Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Child's Dream - Laos

Due to a cancellation there was room enough for the Crouch Potatoes on a Child’s Dream tour of some of their projects in Laos. We had previously had great experiences with them in Cambodia & Thailand and thought it would be a great way to peek behind the tourist curtain in Laos and experience more of Child’s Dreams activities. We weren’t at all disappointed and had a great time with the team, visiting schools, experiencing the traditional Laos culture, food and lifestyle. Here’s some of our favourite moments:

School Opening Ceremony
This was one of the first experiences we had while on the tour and one of the best –admittedly Brad wouldn’t want to ever experience it the same way again though. It started with a 2 hour speedboat ride down the Mekong as there are no roads to the village. When we arrived the entire village was on the banks to welcome us and in no time we were sipping from fresh coconuts and eating the sweetest grapefruit known to man.

After a few speeches (in Lao) we walked up to the school site, the painted concrete building a huge contrast to the timber and thatched structures that make up the rest of the village. Both the teachers and students were decked out in their school uniforms and were excited about the new sports equipment that was presented to them.

The party kicked off with a blessing ceremony in which chicken guts, beaks and feet were handed out to those interested and also to those who weren’t (Miriam) and we were especially blessed by having to eat some of what was left – not Miriam’s favourite moment. Lunch came next and being at the head table with hundreds of eyes upon us we were very nervous about the proper protocol – especially as we were sitting away from the others and could not ask questions. Our nerves were lessened by the frequent toasts of what one can only imagine was pure ethanol. Miriam had the good sense to beg off many of these whilst Brad, trying hard to be a good sport, was not so smart. Traditional dancing came next where we were all partnered with the elite of the village and in one dance Miriam rock-n-rolled with the village leader!

During the week we spent many a meal with locals, both at restaurants and inside their homes. Laotian cuisine does not feature in Western dining much, resulting in many new experiences for us. Some dishes were really quite good, Brad’s favourite - the smoked fish at the opening ceremony whilst Miriam enjoyed the ubiquitous Fish Laap – a tangy minced fish salad.
Some of the least appealing dishes were bamboo worms (think small witchety grubs) and fried crickets, both of which were sampled but won’t be making it into our forthcoming cook book.
One thing we both agreed was fantastic - the BBQ’d pork ribs we had for breakfast....delicious. Another item we’d like to bring back to Australian shores is sticky rice, which is rolled into a ball and dipped into various dishes. Adapted to western taste, this is sure to be a big winner at dinner parties to come.

Rocky Roads
Northern Laos is a remote and rugged place – We’ve done a little 4WD driving before but this trip certainly had the most adventure per kilometre quotient we’ve experienced. One of the roads we tackled earned the name “The Waterfall” and there was many a time we thought that we’d need to get out in knee deep mud (luckily we never did). There were rocky roads that had us bouncing around the cabin like rag-dolls, slippery slopes that took 3 attempts to climb, puddles that were so deep we could swim in them and parts where the road had simply crumbled away.
Evidence of landslides were visible everywhere along the tracks and if not for our vehicle being adapted to suit, we wouldn’t have got very far at all. It’s easy to see how difficult life must be for the villagers in these remote places as transport and infrastructure is very sparse - food, building and medical supplies can be cut off for months at a time especially during Monsoon and the villagers don’t always have the capacity to cope with such interruptions to provisions.

Other Highlights
We visited many schools during the trip and were once again impressed at how Child’s Dream tackled the problems that face them working in such a difficult country. They are currently trialling a number of all-inclusive High School scholarships for remote village students to study in a nearby city (less than 10 hours away!)

Despite the lack of facilities and hardships faced by villagers, teachers and students alike, there is a real hunger for education and the benefits it offers. Child’s Dream requires a partnership with the school community which extends to the villagers and area officials. Locals are contractually obliged to provide materials, labour and active participation in the project management which promotes ownership and empowerment to their leadership – crucial to the future of the school.
It was a wonderful learning opportunity for us and a great way to see with our own eyes what impact organisations like Child’s Dream make for the lives of those less fortunate than our own.

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