Playground building week recap.

I’m back home and this is the first post I have made personally. Susan has been wonderful taking care of the blogging while I was gone. I didn’t have my laptop with me, so I sent her emails and photos and she put them together to keep everyone updated.

So, we spent last week building the playground I designed with my friend John for the kids of the Catalyst Foundation ( We flew from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to Rach Gia at about 6am on Tuesday, checked-in to the hotel, and were ridden to the jobsite on the back of motorbikes.

Megan being driven to work by Speed Racer's younger sister.

The kids treated us to a performance they had prepared. The kids who weren’t in the performance were hanging all over us. They kept stroking the hair on my legs and my whiskers and then started pulling on it when they found they could get a response by doing that.

The kids performing for us.

After the performance, John and I went to look at the wood that had been left for us and figure out what everyone should be doing. They had said that they might have the wood posts already set in the ground before we got there and they had not. However, the concrete footings WERE in the ground, only no wood set in them. We found out later that the local Party officials had told them not to put the posts in concrete in case they asked them to move the playground later. So we had to hold the posts straight and attach boards to them to temporarily shore them up.

Screwed by the Peoples Party!

The joke’s on them. They couldn’t move this thing if they tried. It’s about a million pounds and can be seen from space.

Note the concrete footings not holding our posts up!

The carpenter who laid out the concrete footings also decided to change the plan dimensions which had been carefully translated into centimeters for him. Every dimension on the plan that said 140 was crossed out and 165 was written in. He thought that was better.

Screwed by a rogue carpenter!

It was a slow start and we had to add a bunch or reinforcing to keep the (now unsupported) structure from racking. On the positive side, the wood was all milled from 2 trees and it is gorgeous. It looks like and is as hard as mahogany.

Every morning when we got to the school, we were greeted by kids who jumped on us. John’s greeting on the last morning:

John greeted on the last morning. Just like our jobsites at home!

On the third day, we went and visited the garbage dump where the Catalyst families live and work. I should never feel sorry for myself again. I probably will, but I shouldn’t. They live at the dump because it is where they work collecting plastic bags for recycling.

Susan's favorite beverage is also a housewrap.

Meanwhile, the girls kicked a** and put on all of the siding and put together and attached the rope wall (among other things). Clockwise from top-left, Megan, Bridget, Natalie, and Liz:

Megan, Bridget, Natalie, and Liz install the rope climber.

Natalie is from CNN and fought through heat exhaustion and intestinal distress to film about 25 hours of footage over the two week expedition. It may turn into a 5 minute piece on CNN, but she said she’d send us a highlight reel.

Natalie, Curtis, and Myself.

Curtis was the expedition co-leader and the most positive and nicest guy in the world. He told me someone once told him he has the personality of a dog always wagging its tail. Paul referred to him as “Doug” the dog from the movie “Up” (as in “My name is Doug. I have just met you and I love you.”)

We worked through 100 degree heat and one torrential downpour, but it all worked out in the end. We needed exactly the 4 days that we had to get it up in time for the opening. The kids stormed the playground and you never heard such joy before.

Playground being load tested by the Catalyst kids.

The Roadmonkey crew and friends after the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

What It’s All About

Bridget, Liz, Megan, and Marty working from early morning till night to build the playground.

You know how sometimes you can work all day and have no idea what you really did?   Not so with this group. They have literally been working from dawn to dusk to get the playground finished.  Marty says they are making incredible progress.  At the end of each night everyone is completely exhausted but feeling a huge sense of accomplishment.  Marty was so tired the other night, he feel asleep while chatting with me on Skype. (And it wasn’t because of my normal rambling on about 27 topics at once)

Typical home of the families who pick garbage

To give you a bit more perspective on this trip, here is a typical home of the families that work on the garbage dumps.  The group is doing this in partnership with the Catalyst Foundation whose goal it is to help the Vietnamese families living in the most extreme poverty with education and economic opportunities and protect the girls are especially vulnerable to sex trafficking.  In this case many of those in this community are Khmer who originally were from Cambodia.  Because of this, the Vietnamese government doesn’t recognize them, even though they have been living in the country for generations, and so provides no services.  They make their living digging out plastic and recyclables out of the dump.  The Catalyst Foundation was able to build a school for this community.  Thanks to RoadMonkey, the kids can now also have a playground.

