Community Day, Thanksgiving Dinner, and a Chat with a Novice Monk

This past week was a really interesting one with many different kinds of adventures. Thinking back, it’s hard to believe it all was the same week. I knew going into this week that I would work Monday in the office, leave for two community days Tuesday and Wednesday and then return to the office on Thursday to finish the week before Andrea had a thanksgiving party at her house on Saturday.

Monday I went at it trying to get things in motion enough for all of the teams to make good progress while I was visiting two different communities with our Community Engagement team. We’re in the process of finishing drafts of presentations for our WASH team at the same time as finalizing our government approval appeal for us to operate in our 21 target schools without any interruption, or so we hope. I went over some initial drafts of presentations and made sure the team had plenty of direction and work to keep them busy during the two days I’ll be gone. At the same time I worked with the Teacher Training team to continue to revise our guide to help teachers learn our methods, through just reading the guide, assuming there will be some teacher that won’t come to our intimate group coaching lessons. On the side I also am planning additional English classes to help our Teacher Training team really master all the lessons in our 3rd grader Teacher Training initiative. They are good with the material, but they’re pronunciation and some other small things are a bit off. I’m also working on ways to help them incorporate pronunciation training for their Teacher Training sessions with those teacher who will actually have the direct contact with the students. I didn’t have my professional development/English class last week, so I’m also planning my next session for Friday.

Tuesday comes before I know it and our team leaves during lunch to head to a small village about 3 hours away. We stop off at a guesthouse to unload our personal stuff and then leave for the village to start our event at 6 PM. After about another hour of driving through back roads we come to a very small village with no running water or electricity what so ever. The village representatives meet us and show our team a big flat piece of blackened something I couldn’t identify. They also show us the very top of and animals skull with small horns. I’m told they put it up on their house for some status thing that I couldn’t quite get more meaning from. Then one of the men, actually our office manager’s brother, broke open the large charred disk and smelt it before putting it into a bag. I soon find out that was a big piece of buffalo poop that people put into their whisky to make them strong and healthy. We join them in a small wooden house raised up about 5 feet off the ground. On our mats in a circle they Khamhoung, our Community Engagement manager in the office, tells them all about our plan for the night. We always come to villages before we start any kind of work to let them know exactly what we’re here to do.

First, we tell them that we’re here to build a school for their village. We tell them that we expect 20% of the cost to be covered through some money and mostly labor assistance. Especially on the days of mixing cement. Then, we tell them that we want to continue to help their village by training their teachers, developing good WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) in their school. As we talk we are poured little bits of strong local whisky (no buffalo poop added) to drink. We also have small bowl of boar, or forest pig as they call it in Lao. I learned forest in Lao because of my study of Buddhism with the Thai forest tradition and pig because I order it a lot of restaurants, so was quite proud to pick that up. Then we walk around the village and see their school which is basically a house with a roof, but no walls and a small chalk board. I assume most of the kids don’t actually attend the school since they just simply can’t all fit.

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Here’s the classroom I was talking about with no walls.

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Here’s the rest of the village as we walk back to get things set up for our event.

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This cute little boy walked up to me to see what kind of human looked so white and clean.

3…2…1… aaand now he’s crying because he’s done looking at me, but I wanted to get another picture, so that man tried to help, with no success as you can see.

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We start the event and Khamhoung and I walk from group to group to make sure everything is running smoothly. We finish the night with a raffle of some common household items. I get to read off a few numbers which was quite funny to everyone there. We left the village and drove back to the guest house. The drive back was wonderfully beautiful because we were away from light pollution, so I could gaze a a sky full of stars the whole time. The other added benefit of being out at the village and at this time of year is that it’s too cold for mosquitos to be out, so no medicine and no bites. However, it’s the opposite in the hot season, where they’re swarming around the villages when it’s hot. Luang Prabang has a swing like this, but I think less dramatic.

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Here is only about half of all the villagers at the actual event. Imagine even just those kids trying to fit into that small classroom. There are probably two to three times the amount of people here altogether, who didn’t make the picture and didn’t come to the event.

