Stories, Questions, and Mysteries

Stories, Questions, and Mysteries

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Teaching Year End

End of teaching year.

              Wednesday December 24 this the last day of classes, as on Thursday three will be tableaus and celebrations for the local interpretation of what Christmas is rather than what it was or meant. And since the Generals have granted a vacation, to promote the economy, until January 4th this will be my last week at Bo Suay HIgh School. Details later.

              Medical Adventures.

             If this piece sounds like doctor's waiting room discussion of "my health issues" feel free to skip. I offer it as another set of travel experiences or cautionary tale about healthcare when away from local friendly general practitioners and pharmacies. 
            On Friday 10th I fell off my bike while riding to the temple. The bike and I descended into a concrete drain about 3 or 4 hundred mills deep and about 250 wide. I grazed my right calf. After washing and applying antiseptic cream I went to the hospital in Phon Phi Sai and had it looked at and dressed. This dressing daily went on for over a week, including one doctor prescribing oral and IV antibiotics. Day ten and on Sunday evening a doctor appeared in the  accident and emergency room where treatment is administered. He recommended I see the "specialist" who would visit on Monday. This all sounds so cliched.
            Monday morning I was summoned to Dr Tanet's room. He prodded and poked and talked to Jack my boss, interpreter. After 15 minutes of that Jack told me the situation was that though there was some superficial healing, there would be problems of a deeper infection which needed attention. He recommended opening the wound, cleaning and trimming skin and then regular dressing inspected by himself. 
           Terror cloaked me. I said that granted the infection control, or lack of it, in the place I had had the dressings minor surgery was out of the question.
           Options: 1. Go to Nong Khai private hospital where Thanet would operate anyway and they might want me to stay in hospital there isolated and the cost would be ten times that where I was. 2. Travel to Chiang Mai Ram hospital, an excellent place. 3. Do nothing. 4. Trust that Thanet knew what he was doing and go for it.
            None of my doctor mates or GP were available when I tried them on Skype. So OK let's do it; guaranteed I could have the use of the operating theatre. The coward in me was in constant negotiation with some inner common sense factor or at least pragmatic self.
           Out of street clothes and into operating gear and 'hat' was reassuring that they had heard of that kind of gear. I tried to chum up to the older lady who seemed to be the senior nurse. The operating table had arm-rests at right angles to the body. A nurse proceeded to tie my arm to the rest and desisted when I appealed to Tanat and he agreed to my freedom, probably concluding I was unlikely to hit him. 
           The Thais from my limited experience are good at analgesia. So I felt little pain, despite gouging and cutting and scouring. Jack was brought in all togged up, to translate. He was queasy so he sat on a stool with my reassuring hand on his shoulder. The reassurance was for me mostly I think. Eventually I was told to rise and reclothe. Jack and I did so in what seemed like a broom cupboard. Was I glad to get back into those clothes and appreciate my bandaged leg.
           A nurse took photos of the procedure and a video which I shall not append. Since then my daily visits for dressings have felt on a more solid base for genuine healing. My good mate Paul Flanagan, a very clever and experienced surgeon quotes a colleague from East Timor practice as saying that in these places we are in "a sea of pathogens".
Though healing will take time it should be straightforward this time.
Dr T doing a dressing in the E&E room.
          Today we passed two "clinics" full to overflowing and people on plastic chairs all over the footpath. They believe they are too poor to go to the hospital. Too health illiterate anyway.
          Bottom line? Do whatever is necessary to protect and expand national health services.   

Eye testing again.

         Thursday this week I went with Jack to a small school to do eye-testing. Sorting out those who may need glasses. 
         We worked in a small school I have mentioned before which services several poor villages.  Most of the children have but one parent, some none at all and are brought up by relatives. Two girls do not even live in what we would call a house, just a couple of sheets of iron. The teachers bought them some blankets for the winter. The teachers are matter of factly devoted to the kids whose homes they visit and link with whoever is parenting to assist the kids and assess the 'needs of the learners' as we used say in curriculum development.
Now the right eye.
         I shall take away some memories from this place which are wordless. When I was leaving and went to express my appreciation of the great job the teachers do I just burst into speechless tears trying to  talk to her. 
Easy work.

         The testing results were intriguing. We selected ten children from about thirty five for a further assessment. None of these was found to need glasses. However one boy was found, as we suspected, to have no sight in one eye and had compensated well. One girl will need surgery to help her eyelid muscles.

       The little lad in the red hoodie appeared first in the 6th classroom detached from everyone and occupying half a square metre on the floor. He worked assiduously with a pencil and ruler on his little book. Later he had moved to the verandah taking no notice of the people around him. The story was that he is from Kindergarten but their teacher was not there that day so there were no classes for them. He had come to school with his brother none the less. He has no parents but lives with his alcoholic grandmother.

Industrious little self contained mite referred to in text.


Computer room, Admin Room, 6th classroom, Teachers' lunchroom.

From here on in.

