IHP Cities in the 21st Century: People, Planning, and Politics (Spring)
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Spring 2009 Letters Home
- Read Letters from:
- New York, USA
- Sao Paulo and Curitiba, Brazil
- Cape Town, South Africa
- Hanoi, Vietnam
New York City, U.S. Letter Home
Written by Trustees Fellow, Nikhit D'Sa with the assistance and input of the USA country group: Amanda Garant, Aspen Price, Avery Bowron, Joanna Kalafatis, and Michael Johnson.
We have been together as a group for only two weeks, but it has been two weeks packed with novel experiences, exciting visits, and our first intercontinental plane ride. Arriving in Sao Paulo from New York City, we were greeted by 25 Celsius weather, cool morning breezes, the nasal intonations of Portuguese all around us, and our country coordinators: Glenda and Rafael. The last few days in Sao Paulo have been over whelming and educative; just the bus ride from the airport to our hotel on the first morning was filled with sights and sounds that enthralled most of us.
But the excitement of Sao Paulo was preceded by a great launch to the program in New York City. We began on the 19th of January with icebreakers and introductions. But it was not long before we started classes, received voluminous readings, and jumped into the hands-on nature of the New York program. The first field trip came in the form of Agency Visits: after being split up into four groups, we visited non-profit organizations around the city to get an idea of how they functioned and how their presence affected and was affected by the socio-cultural dynamics of the city. Project for Public Spaces, Fifth Avenue Committee, Metropolitan Arts Society, and The Point were all part of the agency visits. One of the group members, Aspen, encapsulates these visits and the first few days in the city:
"New York City was a great place to start off our travels. It allowed us to get to know each other in a fairly familiar setting. Much of our time was spent doing group work at orientation sessions, but there were some great field trips as well. I really enjoyed the agency visits, as it was great to see what sort of work different non-profits were doing to contribute to the well-being of the city. I also loved going to Times Square to watch Obama's inauguration. Watching that with hundreds of other excited people was thrilling and inspiring."
But the launch in New York was not restricted to just academic pursuits. Amanda shares some of the weekend activities that we had a chance to partake in:
"A few took a walking tour of the Lower East Side as we explored where so much of history of immigration had occurred. Others took a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge into China Town where they shared some dim sum lunch. Still others went to the Ironbound neighborhood in Newark to get a head start on their Portuguese. Then on Sunday, some braced the cold to explore Harlem, a walking tour which ended with 11 am service in the House of Prayer. Talk about a sensory overload for one weekend."
We also visited neighborhoods as part of our IHP educational curriculum. Taking buses and subway trains, we spread out through Chinatown, Jackson Heights, Melrose Commons, Washington Heights, and the Lower East Side with the aim of understanding the dynamics of neighborhoods and the way they function. Michael shares his view of the visit he made:
"My favorite part was the neighborhood day. Melrose was such an interesting place because we were able to see the transition from a dilapidated neighborhood to a neighborhood with character and pride. I thought it was interesting that although it was and is the poorest congressional district in the country it was very hard to tell by appearance and by the community' attitude and constitution. It was amazing to see a food co-op with delicious looking fruits and vegetables in this South Bronx neighborhood."
The neighborhood days also served as a model for the kinds of experiences we could expect in the other cities we were going to visit. Being able to read and understand the dynamics of a neighborhood are skills that we were sharpening in lieu of the neighborhoods we would soon visit in Sao Paulo, Curitiba, Cape Town, and Hanoi.
Just like the make-up of the city, our experiences in New York were varied and diverse: sharing in cuisines from around the world, living in a dorm with graduate students from 80+ different countries, visiting museums with art from the tiniest islands and largest cities, and roaming through streets where every house had people of different nationalities. Avery has more to share about the novelty of these experiences:
"I really enjoyed the bus ride to the airport which gave me a much more expansive view of the city (I spent most of my time in Manhattan). On Friday night a group of us went to a combined hip-hop/art battle show. I had never even considered this as a possibility. I found NY to be an amazing place and I'd love to spend more time there—and there is so much I wasn't able to see."
But more important than all our experiences in New York were the relationships we built and friends we made, friendships that will travel with us for longer than the next four months. Joanna had some thoughts on these relationships:
"So far this program has been a great experience. Most of all, I have been surprised by the many different backgrounds everyone comes from and the different perspectives everyone brings to the table. It definitely helps to see an issue from different points of view, and understand its complexities. I hope I will see these issues in a completely new way by the time this trip is over."
