Sarnelli House Orphanage: Enlightening and enriching experience.

My most interesting, enlightening, uplifting and enjoyable trip in a few years was a trip to Thailand in September 2016.  Sharon and I started with a couple of days in Bangkok.  We stayed in a nice hotel overlooking the river.  We didn’t really get to spend too much time in Bangkok and it didn’t really make much of an impression, I think you would need more time there and perhaps with someone who could show you around and learn about the highlights. Here are a few shots taken in Bangkok by Sharon and I.

But then Bangkok was really only a stop-over on our way to Northern Thailand. Our destination was the Sarnellii House Orphanage in Nong Khai which is very close to the border with Laos and the Mekong River.  What brought us to Sarnelli House is our great friend Brian and his wife Kate who is the nurse at the orphanage.

They have a very good web-site that can give you more details than I can, see Sarnelli House.  However, if you take a few minutes to view the following video it will give you an idea of why this trip had such an impact on us.

In brief it is a home for children affected by HIV/AIDS and poor and abandoned children.  It currently has about 150 children but began in 1998 with just seven and one house.  The founder is Father Michael Shea an Irish American priest with the Redempterist Order. He has lived and served in this region for 50 years. The naissance of the orphanage was the dying wish of an AIDS mother who pleaded that Father Shea would look after her surviving children who had also contracted HIV, and he agreed. 

Brian with one of the babies at Sarnelli House

Brian with one of the babies at Sarnelli House

HIV/AIDS began in the early eighties, had a terrible reputation with suffers treated badly and spurned by communities. Since the introduction of effective treatment, about fifteen years, this has greatly improved. However, not so much in the poor and outlying villages of Thailand where it is still a stigma that forces families out of work, school and even their homes and communities. It is probably similar in other poor regions of the world.

As I said there are about 150 children in the orphanage and 27 who are in college.   Over the years they have looked after over a thousand children. They provide them with shelter, food, ensure they get educated and any medical treatment they need. Fortunately Thailand has eradicated HIV being transmitted from mothers to their babies so the young infants no longer suffer from HIV/AIDS. There are older children that have unfortunately acquired HIV and they need to be closely monitored and properly medicated. The children taken in have been either abused, abandoned or the families are so poor and destitute that they have taken the difficult decision to send their children here to receive a proper education and a better chance in life.

The orphanage employs about 60 staff over 90 percent who come from the local villages and act as house mothers, cooks, cleaners, drivers, office administrators, farm hands & farmers. This is money that goes back into the local community. They run their own farm with: pigs, chickens, ducks, cows, fruit and vegetables and rice. This is a big project which is very expensive to establish with farm equipment, land, stock and fertilisers to mention just a few. But it provides the older boys in particular with great experience and training and a small income.  The project gets much needed financial support but it also makes the orphanage self-sufficient in many of its food needs.

Kate with some of the girls

Kate with some of the girls

Sharon with some of the volunteers and girls from Sarnelli

Sharon with some of the volunteers and girls from Sarnelli

Our friend Brian was introduced to Sarnelli House a few years ago through a friend of his and started by sponsoring a child, started volunteering on and off for short periods of time and then about two years ago decided he would work there full time.  Last year he married Kate. 

Our visit had a huge impact on us and made us understand why Brian and Kate have decided to dedicate their time to working for this very worthy cause.  Although the stories behind each child, is always very sad and sometimes disturbing it is great to see them mostly flourish and enjoy a much better life than they otherwise would have had.  We spent time with the children and they just lapped up the affection and love you gave them.  The smaller babies and kids would jump all over you and loved being played with.  The older children also enjoy company and interact with staff, helpers and volunteers.  Even the language barrier doesn’t prevent one from enjoying your time with them.  Initially I felt a little uncomfortable taking photographs but they enjoyed it as I had a small portable printer which meant I could give them their own photographs.

You can’t help yourself feeling for the children and making a connection with one or two of them.  I was so touched when one I had connected with wanted to see us off at the airport.  It made it even more difficult to leave, but a cherished moment.  It is so nice to hear from her now and again, now that I’ve returned home.

