Photography Corner: One year in Thailand

Katherine Devine was an on-site intern with ATMA SEVA from August 2012 – 2013. Below are photos from her year in Northern Thailand!

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Photography by: Katherine Devine

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Custom travel – Three week learning adventure part III

Below is part III of Raghav’s custom learning adventure from 2012! If you missed it, here is part I & part II.

Click here for more information on custom travel!

14 June 2012 

Today, I had to get up a little earlier than usual because it was the day to leave for the village. My dad and I went to get breakfast at the buffet and were joined shortly by Natch who came to pick me up for the bus station.  Before we finished, we were also joined by Ji who was going to take my dad on his tour alone today. We all decided to head out to the bus station.

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At the bus station ready to go to Mae Sariang!

David and Nid showed up shortly after we did. We all took some group pictures as this was the last time I would be seeing my dad until I returned home to the US. After saying goodbye, we got in the van. The vans in Thailand were very interesting. They were very comfortable-looking with an air conditioner and everything. However, there was limited leg space! You got used to it quickly; it was just funny to see it at first. Looking through the window, we could see beautiful views of the green mountains we were going up to. After about four hours of short naps and awesome views, we arrived at a small town called Mae Sariang. Here, the van dropped us off, and Nid’s brother Dtee picked us up. To me, he looked exactly like a male version of Nid. David told me that he was a very solid guy and he was a tough guy (he looked skinny but he was hiding some major muscle!). We did some shopping in Mae Sariang at the market and 7 11 for bread, candy, and many many vegetables because there would be no shops or markets up in the village.

We then went to Nid’s sister’s house to pick up Nid’s dad who was staying with her and would be coming back with us to the village. We got into the pickup truck with a lot of stuff in the car. It was a tight fit!

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Our new friends!

Along the way, Nid’s dad wanted to pick up some chickens for some ritual and food. They literally went to this place to buy them and just stuffed the chickens into these baskets he had made. While we were watching this, a very friendly shopkeeper on the other side of the road greeted us. He invited us over and fed us some Thai fruits and got us some water. He was very kind and talked to us nicely. We took a picture with him, and we headed on to the village.

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On the way to the village

Driving along the way up on the mountains, we had some interesting experiences. There was so much rain that we had to stop the truck at a rest stop. We waited there for awhile till the rain subsided a bit, having some drinks and playing with the local dog. Dtee also bought us a sling-shot and David and I had fun shooting it around! Then, we headed out to the winding road to the village. The rain had ruined the dirt roads so badly that we often had to get out of the truck in order for Dtee to maneuver around.

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First dinner in the village!

We finally arrived after a few hours, and I got to meet the rest of Nid’s family including her mother and sister in law and some of her nephews and nieces. David and I watched the family make a Thai dinner, different from what we had in the city. It looked different because the flavoring and spices they used were indigenous to the area. During our dinner, one of the teachers, Kamon, came and visited us. We discussed general things such as introductions, family, schooling, and other things. After Kamon left, I was shown the room I would be sharing with David. It was a very basic room with sheets on the floor and no fan or AC. Fortunately, there were no bugs. It felt different and surprisingly good to be living so simply. I also got an introduction to the bathroom that was a hole in the ground in the downstairs, which made me kind of nervous, but it was a good challenge. After this quick introduction, I fell asleep on my bed early because I was so tired from the journey!

15 June 2012

Today was the first full day I got to spend in the village. I woke up really late because I was so exhausted by the previous day, so by this time everyone had gone to the farm. I started my day with my first bucket shower. Pouring myself with ice-cold water for a shower was frightening. Although it was an awesome experience, it really was cold. In fact, my hair even began steaming from the temperature difference between the water in my hair and the air around!

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First day discussions!

After getting ready and having some breakfast, we all headed to the school where we would be having our daily discussions with the kids. This time, we played a game with candy. The number of candies a student took was the number of questions he or she would have to answer. As an icebreaker, we had fun questions for each other such as what superpower would you like to have. I got to learn the kid’s names (although I cannot claim to have remembered them perfectly) and about their families. Most of their families were farmers and most of the children went to help out at their respective farms after school and during school breaks.

