Part Three: Back to school.

First - if you've not read my initial entry for this blog, please scroll down to "A Lao Serenade" for an introduction to this story. Otherwise here's the latest update...

Great news, everyone - school is in! Thanks to the help of many of you, the village of Ban Houxieng outside of Luang Prabang now has a beautiful, tiny, non-descript one-room schoolhouse of its own. Our dear friend Somnuek celebrated the opening with a gathering of the village and a game of soccer with the kids. Wish we all could've been there.

I was lucky enough to get the chance to check out the project's progress this summer when client and dear friend Mary Hobratschk and I made the side trip during a business trip to Bangkok.  July is a muggy time of the year to be in Southeast Asia to be sure; every bit as full of the warmth and charm of the people as ever.

We flew into a Luang Prabang that's growing by the day - the town has surely doubled in size since my first visit four years ago. Tourism has taken hold; the gem has been discovered. I'm conflicted, I admit. Somnuek couldn't be happier - his gorgeous new guest house Le Bel Air
(www.lebelairhotels.com/) is full to the brim and booked for months to come - business is good! The idea of the world discovering this paradise broadens that already huge smile on Somnuek's face. I'm thrilled to see him happy of course, but I'm selfishly nostalgic for the quieter dirt roads of the past; the slower pace of even just a few years ago. The new traffic on fresh (though potholed) pavement creates an entirely different experience. Luang Prabang, for better or worse, is accelerating, rapidly.

One tradition that thankfully remains is the 5:30 a.m. walk of the monks to receive their daily alms from the townspeople. Mary and I arose before dawn and waited along the monks' route with bowls of sticky rice and earnest respect. Emerging from the dim morning light came a long line of silent boys, shaved heads and brilliant orange robes, each one carrying a covered brass bowl into which we placed a small ball of rice as they passed by - their sustenance for the day.

I was excited to see my friend Perb among them - the young monk who'd joined us on our previous journey to Muong Ngoi - and couldn't help but flash a huge smile. I'm sure he was shocked to see me, and it took a moment for him to recognize this white face from his memory, but his eyes lit up when he did, just as he passed by. I was glad to be able to stop by his temple later in the day and say a proper hello. We've swapped a few e-mails since - and if it's not an incredible sign of the times that I'm exchanging e-mails with a Lao monk, I don't know what is.

Outside the city limits though, beyond the noise and light, rural Laos seems as serene as it's been for generations. We made our way to Ban Houxieng where the dusty earth had been transformed this rainy season into slick mud; making the trek from Somnuek's van to the clearing for the new school a humorous challenge in our dress shoes. Mary and I were greeted by the village elders and a few dozen children excitedly giggling at the tall white foreigners sliding their way over to the new structure.

It's small, and it has none of the amenities of any school you've ever seen, but it's the centerpiece of this village and the locals couldn't be happier. The women presented us with bowls of freshly prepared fruit and the men described what's left to be done - some framing and exterior work mostly. The budget has fallen just short of building desks and chairs and of completing the external toilet; Mary graciously offered to help remedy that situation and I followed suit. Between us we pledged enough to finish the job, and nothing could make us happier for it.

The beautiful thing is that as the most solid structure in the village, this simple schoolhouse will stand for generations to come. Who knows how many children will reap its benefits in years ahead - children who might otherwise have never gone to school? Each of you who contributed can take pride in the knowledge that you've changed a few lives here in this distant village. And you're each welcome to visit, by the way - your name's on the doorway after all! I assure that you'll feel every bit of the love that drew me in to begin with - you'll be treated like the family we're all part of.

Somnuek officially presents the school to the local district chief on Sept. 27th, 2009. I must say to Somnuek - khawp jai lai lai, my friend! Your hard work and wonderful nature are an inspiration to me. You have a tireless spirit and a warm soul that are a constant reminder to me of what's important in this world. You and your family have taken me and my loved ones in as your own, and I cannot thank you enough for it. I'm glad to have been able to share your beautiful world with my friends and family. And we thank you for the opportunity to share our goodwill with you and your extended village family - we've been enriched for the experience.

During our brief 24 hours in Laos, Mary and I visited another remote village (Ban Au) accessible only by canoe - another adventure in clothes entirely unsuitable for mountain trekking (you'd think I'd have learned a few things by now.) We shared a narrow wooden boat with a fantastic elderly villager, chewing seeds and carrying vegetables in a huge sack by a strap over her forehead, with an odd little laugh - Somnuek later explained that she'd never seen a foreigner in her life. Two young boys pulled us chest-deep up the river just far enough to hop in and furiously paddle us to the other side, where we wandered into a village of a few hundred fascinating souls.

Another school project had been started here, but stood incomplete awaiting more supplies. A beautiful quartet of girls played with a makeshift jumprope; they smiled at the odd strangers momentarily but quickly resumed their laughing play. Some boys playing in the river took a different approach, hamming it up for the camera as we passed by - laughing and hugging and diving into the current - absolutely brilliant. The smiles in this country will never cease to amaze me. Never.

We commited a few more dollars to help this schoolhouse along; again it's the least I feel that I could do. So little goes so far here, and as usual I can't wait to return to do more.

But next up is a gift for Somnuek, a chance to repay his kindness. For a man who's helped me realize a few of my dreams, I'd like to help him realize one of his - we're making plans to bring him to the U.S. next summer. Despite some logistical hurdles (Communist governments tend to be reticent about letting their best and brightest wander - therefore he must leave his wife and child at home), we'll figure out a way to show him a little of what life is like on this side of the planet.

In the meantime, there's some children right at this moment cursing their homework in a language I still don't understand.

And nothing should make us happier.

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