Inevitably, the journey is being shaped by the relationships each of us has with others in the program: students, faculty, coordinators, guest speakers, and home stay families. The excitement in the group is palpable, everyone is ready for new experiences and novel ways to view cities around the world. And as we start off in Brazil we look forward to five weeks of neighborhood visits, public transport, favelas, salgados, beaches, land reform, public transport discussions, model cities, Portuguese, Samba, new foods, and great new friends. In the words of Aspen, “Our group had a great time in NYC, and we're ready to see the rest of the world!”
Sao Paulo/Curitiba Letter Home
Written by Trustees Fellow, Nikhit D'Sa with the assistance and input of the Brazil country group: Aaron Brown, Rachel Buchanan, Kathleen Campanola, Elana Dahlberg, Kira Fisher, Jacob Koch, Anne Krassner, Ana, Lagos, Simon Ou, and Hayden Seder.
It is almost too good to be true. They tell you about all the amazing places you will visit. They tell you about the eye-opening experts with whom you will chat. They tell you about the new experiences you will have. But somewhere along the way, someone forgot to tell us about the friendships we would make, the exhilaration we would feel, and the new ways our senses would be challenged, especially during our first few days in a new city. Aaron Brown provides a beautiful narrative of this challenge and his initial impressions of Sao Paulo: “After a ten hour sleepless flight and waking up in Sao Paulo, the first thing I noticed about the city was color, color, color. The different colors of skin on the streets, where race is also heavily contested yet constructed in so many unique ways, the vibrant colors of the sunset that sneaks through endless lines of towers, the colors of the delicious mangoes I am graciously fed by my host family with every meal, the colors of graffiti and murals on every wall that hint at an underground meritocracy where anyone with creativity and drive can have a lasting impact on the built environment, or even the figurative colors of Portuguese, a language that is as much about expression and emotion as it is about grammar, where the innovative pronunciations of the letters C, J, and D keep the language bouncy and keep me on my heels as I navigate a country and language in which I'm inescapably, entirely immersed. But perhaps most prominent are the colors of a warm, southern hemisphere summer and an oppressively hot sun that watches my every move and oddly sets in the North. After a few weeks in brisk, cold New York City, Sao Paulo looks so alive, vibrant, organic, and teeming with life of all varieties.”
In absorbing these sensory experiences, the last month and a half has flown by as we build from one great experience to the next. They have gone by so fast, in fact, that the days have begun to merge into one another, making it hard to recall the details of every visit, every night out, and every person we have met. But a few moments stand out, moments that characterized our journey through Sao Paulo and Curitiba. One such moment was the group experience of Carnaval—the pre-Lent celebration that defines many people's perceptions of Brazil. While we embraced the Carnaval experience with expectations to find scantily clad woman, loud music, and all-night parties on the streets, our exposure to the history and cultural context of Carnaval allowed us a novel view at a stereotypical perspective of Sao Paulo and its people. Jacob Koch explains that,“we headed to the Vai Vai Samba school, one of the oldest and most respected schools in Sao Paulo, and defending Carnaval champions. We learned about the history of the school and Carnaval from the Vice-President of the school. We were interested to learn that the school picks a subject to focus on every year in their Carnaval preparations, and this year they chose health. Together with the municipal government they have been distributing information about condom use and preventing communicable diseases. The school is intimately involved in the life of the neighborhood and is a vitally important social and cultural institution. After the talk we mingled on the street sampling the local cuisine as the school prepared for the nights festivities—a Carnaval dress-rehearsal of sorts. Pretty soon we were shaking to the beat of the bateria or drum band, and spent the rest of the night doing our best attempts at Samba.”
We were also privy to the inside workings of “blokos” or neighborhood Samba clubs that walk the streets during Carnaval. The juxtaposition between the schools and blokos brought to the fore the financial, social, and cultural underpinnings that define the Carnaval experience. To top this, on our final weekend in Sao Paulo we were able to participate in the actual Carnaval parade that dances its way through a stadium and is broadcast all around the country. Kathleen Campanola danced the Samba for the television cameras that night and gives us some more insight:“We had the chance to buy a Carnaval costume and dance with the Samba school Mocidade Alegre. 15 of us had a wonderful experience participating in the parade and pretending to Samba. Afterwards, everyone watched the rest of the parade and had an amazing cultural experience. It was a great way to end our trip in Sao Paulo. We saw how the city came together in celebration of Brazil's unique holiday.” .” All in all, Carnaval was an eye opening experience that allowed us to challenge certain preconceptions and solidify others.
