Making a difference – If only for a day

At the pagoda. iPhone photography processed with camera+

At the pagoda. iPhone photography processed with camera+

Walking through narrow alleyways where even the motorbikes would have their mirrors bent inwards by the walls. Retracing the steps afterwards, we would appreciated road markers left behind on the walls as we are getting lost. A maze within a small section of the town. We are in Phu Nhuan district, 5 minutes away from a large arterial road, in what seems a world apart. Do good. That’s the reason why we are here. To remind ourselves that in fact we have privileged lives that we often take for granted as there are many people in more dire situations than ourselves. To do what we often think and wish we should do. A first step. To give. Give to people less fortunate without expecting anything in return, except for the feeling of making someone happy. The smiles received are reward enough.

First stop is the 1st floor of a hairdresser. I have passed it many times. Even made a note to return with a camera and take a photograph of the mannequin heads that sometimes are on display. Impaled heads on a metal fence. All with various hair colours and lengths, used for practice by the staff. Today we enter the salon and venture upstairs. We meet the husband first, then his wife, lying on a mattress on the floor. In agony. She has incurable cancer. Dying from the inside, a bit more every day. Eventually she will leave behind her husband and two children. It is brutal. Time is limited and our small contribution will only help them subdue the pain for a short time, but can do nothing to stop the process. Even with means to help it will not be enough. It start to sink in how precious life is and how valuable every moment we have with loved ones really is.

Love and care is what we all crave and need. The infant inside the room, only a short walk away from the hairdresser, is being looked after by his mother. She happens to be an unmarried, single mother. The room is their home. It’s dark with hardly any light seeping in. Electricity cost money and thus saved by not being used. She needs all the help and support she can get.

Next stop is further inside. Between newly constructed houses and villas we arrive at metal gate. Through a small courtyard that doubles as motorbike parking space, we entered a small house, greeted by an elderly woman. The elderly woman has aged through hardship and not by time as she looks much older than her real age. She is looking after her son. He is in his twenties and stays at home with her. He’s standing by the window in a small room, shifting his weight back and forth. Only then do I notice the ankle chain. He is chained to the wall. To keep him safe. The woman says he is mad and dangerous to his surroundings. She has to keep him chained up. The motorbike parking is her only livelihood but her front yard cannot hold that many motorbikes.

Our journey continues, next stop, the local hospital. After spending time trying to figure out our given directions, we had to resort to a phone call as even the staff could not tell us the correct room. Once we received the additional information did we find our next person in need of some help. The old woman has respiratory troubles and is undertaking her treatment as we arrive. Through her face mask  I notice how her eyes light up when hearing of our purpose for the visit. It means a lot to her. To us, in monetary terms, it is not much. Forgoing a meal out, and donate instead the value, and you have touched a heart immensely. It is a small token that we all can do. To share with a stranger in need.

We spend more time walking. This time we walk passed the house as it is too tiny to notice, sandwiched between two villas. It’s made of wood. Small, but still someone’s house and home. An elderly woman, living by herself, working hard to make a living. She normally sells her homemade goods in the evenings, something we did not know and we feel ashamed to have taken up her valuable sales time as we wanted to help and not be a burden to her.

Our last stop this evening is the local pagoda. It is with their help we have located the people in need. The day has been filled with mixed emotions of all the experiences we have had, however, knowing that we have done something that made a difference, no matter how small, it still is a difference and that feels good. It is good to get out of our normal comfort zone and our own daily routines and be useful, if only for a day.

I do know that I want to undertake this again and I also hope that more people will do the same, if only for a day a year.

If you cannot make a personal visit, please consider to fund a Kiva loan. This year, I made a resolution to issue a new loan of US$25 every month on Kiva and you can do so too here: http://www.kiva.org/invitedby/mads6766

For each person that follows that link and donate, Kiva will issue a bonus that can be used to issue even more loans. You can read about it here: http://www.kiva.org/bonus/learnmore

Even if everyone else is not doing good, I alone will.
Even if everyone else is doing wrong, I alone will not.

– Buddha

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Big Mountain, Cloud Lake, Miss Vung Tau and the Alpine Coaster

It is a Sunday, my parents are still in town, however, my mother decided to relax at the hotel while my dad, my son and I took a day trip to Vung Tau. The roads have improved, it took us 2 1/2 hours by car, average speed of 48 km/hr to reach Vung Tau, 120 km away. Still slow compared to the speedboat with an average of 1 hour 15 minutes travel time.

