V is for Volunteer

20111016-200645.jpg

One of the best things that has happened to me since moving to Shanghai was finding BEAN. BEAN is a global volunteer organization that helps unite people by involving them in charitable causes. The Shanghai BEAN chapter is packed with volunteer opportunities ranging from playing mahjong with the elderly to reading to migrant school children. Not only do they offer opportunities to give back, but also to kick back with fun parties and networking nights.

Since joining BEAN I have volunteered at a migrant school, where we taught English and played dodgeball. These particular students belong to migrant families who come from provinces outside of Shanghai. The migrant schools are often underfunded, and the teachers inexperienced. Getting to run and laugh with a group of foreigners is probably a unique experience for these students. I know I had a blast with them!

20111016-192904.jpg

I have also been to a cat shelter, well it is now a shelter, but it didn’t start out that way. It all began with a man who loved cats, he loved them so much that he ended up with around 200 of them. SCAA, an amazing organization for abandoned animals, stepped in and offered to help as long as the man didn’t take in anymore cats. Right now there are a little over 100 cats who are really sweet and love the attention volunteers give them.

The third volunteer event I attended was at the Shanghai Healing Home, which is an orphanage for babies with cleft-palate or cleft-lip deformities. The home was started almost three years ago by an expat couple, and now is able to house over 30 babies. It is a bright, happy place, and the babies are just adorable. I go most weekends and look forward to it all week. While I am there I forget about everything else in the world, it’s almost therapeutic. I know there are many charities around the world who need help, but I can promise anyone who is looking to donate to a good cause that every bit you give will benefit the babies. It costs about 9,000 RMB per operation and 3,500 RMB per baby per month for basic care. The Home is largely funded by donors, so if you have a little or a lot to give, keep them in mind. If you would like to help by purchasing diapers and other similar items, or you just want to learn more, you can do so by visiting their website http://jamieweidner.squarespace.com/healing-home.

20111016-193108.jpg

With BEAN, I have run around the city with a camera checking off tasks for a photo scavenger hunt (cricket fighting, doing tai chi in the park, holding a baby with split pants), it was crazy. Think The Amazing Race involving a bar as a checkpoint, and you have an idea of what it was like. I have also ridden around in a double decker bus filled with kegs and other goodness woo-hooing my way around the city, waving at all of the pedestrians and woo-hooing again when they waved back. I have dressed up as a Ninja Turtle, and hung out in a pirate themed rum bar. I have been back stage at a music festival and threw giant red balloons into the crowd while 30 Seconds to Mars played behind me.

If you want to meet awesome new friends, volunteer in and around Shanghai, and have a blast, go to a BEAN event. You will be loving life even more than before. I know I do.

Two other charities I want to mention, but have not tried on my own are HandsOn Shanghai and Heart to Heart. HandsOn offers a variety of volunteer opportunities on the weekend and during the weekday. Heart to Heart focuses on children who need heart surgery, and helps fundraise for patients. The organization also helps to connect volunteers with young patients at the children’s hospital.

Advertisements

O is for Organic

Last night, after a long day of teaching, I headed out into the Shanghai night to watch a documentary. I head never been to the destination, Melange Oasis, an organic restaurant located in the back of a Shanxi Nan Lu alley, but it was a delightful find. It is often difficult to find organic food in Shanghai. Local food is often very tasty, but saturated with oil and salt. Many restaurants around town offer healthy fare, such as Element Fresh, but it is not necessarily organic.

Eating organic in a country where most of the fruits and vegetables are contaminated with unpronounceable and dangerous chemicals is not always easy, but for me it is becoming clear that I need to make a change in my increasingly street food diet. I am feeling a little bigger than usual, a little more sluggish, and a little more tired. So, last night I resolved to make a change in my diet, and hopefully start exercising again.

One of the changes I will make couldn’t be easier. I am going to start ordering a box of vegetables from BioFarm, an organic farm located in Pudong. BioFarm uses the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, a model that is growing in popularity in the U.S., and now in China. Each week you can send in your order and the time you want it delivered. The boxes are filled with seasonal treats. The options available for this autumn are chilis, black winter melon, potato, sweet potato, Chinese broccoli, pumpkin, and organic eggs and tofu. For about 100 RMB, or more depending on the size, you can have organic and fresh vegetables delivered to your doorstep. So, I have no excuse not to do it, right?