In an earlier post, I had mentioned that Marty had his new iphone stolen (with all his photos/videos).  When he was feeling particularly down about it, a little boy Vy (pronouned, YEE) brought over a card he made himself (including the envelope) that explained how grateful he was that he was able to go to school, that the group was building them a playground, and he how he felt bad about “the incident”.  Marty said it was hard to tell the interpreter (Caroline– who founded Catalyst) anything without tearing up.  By the way, the whole community has been helping to track down the iphone and they have some leads.

Vy made this card for Marty including the envelope.

Vy's message that he appreciates what the group is doing and he sorry Marty's iphone got stolen.

Marty at the school with Vy on the right with the red vest

Anyway, there’s one more day of building the playground.  They are going to have a ribbon cutting ceremony at the end of the day.  Then, the next morning they fly to Saigon and get ready to fly home.


The iPhone backup plan…

Paul and Marty on the road.

So Marty and the group finally arrived at the site where they are building the playground. Unfortunately, there are no photos because Marty’s phone was stolen.

Riding light. No need for pesky helmets for the kids!

Ironically, Marty leaves New York City and gets his iphone stolen in a


super remote village half way around the world.

Here are some of the pictures he sent before he lost his phone.

I’ll be uploading some of Paul’s pictures going forward and continue with updates from Marty.

Fortunately, he can still call me on his OLD iPhone via Skype even though it doesn’t have a SIM card, as long as there’s a wireless network. Which there are in almost every hotel! It’s like he’s in the next room.


Curtis, one of the leaders and "nicest guy you will ever meet", and Marty.

This Doesn’t Look Like Whole Foods to Me

These are Fixed-Range chickens

Marty was in Dalat yesterday checking out the local market.  Once again, snakes. Some stuff looked more savory than others, though.    He said their normal meals usually feature a lot of watery spinach/greens and they pour the cooking water over rice. Because they are staying in a more upscale place they are getting a lot more variety — including spring rolls–which everyone was grateful for.



Bam! Those peppers probably pack some heat.

He also wanted me to mention that he is talking to me (via Skype) on the phone. Sometimes the connection isn’t strong enough and we have to revert to texting.  But overall, he’s been able to communicate with me almost once a day.

The bike ride portion is finished and now the group is onto playground building.

Videos coming up in the next post.


Mmm! Coiled Snakes in Rice Wine

Boy working in a rice field. To make rice wine. To put coiled snakes in it.

So I am eating breakfast while reading Marty’s update.  He mentions that at dinner there was a glass jar of rice wine with coiled snakes in it. Another jar had cow hooves or he thinks they were.  He didn’t send any pictures of that but he did send some other ones.  I’m including them here.  He said yesterday  they arrived in Dalat for the end of the mountain biking portion of the trip. It was 43km mostly uphill. It rained the whole time and ” I lost feeling in my fingers and toes. It took 30 mins in the shower to get the feeling back.”  Fortunately, he said they are staying in the nicest place they’ve been so far.


Little more info about the elephant rides:  “We couldn’t communicate with the elephant

John and Liz and the elephant guide that speaks no English.

guides and they took us out into the middle of the lake. The elephants would stop to grab a branch along the way. The water came almost all of the way up to where we were sitting.”

He says he’s going to try and send a video next.


A Ride to Remember

Nice change of pace from the bikes.

Although they say an elephant never forgets, I don’t think Marty is going to forget this ride, either.  The group is in the lush jungles of Lien Son.  According to the itinerary, yesterday’s trip also included “35 of some of the most challenging hills and downslopes”.  This is all Marty sent so I don’t have any information beyond this.  Just wanted to get the picture up as soon as possible.


