30 Day Travel Series: Strawless in Vietnam

Inspired by the country singers polish, I asked them to paint my nails bright orange. They painted them perfectly and exfoliated my dirty feet.

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I try really hard not to spend a lot of time stressing about how I look. Actually, I made a commitment one Saturday, 12 years ago, to spend as little of time as possible thinking mean thoughts about myself and my body. It was Saturday afternoon and I was sitting around with my friends in college and we were all pointing out the things we didn’t like about our bodies -- someone hated their thighs, another pointed out that her butt was flat, one girl grabbed the side of her stomach and said, “At least you don’t have these love handles.” I added that I thought I was sort of burly and hated my small chin. When I walked away from that conversation I was annoyed with myself. I just felt like, ‘what a waste of breath’ my comments were. Nothing had been accomplished and I felt like I really disrespected myself. I thought, my body does so much for me and all I was doing was bashing it for having a tiny chin, I felt lame.

So I decided that day that I was going to try to stay healthy and happy and not freak out if I gained a few pounds or my chin got an eighth of centimeter closer to being a double chin. I didn’t want to live my life stuck in a cycle of unsatisfying vanity.

Okay, way easier said than done. But I really committed it.

But one day in Vietnam, 23 days into our trip, it became increasingly difficult not to listen to my negative thoughts about myself. I’d been wearing the same clothes for three weeks, I only had walking sandals and we were headed to a workshop with twenty celebrities -- pop stars, TV personalities and actors. The celebrities were involved in charity work and environmental campaigns and they had invited us to do a two day workshop with them on organizing effective campaigns and story telling.

I wanted to dress nice for the workshop but couldn’t find anything I felt cute in. I settled with a blue dress with flowers, my brown sandals and some chapstick that was sort of glossy. But when I looked in the mirror as I left our hotel room I just looked like a mess, my hair was frizzy, my dress didn’t look good with my shoes and my nail polish was seriously chipped. To make matters worse when we were getting in the cab, Julian threw the suitcase in and the hard plastic piece on the bottom hit my toe and my toe started bleeding and the nail turned purple. In the cab I colored on the purple nail with a orange marker in attempt to make it match the other chipping polish. I was just raggedy.

The celebrities were dressed to the nines: heels, hipster glasses and nail polish that match their iphone covers. They were so cute. Julian looked great too, Mr. Fashionista had pulled out his best and been using his travel iron all morning.

I reminded myself of my other great qualities and I opened the workshop. Everyone in the workshop was so enthusiastic about using their networks and star power to have a social impact, so it was really fun to facilitate. It was interesting to get an insight into the minds of celebrities about how they want to create change in our world.

It was also interesting to get an insight into their daily lives going out and about on the streets. After lunch we went to a cafe to get coffee on a busy street in Hanoi. As we settled in around several small tables outside the cafe, I watched pedestrians take photos of the celebrities, point at them from across the street and come over to them to ask for their autographs.

The waiter went around the group of 20 and took our orders. I ordered a cafe su da, coffee with ice and condensed milk, it was, to that point, my favorite thing about Vietnam. I loved it. When the order was complete one of the celebrities called the waiter over and said very seriously, “No straws, absolutely no straws, okay?” A handful of the celebrities were working on a 350.org strawless campaign to reduce the use of plastic straws in Vietnam. They were doing a billboard campaign about going strawless and they were committed to helping change the culture around single use plastic in Vietnam.

Our coffees came, we chatted, and Julian picked their brains for the hottest Vietnamese music tracks. As I was finishing my coffee and trying to get the last sip all the ice, remaining coffee and condensed milk poured down the front of my dress and all over my camera that was in my lap. Everyone shrieked. The country singer jumped up to my rescue, grabbed my hand and took me inside the cafe to clean me up. We got my camera clean but the rich coffee stains wouldn’t budge from the front of my dress.

When I returned to the table everyone had come to the conclusion that we needed to find an alternative straw, like a paper straw, to use with some drinks. I agreed.

I continued with the training, feeling self conscience of my dirty dress. I would pat the stain every few minutes in hope that it would magically disappear.

On the way home from the training my will power broke and I started talking trash about myself. In the back of the cab I lay back exhausted and said, “Julian, can you look at me right now? I have a stained dress, frizzy hair, mom sandals, and mascara under my eyes because all I do in our workshops is cry. I’m a disaster. I look 45 and I my toenail is black and blue.” In that moment I saw a nail salon on the side of the road. I yelled to the cab driver, “You can just drop us off here.”

We got out and I went to get my nails done and Julian got a beer next door. Inspired by the country singers polish, I asked them to paint my nails bright orange. They painted them perfectly and exfoliated my dirty feet.

I met up with Julian after, he complimented my nails and we went back home. The next day at the workshop, I still wore my raggedy old clothes and had frizzy hair but my neon nails made me feel a little more put together, a little younger, a little slimmer and somehow made my chin feel slightly more pronounced. I bought a bottle of nail polish and put it in my bag that evening; if that’s all it takes, I thought, “Keep this woman’s nails painted!”

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This is one of 30 untold stories of launching a global project (with my boyfriend, Julian) about love, story telling and connecting change makers.

Read all 30 days here: http://www.smithmag.net/community/people.php/HBOX

Throughout Vietnam, South Africa, and Uganda, we engaged with 650 everyday people working to make the world a better place to share their stories. Inevitably, there were parts of our adventures we couldn’t tell while on the road, because we were a start up trying to prove our merits as a serious social change project or because of nervous families monitoring our journey. But the truth is while we worked passionately to bring our dream project to life we also had an adventure of a lifetime. Here are the stories behind the stories of the Million Person Project: http://www.millionpersonproject.org.

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