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Two of the village elders who taught us about Lawa culture

With our daily discussion complete, we all had lunch and then set out to explore the village. David, Nid, and I met with some of the village elders who often joined us later on our discussions with the kids at school. These elders were the ones who were the most knowledgeable about the culture, and we asked them many questions. One of the most interesting concepts we learned about was the belief of spirits. Through these discussions, we learned that there existed a blend of animism and Buddhism here. After our discussion, we decided to go visit Kamon’s farm.

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Kamon getting the rice fields ready for planting!

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Me trying to get the fire ready

We began our twenty-five minute trek to the farm. Along the way, I learned that Kamon was one of the people, along with Nid’s brother Dtee, who were advocating green farming and the reduction of pesticides, something that was also being taught to the young students. We reached Kamon’s farm and saw a beautiful display of steppe agriculture. We explored a little around and had my first “blome” (a small leach that would stick to us). In addition, we saw Kamon working on the farm with his machines. Unfortunately, we had to cut it a bit short because it started raining extremely heavily, and we still had to walk a ways back to the village.

Walking through the cool and heavy rain, we arrived back at the village ready for dinner. David and I offered to help with the dinner preparations. Nid challenged us to make fire from two pieces of wood. No matter how much we tried, we could not get it! Eventually, Nid’s dad just helped us out with it. After dinner, I immediately fell asleep.

16 July 2012

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View of the rice paddies from the village

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The animals blood wiped on the created structure for the spirits

Today, we spent most of the day trekking and witnessing really unique things at the farm. After a long, long hike up in to the mountains we came to the farm that we were supposed to be at. Here, we witnessed a ceremony to wish for good luck and a good harvest for the upcoming rice planting. The ceremony entailed the sacrifice of two chickens and one pig. I could not help but feel sorry for these animals as their emotions were brought to their face (the pig started crying of desperation to escape). After the sacrifice, the blood was wiped and a ceremonial plate was carried around. The animal’s meat was then eaten for lunch. Despite my rudimentary understanding of the ceremony, it was a complex process.

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Food, whiskey, and tobacco offerings for the spirits

The rest of the day, we spent exploring the farm. I went down to the river that ran through the village and farms that provided a major water source. In addition, I helped plant some new rice seeds into the flooded soil in the steppe agriculture. This was a really messy and fun process. We enjoyed the company and learned more about their farming techniques from the other farmers there.

Later on, we headed back to the village as it was going to be a very long way back. Kamon invited us to his house to have a drink and converse. We stayed at his house for an hour and then we stopped at another house to see Kom Jon’s (one of the monks at Doi Saket) sister’s new born baby. After this visit, I quickly fell asleep.

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Click here to read part IV

written by: Raghav Agarwal

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A cold rainy summer in Pa Pae

Summer has passed half way and these past 2 weeks, I’ve taken some time to visit my family back in Vietnam. Last week as I accompanied two friends – Tony and his sister Lily – back to Pa Pae village, it felt like coming back to my hometown. People recognized and smiled at me. And I became the host for my friends, taking them around, showing them places and introducing them to others.

The children that I met and the time I spent with them was definitely what I’ve missed the most. A group of fourth-grade students welcomed me back with words like “Teacher, we’ve missed you” or “Teacher, do you bring us gifts from you country?” During weekends they would knock on the door and drag my lazy bump out so that we could begin our adventure around the village. It is incredible to see how eager these children are. All of them are sweet, nice and do have very polite, respectful attitude which provides a comfortable environment for teaching and living.

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Village kids in traditional Lawa costumes

I remember at first, the idea of watching little children worried me a little bit, just because I’ve had very minimal experience taking care of kids. The children would start fighting, and playing in class, over and over again. Yet, as time went on, they noticed that there was a much older person in the room, a person that could guide them and help them. Some kids began to calm down and pay more attention to what I said. Some even tried to make conversation with me. As they began to look for me more often, I decided to instigate some activities that the kids and I could participate in together. Over the weekends, we ventured out onto the temple or playground and talked in mixed language – Thai, English and hand gestures. The boys are more shy standing next to me or making conversation than the girls. But they do have their own way of expressing their eagerness, by climbing up the trees and picking down the fruits for everyone to share.

