Thursday, May 7

the Cleveland half-marathon

Well, after eight months, the inaugural Thinking Beyond Borders trip has ended. We wrapped up with graduation last weekend, and everyone has dispersed to their respective homes. I don’t think the finality of our group’s time together has struck me yet, but it’s certainly different to be at home.

I’m not quite done with TBB, though: I registered today for the Cleveland half-marathon, where TBB has planned its second big fundraising event. I haven’t been training specifically, but I am going to do it. For me, it’s important to continue involvement in TBB and make the same opportunities I had available for other students.

All of the money raised for the Cleveland marathon goes directly towards scholarships. One of the most striking things about visiting high schools in the past couple weeks was how many students asked about the cost of the program. At first it was downright awkward to have to tell them that this was by no means a cheap trip, with a price tag equivalent to a year’s tuition at a private college. I spoke with a couple of incredibly enthusiastic students whose faces fell upon hearing the cost. TBB was able to offer scholarships last year, and creating a diverse group is important. The economy is hitting hard, of course, and more and more families need support to make a trip like this possible.

Having had this fantastic opportunity over the past year, I would love to be able to see more qualified students share the chance to partake. If you have been reading my blog, if you think the trip has been interesting, I am asking you to please pledge towards my run. The philosophy behind Thinking Beyond Borders is not just about a travel tour of the world; it’s about educating a future generation of leaders to think in a dynamic and engaging way about the world in ways that a freshman year of college doesn’t offer. I know it’s a tough time all around, and even a little money could help make this accessible to potential students. Many, many thanks … and I’ll let you know how I feel around mile 11!

secure Fundraising site:

Road Trip Presentations

We spent the past couple of weeks on three separate road trips, traveling around the country to deliver the presentations of learning that we created in Virginia. One van stretched from Atlanta to Boston, one covered the tri-state area in New York, and mine took on the Midwest: Louisville, Chicago, and Cleveland. We presented mostly to high school audiences, with crowds varying from a couple students to an entire auditorium full.

My presentation focused on our experience in South Africa, stressing the importance of interacting with the individuals behind the large global issues. Getting to know the people, I argued, does two things: first, it gives you a personal and tangible relationship to an issue, like AIDS, that can be overwhelming and vague judged by vast statistics alone. Secondly, it gives you a more nuanced understanding of complex issues; I learned just how deeply-rooted cultural stigmas are against AIDS in ways I could not have by merely studying the facts of the epidemic.

I wanted to relate this lesson to any community-based efforts, not just so far as another continent, but within your own community. To really bring my message home to students and peers, I made a really clear connection to our every-day lives. Thanks to Photoshop, I created a mock-Facebook profile of Sharon, an AIDS patient I met in South Africa.

For those of you not drawn into the Facebook craze, let me preface by saying that every single one of the 65 girls I graduated from high school with has a Facebook profile. Many log in multiple times each day, and pore over minute details of their friends’ lives. I’ve had my own Facebook for years, but coming back to the US, I was particularly struck by how deeply interested we are in our own little networks, while our awareness of someone like Sharon is near-zero. To highlight this paradox, and to perhaps urge those in my generation to invest a bit of their Facebook energy into global consciousness, I showed my audiences the profile.

Receptions were varied; some were quite curious about TBB and our experiences, and others less so. But the Facebook hook definitely drew the attention of people my age. It was undoubtedly valuable to go through the process of figuring out how to articulate what we’ve seen abroad and how to bring that back home. It was also fascinating to see a range of different high schools, my own all-girls experience being a very atypical one. We saw everything from an inner-city Chicago school to an all-boys’ Catholic sports powerhouse, as well as a middle school and a University. I also enjoyed the experience of seeing a part of the country I haven’t visited much.

Tuesday, April 21

This I Believe

The group just spent two weeks in Douthat State Park in western Virginia.  We spent the time reflecting on the trip and processing our experiences to create individual presentations of learning.  One group activity that we did early on to begin thinking about our travels was listening to NPR's This I Believe series and try writing our own.  Here's mine...


I believe in the power of a smile to a stranger. 

I have never been the type to strike up a conversation in an elevator or linger at the coffee shop, chatting to the barista about the weather.  I’m not naturally at ease with people I don’t know.   But spending six months traveling abroad has given me confidence in the ability of this casual gesture to forge inherently human connections. 

As if I didn’t already stand out enough as a foreigner in rural villages in Ecuador, industrial cities in China, remote communities in Thailand, and townships in South Africa, I determined to go on daily runs.  The habit inevitably drew curious stares; in most of these places, exercise for the sake of exercise is unfamiliar.  Furthermore, many of these areas never saw visitors, no less white ones, and there I was, a real live blond in the flesh. 

Initially, I ran as I always had, in my own world of pounding feet, pulsing muscles, and rousing music: alone, in my zone.  Still, I noticed locals gawking at this strange and unusual sight.  It was in no way unfriendly, but it made me uncomfortable to merely ignore it or pretend I didn’t notice.  I quickly assumed the habit of smiling at those I passed, raising my hand in greeting.  Some people found my wave even more baffling, but by and large, this acknowledgment completely changed the way I was perceived.  I was a stranger, yes, a foreigner, and what I was doing seemed a little bizarre, but I was being friendly. 

Some folks cheered my progress, others jogged alongside me for a dozen paces.  In smaller communities, they came to recognize me and expect my regular passes.  Even though these interactions were fleeting, they stand out to me as moments of genuine, cross-cultural engagement.  There was nothing more gratifying than a smile returned, acceptance of my presence.  For two strangers to hold each other’s attention for just a moment is to recognize someone else’s humanity.  We may not know each other.  We may be different.  But we can connect through this universal gesture. 

After six months abroad, acknowledging others in this way had become second nature, not just on runs, but as I walked anywhere.  It wasn’t until I returned to the United States that I realized how precious it had been.  I understood it during my first run back in New York City.  In some ways, I was home.  But in others, I was alone.  Anonymous.  I could no longer smile at strangers – not only would they think me peculiar, but they often didn’t even offer eye contact.  I resolved to try, but the only responses I got were a whistle and a bewildered glower. 

I despaired, a little, of the culture I had returned to.  I missed the smiles and even the stares of locals in foreign places, because they, at least, had acknowledged seeing me.  But I’ve persuaded myself our society is not completely devoid of casual friendliness between strangers: people offer up their subway seat, hold the elevator, prop open a door.   Thank them.  Linger over this brief interaction.  People want to connect to each other.  It’s human nature.  So smile at a stranger.  It feels good. 

