Thursday, November 28, 2013

When elephants take over

Every year during the third weekend of November the city of Surin hosts very special guests. Around 300 elephants from all over the country gather here for a weekend full of attractions and fun. I would never imagine I’d see something like that in my life and I can bet that Surin is the only place in the world where I can experience that.
The people of Surin were traditionally excellent at capturing elephants in Cambodia and then training them as working animals. Civil work in Cambodia and the elephant’s decreasing economic importance has forced the elephant handlers (mahouts) to turn to entertainment to make a living. The Surin Elephant Festival was first held in 1960. It consists of three important events during three days:
Thursday - Pre-opening evening ceremony where visitors can see trucks wonderfully decorated by students from Surin. 
A few days before the festival opening each school prepares a project and decorates a truck with figures of elephants, traditional Thai symbols as well as ASEAN community symbols. Materials mostly used are fruits and vegetables handcrafted by students and school employees, which makes the statues really unique and the compositions really amazing. Next to the trucks during the evening visitors can also enjoy Thai fashion shows, dance performances and Thai music.
I went to the event together with my host family from Surin. You can see some of the pictures I took below:
The construction by Pim's school was the most beautiful one.
Work of primary school of Pan. The picture in the background is her drawing - together with the whole family we were very proud of her :) 
 Pim & Pan :)
 Amazing decorations mado of fruits and vegetables.
 Elephant built from green beans.
   Main ingredients: peas, corn, green beans. 
Angel dance performers in beautiful clothing  
Friday - The Elephant Buffet
A procession of 269 elephants starts marching through Surin city from the railway station area toward the Elephant roundabout. The elephants carry dignitaries and also some tourists. Some elephants carry mahouts in authentic battle outfits from the Thai - Khmer - Laos battles. Together with the elephant procession you see local school children and teachers in traditional dress, dancing and playing music. Once all the elephants have arrived then the banquet can begin, the tables of fruits are quickly cleared by the large team of elephants. What you see around you look like scenes from a movie – wherever you look you see dozens of elephants. It’s so surreal, but fantastic! Each of the visitors can feed elephants with food prepared by the organizers and the animals cue like hungry kids waiting for their portion at school canteen. Some of them choose to leave the best snacks for the end and pass the watermelon and pineapple to their guardians. After feeding the animals we took an elephant ride in the streets nearby and got stuck in elephant traffic for a while!!! I swear that this didn’t seem real J
With 269 elephants eating over 50 tons of food the Surin buffet was registered in the Guinness World Records  as the biggestelephant buffet in the world (largest-elephant-buffet).
Some pictures from this day are below:
 White elephant belonging to the king. Beautiful creature!
 Baby elephants :)
I'm getting ready to feed the animals.
 Elephant buffet - only in Thailand!!!
 The only elephant twins in the world!
Traffic :) The elephants took over the city!
Saturday - Elephant Round-Up – a series of shows displaying the strength and skills of the animals.
The elephants and mahoots gather at the Elephant Stadium in the south part of the city centre for a three hours show, during which the visitors can see them performing battles from the past centuries, elephant hunting, as well as elephants drawing, playing hola-hop, football, basketball etc. It was an incredible performance showing how smart and playful the animals are. The round-up finished with traditional Thai dances and presentation of 10 flags of countries which will be part of ASEAN community in 2015.
 Welcome to Surin Round-Up
Bowing down
 Holding tales
 Time to play!
Animals walking over volunteers. Some jokers elephants were touching people on the ground to see if they weren't asleep :)
No matter how many people were on the other side - the elephant always won.
 In clothing used in the past during war time.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Ban Tamor School - not only the students learned something

