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 I was watching carefully to see if I stumbled upon Platform 9 and ¾ because I was certain these outdated trains had to be Hogwarts bound.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.

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