Why we are Helping and how YOU can get involved

The remote villages of Laos have never recovered from the 'Secret' war of the 1960's. While rich in culture and tradition, their education, healthcare and hygiene conditions are severely lacking. The average lifespan is only 56 years and average age is only 20.8, caused by poor quality water, poor hygiene and general poverty. BUT with your help we have already made a difference in the lives of over 2700 villagers.

We have built schools in the villages of Pha Yong and Had Chanh, and a 3rd school located in Done Lom is under construction. We have also distributed over 200 water filters systems and completed hygiene training for three entire villages. Each family is required to take this course before a filter is provided, in order to promote a longer, healthier and happier life. A new water source including a dam, water tank and taps has been completed, as has our first bank of hygienic toilets.

It doesn't stop there. We have requests for 34 new projects and with your help, will do what we can to support as many requests as possible.

You can help in so many different ways. Before you do though, note that less than 5% will go to direct overhead costs, contrary to many NGO's who's overheads can reach 80%. Sponsors for every project will receive emailed pictures and details of how the money was spent.

Here are some examples of how you can help with your financial contribution.

- $55 buys a water purification filter for a family of 8.
It will also include your name on the water filter and a picture forwarded to you with the family and the filter unit.
- $12,500 US buys a school for grades 1, 2 and 3. Perhaps you would like to sponsor or assist us to sponsor a school.
- $4,000 US (approx) buys school tables and desks for a three room school and a two-room kindergarten.
- $700 US (approx) pays for a teacher for one year
- $50 US buys education for one child for one year including school fees, 2 uniforms, shoes, backpack and school supplies.
hygienic washroom facilities rane depending on the number of stalls and start at about $3000, but are critical to prevent more disease.

If you would like to become involved and to help the people of rural Laos help themselves lead a more fulfilling life, please email us at AdoptaVillageinLaos@gmail.com. Official Tax Receipts are not yet possible although we hope to receive charitable status this summer. Meanwhile we would still love to hear of your interest.

Please help............we cannot do this alone....

Meanwhile, please enjoy our updates below.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Pha Yong Village

Preparing to Leave Muang Ngoi
We're Off!

Sights along our
jungle trek

As we rounded the last turn towards the village, I just had to pause to reflect.

Words cannot adequately describe how I was feeling.
There were so many emotions going through me at the
time, besides those of heat exhaustion. For months I
had been living this moment, imagining what it would be
like as I came into the village, wondering what the village looked like. Never in a million years did I expect the scenery to be so stunning. I also wondered what the villagers would be like, if we would be welcome. I wondered what the next few days would bring and hoped that I could handle whatever conditions and experiences came my way. It was exhilarating to see from that vantage point. The village was sitting on a plateau of sorts with distant mountains all around it. What a sight. The last time I had seen such a culture change as a non-tourist was during a business trip to Liberia, West Africa, where it took me another 11½ months to sneak out of the country. That was over 20 years ago and another story.

As we walked into the village, Bounmy just happened to recognize his sister-in-law sitting with her child on a back porch (with no railing), extending from a house on stilts. This was only the third house from the edge of the village so he assumed correctly that was home. The entire village was basically dry mud and dusty. That part was not what I expected. Where were the trees, and grass? I should have realized that their village had only been relocated a couple of years earlier with promise of a water source and a school from the government. They had barely got their houses in order, let alone the grounds around them. Plus, the men had to focus on their fields, their only source of income.

Route to Bounmy's Home. Wait kids....we're not even there yet!

Right: Home, sweet home? But look at the
view they get from their back window.
Bet you don't get that view.

As I sit writing this I admit I am still awestruck with the image of the village from first sight. I guess the best way to describe it is to show some pictures. I still feel strong emotions just thinking about it, the images and adventure that followed.