It was truly an amazing trip which Sharon and I hope we can repeat again in the near future.

Our first cruise

After many years of Sharon asking we finally decided to do our first cruise, and we decided to start withe biggest ship out there the Allure of the Seas from Royal Caribbean and we were not disappointed! When we started looking first we thought we would go on a Mediterranean cruise, I fancied a few days starting in Venice and heading off to the Greek islands, but our two youngest girls who were coming with us didn't fancy stopping off everyday in a different country and wandering around European cities. So we selected a Western Caribbean cruise with only 3 stops which were largely just beach lounging days. The first stop was an island owned by Royal Caribbean off Haiti called Labadee and that is exactly what we did there lounge on the beach. The second stop the following day we stopped at Falmouth in Jamaica and spent the day sight seeing and walking up the Dunns Falls. The final stop was in Cozumel off Mexico, here we spent the morning swimming with dolphins and then shopping in the afternoon. As you can see nothing to taxing or culturally challenging but exactly what the girls wanted. The cruise is really all about the ship which is just amazing. I still don't think I covered all the main parts of it. There are numerous restaurants, cafés and eateries most complimentary but a few that you can pay a bit extra for a special night out, and the Chief Chef is an Irish man from Cork. There are bars, night clubs, lounges, an ice rink, and a huge theatre that holds over 1500. He we saw the musical Chicago as well as some other shows. The whole place is a hive of activity and for the very active there are swimming pools, walk and race tracks, surfing, yes surfing on a ship, gymnasium, basketball, soccer, table tennis and the list just goes on! The ship even has its own version of Central Park with flowers, trees, walk way littered with cafés and bars.

The ship takes 6,000 passengers and has a crew of 2,200. There are organised activities for everyone, way to many to numerate or you can just laze about on deck, at the pools, in the library, on your balcony, watch TV, or do shopping in the many shops. The big thing here is diamonds! Apparently great deals can be had in jewellery either on board or in Jamaica or Mexico!

New York New York…

… So good they named it twice! Last week I was concerned that storm Nero would interfere my travel plans, but I was lucky that the centre of the snow storm hit further north of New York. So, as planned I flew out on Sunday morning, and although it was cold and snow was on the ground it was beautiful and sunny in New York. I checked-in into my hotel, the Eventi on Sixth Avenue. Although it has a small footprint it soars 23 stories into the sky and that's only half of it, I'm not sure what they use the other 20 odd stories for. Anyway, after a quick and efficient check-in I headed off to BH video. If you've never been there you just have to see it, it is a huge store at least 3 floors full of video, photography, and computer equipment and electronics. I just did a quick smash and grab, I filled my list and headed out of there before I got too tempted!

Sharon, Roisin & Eimear have been here from the previous Thursday in New Jersey playing at a basketball tournament. On this Sunday they were heading into New York for some sightseeing, an NBA basketball match and I met them for dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe in Time Square. They headed back to New Jersey and I headed back to my hotel, I can tell you by now I was very tired.

Monday morning was wet, overcast and misty, but I had booked a trip to see Brooklyn. This trip was billed as the best of Brooklyn Sightseeing Food and Culture Tour. Normally they can cater for up to 25 guests and use a coach but I was lucky that was only two of us. Diane from the Philippines, me and our guide Isaac. So we had a Isaac to ourselves and did the visit by SUV. A sunny day would've been nice but we still enjoyed ourselves immensely. Isaac a native New Yorker was knowledgeable, good-humoured and plenty of fun. It normally would take four hours but Isaac was very good to us and took us to a few extra places and we were back five hours later. It was mostly a cafe crawl from one restaurant another, where we sampled different types of food as we visited the different parts of Brooklyn. This was not gourmet food but simple ethnic food from local simple cafes and restaurants but it was all good quality, fresh and full of flavour. It finished with a fantastic Cuban sandwich, which as you can see doesn't look anything special but it was yummy!

