The morning begins with the revile of roosters. Their throaty exhortations seem to command that I open my eyes and roll out of bed, literally, for our mattresses are threadbare quilts on rough, bamboo planks. I’m awake before the rest of camp this morning and tiptoe past sleeping bodies out to the makeshift veranda, just in time for sunrise over the mountains. The jungle is silent for a brief moment before the sun breaks over the mountaintops and casts firework bursts of pink, crimson and apricot across the sky. Then, the thick foliage comes alive with gecko calls and bird cries as the glistening morning dew quickly fades away and a new day begins.
We have been sucked into the backward world of Ban Cho Pla, a quaint village where time stands still and the only worry is finding enough books to read. We are a step beyond the usual Thailand trail, a twelve hour bus ride and hop across the river to be exact. My travel mate and I stumbled upon the Darling River Bungalows, situated on the fringe of the community, where everyone is “Ms. Darling” and even the bathrooms are bestowed with precious pseudonyms.
It is an idyllic setting. Bubbling waters from Burma rush near my toes, it’s sentient ripples sending whispered secrets over smooth, peppered stones. To my right sit eight petite huts in a haphazard circle, their rickety stilts raised high to protect the humble dwellings from monsoon season floodwaters. Piles of firewood bisect the circle, offering a communal fire pit for heating coffee water at dawn and chilly toes after dusk. Abandoned bamboo mats, a dented carafe and several empty water bottles lie forgotten around the blacked logs, a déjà vu glimpse from last night’s gathering. Across the river boundary spreads the lush heights of a congested jungle, immediately followed by blue tinged hills stretching as far as the imagination can see. It is truly an oil painter’s paradise, if only I had my brushes and canvas by my side.
Our days in Ban Cho have passed in a dreamlike state of tranquility where the hours gently fade together. Needing a rest from five months of constant travel, our calendars remain empty yet we fill our days quite easily. Misty, silent dawns are spent sipping coffee and watching the village slowly stretch to life. Mornings melt into feverish afternoons when the assaulting sun drives us to seek shade or dangle dust-covered ankles in the river’s comforting waters. The tall grass underneath our bungalow remains damp far into the day, offering an ideal haven for siestas or sugar-cane juice breaks. Days end softly with crickets, gentle guitar music and twinkling voices floating on cool, night breezes.
Here, among monkey howls and rusty rain cisterns, the boisterous backpacker cafes sporting movie and dinner combos become distant memories. There are no red painted, falang-friendly banana pancake stands on the corner or overly air-conditioned internet cafes to waste away the hours. Instead, a lone computer sits in the dingy government office. It last worked in 1984. Without media stimulation and other travelers to befriend, we proclaimed that Ban Cho would be a short stop; just enough to recharge our weary batteries and catch up on months of sleep deprivation. “How long do you want to stay?” my friend asked one evening as we sat on the river banks, swirling coffee grounds in our mugs and watching the satellites slowly circle the sky. “Until we get bored,” I answered, “or overcome by mosquito bites. Whichever comes first, but not just yet. It’s not time.”
As it turns out, neither downside had the chance to present itself for we soon stumbled upon a job; actually a volunteer position that was thrust in our laps, but something to occupy our days nonetheless. Our gentle proprietor was growing increasingly distressed about her daughter’s education and lack of knowledge with the English language. She sadly shook her head about her daughter, her nieces and nephews, her neighbor’s children, and all the, “poor, dear children that no learn your speak.” She couldn’t teach the children for her many, many duties around the Darling Bungalows kept her running around and left her so tired. “But, girls, you have all time! Speak so well too,” she proclaimed with doleful eyes. And that is how the local children become our liberators from foreshowed boredom. As for the mosquitoes, I can only offer a prayer for the miracles of Tiger Balm!
We began teaching English for two hours every morning, armed with a single piece of purple chalk and two buckets of enthusiasm. The last English speaking volunteer was over a dozen years ago and the children’s brows furrow in concentration when pronouncing our daily grammar lesson. Tao, the nineteen-year-old schoolmaster, hides tears of appreciation when we walk up the long, dirt path everyday and step into his unlit classroom. “I ask for teachers and written for supplies but no answer ever come,” he explains in halting English, “until you crossed the river. Now it all better.”
I fall in love with my students. Their gleaming smiles and unpretentious gifts of decade old Power Bars are enough to swell my heart and commit myself to another few weeks of teaching. We delay our border crossing into Laos and, instead, pull out notebook paper to scratch out rudimentary lesson plans. As college business majors, we haven’t the slightest idea how to begin and spend long, frustrating nights trading ideas and inventing learning games for our young scholars. Drudgery pays off when, soon into our second week, we hear the alphabet melody and hokey-pokey rhyme diligently rehearsed after school hours, their sweet, sing-song voices sailing along the tree tops. It feels good to be needed here.
