipping up a typical lunch.  It was clear that cooking was an art to him, and not a science.  As such, I watched his every move and the ingredients he added, without asking for amounts or temperatures.  Much like when I recreated this dish in Israel, do what you can with what you have.  :)

Prepare the vegetables/toppings:

Slice finely and blanche:
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Bean sprouts (pick ends off first)
  • Cucumbers (don't blanche)
  • Edamame (optional).
Cook the meat sauce:

Put olive oil and a lot of finely chopped green onions into a frying pan.  Add ground pork and split apart with chopsticks or a spatula.  Add soy sauce.  Then add chicken broth and let it boil down a bit.  Then add superior dark soy sauce.  In a small bowl or mug, mix a bit of flour and water and then add the mixture to the meat sauce, stirring to thicken.  Let it cook a bit more.

Cook the noodles:

Typically, you use a thick wheat noodle.  I've also had it with dried Chinese noodles, or most recently I used egg noodles (because that's what I could find!).

Set the table and serve!  Fill your bowl with noodles, then add your condiments and top with the meat sauce.  Enjoy!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Please Sir, I Want Some More

Waiting in the grocery checkout line for 13 minutes to buy bread is not something I would typically tolerate.  But, as my options are limited, I’m willing to make adjustments (I know…how big of me, right?). 

Passover in Israel has (finally) just ended, and after a week without bread and pasta, I’m willing to go to extraordinary lengths to get my fill of wheat products…if you call waiting in line for 13 minutes an extraordinary length.  But as the ‘ban’ on leavened products was lifted yesterday evening, the only bad news was that by that time most stores were closing for Shabbat.  Thus, my extra-long search to find bread today. 
When I woke up longing for a peanut butter sandwich, I hurriedly walked to the nearby corner shops (the two that are open on Shabbat), only to find out that they don’t sell bread.  So I took a longer stroll to the only grocery store that was open in the neighborhood.  It was packed with people, and the bread section had already been well picked over, some bags of pita even having been torn through and left with only a few pieces.  I carefully selected a full bag of pita bread, pasta and couscous and then waited patiently to pay so I could walk home with my bag of goodies.
You might wonder why I would participate in Passover observance if I’m not Jewish.  Well, first off, I didn’t have too much of a choice.  I was rather surprised to find out that stores won’t even sell any products with leavening during Passover.  At the beginning of the week when we went grocery shopping, there were huge pieces of white plastic wrap covering the products that were forbidden to purchase – bread, flour, seasonings, cereal, pasta, condiments, soups, etc. Towards the end of the week, however, some of the plastic wrap had been torn a bit, peeked behind, or removed – which made all the grocery stores look completely disheveled.  I assumed people were ‘breaking’ under the pressure and removing the plastic wrap to get to their coveted, ‘can’t-live-without’ products.  But I quickly found out that wasn’t the case.
Covering up the non-kosher food items

I picked up a stray package that resembled a mushroom soup base from a bin at the end of an aisle, and continued to pick out fruit, vegetables and potatoes (ugh…more potatoes).  When I went to check out, the gal at the register couldn’t scan my mystery mushroom soup.  She proceeded to tell me since it wasn’t registering, it wasn’t a kosher product and she couldn’t sell it to me. 
The grocery stores fooled me.  I thought their idea to “cover it in plastic wrap” was a poor attempt to keep people from buying non-kosher products.  Let’s be real…nobody here would abide by that if they really wanted what was behind “door #3”.  But they’d outsmarted me, and also removed the UPCs from registering on their computer systems.  Touché, supermarkets.  You win.
The second, and more important reason, I chose to stick to Passover kosher foods was because I’ve been trying to adopt the “when-in-Rome” mentality.  Since I’m trying my hardest to fit in here, and adapt to this culture, I am trying to respect their holidays, traditions, and practices.  So although I could have pulled the uncooked pasta out of the back of the cabinet, I chose to refrain.  (Admittedly, we weren’t completely kosher – because you’re supposed to remove any food with leavening from your house, but I just can’t throw out and waste something that’s still perfectly good to eat in a week!!)
Plus, a week without bread and pasta meant I’d have to expand my horizons a bit, get outside my comfort zone (as if I’m not already), try some different things, and have a greater appreciation for products with leavening when I got them back.  But I must admit that the hardest part of my “non-wheat” week has been the inconvenience…typically my ‘cooking’ consists of pasta, or salad (with pasta in it to make it more substantial), or sandwiches.  My breakfasts consist of yogurt, or fruit, but almost always toast with peanut butter.  And when I’m on the go and need something fast, I usually buy a slice of pizza or falafel in pita bread.  So the no-wheat thing pretty much ruled out my normal routine.
Trying to copy Mom and Grandma's recipe

