Luang Brabang: Reflections on a Journey through Laos

Published April 11, 2012

Laguna Blanca School in Laos
Founder and head of PWT, Alethea Tyner Paradis, muses on the end of a journey through living history and the hope for future peace and healing. 
Breezy riverside Luang Prabang is a refreshing cleanse for our war-conscious-weary souls. The heart of downtown is cradled by the lazy S-curves of the Mekong River, bamboo bridges and boats offering quick navigation across and around. Saffron-robed monks make their barefoot morning pilgrimage through town. Gorgeous temples radiate ancient gold designs, dancing apsara buddha figures and serenity. Lush green trees and flowering bougainvillea frame each narrow street. Old French colonial architecture refreshed as gourmet eateries or day spas boast fresh paint, WiFi, espresso and romantic patios. Friendly people practice their English, issuing us earnest invitations to come back again soon.
A day-trip outside of town takes us over rolling, jungle-embraced hills of an acid-green vibrancy to the cascading waters of the Khouang Si Falls. Here the current, surging over a lofty cliff, collects in refreshing turquoise pools, where locals and tourists alike come together to bathe themselves in the clear, cool water. Khouang Si feels like an Oasis from the war-scarred reality of Xien Khuang. Its beauty is a haunting, and the still, jade pools inspire peace and reflection. 
On our last night, torrents of rain crash down upon our palm-treed Eco-friendly resort. Frightful winds, lightening, rolling thunder conduct an appropriate symphony to all we had witnessed in this beautiful, haunted, land. The following morning is initially grey, wet, foreboding, and then, more optimistically, dew-drop bathed with sunlight in time for our farewell. 
We leave with heavy hearts and opened minds. With only 1% of the UXOs cleared from the Laotian countryside, heartbreaking and backbreaking work remains ahead. But despite the tragedies we’ve encountered, hope hangs in the fresh air and watery sunlight of early morning. On our way to the airport, passing a line of saffron-robed monks, I take a deep breath of fresh mountain air; I know this trip is only the beginning. “Laos,” I promise, “I’ll be back, with more students, more compassion and a commitment to make your voice heard.”

Laguna Blanca Students Support Lao UXO Victim’s Children – April 2012

Published April 2, 2012

 Laguna Blanca School in Laos

Dori Shimoda, founder of Give Children a Choice, guest blogs about his experience in Laos meeting the Laguna Blanca students traveling with Peace Works Travel.

Barbara and I were very fortunate (and we thank our good friend Fred Branfman for the introduction) to have met Ms. Alethea Paradis. She’s an attorney, turned teacher, turned entrepreneur who started a tour company, called Peace Works Travel. It offers experiential and community involvement tours to countries of former adversaries*. This is her first tour to Laos.
“Peace Works Travel is an educational tour and community service program focused in the countries of our former adversaries. Founded by teachers and students for students and teachers, we believe that educational travel should transcend ordinary tourism by engaging travelers with the living history and modern culture of peaceful nations once at war.”
Excerpt from Peace Works Travel website.
Even more fortunate for Barbara and me is that we met 11 young adults, who have already developed an awareness of intellectual curiosity and exercised the act of social responsibility at a young age. They are Laguna Blanca students from Santa Barbara, California, USA. Their tour to Southeast Asia encompassed visiting the mine-torned country of Cambodia and the UXO-littered country of Laos. Their enthusiastic teachers Katy and Kevin joined the tour as well.
We were very happy to have them visit us. Barbara and I hosted them for some American fare (with a local Lao twist because of the available ingredients). We were surprised to learn about their knowledge of Laos and their awareness of what happened to Laos during the Secret War.
We were more surprised that they had personally worked hard at home to raise almost $2000 to help UXO victim families’ children with their education.
They also brought from home hard-to-get items for UXO victims, including Neosporin, Ben-Gay, ibuprofen and other pain relievers. They also brought clothes for the children in poor, remote villages.
We’d like personally thank and congratulate each one of them for their generosity and courage: Clarissa Coburn, Dalton Smith, Elise Scheurmann, Hughes Williamson, Milo Hensley, Lauren Conk, Nadia Belton, Ryan Green, Tiana Bonn, Tristan Prinz, and Vera Lopez.We are very proud of them. They should be recognized for their individual leadership, setting examples for their peers and American young adults.

