Category Archives: education

Do Justice

I love the old testament adage to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.” As someone who used to be a teacher and still consults with international schools, I work hard to model these tenets when I interact with students.

For the most part I work with teachers and students who languish in countries riddled with poverty and corruption. The kids walk to school alongside streets that reek of hopelessness and despair.

I meet local teachers who get paid on average $4 to $6 per day to work at international schools alongside foreign-born teachers who make more than $200 per day for doing the exact same job — and yet the local teachers are gracious and appreciative for anything I can do to help them.

It’s usually that way with the foreign teachers as well.

However, in recent weeks I’ve had occasion to butt heads with a foreign born teacher who has pretty much declared war on her students, colleagues, and administrators. I can’t find any rational reason for her behavior.

And now, she’s apparently declared war on me as well.

Everything I’ve done here has been to help kids. But I’m just passing through. I could let it go easy enough. I probably should let it go.

But the kids, right?

Here’s the thing: most people like the “love mercy” and “walk humbly” but shy away from “do justice.”

I don’t think it’s something you can pick and choose. I think you have to go all in, or find a new mantra. For sure I don’t want to live in a world where people with twisted hearts hold profound influence over our students while good people stand aside and do nothing.

Which is why tonight I read some from The Art of War —

Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt … Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.

— and why tomorrow I will return the favor, and “do justice.”

Advertisements

Nargis Orphans

Eight years ago this month Cyclone Nargis killed more than 150,000 people in Myanmar. The military regime that controlled the government at the time never released the true casualty numbers, but in addition to the dead and missing an estimated three million people were displaced and left homeless.

The U.S. military used C-130s to fly nearly 200 humanitarian missions that delivered relief supplies and food to Myanmar’s Irrawaddy region — but much of that aid ended up being sold on the black market in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta by corrupt Myanmar government officials (who ironically threatened their citizens with prison for the same offense).

The impact on Myanmar’s children is still being felt. Thousands were left homeless. Thousands more were made orphans. Eight years later they are malnourished, uneducated, and healthcare is non-existent.

I was blessed with a unique opportunity the past few days. I visited Nargis orphans in Thanlyin, Myanmar, with a non-profit group and we gave out books, toys, and candy.

But now I’m left with the same thoughts I always have after an opportunity like this — what’s the point? The visit made us feel good, but the kids will wake up tomorrow just as poor, hungry, and uneducated as they are today.

It would be nice if I could wake up tomorrow with better ideas about how to help them.

The Rainy Season: “Hello, Sabaidee”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot

I got to ride in a becak on the return trip to Jakarta. I made sure Martin went first. No one had been willing to pedal him up the hill, but some extra rupiah convinced an especially brave driver to take the risk on the way down and I didn’t want Martin bowling me over. I doubt a becak had ever traveled so fast, or reckless. Martin’s driver rode his brake hard, and still they weaved in and out of traffic, coasting down the hill at breakneck speed.

I kept waiting for Martin’s carriage to break away from the bike. I imagined him flying solo the rest of the way, with sparks and gravel peppering women and children as they screamed and jumped for safety. Then Martin would reach the bottom of the hill and wipe out a dozen cars or half a village, whichever he hit first. Seismic events are pretty common in Indonesia. The outlying villages around Bogor would feel the world shake and assume that’s what it was. No doubt the imam’s son would be pleased with all the carnage.

Well, all of us arrived safely at the mini-buses.

Chyka and Indira rode down the hill together. Chyka wasn’t going to Jakarta with us, but she rode in the becak to delay saying goodbye for as long as possible. Soukpa rode down the hill with Lucy for the same reason. Soukpa held Lucy in her lap the whole way. She held her tight, the way you hold someone you love when saying goodbye means never seeing her again.

I got on the first mini-bus with Indira, Hang and Thao.