The documentary I saw last night,”The Real Dirt on Farmer John”, hosted by Kimberly Ashton, was another inspiration for me to go organic. It is an excellent film based on the life on an eccentric but awesome Illinois farmer who, in the face of so many obstacles, created Angelic Organics. Not only did he struggle due to the hardships of maintaining a farm in a land where houses are more valuable to the public than food, he also faced persecution from the neighbors because he was different. It is an inspiring film that I highly recommend.

So, before my belly grows anymore, even though winter is coming and that extra layer may help to keep me warm, I am resolving to make a change. Being healthy is not easy, but the benefits definitely outweigh the difficulties on this one. Will you join me?

Goodbye Vietnam!

I’m now back in Shanghai, and it feels great, but I wish my toes were still in the sand. Yesterday was our last day in Nha Trang. We slept in a bit, drank 2 Texas sized margaritas, and reluctantly dragged ourselves away from the beach. There is something different about Vietnam. Everyone is so happy there. Everyone laughs so easily. Life is so simple, just like it should be. Returning to a city like Shanghai isn’t easy, and it makes me think I only have a few more years of city life in me.

As our taxi drove off into the freshly rained on night, I rolled my window down and watched the pairs of friends and lovers passing by on their scooters, yelling and smiling into the warm air. I wanted to join them, but I had to return, I had students to teach.

That night our flight left Saigon airport at 1:55 a.m. We arrived to the Pudong airport at around 7 and were at work by around 8:40 a.m. It was kind of fun just bustling into work like a tumbleweed, although I am now almost too exhausted to keep my eyes open.

For now, I leave you with a list of my Nha Trang faves:

Where to stay:

Ho Chi Minh
Hong Han Hotel
Nha Trang
Ha Van Hotel

What to do:

Spa
Su Spa
Mud Baths
Thap Ba Hot Spring
Four Island Tour
Tien Tien Tour
Long Son Pagoda

20111009-214549.jpg
Po Nagar Cham Towers

20111009-214739.jpg

Vietnam Day 4

20111008-123511.jpg

Today we went on the Tien Tien boat tour with Juliette and Jean. We started the morning going to the Tri Nguyen aquarium, and I do not recommend going there. The barren glass tanks were way too small for some of the giant beasts that lived there. The fish also looked really unhealthy, with many of them having cloudy eyes, not a good sign. So, save your money and avoid the aquarium, the ocean offers a much better view of its creatures anyway.

Next, we went to Mun Island. There, we went snorkeling for a bit. The reef was pretty small, but there were quite a few fish there, a couple of parrot fish were floating around, a trumpet fish stayed close to the sandy bottom, and a huge school of tiny silver fish darted around, trying to avoid the foreign bodies. Sitting in the water near the shore was really nice, just going with the ebb and flow of the waves.

20111008-123753.jpg

On the way to our next stop we ate an interesting lunch, there was a mix of seafood, what looked like beef, and some of the yummiest tofu I have had in Asia so far. Then we arrived to a place near Mot Island, just off of the dock, next to the aquaculture farm. There the fun really started. There was a small drum set, electric guitar and a bass on the boat, and one of our guides put on quite a show as he dressed in drag and sang to us. He even took B on stage and tried to give him a smooch. B sang, “I love you more than words can say” with “Obama”, it was a legendary performance. I especially liked the part where he groped B and tried to pull his shorts up.

20111008-124208.jpg

Our new friend Obama, as he has been named by visitors for his likeness to the Pres, told us there are some good opportunities to teach English in Nha Trang, more than in Saigon, which is pretty saturated with English teachers. He said we could rent a nice house for about $70 per month and just teach out of it. Sounds like an excellent idea, and I love Nha Trang more than words can say, so I am sold. After the music ended, they set up a floating bar in the water, we jumped in and enjoyed a few drinks while we floated around in some foam rings, cheers-ing all of our new friends.

Our last stop was Stone Beach, aptly named as it is a very stony beach. We drank some beer and skipped some rocks, well I tried anyway, but B and Jean are much better than me. Then we sat down to share a bottle of wine with a small group of Russians who live in Vietnam. They were really nice, and the conversation was as well. We found out that in Russia, it is customary for the groom to carry his bride across seven bridges that run over water. Seven because the number is lucky, but why bridges over water? “I don’t know!” The man replied. We smiled, rose our glasses, and took a drink together.

20111008-124438.jpg

On the way back to town, Obama brought me on stage for a rendition of “My heart will go on” as we embraced at the front of the ship, and as I tried to keep him from lifting my dress up in front of everyone. After I had fully embarrassed myself, he let me go.