Our role as schoolteachers helps us melt easily into village life and our white skin no longer marks us as strangers in a foreign land. Soap bubble stares that floated over our heads upon arrival dissolve into shouts of hello and wide, gummy smiles when we stroll through the market. Small presents and baskets filled with dragon fruit, papaya and lychees begin arriving and our backpacks are soon filled with colorful scarves, small carvings and carefully colored pictures showing me with goldenrod hair and luminous, cornflower eyes. Even the emaciated mongrels who once growled with barred teeth seem to accept our presence, loping alongside for pats or leftover spring rolls.
We were invited to go river tubing with Teacher Tao’s family one sultry afternoon. Tao claimed we were celebrating a Buddhist holiday together, but after checking and rechecking our guidebooks for insight about the mystery holiday, we concluded that his family probably wanted to practice English with the American icons.
Tubing is an Asian specialty. Anywhere a river flows, there are bound to be crowds of locals and travelers alike, twirling amongst the currents in all stages of dress and undress. Here was no exception. Ten of us crammed into a rusty truck bed with our mismatched tubes clutched overhead. Mine was borrowed from the local mechanic, who, after wiping grease from the plastic coating, made me promise to return it later in the afternoon. Amusement quickly took over as we floated down the river, splashing Tao and his family and helping our new friends pronounce their favorite English words. The sleeping jungle was shattered with shouts of Michael Jordan! David Beckham! And, of all things, Gap!
Children ran along the banks, throwing sticks into the current while weary moms took a break from afternoon laundry. Later that night, my friend idly questions how much longer I want to stay. As I listen to the insect lullaby and stare at the full moon out my screenless window, I answer, “Not now. It’s not time to go yet.” She agrees and we drift off to sleep with the night’s soft melody and the reassuring vigilance of the moon.
As the weeks march on, the jungle grows hotter and dense humidity rises in suffocating waves. Classes are uncomfortable and we buy popsicles for the students, leading them to the shade of banana trees for storytelling and “making shapes out of clouds,” a favorite activity for the younger ones. Rainclouds hover past outstretched fingertips, taunting their reprieve yet denying any soothing comforts. Even the dogs refuse to leave the haven of their freshly dug holes, lying with lolling pink tongues and heaving chests. The days drag on. We grow listless and spend afternoons lying in our hammocks, dreaming of frothy mango shakes and strong ice coffees, specialties along the alleyways of Bangkok but nonexistent among the river willows.
One early afternoon, just as giant balloons of grayness overflowed into the heavens, the gods settled their comedy skit and blessed us with rain, tons of glorious rain! I huddled on our porch and watched the pink lightening flash over haze-covered mountains. The trees dancing in the quickened breezes and rain beating down on thirsty earth is indescribable to even the most gifted poet. Rain continued to pour in sheets and, by afternoon, the once chalky village lanes have turned into rushing estuaries creating dishwashing time for the adults and wonderful play arenas for the kids.
We sat in the luxury of cool storm breezes for several hours before our palette-colored sky started to fade. As darkness sets in, we realized the power is off and, lacking flashlights, we slowly sloshed our way toward the schoolhouse where stacks of candles lay in bygone American Red Cross kits. Here, we camped for the remainder of the evening, stretching out on the dirt floor to peruse dog-eared copies of Sports Illustrated and Time.
Drawn in by our laughter and the flickering, hypnotic glow of candlelight, the rest of the villagers slowly drifted in to perch on the school’s threshold. First they assembled in separate family units and shyly looked our way as we played shadow puppets with the kids. However, as the noise and laughter level increased, we soon had everyone gathered in a circle, sitting Indian style and shouting out guesses to our game. As dinnertime came and went, we took turns ducking into the rain to find refreshments at the single general store around the corner, the only building with a working source of energy. The owner’s young son squatted behind the counter, tediously cranking the generator’s handle until we convinced them both to come join us in the school. We walked together along the rain-soaked streets of our silent town back toward the hub of activity. The sleeping boy lay across my shoulder while his dad clutched armfuls of Red Bull, Pringles and Oreos to share with friends.
As I kneeled on the dirt floor stroking the sleeping child’s damp hair, I paused to look around me. Candlelight waltzed off the walls, throwing shadows across the room. Someone sliced open a fresh pineapple and another passed around a warm bottle of Singha. Young children napped, snuggled into mother’s laps and older siblings huddled in clusters, sharing secrets and giggles. The feelings of love and family floated all around me. Regardless of the weather outside, everyone was warm, safe and content for now and we were here together.
Our languages may be different but the smiles and gifts of ripe fruit and crunchy snacks thrust into my hands spoke more than words. Here in the jungle, among the endless mosquitoes and imaginary schoolbooks, far along the dusty road to nowhere, I had unexpectedly found a home among strangers. I caught the eye of my dear friend who joined me on this extraordinary journey and slowly grinned. Across the room, she understood my expression and winked in return. No, we wouldn’t be leaving just yet. It wasn’t time.