Unlike most EMISers this vacation, I did not return immediately to my home country to see family and friends. Rather I opted to spend the first three weeks of my summer holiday volunteering in an orphanage… in the middle of a jungle… in Thailand. The orphanage is called “The Bamboo School” and is the home of approximately 50 children with either no parents, or abusive parents. The Bamboo School was founded 15 years ago by New Zealander C. Bryan, a former Adventist missionary. Undeniably, starting this orphanage was an incredibly selfless act and, somewhat unfortunately- due to huge issues of poverty and crime in Thailand- this venture has since flourished. As C. Bryan will proudly say, there are currently a vast number of former Bamboo School kids studying in university, and some have even graduated. Seemingly, the next generation of English teachers and doctors throughout the country will be primarily graduates of The Bamboo School.
Though this entire organisation is awe-inspiring and volunteering here sounds like an exciting adventure (which it is) I will be the first to admit that it is hard, and it is heartbreaking. Though I sit here now, beneath a blue mosquito net upon a large wooden plank of a bed illuminated only by the glow of my laptop amidst the pitch black of 8:30pm- I am struggling to formulate sentences that will capture the emotion of this place. The adjectives required to describe the unbearable heat, validating four frigid showers everyday- which only serve to remind me that I haven’t felt hot water in a week, escape me. The sounds of the children squealing outside of my window as they rush to be the first to clean their teeth and chase bugs as big as my right arm, wielding rocks and spades whilst giggling manically, seem indescribable. Despite this struggle I feel that I owe it to these children to at least try and tell people their incredible stories, and so I will now write my story –briefly- about my, so far, short experience living their lives.
Day 1: I arrived in Thailand at 8pm, seven days ago after over 40 hours of travelling, and unsurprisingly enough, I was exhausted. I could not even muster the apprehension that should accompany meeting strangers in an unfamiliar airport, in a foreign country, alone. At that point in time the only thing I lusted for was the sweet embrace of sleep and when I discovered that our transport to The Bamboo School was a huge ambulance… I did not even blink for fear that my eyes would remain sealed. However, after 6 hours of polite car-journey small talk, at 2AM we pulled into the carpark of The Bamboo School and gratefully I tried to hide my stumbling as I headed off to bed (after politely being warned to “WATCH OUT FOR THE SNAKES… they love the volunteers”). Ten minutes later and I was dead to the world… Welcome to Thailand.
Day 2: The second day of my adventure began at 6:30am, because it was a Saturday, everybody slept in for an hour and a half! (Lucky us…) At this time we all gathered in the large dining/living room for morning worship- at this point I must explain that all of the children in this orphanage are raised as Adventist christians, though the volunteers are not required to share this religion, they are offered the opportunity to attend the daily worships (I personally am not Adventist but think it’s more respectful to attend and thus I do, as often as possible). Worship, I discovered, consists of; singing, prayer, and the recital of bible verses… ‘Okay’, I thought to myself- finally conscious to the world around me, ‘let’s begin discovering this place that you’ve managed to find yourself in’. However, before I could begin exploring I was whisked away (along with fellow volunteer “J.”, a medical student from America, who has already been here a number of weeks) to the weekly “service” at the lake. Honestly, C. Bryan performs sermons unlike any I have heard before- the kids are exposed to biblical values through games, songs, and literally learn through laughter. Immediately I could see the care that these women had for these children and the fact that each of their actions were undertaken to benefit these kids. Speaking of the kids- I soon began to learn their names, and their characters. Plainly speaking, there are currently 56 kids living here (though this number changes almost daily) and their ages range from newborn-to-mid twenties, and each and every one has a heart-wrenching story to tell.
Most of this day was spent at the church service and the evening concluded peacefully with more time spent exploring and getting to know the children, C. Bryan, and J.
