Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
Just when we’d gotten used to the 5 a.m. whistles, the stray dogs, the chaotic sounds of traffic, daily sawadeekas to the guards, the local seamstress, and our neighbouring fruit seller, our busy city lives are upended as 21 Rotary Peace Fellows and three leaders board a flight and head to Ubon Ratchathani aka Isan, North Eastern Thailand.
Why not 22 Rotary Peace Fellows? Yours truly seems to lack the ability to walk and talk at the same time which led to a fall and a subsequent early morning hospital visit for one very sore Rotary Peace Fellow and a kind and patient Rotary Peace Center program assistant.
While my colleagues began to discover Ubon, I was discovering something new for myself. A visit to a Thai private hospital – an experience in efficiency! Upon arrival, the valet took the car keys, two porters and a door man whisked me inside to register, have my picture taken, receive my hospital card, then on to the sports and Orthopaedic Centre for an assessment. Within two hours, I had been seen by nurses and a doctor, x-rayed, diagnosed, paid and received a lesson on fabulously labelled medication from the pharmacy which was delivered in a fashion reminiscent of having bought a fine piece of clothing in a nice boutique. All was handed over gracefully in a beautiful bag showing the hospital motto Totally, Truly care. Though the grammar may be off, the sentiment was certainly on and well received. I felt very well cared for.
The wheelchair was traded in for a more practical pair of crutches, then the sprained foot, and the kind program assistant followed the larger group a mere 8 hours later to arrive in Isan ready to round out our field trip team and begin to learn about peace and conflict in the Northeast of Thailand.
This area, known as the Emerald Triangle, has known military clashes and conflict over many years in the region where the borders of Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand come together, and the brown waters of the Mekong mix with the blue waters of the Mun River at Khong Chium. Though villagers on both sides of the Thai and Cambodian borders claim Khmer heritage, a political fight over the temple at Preah Vihear causes discomfort and uncertainty and divides a culturally connected region and her people.
On the edges of Ubon Ratchathani city, the urban poor fight for land titles, and throughout the region, proud fishers fight to regain what was lost when the Pak Mun River Dam was constructed, changed the flow of the water, the fish, and thus their lives.
As we visited small villages on riverbanks, I have known ultimate kindness. Not able to make the physical trek down to the river on crutches, one beautiful granny took me by the hand (yes, while still walking on crutches) and led me to the open restaurant at the top of the banks just across from the railroad station.
With an extremely limited vocabulary on both sides we learned that 72 year-old Bunov had been married to a local villager, had birthed four children, one of whom had died close to birth, and that her daughter had died more recently.
Having been surrounded by teachers my whole life, and being one who never wants to lose a learning opportunity, I quickly found myself surrounded by natural teachers. We began some valuable Thai lessons. Bunov drilled me on my numbers, and as the older couple who ran the restaurant were cooking, all three taught me what different foods were on offer, and the Thai words for all the ingredients they had on hand. Despite our extremely limited vocabulary on both sides we learned that 72 year-old Bunov had been married to a local villager, had birthed four children, one of whom had died close to birth, and that her daughter had died more recently.
Unsure of how she passed, I wonder about health care. Both of my female hosts by the riverside are blind in one eye having not had easy access to continued treatment. Somehow I don’t believe the quality medical care I received equates to the same care villagers from Isan would receive under what I soon learned was called the 30 baht medical scheme. A double standard that is compounded around the world treating foreigners with insurance to a higher standard than locals.
As our vocabulary grew by the minute, my hosts, also in their seventies, shared that they have a granddaughter married to a Frenchman and living in France. Wedding and family pictures were shared while the three partook in a mid-morning meal of fish, small dried shrimp, vegetables and rice. Friends and family connect. We connected.
By the time the rest of the Rotary Peace Fellows arrived after their tour and discussion, Bunov proudly announced she had adopted me. My Thai mae (mother)!
I am forever reminded that those who have the least material goods in life and live in some of the most difficult situations will so often be the first to offer you all they have. Kindness and love go a long way, while peace and dialogue do not need common words, rather they need a common feeling, and it begins with friendship, consideration, and sharing and moves to dialogue.
Small water cisterns grace doorways and entrances throughout the area so that guests may not know thirst.
Drivers honk on the highways when passing motorcycles to let them know they are there, and are safe.
Water, fresh tamarind, oranges, and coconut water was shared in meetings to make sure we felt at home.
In Isan, for every meeting we were a part of, for every home, school, district office, community centre we were invited to, we knew we were welcome. We were cared for, we were accepted as friends: our hosts shared very personal stories of the strife that divides their area, their people. We discussed ideas and ideologies that connect.
Humble leaders, they do not have all the answers. The answers come from the people. They listen. Together they develop concepts on how to bring their people to positive space.
This week we met the warriors, the fighters, some seen as victims, some seen as aggressors, the activists, the leaders, the October generation, the mothers, the fathers, the brothers, the sisters, the children, the founders, the humanitarians, the pioneers.
These beautiful people we met are the proud, the strong, the scared, the angry, the confused, the traumatised, the intrepid, the brave, and the creative. Those that will remain in my mind: the defenders of community, the defenders of culture, the defenders of dialogue.
I am thankful for the stories the many villagers have shared, and I have to wonder, with all the youth leaving this area to find work and new livelihoods, who will become the keeper of the oral history that these villagers have lived.
How will the social memory be preserved?
Françine Allard, Canada
Rotarian & Rotary Peace Fellow
January 2015 Session