Looking at a map of the world, Laos is a sliver of land sandwiched between more well-known neighbors: China to the north, Thailand and Myanmar to the west, Cambodia to the south and Vietnam to the east. As my husband and I planned an extended trip to Asia, I had little knowledge of Laos aside from where it was located on a map spread on my living room floor. Laos was not on our initial itinerary, but we wanted to volunteer during our time in Asia and after researching volunteer programs on the web we decided, almost on a whim, to sign-up for a weeklong program in Laos with GlobeAware (www.globeaware.org), a non-profit that coordinates volunteer efforts around the globe. Little did we know that this decision would lead us to one of our most memorable experiences in Asia.
Our volunteer project was centered in the Lao city of Luang Prabang, a place straddling centuries, where orange-robed monks wander narrow streets amongst cafes selling cappuccino and pizza and the spires of Buddhist temples peak above the trees. At dusk the main street is closed to traffic and local merchants gather to sell colorful silks, clothing and jewelry under red tents. Walking to the waterfront on our first evening in the city, we sat enchanted at a café overlooking the muddy Mekong River and listened to the sound of crickets hidden amongst the verdant green mountains rising on the far bank. The next day we would be up bright and early to begin our volunteer project, but the evening was ours to absorb the peaceful vibe of this entrancing town. We settled in for the night at our $25 hotel room, which was clean, air-conditioned and complete with its own resident gecko.
Early the next morning we met our volunteer coordinator, Kelvin. Kelvin is a Laos native and lives just outside Luang Prabang with his wife and young son. He is multi-talented and multi-faceted: he owns and drives a tuk-tuk, guides bikers into Laos’s remote mountain villages, volunteers for an organization that clears landmines from the countryside, has a partial ownership in a shop at the airport and is a handyman and all around go-to-guy for the local orphanage. Kelvin laid out our schedule for the week. We would build a gate at the local orphanage, donate books to a school and village and explore Luang Prabang and its beautiful surrounds which include cascading, tiered waterfalls open for swimming and an otherworldly cave housing hundreds of Buddha statues. First, though, Kelvin gave us an impromptu lesson in Lao culture and language, resulting in much laughter as Ken and I mispronounced even the basics. Lao has an interesting cadence to it and words seem to just trail off at the end, like a foghorn fading into a misty night, easy on the ears, yet difficult to master. With “sabaii dii” (hello) and “khawp jai” (thank you) under our belt, it was time for volunteering to get underway.
We first shopped at a bookstore in town and then headed out of Luang Prabang to donate our purchases to a nearby school. As we drove through lush green countryside in Kelvin’s jeep we encountered a traffic jam of sorts when three buffalo lumbered slowly across our path. In the midst of farms and forest, geese, ducklings and goats, we pulled up a small dirt road and came upon three simple cement buildings, our destination. The school facilities did not have running water, and as I used the outhouse and tried my best to ignore the multitude of spiders crawling on a nearby windowsill, I thought back to my own grade-school classrooms. How comfortable they seemed to me now! The school served fifteen different villages and enrolled students in six grades. Because of its rural location, many children walk more than two hours to attend classes. Although school was not in session, we met with the principal and presented him with our donation. He in turn showed us the groundwork of a future GlobeAware project. At the time of our visit just four posts and a thatched roof stood, but the structure would eventually become the school’s first library.
After this meeting, I realized that as GlobeAware volunteers, we were part of an ongoing, gradual, step-by-step improvement of the local community. We saw this first hand the following day when we began work on our next project, building a gate for Luang Prabang’s local orphanage, which is also a school. Past GlobeAware volunteers at the orphanage built sinks with running water outside the dormitories, replaced doors and windows and installed a basketball hoop, no easy feat in such a remote location. Although remoteness is part of Laos’s charm, it also means there is no Home Depot nearby and we would build our gate completely from scratch. We would do everything – buy lumber, cut boards (sometimes with a machete), sand, paint and nail everything together by hand. I do, however, use the term “we” loosely, because Ken, Kelvin and I had so much help from the resident children. Every day as soon as we pulled up in Kelvin’s jeep, ten to twenty incredibly well-behaved teenagers magically appeared from the woodwork, ready to wield a hammer or paintbrush.
As a result of the enthusiastic assistance of the students we were supposedly volunteering to help, I spent little time doing manual labor, which was probably best because it turns out that I am terrible at hammering a nail straight. Fortunately for me, I found an area in which I could be useful: talking. One of the fifteen-year-old girls who had commandeered all the paintbrushes wanted to practice her English. We hit it off well, although when I told her my age (33), she was surprised and said “you don’t look old but you are,” which made me laugh. I decided to focus on the first part of the sentence. Talking with her gave me some insight into the situation of the students at the orphanage-school. She, like many of her classmates, is not an orphan, but when her father was killed in a motorbike accident seven years ago, she was sent to the school. She has brothers and sisters that remain with her mother at home in her small village. She told me she was happy living where she had many friends and could focus on school and studying. Kelvin told us later that many children are sent to the orphanage from rural, single parent families to get an education and are better off than at home where they would be needed to farm to help support their families. The students are well cared for at the orphanage, although it is a struggle: the school relies heavily on donations because the Laos government is only able to provide the orphanage with 1,000 kip, or about 11 cents, per student per day.
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.
Luckily, it was acceptable to eat just some of the food, but Kelvin advised it was customary to drink all of the whiskey offered. In this village where very little, if any, English is spoken, cries of “WhiskeyLao!” filled the air as the villagers toasted us and offered us shots to drink, always in pairs! The mood was celebratory, and we happily partook, touched to be honored by the village in this manner. When the feast was complete, we stepped down the stairs to our boat, followed by the village children, who dove into the Mekong and splashed and swam after us as we departed down the river for our long drive home.
And just like that, in the blink of an eye it seemed, our week volunteering in Laos was drawing to a close. As we rowed down the Mekong, amongst sheer cliffs, past lounging water buffalo, in this country we came close to not visiting, I counted my lucky stars and thanked my map of the world for bringing me to Laos, a place where the residents are so open-hearted that at the end of a week of volunteering Ken and I felt we had received so much more than we had given. But then again, isn’t that always the case when you volunteer?