The next day Khampat, a Teacher Trainer team member, and I walked around town to look for coconuts and just to explore. We didn’t find any coconuts, but we did find some grilled bananas and a few Buddhist temples to explore. We leave for the second village and this one takes just about as long to get to through the same kinds of roads. This village is much more developed with electricity and building that are actually built out of bricks. They also have a school set up with two classrooms, much larger then the last village. We’re having pig tonight for dinner and I watch them kill it because I think it’s important to at least know of the process if I’m going to eat a living animal. It was depressing to see it tied up because it was lying down on it’s belly fully stretched out like it was trying to reach for some kind of key to it’s freedom. It looked defeated and wasn’t struggling anymore by the time I came to watch. They took the pig and a sharp knife and bent it’s head back. I could see it’s large throat and figured they were going to cut the artery somewhere close by. To my surprise they cut the throat and to an even greater surprise it wasn’t it’s throat at all, but instead a very large artery that shot blood out like a fire hose into a purposely placed container to collect all the blood. They then covered it in boiling water and began to scrape the hair off. Soon after they were cutting it apart and preparing it for the cooking. I figured I had seen enough and went back our group to prepare. This time we ate before the event and had just about every part of the pig there was to eat. Oddly enough I think my favorite part was the blood and intestine stew.

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Here a picture on the road to the second village.

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Here are some kids just playing with fire, totally normal. Especially for the youngest of them to be the one controlling everything.

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Yes yes, we’ve all seen a rooster before. But this one I had to take a picture of because it was stunningly beautiful. The colors were really vibrant and the tail feathers were long and healthy.

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Some turkey’s we saw, just to remind me on the impending holiday and celebration in Lao.

The event went similarly to the first one and we ended with another auction. This time I was one of the main number readers and made people laugh, when I got the pronunciation correct or incorrect. By the end of it I my brain was tired from all the translation. Then, my PoP teammates asked me to call up one of the teachers to pick out some numbers and in my exasperated state I said the first part well, but then finished the sentence with reading off a set of numbers like we were calling people to get a prize. The PoP staff was laughing hysterically at this point. All of my mistakes turned into a running joke for the rest of the trip and I ate it up being able to make people laugh so easily. The next day we finished up, made sure to get some coconuts and then head back to the office.

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We also went to a Buddhist temple where they had a tree that was claimed to be 900 years old, from the time it fell over and died.There was a shrine and people praying, I joined just for fun.

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At the same temple there was also this gong type thing that you are supposed to rub your hand on the middle bump, as if you are trying to rub away the paint on the surface. Apparently it would measure your good luck with how loudly it resonated. It didn’t make a sound when I was there, damn thing broke right before I tried…

The rest of the week went well with everything in the office and we continued to make progress on the projects from earlier in the week. Some people were on vacation and others were too tired on Friday, so I had a bad turn out for my English class. I switched things up and taught them some basic English things along with some of my basic ideas about the teacher training curriculum. I ended with my class being moved to Wednesday afternoon because I think people will be more willing to work the last hour of work knowing their weekend isn’t about to start. Learning so hard the last hour of work on Friday probably wasn’t a very well through through idea in the beginning.

On Saturday Andrea and Caroline hosted a thanksgiving party at their house. All of the staff were invited and most showed up. They really enjoyed the food, minus a few weird new things, and I loved the reminisance of stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. Don’t worry mom, yours is still the best!

Sunday, I realized something needs to change with my Lao language strategy. I’m at a point where I’ve made really great progress, but I’ve hit a wall. I’ve gotten to a point where I’ve learned to many vocabulary words without cementing them in, so the old ones are starting to eek out the back of my brain as I put new ones in. The past week or so I’ve been taking a list of the old words to work to practice using them in a sentence, but I want to up my game to really learn this language more efficiently. I don’t feel like I’m doing as well as I could. I’m doing much better then I did in Ghana, but not as well as I know I can do. I realized I need to really start using more conversation. So, I set out from my house in the morning after my Lao lesson with the determination to meet people and practice with them. I figure that not only will I learn and practice the language, but I’ll also be learning about the culture and meeting some really great people. I immediately head for the biggest market in town, called Phosi Market. I purposely take a new road, so I can practice my direction vocabulary.

