Saturday, September 10, 2011

Thailand - Final Reflections

 Why Thailand?  My friends aren't the only ones who ask me that when I go. Sometimes I myself wonder why I go to Thailand. Those who know me well know that there's very little that would normally draw me to a country like Thailand.  My roots are European and thus in terms of culture and history I'm drawn more to the European culture. I've spent very little if any time studying the cultures of any Asian country to be honest. Further, I'm not one who enjoys the tropics - be they Asian, Caribbean, etc. I suffer in the heat and humidity and the accompanying reptilian and insect life that are found in the tropics quite frankly terrify me. Having lizards of various sizes hovering over my door is most unsettling to me.

In addition, Thailand is as foreign to my culture as it can possibly be. Their culture and history dates back many many centuries. My American culture is only a little over 200 years old, thus my sense of history and time is completely different than theirs. Our alphabets have nothing in common so I can't make out words on signs or food labels and have to hope for English translations to be provided. Their language is tonal - our is, well, confusing (at least to anyone trying to learn it).

So, why Thailand.

There are four very very important people in my life who've been my closest and dearest friends for over two decades:  Jon & Kathy Dybdahl and Vie & Pedrito Maynard-Reid. Both sets of friends have extremely diverse backgrounds - Dybdahls have Scandinavian and mid-west roots, Maynard-Reids have Jamaican and Panamanian roots. But both ended up in Walla Walla and both have a connection to Thailand. 

My first trip to Thailand brought these two worlds together in a beautiful way. This first trip involved a project at Chiang Mai Adventist Academy. Jon & Kathy started this school for the Hmong hill tribe people back in the 1970s. They literally started with nothing. Jon negotiated the purchase of land for the school by working with tribal elders or chiefs (if I have the story correct). They had no electricity or running water when they started. Their two oldest children were born here. Pedrito led his first mission trip to Thailand to Chiang Mai Academy with plans to conduct programs for the school children and to help with construction on a new dorm for the elementary boys. On this trip were Jon & Kathy's oldest daughter, Jonna, her husband, Monty, and their three daughters, Alex, Tori, and Kristi. For me, that first trip was the most meaningful.  Getting to be there at the same time with Jonna while she introduced her family to the home of her childhood was a great experience. All the more meaningful in later years because Jonna is no longer with us.

That first trip also held special meaning because that is when I meant Komchan. The sweetest little boy I'd ever seen, but one who looked far too sad for a boy his age. He was only seven then and I learned that he'd recently lost both his parents and was having to live with his aunt. I became his sponsor on that trip and continue to be that even today. Now when I return to Thailand Pedrito graciously incorporates a trip to Chiang Mai, in part so I can spend a day with Komchan. In fact, even on the years I don't accompany his team, Pedrito makes a special point of spending a day with Komchan - for which I am eternally grateful.

My second trip to Thailand coincided quite nicely with a trip that Jon & Kathy's son, Paul, and his family, were also making to Thailand. By now Pedrito was working exclusively out of Mission College (now Asia-Pacific International University (APIU)). Jon & Kathy started this university as well, with Jon initially serving as President.  Paul and his family spent that summer teaching at the college and their family joined our team in several endeavors. (I'm hoping that one day I'll be in Thailand at the same time as Jon & Kathy's youngest daughter, Krista and her family, it would sorta make the story complete).

After that first year in Chiang Mai, Pedrito has since focused his work on projects around APIU and the neighboring town of Muak Lek. Establishing one place to work and live each year has made logistics considerably easier. And returning to the same place every year allows for establishing long-term relationships with the people in the area.

One of those projects is Mr. Prasarn's farm and working with his wife, Nang. As previously mentioned in other blogs, due to a train accident, Mr. Prasarn is no longer able to work on the farm as he is completely disabled. Thus it falls to his wife to keep it running. They have no electricity and no plumbing. They live off the land. Some students from APIU come out to help with various tasks and that helps keep them going. There's also someone who comes down from northern Thailand and helps out for 3 months each year.

On my last trip to Thailand I worked on the farm and enjoyed the work itself (not the conditions so much but the actual type of work). Pedrito usually organizes at least two main projects on these trips - teaching English at area schools and working on the farm. I'm at a complete loss as to what to do with large groups of children so I always choose the farm. Doing some good honest physical labor is a nice change of pace from my daily job in the States in which I never leave my desk. This trip I knew I wanted to come back to the farm. The projects were completely different - last trip I helped harvest corn and sweet sop. This year we spent the first week trying to rebuild washed-out roads (the second week we focused on the crops - weeding chili pepper and bean fields, fertilizing corn, etc.). The work on the roads was physically exhausting and seemed overwhelming. Then it was discouraging because the rains came and stopped our work on the roads completely. But in retrospect, maybe it all worked out. I'm not sure we could have kept up the level of labor we were putting in if we'd spent both weeks working on the road. It was discouraging when the rains came because we really wanted to see the project finished, but we raised enough money and set plans in motion so that we know that it will be finished even if we're not there.