Usually each volunteer is assigned to one high school during their stay in Thailand, but my second week here was a holiday at the school where I was teaching. It is a rice harvest season in the region and Saikeaw School closes down for practical reasons - most children need to help their parents during this time, so they wouldn’t be able to attend the lessons anyway. As the demand for foreign teachers is very high the organizers decided that I can help teaching in another school during that week. So on Sunday night straight from the trip to Ubon I went to meet my new host family. The Mother (the English teacher) is around 50 years old and has two young daughters – Pim (17) and Pan (12). They gave me a very nice welcome – the three of them speak English quite ok, so we can communicate. The father of the family, on the contrary, said maybe one word to me during my 5 days there, but still he was helpful so I can’t complain. ;) They live in a small house, but my stay there was comfortable – I had my own room with big bed and air-conditioning. The bathroom was quite funny, as it was of a size of a toilet and had a short shower-alike thing, which could as well be used to fill up the basket with water (a must-be in every Thai toilet). Anyway, since the cold water doesn’t support long showers it wasn’t a big problem for me.
Family routine
My host family was a very busy family. Both the Mother and the Father work for Ban Tamor School, where I volunteered. The school will be subject to a government evaluation at the end of the month, so all resources are focused these days on improvements – starting from cleaning, painting, renovating, decorating, through paper work and completion of some projects to evaluation of students to show the good quality of the teaching. The English teacher received an additional assignment to manage the preparation process to this evaluation, so she stayed long hours at school (every day from 8am until 6pm) and English class wasn’t her priority at all.
The Father was a physical education teacher, but these days he was busy with everything related to the evaluation. After the classes finished he played football with students until 6pm.
The older daughter Pim was 17 years old and was in her last year of high school. She is planning to study Chinese to become a Chinese teacher in the future. She’s very smart and funny, we had nice time together chatting about life in Poland, Europe and Thailand. She is a big fun of British accent and sense of humor (read: British men) and uniforms – even if totally different age and culture we have something in common ;-) Her dream is to go to Europe to see snow. I hope she’ll be able to do this and will visit me during her trip! Pim knows how to dance Thai dance and she showed me a few moves – my favourite dance is so called “angel dance”. Below is link to a short video of the dance from the opening of elephant weekend in Surin:
The younger daughter Pan is 12 years old and she is a born comedian. She likes to be in the center of attention and says always what she thinks. I had a lot of fun with both of the girls J Pan is very talented in drawing – this month she’s drawing every day after school, as she prepares for a competition. We visited her once to pick her up and I could see some of her really nice drawings:
She was also so sweet to draw a farewell picture for me, which I simply loved! J So in eyes of a young Thai artist I look like this:
Do you see a lot of similarities? ;-)
School routine
On my first day at school the English teacher told me 5 minutes before the lessons that she hasn’t prepared any program for today. As a result I had to improvise for 3 hours with kids who barely understood English… It was quite challenging because as a perfectionist I wasn’t happy to “just try to make the children busy” during the one hour class. I really wanted them to connect and work together with me. I managed with some of her help, but I promised to myself that I’ll be better prepared for next time. So since I had to teach the class on my own I decided that there is no need to follow the book for a week and I will to boost their speaking skills. I prepared some materials for the kids to have the necessary vocabulary and know the meaning of the words without the need of explaining in Thai (God bless pictionaries!) and the next days were much easier and much more fun! Ban Tamor is a small school (200 students including primary school and secondary school) and I only taught 4 groups of students. Thanks to this I had a chance to get to know them quite fast as I saw each group almost daily. Most of the groups were smart and I could teach the complete class in English, but for some of them I needed the teacher with me to translate into Thai. I taught the students about free time activities and physical appearance – usually we repeated the pronunciation together and afterwards they spoke in groups or individually. Thai people are not used to individual work and they are very shy to speak in front of the class. During the first hours together whenever I asked someone to speak they reacted with panic or laughter one at another, but with time and my trials to make them feel comfortable and appreciated they were more talkative and open. I loved to see their efforts and interest in the subject - that really gave me a lot of energy to do my work!!! I realized that I really love to inspire them - share my knowledge, my energy… and if they answer back with the interest and enthusiasm it brings me a lot of satisfaction and further motivation!
Reading what I just wrote reminds me about a coaching training which I attended a few months ago at work. Out of four personality types (director = red type, observer = blue type, inspirer = yellow type, helper = green type) I was an “inspirer” - someone who is very positive, appreciates group work and group thinking and loves to inspire other people. Before coming here I related this description with my energy which I usually like to spread around. I never actually thought that I would be a good teacher, because I’m impatient, but I figured that this is a different type of impatience. I can’t stand traffic or can’t stand when people are late for too long, because I just don’t like wasting time… I learned that in the class I can be very patient and try to do my best for some slower students to follow the rest. And I want them to understand, not to repeat… I love sharing my knowledge and working with groups of people J So I learned a lot about myself too.
Students’ obligations
I wanted to share with you something special about Ban Tamor school. Next to gaining knowledge typical for primary & high school the purpose of this place is to teach its students how to be responsible, respectful and how to take care of others. In order to achieve that students are involved in additional activities during the day. Before morning ceremony they sweep floors, rake leaves and clean the school premises. They sometimes go out to buy some ingredients for lunch from shops nearby. During the lunch break they distribute food to each other. There are three stands – with soup, rice and desserts – where everyone can be served with their preferred food. Once the food is distributed the students seat on the floor on the canteen in circles according to their age. They usually share the soups and main dishes among each other (they keep 2-3 plates in the middle) and keep one plate of rice for each of them. The lunch starts with a prayer. The students ‘in charge’ of the food stands serve also food to teachers – on the only table in the canteen. Once the meal is finished you bring the dishes outside – to a place with a few tables and bowls with water, where everyone washes the dishes after themselves. Next to that place is a small garden, where students and teachers grow some vegetables for the canteen. In the afternoon in their free time boys help other teachers fixing whatever needs to be fixed around the school (door, tables etc.) and girls prepare decorations for class rooms. After school the teachers and students interested in sports gather to play football or practice Thai boxing. A cook during lunch hours becomes Thai boxing teacher after work. They all need each other. They are like one big family caring about each other and contributing to their daily routines with whatever they can bring at their age. I saw once two little girls (probably beginning of primary school) carrying together one big box, they stopped every once in a while to recover the energy, but they didn’t give up…
The first time I noticed this practice at school I had mixed feelings. I thought that they use the kids to do work for which the school should hire someone… But after overcoming the judgment from European point of view I realized that this is normal for these kids and that they really behave in a responsible and caring manner. They take some time a week to participate in the school activities, but for the rest of their time they are just normal children, who can play and have fun with their friends. I really believe that if you are raised to be responsible you realize and appreciate more what you have. We hear so much these days about teenagers being totally spoiled and disrespectful to their parents and elder people. This is in my opinion consequence of raising children in an environment free of responsibilities and stress. They grow ensured that they are the center of the world and deserve best things in life without caring about anyone else but themselves…  You might disagree, but I think Europeans could learn something from this school.
Below are some pictures showing school activities and some of my lessons:
 Brushing teeth after lunch.
 Teachers washing dishes.
 Thai boxing in the afternoon with the cook/trainer
 Very colorful school premises
 The English class

uring my lessonsDuring my lessons

My last lesson in Ban Tamor school
 Together with students
 Cooking class with students -  we prepared a delicious massaman curry
  The cooking team & their English teacher
 Morning activities - boys
 Morning activities - girls
 I'm helping to distribute the soup during lunch break
 Students praying before eating lunch
 Rice for everyone
 Lunch time @ Ban Tamor. Students walk in the canteen without shoes.

My stay in this school lasted only a week, but I’m really glad I had the opportunity to work here.