Day 3: This morning was perhaps the most unconventional; at 4am I was woken by a soft high-pitched voice outside of my window “Sofia, teacher… Momo [C. Bryan] called for you… she wants you to help bring the new baby”. Groggily I rose and exclaimed “What? I don’t have any babies…” Yet, the giggling and fading footsteps did little to answer my statement of a question, and hence I rapidly dressed and went to see what it was I was being summoned for…
I don’t know what I expected when I exited my room that morning, but it surely was not to spend the ensuing 12hrs riding shotgun in an ambulance, rushing through Thailand, accompanied by five children, visiting various hospitals and at some point acquiring a newborn and her mother.
Returning to The Bamboo School that evening was like taking a breath after a long run; you feel exhausted for a few minutes but then you just can’t wait to start running again.
Day 4: Compared to the previous day, this one was simple- it was the day I was introduced to Chock-chi. This young boy is now three and a half, but he is under-developed and does not exhibit the behavioural patterns of a typical one year old. It is not because he is stupid, nor does he have a disorder… actually, he was starved and malnourished from birth (whether this was because of poverty or sadistic parenting- I don’t know). In fact, when he was abandoned and adopted by The Bamboo School at two years of age he weighed only 6kg… The constant lack of nutrients has caused his body to develop poorly and he now has difficulty producing many of the hormones, and chemicals, necessary for human function. In particular he has trouble producing iron and consequently his brain does not get enough oxygen from the blood- this is the main cause of his observable development issues.
I spent this day entirely with Chock-chi, as most of the other kids were at school. Though he is rapidly improving after being given new medicine he requires constant stimulus to ensure that his brain continues to function and that the neurological pathways are formed completely. If Chock-chi is left alone he is prone to fall into cycles of anxiety and depression… I don’t know if there are many things in this world more heart breaking than seeing the light go out of a three and a half year old boy’s eyes as he is left alone with the monsters inside his own mind.
Now I have introduced you to just one of the 56 children in this orphanage, can you imagine that each of the others have a story of their own- some more traumatic than the one I just told. How does that make you, the reader, feel about the world we live in?
Day 5: This was the day I first became physically ill. Whether it was Dengue fever (a nasty disease currently spreading through the nearby villages) or another tropical virus, something had me feeling like death and incredibly thankful for the countless vaccinations and medications I had taken prior to my visit. I will spare the gory details of this day and instead warn you that tropical illnesses are not fun… do not be fooled by the exotic sounding names- the excitement is not worth it.
Day 6: Just as the sun always and rises and always sets, the adventures always continue in The Bamboo School and on this day the cat gave birth. Merely three days ago I was dealing with a newborn child and suddenly I was assisting at the bedside of a cat as she produced four beautiful kittens (after a long and painful period of labour I must add). The first of which they named after me, a touching gesture, the second of which they named prick-dumb (The Thai term for: Black Chilli).
Thus the day concluded with four new members to the Bamboo School family.
Day 7: Officially one week since leaving my home in Israel I found myself again touring the streets of Thailand this time in a School bus turned hearse, as we shopped for vegetables and laptops with a coffin wedged between the back-seats, before picking up the deceased on our return trip. Exhausted, and baffled by the absurdity of the situation, (as fresh vegetables bounced over an occupied coffin in the back of a school bus behind me) I slept most of the journey back- waking only to lift the coffin from the bus at the Buddhist temple where they were to perform the burial rituals…
That night I held an English lesson, I laughed and traded candies with nine children as together we discovered the complexity of English shape names… I admire these kids greatly after these sessions for they are not only studying for school, they are simultaneously learning a second language, as well as [essentially] micro-managing their own households. I know a lot of “grown-ups” who couldn’t even manage this.
Despite the fact that this spiel has barely grazed the surface of life in The Bamboo School I hope that the situations described above begin to paint a picture of the foreign life I have found myself immersed in.
I wish to emphasise to you, readers, that all life has value– I don’t say this with any religious scripture in mind, rather I base this statement off of my own interpretations of what it is to be human and humane. While the above message may seem like a simple statement, it is one that is too frequently forgotten and I plead from you to please: never forget this message for, there are no limits to the amount of good we can each do upon others when we bear this at the forefront of our minds.
Written by Sofia Arthurs-Schoppe