Children

I want to teach under a bodhi tree.

I want to teach under a bodhi tree.

Regardless of the reasons why it didn't happen, I know what I want: engaged students every step of the way. That investment in time must provide me immediate return, onto which I can bank that long term effects are plausible. I am building daily on a blueprint created many years ago, when a long trip provided me a clear life goal. Of course, I also must find ways to steady my mood and know I cannot control all the variables that allow a student to be an engaged one.

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Disgraceful Tourism

Girls at Palm Tree

Girls at Palm Tree

We travel because it's a rare kind of high that can also enlighten, rejuvenate, and ensure the occurrence of adventure. Regardless of the road's discomforts or challenges, travel seems to always evoke an inexplicable positivity - whether that's from the possibility of new friendships or just the newness of a myriad of elements. The scope of potential world travel is tantalizing, and thankfully tourism has the ability to elevate developing communities through employment opportunities and tax revenue. Win for the wanderer; win for the welcomers. Sadly, not every traveler sees his or her voyage to a new country in such a positive, symbiotic light. Those are the ones who perpetuate the very dark and very bleak side of travel. I'm talking about the perverted patrons of the sex tourism industry.

This post was written in conjunction with Angeline Diamond of ECPAT-USA.

The Darkest Form of Tourism

Kids at Palm Tree

Kids at Palm Tree

I'm not talking about backpackers who delight in a consensual tryst or the business traveler hoping to meet a cute gentleman in the hotel bar. I'm talking people whose sole purpose for travel is to engage in sex with minors, or they may take it one step further and transport someone for criminal sexual conduct. Ya know…real classy types.

Let's lay this out logically. Sex tourism increases the demand for prostitution. However, this demand is not easily met by women willing to choose this profession. Therefore, to meet demands, the supply of prostitutes becomes contingent on extensive human trafficking networks. These networks appear to be incredibly underground, which is why we don't hear about them like we do the drug trade. But sadly, the U. S. State Department says one million children worldwide are enslaved in the global commercial sex trade. Sex trafficking is considered one of the top three most profitable criminal networks in the world, generating about $4 billion dollars a year.

It's enough to make you writhe.

I feel rather morally comfortable while traveling, since I know for a fact I'm not engaging in anything related to sex tourism. But unfortunately, the travel industry often unintentionally contributes to this debilitating form of abuse. This doesn't mean anyone should point fingers and never leave their homes, but we as travelers, if we have any interest in our hosting communities, have a duty to act in ways that prevent the exploitation of the most vulnerable members of society: the children.

Kids are awesome, and to imagine a start to life wrapped up in such a seedy and life-threatening industry could induce nightmares and permanent travel guilt.

Know They're Out There

I've written about the creeps who often navigate to my site from google searches, like: cambodian naked boy, sex tourism friendly hotels, little boy with no shirt. If my blog were my home, I'd sit with an acidic potato gun on the front porch and fire at any creep who wonders on my lawn. To much our surprise, perverts aren't as easy to spot as Mormon evangelists (not that I'm encouraging the same activity to these solicitors…they're just easy to spot).

End child prostitution

End child prostitution

Instead, if I'm hoping that the world becomes a better place within my lifetime, I'd be better off imploring the help of fellow travelers who have an ounce of morality or two - hence, my blog post to you today.

I was recently contacted by ECPAT-USA, a network of organizations and individuals committed to the fight for children’s rights of freedom. While I know it's often fruitless to call for agency from an anonymous online audience, I figured it could only be beneficial to mention the tools they provide to assist the travel industry in preventing the sexual exploitation of children.

This acronym, which stands for Ending Child Prostitution, Pornography, and Trafficking, represents a group that focuses on research, advocacy, and public awareness. In conjunction with UNICEF and UNWTO, they created "The Code of Conduct," which outlines policies that may be adopted by travel companies within their code of ethics to prevent the sexual exploitation of children. Over 900 companies worldwide are in support of the code thus far, yet there are many companies that still hesitate.

Seriously…these guys are hesitating to support actions that prevent sexual exploitation. I'd like to hear the rebuttal for that argument.

Here we are, at the end of my ramble, where you can choose to do a couple things. You can click away mentally and physically (I admit to doing it a lot). You can consider yourself more aware and decide to learn more on your own time (I like to do this, as well). You can also exercise your "take action" muscle and follow some ECPAT-USA recommended steps toward making the travel industry more responsible. Regardless of your next step, I appreciate your perusal of this content and hope you feel enriched for doing so.

Kick Those Creeps Where The Sun Don't Shine

  • You may print out The Code Postcard and drop it off with your travel companies, which declares that you support responsible travel practices and travel companies that feel the same way. The Postcard provides information on how they may become a signatory.