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Teachers and students carry the candle up to the temple

With their tremendous help and presence this time, we took our friends to all the popular spots and shot some good footage for a marketing video for Atma Seva. The weather has gotten even cooler and rice fields have all grown to full extent in beautiful green color. We were back in time for another festival – the Buddhist Lent Day or “Khao Phansa Day”, which could be translated as “the entering of the rainy season”. It marks the beginning of three lunar months when monks are required to remain in one particular place or temple. This tradition originates from old times when Buddha stayed in temples during the rainy season to avoid killing insects or harming the growing seeds. It is a period for study, meditation and teaching of new monks. The monks are allowed to go out during the day but they must sleep in the same temple every night during these three months.

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Khao Phansa Day ceremony at the temple

Upon preparation for this day, the kids helped teachers decorate a large yellow candle with flowers on a big bamboo draft, which would later be presented to the monks. This candle is big enough to last for 3 months! Around 8:30 in the morning, everyone gathered in the schoolyard for the flag ceremony. Instead of traditional Lawa costumes, kids showed up all in white shirts for this special Friday. Everyone made small donations in an envelope and put it next to the candle. They then proceeded to stand in lines, following the teachers and older kids who carried the candle and we all marched up to the temple. Here we sat in the big bright hall, listening to the monks’ teachings and paid our respects with kowtow gestures. Although I didn’t understand any words, seeing others’ faces made it clear how important this event was for them. They all wish for a prosperous rainy season so they could have enough rice and food for another year.

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Female teachers and volunteers after the ceremony

As the ceremony came to an end, we also said goodbye to Tony and Lily. They have finished their short but fully exciting trip and hopefully through the images they brought back to share with others, we could look forward to having more and more people knowing about Pa Pae and coming to help while experiencing the warmth and beauty of this mountain village.

Trang Nguyen, on-site intern

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New video – Lawa Village

Check out the latest video about our unique Lawa Village program! This video was shot and produced by our talented on-site intern Antoine Gratian.  All details about this program can be found here.

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Lawa village – Wai Kru Day + daily village life

Me hiking around the village!

Me hiking around the village!

The marking of my fourth week in Thailand and third week living in Pa Pae village just happened to coincide with the traditional Teacher’s Day – or ‘Wai Kru Day’, which is a different event from the modern version of Teacher’s Day. Here in Thailand, Wai Kru Day is a part of the schools’ celebration scheduled every June and it normally falls on the 2nd Thursday as Thursday is considered an auspicious day in Buddhism. This year it was on June 13th. In the afternoon before the ceremony, everyone gathered in the lunch hall for a quick rehearsal before the students went out to look for different types of flowers and leaves. Together with some candles and incense, they did their best to make their class bouquets appear beautiful and unique.

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The flowers and stage ready for the ceremony.

The formal celebration started just after the daily flag ceremony on Thursday morning. We walked into the hall and saw some nice decorations on the stage, a row of chairs for the teachers placed next to the alter, and a picture of the King of Thailand. Beautiful flower bouquets were displayed on the table in front of the stage. The teachers came in and sat on the chairs, in front of the crowd of students. The ceremony began with students’ reading, in harmony, their words of appreciation, respects and promises to be good students, good people and good citizens. Each class representatives – in pairs of one boy and one girl – walked to the stage on their knees carrying the bouquets, first prostrated at the alter, and bowed at the King’s picture. Then they kneeled in a row and prostrated at teachers’ feet as a sign of respect, and presented the flowers to the teachers. After that, groups of students would follow, each bringing their own smaller and simpler versions of flower bouquets wrapped inside the banana leaves. My personal winner was the yellow bouquet as it is my favorite color!

The event was the first time I’ve learnt, witnessed and experienced Wai Kru Day. I felt like being a saint sitting on a gigantic altar; because the clasping-hand and kowtow gestures usually signify worship toward the supernatural, as well as the ascendants, in my home country (Vietnam). I would be happy enough just to receive flowers knowing that the children appreciate my effort. It was both a surprise and an honor to be a part of the event even though I am just a volunteer teacher. And I’m so proud to be the first ATMA SEVA on-site volunteer to have this experience.