Another enriching part of the trip has been the variety of site visits and field trips in which we have participated. The field trips on occasion have been tiring, but more often than not they have provided us with a novel view of Sao Paulo and even Curitiba. For example, some students got the opportunity to visit a squatter settlement in the center of Sao Paulo where they had a moving experience talking to individuals fighting for their right to shelter. Hayden Seder gives us her impression of the numerous visits: “To understand the downtown area a bit better, we were split into 3 groups which respectively visited a homeless people social center, a recycling program organized by homeless people, and a building full of people about to illegally be evicted. I think it was good for us to see some positive things the people of Sao Paulo are trying to do for themselves and the city since sometimes we get caught up in studying the problems of a city we forget to look at the good things. Our other big field trips gave us a great view of the inequalities in Brazil. We first visited a very rich, gated community and the next day we visited the favelas (slums). This experience seemed to affect the group the most and gave us all a lot of perspective of the issues facing Sao Paulo. We also had several speakers during the week covering topics of finance, city expansion, real estate and spatial segregation.”
In relation to the latter, Aaron Brown shares his views on a guest lecturer and the related site visits we conducted:“The most satisfying part of our week was the coupling of our site visits with a speaker’s presentation on violence and spatial segregation. The speaker’s theories about fortified enclaves and the way in which the built environment of Sao Paulo directly reflects a culture of fear and separation perfectly complimented our visits to both the wealthy gated community in Morumbi and the visit to a favela. I particularly enjoyed visiting these vastly different landscapes, each a defining feature of an unequal megacity like Sao Paulo, and using an academic approach to see the ways in which this inequality is tangibly expressed. It’s become a bit of a cliché among the students on this trip, but we can not stop talking about Sao Paulo without expressing the absurd contradictions and contrasts writ into the fabric of the city.”
Even in Curitiba, we were forced to challenge our preconceptions of this model, planned utopia. Ana Lagos explains:“The world famous public transportation has not really worked for most of the group because it takes us very long to get from our homestays to the university and there is very little information that explains where each bus goes. Nevertheless, we learned a lot about planning.” Thus, the hands on nature of our exploration put us in a position to draw our own conclusions, form our own views about the cities we were visiting instead of depending on text books and research papers to do this for us. Though it was a struggle at times, the group has used the perceptions, observations, and reflections of each other to support their own learning and education through all the site visits.
Inevitably, our site visits, guest lecturers, neighborhood days, and case studies have come together to weave a challenging, comprehensive, and unique academic experience that has allowed each of us to follow our own interests while educating us of other possibilities. In regards to the plethora of academic experiences that we have had, Simon Ou writes:“We have already had our neighborhood days and dozens of guest lecturers. We are learning so much. There is an array of urban problems in Sao Paulo because of its urban growth. It has been an enriching academic experience to learn about these issues on site and see things first hand.” But it is sometimes hard to separate the academic from the non-academic. Experiences that we have in class, on field trips, and through case studies have as much to teach us as informal conversations with our homestay hosts, experiences on the bus ride home, or the conversation with a random stranger at a football game. Exploring the city with the skills that we have learned in class has opened a whole new world to each of us. It has allowed us to challenge our preconceptions of Sao Paulo and Curitiba, our predispositions to reading the city, and the way the city views itself.
For example, one of our site visits took place during our road trip from Sao Paulo to Curitiba. Through conversations we had with our hosts in Sao Paulo and conversations we were going to have with people in Curitiba, we realized that the middle class urbanites of Brazil have a very negative view of the MST. They see it as a violent revolution that is taking land from people who have worked hard to own it. But our visit with the MST allowed us to see the other side of the story, a chance that few people have, a chance to view the MST conducting mundane activities instead of planning revolutions. Elana Dahlberg describes our time with the MST in a brief narrative.
“MST is a land reform movement in Brazil that supports the notion that who ever works the land should have the right to live on the land. The movement has over 2 million members and we would be staying overnight at a settlement with about 30 families.
