Tuesday, September 25, 2012

project: avert soap disaster. Countdown: t minus 15 minutes.

The title of this blog is taken from a Facebook post that I made last Thursday morning, at about 9:15 am (local time, that is).

About three weeks ago, on a Wednesday, I suggested to my co-teacher at one school that maybe, just maybe, we could make soap at the school and put it in the bathrooms and at the sinks so the kids could use it to wash their hands. I had found a glycerin-based soap recipe and instructions on our PC Thailand Wiki, along with a video a former volunteer had posted about the hand-washing projects and lessons she had prepared to go along with her soap-making project. (I later found out that the liquid soap recipe might be for washing dishes, but whatever. Germs are germs. Soap is soap.) My co-teacher immediately mentioned my idea to another teacher who was in the lounge. She thought it was a great idea. Sweet! I thought, This might actually happen.

Two days later, I was sitting in a staff meeting at the school, trying to pay attention and keeping one eye out the window in case the thunder clouds started gathering ominously and I could make a dash out the door with the "dtong bpai gon fone dtok" (gotta go before it rains!!) excuse. I had no such luck. Instead, at the very end of the meeting, my co-teacher produced the documents I had printed from the wiki, and gave them to the pa'a, announcing that next week, I would make soap with the kids. My face did the thing that it does when I'm a little shocked and annoyed, and kind of worried. And then I did my best to rearrange my face into a smile, and agree to the project.

Crap. I thought, This is going to happen next week. This is only a problem because we hadn't yet discussed a) where to procure glycerin, rock salt, four kilos of limes/kaffir limes, and lye and b) the fact that the limes have to ferment and if you make lye from scratch with ashes, it takes at least a week before it's ready. I shouldn't have worried. The following week, the students showed up, as planned (and as they were ordered), with limes and kaffir limes (they're wrinkly, so from here on out, I'll call them wrinkly limes) and also with empty water bottles for bottling the soap. I brought some from my house, too. Someone else who works at the school showed up with a bunch of ashes. The water at the school was on. We had buckets. We had kids who were excited to be let out of class for 2 hours to watch the farang do something weird. It went fine. We cut 4 kilos of limes, added sugar, water and put the cap on. We added 12 liters of water to 4 kilos of ashes, stirred, and put the cap on that bucket, too. We made big plans for finishing the soap the following week.

And then, I went and changed all the plans on everyone because I had to go to the doctor last week, and that's like a 24 hour long process of travelling, checking into a hotel, travelling some more, talking to the PC doc, getting an appointment, etc., etc. So I was going to have to leave before the Friday when we'd planned to finish the job. I asked a few teachers if they could rearrange their schedules for the Thursday morning so we could finish the soap. They happily obliged. I created a PowerPoint about handwashing that I hoped to use on Wednesday in the English classes. I figured it would all be okay.

On Thursday morning, though, 15 minutes before go-time, I hadn't seen my co-teacher. I wasn't sure if the ash-water would have turned lye-like enough because it had only been 6 days, not 7-10, as stated in the instructions. We hadn't been able to do the handwashing lesson on Wednesday, mostly because I hadn't been able to convey the importance of the lesson to my co-teacher, so we'd done more phonics instead. I was tired. I was told that the 5th grade teacher, whose rowdy class no one can really control, least of all me and my co-teacher during our English classes, was not going to be able to come and help during the soap session. (As happens a lot here, she had a training she had to go to. I think it may have been in the afternoon, but she had to leave around 10. I didn't argue.) So I posted on FB about averting disaster, while taking a break between googling more "liquid soap making" pages and hoping for something brilliant that I hadn't yet come across to pop up. (No such luck.) About 3 minutes later, I found out my co-teacher had something else to do (painting the set for something for the anuban [pre-school] or something I didn't really understand, and although I did wonder whether we would have taught English during our regular time were it not for the soap-making that was replacing it, I decided not to press the point that my co-teacher really should have been available). Not much else to do but roll with it.