Station No 1 at Buffalo Island.

We drive straight to Station No 1, Buffalo Island. Park the car and board the cable car service. We are going to Big Mountain, 249 meters above the sea to visit Cloud Lake and say hello to Miss Vung Tau before undertaking the highlight of the trip, the Alpine Coaster. Racing downhill on Big Mountains slopes before being pulled back up again is great. Each trip gets done faster than the previous one. 30,000 VND or $2 per ride, but the joy is priceless.

It is cooler up here, more wind and you don’t feel the heat as much as you do at the beach. As all good things come to an end, we ride down for a late lunch, thereby extending the good life by enjoying Italian food, before starting the journey back.

Truly a great day out, enjoy the images:

Rearview. Leaving Station No 1 behind by the sea.

Arriving at Station No 2, Cloud Lake.

Panorama view from Cloud Lake restaurant.

Detail view.

Arriving at Cloud Lake, viewing the footbridge with a waterfall behind.

Behind the veil of water. Walking on a slippery footpath behind the waterfall.

Over view from Cloud Lake, with a 30 meter tall Buddha in the distance.

Closer view of the tall Buddha, no shoes allowed on the ground in front.

One of the statues by the footpath leading up to the Buddha.

Time to meet Miss Vung Tau at her stable.

Wheelbarrows left out to dry in the sun by the stables.

The Alpine Coaster tracks on Big Mountains hillside.

Departure time.

Leaving Station No 2 and Cloud Lake.

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Roaming the roads and pathways with Papa Legba

At the gate

Saturday morning. Again we find ourselves at the gates of spiritual wandering, walking through and recalling Papa Legba. Legba.net was the domain name I owned while living in London. Somehow I only ended up keeping madsmonsen.com and now, I start recalling the master of roads and pathways, Papa Legba.

A boy had invited us in. Butterflies are flying around, tranquility fills the courtyard and a nun approached and greeted us with a smile. Permission to stroll around and photograph is granted. Even Buddha is greeting us with a smile as we walk around.

The smiling Buddha

Further back we found another statue being led by two elephants.

Statue in the backyard

And of course, a visit is never complete unless we do a proper close up of incense sticks.

Close up of incense sticks (joss sticks)

Overall, a great start on our journey to the Mekong. We have finally found the right direction, even a road atlas have been purchased in advance of the trip. We politely declined to stay for lunch as we wanted to reach Ben Tre within reasonable time and headed off on the road again.

Riding. Wind in our faces, sun shining strongly and thinking about Outrun. Stormy clouds were chasing us and we just managed to stay in front of them, thinking we had to get some milage between us. Panda made us stop. How could we miss a panda stop when we have a charming one saying “Hello!” in Vietnamese.

Hello Panda!

It was a quick “Hi & Bye!” with our newfound Panda friend. Time for us to get some lunch. Finding places that serves food is easy, but finding the right place to stop and eat is more difficult. How do we know where to stop? Easy, we do as the locals, we see which place got lots of customers and we also stop there. Works like a charm, food is always good. As we had just finished our meal, a bird vendor parked his motorbike outside, put a stick on the side to keep the bike from falling over and walked inside. Not sooner had he placed his supporting stick in the ground and we were out, cameras switched on and we got clickety-click-click on the birds. Got some birds nailed alright.

Inside looking out, bird in bird cage

The shadow birds

Off we went again. Stopped briefly at pagoda-in-construction site and ventured to the old grounds behind and found the tattooed tongue statue.

The tattooed tongue statue

That was the last pagoda stop for the day. Next up was bridges.

Bridges on the roadside to Ben Tre, Mekong area

Then waterways.

Fishing net by the riverside

Then another bridge.

Bridge across the river

Roads. Country side roads and crossroads. We took a right from the main road and never looked back. Just headed deeper and deeper and got a taste of off road riding with the bike. Forget about going here with a car. The pathway at some points barely supports one bike in width. Houses to the left, pathway in the middle and river to the right. Either pay a visit to a stranger or risk a bath when you meet another bike going the opposite way.

Country side road

A road shrine along the pathway and Papa Legba reoccured in my thoughts. Indeed a master of roads and crossroads.