Luckily, Easter fell within Passover so I was inspired by my own traditions of deviled eggs and potato salad.  But the novelty of potatoes quickly wore off – hash browns, baked potatoes, thinly sliced and fried chips, diced and boiled in salads.  So last night, after the sun fell, I was quite content to be reunited with my toast and peanut butter. 

Breaking the bread fast...with PB!
And....(gasp) McDonald's...
SO happy to have a burger with REAL bread!

Although it’s a far cry from the same place, this week brought back fond memories of my time in Isandlwana, South Africa.  Sometimes it’s good to go without the luxuries and conveniences you’re used to.  If for no other reason, it definitely makes you appreciate them more. 
I challenge you to ‘go without’ for a few days.  Give up something you enjoy – whether it’s that precious daily stop at Starbucks that’s become routine rather than special, or your addiction to YouTube that’s got you feigning for the next version of “Jimmy Kimmel – I told my kids I at their Halloween candy” (which is amazing, I must admit).  And hopefully once you’ve gone without for a few days, then you’ll appreciate it more when you have it back.  And if you don’t….then you should probably spend your time and money elsewhere anyway! J

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Gift of Giving

I'm going to pull a little Marty McFly here and go back in time.  Last year, towards the end of my trip around the world, I had some phenomenal experiences that I never blogged about.  Please excuse the confusion and the jumping around, but I think there are some great lessons to be learned and funny stories to share.

(Written on 5/23/2011 from Hanoi, Vietnam)

I think I have a new boyfriend.  He’s about 6 years old and adorable.  I started “teaching” in his school today and he spent the majority of the afternoon trying to move his chair next to mine, kiss me on the cheek, and hold my hand.

A few weeks ago I decided to volunteer at an orphanage in Vietnam, and was given an assignment in Hanoi.  Originally I hadn’t planned on heading north, but when the opportunity arose; I grabbed the bull by the horns and booked a flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.  To my surprise, a friend of a friend from Seattle is living in Hanoi working for Path.  And true to the hospitable nature of all the wonderful people I’ve met, Debbie invited me on a weekend trip to Sapa with some other friends visiting from Seattle.
Catfish spring rolls at Highway 4

After Debbie shared her love of catfish spring rolls from the Highway 4 restaurant, we caught an all night train to Lao Cai (closer to the Chinese border).  As I stood in the train station, turning down a million offers to buy water, snacks, and Seaweed Pringles (which turned out to be a total failure on my part), Debbie scurried around the station looking for the guy who was supposed to exchange her vouchers for tickets that she had already purchased. 

Despite the fact that Debbie speaks fluent Vietnamese, it seemed to be a rather confusing transaction.  After multiple calls to the original travel agents, lo and behold, we found out we were at the wrong train station.  Well…we were at the right train station (same name and all), but apparently the building for north bound departures is actually on the opposite side of the tracks, and you have to take a taxi to get there.

Thankfully, we shuffled out of the taxi and through the station doors to the open air tracks just in time. I was watching carefully to see if I stumbled upon Platform 9 and ¾ because I was certain these outdated trains had to be Hogwarts bound.

Our overnight cabin

While in Sapa, we hiked, gawked at the beautiful scenery, treated ourselves to massages (for $6!), ate like queens, and spent a lot of time laughing and reminiscing about things back in the U.S.  After another long evening on a train back to Hanoi, I was about to embark on a whole new adventure…

Not exactly sure how you get "925% Silver"...

The best pho I had in Vietnam!

All the kids had little babies strapped to their backs. 

