|Volunteering in Laos|
After three days of work in brutal Southeast Asian heat and humidity and interruptions due to monsoon-like downpours and losses of electricity, our gate went up at the orphanage. Unfortunately, we could not quite figure out how to hang it straight, but we left secure in the knowledge that Kelvin and a future volunteer group would put the final finishing touches on our work.
Our final volunteer activity for the week was perhaps my favorite, sponsoring a reading and literacy event at a village. The event, called a book party, is a concept created by an organization, Big Brother Mouse (www.bigbrothermouse.org), dedicated to providing books to children in the country’s often remote villages. The company writes and illustrates children’s books in English and Lao and with the help of donations organizes a party complete with games, songs and storytelling, culminating with a gift of one book to each child and a surplus to the village to start a library.
The village we visited was not that remote by Lao standards, but still could only be reached by boat, even after an hour long drive through the jungle on a bumpy dirt road. After a twenty minute row on the Mekong in baking hot sun, we arrived, welcomed by a rambunctious group of children waving to us on the river bank. They grabbed everything we carried, including a heavy cooler and piles of books, and we followed them up a set of steep stairs to their village where everyone in the small town gathered to watch the event.
Within minutes, our book party leaders, themselves three very rambunctious college students, had the village children drawing and then singing, laughing and playing games. Everything was proceeding like clockwork when, suddenly, Kelvin told us it was time for me and Ken to teach the kids some English. I was not at all prepared, but in the spirit of the day dove into a warbly rendition of the alphabet song while Ken, suffering stage fright, hid behind the video camera. The kids did their best to repeat after me, but I doubt they will remember much past ABCD. When you’re up in front of a crowd singing, you realize how ridiculous LMNOP sounds–not like separate letters at all. After my moment in the spotlight, it was time for snack distribution – always a hit – and for our Big Brother Mouse leaders to read the children a story. We then distributed books to our happy attendees.
Thinking we were finished, Ken and I started to pack up, when Kelvin again had a surprise for us. As a thank you, the adults of the village asked us to stay for a Baasii ceremony, a traditional rite performed to invoke spirits of protection and good health. The villagers first chanted a blessing around a centerpiece of flowers and fruit. Next they each tied a piece of string around our wrists, I believe to represent the spirits of protection. Then they presented us with a meal. The menu – fried pig’s skin, omelet, papaya salad, sticky rice and homemade whisky to wash it all down – was not what I typically would order in a restaurant, but when an entire village cooks for you and performs a ceremony in your honor, it is unthinkable to refuse their hospitality. We all dug in, even Ken who is a very picky eater, and everything was delicious, although the papaya salad was so spicy that I could not take more than a mouthful without crying.