Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Adventures at Customs

By Steve Laible, CTI Volunteer Project Leader, Vietnam

The international airport at Ho Chi Minh City is very modern and efficient. Most of the planes at the gateways are from Asian countries as Vietnam has become a significant trade partner in this part of the world. It is obvious that Vietnam is making a real effort at tourism as well as commercial trade. I ask the flight attendant for the immigration form and customs declaration form that is standard procedure in most countries. The flight attendant responds with a surprised look and says, "oh, we don't use the forms any longer - just your passport". I think to myself, "how efficient and streamlined". I would change my mind, however, within the next 30 minutes.

The immigration center is large, clean and well lit. There are six staffed immigration booths waiting to check through the 20 passengers. The wait time is about 3 minutes. The friendly official takes my passport, quickly finds the entry visa and scans the document. A quick stamp, stamp and I'm through. Now, will the baggage claim be as efficient? By the time I find the correct carousel and get a luggage cart I see the first of my two bags. This is going to be easy, I think. WRONG! I gather my second bag and get in line to have my bags scanned. As I see my bag with the two Ewing IV grinders emerge through the other side of the scanner, the belt stops. The scanner attendant gets out of his chair and I'm starting to lose my confidence. Then the attendant says the dreaded words - "Please open". He looks at the open boxes of grinders and parts in amazement. He then looks at me with equal amazement. "Do you have any documents?” he asks.

I give him my copy of the “Bert Rivers standard letter” asking the nice custom officials to please allow import of the equipment for charitable purposes at no import duty. He asks me to "wait" as he walks to another station. He returns and informs me that I must speak with another person.

Then the real questions start. What is this? I think for a moment about getting George Ewing out of bed at 1:00 AM Minneapolis time so George can explain the history and function of the grinder he designed. I think better of this plan. I try my best to explain a Ewing grinder to a man whose English is only slightly better than my non-existent Vietnamese. I struggle through more questions.

Where is this going? Are you leaving it here? Are you starting a business? Are you a teacher? Are you working here? I see pitfalls to any and all of the questions. Finally, he declares that he must keep the equipment and it will be sent to another office. He will provide the address and I can return the next day and pay any import duty. So much for the efficient streamlined process.
I tell the man that the situation presents many hardships for me. I do not have transportation, I don't know my way around the city and I am on a schedule to leave the city. I also tell him about our plans to help the children of farmers and improve life for the poor in Vietnam. At some point in my pleading the tide turns and there is a ray of hope. He says, "Maybe I can help you. Maybe you can pay the duty here and then you can leave with the equipment." It's late at night and I am sleep deprived, but I think I know the answer when he concludes his new plan with the final question, "Do you understand?" Then it's my turn for a question: "Do I get to decide the amount of the import duty?" I ask. He shrugs his shoulders and turns to one of the other officers to give me a moment to think. I quickly decide that a 5% import duty seems fair and a $20 bill finds its way into an envelope that I leave on the desk. I quickly return to my bags and walk to the exit door before a full audit is completed. I don't look back, but feel very certain that the self-imposed import duty will find its way into the official records of the customs office. Ya, right!

My frustration quickly turns to joy as I emerge into the general waiting area and spot a young man holding a sign with "Mr. Laible" spelled correctly. The ride into town is pleasant and the check-in at the hotel is simple. I hand the clerk my passport, which he keeps, and he hands me a key. Once again, no paperwork. I take a quick shower in cold water and hop into a clean bed at a modest 3:00 AM local time.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Volunteer Departs for Vietnam

By Steve Laible, CTI Volunteer Project Leader, Vietnam

An eleven hour plane ride provides ample time for reflection and I have been reflecting on my experiences as a volunteer with Compatible Technology International (CTI). I became a volunteer for CTI in 2005 when I helped Don Moran establish a CTI presence in Bangladesh. CTI has been providing innovative post-harvest processing solutions for 30 years. The processing tools and initiatives related to clean water have enabled hundreds of volunteers to help thousands of people living in poverty in all parts of the world. Most of the benefits relate to food security, nutrition and healthier lives. CTI is a relatively small non profit organization based in Saint Paul, Minnesota that has made a large impact in several developing countries.

Today, I am flying to Vietnam as part of an initiative to help Vietnamese cocoa farmers who work and live in the southern regions of Vietnam. My plane ride from Minneapolis to Tokyo was uneventful (and that's a good thing). I was able to navigate the bus ride from terminal 1 to terminal 2 for my next flight on Vietnam Airlines. As I step aboard a very new and very pristine Airbus, I'm struck by the irony of transporting a basic hand operated grinder on such a sleek high technology flying machine. The Airbus has a capacity of over 200 passengers, but today there are only about 20 of us on the plane. The light passenger load is probably a bad thing for the emerging tourism industry in Vietnam, but for me it means lots of space and a row to myself. During the six hour flight from Tokyo I am able to get a couple of hours of decent sleep. I arrive safely in Ho Chi Minh City.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Triggering Finger Millet to Flower

By Tiffanie Stone, CTI Intern

Now that summer is coming to a close weeding has become less of a priority. Most of the crops are already setting seed. However, there is still one plant that has not even begun to flower. Finger millet has been at about the same height and state for quite a few weeks now. For a while Tom Frantz and I thought that the plants had begun to flower. What we were seeing turned out to be none other than our good friend barnyard grass. Barnyard grass and assorted other weeds grew within the rows and within the bunches of plants themselves. In our plot we are growing two varieties of finger millet. One variety was brought back from Malawi with Steve Clarke. The other variety was from Dr. P.V.V. Prasad who grew it at Kansas State. After we realized that none of the finger millet had begun to flower we were briefly puzzled until we remembered something that came up many months before. 

Whilst planning for this project we read that a few of the plants may have photoperiod sensitivity. This means that if the plant is exposed to too much light it will not begin to flower. Steve Clarke went back to the Lost Crops of Africa book which confirmed that finger millet is a short-day plant with 12-hours being the optimum amount of sun exposure for most varieties. We decided to start our trial immediately. We figured that we may be able to trigger the finger millet flowering in 7 to 10 days. Paul Porter had access to a large tarp and Dick Wenkel found 6 large tubs that were not being used right on campus. Tom Frantz and I with assistance from Bert Rivers, Steve Clarke and Paul Porter have been setting up the coverings for the plants at 8 pm. We have been uncovering them by 8:30 am. This insures the plants get the full 12 hours of darkness. We started the trial on the night of Thursday the 11th. We have seen a few plants of the Kansas variety begin to flower thus far. We continued to cover the same section for the full 10 day trial. On Monday the 22nd we moved the tarp and will try to trigger flowering on another section of plants.

I would like to say a special thank you to Tom Frantz who has been a huge help with this project from the moment he heard about it. He a new volunteer at CTI and has put in countless hours weeding. He has been instrumental in this trial. This whole project has been a learning experience. Thus far, the project has been going well but we will continue to improve our methods for even more success next year.