Washington DC

Our week in DC coincided with the cherry blossom season, so the city was gorgeous and the weather lovely.  We met with a number of organizations -- Center for Global Development, the World Bank, and my favorite, the Global Fairness Initiative.  With this non-profit consulting group, I was particularly impressed by the comprehensive efforts to solve problems, such as garment manufacturing, by involving all the stakeholders.  By creating solutions that incorporate and serve everyone involved -- the government, citizens, the private sector, they are far more likely to be sustainable and effective.  

A large portion of our time was devoted to a day on Capitol Hill.  We spent one day preparing at the RESULTS office -- an organization designed to train and mobilize citizens to lobby in favor of hunger and poverty legislation that pertains both to domestic and international aid.  We went over procedural and persuasive methods for our meetings with reps the next day.  The plan was to ask House Representatives to sign a letter in favor of allocating foreign budget to microfinance, and to ask Senators to vote in favor of restoring the foreign aid budget to Obama's original request.  

The next day we did indeed go to Capitol Hill, dressed to impress and ready to meet with our representatives.   Between the fourteen students, we had a number of meetings with representatives from our districts and from any other states that had time to see us.  I met with aids in the offices of Barney Frank and John Kerry, both from Massachusetts, as well as Benjamin Lujan from New Mexico.  I was even fortunate to meet directly with a representative from New Jersey, Donald Payne, the first black representative from his state.  Just about everyone we met with readily agreed to at the very least sign the letter of support; as soon as they heard direct requests from constituents, they were willing to act.  They are, of course, ready to support things that citizens from their districts want, as they are responsible for electing reps.  

After meeting with Barney Frank's office

The Boston crew -- making a "B"

Each meeting lasted twenty to forty minutes.  Some aides were well-versed in microfinance and already supported those efforts, others needed detailed explanations of how it empowers the impoverished to earn their own income by supplying them with a very small seed loan that they are able to repay with very low interest.  We had very interesting conversations with all of them, and almost all of them revolved around the idea of sending money abroad, in this particularly poor economic time.  Many of them had humanitarian interests in mind, but admitted that the way they've got to pitch aid to constituents is in terms of self-interest.  National defense is the primary argument, using development money as a preventative measure against poverty that could lead to unrest and even terrorism.  That of course focuses money towards the middle east but leaves out Africa, which has not been much of a violent threat.  I can see how it is hard to tell Americans that their tax dollars are being sent out-of-country when jobs are being lost at home.  I'm not even necessarily sure if all international problems ought to be funded by developed countries' governments, but I do know the NGOs on the ground need money to continue their work.  More than 50 million people are expected to fall below the poverty line in the coming year due to the financial crisis.

The idea was for this to be an empowering experience, and it was.  I was surprised and impressed by how easy it was to have an influence on these seemingly allmighty representatives -- all it took was a quick meeting with good reasoning to support a request.  Yet at the same time, I had the sense that to make any substantive impact on an issue, you'd have to move to DC and schedule these sorts of meetings all day, every day.  Then I realized some people do do that -- from Marlboro and Monsanto.  And no one should be able to purchase political power in this democracy.  A theme I've seen over the year has been the need for campaign finance reform; it would address issues across the board, from agricultural subsidies to drug patenting to healthcare.  

Sunday, April 5

Back in the US of A

After six and a half months abroad, we are indeed back in the United States of America! On the afternoon of March 22nd, we arrived in New York City, a far cry from our last stop abroad – Addo national park in South Africa.  I wouldn’t say I was necessarily looking forward to returning from abroad, but the rest of our trip should be good.  The TBB program is not over yet; six weeks remain in our schedule.  

We’ll spend a week each in New York City and Washington DC meeting with NGOs and larger organizations that relate to what we’ve been learning abroad.  Then the group will retreat to an isolated center in Virginia to process everything we’ve seen and create individual “presentations of learning”.    We’ll split into groups and present these projects to schools, interest groups, and philanthropy organizations around the country.  My group will be traveling to Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Louisville.  Our program will culminate with graduation in Boston on May 2nd and 3rd. 

Our schedule in New York included various meetings with the New York State Department of Environmental Protection, the United Nations, Sustainable South Bronx, Michael Pollan – author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Just Food, UNICEF, and the Clinton Foundation.  Many of the visits turned out to be briefings with Q&A.

One of our more frustrating days was our trip to the UN; I think most of the group came away from it with a sense that this huge organization didn’t have the ability to enforce it’s recommendations and was laden with bureaucratic processes.  It actually put me in a pretty aggressive mood because nearly all of the questions we asked were met with defensive, prescribed and evasive responses. 

We saw some more enlightening things, too.  Michael Pollan’s speech was wildly entertaining; our visit to Just Food included a visit to a tiny, acre-large community farm in the Bronx; at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis we volunteered by preparing – I kid you not – “pussy packs” of condoms for distribution.   Other highlights included mastering the subway system, seeing Bill Clinton’s office, and receiving an abundance of printed material about each of the organizations we visited.

I feel like I ought to have more culture shock, but beyond the first jet-lagged afternoon, I’ve mostly returned to life as normal.  Having experienced only summer weather since the trip began, almost the most shocking part was the bitter chill of lingering winter.  It’s nice to have access to the New York Times, to speak to anyone in English, and have cell phones; on the other hand, we’ve never spent more on food and the city is overwhelming.  

Tuesday, March 10

Final Days Abroad

We've just finished our time shadowing careworkers in the townships. I ended up getting to know not only Beulah but also her co-worker Anthea, who together cover all of Kranshoek. Our morning routine stayed much the same, visiting patients in their homes to check blood pressure, deliver medicine, clean wounds and schedule appointments with the clinic. I've learned a large part of the careworker's role is to give the patient a sense of accountability, and by dependably visiting time and time again, proving that someone is there to help and to remind. One day we were invited to have lunch by one patient's wife; she cooked us a traditional meal, with mealie balls, fried chicken, and lots of processed snack food. We had a fascinating conversation with her and some other colored neighbors about the upcoming election, and we discovered really complex racial relations. We were at first shocked to hear them say how forcefully they resented "the blacks" and saying that apartheid was decidedly "so much better." Other excursions in Kranshoek included visiting a retirement club where the elderly members sang us songs, and when they demanded us to sing, we chose a Christmas carol. The response of the frumpy leader who'd forced us to perform was, "It's okay. In our culture it's a tradition to sing; clearly, in yours, it is not."

