I was picked up by a bunch of people – what a wonderful way to jump in feet first! I met Mommee (at who’s house we will be staying), Toon (her granddaughter), Pee Fiat (her so in law) 9 other volunteers, and 3 monks. This is the first time I have ever met a Buddhist monk, even in the US; I was initially a little intimidated but they are so open and easy and it was so much fun to talk to them. They are ALL smiles. They were so eager to practice English, they asked us lots of questions about phrases they had come across and asked us to explain some English expressions; how do you explain the phrase from the Britney Spears song “Hit Me Baby One More Time” to a monk?!
After about an hour we arrived at Mommee’s house. It looks mighty rustic: no electricity or running water, houses up on stilts, no windows, trying to negotiate a mosquito net, etc. Yet strangely it is one of the most picturesque environments I’ve ever been in. We met the whole family and had a small meal. We also met all the monks and began to get used to the “rules.” These are unusual and may be difficult to remember (don’t touch a monk’s head), but you have to respect what their cultural parameters are. They all smile and laugh so much, which really surprises me.
After dinner, by the light of candles, we went over the schedule of the week. We learned what projects we would work on and got to know the monks and fellow volunteers a little better through a variety of organized activities, combined with free time. We also were each assigned a journal day to write our impressions (or photograph, draw, or save flowers, etc) to represent our day. We will all get a compiled copy at the end.
Today was a free day, to relax, get to know everyone and do some sightseeing. It was a pretty long day, but totally amazing – a totally different experience from the US! We started at a royal palace – a country retreat that the royal family uses for ceremonial occasions. The architecture and lay out was amazingly western, no surprise as the king who built it was very conscious of the west. We rode across a river to a monastery that was also very western – I felt like I was going into a small German church, only to find a Buddha statue!
We then went to a series of amazing ruins. They look just like Ankor Bat (the famous Cambodian ruins). But they were made even more special by the fact that one of the monks was our tour guide!!! He told us why the ruins were there and what they meant. His English is workable, and he seemed to really hunger to practice.
On the way home we stopped at an internet café – had to let the family know I am in one piece! Then back home where we had homemade pad Thai – yummeee. This feels so different from a normal day at the office! I’m surrounded by new friends, and there’s a complete lack of competition.
Today we got to work. We went to the Foundation where many innovative social assistance projects are underway. After a tour of the facility, which includes a huge garden full of exotic and amazing plants that is cared for by recovering drug addicts, and an open air Buddhist temple, we went off on various projects. Several people went to work in the nursery where the Foundation cares for children of adults they are gardening. Others taught English in the Primary school on the grounds; and still others worked with older people afflicted with arthritis making mulch for the gardens. It is just incredible to see how many people the foundation helps and how they do so much with comparatively little. The people we met there were so grateful for our help, it was very satisfying.
But exhausting!! We got home late, had a delicious dinner of noodle soup, a curry and (as usual) rice. It is astounding the delicious things that come out of what I think of as such a rudimentary kitchen. If only I could be this creative and capable at home, everything we eat is so fresh and delicious!
Today we met some “baby monks,” novice monks at the local monk university. They are as adorable as “our” monks (as we’ve taken to calling the monks at Mommee’s house) are sweet. We spent much of the day teaching them English – while they have some basic abilities, they need much help with pronunciation and conversation. At first we were a little intimidated standing in front of a class, but we had some good prep materials and were able to talk with each other about a game plan before going into the class. We had a nice selection of games, pronunciation exercises and one on one time with the students. I am no teacher, but I feel like I am actually helping them!
Lunch was amazing! Not necessarily the food, which was very good and not at all like what we had in our cafeterias growing up – clearly nothing frozen or deep fried!, but to watch the novices. They get a small lecture at the beginning of the meal reminding them how to behave, then at the end they chanted! I had feared it might feel a bit “cultish”, but everything you hear is about living life rather than worshiping a deity. For example, they stress how important it is to not harm people, and to find peace. That was truly magical to hear, all their voices rising and falling at the same time, it was wonderful. It was fun to watch how they twitched and were getting used to their robes, smiling and laughing. Our monks have been wearing their robes for so long it is easy for them, but the novices were constantly adjusting and fiddling. It really reminded me of how I was at that age!
In the afternoon we spent more time in the classroom in the afternoon, playing hangman to practice English words, and then got to sit down and talk to the head monks of the novice school. It was so interesting to learn what a disciplined life they lead, and yet how frank and open their conversation is! They asked us if we believed in God, and took no offense when some in the group expressed doubt. It is refreshing to have a conversation with someone and feel like they are genuinely interested in what you have to say – even if it differs from what they think. They are so curious and happy just to talk.