I get to the entrance of the market and plunge head first with the confidence from so much success with my market explorations in Ghana. I got so good at practicing in the market that I would have a whole row of sellers and groups of people who were passing by stopping to contribute to our conversation. I quickly learned here that my past success wasn’t totally from any skill I possessed and more from the culture from which I was immersed. In Ghana people are much more surprised and ecstatic to meet a foreigner then here. They would ask all kinds of questions and most of the time ended conversation with getting my number, asking me to marry them or their close friend, and asking when we would meet again. This experience in Laos has been the exact opposite. Most times when I greet people on the street or now in the market they look at me like they’re not quite sure what’s happening. Much of the time they give me a sour look and just stare at me until I continue along my way. I’m sure there’s a good explanation for this because the Lao people are very kind when you get to know them after breaking the ice. I’ll have to investigate this reaction in more depth with my colleagues at PoP. After walking through much of the market with no success I finally realize I need shower soap, so I stop by a stall to ask and force them to engage with me if they want to make money. I know the word for soap form my work with the WASH team and all other kinds of basic interactions in order to buy an item. She hands me a package of pink soap with frilly colors and descriptions of the scents. I use some of my new vocabulary and say something close to “a nni sum lap poosaow baw?” which roughly translates to isn’t this for women? That really set her off, probably mostly because of the Lao vocab I used and she lit up with excitement. She called her friend over next to us and told her all about what I was saying. We quickly ran out of things to say and I thanked her as I left. I heard as I turned the corner her telling her friends that I’m very skilled with Lao. It wasn’t any where near the reaction I would get time and time again in Ghana, but it was fun and I got soap that I needed.

I head back to my guest house to get ready for left overs at Andreas for lunch. On my way back, I stop by a Buddhist temple that I stop by quite often.  I’ve never gone in because I have a weird need to not do what most of the tourists do around the town. In this case that includes walking around the temples with camera in hand to capture the beautiful art and totally miss out on the deeper meaning of what everything represents. I decide to get over it and just walk through the temple. I also have a fantasy in the back of my head where I will meet a monk and we will become friends, followed by constant visits where I would teach him Englihs and he would teach me Lao and maybe a little bit about meditation and his culture. I walk through and some of the young novices are eating. I walk by them, but don’t engage out of respect for what they’re doing and not trying to disturb them like many tourists do rudely with cameras pushed into their faces and no trace of genuine human connection. I make a big loop and feel stupid for even trying to go in at all. Feeling defeated and like I wouldn’t want to try this again I head for the door. Two monks walk by as I’m about to leave and one of them greets me. I greet him back and he insists on speaking English, so I engage back with English. His English is really amazing, compared to most people in Laos and even those educated staff in my office. We talk for a few minutes before he asks for me to come and sit down.

We talk much longer about what I’m doing in Laos and where he is with his schooling. I tell him my story of being interested in Buddhism and my lack of wanting to be like all the other tourists who come by. He looks kind of embarrassed and says that he really loves to take pictures and learn more about technology. I tell him I love it too, but don’t want that to be any kind of mask to cover the possibility of a real kind of interaction. I think he gains respect for me as we get deeper into his life passions of wanting to leave the temple to study technology and social development at a University abroad. He then wants to come back and join the temple again and apply what he learned to help his community and Buddhist relations. I explain how I’m sort of on the opposite path of leaving technology behind for a little bit to explore more about life and myself through Buddhism. He commends me for that and invites me to come back more often to chat with him. We’re both busy during the week, so we both agree to make it the weekends. Pavath calls me and I tell him I’m on my way back to meet him and go for leftover lunch at Andreas. I give the novice monk my number and exchange names. His English name is Jack and Lao name is Som Chedt. Probably butchering that awfully.

On my walk back to my guesthouse I really feel the rewards of taking risks and getting out of my comfort bubble today. I found the experience at the market I was looking for that will hopefully be a reminder to stop and force that broken ice to creating more relationships around the community. I want to prove to the people around here I’m not just here for a weekend to see their country. I’m here for much longer to really learn about their culture and way of life. My tireless effort to learn this language will only help to accomplish that goal of mine. I also started a relationship at a nearby temple that was a seed I was looking for that will hopefully develop into a fruitful relationship and more confidence to keep doing the same thing no matter how weird I feel or how many negative reactions I will get. I have big goals and I’m not going to let anything get in the

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