           The next three days will be my last at Beautiful Mouth HIgh School.  With the extended break over the New Year there are about a month's more classes this semester. I will miss the kids I help teach and those who have lunch with me and I will miss some of the teachers. But I cannot do any more. Health and leg issues aside the job of "teaching English in a HIgh School" is scarcely a doable job in organizational terms. My enthusiasm dominated my due diligence before I signed on. 
          The situation is that the majority of the secondary school students do not speak English sufficient to teach them even the most basic conversational English. So it is not possible to stand in front of a class on my own and say in truth I am teaching them English. Sure it is possible to entertain them and play games, but that is not what I came to do. So the alternative is to be there while a teacher "teaches English" which is often American English from a text-book published by National Geographic with quaint pronunciations. She, always she, then expatiates on the text in Thai. Sometimes they do an exercise like 'using a phone', or 'cancelling a credit card from an American bank.' Serious matters for kids from remote villages. The kids can mouth out stuff by rote, but have no idea what they are saying, most of the time. Resulting in, "What is your name?" "I am fine thank you."  dialogues abound. If one moves from the chorussed word you realize that scarcely any transmission of information or skill has taken place.
            Sadly most of the English teachers have scarcely any English and those who do struggle.
            But their friendliness, apart from the odd one, is warming. But I spend a lot of time waiting for a teacher with whom I can work by making English noises when asked to do so. I have come to realize that Thais are generally too much in the moment to be reflective and will go through the motions of doing something, take the photos with the right people in front of the camera and move on to the next thing. So if students did not learn something the previous year there is not a lot of opportunity to revisit and rebuild.
           I am not sufficiently deluded as to not ask myself whether I am whimping out. But the work needs to sustain me as well as the work itself. This is not currently the case, I wish it were otherwise.
  Have a good week of celebrations.


Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Grains and Granuals.

For whom the bell  does not toll.

        This silent cast metal bell used be the school summoner. It is severely neglected, though once a proud and powerful force. Students and teachers need a sound marker to assemble, change classes, go to lunch or just ignore.
         The bell replacement is a jarring couple of bars of "Home Sweet Home" culturally foreign and cacophonous; belted out from an impaired electronic keyboard.

Little school; big school.

          We visited a small primary school threatened with closure because of declining numbers of students. They have their first foreign teacher in Georgie from Bolton near Manchester who has won their hearts and minds. Teachers ply her with food, children bring flowers to her and make lovely little cards expressing deep love. There is a palpable spirit of community at the school.

Georgie and class.
Admin, 6th class, teachers' lunch room, TV Room.

          This is the more remarkable as 80% of the students have one  parent or are cared for by grandparents, aunts or uncles. Adults often go overseas to bring back hard earned cash and find their relationships are in tatters.
           One building has already been abandoned. One room functions as staff room, classroom for year 6 and "canteen". A tired full size football pitch suggests former days. Soon these comfortable and co-operative students will be bussed to a larger distant school where as minnows they will flounder. Sad to see such rich social capital being dissipated.

Widow Ghost.

          Outside my room the Widow Ghost bush nightly exudes an exotic heavy perfume like Frangipani.  The folklore is that if a man sleeps with a sprig of this bush the Widow Ghost will spirit him to his death during the night. It did not work for this iconoclast. But I imagine the potent services of the Widow Ghost have been used to remove or explain the removal of the odd villager.  "Well, Officer, I just put this sprig near his pillow to help him sleep, and he was gone in the morning".

Contemporary Courtesies.

       Having found myself abandoned at the dinner table by young volunteers welded to their smart phones, as yet not bound by the courteous conventions for tables and phones I have suggested the practice be called "textabating".

New Arrival.

       A thai English teacher with whom I work has just given birth to a son. HIs name is iPhone. Obviously the apple of his mother's eye.


         "Our house will burn down" usually gets action. Patricia in the house next door was justifiably concerned when a farmer burned a heap of dry rubbish and coconut leaves so that the flames ran up the coconut tree  and set the crown of it alight. Coconuts and burning bits showered the base of the tree and beyond. 
          With a trickle from a blue plastic hose and a rake I grabbed from the gormless woman pyrometrical farmer we got it under control, while dodging intermittent showers of  great balls of fire.
          Jack the boss here asked the farmer about the incident. "I don't know why she did it". He remarked of the incident. End of episode.

Nasal Work.

       Alex a Spanish, English teacher pointed out  large number of "nose jobs" which are popular among local women. Small noses are the mark of  Isan people. It is so sad to see them wanting to look so different they they will have plastic surgery to enlarge what they recieved at birth. 
       On the other hand had my Dwyer relatives been on the scene they could have made considerable donations of tissue to these ladies.

Disability Run.

