home economics 201: acquiring new skills at Bamboo School

Well, another week at Bamboo School has come and gone and just like that we’ve left Thailand. It was hard saying goodbye to the children. Truly we know that it isn’t ideal to have people constantly going in and out of their lives like a convenience store. But we knew that we’d be coming back to stay for a long time in Thailand starting next year. It always makes goodbyes happier when there’s a plan to meet again.

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As always, it was an informative week. We joked with the director, MomoCat, about how every time we come to Bamboo School we learn several new skills! We talked about how we needed to make a list of all the skills we’ve acquired while living here. This week we learned three more: dentistry, taking care of a colicky baby, and surviving a Karen wedding (pronounced “Kah-ren”, a large Burmese hill tribe people group).

Jessie and I have been to Bamboo School enough times to know that the moment we arrive we’ll be pulled right into the busy atmosphere that 55 children create. The kids need to be driven to and picked up from school. Many things need to be repaired. There are volunteers and visitors coming and going on practically every day of the week. The little boys aren’t washing their clothes well enough so they need to be shown once again how to properly scrub. There are several work projects that are in full swing.

Fifteen minutes after we set our bags down in our bamboo hut, another set of volunteers, the Song family, arrived with a large case full of dental tools in order to do the children’s yearly check up. Jessie and I were recruited to digitize their past dental records and log the new ones from this year. I set up an Excel spreadsheet with all the children’s names and ages and teeth issues. Then, as each child was checked, we’d observe and write down any notes the dentists told us. Most of the kids had been treated last year so their teeth were in decent shape. But some of the kids who came from families with poor nutrition or not enough money to have their teeth checked while growing up had thick white layers of plaque that took twenty minutes to be completely scraped away from their gums.

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The kids took the cleaning bravely, especially Niti. Niti is 23 years old and had mouth pains for several years. Dr. Song took a quick look in his mouth and said, “Oh boy! All four wisdom teeth need to come out right now!” Five minutes later he was giving Niti numbing injections. Then we watched, somewhat horrified yet also mainly intrigued, as the doctor stuck surgical pliers into his mouth and twisted each tooth until it was loose enough to yank out. Niti had little pain, yet it was hard to watch because his legs and stomach flinched a few times, giving the illusion that he could feel it all. Later, he told us that he could feel the pulling but that it wasn’t painful; it was just the force of the tooth being ripped away that made him flinch.

Later on in the week MomoCat needed to go into Bangkok early in the morning, so she asked us to watch the new six week old baby girl, Soy Far, overnight so that she could get some rest before making that drive. We agreed to watch her and then nervously walked her up the dirt path to our hut. That night we learned a lot about how to make babies poo and how to soothe them when we have no clue why they’re crying. That night we got 4 hours of sleep. The next night we kept her overnight again. We felt more confident and we were determined that we had what it took to be baby whisperers. All I have to say is Jessie is a legend. I think since she helped her mom bring up four babies years ago something in her remembered how to swaddle like a pro. We still only got about 4 hours of sleep but this time Soy Far didn’t wake anybody. We’ve always had an appreciation for people who are taking care of babies, but this experience gave us a further taste of just how hard it can be.

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After two sleepless nights we were ready for a big rest, but a new opportunity presented itself. Several of the children had a relative that was getting married the next day and they needed somebody to drive them to the wedding. We quickly agreed, thinking it would be fun to see more of the countryside and experience this cultural event. The downside was that we would have to wake up at 2:30am in order to make it to the wedding, which was three hours away. Seriously, who schedules a wedding for 7am?!

So after another night of only a handful of hours of sleep, we jumped in the truck and headed down the road. The shortest and most direct route to the village required us to traverse a network of paved and dirt roads containing endless potholes and trenches formed from heavy monsoon rains carving paths across the road. Since it was pitch dark I couldn’t see any road issues until I was on top of them so after a few rough bumps I decided to take it slower. Most of the trip was done at a painstakingly slow 30km per hour. About 2/3 of the way through the journey the older Bamboo School student, Narget, told me to pull over. There were a couple guys on motorbikes that had been waiting for us to lead us to the wedding. Later we would learn that the guy who jumped in our truck was the groom! He had come an hour out of the way in the middle of the night before his wedding to show us the way.