In Vientiane, they spent time at the COPE Center and National Rehabilitation Center. They met a young boy, who foolishly and regretfully lost his hands and eye sight playing with a bombie in his home town in Vientiane Province.
They will be traveling to Xieng Khouang Province, which is the most bombed location per capita in the world. 2 millions of bombs were dropped. This included 260 million bombies during the USA’s Secret War in Laos. Most sadly is that 80 million of live bombies are resting somewhere to be discovered by some unsuspecting victim, who will be maimed or killed. Fortunately, the annual number of victims are dropping through ongoing education and UXO removal program efforts by the Lao government. As well, their UXO removal efforts continues to progress, as one of the country’s high priority.
In Xieng Khouang, they will be visiting Tham Pui Cave in Kham District, located about 35 miles east of the Xieng Khouang’s capital city Phonsavan. The students will also visit Thachok Village on their way back to Phonsvan. Thachok is a Hmong village. It is also known as the bomb village
Finally, the students will travel from Xieng Khouang to Luang Prabang by bus. The will spend their final days in SE Asia in Luang Prabang, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From there, they will return home to California, USA.
In closing, I want to thank the Laguna Blanca students for their leadership, maturity, their sacrifice of their free time to learn more about Laos. We hope that sometime in the future, they will come to visit us again. We appreciate their coming to visit Laos to learn about this very peaceful country and its very peaceful people. We appreciate their efforts to help the children of UXO victims in this war-torn country. Barbara and I felt blessed to meet such wonderful people: the students, the teachers Kevin and Katy, and Alethea. Korp chai lai lai. Ua Tsaug.
(source: dorishimoda)

Lessons in Love

Published March 30, 2012

Yesterday at Angkor Wat, we witnessed the definition of love.
To enter the highest level of the temple complex, you must cover your knees.  As we were in line to ascend, many were being pulled out of line for shorts that were too short, sarongs that showed a bit too much thigh, or other kneely infractions.  A couple in front of us were nabbed by the knee police.  The woman argued for a brief time but the rule was the rule and out of line they went. 
We finished our inspection of the top and when we came down, there was the same man, patiently waiting for his wife, with arms crossed and leaning against the wall of the temple.  Except there was something keenly different about him since last time we saw him.  He had given up his pants so that his wife could go to the top, calmly displaying his tighty whiteys in front of hundreds of people. 
Yesterday at Angkor Wat, we witnessed the definition of love…
Cambodia Guest Blogger,
Kevin Shertzer

Siem Reap: Temple Tours and Shadow Puppet Orphanage

Published March 27, 2012

Laguna Blanca School in Cambodia
Greetings from Cambodia! 
Today Milo and I reunited with the Laguna Blanca School group in Siem Reap, where we’re all having a great time. 
Today’s activities involved visits to some of Angkor’s “lesser” temples, if you can call them that—even the smaller, more remote complexes are staggeringly beautiful, juxtaposing human artifice with the power of nature, where the tenacious jungle weaves through the ancient stone monuments. Students had the opportunity to climb and explore the ruins first hand before we headed out to an afternoon volunteer project with the puppetry orphanage. 
The puppetry orphanage is located a few miles out of town, adjacent to some of Angkor’s most ancient temples. Here the children learn to carve shadow puppets and revive an ancient storytelling tradition in order to help support the orphanage and defray the costs of their education. Everyone was deeply moved by the sweetness of the kids and how humbly they live (dirt floors and group bunks), not to mention their motivation to acquire an education and learn English in hopes of gaining a better life. While visiting, our students had a chance to make their own puppet carvings. We also had time to interact with the children and help them practice their English. None of us wanted to leave, but as evening approached, it was time for us to return to Siem Reap for dinner. As we left, the children gathered to see us off, singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” as they bowed, hands at heart center. 
Tomorrow we’ll be exploring the temples of Angkor’s “Grand Circuit.” The students are all eager to visit the illustrious Angkor Wat and jungle-entwined Ta Phrom. 
More to come soon. 
Peace and love,