Discarded Wheel Chair
Mother with kidney failure and disabled daughter.
Taking Daughter for a walk.
          We visited several families caring for their disabled children on Constitution Day December 10th. Managing these people in a developed country like Australia  is a challenge. The challenges here are similar and the questions the same; "Who will look after my child when I am gone?" 
          But the vast difference is in the resources available and affordable. We delivered disposable nappies, rice, packaged milk and dried fish in differing quantities for different family needs. To those of you who have supported me financially, I thank you for the little I was able to pass on. 
           On our way through the small villages we came across women women splitting reed like plants to make strands of weft for floor mats. Others wove straw into bands for sewing into hats. They talked, children talked to them and played, some sat around in hammocks. They sold us a couple of mats for about six dollars or less.
Community work.
           At a brief glimpse they seemed more contented and aware of who they are and what they do than many of the people I see in Oz. These villages are puddles of equanimity though of course there is no nirvana. They are also puddles of intrigue, magic, teenage marriage and abandoned children.
          We also saw fisher folk with beautifully formed nets. They cherished each little fish collected.
Getting Dinner.

          Nearby there was a charcoal oven ready for firing. These things exist around the world, but each region has its own design flavour.

          Thai has some words which are common and central to their everyday life. Truism, yes. But these words do not have the same meaning in English. Fuck Thong is a pumpkin. A bean filled loofah plant is Fuck Keow (pronounced a bit like "You"). No offence intended.
Fuck Keow 

Next time medical services at the local hospital.




Saturday, 6 December 2014

The King's Birthday and other delights.

Friday December 5th King's Birthday.

        King  Bhumibol Adulyadej is the the world's longest reigning monarch and is 87 this year. He has reigned since 9 June 1946. A remarkable innings considering there have been 20 attempted or successful coups during his reign.
         He has been much loved by his people and with good reason. Though he did not chose to rule, but was required to by the death of a relative, he has been an intelligent and compassionate promoter of significant initiatives. Throughout Thailand there are "King's Projects" in areas of agriculture, science, renewable energy etc. which benefit not only Thailand but other countries as well.  Whatever ones views of monarchs, he like Elizabeth II has done his best to do a decent job, as I see it, and I am no monarchist, especially for Australia.
Now hear this.

          No school on Thursday was ceremonies and entertainment before lunch and cleaning the place after lunch. We assembled in the large hall and in threes signed messages of respect to the king, there were speeches and the headmaster in smart tailored yellow jacket droned interminably. The students responded with mutual disrespect, drawing on oneanother's backs or just talking. Like the captain of an aircraft carrier sailing through a flotilla of canoes he drove his trail unaware of the casualties to respect or learning.

Backing up the speech.

Not like they look in class.

Likely lads.
         The students entertained, charmed and amused. The dancers of both genders looked very grown up in traditional make up and costumes. The event is difficult to describe in words but was a series of rich pictures.
     Old mate Tarn excelled himself. 
Talented Tarn

Spiritual Foundations.

       On Tuesday the excuse for missing classes was that the new school building was to be blessed/protected from and by the spirits or commenced or foundation stone equivalent laid, or whatever. Unfortunately I have no photos.
            A marque was set up on the building site, teachers and senior students attended and the head honcho from either the Education Department or the province of Non Khai (I could not find out which) came along decked in a haircut which was half shaven and half comb-over; sort of post prime punk. The village spirit man took a bamboo fish trap about a meter and a half long and stuffed it with leaves, branches, rice, money and some papers. This was secured to the nine or so long meter reinforcing rectangle for the first column and a second trap for the second minor column. Cotton thread was attached to the far end  top of the steel reinforcing structure, teachers and students held the  symbolic cotton raising rope and twenty workmen with arms and sticks pushed up the column after the head man had lit candles, muttered incantations and bowed profusely. This was an animist ceremony, without a Buddhist monk in site. What the students were learning, both in both the visible or hidden curriculula
I have no idea.

Exotic Market.

       A market  appears Sundays several kilometers from here where traders from the nearby jungle mountains of Laos and  and Thai buyers deal.  There is the usual swag of clothes, mostly for women, with "sports clothes" club jerseys and track pants for men and food along with seriously dubious jungle fauna and flora. Jayne and I have watched documentaries horrified, about these places where endangered species trade evades the eyes of officials, even though there were immigration and police people around. Rows or rats might not look appetizing to us, but racoons and squirrels and other items were confronting. The shopkeepers brushed them with damp tissues either to convey they were fresh or keep them alive. There were grills  of unintelligible offal which looked as if someone had confected them to conscript vegetarians or instantly convert carnivores into anorexics. But what the pics never convey are the aromas, amazing, assaulting and astonishing.
Anyone for grasshoppers?

Don't laugh; could be an Australian parliament.

"All the perfumes of Arabia..."

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Another week another year.