Immediately after arriving we felt the contrast between the rural and city life. We were greeted by friendly faces along with chickens, dogs, and goats. MST members fed us lunch in the community kitchen and they explained that 85% of the food they eat is produced by members of the MST farm. Later that afternoon we had a tour of the settlement including their garden, radio station, soccer field, solar panels for hot water, pig pen that helps produce ethanol from the waste, and machinery used for farming. We quickly made a friend, a goat, who followed us everywhere. She was the friendliest goat I've ever met.
Later that afternoon we had some free time to go swimming in the lake before dinner. After dinner a few MST members put on a small fiesta with music and dance. Many of us attempted to show off the Samba skills that we had acquired over the past few weeks. After stepping on so many feet we realized we hadn't acquired any skills and moved on to the electric slide. Most of the MST members thought we were ridiculous; however, a few girls did walk away with marriage proposals.
It was a great end to the second chapter of our travels and transition into the rural landscape. It felt like summer camp, especially after heading back to our 24 bed bunk rooms. However, I don't remember ever falling asleep at summer camp to the sounds of a deranged goat running around outside.
We all woke up early the next morning to visit two more Agrovillas (or settlements) before heading out to Ponta Grossa. Don't worry, the goat was up early to accompany Lindsay, Amanda, and Ana on their 50 minute run. I know it was difficult for her to say goodbye!”
Finally, it is hard to end this letter without addressing one of the best parts of our time in Brazil: the homestays. Besides all the planned activities and trips in which we participated, homestays provided all of us with a brief taste of what life is like in Sao Paulo and Curitiba. Discussions over dinner about politics and soccer, trips to the beach, attending social gatherings, shopping, traveling, and other activities afforded us a first hand view into the lives and perceptions of the people whose cities we were exploring. We were privy to the social side of planning, the grass roots side of governance, and the human side of cultural understanding.
As we move on to Cape Town, we cannot help but look back and smile at all the wonderful experiences that formed the five weeks we spent in Brazil. The people we met and the relationships we planted will nurture our understanding of Curitiba, Sao Paulo and cities around the world for years to come.
Cape Town, South Africa Letter Home
This letter was written by Trustees Fellow, Nikhit D'Sa with the assistance and input of the South Africa country group: Holly Bellocchio, Chris Garis, Max Kanter, Tiye Kinlow, Jack Mahoney, Lindsay Majno, Coral Martin, Jennie Msall, Kate Sokol, and Jamie Tomczuk.
A language we can understand, a city that feels familiar, a currency that is a cinch to convert—our expectations of South Africa were simple. However, greeted by the iconic Table Mountain, tonnes of construction for the 2010 World Cup, a city still divided along racial lines—we were in for a lot more. Though our time in South Africa would be shorter than in Brazil and Vietnam, just our experiences over the first weekend brought along the realization that the learning would be no less. Lindsay Majno shares her impressions of that first weekend: “Thursday morning we arrived in Cape Town and were greeted by Sally and Anna, our country coordinators, and a pretty intense heat wave. The 35 of us took over a hostel that is located about 2 blocks from Long Street (very well known for its popular shops and restaurants). We spent the rest of Thursday and Friday recuperating from our flight from Brazil and exploring a bit of the city. A few of us went to the beach, laughed by the pool at our hostel, took surfing lessons, walked through the Company Gardens, visited an array of museums and indulged in the great food and shopping on Long Street. Saturday morning about 25 of us woke up at six [am] to hike up Table Mountain. We were climbing at seven [am] to avoid as much of the heat as possible. After about 2 hours everyone made it to the top and the rest of the group who took the cable car up met us at the top. The view of the coast and the city from the top was phenomenal and a great introduction to the city we would be studying for the next month. Sunday we packed up and headed to the BoKaap (the Muslim neighborhood in Cape Town with brightly colored homes) to meet our wonderful host families.”