Home again, a quick change, and I headed for a quick visit to Macy's. I'm not sure what all the fuss is about Macy's as I was a bit underwhelmed! I then decided to head out for dinner and look for a restaurant called the Wild Ginger. I read a few good reviews about it on the web but I could find it nowhere, and I was very disappointed. I found another little French bistro which was very nice it had plenty of atmosphere, by that I mean it was dark, busy, noisy with music and chatter, and the tables were very cosy. In fact they were so close that even a fart couldn't slip by. Anyway the service was fast and the food was good, so time to head back and rest after a busy day, and look forward to Sharon and girls joining me for the rest of the week!

Day out on a Catarmaran in Marbella - Video

While on holidays we went out with friends on a catarmaran that left from Marbella and headed around the Med for a good 4 hours. A free bar for an hour and a Banana Boat ride. It was great craic. Following video taken with Nikon D800, GoPro Hero2HD for shots in and under the water, and put together on the new iPad with iMovie app. Very easy and great fun.

Into the Deep Blue from Shay Farrelly on Vimeo.

Vietnam - Days 10-12, Summary

The last few days have been about relaxing and getting home. Sunday in Vung Tau (admittedly forgettable), back to HCM city Monday to walk around city and night market and finally 24 hours getting home via Bangkok and Amsterdam. What are my impressions? Well much of the time was spent at meetings though we did get to sample some of the country. But based on my limited experience Hanoi and the north appears more traditional Vietnamese whereas HCM City in the south is more cosmopolitan and western as evidenced by the newer, bigger city and shops like Gucci, Armani, Burberry, Channel etc, etc. Though we did see a Gucci store in Hanoi as well but not on the same scale. Though I am sure that not many locals purchased here, the wealthy international visitor I expect makes up the majority of the customers. As I understand it even well-educated professionals may earn only $200 a month and we saw plenty of people living on much else, and inflation is rampant now.

I love Hanoi and some of the local areas we saw and were taken to, it whetted my appetite for more. It would be nice to visit and travel widely with other photographers to get some great images of the very varied landscape and seascapes as well as the beautiful people. The people themselves are, friendly, welcoming, quiet and sometimes shy. There are many different ethnicities with varying traditions which would be great to explore and to get to know more about. In the time available we really didn't even scratch the surface.

The food is great, a preponderance of fish and seafood, but it all seems so fresh, plainly cooked and embellished with lovely sauces, and the use of vegetables is great. Though we also sampled some of the very unusually: uterus, pigs intestine, testicle, liver and a desert which contained frogs stomach, fortunately we avoided snake! Also unfortunately they did not inherit good desserts from their French invaders but they have an abundance of fantastic fruit to make up for this.

For those of a more cultural bent, than myself, there are also plenty of museums and places that commemorate the struggle against their previous invaders, the USA and the French.

What, though, of their Haemophilia care? Well there are some very good points. Firstly there are a number of Haemophilia centres around the country, this is excellent as I have no doubt that without these centres there would be many more injuries and indeed deaths. General hospitals just don't treat as well, they don't have the expertise or the treatment and the delay or denial of treatment, or inappropriate treatment can lead to permanent injury or death. Even in Ireland, where we have good comprehensive care in centres there is a concern about being treated in none centres without this expertise, steps are being taken to try improve on this. The problem here in Vietnam though is that many patients live a long way from the centres and most do not have a decent mode of transport except perhaps on the back of a motorbike which isn't exactly the best mode of transport with a bleed or injury! This delay causes further problems.

At these centres there are very good and dedicated staff who look after their patients as well as they can, but the problem is two-fold. The lack of access to sufficient and appropriate factor replacement treatment. As a poor country it is difficult to access the most modern factor replacement concentrates so less efficient plasma derived products are used. And although these are made locally to high standards with proper screening for viruses and contaminants, sufficient treatment cannot be made to allow patients treat themselves at home when they get injured, which, would revolutionise the standard of care. Secondly, people with haemophilia here must pay a contribution towards their treatment, 20%, which for the vast majority here is a great burden and has led to great hardship. In circumstances of poverty this contribution is reduced to 5% and in these cases the treatment manufacturers will pay the final 5%, but this really only encourages poverty.