          Being 79 years old in Thailand is a bit of an oddity, like having size 11 shoes. On Thursday the teachers gave me a Thai style hand made indigo cotton shirt with white stitching. In the evening the Isan Survivor mob all went out to dinner and gave me a cake, a bottle of hand sanitizer,(someone remembered my asking if it was possible to buy same in Phonphissai) and a cast metal standing Buddah. Jack explained that families would give metal to the monks who would melt it down and cast images from the amalgam of all the metals offered. So the item could contain iron, bronze, brass, lead, gold or silver. A remarkable piece of distributive justice or sharing. A lovely birthday present.
79 with Volunteers.
           I took the bus, after an hour and twenty minute wait;(there are no timetables) to Nong Khai to meet Alex, a Spanish man who has taught here for some years and knows the paradoxes of the system. Alex provided quite an orientation. His main points were that most of the text books provided are unintelligible to the students, that conveying English sounds via the Thai alphabet with its 40 characters and sounds is problematic, that the education system likes to have English speakers around but they are in danger of showing up the Thai English teachers and that the system is satisfied with about 15% of students learning a smattering of English. Depressing? Impossible? Challenging?
            Fortunately there is a breakthrough method,  by compiling a series of essential words and demonstrating the English sound which the students then convey to themselves and write it in their Thai script. Reading is another matter and granted a sufficiently simple text they can read English.
Too much detail? Maybe I am just trying to make sense of the system by explaining it to the old mates.
Small Business. Lotus flowers and seeds for anyone?

            Don't it always seem to go
            That you don't know what you've got
            ‘Til it's gone             

            They paved paradise
             And put up a parking lot

Joni  Mitchel's words as true as ever; not a parking lot just, putting in a fuel station up the road from here. The road has a  120 kilometer limit and runs through the village. The fuel stop will have a franchised coffee shop, a 7/11 store and maybe more. It is less than the legal distance for a petrol station from the temple, but that will be fixed, and it will not be done by moving the temple, rather I suspect by moving  shekels.
         What this will mean to the village is that locals will have access to a range of packaged products some of which have  been provided by little home stores along the lanes. It is part of a bigger picture which I find disturbing, or at least puzzling.
          The now impeached former Prime Minister, Taksin got into the oil business in a big way, arm in arm with Middle Eastern mates. He arranged cheap finance for people to buy cars. They needed this fore their cars eh? Traffic problems? Loan repayment problems and re-possessions? Sure, but more fuel needed along the main roads per kind favour of Taksin's  company. No probs! You could say he was an infrastructure PM.
           Thai businessmen and investors know of the E Myth, that if you like making and selling a certain  product, like cakes, you will never make heaps of money because if you make good cakes you will create
a massive demand and have to employ staff, then have bigger overheads and never have a moment to yourself. So what do you do? You set up a franchise, sell the formula,  the recipes, the staffing and management schemes, the advertising stuff and all. Then you are selling businesses which sell your products and the growth is exponential. Maconalds is the iconic  example, across the world. Each time I visit Thailand there is a batch of new franchises. Many of the latest have also found the never-fail slow poison: ingredients, sugar and salt. So come in obesity, bye small family livelihoods.

Mother minds baby and shop.

Beautiful true to materials table and trestles.

Staff lunch with principal left.

Saturday, 22 November 2014


A bouquet of vignettes.

         Life is a necklace of vignettes. Those little gems which are discrete but connected in the line of life. Everyday life in Thindung Village;  many of the same people act similarly at a set time of the day.  At dawn after a monk has hammered the large temple bell setting the time for the monks do their rounds, villagers take up their posts along the lanes. They chat among themselves and offer food to appreciative monks. The same dogs sit nonchalantly in the same spots, they growl or wag their tails the same ways festooning the lanes with their homely reassuring solos, duets and choruses.


         Much the same could be said of the high school days. Except that it would not be accurate. On Wednesday my lift giver, music teacher
K. Thom, told me that the top classes would be going to the Phonpissai High School of several thousand students, to cheer for the team from our school, literally Beautiful Mouth High School, a reference to a nearby tributary to the Mekong.
I arrived at school and was told the same, my first two classes would be away cheering and I was urged to go along as well.  "But I have 4/1 at 11.10 am, I need to stay for them." That statement of intent worked for about twenty minutes and then a delegation or press-gang approached me to to accompany them to the match. There seemed to be a fair bit of nodding and winking and I could not be certain that the 4/1 group was not told to "be good and sit under that tree" for the duration.
          On arrival we were ushered to the  best seats on the ground. Oh yes the ground, looking like brown concrete with lonely grass tufts as sparse as a teenage Asian beard. They had the numbers and won 3 to 0. The content and volume of cheering matched the score. But they were many, and "every so often the better team has to come out on top", as an American Fulbright student told me at  Newman College football debacle  in Melbourne.