And that was just one of the amazing aspects of this trip. The bulk of the team worked on the farm everyday. They raised their own money to come on this trip and they came out and worked like beasts of burden every day in the heat, humidity, and torrential downpours. They encouraged each other when the going got tough and just had a great attitude about the whole experience. When it quickly became evident that the original 10 loads of gravel that we'd raised money for was not near enough to complete the job, they pooled their own money together and some called home and raised more funds to help with the project. 

But they did even more - everyone fell in love with Nang. She couldn't speak or understand a word of English, and we couldn't speak a word of Thai. Yet we communicated everyday. Smiles, laughter, hugs, and tears are universal and speak when words can't. At the end of our stay the team wanted to get Nang a new set of work clothes. The pants she wore everyday were mended and remended but the cloth had worn so much there wasn't much left to mend. So they pooled their funds and bought a new set of work clothes. Plus we bought food for her pet dogs, which touched her deeply. The dogs have to live on the same fruits and vegetables that the people live on and that's not an adequate diet for animals who need meat. This team did all of that in addition to showing up and working each day. These were profound moments. Nang cried as we said goodbye - we all cried. There's so much there to do and we provided what seemed like only a drop in the bucket. Yet we know we made a difference.

 Ultimately, I think going to Thailand helps put life itself in perspective. Thailand is a developing country. In terms of technology we had everything we were used to here in the states - cell phones, internet, TV, etc. I personally had hot water for my showers and air conditioning for my room. I was blessed in that respect (especially since the girls staying in the dorm had cold showers every day - for the record, I did offer to let them use mine but nobody wanted to hike across campus to do so - even though mine was sans cockroaches!). But in terms of living conditions, for a HUGE portion of the population Thailand has miles to go. Most people are just getting by. They live in houses made of sheets of aluminum with no electricity or running water. They just barely eek out a living each day - selling food on the street corner or hocking wares at the night markets. But the people don't seem to complain. Would they like better? I'm sure they would. Do they make the best of what they have? Most definitely.

I learn things coming to Thailand. For one - we Americans WASTE far too much. When you live in poverty you use and reuse everything and nothing goes to waste. Second, we Americans have too many options. Just look at our grocery stores. They're HUGE. Look at how many brands and flavors we have just for our breakfast cereals. It's crazy. Finally, I think we in America simply HAVE too much - of so much more than we need. I realize this each time I've traveled, whether it be to Thailand, Africa, or the Caribbean. We simply have too much - and we spend most of our lives trying to get more. Some of the people I've met and worked with these past couple weeks have probably never eaten dinner at a restaurant - even a MacDonalds. What we spend on CDs, or going to the movies, or having a Starbucks coffee every day would provide them with food on the table, or electricity, or some other thing that we would consider a necessity as opposed to a luxury. And a lot of what we consider necessities really aren't. I learn that every time I travel to another culture - I just wish I could remember it longer.

I've been asked why I go overseas and work in a country that has conditions I find unpleasant, people I don't know, and a language I don't understand when I could be helping people right at home. It's a valid question - and it reminds me that I should be finding ways to help people at home. But if I only focused on work here in the States then I would miss out on experiencing another culture and that's an amazing experience all by itself. Learning about other ways of believing and other ways of seeing the world, revisiting what's really important in life -- those are priceless experiences. Getting away from my comfort zone may be difficult but it is ultimately a good thing. Doing it in a place where I find a connection with four of my closest friends -- well, that was just icing on the cake.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Thailand - Journal #4

On building roads and petting tigers and everything in-between. . .
OK, so when last I wrote it was last Tuesday night, after our second day of laying large stone in the road leading to the farm. On Wednesday when we arrived we were told we would be taking the back way into the farm and that the first loads of gravel were coming in. Everyone was so excited. We arrived the same time as the dump truck. The truck made it in to the farm alright but it tried to turn around in the freshly tilled corn field, which was not only soft soil but was very wet from all the rains. It got stuck! Very very stuck. So it emptied a lot of its load there in the corn field and we set out throwing gravel under the wheels. Eventually it made it out and delivered what was left of its load to the area we actually wanted it delivered - to the portion of the road that was completely underwater.

