I have been struggling for the last week to work out how to blog about my trip away....I think my main problem has been that I was deeply affected by it and I just didn't know how to share that with you!! So, I've finally decided that I should just start writing about it and see what happens....
I'm not going to bore you with the details of our entire journey (but it did involve being up at the ungodly hour of 4am.....the only reason you should ever be up that early is when you've not been to bed yet!!) so I will start with when we all met up at Chiang Mai airport. There were eight of us altogether and we were a truly international group - We had Karl and Britta from Germany representing the International Group of Bangkok, Vesna and Margaret from New Zealand representing ANZWG (Australia and New Zealand Women's Group), Carolyn and myself representing the BWG (British Women's Group), Brenda who is from the States and Susan who was leading the trip (She's originally from Tasmania) and has been working in the area we were visiting for over 20 years.
Our first stop was at a small market town called Hod (pronounced Hot.....which incidentally it wasn't....it's the cool season here and for the first time there was actually a breeze!!). The purpose of this stop was so that we could buy balloons and biscuits to give to the kids who's schools we were going to be visiting (The kids rarely get any kind of treats so it's customary to take something with you). Whilst negotiations were being done on price (It's Thailand...everything can be negotiated!!) the rest of us had a look around. Hod is populated primarily by Karen Hill Tribe people who, funnily enough, have moved out of the hills....there was not much to see but I did try and get some pictures of people living their everyday lives. (If you think the butcher here is bad then just you wait!!!)
We then travelled by van for another hour or so to the first village school that we were to assess - Just to give you an idea of where we actually were.....we were five miles away from the Burmese Border in the mountains of Thailand. This school is based in the village of Mae Sued but actually provides the education for students from 8 other villages (this will increase to 10 next year). They currently have 196 children attending, their ages range from 5 up to 15, and they have over 30 students who actually live on site because their home villages are just too far for them to travel to and from every day. Awww, I can't tell you how lovely it was to actually be able to see where our money has gone!! You can see from the pictures that there has been a lot of outside investment in this school.....but it still has it's problems. The site floods every year during the rainy season so for 3/4 months each year the kids are sitting ankle deep in water!! 'Why did they build the school there then?' I hear you ask.....well, they were told to by the education people in the then Government....and yes, they did tell the education people that the site floods every year but it didn't make any difference....they were told to build it there so they did!!! The other main issue they have is the facilities for the kids that live there.....two families gave up their homes (I think they are now sharing one further up the village) so that the kids would have somewhere to sleep!! But fear not...it's not all doom and gloom....ANZWG have just hosted The Melbourne Cup (See, I got drunk for a good cause!!) and some of the money raised from that event is going to pay for a flood wall to be built and for new accommodation for the kids *grins*.
I'm sorry this post is so huge (There is a lot more to come so I'm going to separate them into different days) but I think it's important to give you a sense of the community here. This picture is of the local villagers harvesting rice in the paddy fields and this is the mechanised contraption they use for actually making the rice.
From there we then headed to the next school which was about a 20 minute drive away in the village (If you can call it that...it was more like a wee smattering of houses) of Huay Sing. This is one of the schools that Susan has been working with for years and you could tell....it was just lovely!! In addition to their classrooms they had a large canteen, a library, a meeting area and four purpose built dormitories for the kids that stay there. Susan was there to interview 11 kids with the view to them going on to further education - the school only has the capacity to educate them to the age of 14!!
We were then transferred from our van into....wait for it....an open air pick up!! I think the phrase 'Eeek....this does not bode well' was going through everyone's minds as we clambered in....and, I have to be honest, if we had known where we were going I'm not sure all of us would have continued!! The pick up wove it's way up a very very curvy single track road and then along a ridge at the top of a mountain.....I kid you not when I tell you that there was at least a 100 foot drop on both sides of us....and then the road disappeared.....and we were travelling on muddy tracks slipping and sliding everywhere....we just had to trust that the driver, who has been going there every three months for the last 15 or so years, knew what he was doing but it was a hell of a scary!! We arrived in the village of Mae Jong at dusk and were taken straight to the school so didn't get to see much of our surroundings (at that point). The school was right at the edge of the village and was spread over four levels which had basically been cut out of the hillside!!! This was the school we were spending the night in.
We were shown to our rooms which were in one of the dormitories at the top of the mountain. They were basic but there was a bed (we were two to a room so Carolyn and I shared) and each room had it's own washing facilities - A squat style toilet and a concrete tub with water in it for showering with. We set out our sleeping bags and secured our mosquito net and then went out with the others to take part in a candle lighting ceremony to honour the Princess who's official funeral service was taking place over the weekend in Bangkok (The one Chris went to see). As guests we were expected to lead the community section of the ceremony....this involved taking our lit candles and inserting them into a gravel square on the main table so that they stood upright and then each subsequent Student/Teacher/Villager added their own candle till the square was full. It was really moving and very beautiful!! After the ceremony it was time for dinner and, as the only Brits present, Carolyn and I were invited to open the school's brand new canteen which was built with money from the BCTFN (British Community in Thailand For the Needy). It was an honour to cut the ribbon and even more so when we discovered that the entire village had got together to help build it!! By torch light we made our way back to our rooms and settled for the night.....exhausted but happy!!