During the final week and a half, I took a number of photographs of them for my media project. For this month's project, I decided to work alone and initially intended to use film. I've been toting around fifty rolls of black and white film that I'd wanted to use with my simple SLR camera, which of course broke by China. Though I replaced it with an ancient $20 point-and-shoot, that camera had no controls or zoom whatsoever. Then I learned that I wouldn't be able to process and develop my film here in Plett, so I had to scrap the film idea all together. I set my camera to its black and white setting and decided to use that instead.

My media project is a coffee-table book of a series of portraits I took of the patients I knew best. Before coming to South Africa, all I knew of the AIDS epidemic were the facts, the cold, hard, immense statistics, and I wanted to give the numbers a face, show the stories of a few patients. I coupled their photos with anecdotes about their life and their illness and my interactions with them. I was hesitant at first use my camera, but after I asked, nearly everyone was pleased to have their picture taken. I got to know about a dozen patients really well, visiting them every other day. Some improved, some did not. Most of them will always be patients, suffering from chronic diseases and old age.

We presented our media projects (many podcasts, a collage, and writing pieces) to an open audience which included our host NGO and all the carers we'd been working with. The Kranshoek crew took our two care-workers out to dinner, to their favorite spot in town -- a gaudy grill chain restauranted themed on native-Americans? Good-byes were very sad, both among the patients and with Anthea and Beulah. I gave the patients extra prints of their photos and we gave the carers a framed group shot, which they insist they will sleep with under their pillows.

It's hard to believe, but our time abroad is only a week! We've got a couple days more in Plett, the chance for independent student travel. I'm staying around and volunteering at an orphanage in another township, Kwanokathula. The children's shelter, Masizami, is home to twenty-six kids. Some have been orphaned by AIDS; others have parents, but they may be mentally incapable of raising them. The shelter was pretty empty this weekend, because many of the kids were on a group outing, but we played with six or seven of them. One boy looks about seven years old. He's eleven. He lacked the nutrition early on in life necessary for development. A couple have HIV and are spindly even for little kids. On the whole, though, the kids are brilliant fun and we're having a great time with them.

The TBB group will go on a brief safari in Addo, and within a week, board a plane back to the US. It'll be bizarre to be there after six months abroad, but I'm really looking forward to our schedule. We have a number of really interesting visits in NYC and DC, with NGOs and the UN and senators. The cold weather will be a shock to our system; days here in the sun get up to nearly 100 degrees!

some of the photos from my project -




Thursday, February 26


Our work in the townships began this week. Zach and I were assigned to Kranshoek (pronounced Krantuk) to shadow one of the home-based care givers, Beulah. Kranshoek is the furthest of all the townships our group is working in, fifteen minutes' drive. Other pairs say how the gated communities of affluent Plettenberg Bay turn into informal shack communities is frightening -- some people can walk to their township in a kilometer or two. Kranshoek's houses, most of which are identical, one-room concrete homes from a government program, extend about as far as the eye can see. It's no slum; there's an elementary school, a number of kindergartens, small food shops, a soup kitchen, and a clinic. The clinic seems to be a combination of governmental services and an NGO funded in part by the US that focuses on HIV and tuberculosis. 105 people in the community have tested postive for HIV, though there are doubtless others who don't know it.

Beulah is a small, serious-looking woman who is extremely dedicated to her patients, some of whom she's been working with since she began the job a year ago. She makes her rounds daily, Monday through Friday, calling on twenty PlettAid's patients once a week to once a day, depending on the severity of their illness. The services she provides are no so much medical as they are supportive; she checks blood pressure and blood sugar levels, but more I think her dependable presence encourages patients to take their medicine and keep their appointments at the clinic. Her patients' diseases include hypertension, diabetes, paralysis, HIV, tuberculosis (including MDR- multi-drug resistant) and stroke victims.

Most of the patients don't speak English; about 90% of the town uses Afrikaans. I still can't comprehend how there are eleven national languages; most people speak many, but how do you know what to use when you approach a stranger? Conveniently for us, all of the major signs are in English. We don't communicate directly with many of the patients we see, but Beulah does a great job of explaining a patient's medical and personal history as we go.

We've already seen some patients many times. Cornelia is eighty-nine years old, and in very good health, save for an enormous boil on her head. It's been there for three years, and doctors can't fix it, so she needs treatment to prevent infection. We see her quite often, and she's always full of quiet smiles. This morning we washed her hair with special shampoo and clipped hair away from the area.

Sharon is so far the most gripping patient. She's an HIV and MDR TB patient, and she had been in the hospital in a city for four months recieving care. Since she's returned to Kranshoek, however, she's simply refused to take her medication. It's been two weeks, and she's missed her appointments at the clinic and avoided Beulah's visits. When we first met her, I didn't realize how sick she was; she was wearing a down jacket and a fleece blanket covered most of her body. Then I saw her legs -- the quintessential image of severe illness, no thicker than my wrist. I might have guessed she was fifteen; she's twenty-nine. Beulah berated her when she discovered the packets of unopened tablets. It's so frustrating because the medication is free for Sharon - she literally had someone coming to her door to remind her. She stopped taking it because the symptoms of TB had disappeared, but since it's MDR, it's residual and highly-contagious and dangerous; the HIV medicine made her vomit. Now she sits nearly immobile, weak and tired, and her lungs hurt to breathe. When she sneezes, thick blood comes out. Still she neglects her tablets, she sullenly deflects Beulah's questions, not meeting her eyes. She lives with her mother, who was cooperative with Beulah but didn't seem to understand the severity of the situation, laughingly calling Sharon stubborn.

We shadow Beulah all morning, for three weeks. Afternoons alternate between TBB seminars discussing public health and volunteering. In Kranshoek, we're working at the local school to sand and re-varnish old one-room classroom buildings. I'm enjoying getting to know the patients and we'll see how the next two weeks go.

Saturday, February 21

Plettenberg Bay, South Africa

The end of our time in Thailand also marked the end of nearly four months in south-east Asia; I think the group was ready for a change. Our trip continued to our final country abroad, South Africa, via a grueling fifty-nine hour, six-flight, epic journey. Of all the countries we've visited, I think South Africa was the one I pictured least in my head. I really had no idea what to expect, and there will be a lot to learn here.

