“You come to Omkoi this weekend? Teach English. See beautiful country.” Jaya proclaimed with his crisp accent. I had been invited by a skinny older Malaysian teacher at Webster University with a couple of other students to help teach English to the hill tribe children in Omkoi, a small mountainous town three hours north of Chiang Mai.
Jaya in part owned a training center next to Omkoi Upper School where all the children that lived too far up in the mountains could stay to attend school on a regular basis. We would get to meet the kids and not only help them with their homework, but more importantly expose them to a bit of never before seen footage of the world; Americans. They would probably be doing as much lurking at us, as we would be doing at them. With a fifteen hour drive in the backseat of Jaya’s pickup from Hua Hin to Omkoi, I buckled up, or I would have had there been seatbelts, and awaited my long and lengthy landscape tour.
The ruddy old buildings blended into one another, needless shops for needless causes decorating the side of the highway. The brightly painted exteriors sun bleached and the gaudy awnings uniformly tattered and skipping steadily in the wind. My mind bends trying to imagine a “New Thailand,” a time when all these comfortable sunken in shops maintained their posture, and I can’t. I conclude that they must have been built with wrinkles. It’s too strange a thought envisioning Thailand still in it’s packaging with all the Ritz.
We slowly edge our way out of town and begin our ascent up the mountain. Spotting a street side vendor we pulled over to buy some incredibly sticky, flavor explosion in your mouth sort of mangoes. After offering us a handful of napkins to sop up our pulpy mess, the vendor casually invited us all to her cousin’s funeral. Apparently her cousin had died a couple days prior and they were holding the ceremony that afternoon, a great feast with about two hundred guests. Unfortunately we had to get back on the road, but it was a tempting offer, especially if they’d be serving mango that evening.
Watching the trees fly by through the dusty car window I concentrated on their sturdy trunks so confidently attached to the earth. It seemed like the stem would just extend on forever, bark scratching the grainy dirt deep into the core of the planet. Flashes of tree after tree following tree as we headed higher and higher into the mountains. Clicking ruthlessly with my camera I couldn’t help but have a love affair with the lighting. That crisp sort of hour when the afternoon hits puberty and the sunlight reflects into a million different shadows before drifting off into the evening.
All in all, the journey equaled out to a sum of one part academic attempts, two parts cheap and chocolatey Asian-Oreo’s (purchased at one of our frequent 7-11 stops because in short, I am my mothers daughter) and one part critical analysis of what this world needs. That was compliments of Jaya. He’s like a verbal vegetarian. He only talks the healthy stuff. That means a lot of deep and meaningful silences. We did however unanimously decide in a carpool discussion that the solution to all crises is creating and maintaining uniform global values.
Together we constituted the strangest team. One of us was funny looking enough to the Thai people on our own, but as a group we were poignantly peculiar. DQ, a massive broad shouldered New Yorker with a build to make the Bronx proud and skin darker than, well, pretty much any metaphor could fit nicely here, as long as said thing that we’re comparing him to is really, really dark. DQ was probably the most achieved human being I’d ever meet. At twenty-six years old he’d already passed a successful career as a personal trainer, been signed to a professional record label and played in the NFL. In need of proof? Check out www.deqawn.com for a bit of validation. I’ll just go stand over here in my insignificant bubble of attempted self-actualization and clip my toenails.
Rachel is a mild mannered, kind, injure no man but help all mankind sort of gentle human rights major from South Dakota. What she lacks in accent, she makes up for in thick brown bangs and long prairie skirts. Her patience is ample and her willingness to teach extreme. And as for me, well, I’ve got hair shiny enough to direct traffic in a power outage.
A carful of very nice people. You know the sort of help baby birds back into their nest sort of people that are convinced if they smile enough and speak enough kind words they can churn up a revolution for the betterment of the human race. The types of people that take forever to decide where to eat lunch because they just hop around a circle saying, “I’m fine with anything, where do you want to go? Wherever, I’m up for anything. No really, I don’t have a preference. Where do you want to go?” And so on and so forth until someone drinks enough water that they have to stop the car to pee and then we all meander towards the closest meal.
If an example is needed of just how nice we all are, we listened to the same CD for fifteen hours straight in the car ride up without commenting. The first time around I thought it was pretty cute, some sort of cheery little scat rendition of old show tunes. It was one of those parent sort of CDs that they play in the back ground while making waffles on a Sunday morning. The second time around it was a little less charming, and true to economics, the law of diminishing returns took a stronghold and the value of that CD decreased rapidly each time the track automatically switched back to the first song.
