Leaping Into Life

Falling Never Felt So Good

From Street Youth to Mentor, My Day with Save the Children Vietnam’s Project NAM

This is the first post in my World Changer series of my blog. I’m hoping to do more site visits while in Rwanda and Kenya in July and August, so if you know of any projects in need of attention, please let me know. Also, thanks to ONE.org for cross-posting on their blog.

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Phi left home when he was 12 years old and survived on the streets by
selling lottery tickets in the morning, using the little money he
earned to attend a low-income educational center in the afternoon, and
returning to the streets to sell noodles through the night. An
uncertain future with few options, Phi was much like the more than
10,000 street youth that reside in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, who are
at risk of exploitation and abuse, drug addiction, and HIV infection.

While in Vietnam, I had the opportunity to meet Phi through Save the
Children’s Project NAM, a locally-driven initiative to empower street
youth, prevent HIV, and increase access to the care and support
services that these kids really need. The project began in 2007 with
the funding support of PEPFAR/USAID and is centered around the work of
more than 20 trained street youth Peer Educators (PE), who have served
more than 6,000 young people through weekly education sessions to
combat the risks of being on the street like HIV and one-on-one
mentoring.

Phi was approached by a social worker in 2008 about the project and
began working as a PE in 2009. During his time working with Project
NAM, Phi has worked with more than 200 street youth and was able to
buy a motorbike through saving the small stipend the initiative
provided PEs. Though the project ended in 2011 due to funding
constraints, Phi and an arsenal of committed volunteers (former
staff/peer educators of Project NAM) continue to provide outreach,
guidance, and support – though more limited – to kids that newly
arrive to Ho Chi Minh every day seeking economic opportunity and a
different life.

I met Phi at a outdoor cafe during a filming with five teenage girls
organized by Save the Children Vietnam and ICS, the only non-profit in Vietnam working to
increase the rights and protections of the LGBT community and provides
support to LGBT street youth, many of which ran away from home because
of their sexual orientation. The purpose of the filming was to provide
testimonials of the dangers and challenges of living on the streets to
be shown at a community workshop in Hanoi with government officials
and international NGOs to demonstrate the need for increased action in
working with and reducing the stigma that many street youth face in
Vietnam.

Upon meeting four of the girls in a local park in District 6 (the
first stop of many street kids when they arrive in HCM), I was struck
by both their innocence as they chatted and giggled like any 17 year
old in America, but also by the veil of caution and hardness that some
had developed through time spent on the streets. After the filming, we
were invited to have lunch with them and a short moto-bike ride later,
I found myself sitting on the concrete floor of the 8 by 5 foot room
that Phi and his wife, Ngoc, rent for $50 dollars a month, and share
with one of the other girls who they have “adopted.”

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Watching Phi cook a meal of boiled fish with greens, fatty pork
strips, and rice, using a single gas-burning stove and alternating
pots to cook the various dishes, I saw how his time as a Peer Educator
had transformed him into a father-figure and provider to these kids.
He is one of the few with an income since buying his first motor-bike
which he rents out, he has been able to purchase more bikes and other
business endeavors. He’s currently saving to purchase a washing
machine in order to start a new laundry business.

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While I only spent a day with the group, I was impressed by their
ingenuity and hopeful that Project NAM will receive funding to
continue and expand its invaluable work that has led more street youth
to pursue community services, protect themselves from the dangers of
drugs and HIV, and make plans for a future that no longer includes
life on the dangerous streets of Ho Chi Minh City.

NOTE: I’d like to thank Thieu Hoa Phan, who helped to arrange my visit
with Save the Children Vietnam, and Mr. Le Quang Nguyen, the Project
Manager and Protection Specialist at Save the Children, who invited me
to join Save for the day and has dedicated almost 20 years to helping
street youth in South-East Asia to get off the streets and lead
productive, healthy lives.

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Adventures in Argentina, Part 1

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The Bus Ride from Hell

I dreaded the long, cumbersome overland journey that awaited me from Arequipa, Peru, to Mendoza, Argentina. More than 2,000 kilometers and three arduous bus rides (including a 26 hour journey thru Chile with a mild case of food poisoning and a seven hour stint in a passenger van traveling over the Andes), I made it to Mendoza in one piece at 4 o’ clock in the morning.