    • If you take this route, do let ECPAT-USA know where you sent the postcard. It helps them out.

    • Check out ECPAT-USA online and follow us on Twitter.

    • Research the internet for great blogs about current issues.

    • Talk with your friends, family, co-workers, and other travelers to promote awareness and create a greater force against these practices.

    • Purchase a TassaTag, a beautiful, fair trade plus luggage tag, which also increases public awareness and benefits ECPAT research and women in Thailand.

Do you have any questions concerning sex tourism around the world? If so, you may contact Angeline directly at angeline@ecpatusa.org. And if you have any other information, stories, or reflections on this issue, please add to our dialogue below.

Getting our Backs into it: Day 44

I looked at i-to-i a while back when I was weighing my post-graduation opportunities. My trouble with volunteer projects though is always that I'm not sure whether my presence will be accepted, appreciated, and utilized for the maximum amount of assistance I can provide. Sometimes you show up, and it's pretty obvious a project is just about getting people to donate money and get out. Other times, you've got a very devoted group of people ready to work, but there aren't any resources or guidance to make the developments occur. i-to-i had all these issues figured out, and we could see and feel there was a need for volunteers to be there. We drove from Cape Town around the mountains to False Bay during the brilliance of a harbor sunrise. The first stop was a no frills walk around a township called Masiphumalele (which stands for "we will succeed"). Townships areas were set aside during the apartheid era as a place to "put" the colored and black communities that weren't wanted in the residential white zones. Masi, for short, is the only informal community in the Cape Town area that's centered in a "white" zone and is also the township with the highest percentage of people with HIV and AIDS...42%.

Charlotte, a local resident who can only be described as delightful, showed us around the community centers, libraries, relief centers, and even her own home, which is a privilege for visitors. We inquired about the expenses of living in this township and discovered a shack, built with a corrugated tin roof and roughly assembled panels, would go for about $500. Day care for a young child is $10 per month, but since these facilities wouldn't send a child away if the parents failed to pay, often that fee never gets collected. The township also bordered a wetland area, which floods with each heavy rain, and unfortunately it had been pouring the week prior to our arrival. Many children couldn't go to school or day care because they didn't have dry clothes to wear, and parents flocked to the relief centers for blankets to get through the chilly weather.

We walked amongst the kids singing in the street, the dogs roaming and barking hysterically, and the wandering people making their ways to local shops or passing taxis. This is definitely the way to do a township tour. Go with someone from the township, and walk, don't ride. It's also important to make sure your photography isn't about exploiting the people who live there, so this is one of those events that calls for intense sensitivity with clicking the shutter.

We then hit up our lunch stop, which also happened to be an educare center for children of pretty abysmal living situations and histories. Carrying in bags of rolls and deli ham, Chris and I began slathering mayo and folding ham for the kids' lunches. When we walked in, there was earth-rumbling screaming. When we passed out sandwiches, a mouse could have passed gas, and all would have turned their heads to look. And once the children consumed the food before them, it was back to unstoppable energy. The volunteers were personal jungle gyms for some kids, while others found joy in just being held. I attracted some gigglers with the always-reliable crowd pleaser, the tickle monster. Wherever you looked, there was a runny nose and a smile. It was a good scene.

Our expert sandwich assembling abilities came in handy once more when about 20 loaves of bread and flats of peanut butter came into the kitchen. We found ourselves in an efficient assembly line partaking in the relief efforts from recent rains. All those families whose homes hadn't a dry board received PB&Js to curb the devastation just a smidge. It felt good to spend even part of this trip doing something as useful as making cold and hungry families food.

Outside, volunteers stood propped up by rakes and shovels, smoking and chatting, waiting for the top soil and manure to show up for the care center's new garden. This project led by the volunteer program proposes to provide the children with fresh vegetables for stews and make better nutrition possible for very little money. And considering the owner of the establishment spends all her free time working for the funds to run the joint, anything to ease the heavy financial load is ecstatically appreciated. We got our backs into it for a bit and then had to move on to another social improvement project...this time all about the canines and felines.

What Little Work and Plentiful Play: Day 9

The Headmaster's Son

Being a “volunteer” in this village of Nakavika seemed to barely have the connotation that any work would be done by you. Given we came on the weekend and had to do no labor, I assumed Monday would crack down on our fun time with some blood, sweat and backaches in the farm. Ah, but the village spokesperson said nothing needed to be tackled that day. So Tuesday came, and I was sure the work would pile on, but the reality of this program became very obvious when our first big job was to dig a 3’ x 3’ plot with three shovels among ten volunteers. They had no need for our lagging Western manual work ethic or inabilities to perform in the equatorial heat. Though we seemed to make some productive use out of our time by finding firewood, so concluded our work portion of the village experience.