We're staying in Plettenberg Bay, a coastal town on the southern shore of the Indian Ocean (!) It was chosen because of it's safety relative to larger cities, and it's this bizarre mixture of different racial and socio-economic groups. Initially, it comes across as a hugely tourist town, attracting affluent visitors during it's summer months (December and January) and Main Street is full of expensive beachy boutiques. But there's also a predominantly black section of town with wholesale discount stores.

We're staying in a hostel - taking it over, really. The boys and the girls each have their own dorm room, and it's already quite crowded for nine girls to share a single toilet and shower. But there's really nice communal space, with couches, a pool table, and a beautiful balcony that overlooks the ocean, where we eat our meals. It will be a welcome change to trade our savory rice breakfasts for yogurt and muesli and fruit! Best of all, we have access to the small kitchen, and the supermarket in town is well-stocked, so we can cook just about anything we've been craving.

Our curriculum focus here in South Africa will be public health. We'll be working with an NGO called PlettAid, a home-based care service for 250 impoverished patients in the townships surrounding Plettenberg Bay. 40% of the patients (as opposed to 27% in the region) are HIV-positive; many have tuberculosis, disabilities, terminal illnesses. In groups of two, we'll be shadowing a care worker on her daily routine for three weeks. PlettAid has asked us to help by giving an evaluation of their organization's services to the patients we meet. Work will start on Monday; I'm partners with Zach.

So far we've spent our days meeting with PlettAid and visiting various townships. They're not at all what I expected, somehow rather than the quintessential images of poverty I pictured, they seem more spread out, and in between different towns lie beautiful green pastures. Also, it finally occured me why the town scene is particularly striking: not a single building exceeds one story, and telephone wires tower high above. It gives the appearance of being vastly flat and expansive.

It's nice to be so close to the beach -- a ten or fifteen minute walk. It's undoubtedly a gorgeous spot, but there's a lot more to be seen. I suspect our perception of Plett will change a lot as we begin to work with the carers.

Tuesday, February 10

Ban Huay Hee

It's been a while since the last blog update because we've been doing homestays in a rural community, sans electricity, let alone WiFi.  We've been living in Ban Huay Hee, a village in northern Thailand of the ethnic minority Karen people.  The whole community consists of 26 households, about 160 people, and they hosted us for three weeks.  

Each of us lived with a family; mine lived on the outskirts of the village, on a peninsula of land that jutted out into a beautiful expansive valley.  It's a little hard to describe the setting; half the time I felt as though I could have been in New England during autumn, half the time it seemed like Arizona's dry red dust landscape.  But out house was in the middle of it all, overlooking endless mountainside, and it was spectacular at sunset, not to mention the stars at night.  

My host-mother, Jipo, was the teacher at the local school, which goes only as far as elementary level. Beyond that, children have to travel into town, Mae Hong Son, which is about two hours by motorcycle.  There were fifteen kids at school, in two classes, and she taught the younger group, about 3-5 years old.  Most mornings I would follow my host-mother and her 4-year old daughter, Meji, into school, where I learned the Thai script from bossy but well-intentioned five-year-olds, and perfected my crayon abilities.  

my host sister, Meji

As a TBB group, we met in the afternoon for Thai language classes.  I have to admit that after a couple of days this seemed unnecessary, given that the locals in Ban Huay Hee spoke their own, unrelated language: Pakanyoh, the language that had followed the Karen people from Burma.  The first word to learn is the multi-purpose da-bluu, which is appropriate for hello, thank you, and good-bye -- pretty much the fundamentals in a home-stay situation!

Our curriculum focus was sustainable agriculture.  Ban Huay Hee was certainly an agrarian community; nearly all the food consumed there is produced on their own land (picture overgrowth on a mountainside, agroforestry, rather than the quintessential southeast Asian rice paddy fields I was imagining).  However, January is the dry season, and there's not much labor to be done.  The seasonal farming was in the burning stage, when trees are hacked down and left to dry before being burned to restore nutrients to the ground.  

Admirably, the community didn't adopt the industrial farming techniques that were popularized in the Green Revolution, but later proved to be environmentally damaging.  They use the same methods they've been practicing for hundreds of years, and by any measure, they're self-sustaining.  Seeing what it takes to be sustainable on this level, however, raises questions about how feasible it is to apply sustainable agriculture on a large, world-wide scale.  This community devotes so much of its daily life to cultivation and food preparation, not to mention the land needed -- it's hard to imagine being able to feed 6 million people this way.  

Food in Ban Huay Hee was, if anything, predictable.  It was pretty much a sure bet that any meal, breakfast, lunch, or dinner, would be based on a large bowl of rice.  In addition, there would be two or three side dishes that everyone shared, generally vegetables or egg, sometimes with small bits of meat.  I was lucky that my host-family ate with me, rather than feed me alone, as other families did.  The four of us ate together on the floor, and as I learned early on, you don't help yourself to more than a bite of the communal dishes at a time.  

Other highlights of living in Ban Huay Hee -- a day hike to Doi Pui, the highest mountain in the area, where, at the summit, we encountered thirty or forty soldiers of the Thai army, who were in town as security for the queen's tour of duty through Mae Hong Son.  They were by far the friendliest bunch of militia I've ever seen; they cheerfully insisted that we all take a group photo.  The irony was that with one arm cradling their giant guns, they flashed peace signs at the camera with their other hand.  

In the middle of our stay, we had a weekend trip to Mae Hong Son for independent student travel.  Zach and I went camping on a nearby river bank, complete with a campfire and a chorus of tree frogs, all night long.

Back in the village, we continued to study agriculture, and went on short trips to the fields to see the various stages in the cycle of burning fields, leaving them fallow, and re-cultivating them.  We had a go at chopping trees, the head of the village showed us how to blacksmith machettes, and we worked on media projects.

The farewell celebration was a nice night of singing, thank-you's, and presentations of our media.

with Jipo & Meji

Saturday, January 17

Upland Holistic Development Project

TBB has spent the past week at a farm in Fang, in northern Thailand.  The farm is part of a program called Upland Holistic Development Project, which essentially experiments with various sustainable agricultural methods and recommends the best techniques to local farmers.  Many of the fourteen communities they work with are ethnic minorities, who migrated from Burma thirty five years ago and lack the benefits that come with official citizenship.  

At the farm we've seen the methods that UHDP is attempting to implement in nearby villages.  We've even been able to try our hand at preparing chemical-free compost catalysts, tree propagating, and organic livestock feeding.  For more on UHDP's goals and methods, to check out their website (listed at the bottom of this posting). 

