Broken heart strings

Trip Start Sep 01, 2010
1
100
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Trip End Jun 18, 2011


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Flag of Thailand  ,
Tuesday, February 22, 2011

So today we are celebrating a big achievement; this is our 100th blog entry! Since we started writing this blog in late August last year, we have traveled over 37123 kilometers, that's 23067 miles, been to 99 destinations in 8 countries and had over 4000 visitors to our blog (although I think that most of those are my eldest sister, love you Rach!). Thanks everyone for showing so much interest in our travels, it has really astounded us that so many people are reading our blog. It feels slightly sad that our 100th blog should be such an upsetting one; it has taken me a few days before I have been able to write it all down because it is quite an emotional and long one. The blog has become very special to me; in essence I am putting my diary online for a load of strangers to read, but it has also been very therapeutic. So thanks everyone for reading it and looking at our photos, I know the blog might be boring and tedious sometimes but we hope you’ll stick with us through the coming weeks and months. Xxx



We got picked up today by our volunteer supervisor for our orientation day and, along with the two other current volunteers, we headed off to one of the areas of Thailand which was hit hardest by the 2004 tsunami called Khao Lak. The charity we are working for supports numerous projects in Southern Thailand which aid orphaned and underprivileged children, but today we were only going to see two of them: a nursery for Burmese children up to the age of 6 and a learning center for children aged between 6 and 13.  Neither Tom nor I have ever visited anywhere like these projects before and we had no idea of what to expect or how we would feel; it turned out to be a really emotionally draining day as we were faced with so many new and challenging experiences.

On the way to nursery we chatted in the car and learnt more about the tsunami; Tom and I were only 18 when it happened and we are ashamed to admit that we don’t know many of its details. Our supervisor flew over to Thailand to help build houses after the tsunami hit, so she could tell us some really shocking, emotional and heartbreaking stories about that time. We also learnt more about the political background of Burma because the charity also aids Burmese orphans and communities. By the time we got to the nursery I felt like my head was spinning with so much new information… little did I know what the rest of the day had in store for us.

Our first visit was to the nursery, which was only built six months ago and is an absolute testament to the work of our charity. The building is quite small, it has 4 rooms as well as a bathroom, but it can hold a maximum of 50 children (it would be one heck of a tight squeeze though). On the day we visited there were only about 33 children in attendance and they were in the middle of having language classes. As we entered the building some of the children caught sight of us and started getting excited, so we were whisked off to the front office so the kids could finish their lessons in peace (we could hear the kids knocking on the door though because they wanted to see us). We were introduced to the nursery workers who talked to us about the political situation in Burma and told us the background of the Burmese children and orphans, who have been doubly effected by both the political struggles and the tsunami. After this quick introduction to the children’s backgrounds, we were taken back into the nursery where the kids were getting ready to have their lunch. The children at the nursery are quite simply beautiful. They are so well behaved, so polite, so funny… it is impossible not to smile while you are near them. The children were seated on the floor eating a lunch of rice and egg. We learnt that some of the children have both parents, some have one and some have none; in the case of the child being orphaned the nursery workers take the orphaned children into their own home and care for them as their own children. They do not receive any kind of government support (financial or otherwise) for taking these children into their homes, this makes for a very difficult life for everyone in that family and home. However the nursery nurses do not bat an eyelid at the prospect of providing fulltime care for the nursery’s orphans in their own home, they simply believe that it would be impossible to leave these children without a home; if they do not care for the children, then no-one will. After the children had finished their portion they were allowed to go back to the cooking pot and have as many portions as they wanted; we learnt that for some of the children, this lunch was their only meal during the entire day. The children’s family may be too poor to feed them breakfast or dinner, so the lunch and afternoon fruit snack they receive at the nursery is their only food, for that reason the nursery lets them eat as much as they want for lunch. These children are between 2 and 6 years old and the only food they have all day is a bowl of rice and egg from the nursery; I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Looking at the children eating their rice with such diligence and care it was very difficult to keep my emotions under control knowing that they may not eat again for another 24 hours. Some of them are just babies.

