29.10.2006 33 °C
Welcome back! As usual got no time so just going to update directly from my diary through the medium of cut n past. Ingenious.
Some time a while ago -
We've been discussing a project to develop eco-tourism in the Piloki village, a community of mostly Karen people who fled persecution by the Burmese goverment. Their original settlement was flooded when the Thais dammed the river and they were compensated by being given help to build houses in a new place, with a few solar panels thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately this place, though beautiful, is accessible only by river, and is in a protected area, which means no land can be cleared for farming, leaving the community pretty much jobless and with little means of supporting themselves. A number of the children at Dada's are from Piloki, but their families couldn't afford to support them.
So off we went across the river on a little narrow boat, we 3 volunteers, to propose this project to the villagers. We were housed at the local pastor's house, a lovely wooden place offering welcome respite from the sweltering heat, which the locals are free to pop in and out of at any time. Inevitably there was a flurry of visitors as we arrived, mostly to come and stare at us, I suspect. We couldn't actually speak a word to the Pastor but fortunately there happened to be a young English-speaking Piloki guy returning for the weekend who found himself landed with the role of translator/tour guide, whilst Polly from Baan Dada nominated herself as cook. As it was Sunday we went to a service in the village church (around 40% are Christian), a concrete building complete with fans, electric guitars and numerous laminated gaudy pictures of the sacred heart. Almost everybody chatted throughout the rumbling prayers of whoever it was leading the service (not the Pastor!) followed by what seemed to be a bit of a musical free-for-all, with young people taking it in turns to come to the front and sing. We finally managed to ‘speak’ to the Pastor about organizing a meeting with all Piloki residents to discuss the project, but he seemed far more concerned with getting us to teach English and seemed to be avoiding the issue- he was leaving the next morning for Bangkok anyway, it turned out. We sat cross-legged on the floor of his home, us three young white female volunteers, facing three male village elders, barefoot and dark-skinned, trying to assert our reason for the visit (which had been pre-planned with Pastor). It reminded me of my attempts to suggest new ideas to my school principle in Japan, but knowing that however much he smiled and agreed with me, my efforts would amount to nothing. Poor Lamay inevitably bore the brunt of our frustration as he did his best to translate, whilst we looked on, smiles fixed, nodding as though we understood what was being said. So it was finally decided, we would teach 2 children’s classes in the morning and an adult class in the evening, after which we could propose our idea to those interested. Result?!
Bright and early the next morning we headed to the school rooms – a stone building with small rooms, each containing a blackboard and a few low benches, with gaps in the walls instead of windows and doors, and a couple of faded Thai alphabet charts and withered paper flowers were dotted about on the walls. Children slowly started to trickle in and before long we had a full house, so we launched into the usual English song and games teaching that we’d used in Japan, whilst other residents drifted over to see what the commotion was, and why all their children were prancing about singing ‘what’s your name?’ at the top of their lungs. Or at least, I was. Lamay’s suggestion to the older kids that we take a boat up the river to go swimming was met with great enthusiasm, but the word spread like wildfire and when we headed to the river it seemed that all the children in the village wanted in on the action – not what we were hoping for as the river was fast and we didn’t want responsibility for 30- odd toddlers who couldn’t swim. Eventually we got the message across and a couple of adults joined us for a crazy few hours of splashing about, the older kids launching themselves over the small rapids in an inner-tube, or towing the pastor’s wife around like the Queen in another. Had to extract small arms from around my neck as they clung desperately, rather alarming when you can barely swim through the current yourself, whilst others simply used me as a launch pad. Discovered on our return that it was assumed we would pay for the 3 boats it had taken to cart everybody up the river (as for their unexpected return trip to Baan Dada’s the next day) but there you go : foreigners = money, apparently!
The evening class got off to a very slow start, but we managed to persuade the frail-looking grandmother in from where she was sat shyly peeking from the doorway. The rest of the class was mostly young women and a couple of children who strayed in. We taught them the usual self intro stuff, then an embarrassing rendition of ‘you are my sunshine’ adapted to make pronunciation easier. It then turned into a bit of a cultural exchange event, their children performing a song in Karen in exhange for a leg-flinging Dutch dance from Mireille ( which she later informed nobody in Holland ever does) and we threw in Kumbaya for good measure (it’s amazing how many times that song has come in handy when put on the spot in random Asian countries…) They seemed so appreciative at the end, thanking us individually, hands in the customary ‘prayer’ position of greeting/thanks “Kahpkumkah!”
We had a grand total of 3 come to our meeting (including the grandmother from the class and her husband) but it went well considering – they were definitely interested in the idea of the community running a tourist project and receiving all of the income (as opposed to an outside business). Whether or not our hopes for a democratically elected co-operative to run it (instead of an exclusively older male group) are so well received remains to be seen. They pointed out a few immediate difficulties, what with the Thai government restricting their every move (we even had to go to the police station – a bamboo hut at the end of the village- to ‘sign in’ and explain our presence on arrival). But their response was encouraging and the next day they came to see us off, the grandmother clambering into the boat after me, planting an unexpected kiss on my cheek which almost caused me to topple the boat in my surprise. We sailed back, me frantically scooping water out of the boat which refilled just as rapidly.
see www.go-mad.org for more info on the eco-tourist project and how to get involved, if you fancy it.