It’s a Picturepalooza!

Quyet, their translator and Paul, the organizer.

So after no pictures for a long time, Marty found a place where the wi-fi is good enough that he could download some awesome pictures.  First, is their translator, Quyet,  (you can guess which one he is)  just in case you are wondering how they are communicating with the locals. Or maybe not as we are Americans and assume everyone speaks English.  Marty says where they are traveling most people have never seen Westerners (I’m including an Australian in the group). And absolutely no speaks English, except for the little kids that see these big super pale people on bikes and yell the one word they know,  “Hello! Hello!”

Dinner that the translator's friend prepared for the group.

Quyet’s friend, who owns a fish farm, invited the group to a dinner.

There is a custom there of every time the host drinks, everyone drinks. (Apparently some things are universal).  Although there is not so much pressure on the women  to go drink for drink.

Marty, feeling the affects of too much sun and too little sleep just took sips.

Anyway, the dinner looks pretty impressive but when you see what the kitchen looks like– the it looks like a miracle.

No microwave in sight.

Can you believe the dinner came from this kitchen?  With the kitchens in our homes, we have absolutely no reason not to have a dinner party every single day.

Marty says he probably won’t have internet access for the next few days so I am going to put the other pictures up tomorrow.


Do You Know the Way to Nhin Hoa? (or know how to pronounce it)

The Road Monkey cyclists/playground builders having lunch somewhere btw Nha Trang and Nhin Hoa

Today’s route was between Nha Trang to Nhin Hoa.  I’m sure you all know exactly where that is.  It was 31K (I’m not going to convert it to miles because it’s high time we all learned the metric system!)  Tonight’s accommodations and the rest going forward are described as “unglamorous and utterly simple.”   I guess that means no watching Glee or 30Rock.  Which is fine with Marty because he says everyone in the group is incredibly nice.  Paul (the organizer) said while the people attracted to a do-good adventure like this are always nice, this is a particularly good bunch.    That’s good news because Marty was a bit under the weather– and someone needs to take of my honey!  He’s not sure if it’s something he ate plus the jetlag and lack of sleep.  I think another part could be because he misses me and Memphis.

Susan and Memphis missing Marty

He said he’ll probably be off the internet grid for several days so I’m not sure the next time I’ll hear from him.  They are off to M’Drak (?) tomorrow in the Central Highland where they will ” ride past ponds filled with lotus flowers” according to his itinerary.  Lotus flowers?  Those really exist beyond my Chinese delivery menus?

Will keep you posted when I hear anything.


Facebook banned in Vietnam

Did the Vietnamese hate the movie, "The Social Network" that much?

Is Vietnam still ticked off about the war?  I guess that’s why they decided to ban Facebook. As the kids would say, WTF?  Anyway, for all of you leaving witty and inspiring comments on Marty’s Facebook page, understand that the reason he is not responding to them is not just that he may have no internet access, it’s because those damn commies have banned facebook.  They are probably trying to block this post.  I thought they had embraced consumerism and we were all Kumbaya now.  Apparently not.

Speaking of consumerism,  Marty bought a watch in Saigon because he needed one that was waterproof.  It clearly said waterproof and he said he bought this in a real store not a stand on the street and the clerk kept talking about the warranty it came with.  Anyway, when he went into the ocean (roughing it, right?) he said the face of the watch filled up with water within a minute.   I guess this means it wasn’t a Rolex either! (kidding).


From the coast of the South China Sea

I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (hcmc) from New York last night at around 10:30 local time after one 16 hour flight and one 3 hour flight. I met up with my friend John Richert flying in from Chicago and we met up with a representative from Catalyst, the local nonprofit we are working with. We handed off our tools to her until we start our project next week. Today we walked around hcmc dodging motorbikes. This afternoon we flew to Nha Trang where, tomorrow, our bike trip will begin. We swam in the South China Sea. I have to go meet the group for dinner at 6:30. That’s also 6:30 in Chicago, only it’s 6:30 am! More later.