Road shrine in the Mekong

Finally we found a larger road leading to the main road and we were again connected to the flow of buses, trucks, cars and motorbikes. From being off-line to be back on the grid again. Time to head back as daylight faded away. Most accidents take place after dark and extra vigilance is needed when traveling on the road. Darkness did not manage to prevent us from further capture. Our last shot for the day.

Full moon by the road side

As we headed closer to Saigon, more bikes were whizzing past us. Time to slow down as they start to race and we applied our brakes and let a young guy without helmet take off and disappear in the distance. No need to rush we told ourselves and rode on. A minute later we spotted the guy again. He lay motionless on the road next to his bike. 30 meters apart was the other guy and his bike. Two down. Just like that. Saturday night, a bit of bravado, giving full throttle and going from being king of the road to king of stupidity in a fraction of time. People gathered around the two and he started to move his head, must have been in full agony. There was nothing we could do to help at this point. We rode on. In silence.

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Deus ex machina

“A spiritual journey is good for the photographic soul” was the title from one of our previous road trips. The working title I had in my mind for this one was “Riding with Buddha”, however, looking through the images from the trip, it was changed to “Deus ex machina” or “God from the machine”. Still on the spiritual path of thoughts as “Riding with Buddha” is more a tale to tell than images to view.

We started the Saturday with a rendevouz at the zoo. Another project I am undertaking at the moment involves capturing the beauty of Vietnamese women for a charity book project. Using existing light (ambient) and no harsh shadows (i.e. direct sunlight) and photograph the women as they are. A separate blog post will follow on that.

However, once the two sessions were done, Jamie and I were ready to hit the road, except Jamie’s road atlas had been sent to Malaysia by mistake. Who needs a map when we can follow the signs we thought and off we went. Our plan was to travel to Ben Tre, in the Mekong Delta area. Plan A never happened as Plan B kicked in when we realized we had taken the wrong turn and saw Tay Ninh on the sign in front of us. Cu Chi tunnels and Cao Dai temple could do for the day.

Quick stop at the petrol station, can never be too careful, we always dread the thought of running out of petrol and verified our directions. “Turn back to the junction and take the highway or go straight and prepare to zig-zag on small roads.” Straight we went in search of photographic adventure and treasure we found. Little did I realize that what we captured here would be the blog post of today as what happened next gave birth to “Riding with Buddha”.

After our treasure hunt we continued and went looking for a restaurant. Lunch time is lunch time. No good to keep going on empty. “Stop, let’s head back, I need a shot of that one!”, Jamie exclaimed. A bicycle vendor with various Buddha statues for sale had taken a stand by the crossroad. Spur of a moment decision, I bought one, thus “Riding with Buddha”.

Found lunch, saddled up again and found the main road and was reassured by the ones we asked that we were indeed on the correct way, great. My turn to initiate a stop, saw an interesting road sign. Riding with Buddha proved a bit cumbersome, and while readjusting the plastic bags, Jamie gasps. The wheel of fortune broke at Buddha’s back!

Worried for a second if it is bad luck or not, we conclude that Buddhism is about forgiveness and set off again only to have a flat tire!

Luckily, being on the main road means that 800 meters down, there’s a repairman. The inner tube has bursted and is beyond repair. Only a new will do. We wait. It’s rather quick, and we settle the payment and are about to head off, when the bike refuses to start! What’s going on? A Buddha curse? While the repairman is taking the bike literally apart to find the problem, we are on the phone, asking our experts if it is indeed bad luck to break a Buddha. “Yes, it is” is the immediate response, “No, we shouldn’t worry” is the conclusion offered. Didn’t make us any wiser, but the mechanic solved the issue, replaced a faulty part and we set off.

At this stage, we realized that our next trip we will need to have a road atlas and that asking for direction is the same as tossing a coin and that road signs on Vietnamese roads are far in between. We had been sent in the wrong direction. There would be no temple and tunnels on us today and rain clouds soon catching up. We’ve been circling around the city’s outskirts.

A disappointment, well yes and no. Yes, we did not get where we intended, however, we got something else, the “God from the machine”, enjoy the view below:

Deus ex machina

Deus ex machina

Deus ex machina

Deus ex machina

Deus ex machina

Deus ex machina

Deus ex machina

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