Tuesday October 24th
Last Friday we went on a research trip to a successful ecotourism project in Thongpapoom, to get ideas for our Piloki project and to get advice from the manager. We were chauffered around in high speed boats and Mercedes, given free accommodation in rustic (albeit pretty luxurious) floating bamboo bungalows, and ‘treated’ to a performance of traditional Mon dancing/music by residents of the local Mon village (looking mostly po-faced and bored), whose community the resort was developed to support (originally by a Frenchman but since sold on to the current owner). Not the kind of tourist project we have in mind (package tourists from Russia etc who come en masse and want to see the locals ‘perform’ without having to leave the comfort of aircon and western toilets. But still, an interesting trip! On our return Lindsay, Mireille and I stopped off in town to visit a temple. We climbed the steep hill in sweltering heat, turned around and there it was, shining in all its golden glory…on the opposite side of the river. We’d got the wrong bloody hill! Not to be phased, we just stripped off and swam in the cool water, before venturing back into town and taking the opportunity to indulge in MEAT and a beer : )
The last week really has felt like a bit of a holiday – we piled onto Dada’s tractor the other day with about 20 kids and went bumping over the lanes to a beautiful stretch of river, where we frolicked for hours and buried each other in the sand. The kids mostly swim in their clothes (the cleanest they’ll get) making me stand out like a milk bottle in a bikini. We piled back in and made our way home as the sun was setting, the kids singing at the top of their voices the whole ride.
Sunday 29th October- that'll be today then!
Madly playing diary catch-up again. Persuaded Dada to bring the computer down in the tractor to the volunteer’s house so now we can type away at the project proposals etc without being attacked by a hoard of excited kids wanting to play on Microsoft Paint.
The home seems to be buzzing with energy right now. Mireille left, to be replaced by 2 more volunteers, English and Dutch, though I think they’re only staying a week. The kids are all back from wherever they’ve been disappearing to over the summer, bring a few newbies with them, though who they are and why has yet to be ascertained! One little girl (who we all thought was a boy), Notaba, with a penchant for digging you in the ribs every 5 minutes is the daughter of the new Laundry Man (how 21st century is that?), a landmine victim who Dada’s going to be employing. Polly, one of the ‘Mothers’ is back from Piloki with all 12 of her children – 3 sets of twins, she had! Like the other mothers here, Dada’s given her work and a safe home to live in, far away from the reaches of an abusive husband. The new weaving centre is up and running (just seeking a market for all their intricate goods –anyone interested?), though it seems to have been taken over by the boys already and become music/dvd room, with the older kids sleeping there at night. Great really as it frees a bit more floor space for the younguns.
Last night Ong Sunai came shyly over (upon my urging after the others informed me) to show me where he’d cut his finger – my stomach lurched at the sight. Yellow and festering, it looked like a cocktail sausage which has split right open in the heat. I had to grab Polly’s arm to stop her as she attempted to clean it with a piece of dirty cotton wool and tap water. The poor lad had just kept it to himself – they’re so used to having to just fend for themselves – so I called Dada and off they rushed to hospital, which fortunately is only a 10 minute ride. Apparently he cut it on the fin of a Catfish. Random. Ong Sunai is one of my favourites at the home – I know it’s unfair but he’s so darned sweet! He rushes over whenever I’m around and gives me the biggest hugs ever, and the second the band stikes up he holds onto my hands and jiggles his spindly legs like Barrymore with ants in his pants. And he never moaned once about his finger. In fact he’s being worryingly quiet so I’m going to keep an eye on him.
The last week has alternated between being incredibly inspiring and horribly frustrating. At times I’ve felt like I really didn’t know what to do as a volunteer. Dada never sets you any specific tasks, and the children don’t really have any structure or timetable to their day, meaning I had to physically round them up if I wanted to teach a class. Even then it’s a battle to control them as they’re so unused to having to sit still and pay attention for any amount of time. Not speaking Thai or Karen doesn’t help either! The children themselves must get pretty confused as most of the time we just clown about with them, then suddenly turn into authority figures demanding silence.
But our suggestions to Dada seem to have been taken into consideration and he’s hired a local woman to teach the pre-school children Thai and Karen, Maths etc (she’s not qualified and doesn’t always feel the need to turn up, but it’s better than nothing). Myself and Lindsay have been on a hygiene rampage and drag the kids off to wash their hands before and clean teeth after dinner. Not a lot we can do about their filthy clothes as they’re out playing in the dirt all day and sleep in the same clothes, but we chuck them into the shower whenever we get the chance. Would be nice if they all had their own blankets too instead of sharing the same old raggy ones (some clearly harbouring the pee of children past) but that would mean buying new ones and there’s no money for that. Hence germs and diseases spread like the plague – at least 2 currently have ugly blotchy fungal rashes all over their bodies.
The new kindy timetable though means we have a set time (ish) to teach, so we’ve been going through the great old games of running an hitting the correct vocab, and taking them on ‘nature hunts’, encouraging their interest and respect for nature, Dada said. Upon which the boys promptly pulled branches off trees and threw a crab from the river into a dry field…. It has made me realize that whilst I at first marveled at how few arguments and tantrums there were amongst the kids, the main reason is because they pretty much do as they please all the time and so have no authority figure to argue against! Dada does a remarkable job but he can’t be in a hundred places at once, and if we shout at the kids it obviously sounds like gobbledygook and so they just ignore us! They certainly aren’t bad kids, just inevitably a little unruly. Last night I almost got a firecracker in the face (they were just throwing them around randomly) whilst the night before Churi-Pon narrowly missed being decapitated by a paper aeroplane, which had first been set on fire.
have to run now as just brought the older boys into town to swim in the river before their band plays at a guesthouse later.