by Gretchen Bade, Vietnam Summer Staffer 2008

It has taken me a long time to come to this. I sit, in a cloud, in Sa Pa as I write:

Unforgiving and beautiful. My perspective of my time in Vietnam with VISIONS teen volunteer abroad program can appropriately be captured through this dichotomy.

Mixing, lifting and laying upwards of 6,000 pounds of concrete is unforgiving… on my back, shoulders, and my breath. The satisfaction of sweat pouring down, of hard work, and consistently exceeding expectations is beautiful.

The poverty that exists in Vietnam—the lack of power (to light the way or cool one off), or the amount of energy it takes to sustain oneself in the most simple of ways seems—feels—unforgiving. The smile on peoples’ faces, and their excitement at conversation and especially their willingness to open their homes moments after meeting us is absolutely beautiful.

The weather—HOT, humid, often oppressive. The lack of any kind of breeze is unforgiving. Lightening storms that appear all over the sky like fireworks, pink moons, the full moon, the karst outcropping of ha long bay, the terrace farms in Sa Pa, the sound of thunder, a thousand shades of green, the glasslike surfaces of rice paddies, a random rainbow, is utterly beautiful.

Stomach aches. The stomach aches in Vietnam have been unforgiving. The food, however, and meal time in general, is beautiful.

Spending the summer caring for, caring about, 16 teenagers and their experiences can be unforgiving. The things I’ve learned from them, through work and friendship and an intense communication process, are beautiful.

The center—seeing children in such a state, some of them with severe disabilities, not being able to make it better, is unforgiving. Their laughter, their grace, their spirit, is beautiful.

My own thoughts, my view of me in this place and my process has been overwhelmingly unforgiving.

In reflecting, the growth that has occurred for me this summer, and that will continue because of this experience, is beautiful.

Cement covered skin with silver sequins sewn in.

–Gretchen