A Visit with Peace Corp Volunteers 2.22.17

In January I dropped into the life of Peace Corp Volunteers (PCVs) Paul and Bob in rural Thailand. Brian, my former co-worker at the Carlson School, connected me to this amazing couple who are now one year into their two-year PC service commitment.

Living with Paul and Bob was a lovely reminder of life at home. Home cooked meals, conversation over dinner about the day, current event discussion, and updates on life in Minnesota were part of every day. After so long on the road the opportunity to have family life and to participate in someone else’s daily routine was extra special.

From Paul and Bob I learned about Thai culture, language, school systems, government, and farming. After a year living in Thailand plus many previous visits and a lot of research, they have a deep understanding of their community. As a curious traveler, the opportunity to ask questions to English speakers with local knowledge was a treat. I learned more about the country and people of Thailand in these 4 days than during my entire month visit.

From two days observing behavior  in Thai classrooms and through conversations with my hosts, one cultural difference became especially clear. The Thai culture is a collectivist culture whereas the U.S. has an individualistic culture. In a U.S. classroom, students might become frustrated with the slowest learner and finishing last can be embarrassing. In Thailand, the faster students helped the slower students. I observed  kids helping classmates write their name, kids giving answers to their classmates (this support was not recognized as cheating), and kids helping others with cleaning chores. There was no stigma in being last, wrong, or uncertain and pride came from the group’s successful completion of an activity.

Paul and Bob are positively impacting their community while at the same time they recognize the students, teachers, community members and colleagues they interact with are also enriching their lives. It was my honor to spend a few days observing two people who spend their time and align their actions to make a difference for others.

To learn more about their experience serving visit: http://www.sykora.org.

