Airport Musings

I love airports.

Not the standing-in-line-waiting-to-get-my-passport-stamped, endlessly-slow-baggage-carousel-waiting parts.

No, I love the human part.

Mostly, it’s the arrivals and departures halls I find fascinating. There’s nothing quite like seeing the pure and uninhibited joy of friends, families or couples reuniting after a long absence, sometimes with flowers; sometimes with balloons; sometimes with a hand-written sign and a big shriek of excitement; sometimes just with a long embrace or a kiss.

I love how the little children forget all parental instruction and run toward their arriving relatives as they walk through the glass sliding doors leading from customs, and I love how everyone walks away holding hands, helping each other with luggage, laughing and talking about how the flight and the trip was. Though I’ve always found it sad to arrive somewhere alone, I also enjoy the opportunity this gives me to observe those around me and be joyful in their joy.

I also love airport fashion. This is particularly evident at the gates where flights have just landed and passengers are disembarking, and it is often easy to see where people have come from. Bintang singlets and a tan? You’ve just been to Bali. Outrageously hippie-looking elephant print pants? I promise you, despite what you think now, 20-something university male, you won’t wear those again, even if they were fashionable for the backpacker crowd in Koh Samui. Pointy, straw hat? Been to Vietnam, I take it? And then you see the traditional clothing – burquas, stark white Indian dress for men, checkered headscarves in the middle east, puffy-sleeved, colourful print dresses to match extraordinarily white teeth and dark skin in Africa.

I also like guessing how long people have been away – the colour (i.e. fadedness) of their clothing, amount of leather bracelets and state of their luggage is usually a pretty decent indicator.

Most of all though, I love the diversity. All cultures, colours, races and walks of life gather together at airports, not being given much of a choice when everyone bar a lucky few have to line up in the ‘foreign passports’ queue. You overhear conversations – some you can understand, most you can’t.

Whilst you do get the occasional few travellers that get grumbly about something (like the nasally American lady at Honolulu airport who was aghast at her husband when Starbucks didn’t have salt (“Can you believe it, the lady at the counter said they don’t carry salt!”), airports are mostly peaceful places.

Why can’t we be like this in normal life?

Here we are, 200 people from probably 100 countries packed as closely together as if we were standing in a rush hour London tube carriage, and we are all OK with each other. No hatred, no disapproving glances, no vilification, no separation.

Everyone – though on their own – is together in their plight of being stuck in a line that the law requires them to be in.

At times, people even talk. A quick question (“where have you just come from?” or “your baby is so cute, how old is she?”) is all it takes for a smile; a cultural interaction.

Humanity is designed to live together in community, in harmony. To take joy in each other, laugh together, cry together, go through the good and bad together. We are all one and the same, even if we appear so different from the outside.

How much we can learn from airports.

Photo credit: Tyson Cronin 

 

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It’s all a little bit peculiar

It’s a peculiar place, Vietnam.

Not in an obvious way though. The strangeness doesn’t jump out at you and slap you in the face. It only becomes clear when you look out of the taxi window at the life going on outside, focus a little longer on the little old lady standing by the street or the items sold by the shops on the main road.

You need to give yourself time to let the weirdness sink in.

Firstly, people walk around in their pyjamas here. Not just at home. I’m talking about people on the street, in the middle of Hanoi, or the middle of Ho Chi Minh city. They walk around the lake, which is surrounded by restaurants, as if pyjamas are the new jogging gear, and then stand for a while holding on to the railing, swinging their arms back and forth in some kind of tai chi exercise. Here in Ho Chi Minh, I’ve seen grandmas wearing pyjamas pushing their grandchildren along the road in prams, and even shop keepers dressed in pyjamas taking coffee orders.

You might think I’m joking – I’m not. I’m talking about silky pyjamas, striped Mr Bean pyjamas and soft winter pyjamas with small cute animals and hearts on them. In the middle of the day. In the middle of the city.

It’s peculiar.