Rolling on over to the cafeteria, where we had started the project the week before, I found the school's janitor/handyman setting up a white board for me. But it was right in front of the table on which I planned to do everything, and blocking the students' view. So I tried, rather desperately, to communicate that the board was blocking the view and somehow this resulted in the poor old man going and getting more crap to put in front of the table to block the students' view. I gave up. Sometimes desperation gets in the way of communication. We got out the buckets of fermented wrinkly limes and ash water. The students sat down. I asked them to recall what we had done the week before, and promptly confused them and myself because I couldn't remember correctly. That straightened out, I proceeded to introduce the glycerin, the salt, and the process, as well as a few vocab words: germs, clean, wash your hands.

I invited a few students to come up and help me strain the juice from the wrinkly lime bucket. We set it aside. I asked if the remembered the name of the wrinkly lime in English, and one kid did. He could still even spell "Kaffir."

I invited students up to mix the salt and glycerin, then carried the bucket around the room to the tune of their "oohs" and "aahs" - polite kids, these, pretending to be so excited.

Then I put on long rubber gloves as we -  the mee krua (cook) and the janitor and I - strained the ashwater into a separate bucket. I tried to explain to the kids that I was wearing gloves because lye is dangerous, but the whole thing went over their heads - mostly because the mee krua and the janitor were bare handed, and I was wearing sandals and had bare legs anyway. (I mean, come on, these kids watch their parents solder without masks, build houses in flip flops, and spray pesticides on their fields in t-shirts).

I wrote the following song on the white board (theoretically sung to the tune of "Row Row Row Your Boat"):

Wash wash wash your hands
Wash them every day
Wash them with soap and wa-ter
And keep the germs away!

I had the students read the lyrics a few times, and then I sang it to them (never an effective teaching tool, my voice).

They kinda got it, but mostly the whole thing just fell flat (musically and metaphorically).

I invited the kids up to stir the mixture as I added lye water in a few liters at a time. I tried to lead the other kids in keeping time by singing the song, but that was disastrous so we just ended up counting to thirty and back down. And by we counted, I mean, I counted, they repeated, and we all got sick of each other pretty fast.

Soon, we had added all the ashwater, and all the wrinkly lime juice, and we had a bucket of soapy stuff. The janitor had rigged an electric drill with a stirring stick, and after all the kids had taken turns stirring the mixture with a long bamboo pole while their friends counted to 30 (with some significant help, in some cases, though not all), we pulled out the electric mixer, and the boys went wild.

Then, we put the cap on the bucket. Cleaned up. Got ready for lunch. Had no time to bottle the soap, mostly because my time-management skills are not awesome.

And then I ate lunch, and I left for Bangkok and four days of medical appointments and farang food.

Disaster averted? More or less. No one lost an eye or left covered in lye. There's a bucket of soap waiting to be poured into smaller bottles and distributed around the school, ready to meet the small and dirty hands of grade school children, several times a day.

At least, I hope that bucket of soap is still there.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

On making things that last

Sometimes people ask us how long we're going to be here. This question usually comes after we have exchanged a few sentences in Thai, and they've asked when we got here. Eight months ago, we say. Explaining that before we came to this town, we were in another town, learning Thai 4 days a week, 4 hours a day. This is by way of explanation of the question that always comes (or at least that we anticipate is coming): Why do you speak Thai?

So, how long will we be here? Two years, we say. And then correct ourselves. Well, in total, two years, but we've been here 6 months, so only another year and a half, we explain. Most people nod and take this in. Then they ask us if we miss our family. We go through variations of this dance several times a week with different people. Sometimes the same people who have asked us before ask us again, like our host mother did just a few weeks ago. When we said "2 years" she started laughing. Oh, "Bap diao!" she said, chuckling to herself. Just a moment. No time at all.

And tomorrow, that's how long we'll have been married. Bap diao. Just a moment. No time at all. Sure am happy to have many more moments ahead with my wonderful husband.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

