Friday, March 27, 2009

SE Asia Adventures- #1: Breaking ground (Part II of II)

…I was immediately hit with what every outsider, particularly a New Yorker who never sees this, realizes when spending time in Laos. It's one of the many reasons I fell in love with this place from the start- There are children absolutely EVERYWHERE. On bicycles, in mothers’ arms, playing in dirt schoolyards, scooping cups of muddy water onto tiny crabholes shrieking contagious giggles towards no one and everyone at the same time… And best of all, they all smile and wave. Without hesitation or fear, they flash chicklet teeth whether you choose to unveil yours or not. Without a doubt, I’d come to the right place.

Upon arriving in the center of Luang Prabang, I decided to return to the Rattana Guesthouse where I’d stayed during my week-long visit here in November. The results of that visit were finding and selecting Pha Teung as the village for the first Pencils of Promise school, which was a huge deal in itself. I greatly overpaid by backpacker standards for my room ($13 per night… What? I’m serious, most can get a shared room here for $4-6 per night), but it was well worth it for the private space, an AC unit, hot showers most days, and most importantly the room came with the blackmagic karma that emanates from its creaky wooden floors… It actually reminds me a lot of Apt 23H at 1 Union Square South, mainly because my room is the exact dimensions of my roommate Alex’s closet (in my own defense, he has an awesomely huge closet).

The next morning I was met by Thongchanh aka TC, the Lao coordinator for Give Children a Choice (the organization we’re partnering with in the construction of our first school). TC and I get along great from my last visit, and after catching up for a bit we hopped on his motorbike to head to the Luang Prabang Education Ministry. Sporting a healthy beard and wearing my backpacker best (a pair of old jeans, a purple woven belt from some random market in Guatemala, the one button-down in my bag and Nike sneakers), we entered the building where not a single person spoke more than a few words of English.

The first meeting was with Mrs. Suchya (the Head of the LPB Preschool Education Program) and a girl who will be my point of email contact within the ministry. I’m attempting to create and have them implement a new but simple performance testing program to clearly demonstrate that Pencils of Promise not only builds schools but that kids are learning in them as well, so this girl’s ability to send test results is incredibly significant. The meeting went well in defining PoP’s role and solidifying our collaborative efforts with GCAC and the Education Ministry going forward. Next we shuffled into a large room and were joined by six other Lao officials, none of which spoke any English.

Tea was served and a man stood up to read the full Memorandum of Understanding (the legal agreement of who’s responsible for what) regarding the Pha Teung Preschool. The MOU was then signed, after which Mrs. Suchya made a long speech of thanks about fourteen inches from my face (all in Lao, so TC translated every few sentences). I then made a reciprocal but very brief speech thanking them and letting them know that this was much more than a one person effort, that the school had been funded by more than 1500 donations from NYC-based youth, and they asked that I thank all of you as well. So THANK YOU. As I left the building I asked the one girl to email me immediately so we could stay in contact regarding test results. She informed me that they didn’t have any internet, so she’d have to go to an internet cafĂ©. Keep in mind we were already at the Provincial Ministry of Education building… Welcome to Laos.

I knew that MOU was supposed to be signed on Friday March 20th for months, but until seeing it happen you just never know, so I was pretty ecstatic about the day’s events… The rest of the afternoon was spent practicing guitar in the chill outdoor rest area of the guesthouse, something I’m trying to learn on this trip but struggling heavily with so far. After playing for at least 2 hours straight my fingers were killing, and to my relief a small but kind 20-year old Lao kid named Ki walked up asked to play for a bit. “I thought you’d never say hello” I said, “you seem like the silent type.” Turns out he’s not silent, and he’s sick on guitar. Not Dan Teicher sick, or actually even close, but he plays the Lao and Thai styles really well.

On Sunday afternoon I returned home from doing some email work to find him waiting at my guesthouse. Interesting. He asked me to get on his motorbike so he could take me to “a beautiful location for sunset.” All of my valuables (passport, money, camera, journal) are in one bag that I take with me everywhere. “Should I get on this local but complete stranger’s motorbike with that bag and let him take me wherever?” I thought. The answer was clear. Hell yes, I’m at least twice his size and he can’t even grow a mustache. And what a shady but wise decision it turned out to be… he took me to meet his two sisters who were also miniature-sized people, and they led the way through a winding dirt walkway to a sprawling, beautiful beach along the Mekong River dotted with about 100 Lao locals. I wondered how many Westerners had ever even seen this place… While people playing soccer, volleyball and generally acted as though life was perfect, we hired a canoe-style fishing boat for $4 to take us on the river for about an hour as Ki sang guitar songs and the sun lowered its blazing tangerine self beneath the distant mountains. After this we shared a noodle dinner in his sisters’ one room home, which was also strangely the size of Alex’s closet, and Ki gave me a lift back home. It was a magical experience, to see the true Lao culture with no pretense or tourist slant… a night I won’t soon forget.

