P: Laos Projects (long!)

Because I knew you I have been changed for good
—Elphaba from Wicked
When I was organizing our trip to Laos for the fall, I was looking for a beautiful, remote spot in South East Asia, where we could comfortably stay for a few weeks and write.  It needed to have good food and internet, be beautiful enough for us to have entertaining breaks, safe enough for the kids to be moderately independent, and if I were really picky a pool would be nice.Luang Prabang, fit all of our criteria.  Josh definitely grumbled as the itinerary firmed up and he learned that we couldn’t get to Laos directly, we were losing a day for connections in Bangkok.  “This place better be worth the 2 days it takes to get there” he complained…  It was.  Even better.

We arrived in Luang Prabang, a small riverside city in northern Laos.  It’s at the base of the foothills which reach up and up into mountainous ridges.  Many tribal people live in remote areas of the mountains, today still not accessible by car.  The Mekong and Mae Kok rivers wrap around two sides of the city’s peninsula, and the whole area is dotted with 32 Wats (Buddhist Temples). Tourists in Luang Prabang have recently reached a new level (from rare to just a few) – while it’s still a haven for backpackers, there are plenty of elegant restaurants and a new class of air-conditioned, boutique hotels for cushy-adventurous travelers like us.

The masses haven’t found Luang Prabang – yet. There are almost no motorcars, only scooters and bicycles on the streets and as a result, the pace of life is less frenetic and much more laid back. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site– the old French colonial city has been preserved — rather like having tea and visiting a lovely old Aunt.
There are plenty of day trips to waterfalls, nearby mountains, local villages, river cruises, bike treks to the rice fields.  But we wanted to stay put.  And the funny thing about not going anywhere, is you get to see the things moving around you – and in Luang Prabang, one of those things is people helping people.
We were surprised on our very first afternoon in Laos to hear about different projects helping local people—schools, orphanages, water projects, tutoring centers.  There’s a renaissance of sorts taking place here.  Tourists who can help for just a few hours or a few weeks are meeting up with official and unofficial NGOs to share what skills they can offer to the Laos people.

Our hotel was very relaxed.  We had 2 bungalows for our family, each big enough for us to work in the air-conditioned quiet or venture out to the pool, or the dining room lounge if we needed a change of scenery.  The staffers were friendly and attentive.  Ken, an outgoing young man with great English, worked at our hotel and was responsible for airport pick up, greeting guests, and supervising the floorstaff.
Each day when Max and I worked on school (geography of South East Asia or pre-algebra), Ken would come over for a hello-visit.  We got to know him pretty well and he wasn’t shy about telling us about his project: the House of Dreams.  He invited us to come over and meet the kids on our third night in Laos.I’ve never met someone like Ken.  At 21, he’s already been a Buddhist monk for 5 years, gone to bed hungry more nights than I ever have, and is the first person from his village to go to University.  Taking care of six teen-agers at age 21, going to University, working full time… Ken is a marvel.He started the House of Dreams project to give poor village kids access to secondary education.  He’s raised funds to open a dormitory.  He clothes, feeds, teaches, and supports 3 boys and 3 girls.  He wants them to achieve their dreams, and in turn, they are each committed to support 2 more kids to get their education in the city.  He’s got a clear vision about his project, but is still finding a way to make it happen.  I was absolutely inspired by his commitment and his energy.

The first night we visited the House of Dreams and met the kids, Ken handed the white board marker to Max and said “Ok, you teach the lesson plan tonight!” Max, initially shy and a little overwhelmed, got started.  The kids played hangman with vocabulary words. We sang, “Head, shoulders, knees, and toes,” “Yellow Submarine,” and Josh taught them, “Johnny Had A Head Like a Ping Pong Ball.”  By the end of the night we were all sweaty from jumping around and had started to become great friends.  Waving from the door, the kids shouted goodnight.  As we walked home beneath the stars, smelling wood smoke from cooking fires and avoiding the dogs in the street, Max and Emma chattered about how much fun they had.  They couldn’t wait to go back tomorrow!  Emma started thinking about the songs she wanted to teach them; and Max about the variations of fist bumps he could share.

