Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Strings of hope

By Aswathy Kumar

I walked into the lavish lobby of the country club not expecting much. I hadn't seen the newsletter and my friends had just dragged me out of the comfort of my house saying that we had to go for a coffee morning being organized at the club. These coffee morning were not unusual. Having attended a few in the past, I knew that there were going to be some great coffee, delicious munchies and some interesting girly chats and mommy talks with friends and neighbors living in the estate. 

As I walked in, I could see that this coffee morning too had similar elements. There was coffee, three tiered desert trays serving delicious banana cakes and croissants and friendly faces. The only new add on was a long buffet table placed on the left, draped in white and gold skirting displaying rows and rows of beautifully designed and professionally packaged jewelry.

'Oh a jewelry exhibition. How wonderful!' I thought as I moved closer to explore further.  Intrinsically designed fresh water pearl and garnet necklaces, delicate drop earrings in silver, onyx and glass, contemporary beaded and leather bracelets all adorned the huge table. I could have sworn that these designs were probably better than what I had seen through the windows of any Anthropologie showroom in the US, or the pricey silver shops in Khan Market, back home in Delhi.  

It was only when I was handed over the brochure and saw the banner stretched out behind the table, I understood the depth of my ignorance. These high quality, creative and exceptional jewelry were made by women from Eden Ministries, a non profit organization restoring freedom and providing hope and future to captives of Asia's red light areas. 

    Lisa Samuelsen, Founder & CEO' Eden Ministry

'It all started when my husband moved to Beijing. I used to wander around, exploring the streets on my own. I would often see these neon lights and massage parlors spread out at several locations and wonder what was really going on inside," said Lisa Samuelsen, founder and CEO of Eden. "I got curious and further exploring revealed some shocking dark secrets about the sex industry. I knew these girls were not there by choice and I had to do something to make a change," she continued.

On a mission to make a difference, Lisa's next step was to learn more about the entire system as to how the industry works. "I knew I couldn't just go out there and save these girls. I had to do something that would impact the entire community, which included not only the girls but mafia heads, pimps and sex traffickers."

Highlighting one of her biggest challenges Lisa says has been to reach out with an open mind. "I had to meet the Mafia heads and pimps, invite them for dinners and have a face to face interaction with them to truly understand the business of it all. The hardest thing to do was to not judge them or what they did. They are entrepreneurs and they supply to meet the Markets demands. It was important to understand, build friendships and also empower them and thereby rescue the innumerable number of women forced into the sex trade."

Today the Eden Ministry works in over 35 countries empowering girls and brothel owners with skills that will enable them a better future. And 55 percent of its funding comes from the sale of these exquisite pieces of jewelry that's nothing short of a masterpiece. "We were three friends, sitting around a table and discussing what we can do to truly empower them. That's when the idea of teaching the girls jewelry designing came forth." Professional designers from US and Scandinavia were brought in to train these girls. " It had to look professional because these girls don't need your sympathy. The products had to be spectacular and people should buy them because they want to buy them and not out of pity." 

   Some exquisite pieces of jewelry made by the girls at Eden Ministry

Statistics show that increasing a girls self esteem can reduce the chances of her being forced into the sex industry by 80%. "The girls had to believe that what they were doing was truly spectacular and thereby believe in themselves," adds Lisa.

In Yangon, the Non-profit runs a shelter home and workshop at Laden and in their short time here have already succeeded in rescuing almost seven girls. "In Yangon, our biggest success story is of Kai Kai," says Lisa with a glimmer of pride spreading across her face as she talks about the thirteen year old rescued from a sex trafficker in the city. " She was completely broken when we first saw her. But today she is happy and living her childhood with a wonderful family who adopted her."

   Eden ministry, restoring freedom to the captives of Asia's red light districts

What is Eden

Eden is a non-profit aimed at rescuing and empowering women forced into the sex trade thereby giving them a bright and hopeful future

How does Eden work?

They never pay to get these girls as they believe it would only make them simply a part of the whole system. Instead they impact the entire trafficking community which include empowering even the pimps and mafia heads with skills.

Where does the funding come from?

55% comes from the sale of jewelry made by the girls. Remaining 45% comes from NGO's and other organizations. 

How can you help?