After the truck dumped the gravel we started using hoes and buckets to level out the pile and spread it out further into the submerged portions of the road. We leveled two loads of gravel then broke for lunch. In the afternoon four of us returned and leveled a whole other load. Hard work. I don't think I have ever worked that hard on any other day in my life. But being tired from hard physical labor is a good kind of tired.
On Thursday we started in again on leveling piles gravel. We were taking a water break while the dump truck unloaded a new load when we looked up and saw the most b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l site imaginable: a rusty tractor with a front bucket coming to the rescue. We cheered and applauded. In no time at all that tractor leveled out the newest load of gravel saving us backbreaking hours. At first, as I'm often want to do, I worried that there'd be nothing for us to do - a laughable thought of course. The tractor leveled the center of the pile/road leaving piles of good rock on the sides that were being wasted. Our new task was to hoe the rock up from the sides and fill buckets so they could be delivered to the end of the road to work on extending it more. So that's the work we did on both Thursday and Friday.

On Friday the temps were cooler, which is technically a good thing, but they were cooler because the rains were coming. We were caught in a torrential downpour. We saw the rains coming, the thunder was clapping all around us so we hastily loaded our stuff and jumped in the back of the old pickup - just not soon enough. Pedrito chased off to get the van and meet up with us to spare us getting wet - and he'd told us to wait under a tree but I'm not convinced that would have saved us from the torrential deluge we found ourselves in. The raindrops in Thailand are the biggest I've ever seen - the rains heavier than any I've ever seen - AND I LIVE IN OREGON! I should be used to the rain, but seriously, tropical rain storms are not like anything that falls in Oregon. We were SOAKED. I left my sense of humor back on the gravel pile. Don't think I handled this too well. I was hot, tired, and already soaked from the work, now I was soaked from the rain and it had cut into our work time. My attitude needed a little adjusting at this point. Keeping quiet during these times is my best course of action. Some food and a nap would make everything better - I got both and got back in the spirit of things a couple hours later.
On Saturday we traveled to a remote village where the university's nursing students have been working. They set up a mobile health clinic for the day bringing in a doctor, dentist, and eye doctor. I was a little nervous about what this experience would be like. After all, it was a HEALTH clinic - this could easily entail blood and other assorted sights that I might not be able to handle (I have been known to pass out just hearing about medical procedures). The team dispersed on arrival and just tried to find places to be of assistance. We have one nurse on our team and she was able to quickly find nursing things to do - I think she was testing people's blood sugars. I lucked out, the head nurse let me help take people's measurements. I could do that! No needles. No blood. I was good to go. Though not as easy as it might sound - finding people's waists can be harder than you might think.

After processing the village people through the clinic everyone met under a tent. A very generous Indian business man from Bangkok who runs a school there comes out to these clinics when they are held and hands out school supplies, blankets, clothing, and money. This is where I really had fun as he handed me stacks of brand new 20 baht bills and let me hand one to each child who passed through and later to each adult that was present - including all the staff, nurses, etc. THAT was fun - hard not to smile when you're handing out money to people who really need it. 20 baht is not a lot really, but it goes pretty far here.

We were served lunch, which we finished just as the rains arrived. It was time for us to leave anyway so we loaded up the van and headed out. It POURED all the way back to the university. We had a couple hours to pack up after getting back to the school, then we loaded up two vans and headed for Kanchanaburi, which was four hours away. Kanchanaburi is where the bridge over the River Kwai is located. This was a significant bridge during WWII and a movie was made about it, which I remember watching with my dad when I was much younger. We stayed at an interesting hotel. To get to your bathroom you step outside your room into an open-air area with a sink, off that is a teeny tiny room with a toilet and shower. Everyone's biggest challenge was just figuring out how to get water to the toilets so they would flush. Well, that and finding where in each room the toilet paper was hidden.

Early early early Sun
day morning we arose to go to the Tiger Temple. But first we were encouraged to go to the roof of the hotel and watch the sunrise over the River Kwai. It was a pretty view but since it was cloudy there wasn't much of a sunrise. I started waking up from 3:30 in the morning, fearful that I would oversleep and miss what I hoped would be one of the best days of my life. I've been waiting for this one day for over three years, when Pedrito first discovered this amazing place.

The Tiger Temple is an outdoor Buddhist monastery dedicated to rehabilitating and protecting wounded and abused tigers - and to keeping up the tiger population. The monastery is set inside a rock canyon in a beautiful location. My biggest prayer of the day was that there would be no rain - and I was so immensely grateful that it did not rain on us at all until we were on our way home.

