Juggling Act – Volunteering in Vang Vieng

Every time that I start a new work assignment, I step into a situation or environment that already exists and since “you can’t unboil an egg” I have to listen, learn, determine what can versus needs to be done and press on. Much of what exists in relation to the volunteer work that I’m doing is a result of government mandates, lack of funds, lack of availability to find tools and resources, and engrained cultural norms. Please also understand that while it may sound a bit grueling at times and far different than what might be able to be done in a developed nation, this is what is available here. It’s simply a different way of life and the managers of this program, along with the volunteers, make the best of it. Frankly, it’s humbling.

Week One, Day One: Monday

I’m off to the Huay Sangnao primary school to teach English. My first class is equivalent to what I believe would be Grade 3 students, my second is Grade 4, but they’ll have the same lesson. Then, in the afternoon, I’ll teach Grade 5, and finally, at 5pm, I’ll teach an after school class of mixed students. The day is a little choppy. The morning classes are back to back, but then we get a two hour lunch break, then about another two hours until I have to go back for the after school session. The school is only about a five-minute bike ride from our house so I ride back and forth three times.

I’ve done plenty of trainings and presentations for teams of adults in a corporate office setting, but I’ve never taught children. So right here, I’d like to stop, take a moment, and thank all of you out there who teach children or run a daycare for that matter. I have a new level of appreciation for all of your hard work, endless patience, and energy. Shaping young minds takes a special set of skills. I initially thought that this would be a very easy day but it turns out that teaching, especially to young children who don’t understand everything that I’m saying, is emotionally draining.

Vang Vieng Elementary School English Book - one of our lessons.  It's not easy doing these two lessons when the kids don't have books.

Vang Vieng Elementary School English Book – one of our lessons… not easy to teach when the kids don’t have books.

I was a little frustrated with the books that we were given for the class because they didn’t seem to follow a logical progression for learning English, but they are approved and mandated by Laos’ government, so there is no changing them. Once I got in the classroom, I also learned that not all of the children have books, so the beginning of each lesson consists of a vocabulary session where I write all of the words that we’re going to use that day on the board for the kids to copy, practice saying aloud, and then spelling. They’re very good at saying most of the words and copying them, but they can’t spell them without looking at them. I determined that they don’t really know what the words mean either, so they have trouble turning them into a sentence. The comprehension level seemed to vary widely, so some could copy in just minutes while others took much longer. This means the advanced kids get bored while waiting for the others, start talking to one another, and I lose their attention. Then their talking distracts the rest of the class and slowly I lose control of the whole dynamic. I did everything I could think of to keep their attention, which meant that class quickly turned into a game of charades and then somehow morphed into songs when it was clear that a prior volunteer had taught them a few catchy tunes. Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes… You put your left hand in, you put your left hand out, you put your left hand in and you shake it all about…

Teaching the after school class.

Teaching the after school class.

The classrooms are rudimentary with concrete floors, two-person desks with bench seats, and two chalkboards leaning against the wall in the front of the classroom. Some of the windows open and some don’t. Only one of my classrooms had a fan and it was broken. There is chalk and little cloth bags full of cotton to be used as erasers. Most of the children have notebooks and pens and they all wear uniforms, except in the “after school” class.

I watched these kids and even while they spoke another language, it was easy to pick out the class clown, the queen bee, the studious ones, the shy ones, the leaders, and the followers. There were those who liked attention for doing good work and those who liked attention for doing poor work. It’s funny how not much changes as we grow up.

Week One, Day Two: Tuesday

I’m off to the farm, which is a block of land in Ban Pak Po.  My fellow volunteers are trickling out the door one by one. One of them tells me, “make a right at the end of the road and then stay on the main road and keep riding for 25 minutes until you cross the bridge.” By then, she assured me that she will have caught up to me and will show me where to turn off for the farm. The ride has small rolling hills and quite a bit of traffic, which consists of pedestrians walking along the road, other bikes, motorbikes, cars and trucks. Cyclists have as much of the “right of way” on the road as other motorized vehicles. I wish I had one of those masks I mentioned in Things that make me go hmmm because the truck and motorcycle fumes are nauseating, but at least my sunglasses keep the dust out of my eyes. The first half of the ride is a bit hectic, but the second half is quiet and lovely with the mountains to the left of me the whole way.