The outcome is that patients lose out on their education, can't get jobs and find it difficult to support themselves. Seeing this is very humbling and makes me appreciate the very good level of care we get. But also it reminds me of how it used to be in Ireland many decades ago. It has been a long road, a very hard-fought road, to get us where we are and this road has been paved with many instances of hardship, through lack of treatment which lead to: deformity and disablement, poor education, lack of job prospects, families ashamed of their haemophilia, poor quality of life, and indeed lives cut tragically short through injury. In the last 3 decades poor safety measures in the manufacturing of the treatment has had its own tragedy through contamination with HIV, AIDS and Hep. C, where the lives of many friends and families have been devastated. So my visit here reminds me we should not be complacent about what we have achieved, irrespective of our economy. We need to retain and continue to improve our level of care so that we should not fall back into the abyss of inadequate treatment, and we must insist on the highest level of care, in this way people with haemophilia and bleeding disorders can have full and fulfilling lives, and can contribute to society rather than be a burden on it.

So finally a country I would live to return to and explore more fully.

Vietnam - Day 9 Vung Tau

A lie on at last, up at 8.30, breakfast, store our main luggage at the hotel, let's hope it's still there on Monday when we return and off the catch the hydrofoil to Vung Tau. Our boat leaves at 11.30 and will take 1.5 hours. Vung Tau is a beach resort outside HCM that the Vietnamese visit at weekends, apparently it's famous as the place that Gary Glitter frequented!!!!!! Anyway we check in, it's not Ritz but will do fine and relaxing and taking in the sun is the order of the day.

Vietnam - Day 8 Saigon

The morning started with a very formal inauguration of the HCM City club, which essentially is a branch of the Vietnamese Haemophilia Society. There are over 50 people attending, with high-powered doctors there and we are invited to the top table as guests. There is a TV camera for local news reporting. The opening ceremony lasts two hours the most touching contribution being from a fairly disabled man with haemophilia who is obviously overcome with emotion at the set up of this club, and what he hopes may improve overall treatment. After it finishes it gives us an opportunity to mix and talk to the haemophiliacs and parents attending. They are extremely friendly and talk freely and ask us about our services and the level of treatment we receive. In fact it's a little humbling as I soon realise that in perhaps two or three treatments I would have used up an entire years treatment for one of these young men. They can only live in hope, and repeatedly I am told our position is a dream for them.

After another fine lunch with the doctors we have a couple of workshops to discuss the way to organise a society and how to get and train volunteers.

That finishes our work for the day so we have 3 days left to enjoy ourselves.

Vietnam - Day 7, Saigon

We set off at 6.45am for our flight to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. Vietnam is a long country it being some 1900 km between these two cities and it takes 2 hours by plane. The first impressions of HCM is a slightly more modern city to Hanoi with wider streets though the traffic is still fairly hectic.

In the afternoon we are to visit the blood bank and three hospitals that treat haemophilia. It's when you visit hospitals like these that you realise how lucky we are, there are many problems with our health service, but here things are much worse. The doctors and nurses are excellent but they cannot work miracles with the resources they have. We see crowded hospitals with no privacy and in many cases patients are sharing beds. The worse part of this is that haemophilia is readily treatable, and patients can treat themselves at home with modern treatment. When this is done there are less strains on the medical system, with patients being more healthy and requiring less hospitalisation. Instead here there is limited and poorer quality treatment which means these young men are severely disabled, which means they cannot get full education and hence appropriate jobs. Also here the patients must pay a contribution towards their treatment (20%) except if they are destitute. Salaries are poor here so that one treatment can cost as much as a months salary. So it is not unknown to sell their possessions and homes to pay for treatment. Because these children and men are not getting sufficient treatment most are disabled with deformed joins and in many cases they have lost limbs. It is a very humbling experience.

Tomorrow we are to return for the formal set up of a branch of the Vietnamese Haemophilia Society in HCM city and for workshops.

Again we are treated to a very nice seafood meal in a fine restaurant by the health care professionals in HCM city, our hosts are extremely hospitable and friendly and it is a very enjoyable evening.