          On Thursday morning the students took their flat concrete seats on the school courtyard in their class rank and file as always. Ranged around on the fringes were teachers, one had her little daughter with her.  She would have been three years or at most  four. Her short hair was tied in two tufts with simplicity and balance. She wore a floral shirt and navy skirt with shoulder straps. On her back was a backpack about the size of a rectangular cigar box. Her tiny legs were encased in long white socks and black shoes. When teachers admired her she was tutored by her mother as to how to respond with joined hands and  bow. Then she disappeared from sight. The assembly continued with the chess piece students planted on the concrete harangued from the front.
Assembly daunting for anyone: but a 4 year old?
Someone near me said "Brother" and the delicious little mite emerged in the middle of a row of senior boys. She stood the same height as a sitting student.  She targeted a lad of abut 17 and ran up behind his row, threw her arms around his neck and hung on his shoulder. His classmates noticed and smiled, my eyes welled up with tears as they always will when I recall this most precious of moments.
Nong Khai
        Friday was a day off for me so I went with Jack and Patricia the managers to Nong Khai while they did immigration and travel business.
I wandered around the Indo China market and visited the Wat Pho Chai temple. This latter houses the most famous Buddha in Nong Khai, reputed to be one of three from Laos with much golden content and many precious stones. The trio were on their way to Bangkok  where one arrived, another fell into the Mekong and the cart carrying the  third had its axle break so it was decided that it should stay in Nong Khai as is today.

Dog Day.

        After a tiring long day,  discomforting tiredness encased me like a glove in the car on the return journey. Back at the house, I went to get a drink. "Don't step there" Natasha, one of the volunteers, warned "The dog puked everywhere." I stood clear. Then during dinner the three dogs were upstairs beyond their assigned limits. "They should not be here". "They have been here since about four o'clock. That is when Fun puked." "Maybe they are sick". "Anything unusual?" asked Jack.
"Fun" (Rain in Thai)
"A strange man with fishing poles came around about four this afternoon" Natasha contributed. Jack twigged to it. "Maybe (a disguised affirmative) that man eat dog and dogs very sensitive to man who eats dogs." A vignette in italics and inverted commas.


Monday, 17 November 2014

Every new minute.

Every new minute. 
Ford in pink and purple fearful player.
Tarn a champion Volleyball player and dancer.

        From time to time I think I should pinch myself to remind me that I am "Overseas"; but then a teacher offers me a tasty fried grasshopper as I go to class or I ask whether a lunch dish is pork or chicken and am told it is Frog and the next bowl contained periwinkles. Those are the moments  where I know my location.
        There have been many such moments and days this past week. Tuesday and Wednesday were days for sport and competition between the five teams in the high school. What the students did was remarkable in its creativity and effort, as well as their collaborating with one another. The competitions were in volleyball, badminton, petangue,  (French " jeu des boulles"), sepaktakrau *(sp?), table tennis and dancing. Teams were also awarded points for their cheer-leading prowess. This meant the decoration of their area and their dance presentation and seemingly the loudness and banshee like screeches.
          How they managed volleyball on hot concrete or the contortions of *kicking the bamboo platted ball backwards over their heads or dancing wildly and at times gracefully I know not. The obvious and the subtleties evaded me as a foreigner, but the beauty and co-operation in building sets and movements stood beyond language. 
          Teachers belonged to colour teams and each cheered for their own. They too told me they were amazed by what the students were able to do unaided by adults. Pink won, as far as I could see by their performance in the afternoon dancing play offs. The dances were a mixture of  hop-hop, disco and traditional Thai. The Thais are remarkably prudish, especially in a regional remote area like Issan, despite the shows for foreigners in bars in tourist spots. So it was startling to watch the suggestive gyrations and poses of heavily made up young and usually shy boys and girls on the day.

           When the pink volley ball team, mostly boys', came onto the court several wore pink bows in their hair and a couple had elaborate make up.
Tarn, one of my English students, took time during the breaks to refresh and restore the face cosmetics. The girls screamed more about the lady-boys than the other straight lads. A couple of teachers explained to me that these young people were girls in boys' bodies. No fuss, no phobias, nothing remarkable and so sensible.

            Resuming class after the two days meant riding in the wave of excitement of the two competition days. I was able to print out a sheet with words and phrases about what they liked and what they participated in and get them to practice in pairs and groups. "I liked the two days because...." etc. Therein lies a conundrum of teaching here.

            As I have said my job is to support or teach along with the English teacher.  Much of the time I feel like this is a kind of pretense, a formality bereft of firm foundations. The standards for each class are unknown to me. I am not even sure who the English subject coordinator is. I did find the national curriculum in English recently on line and that is matter for consideration if not implementation. And there is a Teaching Thailand site which is useful. All this is great practice for an obsessive like me in living with ambiguity.

Day in the Bush/Country-Out.