Mornings are spent taking Thai lessons with two teachers who will travel with us for the rest of the month.  Thai is (another) tonal language, with its own script, but we're working mostly with phonetic phrases that will be useful in our homestays.  After class, we generally have a  TBB seminar that focuses on our topic of the month: sustainable agriculture.  We read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, a well-written journalist who explores the state of contemporary food (primarily in the US).  It's a really fascinating and eye-opening book about the industrial process -- the history and the governmental policies that created and reinforced the current system.  We've also watched a film, on a similar note, called The Future of Food.  Both are recommended, particularly if you've enjoyed Supersize Me or Fast Food Nation; these are similar but a little more substantive.  

Yesterday TBB not only observed but indeed participated in a pig slaughter.  The group was fairly apprehensive upon learning what we'd be doing, but in the end it was an important experience.  After all, most of us eat animal products daily and are so far removed from the process that it's hard to conceptualize the system.  I'll describe the process, so if you're weary of animal slaughter, skip the next couple of paragraphs.

The first step was to knock the pig out with a wooden club.  This was the most difficult part of the whole process to watch.  To minimize suffering, this was done not by a TBB student but by one of the four or five local men who led the efforts.  At the first blow, the pig was on the ground, convulsing and writhing, and it took two more whacks to render it unconscious.  This was when the most adrenaline was running in the crowd, but also the moments when we had to keep moving quickly.  Immediately six people grabbed the pig's legs and hoisted it up onto a bamboo structure where the experts pushed forward the executioner: Zach himself wielded the knife and thrust it into the pig's chest.  I caught the spilt blood in a bucket, and within maybe thirty seconds the worst of the drama was over.  

We next had to shave the pig's coarse hair.  We loosened the hair follicles with boiling water and scraped off as much as we could with blunt blades.  What was left had to be singed off with burning palm leaves, and after hosing off the corpse, we sliced open the pig and removed the organs.  The whole butchering process took a couple of hours and nearly all the parts of the body were consumed in some way.  

Amazingly, no one threw up or passed out, and everyone attended.  It was challenging to be so involved in the process of killing of an animal that we had seen walking around, but the process felt more humane than a massive livestock factory slaughterhouse, where most of our meat originates.

Saturday, January 10

Sun & Surf in Thailand

After a lay-over in the Bangkok Airport – home to the recent political protests – we reached the beautiful beaches of Thailand.  We would spend our enrichment week relaxing on a small island in the south called Koh Tao, becoming certified to scuba dive.  We stayed at a little dive resort right on the beach, nestled in a beautiful cove, in bungalows overlooking the ocean. A bit isolated from the heart of the town, it was a very serene location, with plenty of hammocks to kick back in. 

According to the 2005 version of Lonely Planet, Koh Tao is a gem precisely because locals don’t spend their time catering to tourists, and even electricity hasn’t reached the island. It’s amazing how much a place can change in just four years: now, I’d say 95% of the island’s economy is tourism-based, the place is covered in resorts, restaurants, and adventure sports outfitters.  And as for the electricity – it’s everywhere. 

The scuba course was four days long, and began with a number of boring instructional videos.  The first two days we also did foolish bubble-blowing activities in shallow water.  So when it came to day three, I was numbed into expecting very little from diving, and it came as a pleasant surprise when all of a sudden I found myself at the bottom of a beautiful coral reef, freed from gravity’s constraint, and able to navigate a National Geographic setting myself.  We made it on four dives, each about forty minutes, to a maximum of fifteen meters. What I never realized about diving is that you have to pretty consciously control your buoyancy – each inhalation and exhalation changes the volume of your lungs, and sends you up or down.  After a couple of minutes with the bizarre sensation, you get used to it and buoyancy maneuvering becomes second-nature.  It truly was the coolest experience – we got up-close and personal with the most bizarre neon fish, did back-flips on the sandy bottom, and had an underwater dance party.   We saw stingrays and barracudas, not to mention sea cucumbers galore. 

    We were lucky to have beautiful weather, and we’re leaving Koh Tao with healthy tans (or some of us – there’s a good amount of burn, too).  Besides scuba diving, we rented kayaks, indulged into cheap Thai massages, and enjoyed amazing cuisine.  The pad thai and curries are delicious.  I’ve been missing out on pad thai all my life; when we ordered it at home, it always came with shrimp, so I just never bothered to try it.  It is so, so not bad.  I also love the eating culture here – at local restaurants, and most shops, too, you take your shoes off before entering, and meals are eaten around low tables on lounging cushions. 

            In transit we spent a night on a larger island, Koh Samui, where I had a pretty striking experience walking back to our hotel through the red light district (safely, with Sandy).  Tiny little open-air bars lined the main street, competing music blaring from the speakers, and prostitutes blatantly promoting their bars.  Thailand had a large stake in the sex-tourism industry, and though it’s illegal, it’s also largely overlooked.  I looked up the issue online, and learned that in Koh Samui, a small little beach town, there are more than 10,000 prostitutes.  Having just read a book on modern-day slavery (A Crime So Monstrous, by Benjamin Skinner) the walk through the bar neighborhood was particularly unsettling.  I have no idea what proportion of those girls were coerced into their positions, but I also sense that women with economic options choose to go into the business.  So far we’ve also seen a couple of lady-men, whose presence is proportionally high in Thailand because it’s culturally acceptable for men to transform themselves into women. 

We’ve been pretty cloistered away on a touristy island, so it makes sense that I haven’t seen any indication of the recent political unrest.  I wonder how much evidence of it we’ll see later on in the trip, when we go north to study sustainable agriculture in rural homestays. 

Thursday, January 1

Final Weeks in Vietnam

After celebrating Christmas with the group in Quy Nhon, I visited Nha Trang on independent student travel with Emily and Renee.  We spent a couple of nights in the backpacker’s beach town, in a little hostel just five minutes’ walk from the ocean.  Of course, it’d been sunny all month while we were stuck in sweaty Ho Chi Minh City, but once we reached the shore, it clouded over and drizzled.  We got a couple of hours of sun in, lying on the beach, enough to redden a bit.  Other than that, we enjoyed the little town: we had an amazing Indian meal, homemade ice cream, browsed the book exchange shops, played badminton.  It was a fun challenge to make our own hostel reservations, secure bus tickets back to Ho Chi Minh, and be in charge of all our own meals. 