What was blatantly evident though was that our purpose for being there: to share, learn, and know they live the good life. A commonly repeated phrase was “the true Fijian life”, uttered by every villager hoping you’re picking up the meaning. They know they are lucky, and so are you for being there among the idyllic and paradisiacal world of Fiji’s interior.

When I walked back from the farm with a vine backpack filled with firewood, the sight of me melting seamlessly into jungle life tickled my host mom, Fane. I turned around and took off for waterfall again, this time with the other travelers for a quick dip. I was one of the few that knew where we were heading, so I led the way into the slick jungle belly towards the watery stairway. There was lots of screaming due to the frigid waters, and I sprawled my body across a fallen log below the falls to rest as the squeals continued.

The kids at the village school have daily activity time once the academics are done, and we travelers decided to join the hilarity by partaking in the schoolyard sports and games. While Chris and the boys took the future rugby stars for games and drills, I went with the ladies to entertain the younger crowd of ruffians.

Deciding to kill two birds with one activity, I turned this time into a work-out for myself and led the kids on obstacle courses, performed gymnastics, and pumped out some push-ups while counting in Fijian. My bones and joints were in shambles by the end of it, as I actually thought I could try and keep up with the kids. I needed a good subsequent rubdown.

That night my host mom told me we were hosting a kava session at our house, which I was always cool with, and to join us were some ladies of the village and about half the traveler crew. As the evening progressed, roughly 20 rowdy men and women squeezed into the kitchen area where the kava bowl sat (an area the size of the Empire State Building elevator). Chewing on mango skins to rid the taste of kava, I bounced my head to the rhymes of Fiji's own Sammy G and told my friend, Weiss, all about real American "gangsta" music, as if I'm a connoisseur.

My night closed with an eventful full moon stroll around the village, where my presence had a strong shadow and my head was covered with stars.

Chicken and Clams, Partying Khmer Style: Day 191

Palm Tree Hoodlums

Palm Tree Hoodlums

After seeing a film about orphans in northern Uganda, my parents felt moved to donate funds for the kids at Palm Tree. For about two weeks, I asked the administrators, teachers, and Evan what was lacking there or what needed additional funding to occur on the ground level. As the days passed, my interest in their nutrition fed a desire to hook them up with a big ol' feast of protein. I had one of the older kids translate my intentions to the head cook, a sweet lady who seems to do little else but clean dishes and boil more rice. She looked at me with the softest face and hugged me, nearly made me cry.

We soon hopped into a rickshaw with three or four older kids in tow and headed to the local version of a super Kroger. Open air, piles of food lining every walking path and lane, not one foreigner in sight.

The older kids held my hand or hooked elbows, making it a bit difficult to navigate over the trash rivers and around coasting motorbikes. I wasn't sure what compelled them to stay so close, whether a cultural habit, sign of appreciation or friendship, or fear of getting run over. Whatever the reasoning was, I was slowly feeling my American citizenship seep from every sweating and content pore.

Every wet step concerned me with thoughts of the substances now on my feet. Innards hung from the umbrellas in the open market, and I had to watch my head for fear of slapping it into a cow face. The cook decided upon a vendor and began weighing out chickens with their bare hands.

I couldn't bare to watch the food handling methods: grab the yellow skins to be weighed, drop it in a sack, wipe the brow, handle some money, shake hands, grab another chicken and whack its wings off with an effortless cleave. I handed the money to one of the kids and stepped back to avoid the flying bits. I guess I have my limits. What a nancy of a carnivore, I am.

We picked up some oil, seasoning and veggies and found our rickshaw waiting for us on the madhouse of a street. I reminded the cook on our drive back that I wanted all the food to go to the kids and none to reach the volunteer pagoda. This wasn't a meal for us. This obviously hit silent refusal as she was already conjuring an elaborate image in her head of our meal for later. I assume she thought it insulting to not make us food in appreciation, and she surely wanted to express her cooking abilities now that she had something more exciting to work with.

The meal was delicious, and the kids thanked me again with incredible formality. And the we threw that formality out the window.

The administrators pulled out and stacked speakers that reached heights above my head, and the kids began dancing on tables to versions of "Beautiful Girls" dubbed in Khmer. Their moves were awesome: sometimes organic, always repetitive, and often a duplication of a previous volunteer's dance routine.

I, for some reason, didn't feel like dancing much, which was probably because all eyes were on me, ready to mirror my image. I busted a few moves, a quick robot and wave sequence, which stunned some and caused them to practice for the remainder of the evening.