Spread the word by liking them on Facebook @eden_minstry or organizing workshops at your house parties thereby encouraging your friends and family to buy the jewelry. You can also volunteer at the workshops and shelter homes. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

One day to spare

From tasting the rich vietnamese coffee and its exquisite cuisine to experiencing Hanoi’s heritage and french colonial architecture. From shop-hopping in the numerous street bazaars to taking a leisurely stroll around the scenic Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi has a lot to offer, even if you have just one day to spare…

By Aswathy Kumar

In a matter of few months after settling in, I realized that one of the key tricks to survive a city like Yangon, Myanmar was to make as many trips to its interesting neighbors as possible, be it getting lost in the claustrophobic streets of Hong Kong, shop-hopping in the innumerable malls of Bangkok or enjoying the vibrant night life of Singapore. It didn't matter if the trip was just for a day, when you are living in a city void of shopping malls, cineplexes or just plain traffic rules, causing you to spend hours in your car to reach a cafe, any opportunity that comes your way to get away from the madness and the chaos, you simply got to grab. Even if its just in the hope of staying in a lavish five star or sipping hazelnut latte at the nearby Starbucks. It is not that I did not love Yangon anymore. I did. But she had now become my home and all the shimmery, shiny Pagodas that awed me a few months ago and the thanaka smeared faces of the locals that brought me immense joy, had all become somewhat of the mundane. I had gone from being a tourist to a local and I was desperate for a change.

‘I must warn you. You’ll just have a day in Hanoi and you’ll be on your own,’ my husband warned me as he agreed to let me tag on one of his official trips, I didn't care. I was ecstatic and it didn't matter that I just had one day to spare.

Now normally, I hate planning out my trips in advance and prefer the city to unfold in itself as I tread its streets, but this time, I knew was going to be a little different and a certain amount of planning would be essential if I wanted to make the best use of my one day here. So I kept my notepad and pen ready as I exited the Hanoi airport. My stay here was going to be brief and their was no part of her, I wanted to miss. 


   (Pic courtesy: Google)

It was a rather short drive to our hotel, The Sofitel Metropole, situated in the old quarter of Hanoi and close to the famous and scenic Hoan Kiem Lake. But the drive was definitely far more adventurous than I had expected it to be, thanks to the hundreds of scooters and bicycles swarming towards our car from all sides. ‘Crossing these streets where going to be impossible especially with my 7 year old,’ I thought nervously chewing onto the ends of my pen. ‘Don’t worry Madam,’ smiled our driver as he swerved the car amidst the spool of two wheelers. ‘They know how to avoid you.’

And boy was I glad that he was right! Though they seemed intimidating at first, I soon realized that just the sheer concentration of vehicles on the road makes it almost impossible for any of them to gain a high speed, giving us enough time to make our way across the road, safely. And like my driver said, they were well used to the numerous pedestrians and had developed a strategy to coexist, swerving right around them. ‘We’ll be fine,’ I assured my daughter as we crossed the road to reach our very first stop of the day, an old non glamorous coffee shop in Nguyen Huu Huan Street to savor the famous Vietnamese coffee.


    (Photo courtesy : Google)

There were plenty of international coffee chains and boutique style cafes all around the posh locality surrounding the hotel but I was told, that this particular shop was special and famous for its unique blend of coffee made with egg yolk, cheese, butter and yogurt. As I had just a day, a flight back the very next and a seven year old to look after, I decided not to play too adventurous and stuck to the traditional coffee blended with sweetened condensed milk. Coffee is to the Vietnamese as chai is to us Indians and no trip to the country is complete without savoring the intrinsically brewed coffee. And as soon as I took my first sip of the strong concoction diluted by the sweetness of the rich creamy condensed milk, I felt no guilt that I had passed off on my favorite brand of international coffee that I had been craving for so long.


Our next stop was the Temple of literature, a temple dedicated to the great Chinese philosopher and scholar, Confucius. A mere ten minute drive from our current location at Hoan Kiem Lake, this historical site also houses the Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first ever university. Though there was quite a fair number of tourists, visiting that day, we could almost immediately sense the sanctity of the place as we exited the taxi and slowly made way through, ‘The Great Portico,’ or the first entrance into the temple. 

   (The Grand Portico at The Temple of Literature)

Despite the sanctity of the place, touring around was neither intimidating nor overwhelming. It felt extremely calming as I walked hand in hand with my daughter amidst the picturesque gardens bordering the different courtyards (There are a total of five courtyards, one leading to the other), quite a relief from the chaos and congestion of motorcyclists aligning outside. There were three paths leading to the main temple and we were told that the middle path was reserved for the king, while the other two were for the officials. ‘Middle path it is,’ I joked to my little one as I pulled her delicate frame to further explore what lay ahead. 