Vietnam - Day 6

We were picked up this morning at 6am, we were being brought out for a days sight-seeing and to see a family with a Haemophilic boy. The province of Hoa Binh is a good 2 hour journey though we have to stop off at the hospital first to pick up all those going on the trip. We have Dr Mai and some of her team including another doctor, a few nurses, one of the nurses daughters who acts as a volunteer, a young man with haemophilia and Ms Hang who is an administrator at the hospital in the centre. On the road in a bus for a couple of hours, and it's interesting to see the country side and the small villages along the way. Where we are going isn't in fact too far away, less than a hundred kilometres, but the roads are not great, we come across slow moving vehicles, and the odd small herd of cattle. It appears that it takes forever to drive any sort of distance.

About 9 am we make it to the hydroelectric power station that produces about 20% of the country's electricity. It was built with the expertise of Russian engineers and some 37000 Vietnamese workers. It took 15 years and some 167 lost their lives in its construction. It was built in a mountain side to prevent its distraction during a war. It was completed in 1982.

We were then taken for a long boat ride on the lake, perhaps to make up for the fact we didn't get to Holong Bay. We are taken to a small temple on a tiny island in the lake.  Here Dr Mai buys some freshly barbecued fish which we eat on the boat. These are lovely people and even with a bit of a language barrier we had a great laugh and they are so hospitable.

Sorry Michael but I have to say we had another great lunch. We were taken to an excellent restaurant. The food is so fresh and great vegetables and dipping sauces.

Next we are brought to a very entertaining and ethnic dance show. We shared some local wine from a large pot using long bamboo straws.

We are then welcomed into the house of a local boy with haemophilia, our whole crew of 12 of us, are invited in to sit at two long tables they have prepared with food. As well as his parents there is his grandmother, aunts, local doctor, 3 of his school teachers and he also had a friend there with haemophilia. We were made most welcome with, food, drink, flowers, speeches and a gift each. They are truly wonderful people and hopeful that our twinning programme can produce dividends through improved overall health care for their boys and all boys with haemophilia.

It's just gone 5pm and time to set off. We've been invited to an after wedding party of one of the nurses in the Haemophilia Centre. As can be expected weddings are slightly different here, the ceremony is actually tomorrow and tonight we were invited to the brides party in her house (sort of hens party) meanwhile hubby to be is having a party in his home. The wedding album is already produced they took the photos in all the wedding garb about 2 months ago. The family treat us like royalty we are taken into the house and given the bet chairs and introduced to all the important members of the family. Then of course there's even more food. Overall a fantastic day and they have looked after us very well. Here are some photos from my iPhone today on the lake.

Vietnam - Day 5

Michael asked me if I travelled all this way just for the food, so just for today I won't mention how good the food is, oops too late I've done it again! The hospital is a fine modern building but still sometimes there are more patients than beds and at times there may be two to a bed. I also forgot to mention yesterday that the hospital deals with both adults and children. And it was just brilliant to see how happy the kids were when they received the simple toys and gifts we brought for them, one little lad jumped and ran around the corridor for joy. I have a feeling Fiona would happily steal one away, they are such wonderful little boys.

Seeing and listening to these young men and the parents brought me back to the 60-70s in Ireland before there was effective treatment. Here they are stuck into a vicious circle. There is not sufficient treatment so the boys miss a lot of school, they are becoming disabled with impaired limbs, their education suffers greatly, so they cannot get proper jobs due to their poor education and their disability, so they have a poor quality of life that is very frustrating for them. The funny thing is that they have a lovely modern hospital, all be it with too few beds at times, great doctors, and just as important good nurses, but they don't have enough treatment to allow these young men live a full, healthy, and good quality life. They are looking to the I.H.S. to help them organise an efficient and effective Society that will help them over time to deliver the comprehensive treatment they deserve.

Tomorrow we visit one of the regions about 100km from Hanoi where we will meet some families and see some of the sights. We have also been invited to part of a traditional Vietnamese wedding, so early to bed tonight!