We arrived at the house and we could see in the distance that the kids were starting to work their way over to us. We took our shoes off and climbed a ladder made from branches. It was very hard on the feet if you aren’t used to climbing rough branches in socked or bare feet. We got to the top and climbed in. It took a few seconds to adjust to the dark contrast from the bright sunshine. What a picture! There was Bounmy’s mom and sister-in-law to greet us. I can just imagine what Bounmy must have been going through, after 8 years of absence to a home he had never seen. As we climbed in, straight ahead of us was the kitchen. The fire was going, lots of smoke in the air, and they wasted no time in preparing lunch for us. All of the walls were bamboo although one wall was insulated with magazine pages to block out either the wind or perhaps the sun. These pages showed pictures of Tiger Woods, new fashion and wildly contemporary architecture and furnishings. They just didn't fit. To the left of the kitchen was a short opening (easy to bump your head on so I found out later) leading to the veranda we had seen earlier from the trail.

Left: Steve and Mike in our new digs. Right: My new mom and pop.
Hey look! Dad's got a frisbee.

Bounmy's Sister-in-Law cooking lunch Fresh Sticky Rice

In the corner to the left of the open kitchen was one area
that was sheeted off – the bedroom of Bounmy’s brother
and sister-in-law with a very new child. As we looked
around the room there was another small room – the
mom and dad’s bedroom and then the rest of the space was open. There was one open window – no window actually, just a wooden shutter to close at night or during windy weather. Our sleeping area was their living room. It was easy to tell because there were three rolled sleeping pads and mosquito nets mounted and pressed against the outer wall for easy assembly later.

Our bedding - if you look over Mike's left shoulder, that is a picture of Tiger Woods. The floor had a fair bit of give in it. With the bedding it was quite comfortable.

We were still suffering from the heat and they asked us to relax so we stretched out on the floor, readying ourselves to nap off while the two ladies prepared lunch. That wasn’t to be though. No sooner had we stretched out, than kids and adults alike started filing in. My brain was a bit like mush but it was easy to read their faces. They were studying mine and were just sitting cross legged in front of us, waiting patiently to hear about us, our stories and our lives from back home. They were totally respectful though. Still, I think I had been able to relax for no more than five minutes and I was already going through one of our backpacks to give the kids a treat. The kids were so sweet……..I couldn’t hold off any longer. I managed to come up with a few stories and asked some questions through Bounmy - quite frankly I had no concept of time, then I think they filed out so we could have our lunch.

They started filing in as soon as we arrived. Over the next 10 minutes we had about 40 people in there.

Our first meal……..hmmm how to describe it? Before eating they put water into a pail for washing hands. As a matter of respect, we were invited first and then dried our hands on a well used towel. The same water is used by all who eat and by all after the meal is finished - not exactly hygenic. Sticky rice was a staple in their diet also and was served in covered baskets beside a large metal serving tray filled with dishes of food.
The women never joined us unless asked to. They were welcome and were told that but this was a matter of respect for us. Bounmy’s older brother, Bounmy, Mike and I sat in front of these strange looking bowls. One was a somewhat clear soup containing a type of very bitter greens. It was like cooking the bitter end of an unripe cucumber. It certainly made me sweat. There was also a fish dish. Bounmy had brought a couple of cans of sardines. I suspect this was a delicacy for them. In the middle was a bowl of very tasty but spicy chilly spice to dip your food into. There was another green vegetable dish of some sort but I it is hard to describe the flavor. I have to admit that I ate more sticky rice than anything else. At the end of the meal they served sliced bananas. They got concerned when they thought I didn’t eat very much but during the hot days at home, I never eat very much. This was a concept that they never did understand.

After our meal, we did rest for a little time but only about 45 minutes. This was such an experience for us that I just didn’t want to waste the day inside and at least there was a slight breeze outside. There was a whole village waiting to be enjoyed, children to see and lots and lots of pictures to take. Once outside though, it was hot, hot, hot! We set up some solar garden lights that I had brought with me so that we could charge them up use them at night if needed. Since electricity was only available for a very few houses at the far end of the village, I thought they might come in handy.