4am Fiasco in Mendoza

My 4am fiasco taught me the value of a little preparation before traveling to new countries. After more than two months of travel, I had begun to develop the easy-going “everything will work out” backpacker mindset. I learned early on in Colombia that best laid plans mostly led to headaches as long-term travel is not a two week vacation. If you’re always planning, you’re not experiencing your present surroundings… but as I learned, at least write down a place to stay before you arrive.

I had assumed that I could access internet at some point during my 40 hour haul to Mendoza by way of Santiago, Chile. I arrived with no hostel name or address and no Argentinean pesos (this will definitely be in the top ten FAILS of this trip). I am thankful to the passenger van driver, who grasped after our five minute exchange of 4th grade Spanish that I was in need of assistance and offered to take me to a hostel that he knew of. Arriving at Hostel International, I learn there are no beds so a few phone calls later and a taxi ride – essentially back to the bus station – I made it into bed by 5am.

Malbec and Red Meat

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I came to Argentina to do three things: drink wine, eat steak, and ride a horse… with learn how to Tango as a distant fourth. I wasted no time in achieving the first two with a leisurely lunch with a milanesa steak sandwich and a small bottle of one of Mendoza’s famous malbecs.

I was later joined by Karen, my Deutsch friend from Cusco, who had spent some time in Chile, while I was trekking Colca Canyon. It was a pleasant surprise as we didn’t know the exact days that we’d arrive, but with a few Facebook messages, it was apparent we were in the same city, just different internet cafes. Observation: Facebook has become a world traveler’s rolodex and is the best way to get connect on the road.

We enjoyed steak dinners as big as my hand and shared bottles of malbec at Happy Hour beginning around 4pm. After two months of traveling where wine was not the country’s forte, I was in heaven. Give me a bottle of wine, some friends and I’m happy as a clam.

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After one wine-filled night, our rag-tag and hungover bunch from Itaka hostel embarked on an biking tour of the vineyards and wineries in nearby Maipu. After conversing between single beds from 10am to noon that we should really do this, that we needed to get up, that we should already be en route… we finally emerged from the hostel around 1pm and arrived by public bus (which requires coins, but there are no coins in Argentina so good luck and hoard your coins!) to Mr. Hugo’s Bike Tour around 2pm.

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As we signed away any liability, Mr. Hugo offered us a glass of red wine and I turned green as my hangover stripped me of any enjoyment in taking a sip of that sweet, sweet nectar. I drank half and queasily mounted my bike for the eight kilometer ride to the first winery. Determined to shake it off, I did the tasting of 4 different wines and slowly, the nausea began to subside.

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We visited a range of wineries from small stone buildings producing only 10,000 bottles a year to the modern, almost factory-like establishment with more than 100,000 bottles a year. The bike ride was fun once we got started and by the end of the day, we joined with other bikers/boozers for pitchers of wine back at Mr. Hugos.

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The next day, I said goodbye to Karen and headed to Termas Cacheuta with Paul from Holland for a day of hot springs and hot chorizos off the grill. Termas Cacheuta is a two-hour ride from Mendoza and for 50 pesos, you can enjoy the day soaking in pools heated by a nearby thermal springs. As you can see there is also a few slides for kids (and me).

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Paul’s friend fell in love with a girl in Santiago and left him to return there to see her before meeting back up with Paul in Buenos Aires. Lucky for me that they had already purchased a bus tour with a couple of wine tastings and tour of a olive oil factory, so I buddied up with Paul and sampled some delicious products of Mendoza on my last day there. I still wish that I had bought the olive tapanade… guess I’ll just have to settle for a jar from Whole Foods when I get back.

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Cordoba

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After Mendoza, I was off to Cordoba, the second largest city in Argentina, nestled in the Pampas region known for estancias (ranches) and gauchos (cowboys). Jess, my fellow dorm mate, was also heading to Cordoba, so we banded together to take the 10 hour night bus journey and arrived by 8am the following morning.

We stayed at Palenque Hostel, which was more like a huge flat than hostel. On a main street and walking distance to the Plaza San Martín, Palenque is homey and comfortable (just don’t forget to check out, they will charge you. I found out the hard way.).