Equally peculiar I find the size of furniture here. I love the street food culture – there’s a certain grubbiness too it, an Asia feel. Restaurants facing out onto the street, chairs and tables strewn across the footpath, with a direct view of the hectic traffic of scooters, bicycles, tuc tucs and cars in front. Women washing dishes by the drain beside bowls of green herbs, and men welding pieces of old cars back together. Children running around, laughing; tourists peering curiously into shops as they step over the activity of day to day business on the streets of Vietnam. But everywhere, it seems, there’s a children’s tea party going on. The furniture looks like it came out of a toy shop, and I’m amazed that I haven’t seen more people snapping the legs off chairs.

Peculiar.

A third peculiarity lies in the ability of the Vietnamese to plant vegetable gardens everywhere. Naturally exceptional gardeners (even at Australian markets the Vietnamese sell the best fruit and vegetables), the Vietnamese have seemingly not only mastered the soil, sun and water requirements of producing top-quality green leafy vegetables and herbs, they’ve also managed to overcome all logistical obstacles a horticulturalist might usually face and started planting things on traffic islands, among the concrete retaining walls of man-made lakes and inside water-filled rice paddies. There they squat, among their coriander and lettuce leaves, wearing pointy cane hats and pruning away at dinner. It’s pretty amazing really.

And a little peculiar.

Another sign of the Vietnamese ability to think outside the box and deal with difficult situations is their method of crossing the road. To put it into context, I should mention that Vietnam’s roads are distinctively chaotic. While there may be designated lanes, no one sticks to them. Nor do drivers obey zebra crossings, red traffic lights, or any other type of human/vehicle intersection. Scooters and motorbikes are particular offenders, but buses and cars add their bit to the mayhem. So what do the innovative Vietnamese do? Shuffle. Yep, no joke. They shuffle. One foot in front of the other, they step out onto the busy six-lane motorway with no hint of fear, not waiting for the traffic to stop but letting it go around them. We’ve been practicing this technique, and I’m happy to report that there have been no accidents thus far. The trick, we’ve realised, is to make no sudden movement. You need to be 100% aware at all times of what’s going on around you, so woe to anyone who thinks they can cross the street without concentrating! It’s an art, no doubt, but a peculiar one.

There are many more peculiarities worth mentioning – the fact that people sleep on their motorbikes for example; head on the seat, legs draped over the handlebars. Somehow, they balance. Some of them even look quite comfortable. Very peculiar.

And the street side hair salons! No matter where you are, you will always find a barber ready to give you a quick chop by the roadside, with a mirror leant up against the outside wall of a building and nothing but a chair in front of it. Not a bad business model really… no overheads, no staffing costs, no rent… But getting your hair cut beside a motorbike parking area, underneath a grubby overpass – it’s a little unusual.

Then there’s the fact that throughout Vietnam you will find hidden remnants of European influence – the coffee culture, the French patisseries, the cathedrals with church bells ringing every hour. And, rather than going into a shopping mall to find what you need, you just need to know which city street to venture into, and you will find tiny stores packed to the roof with everything from soft toys to toiletries to biscuits to selfie sticks. Yes, that’s right – selfie stick stores. Don’t tell me that’s not a little peculiar.

I wanted to take note of these peculiarities this time, because if I ever come back to Vietnam, I’ll no longer notice them. These are the little snippets of a culture that only strike you as unusual the first time you see them – after even a few weeks in the country these peculiarities have become almost normal.

It’s this progression that I find fascinating about travel. The initial amusement and bewilderment at a different culture’s habits, the gradual getting used to the way things are done in the new place, and the eventual fondness of all that makes a culture unique and peculiar. The world is a fascinating place, and I am thankful to have yet again been given the opportunity to visit somewhere brand new.

In all of this, I am so thankful to God, our loving father, for blessing me (undeservedly) with such opportunities. My prayer is that they continue to mould me into a more appreciative, tolerant and loving person, and one who can share these experiences – through words – with those who may never get the chance to visit these places themselves.