  We took a public bus back down to Ho Chi Minh City along a beautiful costal route.  We returned to impending media projects and planning for our student environmental conference.  That evening, though, when we went out for dinner, we could sense unusual activity in the city.  It was a Sunday night, but the place had more energy than we’d seen all month.  We learned at the restaurant that it was the night of the final match in the South East Asia soccer championships, with Vietnam competing against Thailand.  The game stretched on for hours, and we kept catching glances of it on TV as we worked on media projects.  It looked like it was over for Vietnam, but they won in the last moments on an exciting kick.  The city absolutely went mad.  They won at maybe ten or eleven o’clock, but the celebration lasted well beyond four a.m.  Around midnight I ventured out of the hotel to explore the festivities, and it was an absolute mob scene.  Everyone was joy-riding through the city on their motorcycles, waving the red Vietnamese flag, banging trash cans, and reveling in general mayhem.  At some intersections, it was so crowded that it was literally impossible for a pedestrian to make any headway.  It was probably the rowdiest crowd I’d ever seen, but it felt completely safe and good-natured.  I think in comparison to Red Sox rioting, this was a national accomplishment, and felt united rather than divisive.  On the other hand, I can also see how intense fervor could turn dangerous in a mob setting with that much energy and collective emotion. 

On New Year’s Eve, we hosted our student environmental conference.  We’d invited local university students, and about sixty attended.  For three hours, we shared our media projects, learned about Vietnamese students’ efforts in environmental clubs, and discussed conservation.  It turned out quite well – it was very organized and ran smoothly – but I think we perhaps overestimated the collective English level, and in the limited time, it was hard to get very many insightful ideas.  The Vietnamese students, however, seemed very willing to participate, and tossed around ideas about emissions-trading and governmental regulation.  The most concise point that I took away from our discussion was that Vietnam lacks two things in regard to environmentalism: awareness, and alternatives.  Most people remain ignorant of the consequences of their actions, and even those that realize the detrimental affects of particular behaviors don’t have many other options.  

We celebrated the New Year at a fancy hotel party where there was a buffet, live music and performance, and a balloon cascade at midnight.  New Year’s isn’t a very important holiday in Vietnam, but in Ho Chi Minh City it’s celebrated in certain neighborhoods.  The entire hotel district was decked out in more lighting than during Christmas, and one street was even named “Times Square”. 


Not long afterwards, we were having our last Vietnamese iced coffees and on our way to the airport to head for Thailand ...

Thursday, December 25

Christmas in 'Nam!

I should preface this by saying Christianity itself does not have a strong presence in Vietnam. Nonetheless, the commercial industry has embraced the Christmas season, in bizarre but omnipresent ways: techno versions of Christmas carols, lights, and gaudy decorations everywhere. This was especially true in Ho Chi Minh City, but the TBB crowd made sure it followed us to Quy Nhon: upon arrival at our guesthouse at 3:30 in the morning, Lily, Becca and I didn't go to bed until we'd hung up our Christmas lights around the walls and on our makeshift tree (a clothes rack draped by a green hammock).

It's been warm and sunny all month, but of course it rained Christmas eve and Christmas day. We had a relaxing day to ourselves on Christmas eve, but had a nice group dinner followed by a round of Christmas carols on the walk home. We made a time in our schedule to honor other faiths, too, on Christmas eve; we broke out Becca's supply of gelt, lit the menorah, and learned how to play dreidel.

Then it was time for the Christmas eve night service at a local church. For years, my parents have literally had to drag me to church, but this time, I decided to go on my own accord. Lily, Renee and I went, and it was quite the experience. From two blocks away, you could see something festive going on (Lily even pointed it out, saying "you guys, I think there's a carnival"). But it wasn't a carnival, it was the church, which had been decorated to the point where it looked as if it should be in Las Vegas. Lights were everywhere, strung from the steeple to surrounding third story windows. Illuminated doves flapped their wings, and massive Jesus figures decorated the outside of the chapel. At the center of it all was a giant Nativity scene, with plastic Mary, Jesus, and Joseph, where people crowded around to pose for photos. All around the church, women hawked balloons and Santa costumes and glow-sticks.

We made our way to the entrance, where we encountered a crowd that was more like a mob scene at a rock concert than anything I've ever seen at church before. We were caught up in a crowd of hundreds trying to get through the doors, with people pushing and shoving wildly. Unaccustomed to the aggression it required to move forward, we never made it to the doors before the security guard baricaded the remaining parishoners. We, with many others, were turned away from the house of our Lord. I was disappointed not to witness the service itself, though it'd have been in Vietnamese, but just being at the church was an experience in itself. Locals asked to take pictures of us, we bought glow-sticks, and we enjoyed the hubbub.

Back at the guesthouse, much of the group gathered around a laptop to watch a Muppet's Christmas carol. At midnight, we broke out milk and cookies for Santa. Those of us who missed the northeast weather made it snow with styofoam packing peanuts from the ceiling fan.

When we woke up the next morning, Christmas, it was still gray and dreary, but we cheerfully piled onto the bus for a short ride to a beach resort where we spent the day. It was a fancy hotel, nestled in a rocky cove right on the ocean. It was festively decorated, but not too tacky, and given the drizzling weather, felt quite cozy inside. We were treated to the most amazing brunch buffet ever -- having had nothing but noodle soup for breakfasts lately, the fresh croissants, waffles, omelet station, etc were absolute heaven. Once we'd gourged ourselves, we exchanged final secret santa gifts; Lily gave me the spiffiest suspenders ever. We lazed around the rest of the day, playing volleyball, pool, and Boggle. We had an amazing meal for dinner, then made our way back home.

It was the most unusual Christmas I've had, but quite nice considering we're all away from home. Merry Christmas, I hope you've all had lovely holidays, and Happy New Year!

Quy Nhon

We spent a week in Quy Nhon, an industrial town on the central coast of Vietnam. It's right on the ocean, but hasn't been hit by tourism (yet) so as foreigners we were pretty rare. We continued our study of waste management by visiting garbage sorting centers and interviewing workers there. We visited nearby temples, including the bizarre Cao Dai church, which is a combination of all the world's major religions, intended to become the universal faith. There were funky holographic portraits that looked like Jesus from one angle, then Buddha from another.