As usual I couldn’t sleep because I was so excited for the next morning’s ground-breaking, so at 5:30am I went outside to attend the famous alms-giving ceremony of Luang Prabang where saffron-robed monks silently walk the streets at dawn accepting gifts from patrons. After this I was met by TC and two Education Ministry officials (one who I’ve met several times and wears an “NYC –New York City” hat that when I gave him the thumbs up about, he said “Yes very good quality company”. I honestly think it’s possible that he believes NYC is a clothing company, not an actual city) and we drove the hour plus to Pha Teung. It’s a small village of ~650 people where most are farmers and the average family income is $400 per year. I fell in love with it back in November when visiting on a no-school Sunday and seeing several children practicing their writing on a chalkboard in a thatched bamboo makeshift classroom. We arrived to see the site for the preschool had already been completely cleared by locals, and about 100 children were attending classes in the primary school. They soon came running out to stare at the men at work, and we performed the leveling for the site and hammered some wooden boards in place to define the school’s outline. It was awesome beyond words to see a once far-fetched idea finally becoming a reality.

Following this I played with the kids for a while before being invited to share some Lao Lao (local rice whiskey they love here) and Lao beer (there’s only one beer in the entire country, fortunately for all it’s absolutely delicious) with the village leaders, ministry officials and the schoolteachers. We had a ceremonious lunch where they made their best effort to get me wasted… and were relatively successful. The excitement around the school’s construction was palpable throughout the village, and it was incredibly gratifying to see that while the entire PoP crew had been working so hard over the past few months in NYC, these people were putting in plenty of physical work to prepare the site over here too.

Due to the difficulty of remembering Lao names, I decided early on nickname each of the village teachers/leaders that I frequently interact with after an American celebrity who would play them in a Lifetime made-for-TV movie. Most days I now have lunch with Kurt Cobain (he only wears plaid flannel-like shirts), Steve Buscemi (he’s super creepy but awesome), Christopher Walken (he’s real old but oh so smooth), Mr. Ed (his teeth are just ridiculous), Sam Cassel (his alien head is crazy) and Mr. Miyagi (he’s the wise old principal who commands respect… sometimes I call him Billygoat though, cause he has less than 10 facial hairs and one is at least five inches long). They usually try to get me drunk so we can better understand each other, but I’m pretty sure I’ve already won their respect through my beard and leg hair since none of them have the ability to grow either.

TC has now loaned me his old motorbike and I ride for a little more than an hour solo through the winding countryside out to the village early each morning. My day alternates between hours of playing games while being amazed by how adorable the kids are in the schoolyard, digging trenches with the local workers, swimming in the river with a ragtag crew of 5-9 year olds, being taught to fish by village leaders, and brief conversational exchanges with Walken, Miyagi and sometimes Mr. Ed. I can’t describe it as anything other than purely awesome. The souls of my feet are painfully cut up from playing duck-duck-goose barefoot, but the internalized soul feels rejuvenated and healthy.

That is the full update. I know it’s been long, but as Willie said to Toots, “It’s hard to explain how I feel, it won’t go in words but I know that it’s real.” The one final story I’d like to share happened on Monday morning before the ground-breaking. In attending the alms-giving ceremony, I hoped to witness and participate in a sacred tradition. While it was certainly very special, there were a handful of people aggressively snapping pictures right next to the monks that were not only disrespectful, but seemed to reduce the ritual itself into somewhat of a tourist spectacle. After I’d finished handing out rice to the monks and all had passed, I sat on some nearby steps to write in my journal for a bit. Most people dispersed, returning to their guesthouses. After about ten minutes I looked to my right to see an extremely old Lao woman still sitting on a low plastic chair, looking ahead in silence. She simply didn’t move. I kept writing. Several minutes later, the monks walked passed us in the opposite direction, returning to the temple where they reside. The old woman gave each of them, young and old, a handful of rice from her box with persistent diligence. Each was rewarded.