Although I did manage to thoroughly break a rule in front of one monk – I accidentally crossed my legs and showed the bottom of my foot to him!!! It is impossible to ever feel like you’ve broken a rule however, as no one ever acts offended. In fact, when I did this, he laughed with a generous happy smile. That seems to be such a common reaction – no one will make you feel uncomfortable. But these rules – they are awful hard to get used to! Very different from our own culture.
Today was another free day, several people went to the market to help with lunch and dinner and while some of us stayed around the house to chat with the monks, help with some chores and relax. I felt like it was a much needed break after working hard in the classrooms and at the foundation!
I have to say, I am mighty proud of how I am adapting to the environment. I thought the lack of shower and electricity would be a big problem, but no problem! The water is so fresh and clear that showers are a real treat – my skin is so soft and appreciative that I haven’t been slapping the usual chemicals on it. I don’t miss the hot water at all, in fact the cold feels so good in the heat of the day. We go to bed very early, maybe 7:30 or 8 because the sun is gone, the mosquitoes sometimes get annoying, and we are exhausted from the day, but we sleep long and well. Others stay up later in the common area and chat by candle light until the wee hours. Some of the family members have even gone to the market to buy wine for those volunteers who wanted to have some with their meals.
I helped make candles this morning – quite a process but necessary to light the compound at night! It is amazing how ingenious, simple, and creative the process is! Most things are recycled; the melted wax from the used candles is re-used, it is all melted in an old gas can, a dented kettle is used to poor the wax into the molds and the molds themselves are soda cans with one end cut off! It felt really good to be contributing to the communal life like that.
But best of all – I made my own Pad Tai!! It was so delicious and simple, although I don’t know if I’d be able to repeat it at home. It was really interesting to use the kitchen, mostly the family has been doing the cooking, and to prove that you don’t need a fancy stove to produce a great meal!
We went back out to do some more work. Today, we went to a local school that serves a very poor community. The children are very small, but we practiced some English with them, although our efforts at teaching the classes were less successful. I guess it does help when they have a basic knowledge of the language. But they certainly thought we were funny and I think they learned something. Apparently volunteers have helped sandbag this school and other community structures when flood season comes in. We also had the choice to work on other community projects, but I really enjoyed the English teaching, even though I’ve never taught before in my life.
We also helped the principal do some assessment at the school for future Globe Aware projects. We helped him identify things that can be done to help the school, such as improvements to the cafeteria, building and stocking a clinic, etc. I think future volunteers are really going to enjoy working with this school – the kids are so cute and the staff is so dedicated.
For lunch we went to a floating market – totally incredible!! The vendors are in boats all around you – and you’re on a floating dock! You select your food and they cook it right their in the boat. Not the safest, I would think, but they get some incredible results! We had all kinds of things, from octopus to pork bar-b-q to noodle soup! Yum!
I got another cooking lesson today, this time Massa Man. It is so delicious and easy to make! We fell into bed again tonight early, being “on” for the kids is really exhausting!
Today was just magical all around. We spent much of the morning shopping of the “international” dinner – everyone got to make a dish from their home. Since crab cakes are out of the question, I went for peanut butter and jelly. We had to be sure everything was ready by 11 am so the monks could participate. Monks are not allowed to eat after noon. What a feast we had – all kinds of dishes, and the family made some of the monks favorite dishes – papaya salad, fried chicken, yummy crunchy crackers and fried bananas (coated in a batter that included coconut!). It was fun to share everyone’s dishes, and the PBnJ went over well.
All afternoon we prepared for Loi Kratong, a special festival that fell when we were there. It comes at the end of the rainy season and you thank the rivers for providing you with water for the dry season. You make special floats of slices of banana trees, folded leaves, flowers, candles and incense, signs and flags. We helped some poor local children to make theirs. It was just amazing how beautiful everyone’s were, even those who thought they couldn’t do it and had no practice. We laid them all out on the bench - what a beautiful sight!!
The monks had also made balloons out of tissue paper. There is some sort of source of fire at the bottom and, after some trying and one Hindenberg-like failure, the second balloon floated up and off into the distance!! It looked like a star – it was so beautiful, and I am determined to try it at home.
Before the finale of the evening, setting the Kratongs off, the monks thanked us for helping them, for being there, and chanted for us. It really was magical, to see these happy-go-lucky men chant so beautifully, you understand truly how dedicated they are to their life. It was a very moving moment.
We then set our Kratongs afloat. We got to do them both at home and at a communal river in town. It was so much fun to see all the floats we worked so hard on, but it was also magnificent to see so many together. With their candles alight floating down the river it was just amazing.
way to finish my week here – it is sad to think tomorrow we start
our journey back to reality…