Later, we went to the small carnival set up along the beach. At first glance, it appeared to be closed, but we were in luck, it was open for business. We bought two tickets, one for the Ferris wheel and one for the dragon. Since we were the only people there, we got the longest dragon ride ever. It was a blast, even though I think the ride is for little kids (my legs barely fit under the bar). I felt like the park had been closed just for us. It was fun to pretend anyway.

20111008-125005.jpg

We finished the evening with an authentic meal at a Vietnamese place along the beach. I had Pho (even though it is mostly eaten for breakfast, but I had been craving it all day) and fried rice, and B had coconut BBQ chicken. We left satiated and happy, and returned to HaVan for our last night of sleep in this wonderful beachside town.20111008-130752.jpg

Vietnam Days 2 and 3

20111007-180637.jpg

The last three days have been nothing but pure relaxation, which is all I ever really wanted out of this vacation. These days, sitting and doing nothing definitely excites me. If you are looking for a cheap vacation in an amazing place with friendly people, I definitely recommend Nha Trang.

Yesterday we woke up early and headed to rooftop restaurant of HaVan, our hotel, and had the free breakfast. The breakfast is amazing…Vietnamese coffee, delicious crusty baguette dragon fruit, rhambutan, watermelon, an omlette and a banana, all of which was included in our room rate (except a tiny bit more for the coffee). Then we decided to head to the beach, since it was the only sunny day in the five day forecast.

20111007-180849.jpg
Walking down the public beach, we found a popular spot for locals. It looked like a place for business deals and coffee with friends. We used it as a place to unwind with a lover. A few beers, gin and tonics, and a rain shower later, we walked back down to the beach and into the water. It was brown and sandy from the recent monsoons, but warm nonetheless.

We made our way back to the hotel and asked around for a good place to get massages. The friendly Frenchman who runs the joint mentioned two places, one of which was Su Spa. Su Spa was awesome and he, “…went and felt like, aahhh!” We had to go. So, we booked “The Su Experience” and boy let me tell you, was it an experience. We first walked in and were escorted to a seat next to the coy pond (which, thank God I didn’t put my feet into, I almost did, but then I realized the fish weren’t the sucker fish). A few minutes later we were offered robes, and eventually taken to our rooms of relaxation.

First the masseuse washed our feet in cool water and scrubbed them down. Next, two people rubbed us down from head to toe in oil. We just basked in bliss while four hands worked us over. Then, one person rubbed our scalps and one rubbed our feet, integrating hot stones into the treatment. The person working on the head area dug into our scalps in the nicest way and then worked her way into our face. Meanwhile, the person on the feet pushed hot stones into our pressure points. Back to the face. First, a milk and honey mask that I wanted to eat, then another seemingly edible concoction is slathered on from forehead to neck, mmmm. Then, the face is finished off with a cold cucumber mask. After that, a full frontal (meaning everywhere but the naughty bits) massage ensues. I have never felt more like royalty in my life. Needless to say, we did not do much else that evening, just ate an Italian dinner, relaxed and watched Animal Planet (which I really miss!).

Day 3

Today we woke up to another awesome breakfast and booked a private taxi tour to a couple places around town, the first place was the Long Son Pagoda, a beautiful temple with a 46 foot tall Buddha statue. It is said that you can see the statue from almost anywhere in the city. The feeling one experiences there is one of awe and peace (but expect to be asked to buy something or give money along the way). Next, we went to the Po Nagar Cham Towers, built in the 8th century, another place where one can experience beauty and peace. Traveling during rainy season has it’s drawbacks, but the one good thing is that there weren’t too many visitors around, so we were able to get some awesome photos.

20111007-181100.jpg

We stopped by our hotel for a bit of freshening up and then headed to the beach again. Along the way we encountered a group of friends drinking bootleg liquor out of a big water bottle. They poured us each a shot, it wasn’t too strong, even a little sweet. They have us some rhambutan and then we said goodbye. We ambled in the sand with smiles on our faces, and ended up at the beer bar we went the day before (which has an excellent choice of unique brews and tasty food), Lousiane Brew House, and there met a sweet couple from Brasilia, she works in Qingdao and he in Brasilia. We hung out, drank, ate some food, and planned our next day…a boat tour with our new Brazilian friends.

Vietnam Day 1

So, I am sitting here in Flamingo Suites HaVan in Nha Trang, sipping on a Saigon beer and watching a canton pop performance on TV, and life is pretty great. It’s pretty great in spite of the fact that one of the dudes in the boy band I am watching has the exact same hair color as me (unnatural blond), and in spite of the fact that I have a strange rash breaking out all over my body. So far, Vietnam has been ahhh-mazing, let me tell you why.