We had to wait another minute for Soukpa. She had knelt in the street beside Lucy. They kissed each other on the cheeks. They hugged. They whispered words I couldn’t hear and probably wouldn’t have understood anyway. Soukpa had been wearing a necklace. She gave it to Lucy, and the orphan’s pride at wearing the necklace was obvious, despite the tears falling from her cheeks.

The conference would end in the morning.

I would be in Indonesia for ten more days, traveling around collecting data and doing research with Wallach. Not exactly a holiday, but presumably better than what Soukpa and the other loners would be doing.

Soukpa finally got on the mini-bus.

I had to look away. Her pain was too much for me.

Three confusing transfers later we arrived outside the bus station. Indira said, “We take pretty way for you, Mr. Strange.” Then to everyone else she said, “We can sit on bus. It will take more time than train, but is better to sit after long day.”

No one said much.

I just nodded. It didn’t make a difference to me.

We boarded the bus a few minutes later. It was nearly full and none of us sat beside an empty seat. I was on the aisle. Indira sat in the window seat next to me. Which was fine. I could have been fighting Martin for elbowroom.

The bus got on a busy highway and rolled out of town. I stared straight ahead, as best I could. Indira was looking sideways though, in my direction. You can only ignore someone for so long when you’re stuck on a bus together.

“You okay?”

“I wish to say I do not cry…” Indira paused for a quiet beat, and a lone tear streaked mascara across her right cheek. A few more began to chase after it. All week Indira had been a portrait of confidence and composure. She’s such a strong person, dignified and professional, and above all else, good. Indira finally got her words out. “I do not cry because the words you say to the imam’s son make me angry. I cry because I am afraid the words are true. I cry for Islam and my people. That is what I wish to say.”

Maybe it really was the pretty way back to Jakarta. I don’t know. I missed most of it because at some point I had to stick a needle full of migraine meds into my arm. Probably not the most sterile environment to be doing that kind of thing, but I had about a dozen jackhammers hard at work behind my left eye and there was an aura on its way that would add even more searing pain. I took a couple Benadryl for good measure and closed my eyes. A few minutes later I was fast asleep.

I felt the bus lurch and begin to slow. My eyes were so heavy though. I just wanted to sleep. I heard an air brake and then the bus made one last rumble before it’s engine quit and it settled at a complete stop. People began to move about when the door was levered open. The bus tilted a bit to the left, British style.

Indira said, “Sorry I wake you. I need get off.”

I stood in the aisle, oblivious to everything around me.

“Sleep more. We come back.”

I moved to the window seat and rested my head against the glass. It was almost dark outside and the whole world was a blur. I closed my eyes again, but … there was something. Alert now, I sat up and realized I was the only person on the bus. I took a second glance out the window. The only thing I could see was a dirty 7-Eleven … and Soukpa.

Soukpa was at the checkout counter with a can of Pepsi. The store clerk held up a calculator to show her the amount in rupiah. Soukpa nodded and took a few coins from a pocket inside her tote bag. She counted the coins twice and then held out a few and made an offer. The clerk waved a hand and shook his head “no-no-no.”

They began haggling over a can of Pepsi.

I’d paid three thousand rupiah for a Pepsi earlier this week. That’s about twenty-five cents. A gut-wrenching feeling began to worm its way through me.

Oh man.

I usually don’t like to be wrong. Right now I’d never wanted anything more. Maybe she just likes Pepsi. Maybe she’s just really thirsty. Or maybe she’d been even more eager than I’d realized during yesterday’s lecture. I’d made a comment about students giving gifts to teachers. I’d said that everyone wants something and everyone has got the same idea how to get it. Parents buy gifts. Kids give gifts to teachers. Teachers buy candy. Teachers give candy to kids. Maybe some of them aren’t doing it consciously, but everyone’s doing it because it works. I’d said the word for it is “reciprocity,” and it’s a genuine leadership strategy when you’re trying to influence other people. You give someone a small gift and it triggers an internal desire to repay it. Teachers repay gifts by giving more attention to your kid. Kids repay gifts by working harder for the teacher.