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Students gathered for Wai Kru Day.

Life up on a mountain village has been good so far, with moderate adjustment to the weather, the accommodation, and of course the teaching. Things are beginning to take off in my preparation for materials and interaction with the kids in class. The area I am working on at the moment is conversational English, helping the students to become familiar with new vocabularies by topics, and learn to make simple question-and-answer dialogues. The challenge of having a class of all hill-tribe students is that they have to learn three languages – the local Lawa, Thai and English – at the same time. It makes things hard for them to retain without regular review and practice. And the local people in general have rather limited exposure and resources to a good English education. So I am very appreciative of the support and ideas of helping these kids that ATMA SEVA is offering. Having observed and made progresses for three weeks, I have started to create more activity-prone materials – such as puzzles, coloring tasks, games and songs – for the children as my go-to teaching strategy. It seems to work effectively in keeping the students interested, attentive and engaged in learning.

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Rice fields in the village.

Outside of classroom, the rainy season has started, and the weather is much cooler than in Bangkok or Chiang Mai, which is plus. For the last few weeks, I have not slept in the gale of a fan. We are still getting some nice sunny weather between the rain showers, but the showers are beginning to get longer and more persistent. Rainy season also marked the beginning of planting season. People here maintain a sustainable lifestyle by self-producing food from farming and raising livestock while still insisting on protecting the environment as they understand the importance of preserving nature as their main source of existence. The 13th day of the 5th lunar month marks the start of rice planting season. On my first day after arriving in the village, Katherine took me around for a tour of the area and we walked up to the farm of pee Bits family – who has been taking great care of the volunteers. They were cleaning up and ploughing the soil to make space for new rice season. Three weeks since then, I was walking along the narrow hillside roads, looking down the terrace rice fields that have all been filled with rain water and rice started to grow out in bright green, creating a beautiful canvas down the valleys.

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Pee Bit’s husband ploughing the rice field.

Similar to other small rural villages around Asia, Pa Pae is a close-knit community. Life is simple; people are friendly and welcoming. The doors are always open and people in the house enjoy making conversations with their neighbors and the passer-by. Beside the many familiar things we could see or find in any Asian countries, there’s always something that is different and distinguishes the cultures apart. The ‘twisty’ difference within the resemblance gives this place a special charm that makes it special and fascinating. Houses are raised on stilts; people live on the upper quarter while animals are kept on the ground together with storage space. The villagers always seem to be busy with their daily activities. The men go to their work in the farms everyday, women gather at one house and make traditional Lawa bags together. Some teachers work at school during the day and go to the farm in the afternoon and during weekends. As the nights fall, everything gradually comes to sleep before another new day dawns. Walking along the alley every night from pee Bit’s house back to my dorm room, the dimming light flickering from the houses can be easily mistaken with fireflies.

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Cooking dinner with Pee Bit.

I got used to listening to the kids’ voice in the schoolyard to tell time. Everyday around 7am, the morning sounds of doors opening and students’ talking wakes me up. And music about the King and his teachings echoes shortly after, like a greeting for a new day. I admire the students here for being hardworking and showing great respect to the teachers. On my first day at school, I walked into the new room and was surprised by a group of students who were cleaning and bringing me things to make sure I would have a comfortable stay. They would clasp their hands together and bow down toward the teachers all the time. They bring water and coffee for teachers, help clean and wash the dishes after every meal. They also divide among themselves to help cooking lunch for the younger kids in kindergarten. School for the village kids is not only the place to learn but it’s also a social gathering place, where they learn about farming, help build and maintain school with activities such as planting flowers, cleaning and repairing things. Between 4-5pm in the afternoon is the quietest time at school, when students finish with classes and go back home for a short break. Then they all just come flooding back yelling, screaming, laughing, playing sports and games down in the schoolyard before dinner time. Friday is what I call ‘traditional Lawa clothes’ day when the boys show up in their white shirts and pants, and the girls in black shirts and skirts with pretty decorative details that I totally love. And that’s why I’ve just got for myself, my sister and my mom each with a traditional Lawa shirt and I am so eager to wear it the coming Friday. Maybe then I’ll look like a Lawa teacher!