But besides our first impressions and our jaunts around the city, Cape Town left us with a lot to think about. Whether it be the cultural nuances of living in Muslim households, the environmental issues surrounding endemic flora in the city, the widening rift between the haves and have-nots, or the debate around educational achievement, we were forced to think outside the box and challenge our preconceptions about Cape Town. One topic that left an indelible mark on the thinking of the group was the issue of apartheid. Jennie Msall and Chris Garis share their thoughts on this issue: “[One] thing we've realized from our neighborhood groups, classes, and guest lectures is the legacy of apartheid in the city. Even though apartheid ended 14 years ago, racial segregation along class and spatial lines is still visible. In Hout Bay the group observed many different aspects of the region and the traces of apartheid appeared strongly. While groups went off to observe White, Colored, and Black neighborhoods, another group studied a river that runs through them all. Hout Bay is known for feeling rural even though it's only minutes outside of the city center. Wealthy Europeans have resided in the area since the Dutch rule, and as a result there are black and colored communities existing there that provide a labor force for the whites. Though the area is not rural anymore, gated communities of generally white backgrounds have left roads unpaved and have not invested in public infrastructure to maintain the segregation. Consequently, there are informal settlements without a water system and the group wasn't even able to access parts of the river because of the gated communities. This river, that connects the neighborhoods, ends up being a point of major contention, and access to the water is still an issue. At one point along the river a hotel is being built at an environmentally protected site, showing how money still acts as a force of segregation, granting wealthier groups access to land and water.”
Like New York, Sao Paulo, and Curitiba, it was our field trips and site visits that presented us with experiences that allowed us to reanalyze our perceptions of the growing urban expanse. In talking to experts in the field, seeing the first hand impacts of community projects, living within racial divides, and experiencing the quagmires of life in a pseudo-European African city, we were given a front-row seat to the ups and downs of planning and developing the social, cultural, political, economic, and geographic destinations of Cape Town. Jamie Tomczuk talks about this experiential learning process: “At site visits we traveled to the communities of Delft, Joe Slovo, Manneberg, and Valhalla Park. In each community we viewed first-hand the harsh racial inequalities that remain from apartheid and in some cases it seemed as if apartheid still existed. The problems seemed endless—poverty, violence, unemployment, poor education, insufficient housing, etc. We interacted with families and individuals who were affected daily by these issues. But we were also able to learn about the grass-roots movements that create hope for residents and empower community members even when they face dire conditions. Overall, the site visits were memorable in many ways, both positive and negative. They gave us a more tangible understanding of the diverse challenges that the city of Cape Town faces and an indication of the ways in which those challenges are and are not being addressed.”
The different visits and experiences did leave some of us disillusioned; we were faced with the large disparities present in Cape Town and the seemingly insurmountable challenges that needed to be remedied. We had several formal and informal conversations about our impression that the city would need years of serious investment in public services to even tackle a handful of the plethora of issues we encountered. But Jack Mahoney writes about an amazing and inspiring example of positive investment, an example that several of us were privy to: “Today on a trip to Capricorn Park in the Cape Town community of Vrygound we were blown away by what technology can do for a classroom. When we entered the school it was recess time and hundreds of school children approached us and jumped us all at once. The energy was incredible and they were able to spread their energy to us. The school is only two years old and was built with the startup money from a foundation in London. In addition to the money from the foundation, Capricorn had also received money from the state government as part of the Khanya project to put money into technology in schools. Capricorn was the thousandth school to receive money from this project and was equipped with incredible amounts of technology. They had smart boards and computers in almost every classroom. To see this much investment in the children of a South African township was incredible. It was truly inspiring to see a school, surrounded by informal settlements, which had clearly achieved as much success as this one. The best part of it though was how happy these children were. They were happy to see us, to be at school, to have so much technology, and most of all to show us. This was a school worth visiting.”
In continuing about experiential learning, our homestays in Cape Town were an especially interesting and educative experience. Similar to Brazil, we had two homestays in Cape Town; however the cultural and social differences between our homestays in the BoKaap and in Langa were stark. Max Kanter explains: “After our first week in Langa the group was completely immersed in the life of a Cape Town township. Many of our conversations outside of class tried to make comparisons between life in the BoKaap and in Langa. Each day we continued to piece together Cape Town's complex realities. We were experiencing first hand the city's many sides.” Living with largely Muslim families of Malay heritage in the BoKaap was very different from the Black township families of Langa. Security, traffic, food, religion, space, family values, cleanliness, social responsibilities, and relationships were distinctly different in each of these communities and we were faced with these differences every single day. Even when the families from the two communities came together for our farewell dinner it was an event of cultural diversity and differences. Holly Bellocchio shares her impressions of that party: “...the week ended on an upbeat note as we gathered at the LoveLife party with our BoKaap and Langa (and for some, biological) families, to socialize and celebrate our time in Cape Town. It was wonderful to foster such interactions, to meet other students' families and to be able to thank our hosts individually for the hospitality and generosity they showed us. And while it was hard to say goodbye to the people and places that had become our homes away from home, we all set off on a much-anticipated spring break adventure.”