During lunch, some of the kids were getting really distracted by us being there and one or two plucked up the courage to come and sit near us on the floor. There was an older boy of about 6 and a young girl about 4 years old, who finally came over to us and shook our hands. We played high-5s with them and they were quite happy to shake our hands over and over again until they all fell about laughing. Once lunch was over the children had their naptime; they sleep on little mats on the floor with a pillow for a few hours; some of them have to catch the school bus at 5am so a nap was thoroughly deserved. After a drink and freshen-up the children all lay down on their mats and within seconds they were snoring away quite happily. I don’t know why but it was so difficult to see them all asleep so contentedly; I just kept looking at their faces and thinking about how difficult their young lives were. Thoughts spring into your mind and you have no way of controlling them. We got shown around the rest of the building, which included a storeroom. I had to choke back the tears when we saw the inside of the storeroom; my mum used to work at a nursery in north Wales and when they opened their storeroom toys,  books and supplies used to come tumbling out. This storeroom was practically empty. There were a couple of packs of nappies, some potties, a stack of colouring books, some foam alphabet letters and some disinfectant. I felt a sense of inadequacy and insignificance like I have never felt before. Thankfully we went outside for a while and I felt much better for the fresh air.

Our next destination was a learning center just a few doors down. The learning center is like a makeshift school for 6 to 13 year olds, although most children do not stay until they are 13 because their parents need them to find jobs to help support their families as soon as they are old enough. The charity we are volunteering for does not have enough money to help the learning center as much as it would like; one of the biggest problems which the learning center faced was that they could not afford to provide lunch for their students. This meant that the 50 children at the learning center were having to go all day with very very little food (some would go without breakfast, lunch and dinner) and they could not function properly at school. All in all it seemed pretty pointless these children even going to school because they could not concentrate on their work. So in order to overcome this problem, the nursery which we visited early makes extra food every day for the older children and then run it down the road to the school. The kindness and humanity of the people we met today has been unlike anything I have ever experienced before. When we arrived at the learning center we saw a group of about 6 children carefully plating up the lunch and setting it on the tables outside. I saw one boy of about 11 setting the plates down with such care and love, lining them all up, making sure the sauce hadn’t splashed on the plate, evening out the rice, that I really thought I was going to break down and cry. I couldn’t believe the love with which he treated the food and his fellow school friends and, despite probably being famished himself, he never snuck a single grain of rice into his mouth until every plate was set and every child was seated ready to eat; it was a simple lunch of rice and mutton, but he treated it like a royal feast. I thought of my own nieces and nephews back at home and the lunches that they eat every day and I felt like I was falling apart.

Inside the school we met the head teacher and some of the children; we went into 3 different classroom, some of which had 2 or 3 different grades being taught in them, and we were greeted like guests of honour. As we entered the classroom all the children would stand up behind their desks and recite a Burmese greeting to us; it was incredible because we were the ones who were truly honoured to be meeting them. The school was not in as good a state of repair as the nursery; there was some mold on the walls and the children’s desks and chairs were very old and some were broken. Once again the children were very polite and we felt so happy to see them in such a loving and safe environment; their paintings and drawings covered the bare walls, they giggled amongst themselves when we tried to say thank you to them in Burmese. We didn’t stay long at the learning center because some of the children were in the middle of an English test, so we said goodbye and headed back to the nursery.

When we arrived back we were really surprised to find that while the children were sleeping the nursery workers had cooked us a traditional Burmese lunch! We were so surprised because we hadn’t expected to get anything, but they invited us to join them on the floor next to the sleeping children and we had an amazing lunch of Burmese rice, curry and vegetables. It felt like such a ridiculous situation; as Westerners have everything that anyone could ever wish for and yet we are being treated to a special lunch by ladies who can barely afford to feed their own families. It felt like we should be providing lunch for them, not the other way around. Once we had finished lunch one of the nursery workers offered to take us to her house so that we could see how she lived. Before becoming a nursery worker she had worked on construction sites, which is where her husband still works. She is originally from Burma, but she had to leave because of the political struggles, however her children still live there with their grandparents. We also learnt that she was walking on the beach on the day of the tsunami and lost her teeth when she was hit in the face by a piece of debris; I do not know how to spell her name but I think the kids called her auntie. We had been told earlier in the day that many of the Burmese migrants who come over to Thailand work in construction because it is one of the only kinds of work that they can legally get; however this does not afford for a very good standard of life and many construction workers and their families live in temporarily erected housing communities. This was the kind of housing we were going to visit.   