   (Back in the day, this middle path was reserved for the king)

The third courtyard was our personal favorite, thanks to a walled pond, named the Well of Heavenly Clarity situated right in the centre of the Temple. Surrounding the well are stone plaques with names of all those who cleared the exams and received their doctorates at the University. The plaques have been mounted on tortoises also carved in stone. After paying a quick homage at the lacquered statue of Confucius, housed at the end of the courtyard  and a few quick photo sessions, it was time for our little gang of two to delve into the chaotic streets of Hanoi yet again. We still had a lot to do and not much time to waste. 


My research had suggested one more monument, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, one of the largest memorial in Hanoi. But time was scarce and after all the walking around, I was doubtful if my seven year old could handle yet another historical site. I also knew I wasn't leaving without exploring the innumerable shops surrounding the Hoan Kiem lake and if she was ever going to let me do that, I had to throw in a little kiddy bribe. ‘How about a little puppet show my doll?’ 

   (Water Puppers at the Thang Long Theatre)

I have always been extremely critical when it comes to puppetry and coming from a a country like India, where I have grown up watching some exquisite shows, like the shadow puppetry (Tholpavakoothu) of Kerala or the string puppetry (Kathputli) of Rajasthan, it would have had to be spectacular for me to take notice. And spectacular it definitely was!

Beautiful and colorful hand carved wooden lacquered puppets (including fire blowing dragons, flip flopping fish and turtles) are shown farming, fighting, dancing or simply rejoicing in the festivities in a pool of water, all while being dragged around with the help of bamboo rods or strings by puppeteers from behind a screen. The performance divided as little skits show life in rural Vietnam and is explained with the help of a live orchestra through songs and dialogues. The language was traditional Vietnamese, but the sheer acts by the puppets were enough for us to understand it’s comical nature and interpret the folktales that formed the very essence of the play.   


   (Turtle tower, Hoan Kiem Lake)

The next part was obviously my personal favorite and the whole reason for me tagging along with my husband to any destination in the first place, shopping! Markets were a plenty in Hanoi, but there wasn’t much time left to wrap up and so I decided to simply walk across from the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre to further explore the innumerable shops. Traditional Vietnamese Lacquer, wooden, hand-painted handicrafts, silk scarfs, tablecloths, interesting fake goods, souvenirs, bags, shoes, jewelry, paintings by local artists and what not. You think of it and you were sure to find it here. 

I would have hardly been to four shops, a lacquerware one, a silk shop, a souvenir shop and an art gallery and my hands were already full. I could feel the weight of the shopping bags beginning to take a toll on my shoulders and my daughter was slowly starting to lose her patience. And it’s at that point, a friendly rickshaw or cyclo as the Vietnamese call it, offered to take us around the lake.

Although we could just about catch glimpses of the famous turtle tower and the Huc Bridge, the ride was enough to truly absorb the beauty of the lake and the sheer vibrancy and character of Hanoi.



My jeans were all dusty and hair messed up. The shimmery bronzer and foundation that I had generously smeared on my face was long gone. We were exhausted and I felt so glad as I walked into this tiny restaurant that we had not chosen anything fancy for our last and most important pit stop, our dinner!

The place was crowded and I couldn't help but wonder if the small wooden shop would be able to take all the weight. There was no menu and no questions. People went there for one dish and as soon as we sat down it was served to us in great √©lan. It was obvious the Cha Ca Thang Long, was definitely going to be a dish the Vietnamese was proud about. 

   (Photo courtesy: Google)

First came a steaming frying pan mounted on a flaming stove with tiny pieces of fish marinated in turmeric, ginger, garlic and fish sauce. This was followed by  a big bowl of freshly boiled vermicelli noodles, dill and smaller bowls of fish oil and nuts. I was asked to add the Dill into the hot oil while the fish cooked which was later mixed into the bowl of noodles along with extra fish oil and garnished with peanuts. 

Considered to be one amongst the top 1000 things to eat before you die, it was definitely not the best restaurant I had ever been. It was hot, crowded and noisy, but the infusion of flavors that burst inside my mouth, definitely made it one of the best meals I had ever eaten and also the most memorable part of my day in Hanoi.