Sitting here listening to the frogs talk about the rain and the birds sing about their lunch, I am reflecting back on this past weekend. It was absolutely crammed with activity, but the activities we shared were unique in the sense that we could not have done anything like them back in Bozeman. And that fact alone makes me smile wide, remembering each event, knowing that this year abroad is worth its trouble and the reminder that there is still good in the world.
Saturday morning started out with pouring rain and, therefore, the decision to leave the bathing suits and towels at home. Our plans for an afternoon dip were cancelled, but our morning plans were still on, and that was sure to be the more enjoyable one anyway. At 9:30 we met with friends Ady and Sandy at their house so we could carpool to our destination: Bethany Children's Home. As we learned along the way, this is a home for about 40 kids who either don't have parents or are just better off being away from their parents. They live together in a small compound on what I would consider the outskirts of Chiang Rai. We were there to help Ady and Sandy with an art project they wanted to do with the kids. That day, the plan was to have the kids come up with a group name and paint the name on a white T-shirt. Then they could wear the shirts during future art projects in the months to come. They quickly decided on "Bethany" since that's the name of their house. We passed out shirts, paints, brushes and paint trays and the kids got to work. What was really surprising though, was the care with which all the children approached their project. Most of them decided to sketch their art in pencil first so as not to make any unfix-able mistakes. Something told me that they were not accustomed to asking for more, especially if it was for something silly, like a "mistake" they made while painting. These are kids of the Bob Ross school: no mistakes, just happy accidents.
As the children painted happily, we walked around the room taking photos and observing. Radd, Suni and Ady and Sandy's daughter made their own shirts right along with the kids of Bethany, though they did their own personalized designs. We also got to meet the pastor who founded the house and others who help run it and fund raise for it. I was truly inspired by their dedication to this unparalleled worthy cause and could have stayed all day, but as lunch time approached, everyone was too hungry to paint, so we cleaned up, took more photos, passed out snacks and treats, and headed back into town for the second part of our day.
What better place to eat lunch after spending the morning at an orphanage, than a cafe whose mission is to employ and aid young people who were rescued from child trafficking? We couldn't think of any, so to Destiny Cafe we went. Destiny is located close to the clock tower in Chiang Rai. This is a very central location and a landmark to anyone who's ever been here. Anyway, walking into the place, I was struck by how Western it is. In fact, all of the customers who were in the place when we entered, when we ate, and when we left were farang (this is the Thai word for anyone who appears to be from a European heritage.) That's not good or bad, just sayin'. Anyway, the menu was great, offering both traditional Thai fare and delicious looking Western food like burgers, pizza and waffles. Suni can attest to the waffle's deliciousness - whipped cream and strawberry sauce don't disappoint 7 year olds. The adults all chose Thai food though, and that didn't disappoint either. The price was right, the food was good and the feeling of supporting this enterprise was warm and fuzzy, No complaints.
After heading home, we chilled out for a while and talked about the day we had had. Then, the rain cleared and we decided to go down to the Saturday walking street. Radd was looking for a "bucket hat" and Suni always loves to look at clothes and makeup. Radd found his hat almost right away, and not for the 50 baht he had seen last week. This one was perfect and only 20 baht. That's about 58 U.S. cents! I guess because we saved some cash, Jess and Radd went off to spend some money on massages. Just down from the hat stand were groups of massage beds under small tents with masseuses like carnival barkers trying to get passers by in for a cheap rub. They opted for a half hour massage and paid about 140 baht ($4 for the both of them) Unfortunately, Jess left the tent in more pain than when she went in, but Radd had a great time being bent, squeezed, twisted and pulled. Afterwards, we walked on and found a bouncy house set up off to the side. The kids were excited to do something familiar to them, and so we agreed. They spent about 20 minutes jumping around in the humid Thai night air, under the lights of the walking street, and surrounded by people from a very different culture but sharing the exact same emotions and experience. It made me smile.