Above: The Village People

Our walk was shorter than planned because of the extreme heat but we did see a small shack that sold things like boiled bottled water. We were running low so I bought a whole bunch of it (turns out it only lasted the rest of the day and we had to buy more). Apparently we had walked right by the chief’s house and he had seen us and thought we were coming to visit. We had no idea of course, but should have recognized that it was the only painted house on that side of the village and it was a bright green. When we didn’t actually go in, we had no sooner got back to the house we were staying at, when he showed up. I was totally unprepared of course. In fact the three of us had been stretched out on the floor ready to nap. Once introduced, relaxation went out the small window and we sat around in a circle as other adults filed in. Wow! The seating arrangement was a little weird. He sat to my left, only when he was the person with the most authority. It turns out he was the second chief. If the first chief had come along, he would have sat on my left, with the second chief on my right. Fortunately it was not a formal meeting but I had to come to grips with sitting in a circle for hours at a time cross-legged, never to stretch your legs out in front, even for a second. It is extremely rude to show the bottom of your feet, so I just squirmed a lot.

Knowing that he smoked, I offered a pack of Japanese-made light cigarettes in the middle of the circle after offering him the first one. They didn’t last very long with all the smokers in the room. They grow their own tobacco (and yes, it was only tobacco) and normally rolled big fat cigarettes when they wanted to smoke and wrapped the tobacco with whatever paper they could find. After that we exchanged pleasantries, discussed a time to meet with him and other village elders and he asked me questions like how old I was, what I did back home, why we chose Pha Yong village and lots of other questions. It turns out that I am the same age as the chief - in fact I am older than the average lifespan of a Lao, at 54. If I remember correctly, I may have seen one person who was older than I.

After another dinner, it was dark and we headed off to the second chief's house, armed with working solar garden lights and our notes. The lights sure came in handy - it was probably like magic for them. Without them we never would have been able to read our notes. Soon the first chief arrived with his assistant, along with other elders and those who wanted to participate. We were even pleasantly surprised that women were not excluded although they tended to stay in the background, but we did receive a couple of questions from them.

More pics of the village and kids

I had a speech prepared and a rather extensive list of questions to ask depending on their answers to the previous ones. The whole meeting took about 1½ hours followed by yet another meal – I was still full from the previous one and they weren’t insulted that I declined. Overall it was an exhausting experience because I had to be very careful to explain the questions to the translator to make sure he knew exactly how to ask them. I sure didn’t want to offend anyone by asking questions the wrong way. I was also watching their body language intently to make sure they had understood the question the way I intended it. Mike was our photographer and did an excellent job throughout the visit. The experience was quite amazing and I was thankful that the village chiefs and elders had listed their priorities in exactly the same order I had, agreeing that their priorities were education, clean water and hygienic toilets. Their other priorities were some sort of healthcare (even a nurse) and tourism to bring more dollars into the community. The chief thanked us several times, citing that nobody had ever offered to help them.

Above: The home of the First Chief. He had electricity including two light bulbs and a plug.

It was announced through their loudspeaker system in the village that the next two days would be a holiday from the fields, in our honour. Ok, well the loudspeaker system consisted of the Chief walking the full length of the combined villages yelling out the announcement...another Wow!

After the meeting we changed and headed to the shower area in our underwear with a towel wrapped around us. The water supply was a simple 4 foot concrete post with a tap protruding from it. It was night and being a bit timid we were thankful for the darkness to shower out in the open. Men just shower in their underwear – women shower in a sari. It sure felt a bit strange but I went with the flow.

Above: Bounmy washing clothes at the local tap.

Right: Jugs being filled at the watering hole.

The washrooms were just as we had expected. Just a hole in the ground with a four foot see-through bamboo shack built around it. Thank God we brought toilet paper. They generally use four inch strips of bamboo to scrape their butts. Yikes! I suppose we should have taken a picture of a typical toilet there but we just didn't think of it. It certainly was not a welcome sight.

The next day we went to see the school and I have to admit I was quite surprised. There was this relatively new three room school made with block and concrete for grades 1, 2 and 3. There was one room that had some home-made furniture and the other two rooms just had mats on the floor because they couldn’t afford the furniture. Of course we were there to build a kindergarten so that the families didn’t have to take their young children out into the rice fields with them every day.