Fruit Friends Farm (Garden)

Fruit Friends Farm (Garden)

As we arrive at the farm, I couldn’t immediately differentiate which were plants and which were weeds. It seems that with the ebb and flow of volunteers, the weeds can overrun quite quickly. After surveying the land, I would describe this project as a garden, not a farm. There are no animals and it definitely requires daily maintenance, unlike crops that might be planted on a farm. The first thing that we need to do is water all of the flower and vegetable beds, and then all of the trees. We have banana trees, pineapple plants, mango trees, cassava, lime, and a host of others along with onions, lettuce, lemongrass, and a few other vegetables. Honestly, I’m still learning them all because they aren’t labeled and the program manager, Sai, often only knows the Lao name for them, so I have to translate the Lao name to English. It’s a long, uphill lot and the only option for watering is a well. We have 2-5 gallon jugs and 3 watering cans. One person has to man the well and pull water up bucket by bucket, then we all take turns filling the watering cans and jugs, and the rest of us walk the lot to do the watering. With 5 volunteers, it takes about 90-minutes to water everything. By the end of the week, we will be down to just me and one other volunteer. I imagine it will take well over two hours by that time.

Trail to the shed in the garden.  Hopefully this will soon be the toilet instead of the shed.

Trail to the shed in the garden. Hopefully this will soon be the toilet instead of the shed.

After watering, there are a list of other things that need to be done… weeding almost everywhere, sanding the new hut that was built so that we can seal the wood, building a compost bin to try to improve the soil, and cleaning out the shed so that it can be used for it’s originally intended purpose as a toilet.   Right now, working on the garden means strategically drinking enough water to stay hydrated in 100F degree (38C) heat but not drinking so much that you’ll need to use the toilet because it’s not accessible.

The recently built hut in the Fruit Friends Garden.

The recently built hut in the Fruit Friends Garden.

We finished watering around 10:30am and then started weeding. Our program manager, Sai, stops by the Fruit Friends house every morning to organize the day and ensure that everyone is going where they are scheduled to go. Also, Boun, our Head of House, is his wife, so in the morning, after Boun ensures that we’ve all gotten breakfast, she makes us lunch. Sai waits for her to finish making it and packing it for us and then he brings it to the garden. We stop for lunch around 11:30am because by that time we’ve worked up quite an appetite. We leisurely enjoy our food under our newly constructed hut in the shade and once we’ve digested our food, we go back to whatever we were working on before we started eating. By 2pm, we start watering again. This is the hot, dry season so the plants need to be watered twice a day to survive.

At about 3pm, Sanne, one of the other volunteers, and I stop watering and ride the thirty minutes back to the house. Both of us are assigned to after school English classes this week, so we have to shower, change and then ride to the primary school by 5pm to teach for an hour. Clearly I was a little too soft on this class of students in Monday’s class because today they are walking all over me… talking amongst themselves, taking twice as

The angels / devils in my English class in Vang Vieng.

The angels / devils in my English class in Vang Vieng.

long to copy words than it should, running in and out of the classroom. To top it off, it’s super hot so we have all of the windows and door open, which means that the kids who are still there, playing in the yard, occasionally pass by the windows and yell to someone in the class. It’s utter chaos. All of my ideas from Monday seem to be useless. While I was writing on the board, they even went through my bag and found my camera and were looking at pictures. By that point, I gave up and just let them look at the pictures for the last 10 minutes. I was exasperated. These adorable children are terrors.

Week One, Day Three: Wednesday

I’m off to the garden again and this time I know where I’m going and I feel a little more comfortable biking in traffic so I enjoy the ride. The morning goes much like the prior one except that today there are only 4 of us to do the watering. Some time in the middle of watering, Sai joined us and informed us that we needed to go to the secondary school in the village of Keo Kuang to help them work. Fruit Friends has already built a primary school in this remote village and now they are adding a secondary school. The village of

The Village of Keo Kuang

The Village of Keo Kuang

Keo Kuang is an hour drive away, about twenty minutes on the main road and another forty on a narrow, winding, mountain road. They were cementing the walls of the outside of the building today. This means sifting sand, manually mixing cement, and then running buckets of water and cement back and forth to the local laborers who were working on the walls. Initially, I felt like I was standing around and doing nothing, waiting for them to need more water or cement. So, when they took their lunch break, I asked Sai if I could mix more cement for them. He said yes and instructed me as I worked on it. That was my first time mixing cement and I liked learning something new. Sai also walked me over to the primary school that they had finished to show me their work. It looked exactly the same as the other two schools that I’ve seen. There was one problem, though… they had built a building for three toilets but there were no doors. The boys often used them anyway or found a tree around the outside of the yard, but the girls often had to run to a neighboring house to ask to use the toilet. When I talked to Sai about why they hadn’t finished the doors, he said they needed a professional to come back out because he didn’t have a power drill to install the hinges for the doors.   They had all the materials, but needed 300,000 kip to pay the laborer. This is $36. I told him I would donate it but wanted to see the doors on the building before I finished my volunteer time. Considering that they were already working on another site, I wondered if it was truly the money, or perhaps availability, motivation, or indifference, but as a woman, providing a closed-door toilet just seemed like human decency.