But despite the relationships we share with people along the way, it is the relationships that have grown within our group over the last few months that have truly made this experience fruitful. Academic and social, the friendships we have fostered have left us with many enriching experiences. Coral Martin talks about sharing the academic experience: “The past week we all embarked on a self-directed educational adventure: case studies. For three days we conducted research on four different topics pertaining to Cape Town. And soon we shared the fruits of our labor with the group. The opportunity to learn from our classmates was gratifying. As our final full academic week in Cape Town, this was an intense and exciting home stretch.” Similarly, Kate Sokol and Tiye Kinlow talk about how these friendships enriched their spring break experience: “For some of us our last week in Cape Town was spent in Britannia Bay in a little beach house up the Western Cape. We packed into a van with a week’s worth of groceries and drove about two hours to reach our destination: an isolated beach town in the middle of a barren landscape. There was not a single store or any kind of public transportation for miles and so the week we spent out at the house brought an already close group of IHP students to a new level of comfort with each other. Making communal meals and sharing responsibilities around the house was a welcome change of pace from our usual scurry—a crucial step back and away from the IHP itinerary.”
Inevitably, Cape Town presented all of us with a few answers and a lot more questions about cities and how they grow. It also presented us with several personal challenges; as we move on to Vietnam we will miss Joanna who had to stay back with her parents in South Africa because of a fractured leg. We will also miss our homestays with whom we built close friendships. But as we move on we will also look back at Cape Town with a fondness for what it taught us and how it unfurled its multiple levels of interpretations. Jennie Msall and Chris Garis sign off on this letter with an astute and introspective analysis: “Despite all the problems, Cape Town is one of the most beautiful places we've ever been. Over a weekend, most of the group traveled to the most southwestern point of the continent. Upon viewing the Cape of Good Hope, the origins of the city became apparent. Situated between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, we understand why people settled here and how it developed as a port city. The city is a major site of transitions. It's between Europe and India (and beyond), just as it's the middle point of our journey. At that moment we were connected to the world, its past, and its future.”
Hanoi, Vietnam Letter Home
This letter was written by Trustees Fellow, Nikhit D'Sa with the assistance and input of the Vietnam country group: Kimberlynn Acevedo, Gabrielle Aron, David Ginsberg, Stephanie Hague, YeSeul Kim, Casey Mohan, Logan Morrow, Nungari Mwangi, Rafael Rangell, and Frank Zimmerman.
Hanoi proved to be a fascinating city to study: a city of numerous layers packaged in cultural novelties with doses of culture shock. It offered our group a truly new experience. We were challenged to put aside our preconceptions and assumptions and dive head first into the city that grew on us. We arrived tired from a long flight and wondering what was in store in our final stop. We left with the warm memories of sharing street-food with host families, the happiness of learning to count and communicate (within limits) in Vietnamese, and the disappointment of having run out of time in this wonderful city. From our very first day, Hanoi challenged us with its plethora of colors, sounds, and smells. YeSeul Kim shares her first impressions: “We arrived in Hanoi at 3 PM where we were greeted warmly by our country coordinator, Hoai Anh, and our program directors, Ken and Barbara. On our bus trip from the airport to our hostel, we saw lush green rice paddies in a rural landscape. Once in the city, we plunged into the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. We were immersed in the infamous narrow and crowded streets buzzing with motor bikes, wondering how we could ever cross the street. We noticed power lines precariously hanging only three or four feet above our heads. The smells of boiling pho (noodle soup) broth and sights of cooked chicken, duck, and dog greeted our senses. In true IHP fashion, we quickly learned to survive and thrive in Hanoi. We learned how to cross the street—pray, make eye contact with the motorbikers, and walk as briskly as you can.” The whole panorama was new: narrow streets, storefronts overflowing with goods, tall narrow buildings, alleys disappearing deep into the center of blocks, sidewalks used for cafes, sales rooms, living rooms, and motorbike parking, anything but walking; a new language, new foods and new eating customs, new transportation to figure out, new ways to bargain and shop; unfamiliar directness mixed with extreme politeness; currency with a 1:1800 conversion, suddenly the group learned the meaning of culture shock.
