So I can write about runaway bus rides and free wheelin’ moto drives and the beauty of a quiet morning and plates overflowing with food and taste. But is this the true depth of travel, or just the romanticized adventure? My mind rolls in a constant battle with the ethics of travel and the way we spend our time.
When we disembarked from the bus that caused a bit of insanity, our feet landed in the beach resort town of Nha-Trang (which will soon be known the world over like Fiji and Hawaii and the Carribean). I worried that this would be a laid-back, mellow time on the beach, with maybe even a booze-cruise to the islands . . . hell, maybe two. And that such a way of spending my time would cause guilt, or at least circumspect questioning.
We wandered to a high-rated spot for breakfast, Lanterns, and of course within moments, it was clear that our lounging three days would not be so, well, easy, I guess. As we ate our late breakfast the wait staff prepared more than a hundred to-go meals in containers which we figured were for a catering gig. And then we read the laminated advertisement on our table.
It turns out that Lanterns is owned by an Australian and operated by local Vietnamese. All of the profits go directly to four orphanages in the surrounding countryside or to handing out meals three times per week to the local workers on the street (those styrofoam containers we thought were headed for a business luncheon). And guess what? Customers could help if they pleased.
So we inquired about how we could join in, and not to ease the guilt of my bleeding heart (I know that a couple hours of volunteering does little in the way of capacity building or true impact) but to see the inner-workings, the backbone, the heart of a city built for international beach tourism.
The following day we met Hien, our guide and one of the coordinators of Lanterns’ community-based work back at the restaurant. She immediately wisked us off in a taxi headed towards the closest orphanage located at a Pagoda and on the way we bought a case of fresh nutritious milk as an offering to the teachers and the kids.
Once we arrived at the Pagoda a group of primary age students greeted us with smiles and hugs and outstretched hands (clearly someone who looked like me had been here before and had played a game of dangling one kid at a time up into the air and swinging he/she arround in a broad circle. . . after ten rounds of this, my left arm grew quite tired). We then toured the newly built classrooms (all built by Australian and American donations in the last five years) which made the falling apart wooden shacks, that were the old classrooms, look even more horrendous.
And then we went to play with the toddlers. I have held babies before, I have played games with laughing two year olds, I have felt the innocent joy of a child radiating up at me from twinkling eyes. But when one 18 month year old returned to me again and again, holding out her arms to be held and hugged, I felt different, like a father, I suppose. Then I found out that she had just been brought to the orphanage two weeks ago by her mother who could no longer take care of her, and that the child was 3 years old, not 18 months.
Early childhood malnourishment is not something I had entirely understood before this moment. Feeling a profound sense of compassion and protection for a vulnerable human being was something I thought I knew, but I hadn’t. Not until that moment when it was time for us to leave and she clung to me tighter and tighter and I finally had to set her down on her thin blanket and worn-out pillow for her morning nap time. And for us to walk away.
Walking away was one of the tougher things I’ve ever done in my life. Both because I walked away from her unknown and likely precarious future, and because it took me until the age of 28 to truly understand the precioussness of life. I think it’s this awareness of life, its dangling by a shoe-string, its profound interconnectivity, that reminds us of our deepest human core: that of compassion and love.