Today, for the first time since July, I have that Friday feeling! Even though really we haven’t worked ever so hard, we have kept to working hours this week which we’ve grown unaccustomed to over the last few months! So much has happened so I’ll try to summarise.
After 2 days travelling from Vietnam, we reached a tiny village called Ban Teud where we’re staying with a lovely family. There is Tae (meaning squirrel, real name Supanee), the teacher we are working with, her husband Joon, who teaches at another (massive – 3700 pupils!) school, their 5 year old son, Atong (meaning bamboo), and Tae’s mother. We have a small apartment on the upper floor of their house which is nice and comfortable. We are growing accustomed to daily cold showers! Each morning, we are woken by chickens from about 4am then the local news is broadcast via loud speaker from 6am-7am. Yet another time I’m glad we brought earplugs with us!
Tae is making it her business to introduce us to as many different foods and eating experiences as possible; indeed we seem to never stop eating! As an example, on our first day, last Sunday we had: breakfast of omelette, rice and super sweet eggy coconut cake stuff; slices of unripened mango to dip in a blend of salt, sugar and chilli; crisps and nuts; durian fruit cake in a roll; jelly sweets from Atong; lunch of spicy noodle soup and boiled unripe bananas; ice creams from the cheery ice cream man; crispy folded crepes (mine with chocolates and raisin, Dean’s with chilli and sweet pork); and finally a big dinner of rice and pork meatballs in a soup!
Joon and Tae spent most of Sunday cleaning up the yard. We entertained Atong with drawing and TV and he quickly warmed to us, deciding to call us Mr Dean (because of Mr Bean) and Ploy (meaning gem or jewel because he doesn’t like the name Steph!).
I almost completely melted, ironing clothes for us to wear at school whilst Dean hand washed our clothes in 4 bowls of cold water, seated on a tiny wooden stool.
Later we decided to go for a walk around the village and surrounding area. There were many rice fields which were being harvested; kids were cycling around or playing; people waved and smiled as we passed, looking quite surprised to see us generally. Every now and then we heard the word ‘farang’ (white person) from someone watching us or often from some disembodied voice. It’s strange because, having been in Asia two months now, we’re very used to seeing hardly any white faces and, in the more touristy places we’ve visited, we’re largely ignored. But here, I keep forgetting we’re different and because we’re in a very rural area, we are stared at or talked about almost constantly! It’s not a problem – we just smile and wave – but it is quite a strange sensation! I’ll save village photos for next week.
Around 4pm, Tae, Joon, Atong, Dean and I set out for a short walk to the family’s farm where they keep chickens, catch fish and grow bananas, mangoes, passion fruit, limes and coconuts. They are also growing eucalyptus trees with which they intend to build their own house one day. Joon chopped down some banana tree leaves and a trunk as we explored and then we headed back home.
Once there, Tae explained how to make a loy kratong (floating decorations). You begin with a piece of banana tree trunk and then tear some leaves into evenly sized strips. These are folded and then pinned into the base using tiny sharp pieces of wood (cut for us by Joon) or staples. You build up your design with leaves before adding flowers then incense sticks and/or candles.
After dinner and many photographs of our masterpieces, we walked the couple of minutes to the temple. It happened to be the annual festival held on the full moon at this time of year. All day there had been loud music emanating from the temple’s speakers and everyone in the six surrounding villages had created decorative arrangements like ours or using petals or bread, to set afloat with a prayer. We launched ours; Tae, Joon and Atong bowed their heads before they did theirs. A competition was held to find the most impressive creation, providing it would float! There were some amazing and enormous constructions! The winner wasn’t to be judged until much later so we left the assembling crowds of monks and families in their smartest clothes and returned home.
The rest of our week has been spent at school. We are at Tae’s high school Monday to Wednesday then a primary school on Thursday and Friday. Sritakool High School is in a nearby village and its surrounded by fields. It’s small for a high school, with 420 pupils on roll, but the c.75% attendance rate makes it feel even smaller. When adults see each other, they wai to each person (put their hands together, raise their fingertips to their foreheads and bow slightly) and usually smile and stop for a chat. It seems a positive way to start the day. Almost all the pupils wai to adults so it’s permissable to just say ‘sawadee ka’ or you would be wai’ing all day! The buildings are painted in different pastel colours and the grounds are filled with grass, trees and bird song. On site there are a few houses where several of the female teachers live during the week (we spotted one getting a kid to carry her washing back to the house for her!). The janitors are currently building another house for male teachers.