Trang Nguyen, on-site intern

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Behind the scenes at ATMA SEVA

Everybody loves a good, heart-warming story of how people are making a difference in the world. How often do we see a headline and picture of a donation being received, a volunteer construction project being completed or other “snapshot” moments in the volunteer world?  There is no shortage of worthy causes to support.

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On-site intern Katherine and the student from the Karen village

What many people don’t realize, or think about, is how much work goes on behind the scenes to allow that photo op to happen. For example, ATMA SEVA recently visited a Galiang (Karen) hill tribe to bring light bulbs and fixtures for the entire village of twelve families. Our connection with this village has grown organically over the past year. It all began when we met a novice studying at Wat Saraphi (temple school working with our Wat Doi Saket project) who came from this particular village. After hearing that he had not been home in over five years, we thought that it would be nice to take a picture of him to his family back in the village. This particular village is very small and remote and has no computer access. The next time we were out in Pa Pae (Lawa village), we made a trip over to the village of this student to deliver a picture to his parents. They were thrilled to hear how their son was doing and see a photo of him, happy and well, at the wat.

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Our first visit to the Karen village

It was during this trip that we noticed a surprising presence in the village: solar panels! This small village of less than fifty people had received a donation of solar panels and light bulbs from an aid organization several years ago.  Unfortunately, despite the implementation of a quite modern system, many of the houses didn’t have light. Originally, they thought the solar panels were broken, but it turned out that many of the light bulbs in the houses had simply burnt out. When we asked if there was anything we could do to help, they asked us if we could bring them some replacement bulbs. Thus our mission began!

After a few trips to the village to find out the specifications and number of light bulbs required, we eventually acquired the necessary equipment and matching mounting fixtures in Chiang Mai to bring back to the village.  This past weekend, we were finally able to bring the supplies to the village and watched while one of the village men deftly assembled the new light fixture in his home, a happy moment for all.

Lights in Karen village

Success!

Many of ATMA SEVA’s connections have similar histories. We pride ourselves on working directly with community leaders and letting them convey their needs and desired projects.  Often times even the best intentions can have unforeseen negative consequences if the community is not an active participant in the relationship. In our opinion, it’s much better to let the community tell us what needs they have and together we can then discuss a potential partnership to address these needs.

This is how our flagship Wat Doi Saket project started- after the initial Rotary funding for the HIV AIDS awareness project expired, we approached the temple with a simple question: how can we best help?  The answer was straightforward: ‘we would like English teachers to help improve our English’. Since then, we’ve been working hard to develop a sustainable program bringing native English speakers to Wat Doi Saket as well as other affiliated temple schools.

ATMA SEVA is at a point in its development where we are confident in the quality of the relationships and programs we have created and maintained. The trial and error phase is over and we are ready to launch full steam ahead! Like many organizations, the biggest obstacle is funding. We have recently submitted our 501(c)3 paperwork to become a federally recognized non-profit with tax-exempt status. Once this is approved, all donations received from the date of submission onwards will be eligible for tax-exemption.

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One of many trips to the Karen village. This trip we brought a donation of clothes.

Similar to the project with the Karen village, people often overlook how long it takes to develop relationships and build trust.  We recently started a Wish List, where people can donate money and that donation goes directly towards school supplies for the schools we work with.  This did not happen over night.  For ATMA SEVA to be in a position to bring donations and volunteers has taken over three years to establish.  These ‘feel good’ moments are fueled by extreme hard work and dedication to our projects.  In addition to hard work and dedication, it takes money to pay for gas or money to pay for volunteer teaching supplies.

We would like to encourage everyone, if you can, please consider making a donation to support ATMA SEVA’s ongoing efforts.  We finally have the manpower to increase the momentum of the projects, but to keep things up and running, we need funds. Every little bit helps, from $5 that can pay for the gas necessary to drive to and from a school out of town where we’ve stationed a volunteer, to the $55 that will buy a full school support pack- whatever the amount, you know that it is going directly to support and improve our community projects. The Karen village light bulb donation would not have been possible without a generous donation from Elizabeth Devine that allowed us to purchase and transport the supplies.

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Thank you very much to all donors, past and present, who support ATMA SEVA..