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh city late last night, 1:00 a.m., and finished the paperwork for our visa on arrival. As I mentioned earlier, I used myvietnamvisa.com to secure me and B’s travel visas for Vietnam. We selected the urgent option and received our acceptance letter via e-mail. We brought the letter, the name list with our names on it, and the visa application form. Super easy and the company is great. One thing I forgot though was $25, and only had RMB. The guy at the counter said, “OK, 300 RMB”, that is actually way more than $25, which would be 160 RMB, but I really wasn’t in a place to argue, so I forked it over. Finally, we were freed from the confines of immigration and set out to find a bed for a few hours.

We made the mistake of talking to the guy with a car that wasn’t actually a taxi and paid too much to get where we were going, but at that point, I did not care. However, anyone traveling to any foreign country probably knows that you should always take a legitimate taxi when possible (as you may know by now, I don’t always make the best choices.) Long story short, we made it to our destination on Bui Vien Street, and had three glorious hours of sleep.

The hotel we stayed at is called Hong Han Hotel. It is cute, new, clean, and the guy at the front desk is super nice. The area is interesting, well what I saw if it anyway, at 2:00 a.m. it was filled with people, travelers and locals, eating, drinking, and picking up last minute partners for the night. I wish we would have spent more time Ho Chi Minh, but I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.

We arrived in Nha Trang at 8:45 a.m. and took a taxi into town, about 20 minutes or so. We didn’t have a destination yet, as our room wouldn’t be ready until 2:00. We sat at a nice restaurant for breakfast, meanwhile I Googled “armpit, inner forearm, thigh rash,” and after a short time was convinced I had shingles. We took a short trip to the hospital, found a really nice woman to translate for us, and I was given two prescriptions. I did not have a clue what the diagnosis was, or what the medication would treat, so I Googled once more, and inferred that the doctor thought I had some allergic reaction and gave me an antihistamine and a steroid. Well, at least I don’t have shingles (maybe? hopefully?).

We then went to our hotel, awesome by the way, and plotted out our next move. We decided that the mud baths would do us both some good, especially me with my increasingly rashed body. It turned out to be the best decision of the day. The place is called Thap Ba, and it is definitely one of the gems of Nha Trang. For 1,000,000 Dong, about $50, we both got a mud bath, mineral bath, foot massage, and hot spring bath. It was super relaxing and helped my rash tons (sorry to keep saying “rash”, I know, it grosses me out too).

So now I will drift off to sleep, hoping tomorrow I won’t have shingles anymore, dreaming dreams of blond canton pop stars.

P.S. I have noticed that a lot of my search referrals come from creepy search phrases such as, “old men kissing young girls,” and “where to get a nasty hot massage in Shanghai”. I guess it is my fault for the way I word things, but seriously, WTF?

20111004-214823.jpg

20111004-214904.jpg

20111004-214945.jpg

Learn from my mistakes

I should be in Vietnam right now, in Ho Chi Minh. However, I am not. Instead, I am on my couch, with my Chihuahua, writing this. Here is the story…

I thought I had everything planned out. Tickets? Check. Hotel? Check. Vietnam travel guide? Check. Passport and cash? Yup. I thought that was everything. So, we were in the taxi on the way to the airport and B asked, “Do we need a visa or anything?” I felt a pang of uncertainty, “Um, I don’t think so.” I brought out the trusty iPad, and after a quick Google search I realized that we probably weren’t going to make it to Vietnam, at least not that night. I think it was when I read, “If you arrive without a visa, you will be deported,” that I knew it was over.

I applied for a visa throughhttp://www.myvietnamvisa.com/ but they couldn’t process it until Monday at the earliest, so we rescheduled for Monday night. Now I have my fingers crossed that everything will be OK. It actually worked out alright, we will be there in time to catch out flight to Nha Trang, so it won’t be a total loss, as long as we don’t encounter any more obstacles. So, please don’t be like me and make a crazy mistake (I am probably one of the only people in the world who would actually do so) and try to get your travel visa to Vietnam early.

Also, if you want to travel to India, you will need to secure a travel visa first. You can do this online. I will be going to the India Consulate office here in Shanghai to get mine done, and will post how it goes.

So, next time I write I will *hopefully* be doing it from the beach. Wish me luck (and try not to make fun of me too much, thanks)!

Previous Older Entries