So began our nightly visits to House of Dreams.  We’d work on our writing and school projects during the day, and after dinner we’d be with the kids: dancing, singing, teaching, and learning.  Max felt urgency to contribute to the project.  He wanted to help Ken and the kids at House of Dreams by raising money for them.  So he and Josh came up with a step-a-thon.

Max set a goal to get up early every morning in Laos and walk/run for 1 hour.  He sent out an email to our family circle and invited people to pledge a contribution for his steps.  Max was so motivated with a goal!  Each day his steps added up.  We didn’t say anything to Ken because Max wanted to present his donation when he was finished.Meanwhile, Max was also working on an iMovie project for EauLaos, a hygiene project to bring toilets, drinking water, and handwashing into schools.  We met with the founder and collected video footage.  Max prepared a 2-minute movie for her and was fondly dubbed “the Whiz” by our hotel manager, Evelyn, who made the contact for us.When Ken saw the EauLaos movie he was impressed and started talking with Max about making a House of Dreams movie.  We started visiting during the daytime hours to collect video of the kids and interviews of Ken.  It was hard work, but we pushed to finish a good 2 minute piece.  When Max showed him the HoD movie Ken cried.  He said that it was amazing!   And now we “needed to make a longer movie” for him.  Ken is friends with the organizers of the Luang Prabang Film Festival. The festival takes place the first week in December, and accepts entries that are 10 or 20 minutes about South East Asia. Ken wanted to have a House of Dreams movie made for the Festival… The challenge was on!

The kids at House of Dreams were excited to see us each night.  We taught them lots of games that didn’t require much talking.  Fortunately, from running our summer camp, we know a lot of games like Wa, Mind Reader, Pass the Clap, and Maze.  The HoD kids were so quick with observations and predictions. They were hungry for playful challenges.  Our kids were their favorite teachers because we were not just making them memorize more English vocabulary, but being active with them.  The girls especially were overflowing with love and made drawings everyday for us as gifts.  My favorites were the portraits of our family.  One picture showed Emma with braids and a kerchief on her head!

As the visit drew toward the end, we accelerated our filming schedule.   Stories about Ken and his journey, his fight for an education, were intertwined with the stories of the kids at the House of Dreams.  It was hard to see where one left off and the other began.  Ken went back to his village for a day to collect footage for us and it was amazing to see where he came from.  Dusty mountain roads, huts with dirt floors, water from wells, and families living off their farms.

We arranged to take Ken and the HoD kids out for a meal—Ken said that they would like to try pizza.  It was a wonderful night.  Ken made up House of Dreams shirts for the kids and gave shirts to our family and we all wore them for our special evening out.  All 12 of us piled into a Tuktuk , a large one,  like a pickup truck with a raised canopy roof overhead to keep out the rain, and bench seats on both sides. We sang Bruno Mars, Black Eyed-Peas, Lady Gaga, and more all the way into townThe kids were quite overwhelmed sitting in the restaurant so Josh and I ordered for everyone.  When the pizzas came, the kids shared and passed and made sure that Emma and Max got plenty to eat. I don’t think they liked the pizza as much as the chicken satay and rice we got on the side.  A bit too strange perhaps.The next day Ken said that he arranged for a special farewell party for us on our last night in Laos.  He was bringing his “family” together to send us off with good luck.  He’s been living away from home since he was 13, so Ken’s family is made up of the people close to him who he’s collected over time. We met his auntie who traveled 2 hours from his village, some neighbor ladies, and friends from his University.