We took a day trip to visit the My Lai massacre site, a museum commemorating the brutal attack on the Son My village by the US army in '68 in which 504 innocent villagers were murdered. The village itself is no longer much to see, since the US bombed it a year after the fact to hide evidence. The massacre was awful -- in itself it was a catalyst for the anti-war sentiment and protests back home -- but some powerful stories came out of it: one US pilot threatened to shoot his own men in order to save a dozen local people; one soldier shot himself in the foot to avoid carrying out orders.

Another difficult trip was a visit to a local organization that works with children disabled by remnants of Agent Orange. 40 years after the war, there are 4 million people still affected by the chemical that the US sprayed to thin forests and seek out Vietcong troops. These children were severely physically and mentally retarded, with cleft lips and contorted limbs. Their parents were unimagineably patient in caring for them. Sadly, most of those affected by Agent Orange are already impoverished but must face the additional burden of serious incapacitation. This organization has tried to petition the US government to support medical bills, as they do for US veterans ailing from Agent Orange, but to no avail.

We also visited what was essentially a local projects: within the past two years, the government exercised eminent domain and forcibly relocated all the poor residents living on the oceanside (I assume to make way for more profitable hotel industries). The residents we visited seemed fairly content with their new homes, since the government provides them free, temporarily, but since they were fishermen, they’re finding it more difficult to access the ocean.

Quy Nhon is a nice change of pace from Ho Chi Minh City. Outside our guesthouse, if you turn left, you're in the heart of the town, with bustling shops and streetside restaurants and a produce market. If you take a right instead, you're just a block from the ocean, which is quiet and full of fishermen. I'm not sure what the swimming would be like, but it's a great place to run or simply sit on the shore.

Wednesday, December 17

Remnants of the Vietnam War

It's not something I was taught much about in school, but the war is certainly in the not-so-distant past here in Vietnam.  Of course, it's not called the Vietnam War, but referred to as "the resistance to the American invasion," telling of the role the US played.  

Yesterday the group went to the museum in Ho Chi Minh City commemorating the war and its victims.  Some of the particularly interesting exhibits included one on reporters and photographers who covered the war, and one on the remaining effects of Agent Orange, including harrowing photographs of deformities.  

What really struck me about the museum, however, was looking through the guestbook and comments that people from all over the world had written.  There was a very strong anti-American sentiment; the hardly-surprising overtly "I hate all Americans" statements, which are difficult to take really seriously, since they're so generalized.  What really began to get under my skin were the more subtle and legitimate comments about how America seems not to have learned anything from history.  The scariest part of the museum was that this -- war -- is not a thing of the past; the news articles and photographs we saw seemed in many ways a reflection of present-day American foreign policy -- Iraq??

In some ways I'm struggling with how to be an American abroad.  The other day a motorcycle driver asked me if I wanted a ride (as happens just about every thirty seconds) and although I didn't, he struck up a conversation.  He asked where I was from, and when he heard I was from America, he was ecstatic, raving about how great America is.  It's one thing for the Vietnamese to be forgiving of America after the war ... but to be that enthusiastic about the USA?  It's hard for me to understand how he can feel that way.  So many people that we've met have been excited to meet Americans, as we're somewhat of a novelty, but why the popularity among some, when my instinct would be to feel ashamed?

Today we visited the Cu Chi tunnels, about an hour outside of the city, where an entire town of 16,000 people lived literally underground during the war.  They carved out tunnels where they sought refuge from America's bombs, and ventured out only occasionally to gather food or hunt down enemies.  We got the chance to go underground, and most of the tunnels had been widened and lit for visitors; one part of the tour, however, took us to a second layer of rooms six meters underground with no light whatsoever and a winding downward slope -- that became pretty unnerving pretty quickly.  

I've also been reading some books about the Vietnam War -- one, which I'm sure many of you have read, is The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien; the other was The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh.  Both were fictional novels about the war, one by an American, the other by a Vietnamese veteran.  Because of this contrast, they offered different perspectives on the fighting, but what interested me most was where they overlapped.  There was a frighteningly similar description of a man being blown up into a tree by a landmine in both books, and each had the recurring theme of how even distorted memory is reality.  

Tomorrow morning we're off to Quy Nhon, where we'll be doing work on conservation and studying the affects of Agent Orange.  We'll be on the beach for Christmas!

Saturday, December 13

Environmental Issues in Vietnam: Waste Management

We've spent the past week or so studying environmental issues here, going to various sites to see waste management.  We visited a number of landfills -- as raw and dirty as you can imagine.  There's no sorting done, and any recycling is unofficial and inefficient.  Pretty much all of the city's waste, organic and inorganic, gets trucked out to the massive landfills, thrown in, and covered.  The smell is unbelievable, as you can imagine.  The issues there include not only limited space, but also leeching of toxic sludge into the ground water.  

My media group, video, spent four days visiting a non-governmental waste collectors' cooperative in District 6.  Just getting to the site has illustrated how vast and dense this city is -- an hour's drive in rush hour, and you're still in as urban as an environment as downtown.  At the co-op, collectors, mostly middle-aged, and many women, gather all the garbage they've collected from households, and sort it as best they can into organic and inorganic.  Unfortunately, there's just not enough space and time to process all of the material that comes into the sorting center; out of 330 tons each day in District 6, this site receives 60 tons, but has the capacity to sort only 8 tons.  That means 322 tons daily are not sorted at all and end up in the landfill.

Another important part of the work at the sorting center is off-the-clock recycling.  When the workers aren't collecting or sorting rubbish, they're free to pick through it and gather paper, bottles, and tins, which they sell to a middleman who transfers the goods to a recycling company.  The global economic crisis seems to have had a drastic effect on the recycling process; whereas just five months ago, the workers could earn 80,000 dong a day for their work recycling, now they receive only 30,000 dong.  This is income on top of their stable salary, but that is only about 100,000 a day (at 17,000 dong to the dollar).  That means those 80,000 dong were a significant proportion of their income, which has now been drastically reduced.  Nonetheless, the job with the co-op is considered fairly good for those without the education for other employment -- it's stable, and after a couple of years you're guaranteed healthcare.  It's pretty amazing to see how widespread the damage from the economy reaches.  I haven't been home to witness the worst of it, but the consequences are far-reaching and have affected even menial laborers in Ho Chi Minh City.  It also has pretty serious implications for environmental efforts which are too-often considered more expensive than worthwhile.  

Other activities -- lectures with local development workers, consulting agencies, and volunteers; watching movies like An Inconvenient Truth and The Corporation, visiting floating markets and small-scale factories in a river region in the Mekong Delta.  