Each day, at around 8:10, a recording of the school march is played on a loud speaker which summons the pupils and teachers to a central playground area with a kind of stage area at one end. The classes line up in age order (6 levels with 2-4 classes in each aged 13-19) with separate lines for boys and girls whilst the head of the class does a register. Most teachers mill about on the periphery chatting whilst a few circulate amongst the children and one leads proceedings from the front.
It is a different class’ responsibility to raise the flag each morning and one child leads the rest of the school in some prayers and the national anthem. Although all fairly inpenetrable for us, we think the rest of this assembly-like gathering is made up of notices and perhaps some words on the week’s theme which this week was drugs and alcohol.
On Monday, though, there was a special section where we had to go onto the stage and tell everyone about ourselves. They evidently didn’t understand a word but neither did the teacher in charge so it wasn’t translated!
School uniform seems a complicated matter. All boys must have short hair. Girls in levels 1-3 must have their hair in a short bob (it seems to be checked on Thursdays, along with the length of their finger nails) whilst levels 4-6 are permitted to grow it providing it is tired back with a blue ribbon. On Monday and Tuesday everyone wears the government issue uniform: the girls wear navy skirts with white sailor-esque shirts while the boys wear white shirts and khaki or navy shorts depending on age. The only exceptions throughout the week are kids in sports team who seem able to wear their kit. Wednesday is scouts day so a different set of outfits appear including a kind of army cadet one for a select group of older students. On Thursday most kids wear the school’s uniform which consists of a lilac shirt over black jogging bottoms. Then on Friday it is those same trousers and a white shirt symbolising morality! Phew!
After the assembly, the day follows a fairly typical timetable of 8 periods. We teach for some, use the wifi for others and spend a little time planning. For me, it’s a strange experience planning for an unknown number of almost-adults with no idea of their ability and no resources beyond anything we could make by hand with plain paper! We have adopted a ‘base’ which is an outdoor seating area near Tae’s classroom, shaded by beautiful pink fuengfa trees and blessed with one of the best wifi signals in the school!
Lunch is in the school cafeteria where you can choose ready-made items or have something made to order.
The teaching is going quite well but not everyone attends. This is partly because some are absent (rice harvesting), some are off doing other things around school and some are just plain old skiving because they don’t want to be taught by the native speakers!
After school we picked up Atong and drove to Tesco Lotus in the nearest town, Khukhan. The huge shop is a cross between a supermarket, a department store and a service station. We didn’t have long but enjoyed exploring nonetheless.
On the way home, Atong began a conversation with his mum featuring the word farang quite a lot of times and causing him to become slightly disgruntled. Afterwards, Tae explained that he had informed his teacher that he had two farang at home and that he would bring them in to show the class tomorrow! He had become upset because Tae had said we couldn’t go tomorrow but maybe next week!
On Tuesday we found rows upon rows of shoes surrounding the school’s auditorium. All the kids were inside being informed that the army were about test them all for drugs! This was why the teacher had been so insistent on attendance the previous afternoon. The 25% who still didn’t come apparently have to have the test next time they are in school. I think they were testing for some kind of amphetamine that is prevalent in many of the villages amongst the older teens who have left school.
Dubious about the logistics of this initially, it actually ran very efficiently. Groups of about 10 girls or boys appeared from the auditorium, registered their names, received a numbered pot and had that same number written on their arm. They were then dispatched to the toilets and returned, mostly looking a little sheepish, to have their test done. Most were fine and dumped their pot and test in a large bin but, while we watched, about 15 kids of all ages were seated to one side before being ushered into a room. I think they were then re-tested because the final count was 5 boys.
Anyway, I could go on but this is already way longer than most of my posts so I shall leave the primary school until next time! Have a great weekend everyone, I wonder what ours will hold!