School for Primary 1, 2, 3 - no furniture at all in one of the rooms.

We also looked at their water source to determine the best way of purifying their water. The rest of the day we just sweat it out and moved as little as possible. At night I was asked by one of the chiefs if I had anything to help the swelling of his joints. I am no doctor but I was pretty sure that arthritis had set in. I found out that Bounmy’s mom also had it so I tried giving them Advil first to see if it would help. Before long there were a number of visitors asking for medical help of other kinds but I had to decline. I am just no expert and didn’t want them to think I was. The next morning the mom felt so great that she trekked for 5 hours, climbed a huge hill and down the other side – in fact it looked more like a mountain, to collect fresh bamboo shoots for our lunch, plus a lot of things needed for the special religious ceremony that was being prepared in our honour for that evening. By the end of our visit I had handed over my bottles of Advil and Tylenol with specific instructions of course.

Right - Mom, after her 5 hour trek, carrying fresh bamboo shoots for us and massive banana leaves.

While the mom was trekking, we headed to the rice fields to pick our lunch. No it wasn’t the rice we were to pick. We were to pick the tops off the small vine weeds that were growing in between the rice plants. It was so hot that Mike just sat under a shack trying to keep cool. My problem wasn’t so much the heat, but it was difficult to see the little suckers so I was pretty slow at it. The greens turned out to be quite succulent.

Pics of the plants we picked for lunch - slim pickins'? Bounmy's cousin (below) picked more than the rest of us put together. I say it is because I was too tall to see them, not because I'm getting old - that is the story I am sticking with.
After a hard day of work - well.....maybe an hour.
They didn't even break a sweat - I wish I could say that.

The last morning I woke up and climbed down the makeshift ladder to relieve my bladder and as I got off the last rung, I looked up and was face-to-face with a water buffalo! I had no idea at the time that it was the family pet so-to-speak and employee I suppose. Anyway I backed away slowly and he followed me from under the house. He wouldn't get close to me though. I called for Mike to take a picture but I kept backing up. I guess the Bounmy heard the commotion and told his mom who flew down the ladder to give the buffalo a big hug. He never would let me pet him and I wonder if I scared him because to this date he never came back, although they continue to look for him.

The last full day we did nothing – the hosts would not let us lift a finger to help them and got upset if we did! Still I managed to help them move some lumber into storage and a couple of other things – I just felt so useless otherwise. During the afternoon Bounmy took us fishing in a pond near them. Someone had left the flood gate open so it wasn't only muddy, but it was obviously more difficult to catch fish, because only two small ones were caught.

By the time we got back we were full of sweat and because Baci was being performed that night I had no choice but to head to the shower in broad daylight. As I got close to the shower, there was a pig that had been slaughtered for the Baci and it was being cleaned under the tap. What a bloody sight! I signaled that I would come back later but because I was VIP, they wouldn’t agree and quickly cleaned up the pig parts, moved them off to the side and cleaned up the area for me. Of course I had an audience of about 20 while I showered, as they waited patiently. Yes, everybody stared at the white Phlang (slang for foreigner).

3 Little Pigs

Then there were two.

We were happy to have the garden lights that night. Baci started as we all sat around this metal serving platter that had cones made of banana leaves sewn with plant stems and covered with flowers. There was money that had been collected from the village for us as an offering to Buddha and I was considered Buddha. They had collected 175,000 KIP, equivalent to $12.75 USD. To give you some perspective, the average farmer makes $16.25 per year. Pork, chicken, rice, candies and cookies were also offerings. We just wanted to cry. I sure ‘ain’t’ no Buddha! I knew they couldn’t afford this – they had nothing! It would be insulting to give the money back. I later put the money in my shaver kit and used other money to help those who had prepared this for us.