“So, ah, Jaya, is this your favorite CD?” Rachel finally piped up as we pulled into the driveway of our destination.
Jaya looked bewildered, “What?…Ah, we didn’t change the CD now did we? Ooops.” Turns out Jaya doesn’t have the best hearing.
With rippled relief that the elephant in the car had been popped, we all laughed at the way in which we’d been excruciatingly exposed to a jovial chorus of, “Sunny side of the street” for the last twenty three times that CD had spun fully around. “Have y’all noticed at 3:54 when she hits the high note on track 5? I hold my breath every time that happens!” DQ exclaimed with a clapping of his hands. I took up a collection to buy Jaya a new CD when he threatened to play it on the return journey as well.
As the car lagged slowly up the crusty dirt driveway, swarms of kids flocked up to the windows. They stared at us curiously when we got out and they laughed and laughed and laughed. We stammeringly introduced ourselves in Thai, and they continued to chortle. Apparently we were significantly funny looking people. Our arrival had interrupted their evening prayers and they all rushed back to sit in perfect lines of stillness cross-legged on the floor singing a faultless melody. It was almost eerie the amount of discipline these kids exerted as they never wavered from their impeccable posture and I never saw so much as a single eyelid squint open to check around the room.
After prayers we all introduced ourselves, and Jaya asked us to share with them some special talent of ours. DQ immediately got up and divided the kids into two teams explaining American Football, he ruthlessly began to tackle them and use the smallest as the ball. Mixed screams of entertainment and horror erupted from the crowd as DQ ran right at them. It was an instant hit. He’d won them all over with a single pass.
A hard act to follow, Jaya looks to me and suggests that I sing a song.
I’m not even double jointed so there goes another sect of entertainment possibilities right out the window.
I frantically racked my brain for special talents, I’d never mastered the art of raising one eyebrow and I doubted the kids would be very impressed watching me knot a cherry stem with my tongue. Wrong crowd.
So instinctively I began to speak Italian. I guess it worked because the kids jaws all dropped a bit and a general wave of, “Huh?” washed over them. I jabbered on for a minute or two about this and that before passing the talent baton over to Rachel.
Following suit, she began to speak German, which put the kids into an even deeper state of complexity with all those yucky vowels and scary harsh sounds. She said that she might as well use her hard earned minor for something.
Splitting the kids up into different groups, we gathered around the busy whiteboard and began to teach. Scraping into our reserves of kindergarten knowledge, we taught greetings, names, dates, time telling. We pulled the clock off the wall and spun the hands around for the kids to all shout out the correct time, four twenty five became “four twenty fly” and Saturday became “Supterday.” You know, it sounds about the same. If you don’t speak English that is. When we asked the students when their birthdays were, almost half of them eagerly replied that they were born on January first. I later learned that in order to get a citizenship card they need to write down a birth date, and if they don’t know when it is, they’re given January first to have as their own.
About fifty kids live in this center, and they all perform their duties regularly without being asked. There are never any adults present, except for when Jaya drives up on the weekends. It took me a moment to comprehend this. Fifty teenaged kids of both sexes living together at all times during the week for months on end waking up at 5:50 each morning to pray and do their laundry. It sounds like the makings of a reality TV show in the states, or a very ethically incorrect psychological experiment or at the very least a lawsuit waiting to happen.
As most of our time had been eaten up by the long travel, unfortunately we had to leave less than twenty-four hours after our arrival but we were able to get a twenty kid guided tour around the little village. We slipped off our sandals to pray at the beautiful temple and played a couple of rounds of scrabble before eating some spicy eggplant sauce over rice that the students had cooked in our honor. They hugged us dearly before letting us clamor back into the car and start up the long journey home.
On the ride back we took a bus, which traveled all through the night and equaled out to about fifteen hours of blaring Thai pop songs. “Jai,” heart was about the only word I recognized but believe me it held its own, occurring every other sentence as the scantily clad Thai pop star stood on building tops and moaned into the microphone about her br-br-broken heart.
Not having showered in far too many gritty days, eaten nothing but noodles and Asian Oreos nor having slept since thirty hours earlier, we were dropped off at school precisely at 8:30am, just in time to hit the library and scrawl off an essay due a couple of classes later. Sipping the froth off a steaming cup of coffee between my fuzzy teeth, I officially welcomed myself to college life and thanked the Lord Above for double spacing.