by Noelle Smithhart
Once we had all successfully arrived in Bangkok, the volunteer and cultural exchange portion of our trip began. First, a quick flight down to Phuket. Then we loaded into a van for a three hour ride to Kuraburi. We thought it would be a shorter ride, so we arrived with a healthy appetite and ready for Chang. After having a chance to drop our stuff off at these amazing little bungalows (with western style toilets, front porches and everything) we sat to the first of many family-style dinners. Most meals had staples of rice and seafood. Vegetables. Often eggs. Always at least one dish would catch everyone’s attention as a spicy one.
Our mornings in Kuraburi were delightful. We’d wake early (still adjusting to the time difference) and head to the market for breakfast. The market bustled. We’d sip thai coffee or thai tea. Strong with sweetened condensed milk. (I’d often have seconds.) Then we’d sample an array of yummy treats. Rice, sugar, and coconut concoctions, wrapped in leaves. Some of the wraps played out like puzzles — figuring out which way to unwrap it to reveal the sweet treasures deep inside. I loved the waffles, about the size of an eggo, with coconut and turmeric in them, producing a yellow tint. There were chinese doughnuts — little fried puffs of flour that weren’t sweet. There was the coconut pudding. Absolutely delicious. We were always thankful for the little sheets of paper on the table we could use to soak up the oil from our fingers. Finally, the staple breakfast dish was a rice soup. I only had it with pork, although some mornings it was offered with shrimp.
We’d ride in the back of a truck to the Burmese Learning Center, where children greeted us. At first, a tad shy, they quickly warmed up to us and melted our hearts. Even after years of clowning and interacting with kids from various cultural backgrounds, I don’t know that I’ve encountered children with so much affection. Their genuine eagerness to interact forced us quickly beyond our language barriers.
I’m always fascinated by the universal languages — ones that surpass a common tongue. Laughter and play. As the days unfolded we all had turns at patty cake and thumb wars. The delight of victory, the quick, fleeting frown of defeat. And then the want to play again. And again. And again.
At the school our goal was to paint a few classrooms, prime and paint a mural wall, hang a door and hang some shelves in their library. We powered through on the painting and ended up getting to even more rooms and did the exterior as well. The second to last day we divided the wall in subsections and worked with the kids to paint their school’s mural.
It was hard not to think about the last two times I’ve volunteered in New Orleans, also painting schools. One was an interior of an elementary school, the other was murals and the sidewalk at a newer, sterile school of portables. All of the painting projects seem simple, but provide the students with a sense of pride in the space they are receiving their education. It gets you thinking about space and aesthetics.
An excerpt from my journal:
I have fallen madly in love with some Burmese children. They follow you with
their eyes until contact is made and then they might smile at you. Once these
two things have happened, you realize your heart is no longer your own.
We rode on the back of a truck to the school. Nearby there is a bridge
over water. By midday, the tide produced a thick, living, muddy place.
We painted a few rooms while some scrubbed and later primed a wall. The
children were moved into other classrooms and we could listen to them learning
their lessons and singing their songs. In the first room we painted, there was a
hole near the floor – big enough for kids to take turns sticking their heads
through as we pretended we’d paint their faces.
By afternoon, the
children started to help us. They found paint brushes. What began as one little
munchkin helping ended up being 30 tiny hands trying so hard to help.
There’s one little girl I have a very special bond with. Don’t remember
her name, but she captured my heart. We spun, danced, clapped hands. She sang to
me. She blew me kisses, let me hold her and she kissed my cheek. She is
… One little girl, Michew, is my new best friend. She clings to me like a
little monkey. Places her head on my stomach, the softest part, and kisses my
I brought my journal out at one point to write my name and have the little girls write their own names. It is a precious page.
We ended our work at the school with gifts of toothbrushes, toothpaste, wash cloths and soap for each child. Then we performed skits to help encourage good dental hygiene, hand washing and recycling. I wasn’t feeling well, so I sat with the kids (meaning they sat in my lap) and tried to encourage them to interact with the skits.
We heard later that the kids were being encouraged to bring their toothbrushes to school. They also continued to recycle like our skit taught them – shouting “no” as they hovered over the wrong container, and a resounding “YES!” when they dropped their item in the correct place.
These days went by quickly and I found myself in tears as we pulled away., waving goodbye to sweet little Michew. A sigh of sadness that I wouldn’t be seeing those sweet little faces. A sense of wanting to keep in touch and return, in some capacity, sooner than later.