In the tradition of not letting your blog die, I offer you this

It is lunch time in. I am at the SAO thinking about the list of self-imposed deadlines and expectations that I now need to deliver on. This week I have been tired, really tired; more on that in a moment. I arrived today at approximately 9:30 am, my pants soaked through from the 10 minute bike ride, yet shirt in pressed condition protected underneath my North Face water coat (yes, it is the rainy season, and it rains enough to say it rains every day). About five minutes after arrival I am called into a meeting of all abotaw (SAO) personnel at which time the Nayoke seems to give a pretty thorough ass razzing to all who were present. This was the most serious I have seen Thai people, for the longest amount of time since we have been here. The meeting lasted about 15 minutes during which I think I heard the term "pak-pon" many times, which means to recover. I estimate that I understood about 40% of what was being said which seemed to have to do with the community thinking that the abotaw workers just screw around all day and that they all really need to change the way they act while in the office. Of course none of this is being directly at the one guy in the room who doesn't really speak Thai, but I definitely got that cool feeling  that comes in a meeting of this sort. I tried to ask my friend about the meeting after we got out, and for the most part she seemed to substantiate my thoughts, although was not able to offer a whole lot more detail other than that there was a smaller meeting with the higher ups yesterday afternoon that was much worse. The investigation shall continue.

This is the second week that I have been working at a bratom (primary) school across the street from our house. This is the only school in the village that Erin does not work at, and very small with less than 50 students. I have agreed to teach grades 4-6 environmental education as well as computers. On Monday night, I will hold a computer class meant to help adults build their computer literacy, though I do not yet know what participation will look like. So now the tired part...

It is exhausting. I have taught only two and a half hour sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday morning, Tuesday being computers and Wednesday being environment, and am ready to go to sleep by the time I leave. So far this has been my experience with teaching kids, that any knowledge I can give them leaves me in the form of my ability to think, walk, or forecast the future of my life (eg. to take a shower). I think I need to find a more relaxed way to instruct. The constant reformulation of approach that necessarily occurs when teaching a subject in a different language while trying to also impart English language vocabulary, seems to be more than I can give right now which must mean I am doing something wrong. Next week I will try with better lesson planning. I mentioned that phrase to my fellow teacher yesterday and she said that lesson planning "gives you a headache". This goes a ways to explaining the copy and repeat learning style in many Thai schools.

I am also teaching at the hospital two nights a week with a classroom of doctors and nurses who want to speak better English. This course was thought up by myself and the district director to be of 6 week duration with a focus on terminology for health and medicine. The "students" for the most part all speak some English, understand a lot more and are mainly interested in pronunciation and phrase order during day to day interactions. PC Thailand has a workbook available that was made up by several previous volunteers which is what I am using for the framework of the curriculum. This class if often a lot more fun to teach because I am able to use adult commentary which as many of you know is a specialty of mine :) We talk about shots, and allergies, and everything else you talk about when you go to a hospital too.

So these are sort of the forefront of my daily activities right now although by no means the whole picture. Other projects that are in the works have to do with waste management/recycling, sexual education and drugs. I am still reaching out to as many places as possible to try to paint myself a better picture of the state of Thailand. Next up is visiting a large recycling plant in Phitsanulok and hopefully a visit to a university science department to discuss Thai environmental issues with the science faculty. Although many volunteers complain that they were not sent to the middle of no-where and living in a grass hut, Thailand is a fascinating place to be as soon as you start to see this big picture. It is a country in rapid transition and despite the very questionable effectiveness (or unquestionable ineffectiveness) of the government, things are happening here and they are happening fast. They have electricity everywhere, internet is fast becoming ubiquitous even in remote places, everybody has a cell phone (or 2), there are 7-11s and gas stations and many of the other modern conveniences people are used to in the so called first world countries. On the other hand, there are huge disparities in knowledge between the wealthier city class, and poorer rural class. Many modern conveniences just got to most of Thailand, and many of them are flooding in now. People have access to the internet, but most of them have little idea the capabilities that brings. In some places I meet people who have studied abroad in China or Texas, and in others I meet people who have no idea how small this country of their's is, and that we don't teach Thai culture in American schools. Everybody asks me "majok bratet arai" or what country are you from, and a select few have a friend who is living there or sister who married over, but the rest could not find it on a map and are not sure if America is in Europe or not.

These contrasts make project work difficult because in some instances you are not bringing to the table anything people don't already know while in others you observe behavior or hear ideas that take you back 50 or more years. Thailand is not the US and we are not here to help make it the US but there are many things Thais today can still learn from us Americans. I am on the look out for parties who are interested in learning those things, while at the same time soaking up as much of their non-judgement, non-dollar, non-western religion based, community value philosophies as I can. I invite the reader to just ask next time I see you and I promise, you'll get an earful.

Some new pics are here: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.3987598327100.2153124.1195059725&type=3&l=5156bb79fe