When our Harry Potter express pulled up to the Hanoi station at 5 AM, the volunteer coordinator was supposed to send a taxi to take me to the house for volunteers where I’d be staying while on my new duty.  Debbie kindly and patiently called the coordinator who called the taxi driver who was late.  When he pulled up a half hour later to take me away, we were all hoping he knew where he was going.  I said goodbye to my new friends, and crossed my fingers as I put my life in the hands of the driver.
The taxi driver wound around roads that led us outside the city and entered a side street alley, where he abruptly stopped the car, unloaded my luggage and prompted me out of the car with hand gestures.  Still in a daze from not sleeping, and without any clue where I was, I found myself speechless (shocking) and unable to mutter a word – let alone a word in Vietnamese – that would keep the driver there.  So as he zoomed off into the distance, and I stood there with my luggage pressed up against me, stranded in an early-morning fog in a deserted alley, I looked up at a gated entry to a house, and rang the doorbell…hoping that I was at the right place.
No answer.  Fabulous.  I managed to steal wifi from the University next door and I placed a Skype call (thank goodness for technology) to the volunteer coordinator.  Apparently the live-in coordinator was still sleeping, and wasn’t expecting me, so she asked if I could wait in the alley until somebody woke up.
At this point I wasn’t thrilled.  But to keep myself from going crazy, I continued to abuse the free wifi and called my family back home…who kept me awake, kept me alert, and kept me happy, until 45 minutes later when another volunteer at the house came and let me in.
I was trying to reserve any judgment about the volunteer organization until I met the kids and found out what I would be doing - but so far I wasn't too pleased with my reception, or the dingy accomodations.  At about 1:30 PM I followed two of the other volunteers to the school.  The “organizer” at the school didn’t know I was arriving, and she didn’t have any assignments for me.  She picked a classroom at random with 2 teachers and 7 kids.  She said something to the teacher in Vietnamese and then told them my name and left me there. 
Now the disappointment set in.  Let me be clear that I adore the kids – they are sweet and playful and friendly and energetic.  But, I paid for this experience to make a difference in others’ lives.  And from what I was told, developmentally challenged children frequently end up as orphans in Vietnam and are not treated volunteers are valued for their mere presence, and showering the children with love and joy.
My program was advertised as volunteering in an orphanage, but I quickly came to find out that it is actually a school that has mostly (but not all) disabled children.  Their parents drop them off in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon.  The parents look loving and happy and excited to pick up their kids every day.  The kids are treated well at school and shown lots of love.  It seems like they are in a fairly affluent area  as the school is gated, and equipped with many supplies, chairs, desks, decorations, food, etc.
I’m pretty sad this volunteer experience isn’t turning out as I had hoped. Fatal error number one - having expectations. Generally I have very few expectations, and therefore am pleasantly surprised and hardly ever disappointed.  But after dropping some big money with the organization to get placed for volunteer service, I did have some expectations….for my welcoming, for my lodging, for my food, for my ability to make a contribution, and for the ability to use me as a resource in some way.
Since I can't understand the teachers or the kids, I don't feel like I'm making any impact.  I’m really just an additional body in the room.  And I’m not sure if when I’m playing with the kids they should be listening to the teachers and I'm a distraction, or whether I should continue playing with them. 
I can’t help but think that there is some organization (or multiple organizations) making a killing from international “volunteers” that are willing to pay an arm and a leg because they want to do good.  I can't speak for all organizations, because obviously there are many that have greatly helped communities in need (and I've witnessed them in action), but I don't feel like this is one of them.  The consensus amongst the other volunteers is very similar - and many are disheartened by their high hopes of making a difference in this developing country.
I've reasoned that I will give it another day to see if my time here is well spent, or if I'm better off looking for a more enriching experience.  I'm considering abandoning this effort and travelling, even though it breaks my heart to step away from an opportunity I was so excited about where I thought I'd be of help. 
Especially while travelling, the blessings in my life become ever more apparent.  And thus I feel compelled to share my blessings in some way with others - time, money, effort, etc.  But when my best of intentions falls short, or when my contribution no longer seems valuable, I question when to walk away and focus my efforts in another area. 
So my question for you today is...what blessings in your life do you share?  And do you feel that your effort is valuable?  Whether you're giving money or time or knowledge or resources, it's important that your contribution is making a difference.  I enourage you to evaluate the outcome of your giving, because your resources are valuable and limited, and you should use them wisely.  If it's not lining up with your desires, then seek a new outlet where your contribution will be appreciated and used to someone's benefit as it should be.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...