The Baci blessing ceremony was lovely.  We all sat on the big orange mat on the floor at House of Dreams, the site of all the learning and laughter from the past weeks.  Our family was pushed right into the center next to an offering display laden with golden marigolds, balls of sticky rice, steamed banana treats, packaged biscuits, incense and sticks with cotton strings.  Sitting around us in layers of circles radiating outward were the kids from HoD and all the invited guests.  I was feeling hot and embarrassed to be the focus of so much attention but really joyful, because we were a part of this group.  We belonged here too.When Auntie lit incense and recited prayers everybody held hands—but not the way we do at home.  My family in the very center were told to put one hand on the offering tower and then someone behind us touched my shoulder and then someone behind them touched their shoulder and on so that everyone was touching someone who was touching us touching the offering.  The prayers were wishes for us to have good lives and good luck in our travel, our health, our business, our successes.  Then we all were given a sweet to eat from the tower.
The last part was the very best!  The white cotton strings on sticks were handed around.  The strings came from a local temple.  They had been blessed over by monks for 6 days—very strong prayers and good luck!   In Laos, white is the color of peace, good fortune, honesty and warmth. The white cotton thread is a lasting symbol of brotherhood in the community.
Every person grabbed a handful of them and got to work tying string onto each of our wrists and making a good luck blessing while they performed the ritual.  The wishes for “safe traveling” “money, money” “good studies” went on and on.  I was trying very hard to take pictures of the ceremony but as I held up the camera, my hand was grabbed and a wish tied upon it.  Our wrists were fully wrapped up in love.  Our family got into the action too, we got strings and tied wishes onto the HoD kids and Ken. Much of the magic of the night will stay in my memory.  At the end of the ceremony, Josh asked Ken to translate our thanks to the whole group.  He wanted them to know how much we have received from them.  They gave us gifts of optimism, and hope, and courage.  We returned their friendship with open hearts.As I write this I still have a lucky string on each of my wrists.  We were supposed to leave the strings on for at least 3 days and then remove all but one on each side.  Those remaining wishes were supposed fall off naturally.  I love to look down at my hands and remember that crazy night, the heat of Laos and all the love that supports House of Dreams.  Those wishes on my wrists help remind me of the promise we made to Ken, to finish his movie so he could enter the film festival.

Max and I worked for 2 more weeks on the film after we left Laos.  We enrolled Emma in the project and got her to do the voice overs needed to tie the story together.  Finally last week we completed the project and burned a CD for Ken. Max uploaded the a low resolution version so Ken could see it right away; within hours he emailed and said he LOVED it!!  While he was watching the film at the hotel, a guest was looking over his shoulder and was so taken by the film she gave him a donation right there!  So I guess it’s already creating the intended effect.  We sent the film to Ken and he should get it this week.  We will keep our fingers crossed about the film festival.  But even if it doesn’t make it in, Ken will be able to share the movie with other people, and raise more awareness for the project and the kids.

Laos was inspiring.  We went to write and relax, and to be of service and make new friends was an unexpecteted bonus.  We are already talking about when we can return!  We’ve been changed for the better.

I’d like to share the 2 min film preview of House of Dreams. Stay tuned for the full length version!
House of Dreams preview movie

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5 thoughts on “P: Laos Projects (long!)

  1. Thank you for sharing your experiences in Laos. What an amazing opportunity for all of you to find Ken and help with the Dreams. The film is lovely. I will look forward to the longer one when it is available. I loved it.

    I am sure it will touch many hearts.

    Love you

  2. Your family is amazing and I am inspired by how your kids are making a real difference in the world with their talents. Thank you for sharing this story of Ken. I don’t know how many people read your blog who haven’t actually met you IRL… Yen Weick pointed me to it a few months ago when our family was looking at doing a big Asian trip next summer (this has probably been pushed back at least a year and possibly more, unfortunately). But I am now more curious… what sort of writing do you and your husband do? Fiction? Nonfiction? I guess I’m a little envious of being able to go hang out in Laos with your kids in November… :-). Anyway, best wishes and safe travels to you.

  3. House of Dreams is a really touching story! What an amazing “coincidence” that your family met Ken and found this opportunity to be a part of these people’s lives. Thank you for being such wonderful ambassadors, and for all the good work you are doing as a family. Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. what a gift for all involved.
    you are such gems. living life, changing lives. living well and connected and involved.

    we love you fabulous four and are honored to call you friends. xoxo

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