Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Not a typical tourist

by Lynn Wilkinson

On the morning of our village visit, we are up and out of the guest house by 7:30am, ready for the 30 minute tuk-tuk ride to the village. I am happy to be driving into the mountains. I remember from the view on the flight here that Luang Prabang is surrounded by mountains, but the city is so completely dominated by Phousi hill and the two rivers surrounding it, that it is easy to forget that we are in the midst of hilly jungle territory.   The tuk-tuk stops at a small cluster of shops by the road, and we climb up the dirt path to our school.
Our first stop, literally before we have a chance to say "hello", is at what the Lao volunteer coordinators call the “dream toilet”.   The village has painted the school lavatories with an astonishingly beautiful mural of fish and flowers.  Each door is clearly painted (“so there is no confusion”), with a little girl, a little boy, and… a teacher.  Our teachers’ bathroom is absolutely spotless.  It is clear that they are very proud of the beauty of this space, and to me it seems a very tangible demonstration of the appreciation they have for the work we are doing and the importance of education for the village.  I wish that I could somehow show appreciation back for all this effort, and I suppose the teaching is appreciation enough, but it still feels indirect and inadequate somehow.   We have already been warned that there is not actually any water in this bathroom, and so nobody is likely to use it while we are there.  I wish I had the courage to try to use the bathroom but I tell myself it’s better to leave it pristine anyway and so we move on.

At the start of the school day, the students line up and sing a couple of brief songs, and then we are introduced as today’s teachers.  The children have an incredible amount of energy and it is clear that they are excited about the day.   I teach with a partner GVI volunteer and there is also a Lao volunteer, training to be an English teacher, to help us.   Today we are teaching some new vocabulary and simple grammar.  We start with an “icebreaker” exercise using animals, and it is a fun and exciting start.  The kids know their animals very well, and they seem to pick up new ideas fairly quickly.  After teaching some new vocabulary, we play a game of Concentration (they have to match the new vocabulary to a picture) and they just love it, crowding around the game space excitedly and helping each other out. 

I am still a fairly new teacher, with only a couple of classes under my belt, and so I make some simple mistakes during the course of our teaching exercises.  I believe that it matters, and I feel a little badly.   GVI volunteers have been taught that in the Lao culture, the teacher is “always” right, and that students will never correct a teacher no matter how egregious the error.  I am convinced that my students spotted my errors but we all just move on past them.  The Lao phrase “Bo-pen-yang” (it doesn’t matter), has been important at many moments during my visit, and I decide that now is an especially good time to embrace that philosophy.

After teaching, we move outside for games.  We play an educational game with our class for a little while, but soon all the classes gather together and one of the Lao volunteers leads us in a series of games.  All the games seem to be aimed at inculcating a sense of “one-ness” amongst the group.  The first game is a singing/chanting exercise where everyone sings/says the words together with a lot of arm movements to illustrate the dance.  It is very hard to follow but once I give up on all pretence of doing it “correctly” it becomes fun, and I enjoy the feeling of being a part of it all.   The second game is a competition, and the goal of the game is for each team to perform some fairly simple tasks in perfect unison.   We have four teams, one for each GVI volunteer.   I am paired up with one of the Lao volunteers, who knows the game well.  As a result of his skills, my team is one of the last two teams standing, and we have a “face off” with one of the other teams to determine the “winner”.  The face-off involves lots of standing up from a squatting position and sitting back down again while chanting our team name and then the other team’s name.  All of this happens very rapidly to the beat of a drum, which gets faster over time.  The kids are squealing with delight, and it is definitely a lot of fun, but my 50 year old thigh muscles were squealing with agony.  My thighs had already been protesting the regular use of squat toilets, and this game was more than they signed up for.  I manage to hang on until victory is awarded to the other team, in gales of laughter from everyone as our team collapses in disarray.  It is a great ending to the day.

After teaching, we have lunch with the Lao volunteers at the local village restaurant.  There are chickens walking around our table; a family washing clothes in a stream by the road; the food is really tasty; and I feel very Lao.  This is an experience you could never get if you were traveling as a typical tourist and I am extremely glad that I decided to take the plunge and try it out.