I’d even said, “You can trigger it with the smallest of gestures. It’s amazing what you can get people to do just by giving them a can of Pepsi.”

Soukpa had been sitting right in front of the lectern.

She’d had pen and paper in her lap and an eager-to-learn facial expression. Now she stood in 7-Eleven with a can of Pepsi. Soukpa handed over all her coins. She took the Pepsi and walked outside. She stood on the sidewalk for a long moment. Probably questioning her sanity. Or maybe she was wondering where her food would come from after her breakfast coupons expired in the morning. Or maybe those were one and the same. I desperately wanted to see her drink that Pepsi. Soukpa got on the bus. She smiled when she saw I was awake. Soukpa said, “Sabaidee. I buy you Pepsi.”

Soukpa said the bus driver had stopped for evening prayer. All of the passengers had either gone to pray as well or they’d decided to wait somewhere other than the bus.

“What about Martin and Will?”

“They go walk,” she said. Soukpa took a seat on the other side of the aisle. Then her eyes got big, as if she was genuinely inquisitive, and she asked, “You need pray?”

“No.”

“I need thank you for food. Indira say you give me.”

She meant the breakfast coupons. “Sure. You’re welcome. Thanks for the Pepsi.”

Soukpa smiled and nodded, even though I hadn’t opened the Pepsi yet. “How you know sabaidee? You say to me before teach. I really surprise.”

I’m not making fun, but the way she said it was I eel-lee soo-pies. I only write it that way because it’s important to understand how courageous she was. I can go to any foreign country and it’ll take maybe thirty seconds to find someone who can speak English and assist me. Try doing that if your native tongue is Lao. Try having a conversation with a foreigner in a language that’s foreign to both of you. That’s what she faced by traveling alone to Indonesia.

“I had a student from Laos.”

Soukpa smiled. “She in picture from you teach.”

“How did you know?”

“I see the girl goal in picture and I sure she is Lao.”

“That’s right. The girl goalie was from Laos.”

“I like soccer,” she said, as if that explained how she’d known. “You still say her name?”

I hesitated. Misplaced hope is the most devastatingly painful thing you can give someone. I almost gave back the Pepsi. I almost got off the bus. I said, “It’s actually a funny story.”

“You say it. Please.” Peas.

A lady got on the bus. She wasn’t part of our group. I didn’t know if she was a new passenger or if she had gone to pray. I’d taken a lot of long bus rides in Korea with my student-athletes, but I’d never been on a bus that stopped for evening prayer.

I popped the tab and took a long drink, and Soukpa sported a winning smile. I held my hands about two feet apart and said, “No kidding. Her name was this long. I’d never seen a name with so many consonants.”

Soukpa laughed.

“I could never say it right so she shortened it and told me to call her Manena. Her mom was Lao but her step-dad was American. She had a younger sister who was half-Lao, half-American.”

A couple more people got on the bus. Soukpa and I both glanced at them. They weren’t from our group either.

“Keep in mind this was my first year teaching in Korea. I didn’t know anyone and I was trying to make a good impression on the students.”

Soukpa nodded for me to continue.

“One day I was really embarrassed because I messed up her name so bad. Manena said I should practice her sister’s name first and I could try Manena’s name again after I got better at speaking Lao. Of course she was just being funny. But like I said, I was new and really wanted to show the students I cared about them. I asked what her sister’s name was and Manena never even hesitated. She said her sister was Sabaidee.”

Soukpa literally gasped, and made a big O with her mouth. “She really lie her name?”