That was enough for one day, so we drove home in the Soluna, wiping away the fog on the windows and cursing the fact that this "car" was designed without defrost vents under the windshield.
Home sweet home.
Believe me when I say that it is a rare weekend day when our family wakes up with no plans. But on this day, we certainly did. That all changed after breakfast when I got a text inviting us to a Sunday potluck south of town on a property being developed into an elephant refuge. I had heard about this project a few weeks earlier at another potluck and was really excited to check it out. In fact, the folks behind this project have owned another elephant refuge in Cambodia for the past 10 years and only recently came to Chinag Rai to start this new one. So, potluck in the jungle? Let's go!
Our contribution to the dinner was 3 barbecued chickens bought from a street vendor whose price fluctuates with the temperature. He's a nice guy, very smiley, but I can't understand how he charges me a different amount every time! Is it the color of my shirt? The day of the week? I don't know, but that day he only charged me 100 baht each, which was a new low, so I wasn't complaining.
Driving out to the property, we headed south out of town to the White Temple. This is by far the most famous landmark in Chinag Rai. Go ahead and do a Google image search of Chiang Rai and most of what you'll see is the White Temple. But instead of turning right to the temple, we made a left and followed banana fields for a few hundred meters until we came to an old, rusted red gate. Turning in there, we followed a disused driveway into the jungle, past heaps of broken concrete being quickly claimed by the vines and leaves. The rubble was from torn down chicken hatcheries that used to cover the property until the bird flu swept into southeast Asia about 20 years ago. We were told over a million chickens had to be killed in this location alone in order to stop the spread of the disease, and afterwards, the chicken operation was shut down permanently. Over the years the buildings rotted and the trees and grasses began to cover everything. Then a few months ago, Jack and Brigit came in from Cambodia to start an elephant camp. This is probably the best thing that could have happened to the land because, to make the property safe for elephants, they literally have to go over every square inch of soil to remove any potentially dangerous debris. This means months of methodically scouring 100 rai of land, sifting down into the soil and removing old wire, glass, broken concrete, old tools, rusted nails - anything that could pose a risk to an 8,000 pound elephant. We met them, the owners - not the elephants, under a tin roofed structure with no walls and only a few bamboo picnic tables and hammocks for furniture. There were small potted plants everywhere - future landscaping material for the refuge - and one small resident spider that looked like a Lego burglar. (See Below)
After introductions, we talked about the process of turning an old chicken hatchery into an elephant sanctuary and what they envision for the future of this place. Sitting out of the sun, looking over the tall grasses, vine-covered jungle and pitted dirt roads, I could easily imagine a couple Asian elephants wandering around, trumpeting happily to each other, pulling on branches and perhaps taking a handout from a farang. But the owners saw more than I did. A shipping container would be a small cafe. A grassy area would become a playground for kids. And there would even be housing for weary backpackers. With its close proximity to the White Temple and the owners expertise and devotion to the elephants, I know that this endeavor will be a success.
So, we spent the afternoon thusly: eating roasted chicken and pasta salad, drinking Chang in a glass with ice (it's what you do here) and talking about the land, the people, the elephants soon the come. The kids were sent on long walks around the jungle with directions to find 4 different seed pods, 5 different leaves and 2 interesting sticks, which they did. Whether their sticks were "interesting" or not was a matter of fierce debate, but the adults lost. When it was time to go, we thanked our hosts and new friends and began the 45 minute ride home through city traffic and choking exhaust. I wanted to turn around and go back, but I knew the kids had school in the morning and anyway, our home is quiet and relaxing too.
Another weekend come and gone. Another weekend into our year abroad. And another weekend closer to our return home. These particular two days, though, will stand out in our memories as one where we learned, we helped, we saw, we experienced, we connected and we grew together. I hope the weekends to come will be half as good as this one was - and with Jessica's 40th birthday coming up, who knows what could happen?