 

A social media campaign and the hospitality of strangers

It’s been two weeks today since we first landed in Hanoi. When we arrived and drove through the Old Quarter, Tyson said that this may just turn out to be his favourite new city in Asia. The atmosphere was fantastic – cars, scooters and bicycles everywhere, people on the street wearing Vietnamese straw hats and selling fruit, flowers, donuts or socks out of cane baskets tied to the end of a broomstick carried across their shoulders. Old, tall, skinny buildings lined the streets, authentically run-down and housing a mixture of apartments and small businesses. Wide avenues, lakes and parks were reminiscent of the French influence of days gone by.

We’ve lived in four places in Hanoi now. At first, we spent a night at Luan’s Homestay, which we found on Air BnB. Family-run and located smack-bang in the middle of the Old Quarter, it was the perfect spot from which to explore the city during our first day.

After our trip to Halong Bay, we were moved just two houses down the street to an old hotel in need of love and attention, whose main characteristics were its thin walls and mattresses whose springs dug into your back. On our first night, a bunch of what sounded like 20 young Vietnamese people kept us awake until past midnight with drunken shouts up and down the stairwell and banging as they carried their passed-out friend to the room opposite ours.

Our third accommodation was where we spent the majority of our time, and it was also the furthest from the city centre – about a 45-minute bus ride away. It was here, in an apartment attached to a mall and adjacent to a main road, that we spent a week with YESD (Youth Employment and Society Development), a social enterprise founded by three young Vietnamese women whose aim is to help fight unemployment among university graduates in Hanoi, preserve the Vietnamese culture and provide authentic Vietnamese travel experiences for tourists. With a focus on organising responsible tours in Vietnam and creating positive change in a country still in the early stages of its tourism development (in comparison to some of its South-East Asian neighbours), we were there to volunteer, along with two Americans, a French girl, a Brazilian/British couple and a Mexican.

While Tyson had the opportunity to teach two English classes, our main focus was to help YESD with their tourism marketing. Wanting to start and finish a project in the short time we had, we decided early to design and launch a social media campaign to promote responsible tourism in Vietnam. And so, in just over a week, we designed a questionnaire, interviewed about 50 random tourists about their views on responsible tourism, collaborated with the Brazilian/British couple on a promotional video and launched a campaign to encourage travellers to be more conscious of how their actions when travelling can help create positive change. Needless to say, we were pretty proud of our efforts. Check out the final results here.

During our time with YESD, we were also blessed to be able to join a spontaneous two-day tour to Ninh Binh province, home of UNESCO World Heritage Listed Trang An Landscape Complex, Vietnam’s ‘inland Halong Bay’. What a spectacular spot! Limestone mountains covered in jungle alternate with partially submerged valleys and steep, sheer cliffs to form a natural area like something out of a Jurassic Park film. Below, a river meanders through caves and past rice paddies, and women who, before tourists arrived, were dependent on fishing for a meagre income, row visitors around using a combination of both their hands and their feet. I have never seen anywhere quite like it. This was definitely the highlight of our Vietnam trip so far, with Tyson and I agreeing that it was even more beautiful than Halong Bay. It was great to be out of the city, away from the terrible pollution, loud noise and busyness of Hanoi, and the experiences we had in Ninh Binh – cycling, hiking up mountains, riding motorbikes along the motorway, riding in an overnight lay-flat bus and staying with a local family – made the trip a unique and very authentically Vietnamese experience.

And here we are, back at No Bai International Airport, having just left our fourth accommodation near the West Lake of Hanoi. We spent two days here working on the YESD video with Roni and Hester, the Brazilian/English YESD volunteers. Our host was Robert, a gracious Canadian expat and the creator of his own English teaching programs for various groups of disadvantaged children in Hanoi. Robert is also a Workaway host (Workaway is the organisation through which we have been volunteering), and his apartment was the perfect spot from which to enjoy our last two nights in Hanoi. We were even fed Western food and wine – a pleasant alternative to the Vietnamese food we have been eating every other day and which has unfortunately caused Tyson and I to be sick a total of three times on this holiday!

Now we’re off to revisit our first Air BnB host Thong in Ho Chi Minh City, for a couple of days of exploring the south before making our way back through Kuala Lumpur to Brisbane.