   On Saturday  morning we headed off in the Isuzu ute with lunch packed headed for the house of Santi a friend of our host family. Before lunch we went for a walk along a country road and then through a neighbouring farm. The woman of the house was harvesting flowers or buds for the market. We inspected the frog farm where large specimens were being fed and fattened for the market. It is the rice harvesting time now and each day farmers take their rice to the open concrete pavements near temples to dry out the grain. They heap it, rake it and before sunset bag it. They negotiate with one another as to the order of concrete space use. Each morning as I go to the temple I see a different couple, mostly husband and wife spreading and managing the "green" grain.
      Jack lit a fire of bamboo and coconut  husk. He cut a few pieces of bamboo to make a BBQ spindle for a thin chook with head in tact. I was consoled to see that the eyes were closed. We secured the chook to the spindle with flexible grass, called Dog Fart. It warrants its name, and evidently excellent for stomach upsets. While we roasted away, two women came and lit fires in cement braziers to cook three largeish fish. They stuffed the mouths with fronds of fresh picked nearby lemon grass, to take away the fishy smell. Mats were spread out, plates distributed and in we dived. The chook was deemed too fragmented to serve as it was, so it became soup. Jack's Dad brought various treasures from his morning's hunting. One item was branches of a very spiny plan with beautiful and edible yellow flowers. Sticky rice abounded as usual, often passed hand to  hand by an attentive host.
        While others talked I enjoyed a post prandial nap on a bamboo mat, with  headrest provided thankfully. When I woke most of the party was down at a large pond nearby. Jack was out in a plastic boat fishing. Others were temporizing about going in swimming. The group decision was that I should go in first. In the spirit of my lifesaver father I braved the still water which was warm for about two feet and cool thereafter. Not my favourite medium.
         Before we left I noticed an unusual item hanging beside a roof post. It was a flintlock gun with a long barrel.  I thought these were museum pieces. Another thing I noticed was that the iron roofing was Bluescope steel. It is known locally as Jinjoe Iron, Jinjoe is a kangaroo.  Proudly I tried to communicate that the stuff came from a place about 45 kilometers from my home. They got the message and asked me to bring a lot of it next time I came.

Being here.

         Life in Thindung Village where I live is not bustling. In fact life here is stripped of much of what we call life in Robertson. Bikes replace cars, there are a few little stalls in front of houses, there are two temples and a busy district road runs through it all. But there is a community learning center and along the banks of the Mekong are a couple of what look like roomy bus shelters. They have a container of water and a cup. Seats around the walls often sport a cushion and it is a place to gather and chat, one place known by some title like Community Hall, though wall-less it  has a community notice board. Sometimes in the morning a loud speaker system plays music or is used for announcements. Living here is a skeletal life of mostly essentials.
          So with that kind of stripping it is like a lake where the water level drops exposing the skeletons of former trees, parts of the landscape which are mostly not perceived. So self talk, usually blotted out by TV or being busy, sounds clearly. There is time to tie my shoes slowly, even thoughtfully. It is strange not having any valid reason to hurry "Just so that I can get on to that next thing" or meet some constructed deadline. :"Deadline" what a descriptive morbid word! This is unnerving with so much in large print or loud volume daily, hourly, so much which is normally sotto voce. And so many reassuring distractions like "the news" are off stage. It is for me like being on retreat; monk's cell, simple life, walk, ride bike, visit the temple, sleep, eat, prepare classes, teach: repeat.



Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Week One in HIgh School.

Week one in High School.

     The temptation to think I know anything is challenged daily if not more often as I climb the work mountain in my new settings. Concepts like learning, teaching, curriculum, timetable, are evolving as I spend time at the school to which I am assigned. And as one who idealizes new situations and then has the scales fall sadly from my eyes there is pain attached.
 I would have thought that I would have learned by now.
     Music teacher Thum collectes me each morning for the 7 or so Ks to the school. There is an assembly at 8.00;"8" being broadly interpreted. On the first morning the Principal addressed the 800 students and 40 staff until the trees around the playground almost wilted. He also took a call on his mobile during the address. Then led by two peers the students sing the national anthem, raise the flag and acknowledge the Buddah. The daily commencement ceremony typifies the paradoxes of respect and formalism in this culture, as I see it. The boss and staff wear a kind of paramilitary uniform on Mondays. Students respect teachers by joining hands and bowing to teachers in the Thai Wai fashion. But when the Director or another teacher speaks students or staff do not necessarily listen.   It reminds me of Catholics blessing themselves with holy water entering a church yarning or gossiping the while to a neighbour.