Though tempted to take a nap, I joined Jess in a sightseeing tour of town that included the Jesuit Crypts (discovered in 1980 during the installation of power lines), the Cathedral, and a stroll down photo-lined street in memoriam of those lost in the Dirty War. Up until 1780, the Spanish had ruled Argentina and with them, the Jesuits went about building schools, estancias, and the Catholic religion within the country. They were expelled with the Spanish, but the architecture and religious art remains – rivaling their European counter-parts.

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The street outside the Memory Museum is in remembrance of the more than 10,000 Argentines who disappeared during the Dirty Wars between 1976 and 1983 when the military essentially turned public discourse into a crime and kidnapped, tortured, and killed thousands in state-sponsored terrorism (a tragedy that seems to repeat itself throughout history and the world, especially as I write this from Cambodia).

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Drinking in the history of Argentina, we caught a midnight Tango show which both impressed and intimidated me. Completely in sync with the music, the dancers moved seamlessly across the open-aired square of the historic Cabildo… and the girl was led backwards the entire time! I’ll explain more in my Tango lesson in Buenos Aires.

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I also may have snuck in a bottle of wine…

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I failed to mention earlier, but I was still quite ill with a gut-punching cough from Peru that launched attacks at the least ideal moments. You can listen to my corporal accompaniment in this beautiful Tango video from the evening captured by Jess right before I retreated to the bathroom in embarrassment.

My last night in Cordoba before heading to the pastoral town of La Cumbre, I accompanied Mike, an aspiring photographer, to an artsy party hosted by his school. There I met some very cool Cordobans and practiced my Spanish over glasses of red wine and crustless sandwiches.

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After, I met up with Sebastian, who is friends with Lorenzo and Eric (from my Colombian travels). It was after midnight and we were off to a concert featuring Juan Carlos of Tru La La (think Argentina’s New Kids on the Block). Women were throwing themselves on stage like he was Wayne Newton as a warehouse of fans sang along and danced (while I lip-synced and did my best latin moves).

Escape to La Cumbre

The next morning was rough as a night out for most Argentines ends around 5am. See photographic evidence below.

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Thankfully, I was off to La Cumbre that afternoon for a few days of R&R that turned into a full week. Arriving in this small town, I splurged the first night on my own room, complete with a TV and my own bathroom (this is a big deal when dorms and shared spaces have become all too familiar). With a bottle of wine and bellyful of pizza (it’s really good in Argentina by the way), I spent the whole night watching whatever was English-language on TV, primarily Law and Order.

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The rest of the week, I spent most my time reading the Game of Thrones book series in a hammock at La Cumbre Hostel. A huge country house on a quiet street, it was the perfect place to just chill out for a few days and try to catch up on sleep, this blog, and did I mention the addictive Game of Thrones? (Two months later, I’m still reading it and just started book 4!)

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I ran into Jess from Cordoba, who had traveled to La Cumbre to skydive and paraglide. While I paraglided in Colombia, I have yet to have the courage to jump out of a plane… perhaps something to shoot for before this trip ends. We wondered around town and found Carmelo to set up my three hour riding session the following day. Later that afternoon, Jess was headed up north to Tucumen and onwards to Salta, Iquazu Falls, and Buenos Aires before heading back to Canada.

I love riding horses. On nearly every vacation, if there is an option to hop on a horse for a few hours, I’m there. For me, you can’t beat the freedom of being on a horse and hitting full gallop on an empty road or beach. For three hours, it was just me and Carmelo climbing the rolling hills of the Sierras and taking in the views of town from above.

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Before I left La Cumbre, I joined Melanie, a German traveller volunteering at the hostel for a month, to take photos as she careened through the sky above Cuchee Coral teethered to a giant parachute. We also met Ayelen, who also paraglided, and joined us at La Cumbre Hostel for a bbq of steak and chorizo sausages (and did I mention wine also… see the trend for most of my time in Argentina).

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With Buenos Aires around the corner, I headed back to Cordoba with Ayelen where she invited me to a house party complete with the classic Argentinean sing-along complete with guitars and a good ole spin on the dance floor.

After two weeks in Argentina, I was starting to like the laid-back lifestyle and the wine wasn’t bad either. With two weeks left, it was off to Buenos Aires, “the Paris of South America,” and the beach getaway of Mar de Plata for the last of my time in Latin America, but I’ll leave that for Part 2 of my Argentinean adventures.

Til next time! Ciao from Otres Beach, Cambodia.

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