As the ceremony started Mike, Bounmy and myself were asked to put both of our hands side by side touching each others hands. The chief took a string made from a tree flower (although I may have got the translation wrong), loudly chanted a prayer and brushed the string across the top of our hands to take all of the bad luck away. He then crunched up the string and through it out the open window. Then a real shocker that nobody expected it. Lightning, thunder, heavy rain and wind started – we had to close the window because everyone was getting wet along with sandy dust coming down from the ceiling rafters. This seemed like a Hollywood movie set. The chief was satisfied that the storm had blown away the bad luck. Holy Cow! I couldn’t even have imagined this. Anyway, those who could reach the metal platter, touched it with both hands. Those that couldn’t reach touched the shoulder of the person in front to flow the good energy toward the plate. It reminded me of Avatar, the movie. Lots of prayer and chants followed and then the chief, followed by everyone else in the room picked hundreds of these strings off of hanging branches that had been prearranged, tied and organized, and proceeded to chant prayers to Buddha and then tied a string around each of our wrists. This represented all the families in the village. It was a mob effect as you will see in some of the pictures but so moving it was hard to control our emotions. After that, it was our turn but instead of praying, we were to bless everyone and tie strings around their wrists. Finally, the chief put flowers on us, gave me the money that was collected, plus two shots of their home made rice whiskey that they had been brewing since they knew we were coming. Then came the food. Everyone took a bit of rice, nipped it with some of the pig (or more like pig skin and fat) and put it in our hands. Then we had to mold it and start eating it. I managed to eat some of it but also managed to slide some of it back under one of the plates when nobody was looking. Once we were fed then everyone joined in, followed by drink, more drink, even more drink and song. Boy can they drink! I will take these memories to my grave.

Baci Being performed

A taste of their home brewed Rice Whiskey.

Our final morning arrived and we headed to the school. We were told that there were about 90 kids so we were prepared. We had brought a couple of things for each of them. It turns out that there were about 150 kids. Since school was out, many kids had been returned to the village or were relatives. We had stickers, Canada pins, the volleyball and soccer (futball as they spell it in English). We also had glow strips and friendship bands, kindly made and donated by Jennifer’s Jazz-it-Up Dance Studio in Port Hope. They sure went over well. We got some great pictures too! As we presented the sports items to the teacher who was present, we found that she had been summoned back to the village, requiring a full 24 hours to get there! We also gave her letters written by the kids at Jennifer’s Jazz-it-Up and had some of them translated to the village students.

Above: Their teacher


After breakfast, we headed back to the river. It was still cool and we managed to do the journey in 1½ hours with no ill effects and only a couple of minutes for a break. It sure helped that our packs were a lot lighter. After another 1½ hours waiting on the beach we said our good bye to our dear friend Bounmy and managed to hitch a boat ride back to Muang Ngoi. To say that he was a terrific host and tour guide would be an understatement. There is no way we could have had such an experience without him and of course there would have been no kindergarten school or any of the other things we planned. What an angel!

Above Left: Bounmy picking flowers for his mom.
Above Right: Taking a break on my behalf

Think we killed him?
(Me, Bounmy, and Boumy's older brother)

Thank you Bounmy for helping us to see your world!

Looking back at that portion of the trip, I began to realize just how much the villagers and children meant to me. The entire village worked as one big family or collective. It reminded me of the Borg on Star Trek. Their politeness and respect were overwhelming at times. I was also amazed at how much sickness they had all gone through. 35% of all people over 40 have kidney problems, caused by the water. I didn’t count but it seemed that there were less adult women than men, although there seemed to be roughly an even number of male and female kids. Strange…

Back in Muang Ngoi, I took advantage of the restaurants that had a choice of their version of westernized food and Lao food. I didn’t go for the French fries but barbequed chicken (white meat) was a real treat. We ran into a couple of young women and had to laugh. Both of them were eating a plate of French Fries and so we teased them a bit about their ‘cultural’ experience. Within an hour I managed to find a tour guide and set them up to visit the same village we had come from. I couldn’t believe how badly they wanted to go, even with my cautions. When we saw them next, they had to admit that we had warned them. I guess their experience wasn’t as much fun as they expected.

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