        My job is to support or assist the teacher in a variable percentage of classroom time and pace, that is varying from 20% to 100% depending on the preparedness of the teacher, their shyness speaking in front of me and what they can wind me up and get me to do.
        All that said the staff and students are friendly and want to talk or see that I have had breakfast or lunch or take me to their village for lunch. The Deputy frequently visits my desk to chat and I imagine polish his English.
        As my mate Roger pointed out after his experiences in Indonesia, I have two disadvantages  relating to the school community. I am a ferang (foreigner) and I am old. The former hangs on the Asian common belief that someone from outside knows more, after all they must because we have such a high standard of living. Bugger the quality of life business. Secondly unlike Australia and other "developed" nations there is respect for older people who are seen to have born the heat and burden of the day and to have stacked up some knowledge or wisdom. And the younger you are in a household around here the more you do what you are told and collect menial jobs.
      The timetable has me down for two to three appearances with streams of forms 4,5 and  6 of the senior school. Most of the time has been spent getting them to tell me about their lives and Isaan itself. I figured that if they could talk about what is familiar to them  in groups and report to me that would do the trick. Slowly, slowly, slowly. But we have laughed a lot, which is great. Jayne once suggested I needed smiling lessons. Well the Land of Smiles as Siam is called is an ideal place to learn.
       I spent the orientation day while teachers and students prepared for the semester, doing eye tests with Jack, my boss at a primary school nearby. The tests sort out young children with reading difficulties for further testing and possibly for glasses. Before this programme almost no children wore glasses.
       The Loy Krathong festival involves floating Krathongs, floating offerings which are mostly quite beautiful arrangements of flowers and candles on the Mekong. It is meant as an apology for the bad treatment of the river during the previous year. Clippings of a fingernail and hair are supposed to accompany the floating offering. As usual there is the suggestion of gaining good luck by performing the rituals. (This is my quick and dirty explanation of the events.) It is a big family deal with much fun and laughter. Lately there is new thinking that the offerings in fact add to the problems the river suffers. It is also an evening to light lanterns which decorate the sky sculpted by the wind.
       On Saturday a bit of blessed retail therapy; there is a market on the banks of the river with all manner of goods from Laos brought by boats across the Mekong. We bought some food, a flashing light for my bike and a black plastic pot or a plant which I intended as waste paper basket, but later bought a woven cane one which is much more elegant.
      On the Sunday I wimped out of a visit to deliver disposable nappies and some food to three families with disabled children. I had had enough of sadness for a while. And in the afternoon went for a swim. Oh how blessed to be in water. There is a nearby private school which lets people use its pool at times. I will be back there.
        So week one was over and no doubt familiarity will grow and awkward newness fade a little.
Eye testing at a primary school

School Assembly; Concrete seating.

Lunch in Teacher Wan's village her sister and a lady boy cook.

With our Kratongs prior to floating them in the Mekong.

Launching blue lantern with Jack

Staff luncheon with Principal.


Saturday, 8 November 2014

Why Bother Planning?

Planning: Why Bother?
         Michael D. Breen

2014 will be a game-changing year for Robertson. Fair dinkum? Yes. The Wingecarribee Council is to be planning the future of Robertson. So what difference will another Council initiative have? And what can we do about it?
Robertson’s future sits in the hands of the people of Robertson. But maybe we don’t want to know that. Maybe it is easier to say that noting will change or that everything will change and there is nothing we  can do about it. Though the plan, which is developed this year, is the recipe, the blueprint, for current and future Robertson.
         Towns, villages and cities have lives of their own. They spring up, grow or don’t grow. They can flourish or decline into a few old chimneys and weed covered graveyards. They can be happy places, which attract healthy people or spooky unattractive hovels.
         Planning can make the difference between a liveable, attractive town or a dump of a place. Success depends on the way the planning is done, the fit between the not-yet-born futures and the past and how much the planning authority, in this case the Wingecarribee Council, and the locals own and want their plan to succeed.
         If you think planning is hard to understand or something to leave to others; think again. You plan things every day. A shopping list is a plan. It is a short-term plan for shopping, a longer-term plan for eating and a longer plan still for a nourished life. A recipe is a plan for preparing a dish. A map is a plan to get to where you want to go.
Each plan has three simple bits: Where are you now? Where do you want to go? How are you going to get there? Whether it is a plan to win the grand final or develop Robertson it will have those three bits.
A Robertson plan needs to describe where Robertson sits now, it people, its resources, its problems and bright spots. These can be put in boxes: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Then the planning will need to look to the future and describe how Robertson will be in the future. This step is sometimes called a Future Search.  It involves imagining what we want for our children and their children, dreams, hopes and concerns.
All this happens inside the rest of the world, New South Wales, Australia and the nations, which form the globe.
Just think for a moment how you would show a grand or great grand parent around the world we live in now? Could they have been expected to see the developments from horses to cars, from kerosene lamps to electric lights and then to all the computing, mobile phones and stuff? While planning we need to think courageously about what kind of future Robertson will have imposed on it from the outside and what kind of future we can build inside those limitations and opportunities.
         Finally the plan needs to describe the ways to build that future plan in clear, doable and measurable steps. This will make up the skeleton, the chassis or the blueprint for the Robertson of the Future.  Of course the plan needs to be funded and resourced so that it can be carried out.
Once I was concluding the future planning for an airline. The framework and the details were laid out in steps the managers and the staff were committed to making it happen. I asked, “What could ruin this whole plan and all our week’s work?” There was an outcry about being negative or pessimistic. But in answer to the question one person said, “If we had a major incident where a key plane became unserviceable”. So I had them tell me what their back up plan would do and how they would preserve the plan they had developed. They came up with a series of steps, a sort of emergency plan to keep the airline functioning. The next morning a Saturday, as it happened, a plane’s landing gear failed, the plane skidded sideways off the runway and ruined a wing. They simply carried out the steps of their emergency plan without too much disruption or fuss.
This illustrates that good planning is an exercise in responding to key questions, often the ones we don’t want to look at and learning to together to find answers we all agree on. So the building of the plan also builds the team to carry out the plan while building the community itself.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Short trip to Vintienne