Soon into the event, Evan pulled me aside and brought me to the area of the compound where some teachers and admins live. One of the resident ladies had a baby that week and was now having a welcome home party with family and much of the Palm Tree staff. Tables were littered with beer cans and all the clams one could hope for.

I forget if I spoke much or even what was said around the table. I graciously accepted a little boxed wine from Evan and tried to psych myself out enough to try a marinated clam in front of me. The surrounding men were popping them like Orville Redenbacher.

The Grown-Up Party

And with each cheers, everyone was required to chug whatever drink sat in front of them. Cambodians sure love to drink; unfortunately, not many can hold their alcohol well. This resulted in some hilarious and awkward encounters with men who stared and smiled in my direction for lengths too long to be casual.

I couldn't handle the late hours the kids were willing and ready to reach with their dance party antics. The volume the speakers hit made it very evident there was no neighborly rule or law stating loud noises and music weren't tolerated. The windows and doors in my room reverberated with every bump of the base.

I retired early to finish reading my Shantaram novel and prepare myself for the everyday early wake-up. Within minutes of a full blown dance party, speakers shut off and returned to their storage areas while women and children hung their mosquito nets and fell into deep sleeps on their wooden platform or the cool linoleum floor.

The Cheap Battle Against Scurvy: Day 190

After ten days of teaching in classrooms, drawing cartoons, tutoring English, pushing swings, riding bikes too small for me, picking up from school, playing in the rain and watching TV while intertwined in a human pile, I finally felt comfortable taking my camera out of my room and clicking photographs of the kids I lived with. I guess I had the luxury of time on this leg to experience first and document later, but there were so many moments I wished I had captured digitally up until this point. But that was not the point. With only two days remaining in my Palm Tree experience, my place at the orphanage had solidified as much as it could in that span of time. I prioritized the friendships above the visual memories and even the written records because that was the sole reason for making this detour to Cambodia. It wasn't to be a white knight and put up a barrier between the kids and myself.

I didn't want to muddy my intentions for being at Palm Tree by pulling out my wallet and strutting the streets like Daddy Warbucks. There's no doubt I have enough personally to donate, but the trick is finding the right time and purpose that reflects my heart's place. All this travel made me ultra-sensitive in the act of gift-giving and honoring the dignity of the gift-receiver.

Spending multiple days eating next to these kids, filling up with rice and anchovy-sized fish on occasion, I realized my concern centered on their basic needs, like nutrition. One day, while walking outside the orphanage's salmon walls, I passed a small mart that sold apples. It took a lot of gestures, poor attempts at speaking Khmer, the involvement of passing Palm Tree children, and smiles to make the vendor understand what I wanted: 100 apples at her best price for the kids down the street.

The cost was $12.

I wanted the act of distribution to be as anti-climactic as possible and asked the cook to put them on their dinner plates. Of course, Cambodians cannot help but be grateful, appreciative and polite, and every child approached our little pagoda during dinner to thank me with a bow that displayed a sense of formality so easy and natural to them.

Evan reminded me of a market down the street that would offer a better selection of fruit and possibly better prices. I took three or four little boys with me the next day (and by took, I mean as I walked towards the orphanage gate, they ran up to see if they could tag along on the mini-adventure, skipping and holding my hand the whole way). As I took every step with such care as to avoid mud and piles of trash, the boys romped around without shoes (as they preferred to be) like we were in a field of marshmallows.

A lady with a heaping pile of green oranges caught my eye, and I sent young Vishna to discuss a sale of 100 juicy orbs. After getting a price quote, he came over to ask for roughly $10, and I gave him the equivalent in Cambodian riel. The vendor began packing her massive bag full and a few nearby ladies offered her their hands in the counting.

A few minutes passed, and Vishna came back with three more dollars because she realized she overcharged. One look at the vendor, and I felt this subtle moment of sweetness and good standing in their community. It was an honest view into a seemingly rough city most foreigners can only hope to glimpse.

$7 for 100 oranges. And to think I've bought a cocktail for more than that.

This Travel Thing is Hard But Good: Day 54

Karate kids

The chaos has fully set in. Lauryn Hill and her soulful ballads mark my release from a hectic two days of studying, exams, and all that shipboard hooplah. It really is a shame that we spend such a ghastly sum of money for an incredible school experience, and the most distracting element of the trip is the school part.

It has been nearly a month since the hazy view of Chennai rose from the horizon, and just as the stale smell dissipated from the ship, so did India's potential for immediate digestion into my cultural bell. The speed in which I had to work, rest, and prepare for the next new experience caused me to sweep its colorful memory under the rug, and because of this fatal gesture, my mind has slipped into the Semester at Sea shock state (also known as SASS).