In the mornings the monks go out into the community collecting alms. Alms come in the form of food donations which the monks and their staff use for meals each day. The food arrives in trucks and is set out on trays on a row of tables. Each serving of food is in an individual plastic bag. To digress just a moment...we have strict dress and behavior requirements while around monks and while in the monastery. Women must have their shoulders and knees covered. No one must set higher or on the same level as a monk, only a level below. Women are not to speak to or touch a monk (someday I'd like to learn more about why women are such an evil presence). To return to my story...each of us took a position behind a tray of food and as each monk passed we took a bag of food with both hands and placed it inside a pot that the monk was holding. Each monk was accompanied by a staff member carrying a large bag. When the monk's pot was full he would hand food to the staff member who would put it in the bag. After handing each monk their food we formed the Y (placing hands together in front of the chin) and then fill the next monk's pot. We were to say nothing to them and our shoes had to be off during this time as a sign of respect.
When this was done we were escorted inside the gates of the monastery to an open-air temple. Inside here is where we got our first glimpse of the tiger cubs. From this moment on I'm pretty sure I never stopped smiling for the rest of the day. We were stationed with one or two tiger cubs and then given the opportunity to bottle feed them. Quite simply an amazing experience. The cubs range in age and size, the very large tigers might only be a few months old but are huge and still given a bottle. I had a couple junior-size cubs both of whom were quite hungry and eager to eat. There were two cubs who were only six-weeks old and they just stole everyone's heart. But these two could really make a fuss if they were being held and wanted to be put down. What lungs these little guys have. I was fortunate enough to get to hold one when he was calm - best photos of my life. Priceless.

After feeding the cubs the monks gathered on a raised platform and began chanting.
The temple was respectfully quiet. I committed a faux pax by not crossing my legs but a staff member kindly corrected me for which I was grateful. Showing the bottom of one's foot is a sign of disrespect in Thailand. Feet are considered dirty. Shoes are not to be worn inside most buildings - though it seems stores now make exceptions. After the monks got their breakfast, we were invited to partake of the food brought in earlier that morning, along with the staff. The staff are very aggressive about getting to this food. They want to get to the best of it as I'm guessing it's the only food they'll get all day. I felt so bad that I was eating any of it - and not recognizing most of it I ate very little of it. Just a small spoon of rice and a tiny piece of chicken and part of a piece of fruit. But I was OK with that because all I wanted to do was play with the TIGERS!

After breakfast we each got to walk a tiger cub to the play area. Along the way wild pig
s and deer distracted the tigers who acted like stubborn children. They did not want to go where they were supposed to when there were creatures to chase, and sometimes mine would just stubbornly sit down and not want to move. Kinda funny. Inside the play area we had big bamboo poles with bags and bottles on the end for the cubs to play with. They're really no different than house cats, if something moves they're gonna pounce on it.

After play time was over these cubs went off somewhere to rest and we moved on to the bathing area. The tigers were now getting progressively bigger. I can't believe I was sudsing and hosing off a tiger, but I was and it was awesome.

Next we went down in
to a canyon where there was a large pool and we humans were then put inside a cage while the big tigers were brought into the canyon for their playtime - sans chains. And what a show they put on for us as the handlers exercised and played with them in the water and the tigers played with each other. They're very agile despite their humongous size. After this show we went to another area where two large tiger brothers were resting in the shade. They were sleepy so we spent some time getting pictures taken with them. That ended the morning portion of our day. We spent extra money to get to enjoy this experience and it was worth every penny. We could never enjoy something like this in the states where everything is so regulated and people sue over every little thing. You have to travel to other parts of the world to be able to experience something like this.

In the afternoon we went back in to spend more time with the cats. This is when the bulk of tourists come to visit so it
was much more crowded whereas there'd been fewer than 20 of us during the morning program. This is the tigers' nap time in the hot afternoon so its when its safest to mingle with them and get their photos. We did a lot of posing with sleeping tigers then escorted them to the canyon for the real photo ops. It was here that I got to sit with a big tiger and have pictures taken with his head in my lap. I'm telling you life does not get any better than it was at that precise moment - except maybe when I was holding the six-week-old cub earlier in the day. I just think that tigers are the most magnificent creatures on the face of the earth. I love all cats, big and small, wild and tame, but there's something about the tiger that captures my fascination most of all. To mingle with them without them being in cages, to pet them, play with them, feed them, hold them, it was truly the experience of a lifetime. Its hard to put it into words when you get a day you always dreamed of and it finally happens and its everything you hoped for. It really was a perfect day. One of those experiences that transcend time and space, that take you to a level of joy that you can't put into words. Everyone should get to have at least one perfect day in life. For some it's their wedding day or the birth of their child, for me, my perfect day was a day spent with the most magnificent and majestic creatures on earth. I will have other experiences in life that bring me joy and happiness, but there will be few if any days that will bring me the same level of perfect happiness that I had on this day with the tigers.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Thailand - Journal #3

Monday, August 22 - Tuesday, August 23

We are at the end of our second work day. We are exhausted but still going strong.

