We felt it as soon as we stepped off that plane. It was subtle, but with each hour that passed by on the five-hour van ride, the feeling grew stronger. It grew with each bump as we sat in the back of a pickup truck hauling us up the mountain. The feeling became obvious by the time we got to the village and stepped on the school grounds. This was a special place and this was going to be a special week.
The kids lined up in perfect rows to greet us, and we fumbled to greet them with our limited Thai. As we played volleyball, soccer, and tag, it became obvious that there are some things that require no language: a smile, kindness, and most of all love. From the second we met those kids there was mutual love. We knew each other’s names; that was the extent of our conversations, but not our friendships.
There was no time to waste and we quickly lost ourselves in the work that needed to be done. Starting with the foundation of the kitchen, we carried huge cement powder bags and buckets of rocks and sand down to the work site. Clouds of dust clouded the air as we mixed the cement, pushing and pulling with every ounce of energy we had. We laid the cement and smoothed it over to finish the floor.
A few meters away some of us dug a hole into the compounded dirt until it was too deep to climb out of without help. It took five guys to lift the three thick cement rings and slowly lower them into the pit. We hoed the ground in a line to the kitchen and put in the connecting tube to finish off the underground water storage. Whilst continuously mixing cement we started to cement brick after brick to build a waist high wall. We hammered wood planks to the frame to finish the wall while others plastered the brick walls. After four hard days of work, the kitchen was finished. Food could now be prepared for the 100 children who attended this rural mountain school.
Alongside the kitchen project the team had a painting project to complete. The once grey, cement walls of their open meeting hall were soon whitewashed and covered with our paintings and handprints. We painted the entire building white twice, before adding our own touch. Each pillar had a different painting from a different team member. Some had the Thai scenery, some had “thank you” in various languages. One wall spelled out “Abot Kamay 2014” with our handprints all around. With our hands we we able to reach out and support a community.
Amazing friendships were built as we taught the kids. Nostalgic games from our own elementary were reinstated and became the life of the party. As culture and language was exchanged, we could see any barrier of shyness from the kids being torn down. As we distributed the huge amounts of clothing we had collected, it was obvious that the kids had more to teach us. When we held out a pink, glittering shirt to a small girl, she slowly smiled and hugged the shirt. The happiness we felt at the moment was indescribable, and unbelievable. We were reminded that we take so much for granted.
The week flew by as we continued to teach, work, and play with the Thai children. Each night when we gathered together for our highs and lows meeting, we could feel the amazing happiness because we were here; because we were helping; because we were learning. We watched these talented children as they danced, sang, and played instruments around the bonfire. In return we shared a laugh while attempting our own group dance. We sang alongside them in church and played every game from freeze tag to jump rope.
By the end the only way we could possibly be enticed to leave was the promise of Thai massages, the night market, and zip-lining. However, we would take the freezing rural bucket shower any day if it meant we could stay a little longer and be with the kids. Help them, teach them, play with them, being present in that village where we shared our cultures.
It was a week to remember.
We felt it the moment we left. It welled up as the children cried while we drove away. Riding on the back of that pick up truck, watching the world in reverse, it flooded. Its taste was bitter sweet: this is a special place, and it was a special week. (Olivia Johnson, on behalf of the Abot Kamay traveling team)