Northern Thailand: Mae Taeng Valley


Oh my God, I can hardly open my right eye, it's full of dried mucous! I cannot possibly have pink eye. I need to be at the school by 8:30. I look in the mirror that's mounted above the sink and I panic. I immediately approach my homestay host. My host sees my swollen eye with no reaction of worry. She says, "We go to the clinic on the way to school."

We stop at the clinic which is across the river, less than a 100 yards from my home-stay. My host goes in to the doctors office first, probably to explain the situation and warn him that I don't speak a word of Thai. The doctor and my host usher me into a room with a tiny bed and ask me to lie down. The doctor leaves then comes back with a big vial of antiseptic and pours it into my eye, followed by a drop of antibiotic (I suppose). It works like magic! I feel much better. I still don't know what caused the irritation. Perhaps an invisible tiny insect struck my right eye or the smoke from the campfire or smoke from the burning from the side of the road last night. (Burning dried leaves or clearings is very common here).

The primary school is uphill, about a third of a kilometer from the clinic. My host and I walk the dusty road, a dozen roaming dogs barking at us. The road leads to the main school entrance, but my host turns right to use the entrance from the road that leads to the Thai Elephant Home. When we arrive the kids are in the school yard in the middle of doing their daily routine of singing the national anthem, greetings and a set of exercises. After a formal introduction, the exercise routine continues. One of the teachers reaches for the boombox and plays the 'Gangnam Style'. The teachers enthusiastically leading the dance exercise routine. I could not resist, I join in. It's a great way to break the ice and get my workout. The 'Gangnam Style' is followed by three more local dance routines. Then the kids are dismissed to play. I go to the gazebo, turn the music on my IPad and start to write. While everybody else is at play, I notice a girl sweeping the ground and dragging a garbage can the size bigger than her. She's not wearing a uniform. After putting the garbage can away, she comes back, stops at the gazebo looks at me and my IPad with great curiosity, listens to my music and starts to perform a local dance to Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spot's "I'm Beginning To See The Light". I have never seen someone dance with such beauty and grace. It's priceless! I think this little girl will become a great ambassador of her country someday. The teacher tells me that the girl lives in the mountain, she's a Hmong from Burma but is considered aThai (another topic worthy of exploration).

Formal class starts at 9:30. By 10:00am I'm in control of the class. I teach English to first graders. They are children of mahouts (elephant trainers) and children from Lisu or Hmong mountain tribe. My teaching method is very informal. I divide the class into teams, assign each student a number and play games to introduce action verbs. The kids enjoy playing the game so we go over my allotted time. The kids are supposed to break for lunch at 11:00. Lunch and snack are provided by the school. Today's lunch is fried chicken, and steamed rice, and hard dark jello in coconut milk for dessert. Lunch routine is done in a very orderly fashion. The kids wash their hands, fall in line to get their lunch, nobody eats until everybody gets their food. My Japanese colleague and I help serve lunch.

Before we head down to get our own lunch, I stare at the mountains and think back to the work life I've known: the stress of not meeting a software release deadline, and former co-workers who work closed to 24 hours a day in order to save their job. And here i am ! The few hours I spent working with the children have filled me with such a feeling of being alive that at this moment I have found the answer to the question, "What am I doing here?" (The question I asked myself every time I get bitten by a mosquito. And I have my fair share of mosquito and insect bites since I arrived in Chiang Mai).

H, my Japanese colleague, and I walk downhill in the heat of the mid-day sun to eat our lunch at the only restaurant in the village. The road dips to a dusty curve lined with banana, mango and tamarind trees. H takes pictures of the chickens that roam wildly on the side of the road. (H takes picture of every meal). Pointing to the chicken with my lips, I tease him, "tomorrow's lunch! " He tries to process what i just said and smile.

We find the restaurant at the end of the road across the main road. It has no name. (The only reason we know about the restaurant is because we were introduced to the owners/cooks and told by our volunteering organization to eat our lunch here during our stay in the village).  Although the restaurant is not popular to the tourists, it gets busy catering to the mahouts (elephant trainers) and other locals tending to the hundred elephants. The dining area has five tables and the kitchen seems like a ramshackle.  But what comes out of the kitchen is really good food. The owners who are also the cooks greet us with a big smile and "Kin arai ka?" (What do you want to eat?) The two women don't speak a word of English. I'm pretty sure we're going to have our lunch quota of pad-thai or fried rice gai (chicken) and pad-thai or fried rice kai (egg) in the next few days due to our very limited command of the Thai language.

My job assignment is to teach in the morning and work in the elephant home in the afternoon. I will put soil that consists of burnt rice husk and elephant dung into little bags for seedlings to be planted in the forest later. In the evening I will tutor mahouts (elephant trainers) who are also attending college.

The soil has not been delivered, so I don't have anything to do this afternoon. My home-stay host and I walk to the Thai Elephant Home. I play with the baby elephant, get a foot spa, and sleep in the hammock. After a snack of boiled taro, we walk downhill (the length of two city blocks) for another quick tour of the primary school before heading back to my home-stay.

Late in the day I go back to the elephant home to have dinner and to tutor Peeda, a mahout and a college student. When I arrive the staff and some student interns from Japan are gathered around a fire-pit.  The staff are barbecuing pork and grilling bamboo sticks that contain sticky rice.  We have sticky rice, barbecue pork, stir-fried vegetable, pahkbong and dragon fruit for dinner.   After dinner my host and I walk downhill to go back to my homestay.  There are no bright stars tonight except for a flickering light from the the cell tower.

To be continued...

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