Vietnam - Day 4

Last night we ate out in a lovely little restaurant. Upstairs in a small room with no more than 8 tables, but lovely Vietnamese food. I had spring rolls and we all had their speciality, chicken 5 spices, I think it was called, with steamed rice. Anyway the whole thing was gorgeous and all for only 5.50€!!! Then off to the last night of the late market. Up early today, quick breakfast and we are taken to the hospital. This involves a 40 min drive from our hotel and it was a real experience driving through rush hour traffic I've never seen anything like it. We arrived at the combined blood bank and hospital, it is an impressive building, with very good laboratories, impatient facilities, dedicated staff but unfortunately they lack enough treatment to completely treat everybody. We are introduced to a large number of inpatients and outpatients and it is really heart breaking to see such young men who are severely crippled due to haemophilia. We are very fortunate in Ireland that no one suffers like this any more and it is a great pity to see such suffering when the knowledge and treatment is available in the world. We have a busy day with meetings and I cannot say much about these except it was great to see so many people, some who had travelled a great deal, to meet us. They were very enthusiastic and energetic which hopefully means that conditions will improve in the future.

Afterwards we were taken to another fantastic restaurant and I have to say Vietnamese food is gorgeous, well worth trying if you ever get the chance.

Vietnam - Day 2

The hotel is a lovely boutique hotel right in the middle of the old town. The rooms are well appointed with a laptop in each room with Internet as well as WiFi. Mind you you're not allowed access Facebook. After a few hours rest we head out in the afternoon for a stroll. The drizzle persists, and we start to get used to the manic traffic. Motorbikes and cars weave all over the street with horns constantly hooting and the pedestrians are also weaving in the traffic. It's next to impossible to walk on the pavements as there are either people sitting on them or else there are motorbikes parked on the sidewalk.

The streets in the Old Town are narrow and the smell of cooking abounds, it must be the ubiquitous Poh, a noodle soup. As well as standard cafes, there are people selling food from bikes or baskets. Every so often there are people cooking on the pavement and people sitting on little plastic seats eating and drinking. There are shops selling all types of nicknacks and small supermarkets.

We return at 6 pm to meet Dr Mai and her Assistant Ms Hang. We discuss the workshops for the following week before heading off to dinner. The schedule looks very good with visits to people's homes to see how they cope with their haemophilia. We are also invited to a nurses after wedding celebrations on Wednesday. Dr Mai and Ms Hang are very friendly and bring us to a specialist fish restaurant where we have a fantastic meal. Everything is cooked at the table, the sauces, vegetables and fish are lovely and I manage the chopsticks surprisingly well.  Afterwards we head to the market that runs every Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. The streets are thronged with people. To finish the night off, after we leave the girls back to the hotel, Brian and I go look for the Irish bar to get a drink for Paddy's day.

Tomorrow the plan was to go to Holung Bay, but today due to the bad mist the boats were not allowed out so we've decided not risk the 3.5 hour drive there and just do our own thing. In the mean time I listen to the Ireland England rugby match on my iPhone app, amazing what you can do!!

Vietnam - Day 1

Up early at 4am for the flight to Paris, a 4 hour stop over in Charles De Gaul airport, and then on to Hanoi with Vietnam Airlines. The flight is 10.5 hours so in fact the first day is gone on traveling as we arrive on Paddy's day, Saturday 17th at 5.40am. Not much to say about long flights except I think the plane we flew on had many, many, many hours clocked up on it!!! Anyway we arrive, and the sun isn't up yet. Next we have a two hour wait to get our visas, that eventually sorted the bags are waiting for us and so is our taxi driver from the hotel, this is great as you hear all sorts of problems with scams between taxi drivers and hotels.

So the first impressions? Typical Paddy's day it is raining and misty. The drive from the airport to the city brings us through some country side and we get our first sight of Paddy fields. As we get closer to the city we see a very industrial city with a mixture of typical communist type buildings with a mix of factories: Panasonic and Yamaha to name a couple, and more historic buildings that look Vietnamese with their beautifully ornate roofs. Although its 8 am the traffic is building up and the ubiquitous motor and push bikes become even more prominent. Some stacked high with wares for the market and others with two or three passengers. The traffic runs in all directions with no apparent control, and then the pedestrians trying to cross the road, what havoc!! I'm not looking forward to trying to cross the road.

Our hotel is nestled in the middle of the old town and it is very nice and well appointed. So we decide to get a bite of breakfast and go to bed for a few hours before exploring.