Cambodia: First Impressions of Phnom Penh

Published March 25, 2012

Laguna Blanca School in Cambodia
Good evening or perhaps good morning all,
First and foremost, please know that your children are happy and safe. They have quickly connected and it has been wonderful to see them care for each other. 
We have been keeping busy. After shopping yesterday afternoon we let them rest for a bit and then went to dinner. Though some of them were very tired, we all hung in there and managed to stay awake until about 8:15pm. A notable triumph after 24 hours of travel and half a day of sightseeing.
Today we visited the Royal Palace, Tuol Sleng prison, and a memorial built at the sight of the Killing Fields. We then returned to the hotel and had a time of journal writing and sharing about the day. Students asked great questions and were honest about their emotions and reflections. They are now having some free time before dinner. 
I asked them what they wished me to share with you and here were their responses.
First, there is no cell service here at all. So even if your son or daughter has an international calling plan, do not expect to hear from them via telephone. 
It’s very hot and humid. 
They will admit to experiencing culture shock. The contrast between Santa Barbara and Phnom Penh is dramatic. The sights, smells, food, and driving are all a bit more intense. There are omnipresent signs of poverty and the lack of zoning leads to an incredibly chaotic environment. 
Nadia gets the prize for best bargaining skills, she is a natural. Ryan and Tiana were adventurous with hot peppers at lunch and came to regret it quickly. Tristan and Hughes beat them though for most unusual food item by trying chicken foot.   
We will send more soon. 

LAX to Saigon


Santa Barbara students in Vietnam
We departed LAX as scheduled and spent the next 14 hours trying to get some sleep. All of us were spread throughout the main cabin, but there were quite a few seats unsold, so most of us got the chance to spread out and occupy multiple seats. Definitely made the sleeping a bit easier.  Just ask Naomi, who got 3 full seats to herself! I, on the other hand, only managed about 5 or so hours, which caught up with me later, I might add. After a 2 hour layover in a rainy Taipei, we launched once again into the air for 3 more hours on Vietnam Airlines. We encountered quite a bit of turbulence, but other than that, this flight was great too.
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City to mid 70’s and probably 80 percent or so humidity. Quite different than what we are used to. Rejoining with Nick Ut and meeting Mr. Hau (our tour guide), we loaded onto a tour bus and drove into the city with Mr. Hau narrating the whole time about sites we passed. The click, click, click, of camera shutter fires as the students were actively engaged in photographing anything they could was just music to my ears.
After dropping our bags off at the hotel, we gained our first experience crossing the street in front of hundreds of motor-bikes and taxis. Quite contrary to what you would think to do in the states, here, you have to just head out in the stream of traffic and walk slowly and deliberately. The motor bikes seamlessly move around you. I have been told that as long as you don’t speed up, or slow down, everything works like clockwork. Even after cross the busy streets dozens of times yesterday, this process still doesn’t feel quite natural.
Lunch was spent a couple blocks away from our hotel and after an hour or so, or rooms were all ready and we gave the students some time to get themselves cleaned up and showered. All of us, including myself, Susan, and Nicola were longing to wash away the long hours of travel built up on our bodies.
Mr. Hau then lead us on a tour of the Reunification Palace, Notre Dame church (which was built by the French and modeled after Notre Dame in Paris), and the post office. All were great sights to see and learn about. Mr. Hau narrated our little tour through the Reunification Palace and explained its history. We saw the front gates, where the famous photograph of a North Vietnamese tank crashing through it is displayed inside. We also saw the very same tank on display outside the Palace.
Our group split up at this point and half went to see the Opera House, whiles the others went to experience Ben Thanh Market for the first time. The best way to describe the market is “utter chaos.” Vendors selling food stuffs, clothing, tickets, movies, jewelry, coffee, and everything else you can imagine are packed so closely together that almost everywhere, you were forced to walk single-file. A vendor on one side of a path just had to reach out and could touch the vendor across from them. This is the place where nearly everything is over-priced and you need to work on your negotiating skills to get your wanted item for a good price.
To culminate our very busy first day, we visits a traditional Vietnamese restaurant where food was brought to us in courses. By the time we were brought our 6th or 7th course, I was stuffed to the gills. I was very happy to experience such a traditional Vietnamese experience. I tried everything and walked away very satisfied. Talking with a few of the students afterwards, it seems that they were as well. Cecily and Gabi both seemed very happy with their Vegetarian meals and Christian dove right into every dish without even an explanation of what it was.
That culminates our first day in Vietnam. Stay tuned for more info of our adventures and experiences. The rest of the blogs will be written by our students and I will be sure to provide you some photographs as well.
Take care everyone!