Set back from the main road we drove into an expanse of land just on the edge of the jungle. You will have to forgive my crude descriptions, I have never been anywhere like this before, the closest I have ever come is seeing them on the news, so I don’t know if I am using the correct words or terminology. The community of construction workers lived in a housing complex which I can only compare to a refugee camp. The houses were mere sheds made of 4 pieces of corrugated tin, which were lifted off the ground on wooden stumps or stilts and had a slated roof on top. It was a collective of about 20 homes and there was only one Asian squat toilet to service all the residents. There were stray dogs, rats, snakes, cats. The area around the houses was overgrown jungle and there was a huge container which collected rainwater and provided the residents with their only source of water. There are no bathrooms; if people need to wash themselves they go to the nearest river or waterfall. We saw children who are charged with looking after their younger siblings while their parents go to work; we were told a story of a young girl of 6 who had to look after her 2 year old baby sister and the baby fell in the fire, luckily she lived but she was very badly burned. We came to the home of the nursery worker and were invited in. She had a two room home which was made of plywood boards and corrugated metal and was lifted on stilts to protect it during monsoon season. We went in to the main room and the nursery worker got us a mat to sit on. I can’t describe the inside of her home because I do not want to be disrespectful towards the home which she loves so dearly. Some moments are beyond words, this was one of those moments.It was very difficult to see how other people are forced to live outside of my little Western bubble; suddenly the stresses and worries of life back in the UK seem so meaningless , so trivial. My only hope is that she is happy and healthy in her home and that she one day gets the chance to be reunited with her children in a safer and more comfortable house than she currently has. I pray that my family never have to experience the harsh life which has been forced on this lady.

From here we were taken to the town which saw the greatest loss of life during the tsunami; the town was home to a huge amount of Burmese migrant workers prior to the tsunami, some legal and some illegal. As only legal migrants are counted in official records it was estimated that this town lost over 600 legal migrants to the tsunami; when you take into account the illegal migrants in the area, that figure jumps to over 1200. That is over 1200 deaths from one town- it is a number that your brain cannot even comprehend.  We were taken to the tsunami memorial which shows you how high the wave was when it hit the beach; it was a staggering height which you can’t even fully grasp. You are looking at the memorial thinking: "oh so that’s how high it was", but it’s all just words, you can’t understand that something like that actually existed in this world. It had been an incredibly difficult day, so we headed back to the nursery to collect our things and started the drive back to Phuket and the office. On the way back I tried to remind myself that the children we met today are actually the lucky ones; they have the chance to go to school, they have at least one meal a day, they have friends, they can laugh and play together, they have a roof over their heads at night. And most importantly, they can enjoy a happy and loving atmosphere at the nursery or school, for the few hours that they are there. It has blown my mind to pieces visiting these projects, but it is above my comprehension to imagine the lives of the unlucky children who have nothing. I can’t even begin to understand the life of a child who has no parents, no home, no friends, no guardian, no food, no school, no laughter and no hope. The drive back was quite a difficult one.

Back at our accommodation we were sitting outside talking about our day, when we received a text message from my mum. She wanted to tell me how much she loved and missed me and to ask us to be safe during the rest of our trip; she also told us Christchurch had been destroyed by another earthquake. I felt like my heart had been torn out of my chest. I phoned my mum in tears and she told me about the devastation in Christchurch and I just cried and cried and cried. I couldn’t take it anymore. At that moment I just wanted to go home and feel safe and protected, I didn’t want to think about a world where babies are orphaned, children starve to death and cities come tumbling down before your very eyes. I wanted to go home and watch TV and eat food from a cupboard that I know will never be empty.  That night was one of the worst I can remember in a long time. It has taken me a few days to finally write this blog entry because every time I tried to write it I couldn’t get past the first paragraph.

If you are interested in finding out more about the charity we are currently volunteering for then you can check out their website. They are called ChildTRAC and their website is at: http://www.childtrac.org/

If you feel that you can, then please lend them your support. They really need your help. Xxx
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Sue-Ellen on

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