Unfortunately, we'll also be changing our itinerary.  After the attacks in India, our safety is in question there, so we'll be spending the month in Thailand instead, hopefully working on sustainable agriculture there, too.  It's disappointing not to go to India, but our presence in the rural community we'd planned to visit would be dangerous not just for TBB but for the community, too.  I'm sure we'll have a great program in Thailand, plus the food will be amazing.  

Thursday, December 4

Ho Chi Minh City

We arrived the other day in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) in Vietnam. We flew in on my birthday ... which was celebrated with delicious cake and lovely surprises like furry sweater vests and Sox tickets and yogurt. (Thank you for all the cards, too!)

Ho Chi Minh is an unbelievably busy city; no matter what time of day, you've got to dodge thousands of motorcycles to cross a street -- and even if it's marked as one way, don't expect it to work that way. Christmast is already everywhere, even in early December; all the shops are heavily adorned with gaudy decorations, and horrible techno versions of Christmas songs blare out of every door. But it's great; I'm glad we'll be spending the holiday somewhere withs lots of Christmas cheer, even if somewhat peculiar.

We're living in a dorm-style guesthouse; the girls in two large rooms, and the boys in doubles. We're working closely with CET, a study abroad program, and their office is fairly near the guesthouse. We've spent the last couple of days at the office, having lectures on Vietnam's history and economy, taking crash courses in Vietnamese (which, believe it or not, seems more difficult than Chinese), and having TBB seminars.

Tomorrow we'll start our work with our local NGO, Enda, Environmental Development Action. Our focus is waste management, and we'll know more about it once we start.

The best part of Ho Chi Minh so far? The iced coffee -- a local favorite, served usually with thick condensed milk. Easily found not only in cafes and restaurants, but also on stools on the sidewalk, it is more abundant even than Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, a blessing after its scarcity in China.

Monday, December 1

Killing Fields & Genocide Museum

The other day we flew from Siem Reap to Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh... there could not have been a more striking difference between the two. With its proximity to Angkor Wat and constant crowds of tour groups, Siem Reap feels distinctly touristy: everyone speaks English, cafes and restaurants cater to western tastes, and the main street is lined almost exclusively by fancy hotels. In Phnom Penh we found a much more realistic city, full of local people who were as friendly as Cambodia's "smiling country" reputation would make them out to be.

In Phnom Penh, we visited the Killing Fields and the genocide museum, both in remembrance of Cambodia's genocide (1975-1979). We've learned a lot about the event, considering most of us knew very little about it a month ago. We watched a documentary on Pol Pot's regime and I read a memoir called First They Killed my Father. The sites were very powerful, and I think very well done. They were not nearly as crowded as Angkor Wat, and nearly all the visitors were very respectful. The exhibits had simple yet powerful facts and anecdotes about the history, and the photos that had been salvaged from the Khmer Rouge records spoke for themselves.

My first thought when we arrived at the museum was how similar the building looked to the Chinese middle schools, and it turned out that it had been a school before being converted by the Khmer Rouge into a prison detention center, with routine and brutal torture, for the duration of the genocide. I can't begin to imagine what the visit would be like for a Cambodian who's lived through the recent history, whose parents may have been killed, or who grew up in Pol Pot's regime themselves. Throughout the day I found myself wondering how locals percieved us there, as blatant foreigners, paying respect to those killed. What is our place there? We had barely heard of the event; our nation had played a shameful role in creating the situation in which the Khmer Rouge rose to power -- and then neglected to take action to stop it. And yet the Cambodians seemed to genuinely welcome us as guests, not specifically at the museums, but throughout our whole trip, they were extremely friendly.
It was certainly worthwhile to visit Phnom Penh; it was emotionally straining and I think we all found ourselves trying to comprehend the history that made a catastrophe like that possible, but it was a provocative stop on our trip.

Thursday, November 27

Happy Thanksgiving from Siem Reap

Happy Thanksgiving! The TBB group had a nice meal together at the hotel -- impressively Thanksgiving-like, considering we're in southeast Asia.  The chef made us pumpkin soup, mashed potatoes, chicken with gravy, and vegetables.  No pie, but otherwise it was great.  

We've had a really relaxing week, visiting temples, renting bikes, taking a river boat to a floating village -- though that was a kind of questionable trip.  Basically, we took a boat ride an hour and  a half to a community that lives entirely on stilted buildings in the water, and we were surrounded by school children trying to sell us notebooks to donate to the school.  Many of us bought notebooks and pencils, which were then given to the teacher.  It's possible that they just resell the books over and over each time another tour group comes to the island; I just hope the supplies are getting to the kids in some form.  It just felt very invasive to motor on through their community, all snapping away on our cameras, for a mere fifteen minute visit.  How often do foreigners come peering into their town?  How is their culture being affected by tourism, and are they actually the money, or does it go to the tour agencies?  It raised some important questions about ethical tourism.  Of course anyone would be curious to see a lifestyle so different from their own, but how to approach the sightseeing in a respectful way?  

Other things we've been up to: seeing a documentary on the Cambodian genocide, going to the Angkor Photography Festival, renting bicycles, going to the market, relaxing by the pool.  This morning a couple of us went to a cooking class where me made local dishes.  The best one was a pineapple-coconut curry soup.  

Some of our itinerary may be up in the air at the moment.  First,we heard about the coup in Thailand.  With all the unrest, that seems like a long time coming.  We're scheduled for an enrichment week there in about a month; it may be sorted out by then, but otherwise we may not be able to enter the country.  Furthermore, there's this whole mess in India right now.  It's in Mumbai, which is nowhere near where we'll be, but it's still being played out, so we'll see.  

Off to Phnom Penh tomorrow for a couple days at the killing fields memorials.  

Angkor Wat

Well, I can now say I've seen Cambodia's most famous attraction: Angkor Wat.  It's in fact a collection of hundreds of temple sites, Buddhist and Hindu.  We spent one day exploring smaller ruins, which were truly overcrowded by tourists, mostly Japanese and European.  There's been decent preservation, and one of the coolest parts was seeing enormous ancient trees whose roots had been incorporated into the walls, but overall, the sites didn't feel very spectacular or spiritual.  

What was really amazing was seeing the main Angkor Wat temple at sunrise.  We woke up early to get there, and entered the main gate while it was still dark, so as we watched the sun come up, we had no idea what we were surrounded by.  I got the chance to wander around inside the main temple's corridors before the crowds made it there; it was beautiful in the early morning light.  

Definitely worth the early morning!