After they passed, she closed her rice box and continued to look straight ahead in expressionless silence for several moments. She then pressed her palms together so hard that her hands began to tremble. She bowed her head, placed her hands gently against her forehead, and paused for several seconds of devout prayer. She seemed not to be thanking an individual person or deity, but more the ceremony itself. This was devotion. This was fulfillment. By the looks of it I’m guessing she’d done this every morning at sunrise throughout her entire life, each day repeating the sacred ritual. The beauty of the act gave me chills, and made me realize the significance of simply having something in one’s life to care about with that much passion. For those that aren’t aware it was during my first visit to the NY Philharmonic in September, while watching a piano virtuoso furiously crushing the keys to a Rachmaninov piece, that I kept thinking “I just want something in my life to feel as passionately about as that man does towards the piano” when the idea for PoP was created… Watching that woman put her trembling hands to her forehead allowed me to see that the size of the task is secondary to the primary significance of simply having something that makes one feel alive with a sense of purpose and meaning. It was a powerful reminder to always keep the eyes open, because sometimes you find the inspiration in the great concert halls of the world, and other times you can simply pass it on the street.

Much love and many hugs,


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

SE Asia Adventures- #1: Breaking ground (Part I of II)

Thieves, bandits and innocents,

I’m writing to you now from Luang Prabang in Northern Laos, a charming town of 26,000 that will serve as my home base while in Laos. This is the first travel email I’ve written in almost 2 years, so I’ll do my best to Shake off the Dust and Arise. Be aware that these will be laced with obscure musical references (e.g. capitalized phrase above), overly detailed stories, and are essentially the anti-Twitter. They represent how I see the experiences on the road in full, which means that in a world of morsel-sized information, I’ll be serving up 5-course meals. They’re not written with Blackberry-screens in mind, so I’d suggest you print them up for a read on your morning commute… But enough qualifications, let’s dig into the guts and bones of this Freewheelin’ yarn.

As many of you may have seen, I’ve never worked harder in my entire life than the past six months in order to get everything in a position so that I could comfortably leave the normal life behind. This trip is about advancing Pencils of Promise on the ground in Laos and additionally getting back to my soul by backpacking SE Asia for an extended period of time. Fortunately the hard work paid off and everything was in line, but I found myself still awake at 4:30am on Tuesday morning handling final responsibilities without having a packed bag for my 8am flight. So in that sleep-deprived state of delirium when the world seems to have fallen through its own back pocket and you understand how Dr. Frankenstein created his monster, I packed four months of gear into the trusty backpack that’s now rested on my shoulders through 40+ countries over the past few years.

At the Cathay Pacific check-in counter at JFK, I was told I didn’t have a seat on my flight. Too tired to be annoyed, I just stood and waited. It turns out that my booking was listed under Braun Adam, not Adam Braun. Thanks As described in my previous email, the flight itself was apparently an insulated baby convention with monk-chanting fathers. The flight was also 95% Asian, which made it even funnier when the massive Soviet guy (yes it still exists… as long as Rocky IV can be purchased the Soviet Union is alive and a serious threat to the American way of life) who was sitting directly behind me in his Muscle Beach tank top at one point said aloud “You cannot be facking seereeuus!”

After a brief layover in Hong Kong I arrived in the Grand Central Station of SE Asia, Bangkok Airport. As most travelers will attest, Bangkok is the hub to access the gems of the region but it can offer a few ephemeral delights itself… most of which can be found in the backpacker equivalent of Times Square, Koh San Road. If you want a tailored suit, the world’s best knockoffs, cheap accommodations, Thai cover bands in Irish pubs, ping pong shows or a ZJ (if you don’t know what that is you’re not ready for it), that’s the place to go. Having been through Bangkok probably 5-10 times in the travels thus far, I quickly made my way to Koh San on a local bus (it’s the only part of Bangkok I’m familiar with) but was way too tired to do anything but find a decent bed, take a warm shower and eat some delicious pad thai. Sorry but no Bangkok adventures to tell of, my focus was on getting to Laos and that’s where it stayed.

The next morning I hopped the bus back to the airport and flew into Luang Prabang Airport in a small airplane painted with ridiculous boats and clown fish. Upon touching down at the airport I gave the new U2 album its first listen. The opening lick to the cover track “No Line on the Horizon” seemed to perfectly fit the mood of the country I was entering. That fine separation between the tangible and the unknown is shaded in grey here; some days it seems as though the sun isn't sure whether it's supposed to rise or set. The next tune, “Magnificent”, forced a “hell yes” smile across my face as I stepped onto the terrestrial goodness of the land I’d been craving to return to since my first visit in November. As I applied for my entry visa and they reviewed my passport, the third track, ironically titled “Moment of Surrender” began… touchĂ© Bono. Then I exchanged money and hit the jackpot. I changed $200, and immediately became a millionaire. Literally. In my pocket was $1.7M Lao kip, I was fucking loaded. I hopped a tuk-tuk towards town and “Breathe” exploded into my eardrums as wind whipped my face and blood and electricity and a hard rain surged through my veins. It was go time.