If anyone has any questions about donations, our projects, or anything else, please send us an email or leave a comment below.

Krup Kuhn mak krup (thank you very much in Thai)

Jamie Shannon & David Poppe

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Lawa Village – Teamwork in Pa Pae

Hello folks,

My name is Dan Yachnin and I feel very lucky to have been able to spend the past month teaching English in the Lawa village of Papae with ATMA SEVA. I had just finished a year of teaching English in South Korea and wanted to make a few stops on my odyssey back to my Canadian home. This stop has been relaxing, beautiful, and inspiring.

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Farewell dinner in Pa Pae. From left to right: Pee Bit (Nid’s sister-in-law), Nid, me, Nid’s mother

I had never visited a community this small and this remote in my life and never imagined that (in a small way) I would ever become a part of one. I tried to picture the village before coming here and tried to imagine what would make it roll. I figured that for the community to have any kind of success and survival it would require the people to work together.  I could not have anticipated how right I was! The village works together as a team in which everybody seems to do their part and everybody seems to show caring and acceptance of one another.

As a teacher, the first obvious example of teamwork naturally appeared in the classroom. I had never really taught this level of ESL students and I admit that some of the work I gave and some of the questions I asked were much too hard for many of the students. Nevertheless, the ones who understood were always keen to help out the ones that did not and were always kind about it. I guess that’s not so surprising. What I found amazing was how nicely the students played what should have been competitive games! Games as simple as memory matching (that were supposed to lead to individual success) became group efforts as students looked around the room for guidance on which card to flip next. This was a sharp contrast to the experience I had in S. Korea where choosing to do a quick, mildly competitive review game before a test risked the onset of tears!

Next was football (or soccer to N. Americans). In the late afternoons when the weather cooled down a bit, the older boys always came out to play football. Once again, there were never any tears and never any pushing. Everyone was happy to play together and everybody seemed welcome to join (though I don’t think I ever saw any girls playing… they are, however, supposedly amazing at volleyball). Where were they getting these wonderful values? Why were they so much more respectful of one another than the students and athletes back home?

Let’s move up the ladder a little further and check out what happened on Songkran. Songkran, discussed in more detail by Katherine here, celebrates the lunar New Year and is of great importance religiously to the Buddhists in Thailand and socially to pretty much everyone.  Many people came back to Pa Pae to spend the holiday with their families and with each other. The younger adults got together to build dams in the river and prepare for a big water fight. The older adults got together to plan a route to pay respects to the elders of different households, which involved very respectfully pouring a small amount of water on each elder. Both groups shared the duty of ensuring plenty of village whiskey to last the day! It was a great holiday and only because everybody was pushing in the same direction.

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Villagers working together to build a dam during Songkran

Finally, I’d like to talk about the funeral that I witnessed during my last week. It was a 3-day event to honor the passing of one of the village’s elders and it was a very strong demonstration of how people can come together. Everybody stopped what they were doing for three days and came to pay respects in many forms including candle lighting, chanting, dancing, eating together and staying up every night until 6am so that the body was never alone. It was a beautiful mixture of mourning and celebration. There were countless jobs to go around and everybody seemed to know what to do. People also contributed money to pay for an animal to be sacrificed and eaten for the occasion. A pig would be a small honor whereas a buffalo would be much better. When I woke up, I saw a man with a machete walking near my house. He saw me and signaled for me to come and to bring my camera. I followed him to the site of the recently killed buffalo where about 20 people worked away with machetes to harvest the body. After I had brought the horns over to the house of mourning (about all I’m good for) I saw that there was also a pig and a whole other buffalo that had been purchased for the funeral. This meant more donations and more work that morning to get everything ready for the village of only about 200 people.  Later that day people from other villages came to join in the ceremonies and showed me that there was an extended family to the already giant family of Pa Pae!

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A group of Pa Pae men preparing the buffalo meat for cooking during the 3-day funeral event

I cannot thank this village enough for the hospitality it has shown me and the ways that it has inspired me. At a time where I was checking internet updates on war threats from North Korea and explosions in the Boston Marathon, Pa Pae reminded me what it means to work together and solve problems together. I won’t forget that!

Thank you for a great month!

Dan

info@atmaseva.org

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