Sanne and I had to get back for our after school class, so we left the site around 2:30pm, drove an hour back to the garden, picked up our bikes, rode home, showered, changed and rode to the school. The kids were as much a nightmare as the day prior, so I had to put on my serious, “don’t mess with me” face and let them know that I would kick them out of the class if they didn’t listen. I also had to close the door and windows on the side of the room that faced the yard to prevent the other kids from distracting us, which meant that I was teaching in a classroom that felt like a sauna. They didn’t like my sudden change in attitude, but at least they started to realize that I was serious when I kicked two kids out. Give me strength… teaching is much harder than any physical labor that I do all day at the garden or the construction site.

Week One, Day Four: Thursday

It’s a teaching day. After last night’s “after school” class, I’m not really looking forward to it, but I’ve been silently giving myself positive coaching all morning as I get ready to leave. I could tell that Sanne felt the same way that I did as we walked out the door. We wished each other good luck before going separate directions into our classes. The first class went okay. They were a little tough, but I made it through with no major disruptions. I went on to my second class and they were angels, especially in comparison to the first class!! I even got some thank you’s at the end of class. Wow, maybe I was getting the hang of this.

When Sanne and I went home for lunch, Davone, the other program manager, was at the house and she informed us that there was no afternoon class on Thursdays and that we wouldn’t have to teach next week, which might have been the best news that Sanne and I had heard all week. Every week on Thursday afternoon, the kids have game time all afternoon long. I think it’s a little like what gym class would be for us in the States, except that they do it for much longer. Between the bike rides or walks to school and the playing in the yard, these kids seem to get much more exercise than probably 90% of the kids in the US (Don’t quote me on that; I’ve done no research whatsoever. I just see a lot of kids in the US sitting in front of TV’s, computers, and X-boxes). Sanne and I had a relaxing afternoon and then went back to the school for our after school class at 5pm. Again, not so bad… I still had to kick two or three kids out of the room, but all the others got the point. They know what my limits are now.

Week One, Day Five: Friday

Off to the garden and today it’s only Sanne and I. We’ll have to do all of the watering, just the two of us. Sai had to get supplies for the construction project today so he won’t be coming until later. It’s much easier when he’s there because he’s stronger and can pull buckets of water up from the well much faster than we can. Without him, it took us about two hours, which wasn’t bad considering we had twice the volunteers on Wednesday.

After watering, we are off to Keo Kuang again. They are finishing with the cementing today. By the time we arrive, it’s lunchtime, so we eat first. As we finish lunch, the construction

Learning how to cement the walls of our school in Keo Kuang.

Learning how to cement the walls of our school in Keo Kuang.

crew breaks for their lunch, so we start by sifting sand to make more cement. Once we finish, they set up some wobbly scaffolding and told us to climb up. Exciting! I expected a somewhat boring day since during the last visit, I mainly just carried buckets back and forth. This time, it seemed like they were going to teach us how to cement the wall… and that’s exactly what they did. I think we did well for our first time, although there is certainly a technique that can come only with practice. The professionals had to smooth our sections out a bit at the end.

After finishing the wall, we had to jump back in the truck to head back to the farm, pick up our bikes, ride to the house, shower, and change to teach our after school class. When we arrived, my classroom was locked, so Sanne and I decided to double up on her class. This worked very well. The kids weren’t sure why I was there, didn’t know me, or what boundaries they could push with me, and there were two of us to keep them orderly. When I was writing on the board or asking them to copy, Sanne was able to walk around the room and check their work. It was a very good end to what was a rocky week of teaching.

I went through a roller coaster ride of emotions this week, but I can attest that every day seemed to get a little bit easier. It definitely helped that I moved into a downstairs bedroom in the house, had a little more privacy and could easily rest or go to sleep when I needed to recuperate.  Assignments like this one make me appreciate the simplest things in life. I’m slowly beginning to revel again.

More to come soon on the town and goals of our projects…

4 thoughts on “Juggling Act – Volunteering in Vang Vieng

  1. Pingback: Happy Rain Dance | Revelling in gratitude

  2. Pingback: Slow Growth – Volunteering in Vang Vieng | Revelling in gratitude

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