“She did. Of course I had no idea that sabaidee was really the word for hello. The next time I saw Manena’s sister I said ‘Hello, Sabaidee’ and the kid looked at me like I was crazy. She was only nine or ten years old. I figured I’d said her name wrong, so I tried again. ‘Hello, Sabaidee.’ The kid ran off. I told Manena of course. She laughed so hard. She still didn’t tell me the truth. Instead she helped me practice saying sabaidee correctly. I must have tormented that little girl for two months, saying ‘Hello, Sabaidee’ every time I saw her. I had no idea I was really saying ‘Hello, Hello.’ Manena had told all her friends of course. The whole school was laughing at me but no one bothered to tell me.”

Soukpa was in stitches. “How you find out?”

“I met the mom. First thing she said was sabaidee. I felt like a total moron, but I never forgot how to say sabaidee.”

“Really funny!” Eel-lee un-ny.

The bus filled up again, and our conversation hit a lull. Evening prayer was definitely over. Soukpa tried to speak a few times. Last night Soukpa told us the part of her story that she had rehearsed—her mother’s tragic death, and her desire to reopen the school—and I sensed she wanted to tell me the rest, but for whatever reason she had a difficult time with it. Maybe she couldn’t find the right words. Maybe it was nerves.

I saw Indira approaching the bus. “Our group is coming back now.”

Soukpa was pensive. Like she was almost out of time.

The thing is, no one travels to Jakarta as a loner just to help a few students back home. Maybe I’m cynical, but no teacher is that good. You don’t literally risk your life for a few kids in your village by traveling to a foreign country with no support, no food or shelter, and no money. If Soukpa could return home fully versed with the collective wisdom of every speaker at the conference, even then, it still wouldn’t have warranted the risks she’d undertaken … and yet she believed there was something in Jakarta that was worth everything she’d done.

I had an idea what it might be. “Can I ask you something?”

Soukpa nodded fast. Like, please hurry.

“What did your father say when you told him about your trip to Jakarta?”

Indira climbed aboard the bus. Soukpa and I both glanced at her. Martin and Will were close behind along with everyone else.

I turned back to Soukpa.

The laughter from earlier was gone. Only sadness remained.

Soukpa shook her head. “I not tell him.”

I nodded, and gave what I hoped was a reassuring smile. I thought, we aren’t so different. My dad had no idea I was going to Vietnam.

Indira said we were already in Jakarta but the hotel was still half-an-hour away. She also said she felt better after evening prayer. I felt better after sleeping for the last hour-plus.

Indira asked, “What is a short-timer?”

“It means Will is moving. He’s leaving Jakarta.”

“Where will he go?”

“I don’t know. I found out when he told Chyka, same as you. He didn’t say where he’s going.”

“You could ask him.”

“I’m a guy, so I don’t care. He’s a guy, so he’s cool that I don’t care.”

“But he is your friend.”

“I’m still a guy.”

“Oh come on, Mr. Strange.” Indira thought for a moment and then she said, “Do people in London all say short-timer? He should just say he is moving. Is more easy, I think.”

“It’s not a British thing. It’s a military thing. If I had wanted to confuse you, then I would have said a short-timer is someone that’s PCS’ing.”

“What does it mean?”

“It also means he’s moving.”

“Oh come on,” she laughed. “Why does no one say plain English?”

“People that work with the military have funny ways to say things.”

“But he is a teacher, not a soldier.”

“Well, he’s a teacher now.”

“He used to be soldier?”

“Not exactly a soldier.”

Indira gave it some thought but didn’t comment. A short moment later she spoke Bahasa to our driver. I felt the bus lurch, slow, and then finally we came to a stop.

Indira said, “We get off here.”

Nothing in the area resembled a bus station. Or a bus stop. I hadn’t expected the bus to take us to the hotel, but I also hadn’t expected … this. If anything, we were beyond the third ring and in an area of Jakarta that was more forlorn than I could have imagined. The buildings were low, flat structures with sheet metal and padlocks guarding windows and doorways—and it was impossible to tell if they were commercial or residential.

Indira said, “This way.”

No one asked any questions. We followed Indira.