For many of us it was the ordinary interactions that were disorienting. Others noticed more substantial differences. Frank Zimmerman describes his introduction to our regular meeting location, “Weaving on and off the sidewalk, dodging motorbikes and food stands, we came upon the place where we were to have our daily classes. The Ho Chi Minh museum is elevated, above the road, on a high pedestal. The roofline juts outward high over the entrance giving the feeling that big brother is still watching. The museum, in the Ba Dinh district, is adjacent to the city’s, maybe the country’s, most iconic structure: the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, an equally imposing structure facing a grand square. And, inside the museum, our classroom did not disappoint: a large, oval, wooden table in the middle of the room with microphones ringing the edge. Just making daily announcements feels like we are a delegation of world leaders in the UN. It is quite the power trip.” While culture shock likely helped us become more astute observers of cultural nuances, it was still something that the group had to deal with as a whole. And as we have done throughout the semester, the group found the strength, compassion, and empathy to pull each of its members through to a place of acceptance and understanding. It was a challenging but heartening first two weeks, watching friends bolster each other, watching the group take care of its own.
And in true IHP fashion, the group picked itself up and went out exploring. The weekends were spent in the city, in the highlands of Sapa, on the beach, or on a boat in Ha Long Bay. Kimberlynn Acevedo gives us a detailed description of a weekend she spent away from Hanoi: “This weekend a couple of us went to Ha Long Bay. Our trip started off on an early Saturday morning with a bus trip several hours east of the city. We arrived at the port at noon, boarded our boat and were welcomed by a delicious hot lunch. We played card games, did some pseudo-Karaoke and went up to the deck after sundown to catch a fireworks display. It turned out that there were no fireworks but we used our waiting time for processing, discussing, and laughing about our IHP experience. We went to bed on a good note and were awakened by the boat staff at 6:20 in the morning! With the combination of the sun and good company, we headed back to our homestay families, refreshed and ready to start another week of IHP.”
Thinking about homestays, most in the group would concur that this was one of the most enriching experiences of our trip, but especially in Hanoi. It was hard at the start, the differing values from matters of curfew and food to clothes and private space. The language barrier was significant in most families but the joy of being the first homestay for many of these families trumped the difficulties as we were enthusiastically and warmly welcomed. The longest homestay experience of this IHP trip was in Hanoi and it slowly became one of the most educative. Exchanging recipes with host grand moms, shopping for clothes with host sisters, dancing at Karaoke bars with host brothers, and having conversations about politics and economy with home stay parents gave us a new view of the world. The differing values soon became a conversation starter. The language barrier became an excuse to try even harder to understand and be understood. The distance between homestays became a reason to explore the city with family members. After four weeks of negotiating the homestay waters in Hanoi, nearly every member of the group left the city with memorable and cherished experiences.
And besides all these out of class experiences, the Vietnam Country program was packed full of lectures, field visits, and neighborhood days designed to help us understand a complex city in four short weeks. Nungari Mwangi describes one experience that she found truly enriching: “Hanoi is a fascinating place to live in. Driving through the city, I was struck at just how tall and thin the houses in the center of the city were. My host family's house is 3 stories with a basement and fourth floor garden which I found most unusual. This week we also had the chance to see the new urban areas in Hanoi—Ciputra and Trung Hoa Nhan Chinh. Ciputra is a beautiful, spread out, wealthy gated community in the outskirts of Hanoi which was developed by a partnership between the government and an Indonesian developer. Most of the people who live in Ciputra are from other parts of South-East Asia. The image and identity of Ciputra presents one vision of the future of residential living in Hanoi. At Trung Hoa Nhan Chinh I got the chance to see a bird's eye view of Hanoi from the 33rd floor of the high rise. In addition to a poetic, breathtaking panorama, the view showed Hanoi as a rapidly developing city spreading out to accommodate its own modernity. Standing atop this building, at the moment the tallest in Vietnam, I had the sense of the city's unique landscape and enormous potential.” Much of our weekday explorations showed us the 21st Century Hanoi: a city that is transforming seemingly overnight.
