Crux of the trip – Yes, Lori and I get to say bye bye to winter for a month. Yes, our [my] insatiable need to travel to new places, Yes, meeting new people and a break from routine is great. But the best part of the gig is the opportunity to get your hands dirty [sometimes quite literally] and do a bit of good for this stress torn and worrisome orb we all call home.
The continents may be different, the nature of the work will vary, accommodations go from Spartan to sub-Spartan to liveable, but regardless of time or place or function, going to sleep at the end of the day knowing that in some infinitesimally small way you have helped somebody or something move a tiny step forward is about the most satisfying feeling one can experience.
The ability to help transcends all of our volunteers’ ages, incomes, skill sets, political beliefs and backgrounds. The essence of volunteering – being part of a group sharing the same ideals and working together unites and reinforces each of us. There is no fixed time requirement to participate. Unlike religious services which requires strict adherence to schedules. There are no rituals required, no expectations, regulations or limitations. Volunteerism can be practised in your own back yard or across the world. You talk about communion – a bunch of us who have sweltered in the hot sun, teaching kids geography, or a group who have hacked out and replanted half an acre of topsoil previously exposed to erosion and sitting down to whatever local beer is served [and always in huge bottles] – that is a coming together of spirit for a cause that supersedes more formal expressions. Unless you are Buddhist, at which point you’ve pretty well got the whole deal figured out. I mean seriously, would you prefer signing up for serenity and happiness
or guilt, pain, and misery facing the possibility of eternal damnation with each temptation (except Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin).
A little bit about our activities over the past two weeks. Lori and I spent mornings teaching novice monks aged 16-19 conversational English and the afternoons were spent with younger children, teaching school in English, be it math, geography, singing, whatever. Many of you know my wife Lori. Some of you who may be reading this from afar may not. Let me reiterate for those who are her friend and explain for those who have not made her acquaintance. There is no teacher in the world, regardless of accreditation, more able to teach and inform kids, to hold their attention, to garner their love than Lori.
I’ve seen her weave her magic in Africa, India, Peru and now Laos.
In some classrooms having a single piece of chalk would have been an upgrade to the supplies she has had to work with. But Lori will tear papers into squares and triangles, she will use Popsicle sticks, she will squawk like a chicken. She’ll jump in and out of doorways to convey messages and concepts.When we now travel to far away venues, half her luggage, which is already overpacked, consists of crayons, stickers, notepads and the like. Some are used as teaching aids with the remainder left behind. So what if I have to walk like a pack mule carrying all this shit. To see her communicate, not just with the children but with the teachers who are usually little more than underpaid babysitters, is poetry in motion. And the best thing about it is – when she teaches she doesn’t take pictures. So as I’ve said before, Lori makes Mother Theresa seem like Lola from Damn Yankees. She cuts a wide swath and the world is better for it.
Then there’s her husband. Many who think they know me or who only know a few of the hundreds of sides of me are amazed that 1) I can stand living quarters of less than six star quality, 2) that I get my hands dirty working up a sweat, 3) that I can work with kids, and 4) that I give a shit about anything but myself. I don’t blame you. Frankly I find it hard to believe sometimes too. But the opportunity that avails itself is positively transcendent. Fortunately or otherwise, I do inject my thoughts and beliefs in what I try to impart. So here I am, talking to the monks.
Subject – we are living in Laos. But the full name of the county is Laos PDR, which I thought made it a twin with Mayberry RFD. But no; the monicker stands for People’s Democratic Republic. Have you ever noticed how many repressive regimes add the tag ‘Democratic’ to their military dictatorships? It’s as if by calling them Democracies, who’s going to know that you torture, repress, steal, and kill people with ‘Democratic’ in your name. Anyway, so there I am, breaking down the DRP part of the name. I start by getting us all to agree that we are people. That was easy enough. I then explain that demos is the origin of democracy and I attempt to convey the notion of choice and voting. There are elections here, people. Every district allows you to vote for the candidate of your choice. The only problem is that all candidates represent the same party! So you get to select the next person who will become a corrupt millionaire and forget you the day he comes into office. I know the same can be said for Democrats and Republicans but at least they put on a show of bipartisanship. And how do you get your name on the ballot? By your friend, brother, associate, or military superior who is already lining his pockets as a member of the House of Representatives.