          Border crossings whether births or deaths or any transition for that matter mean leaving the familiar and accepting or tussling with the new, the different.  So I was prepared when approaching the Thai Laos border at Nong Khai.  Though I have a 90 day teaching visa it is single entry,  I wanted to change that to multiple entry; otherwise I need a new visa to come back to Thailand from Laos. So I was shillied and shallied between the Immigration and the Visa offices, an agent I think she was and back to Immigration. It was oppressively hot and there seemed multiple hoards who knew the ropes better than I did. Eventually I was across the Friendship Bridge said to be built by Australians for either rewarding Laos for their efforts during the Vietnam War or alternatively for getting more silver out of Laos.
             One of the touts who haunt  such places got me a 'taxi' which I think was reconditioned from Burma, it had a floor. The fare reasonably landed me in the center of Vientiane, wherever that is.  The next few hours were a telephony and I.T. nightmare. Monk Johnny, aka Singha aka Wang Puting, my mate was my target. I had not brought my laptop and the phone was running out of battery as I tried numerous numbers wrestling with the country code for Laos, a new sim card and the many numbers Johnny had had i verged on despair. Eventually in an internet shop, (remember those?) after trying and failing endlessly to remember my Facebook password I was able to get Johnny to call me. Instantly the shroud of alienation dropped off. Contact.
           The obliging young lad Koy who ran the shop for his obviously exploitative owner, seeing my plight offered me a space on his floor for the night. As a ten year old he had left his village with the hope of getting an education in a Vientiane monastery. He knew what it was  to be poor. After closing the shop, and getting orders from his boss he took me on his bike for what seemed like several leagues to his two room shared place.
"I can handle this". I told myself. There was a flat tiled floor a thin cotton mattress and a pillow, dank concrete walls  plus  a motor bike. Then the voices of Jayne and friends said, "You don't have to do this you know". So I told Koy that I did not want to offend but I could not sleep without air conditioning at my age and asked him to help me find a guest house or hotel. We did so and after dining with him at a roadside stall I slept in a guesthouse room with air con, towels and sheets provided.
         Johnny lives at Wat Nong Bon (Nong Bon Monastery) so I took a Tuk Tuk there and found him in the garden. Though I first met him in Chaing Mai Johnny is from Laos and is preparing to go to Victoria in response to an invitation from Lao people there.
          With Johnny and his monk companions, thoughtful and slightly reticent Pomma, freedom loving Joy and earnest Deb and several others we looked at maps of Australia, discussed Buddhism and Laos.  Issan was once part of Lao and the languages, food and culture of the two are similar, Australia is another world.
       The abbot a withdrawn figure looked into the distance during the many silences of our meeting. He does not attend chanting nor seems interested in meditation. Though he obligingly gave me "blessing tags" on both wrists.
Discreet inquiry unearthed the idea that he is abbot because of his seniority. As in other social systems formalism is alive and well in Buddhism and equally capable of insuring that the best man does not get the job.
        Monks slept two to a room, rooms which are threadbare as are the lives of these young men who have grown up away from families and are unaware of the niceties and refinement of towns and villages. The once white plaster walls display the scratches, nails for hanging clothes and pencil drawings of their previous occupants. It felt very strange, like stealing from the poor eating breakfast out of the begging bowls of Johnny and his companion.

I suggested that they might be sharing under false pretenses of their donors. Monastic life seemed to be very informal about chanting, meditation and the study of the scriptures.
         But they all  study hard and were hungry to speak English and be corrected or taught. We passed enjoyable time doing this. I went to their chanting ceremonies at night.
         An enormous celebration across the road at another temple glutted the nearby streets and open spaces. Audiotoxic and garish 'promotions' of everything from cars, clothes to phones and cosmetics, with much food between, raged at night. There was a strong military presence too.
Young chaps in fatigues brandishing machine guns stayed in the monastery grounds. We were searched by youths who looked  high school age as we went through the gates of the festivities. Previously someone had brought a bomb there before being shot, if I understood correctly.
         The following day I went with Johnny to a large "morning market" which lasted all day where he bought an umbrella which he brandished like a snail shell his short legs poking out underneath the carapace. He also went searching among the multitude of stalls and passageways for a woman he had read about on Facebook who was very deprived and aged beyond her years who sat at the market. He did not find her but was told where she usually sat though not on that particular day. He also stocked up on some bags of herbs for various ailment or protections. What I thought were devotional objects of the Buddha I discovered are largely amulets magically warding off all kinds of spirits, illnesses or threats.

         We walked to the Laos Arc de Triomphe from French sources though Laos in decor. Climbing to the top and walking back in the heat nearly had me done for as the Irish would say. 
         Even with the hospitality of Johnny and his mates I found Vientiane hard work. It was oppressively hot and steamy with no let up except an air conditioned cafe. It reminded me of the deprivations of Mandalay or Yangon, with lots of people who were poor and surviving rather than managing life.  This may have been my projection, of course.
          The various bus trips and border crossings were easier than before including the final bus where passengers found and distributed plastic stools for those without seats. I was relieved to get back to my simple cell.