Travel Reflections

Published March 14, 2012

Day 10 – Final Moments in Thailand
On our final day in Thailand, many of us woke early to take advantage of the beach for the last time in the morning. The sun was out and hot by 8:30AM and we soaked in as much sun as possible. The ocean was cool and refreshing as we all floated on top of the water, staring at the blue skies, taking in every last moment. Some girls stayed at the hotel and took advantage of the pool, or slept in. Regardless of how you spent your final moments in Thailand, we were all thinking the same thing. How can we return to NY and school after such an amazing trip?!!! 
We all agreed this trip was one to remember. There were many special moments and many of us are already thinking about how we could return, especially to work at the orphanages where we volunteered. At 12PM, we checked out, hopped in the vans and made our way to the airport for our long travel back home. Our words and pictures have tried to explain and show you the experience we all had, but nothing can compare to actually being present for all the moments we shared. We all know we are blessed to share in this adventure together. We learned about a new culture, we were welcomed with open arms and treated like family with all of our tour guides and we will forever be in awe by the special moments we shared at the the orphanages we were privileged to visit. A million thanks to Peace Works Travel for creating such an amazing experience for Emma :)
Forever grateful,
Stacey, Judy and the Emma girls :)

Greetings From Sapa

Published March 5, 2012

Francis Parker School – South to North – Day Eleven

We trust you are well. Our group spent the last day and a half in the village of Lai Chai, located approximately ten (10) kilometers outside Sapa town. The experience began when students packed up two days’ worth of clothes and necessities, and then hiked to Lao Chai along a winding mountain road that offered up powerful views of the northern highlands. With luck, the fog cleared for our entire tour and we were able to see terraced rice paddies that date back to the 1600s, when the Hmong, Zao, and Zai peoples migrated southward from China and settled this region. Along the way our guide, Bui Van Quan, offered up insights about the local peoples and how their culture is being impacted by the rapid pace of change in this region. Due to the opening of the Vietnamese economy in the late 1980s, and especially the tourist trade, the northern highlands have quickly transitioned from being a land of rice and corn into a land of mass produced handicrafts traditionally worn and used only by the Hmong, Zao, and Zai peoples. Local women, once bound to the local markets and paddies, now venture forth far from the household and engage tourists who visit their community. Most learn English (and other “western” languages) not in the classroom but on the streets, and through time the women have become quite capable students of communication with outsiders, not to mention effective traders of their wares. 

Once we reached Lao Chai (around lunchtime), the group spent the afternoon engaging with the locals in the marketplace and along the rocky roads that meander through the village. We also spent time at a local school visiting children in their classrooms and playing a Vietnamese game that can only be described as “foot badminton.” We eventually made our way to our homestay, where a family that included a husband, wife, aunt, and three children welcomed us with handshakes, kind words, and enriching hospitality. The late afternoon was spent relaxing in their home, with some students playing various card games and others venturing into the community. One highlight came when Bui Van Quan took Mr. Taylor on a search for one of the rarest commodities of Lao Chai, the original Oreo cookie. Another came when a local Hmong woman named “Cho Cho” approached the homestay to sell her wares. Cho Cho was a gracious, insightful, and very savvy trader. She had great stories to tell and charmed the entire group with her humor and sarcasm. The final highlight came when the group reveled the night away with a raucous session of karaoke. 
We leave tonight on a night train from Lao Cai (near the Chinese border, which the group will see at sunset), and will arrive in Hanoi in the early hours of Friday. We will then march to the Hanoi Imperial Hotel, pick up our luggage, and make a break for the Hanoi airport for our flight to Taipei. In the Taipei airport, the South-North group will meet up with the North-South group, at which point the sharing of stories and experiences will begin in earnest and continue across the Pacific Ocean to San Diego. While the North-South students will claim that theirs was the best of the two Parker trips, we all know that nothing can beat the South-North at engaging and learning from the complex Vietnamese people and their culture. After all, as students on this trip know too well, you can’t beat the party rockers. 
We have had a great trip and anticipate sharing with our friends and families our experiences, stories, photos, videos, and everything else Vietnam. This has indeed been another great year for the Global Studies Program at Francis Parker. As Americans who visited Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s might have said when discussing returning to America, we will soon see you “back in the world.” 
—Eric Taylor