Days at sea lack their former luster, new countries leave me confused, and beads of sweat explode out of my pores at the mere mention of a paper due date. I firmly stand on the opinion that this voyage of discovery cannot be experienced with open eyes unless one gets the opportunity to chew on every memory, every instance of fun and hardship, every incredible sight.

I have yet to review the hundreds of pictures I took aimlessly from Malaysia or Vietnam, and it only occurred to me, while wandering through a cave in Ha Long Bay, that I should stop clicking and start looking. It is a true tragedy when someone receives such an opportunity [to travel and encounter millions of different people, most who would never get this chance] and does not realize its potential to shock the eyes, shatter past views, and construct new truths that open the eyes even wider.

Nice glasses at the temple

Nice glasses at the temple

As if the first day of my homestay didn't evoke intense emotions concerning the lives of these people and my own in comparison, the trip consisted of an entirely new itinerary to challenge and amaze us.

The morning was fresh and dripping with tea and street noise, and no amount of sleep deprivation could keep four American girls from waving at pedestrians and recalling Disney musical favorites on the bumpy drive. A temple complex appeared at the merging of three rivers, and I surrendered the idea that I could capture every unbelievable sight that walked in front of my lens. Instead, I settled with four or five certain portfolio entries as every corner offered me an incredible view into the lives of the colorful Hindis. I mimicked every motion of our guide in her veneration for the idols; however, I conveniently slid out of the way when elephant blessings provided a nice snot slick to all who offered their heads.

Now that we had tackled Hinduism, the textile industry needed to be covered if we were going to command India by midnight. Speedy, smiley weavers with impeccable skill magnetized us to the cashier with rugs, throws, and placemats in hand, but not until I spent the majority of the time watching rows of thin cotton accumulate on ancient looms. The street life whirled around us as we piled into the motor coaches with our wrapped winnings in tow, but we spun the dust upward to squeeze in another school before lunchtime.

After months of constant smiles, I experienced a surge of sensations that led to confusion and, eventually, tears when the next visit included a student body struggling with the crippling effects of polio. Our welcome came in the most traditional manner, and once adorned with the appropriate jasmine garnishes, the children began to impress us with their dedication to prayer, their grace in traditional dances, and discipline in the art of karate. My state of confusion arose after the first recitations resonated throughout the room, and I observed the tightly squeezed eyes and unwavering voices of one hundred souls. I encountered the same situation the day before, but the presence of physical disabilities led me to see them in a new light. This enraged me.

Karate kids

Karate kids

I couldn't understand why I felt sad for children who seemed more excited and happy than others and tried to view them with the same eyes. Regardless of my mindset, these children were incredible and vivacious, and after we exhibited our high caliber skills with the hokey pokey, the school's lead dancer took interest in me from my stellar performance. I wish I could have retained all the Tamil they taught me.

After lunch and a table top nap at our last school, we witnessed yet another beautiful dance number, and at its conclusion, all the Western ladies approached the stage for a shot at traditional Hindi dance. Every sight I could ever hope to witness was a part of our eventful two day itinerary, and I left exhausted, dirty, and content on a night train back to Chennai.

As we floated away from the jellyfish infested waters of the harbor, my wallet was lighter, my new goods littered my bed, and my mind felt forever altered by this country I will probably never see again.

How would you have reacted at that school? Tell me your impressions of India in a comment below!

I Get Numb Thumbs for the Kids

Now the countdown is T minus 2 days until we get Allison buzzed and set her on the plane for the family vacation preceding the grand voyage (pronounced with a faux-french accent). New news...I make wonderful banana pancakes (Jack Johnson would be proud) for my daughters and my sicky bio-mama, I have developed a lovely case of excited insomnia, and I can sit down and make 40 beaded bracelets for little girls around the world in one day (Mom and I had a 10 hour TV marathon today, impressive I know). Yeah...I've been busy. I'm not even mentioning my anal-retentive hobby of documenting everything I pack down to a vitamin, a bobby pin, and the 200 Q-tips. I want future SASers to know EXACTLY what they need to bring in order to stop worrying about the little stuff (like packing) and prepare themselves for the big stuff (like insomnia or world travel). It's fun to type when you can't feel your fingers (deja vous of tying balloons in rush...ye-ouch).

I just want to say I miss people already. I'll never find myself singing "Ain't that America" on deck looking at the Malaysian sunset, but I sure will understand the sentiment when I miss the lovely charms of the Mid-west, B-town, and the Nap.

Please keep the e-mails coming...and chiefly include the most mundane activity of the week. That's the stuff of life.