After four weeks in Hanoi and 15 packed weeks of travel and learning, the time had come for a final retreat in the countryside. We headed to Mai Chau, far west of the city. Nestled between hills, this valley is made up of rice fields dotted by villages made up of houses on stilts. We spent time playing cards, singing along to the guitar, shopping for last minute gifts, watching performances of local dances, and biking through the countryside. And though relaxing, the retreat was filled with the nervous air of a group who had spent four months together and was finally realizing that they had to go their separate ways. It was a retreat of mixed emotions but was the perfect end to a long stint on the road. Logan Morrow and Casey Mohan share their brief review of the time in Mai Chau: “The retreat was a great change from our normally hectic schedule. We arrived by bus. We lived in stilt houses. Mosquito nets served as our fortified enclaves. The food was gourmet, it marked our day. We spent time between meals walking through rice paddies, riding bikes, and dreaming of our next bite of nem (fresh – very - spring rolls)..” We headed back to Hanoi rested and relaxed, ready for the end of our trip but the continuation of our friendships around the country and around the world. For a group that had gotten extremely close over four months, there was a sense of anticipation and excitement for the post-IHP life: the planning of reunions, road-trips, and dinner parties was in full swing. It was an exhilarating time to be part of the group, to realize the potential that everyone saw in the friendships they had made along the way.
We had now reached the end of our four month journey. Some headed home to meet family and friends. Some went back to the US for jobs or internships. Some went to Cambodia. Some went to other parts of South East Asia. Some decided to continue their travels in Peru or Syria. And others traveled in Vietnam. As we all went our separate ways it is hard to forget all the wonderful experiences we had in New York, Sao Paulo, Curitiba, Cape Town, Langa, and Hanoi. Rafael Rangell and Dave Ginsberg provide the best medium to end this letter through the “Floetry” that they performed at the final presentation in Hanoi. Instead of cheesy words or long lists of memories, I will let these two gentlemen end this letter and cap a wonderful journey that will stay with all of us for some time to come, that will shape each of us and the way we view the world.
Coming to you live from Hanoi, Vietnam
All the way from Berkeley, California
The Gentrifying Gentleman and the the Recyclable Rhymer
Are we at Mackenzie because kids about to get schooled
Hafa Fresh Spit that guest lecture
A capella is how we gonna tell ya’
About the rich, the poor, the enclave, the favela
It all started four months ago on the streets of New York covered in snow
Wondering where we gonna go and who we gonna meet
Pulsing around the globe to this urban beat
Who are we?
35 kids learning to read a city
Open your ears and open your minds
‘Cause we’re about to slay you some worldly rhymes.
But Dave I got to know, what’s IHP’s mission?
To learn how cities transition
Case study and try to analyze
Question and contextualize
About market forces that globalize
Injustices that polarize
More than Kate Sokol
City people get vocal,
‘Cause the futures in a chokehold!
The residue of Apartheid still sticking like glue
Affecting people just like me, him, or you
Soaking up the culture in the Bo Kaap and Langa
Learning from Aunt Sally making our minds stronger
Other subjects included
Transport that polluted
Social issues, race rooted
Enclaves with wealth
Some public health
Tin roofs in Delft
ANC, HIV, da’ PT, IPPUCI, CBP, P&D, ACC, Minh Ho Chi, Ay papi!
Pao de Queijo, beans and rice, with nem and bun cha we ate real nice
With Hoai Anh, Clovis, and Glenda as our guides
We learned the ups and downs of the IHP tides
From the streets of New York to the sidewalks of Hanoi
Our days were full of count-offs and per kilo at The Joy
We got to shout out to our faculties
Bridging the gap between oversized readers and realities
We miss Diya’s knowledge, sharp as Swiss cheese
Hey Eve, can you redefine neoliberal, please
Then we were graced with Jos’ expertise
And Mieka taught us to speak Botswanese
Just kidding I now love ethnographies
Barbara is a tough cookie and Ken, her main squeeze
Together, wise as ten Mr. Miyagi’s
All of yall, made reading a city a cool breeze
This semester flew by like a combi-bus
With a holla to Nikhit for watching over us
Even though it is time to go our separate ways
We took in much more than just a tourists gaze
This was a product of the 510
We hope you enjoyed our educational flow
A load of knowledge and mad new friends
But like they say, all good things must end
Hopefully you liked the rhymes we’re spittin’
And remember kids the future is unwritten
Knowledge is like city sprawl, uncontainable
We’ll now recycle your applause ‘cause we rap sustainable
Duration: Spring, 16 weeks
New York City, New York, USA; Ahmedabad, India; Dakar, Senegal; Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Prerequisites: Previous college-level coursework and/or other preparation in urban studies, anthropology, political science, or other related fields is strongly recommended but not required. Learn More...
Spring program travel itinerary
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Fall program travel itinerary
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About the Evaluations (PDF)
888.272.7881 (toll-free in US)
PO Box 676, 1 Kipling Road
Brattleboro, VT 05302 USA