How to Teach About 9/11 Without Oversimplifying

Published September 12, 2011

As global educators, we are entrusted with the challenge of making the incomprehensible understood.

The Los Angeles Times ran a nice cover story regarding the challenge that 9/11 presents for teachers and students.  

Ten years ago, I remember announcing the news of the Twin Towers terrorist attacks to my 9:00 a.m. 9th grade history students.  We cried. We were stupefied, brought low and unified in our grief.  I remember repeatedly answering the barrage of questions with the most honest answer an adult can give a child: “I don’t know.” 

Over the next few weeks, the kids’ questions multiplied and revealed the depth of our collective confusion: “Why do they hate us?” “What’s a Muslim?” “What did we ever do to them?” “Are the hijackers really going to be rewarded with 72 virgins when they get to heaven?”

Desperate to convey a complex understanding of the multi-faceted tragedy, I found an excellent source:  9/11 As History Project. Created by teachers, the project gets to the essence of the tragedy: Motive. Herein are extended lessons, activities, enrichment and a concluding project for a holistic understanding of relevant history preceding 9/11. Whose history?  The curriculum explores how U.S. foreign policy since the Balfour Declaration has shaped attitudes, geographic boundaries and distribution of resources in the Middle East. 

While the killing of civilians is a horror without justification, students understand that the “What did we ever do to them?” question has answers reaching back generations. 

Ultimately, we want to use 9/11 to impart lessons of civilized conflict resolution. The cycle of revenge has no winners. Students learn this critical lesson on our educational tours to the countries of our former adversaries. One cannot spend time with the innocent victims of warfare and fail to comprehend the futility of vengeance. It is here that tragedy becomes instructive: how do we to teach kids to dissolve the enmity between “us” and “them?” 

One Answer: Peace-Conferencing. The tragedy of 9/11 inspired a visionary high school teacher, Kristen Druker, to innovate a synthesis of international relations and technology. Check out this incredible web-based global conflict resolution platform.  

Druker has created a brilliant classroom instructional tool in which students act as parties to real-world conflicts, using methods of true-life diplomatic peace-negotiations. Watch them in action:  Students understand that discovering mutually-acceptable solutions to complex world problems is far more powerful than imposing unilateral force of will.

Hello from Hanoi!

Published March 30, 2011

Xian Ciao from Hanoi! We left the Mekong Delta today at sunrise, drove to Can Tho, and then flew to Hanoi. We landed at lunchtime and have been exhilarated with the sights, sounds and smells of the north ever since.

Our hotel is located in the heart of the Old French Quarter adjacent to Hoan Kiem Lake. It is a dynamic, cultural hub where ancient Chinese pagodas nestle up against 19th century French architecture. People are squating along the sidewalks with their make-shift brick stoves, cooking meals for families and passersby, while scores of scooter-drivers zipping by make stepping out into the narrow streets a sizeable accomplishment.

It’s an unbelievable scene. And the kids are loving it.

Tomorrow, we are going to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum where the Revolutionary’s body is on display in the style of Lenin. Thereafter we will visit other key sites, including the Hanoi “Hilton” — a POW prison where John McCain was held during the War. On Friday, we go to the Peace Works Travel Village, which will be the highlight of our visit here in Hanoi.