We drove on a muddy path through the jungle. I was convinced that we would get stuck at some points, but thankfully the truck pushed on through. Just as I was thinking that this drive would never end, we went down a steep hill and then up another bump and the road ended. The sun had started rising about a half hour earlier and when I put the truck in park there was nothing in front of us but a lush, green, unadulterated valley closed in on all sides by beautiful sloping hills. I was glad to finally be there but realized as I stepped out of the car that it was going to be a major pain to turn the car around to go back.

We were a bit early so we got pulled into the bride’s family’s hut and were seated in the main room. The mother brought us huge bowls piled full of fresh watermelon, rambutan, longan, and other fruits, as well as French toast and Fanta. As we munched on some of the fruit, out of nowhere Jessie started laughing. At this point we knew we were both a little slap happy from sleep deprivation, but she told me that I had to check out the guy in the red shirt. I turned around and saw a hilarious sight. The father of the bride was busy making preparations for the wedding and he was wearing this giant bright red shirt that proclaimed: “Sex Instructor: First Lesson Free.” I busted up! It wasn’t too surprising because after living in Asia for several years I’ve noticed that they like to wear shirts with English writing on them but often are quite oblivious to what the shirt means. Still, the irony of the father wearing this extremely inappropriate shirt just minutes before the wedding kept me smiling for hours. Wish I would’ve gotten a picture of it!

The wedding started and we followed the bridal party to the church. When we got to the doors we saw that the church was packed full, so we decided to watch with some of the others from outside. But since we were possibly the only white people to have ever visited that village it was decided that we should be placed in the wedding party. We were gently forced along the side of the church to a side door where two chairs awaited us, right next to the parents of the bride! Embarrassed, we started to sit down but realized that there weren’t enough chairs. The mother was going to have to squat on the stage during her daughter’s wedding. I wouldn’t go for that, so I motioned for her to take my seat while Jessie and I half-cheeked the last chair. I don’t know whom they had ousted from the platform in order to make room for us…an uncle? A grandparent? The parents of the groom? We felt terrible but knew that in these situations you just have to surrender to culture. We sat there for what seemed like an hour, our legs falling asleep and our backs cramping up. I almost fell asleep from exhaustion during an especially long prayer, but a decorative balloon got too close to a halogen bulb and burst, which was enough to keep me awake for the rest of the service.

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The wedding was different. At no point did the bride and groom ever touch each other or even look in each other’s eyes. There were no ring or vow exchanges, no unity candles representing the merging of families. I got the feeling that with how close these people are, living closely together in open huts day after day, they didn’t need any overt promises. They could see every action and knew each one’s character already.

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After the wedding finished we sat down to a great feast in which the pastor paraded before us every person he knew of who could speak more than three words in English. Then after the meal we wished the bride and groom a happy marriage and went back out to the road.

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We waited an hour for someone to return with the groom’s motorbike. Then the groom jumped on the motorbike and led us back out to the main road, 45 minutes away. I couldn’t believe how much time of his wedding day he spent on helping us find our way!

Overall, it was a very informative week. We were sad to leave Thailand so soon but knew that we have months of exciting travel to look forward to! India, here we come!

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medicine 202: bamboo and machete wounds in a Thai jungle

Jessie and I spent six months in Thailand from October 2011 through April 2012. (We did a six week winter camp in Korea in the middle of it all.) Most of our time was spent at The Bamboo School, located in the jungle just on the Thai side of the Myanmar border, where we assisted 50~60 children in doing their daily chores, learning English, driving them to and from the local school, and accomplishing many work projects. One of the many things we like about this place is that we get to live in a bamboo hut. It’s a pretty unique experience. We have salamanders crawling all through the thatch ceiling. We have a brisk bucket shower that could shake the sleepiness out of anyone! We also have floors that periodically give way when you step on them. Both of us have experienced the shocking sensation of putting our foot down and the next thing we know we’re planted clear to half-hamstring in the floorboards! Bamboo is a very strong plant. However, after it’s cut from the earth it ages relatively quickly.