I never even got to the Republic part. The monks sat there in silence (not usually a huge stretch for a monk), absorbing my lesson in political science from a counter culture perspective. Why do I do this? Not only for the shock value, which admittedly is fun, but to impart a level of knowledge and understanding that these kids might never otherwise see. My hope is that if even one of them can absorb the concept of freedom and, at some point in his life, as a religious figure with the ear of the people, be able to effect positive change for his country, then I have done my job. The second half of the lesson was spent on vocabulary. Can you say ‘Civil Disobedience’? ‘Hunger Strike?’ ‘Self-immolation?’
Another day was spent warning them about the evils of China’s growing economic hegemony over Laos and the rest of the planet, exchanging new roads today for all the hydro-electricity, gold, tin, and lumber that can be extracted from Laos for the next million years or so. I am hoping to be able to leave for Cambodia tomorrow without too many issues at the border.
After lunch Lori, Olivia (a very interesting young teacher from Ausralia who had the most unfortunate experience of befriending us and spending the rest of the time trying to figure out what hit her),
and I would take the city bus or a tuk tuk (basically a motorcycle with a flatbed) to a primary school. Each of us had one class to work with. Lori, using play-do, scissors and construction paper as part of her magic show, entertained, amused, and educated twenty plus kids who responded with love and affection.
I had the pleasure of working with eleven and twelve year olds. Shapes were taught one day, math the next, a bit of Frère Jacques in two part harmony and the like. It was a pleasure standing there and delivering. Much of the third world education is by rote. What ever is wrote on a blackboard is mindlessly copied into notebooks.
I had the kids put away their books, listen to the lecture, talk and participate to a limited extend and then do the copying. Here’s your succinct report on South East Asian education. Pretty lousy. The government does not fund education past primary. Even then, uniforms, books, supplies have to be paid for by parents earning an average of less that $2,000 PER YEAR.
That said, many of the children display a handwriting verging on calligraphy. The beauty of the letter formation of the Laotian alphabet lends itself to some pretty pretty script. Math – they eat our lunch. Five year old kids at a base level school doing multiplication with both the multiplicand and the multiplier (look them up, I learned something here) in triple digits. Also on campus were four other volunteers. They were painting the buildings,
fixing doors, mowing the fields, etc.
After class all the kids and us vols played outside. Soccer, football,
frisbee (always travel with a frisbee, people love them), tag and general kid fun stuff. We left school, took the bus home sweated up, a bit grimy but smiling and satisfied
So at the end of two weeks all seventeen volunteers walked away.
We had met and made new friends. We learned, we taught, we exchanged, we had fun. Some of them even had sex. We are asked if the locals with whom we work with benefit from volunteerism. A concern from the outside is that people such as Lori and I enter lives briefly and then leave forever. Do we create false expectations? The answer is a resounding no. The students, the monks, the orphans, all have come to accept the concept of a short term mutually beneficial relationship and have embraced it unconditionally. We volunteers grow close to the children. And there’s always one or two who cause tears to well up when we say good bye. Often we are asked if the kids get much out of what we do. They do. But the kicker is that we get times ten.
As I stated at the beginning of this instalment. If old time religion doesn’t float your boat, unless your name is Noah, there is an activity that brings together all ages, faiths, genders, experience levels, incomes, and every other element under the sun. It feels good, there is no need to wait until you die to reap the benefits and you make the world a better place. If, on the other hand, you are comfortable within your existing religious skin, keep satisfied with what you’ve got going for you. But know that I have it on very good authority that your particular God would want you to do His work on Earth. And this is a great way to show Him/Her/It respect.