To give our work some context, a brief explanation is in order. The farm we're working on is located about 15 minutes from Asia-Pacific International University. Some members of the university "adopted" this farmer ("Uncle" Prasarn) and his wife (Nang) and over the years have helped them with their housing, farm, and various other needs. Some time ago Uncle Prasarn was run over by a train and lost both his legs. Since then its been up to his wife to run this very large farm. She does so with some help from her sister-in-law, but its been very challenging. For the last four or five years Pedrito's groups have worked on the farm doing whatever needs to be done - be it harvesting, weeding, building a shelter, installing a new water pump etc. Our project on this trip is to rebuild some of the roads on the farm.

The rains in Tha
iland have been especially bad this year, and over the last few years they've wreaked havoc with the roads throughout the farm making it nearly impossible for Nang to access her crops. The corn is nearly ready to harvest and she needs to be able to get her little old tractor to where the corn is before its too late. So we are working to make the roads passable.

What we do first i
s take the truck down the road to a place that cuts rock and has a pile of leftover pieces of rock that they're letting Nang take for free. These will be used to build up the road where the ruts are the worst.

From there we take a very bumpy ride back to the farm where we unload the rock to fill in muddy areas and mud puddles -- some of which are over 6 inches deep.

If we get a couple more days without rain then we'll be able to bring in some truck loads of smaller gravel and spread it over the big pieces of filler rock that we've laid. It's good hard physical labor and we're making progress. But it is HOT and HUMID. Yesterday some of the group wanted to return for the afternoon - we have some young and energetic people on this trip!!! I too was excited to return, even though I was so tired from the morning work I could hardly move. However yesterday was overcast and slightly cooler, which helped. We got two more loads done by returning for a couple hours in the afternoon. Today however we only worked in the morning, and I don't know that I could have returned in the afternoon. It was in the low 90s and the sun was blaring down on us. I don't know that I could have stood it again this afternoon, but that was a mute point for today as we had other appointments to keep.

After a quick lunch (french fries and a smoothie - which I discovered I can have sans milk or yogurt!) we showered, changed, and headed out to a local school. Our team divided into four groups of three and each of us took a classroom. I teamed up with Vie & Pedrito (though they proved to be of no help at all) and we headed for the fifth-grade classroom. I suddenly found myself a teacher with no preparation at all. But it turned out OK. The purpose of our time there was to help the students with their English. They seldom get to work with native English-speaking people and although our time is short it gives them a chance to really work with their English. So I interacted with them getting them to tell me their name, their favorite animal (and the corresponding animal sounds), and then I tried to teach them to tell time. Well THAT was certainly a more complicated concept than I'd anticipated. I was just wanting to work with the big and little hands and numbers but they'd didn't know how to tell time yet. It just was not working to get them to understand half-past the hour (i.e. 12:30). But then I realized they didn't know about an hour having 60 minutes. I didn't realize that time would be such a difficult concept to grasp. But it's challenging to explain to someone who speaks a completely different language than you. We muddled through though and just worked with the top and the bottom of the hour. Then we played Simon Says for a bit and that went well.

Following our time in the classrooms some of the children performed traditional Thai music for us using some instruments I've never seen before. Eastern music is so different from Western. Different tones and sounds than what I'm accustomed to. But the children did very well and I appreciated it.

After finishing up at the school we headed back to the university for a quick dinner then headed back into Muak Lek to an Adventist Center where kids can come in every night and work on their English. We'll be at the center Monday through Thursday nights to work with the kids. The team members organize games and activities to interact with the children and encourage them to practice their English. I'm afraid I haven't participated much in this program these last two nights. I'm so exhausted by evening I can hardly think straight. I'm not sure how much help I'll be in the evenings. I'm definitely NOT twenty something anymore!

Note: I'm too tired to read this blog through for grammatical or spelling errors. I can hardly keep my eyes open so I'm just offering this up as a way of explaining any possible errors that may show up.

My pictures from this trip are available in their entirety at this site (they're posted with the most recent ones first):