Bob and Paul welcomed me into their home with open arms. I loved being a part of their daily lives, including biking everywhere with Paul and joining Bob for two lamination parties.
Peace Corp policies dictate volunteers may not drive a car or ride in an open vehicle. An open vehicle can include the back of a pick-up truck or a scooter. For transport, volunteers receive bicycles. Paul worked with his local PCV support person, Nung, to source an extra bicycle for me. The bike on the right was my transportation for our 4 days together. It was great to be bike commuting again.
Paul and Bob’s home in a rural Thai community called Nong Pho in the province of Suphan Buri. They live approximately 2 hours north of Bangkok. The last photo is the neighbor’s outdoor kitchen, located a few feet from their backdoor. Neighborhood children run in and out of the home as they play. Not pictured – the absolutely horrific loud speaker over which advertisements and jingles are broadcast from 5:00am-7:00am every morning. The speaker is called a seeyang dtam sai and Bob tells me it is possible the speaker mysteriously broke shortly after my departure.
I have enjoyed many fun gatherings at Paul & Bob’s home in Minneapolis. Their commitment to serving was especially clear when I think about the comforts they have in Minnesota in comparison with the amenities in this home.
Photos of a few of the approximately 20 houses in their small village. In 10 minutes it is possible to walk the entire neighborhood loop. One of their neighbors, a person they affectionately nicknamed Mr. Broomingdale, delivered two handmade brooms to Paul after he placed an order earlier in the day. The craftsmanship is impressive.
Sugar cane and rice fields are a short walk from Paul and Bob’s home. For two thirds of the year these fields lie fallow. Seeing brown most of the year is a challenge Bob mentioned on their blog: http://www.sykora.org/2017/02/10/nong-pho-dreamin/
Paul occasionally teaches an adult English class for local government officials. The class took place shortly after I arrived. Before class, Paul toured me around this government office. The day’s lesson focused on am/are/is and included a lot of opportunity for practice.
This is one of the classrooms where Paul teaches. The classroom is shared with another class so, to reduce disruptions, Paul sometimes holds class in a staff meeting room and other alternative spaces. The staff meeting room also has projector capabilities whereas the classroom offers a blackboard.
For my first full day hanging with Paul and Bob, I joined Paul for his regular day of teaching. He spends two hours every week with this group of students. The unit I observed focused on body part vocabulary. Learning activities Paul facilitated included identifying words as a group, a buzz-in game to see who could first name the word, and worksheets. To break-up the heavy thinking and to satisfy the leadership and development portion of Paul’s role as a PCV, he led the students in a light yoga class and a human knot activity. Paul gave me roles facilitating the activities and monitoring the students too! At the end of our morning, I received a few gifts from the kids.
Paul has a relatively long bike commute each day. He travels about 30 minutes oneway to his schools. I imagine it is a ride that becomes increasingly more strenuous in 90 degree heat. On our ride back we stopped to check out the fields, a temple, and this wishing tree.
On the second full day of my visit in Nong Pho I shadowed Bob. Bob volunteers in one school co-teaching a number of English classes to students as young as pre-K and as old as middle school. Pictured here is the teacher break room. The bar graphs track students’ progress on standardized tests.
Bob does not have a classroom. Along with his colleague Kru Boat, they keep their teaching materials in this closet. Bob created lots of exciting tools like flashcards, a jeopardy game, and word wheels. Bob explained that learning in Thai schools is usually through memorization. The inclusion of fun activities and other creative ways to learn is an approach that is new to his colleagues and the students.
Every morning students start the day with the national anthem. Before joining together for the anthem, students are responsible for cleaning the school. Each student has an assigned area to clean and cleaning happens without supervision from adults.
A peak into some of the classrooms in Bob’s school.
Paul teaches swim safety on Fridays. On Fridays when swim safety is not in session, he joins Bob in the classroom. Bob and his co-teacher Kru Boat brought this group of 1st graders to the school library to use the floor mat for learning activities. The students arranged the alphabet and then practiced saying and sounding the letters. The group was small because of the Lunar New Year holiday and they selected this activity so the absent students would not miss learning new material.
Photos from the grounds of Bob’s school include a memorial to the late king and spirit houses. In the Thai Buddhist tradition, people will visit the shrine with a request. Only if the god(dess) grants the wish will the requestor bring the promised offering. The same approach applies to other religious places like the wishing tree pictured above.
I biked with Paul to the local wat after our day teaching at Bob’s school. We stopped by the temple on Friday to see if we could learn more about the timing and purpose of a celebration on Saturday. Not many people were around so our questions went unanswered.
Paul and Bob first met in a pool and swimming remains a large part of their lives. As Paul read about Thailand in preparation for their service, he learned drowning is the leading cause of child death in the country. With his swimming passion and familiarity teaching water safety, plus his position as a PCV with a leadership focus, it was a natural decision to pursue offering water safety lessons. First though, a pool needed to be built. The collaboration, perseverance, and energy that went into designing and building a pool, maintaining the pool, approving and coordinating attendance of school children for lessons, training instructors, ordering swim suits and so much more is an amazing feat. No doubt, lives are being saved because students in this community have access to water safety. I visited the pool twice and enjoyed lap swimming. More information about the pool and water safety is on their blog at: http://www.sykora.org/?s=pool
Through happenstance, a local family in Nongyasi offered to build the pool on their land and pay for construction and maintenance. The woman who funded the pool, a nurse, also maintains many orchid plants. After swimming, we walked through the property to admire these orchids. Paul and Bob originally met this family because they biked onto the private property assuming it was a public garden!
Biking around town Saturday morning we passed many shrines or spirit houses. This spirit house has an elephant skull inside.
Saturday afternoon there was a community event at the local wat. Prior to arriving, we thought the event might be a celebration for the Lunar New Year. After attending, it seems the community gathering at the wat was a blessing over the children in each family. During the ceremony kids played music. Many students, including those from Bob’s school, wore their scouting uniforms as a way of dressing up. The chicken statues are for sale and will be used in spirit houses. I thought they were amusing. Could this be the Thai version of a garden gnome?
I think these monks are hilarious. Bob calls them monk-o-matics and said some of them will flatten a coin and imprint it with a monk design. The real purpose of these plastic monks is to collect donations.
Saturday night I was invited to Kru Boat and Khun Yahyah’s wedding celebration. Their formal marriage ceremony took place the previous weekend. The event I attended was a dinner feast and a party hosted by Kru Boat’s family in their neighborhood. It was an honor to attend and join in celebrating the couple. In Thai, the word Kru means teacher and the word Khun is a term of respect similar to the English Ms or Mr.
We sat with other teachers from Boat and Bob’s school to enjoy our dinner. We were kindly seated at a head table, a place of honor.
Speeches honoring Boat and Yahyah. They each also spoke. Of course, everything was said in Thai so I can only imagine what they shared.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Mary Larson says:

    Sarah, your adventures are amazing & I enjoy reading your blog updates. So fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Mary for taking the time to share in the excitement. Be well!


  2. Linda Woessner says:

    Wow. Great update. Loved reading in detail about your stay with Paul and Bob. They are doing amazing things and how lucky to share even four days with them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed Mom. Can’t wait to talk with you more about the visit.


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