When we arrived in October I found myself thrown headlong into a work project of replacing the entire floor of one of the visitor huts. Luckily, I had a skilled worker to help me. Porsue, one of the oldest children there (and by child I mean he was barely under 18) was my guide. Actually if truth be told, he did most of the work. I fumbled around with the machete and the hammer and the drill trying to replicate his work, while he effortlessly worked the bamboo from tree to flooring.

The most exciting part of this tropical Do-It-Yourself zero budget project was obtaining the bamboo. Porsue and I would hop into the old pickup, drop the gear into first, and crawl off through the crazy jungle dirt roads. Every time we went the roads were different, changed by perpetual flash floods that rocketed down the hill slopes and tore giant rips into the surface. Our truck clawed over them like a determined lion on the chase. But we could only drive so far. Eventually, we’d park and head up a steep hill (that’s where the best bamboo grows) with machetes, saws and rope.

Porsue would examine the bamboo and point to the ones we needed. At first I thought he was playing games with me. I’d say, “How about this one?” and he’d reply, “No good.” But over the course of several visits I started to notice the small differences between the variety of bamboos, and learned that each type had its own specific uses. We needed the strongest kind that could hold the weight of people walking on it month after month. The biggest giveaway for that type is that it tends to develop a white residue on its surface when it reaches a mature age.

In just a few trips I evolved from the tentative foreigner who walked in every one of Porsue’s footsteps to the annoying foreigner who thinks he knows everything there is about the jungle. I was hacking recklessly into bamboo, sweating profusely in the moist hot jungle air, and beating mosquitos off my back with a whip I’d fashioned from the undergrowth. Porsue would see a good trunk,  take four swings, and it would be on the ground. Meanwhile I’d be chopping at a trunk several meters away for over a minute before it cracked and fell. In two hours we’d have 25 trees lying in a pile on the crest of the hill. Then we’d measure out 15 feet in length using the ol’ fingertip to elbow ruler, and saw off the ends of each trunk.

I learned an unforgettable lesson on the very first log that I cut. I’d gotten through most of the bamboo but the saw was getting stuck at the last part. It was stubbornly holding on and the weight of the bamboo was pinching the saw, making it impossible to move. So I turned the log over and cracked it by stomping on it. But the break wasn’t clean, so I had to pull off a small tag that was sticking off the end. I grabbed it and yanked my hand up. And then blood started spurting out of my forefinger like a geyser.

Bamboo is very very very very sharp. When its edges are exposed, it cuts through skin like its jelly. I held the skin on my finger shut but the blood kept dribbling out. I was in a mild shock so I didn’t think to scream. I was just staring at my wound and thinking about if I would have enough energy to walk down the hill and drive myself to the nearest clinic. After several minutes Porsue looked over and saw my reddened hand. He laughed and shook his head. I felt so stupid explaining to him how I’d nearly sliced my finger off. He told me to wait a minute, disappeared into the jungle, and was back in no time with a handful of some leafy green plant. He wadded the bundle up in his hands, mushing it into a small ball. Then he squeezed the liquid from it into my cut and put the green poultice across the cut. Within a few minutes the pain was dulled and the bleeding had stopped.

I opened the cut to see how deep it was. It had gone almost down to the bone, but luckily it had missed the nerve. I was surprised at how well that plant had relieved the pain and clotted the blood. Porsue smiled at me and said, “It’s a medicine plant. It works better than a bandage.” I plugged the gash back up with a new poultice and we went back to work. After the bamboo trunks were all cut to the right length, we bound them together in groups of five. Then came the hard part: we had to hoist the end of a bundle onto our shoulder and drag it down the hill to the truck. The whole process was definitely a full body workout!

We finished the hut floor in a few days and I felt so accomplished that I’d learned tropical carpentry. As for my finger, it healed completely without any complications or scarring in just a few weeks.

The next time we went out to chop bamboo, I brought Jessie along because she really wanted to give it a try. I was prepared with work gloves that had rubberized fingers this time. They worked perfectly at keeping the bamboo from slicing our hands. But Jessie found the chink in their armor: she inadvertently chopped her finger with her machete. It was almost the exact situation I’d had earlier. I swung into action, combing the underbrush for that plant and fixing her a poultice. I was a hero! My days of jungle training had paid off!

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