We had a lot of company on the sidewalk. Plenty of people were staring. A lot of small fires were burning. A lot of kids were running around and chasing each other. Some even wore clothes. People were cooking food under tarpaulins. Maybe they were selling it. Hard to tell. We had to walk around a pile of trash. It moved.

I thought a dog, surely.

Only it wasn’t.

A few meters more and we reached an intersection. Halfway up the cross street to our right was an area glowing brilliant orange against the night sky. It must be this way in the desert when you see a mirage. There was a single tall post in the middle of a small courtyard. Chinese lanterns and multicolored lighted balls were strung from the top of the post in every direction. There was pleasant music, tables, chairs, a crowd of fully clothed people, and best of all, the smell of really good food.

Indira’s face was glowing, too.

She led us to the courtyard entrance where she was greeted by a swarm of kids. They gave her hugs and kisses and ran circles around her. Indira lifted a small girl and spun her until they were both dizzy. “Here is my niece. The other kids belong my cousins. We will have dinner here. It is gift from my family to all of you for the kindness to Chyka and her students.”

Indira’s joy was infectious. It had been an incredibly long day, but we gathered around to listen as she told us about her family.

“See mosque across street? My father is imam. He and my uncle also make this restaurant many years ago. My cousins all work here. My family home is above restaurant and I stay with my sister, niece, and my parents. My aunt and uncle and cousins also stay above us.”

Will said, “This is really marvelous.” He didn’t even have to lie.

“Thank you.” Indira was positively beaming.

The idea that Indira could be one of the people living in the shadow of Central Jakarta had never occurred to me. It should have. The way she’d talked at the train station this morning. The way she’d been so passionate about helping Indonesian teachers. Maybe Wallach isn’t the only one who can be clueless from time to time. People who had given up hope and blamed their own misery on the influence of Christianity and western cultures surrounded Indira … and yet, literally in the midst of squalor, her family had created a place of real beauty.

It really makes you stop and think.

Uncle Google should be spitting out eight hundred million things American schools have done right. The fact things are so screwed up makes no sense. If you believe Uncle Google, then we’ve done the exact opposite from Indira’s family—in the land of hope and plenty we’ve created a place that’s ugly.

We have so much. Can things really be so bad?

Maybe we can’t fix our schools because as individuals we’ve never truly been broken. Or maybe Chinese lanterns make everyone wax philosophical.

For sure the lanterns created a great atmosphere. We sat outside and Indira’s cousins served us fish, rice, bread, fruits and vegetables. It was an unbelievable amount of food. It smelled great. Most of it looked great. Some of it just looked back at me.

Indira said, “What is wrong? You do not like fish?”

“I do. I just wish it’d stop staring at me.”

Soukpa reached over and plucked the eyeball right out of the fish and ate it. Then she covered her mouth and shyly said, “Sorry. I really like.” Eel-lee.

“I don’t mind. Promise.”

Indira’s parents and sister joined us. Indira told them about my sambel challenge with Lucy. Of course she told them in Bahasa. It took a minute for me to catch on. The first clues were pointing and laughing. The final giveaway was Indira imitating me dying from sambel.

At one point I excused myself to use the restroom. Everyone greeted me with a chorus of “Hello, Sabaidee” when I got back.

I thought, good for you Soukpa. It can’t be easy, being a loner. It took a relentless act of courage for Soukpa to travel to Jakarta … unfortunately, I also knew it didn’t matter. It would be impossible for her story to have a happy ending.

I’m not a social guy. I generally don’t have a lot to say to my friends, let alone strangers. The only time I enjoy loud music is when I’ve got the top down on my Jeep. For sure I don’t like parties. But that night under the Jakarta sky and Chinese lanterns was different. We were sixteen teachers from five different countries, and though our time together was short, it had been meaningful. We used it to share experiences that most people never get in a lifetime. You really can’t ask for more than that.

The Rainy Season: “this is our life, but we do not give up”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot

28

I’m not sure who was more relieved—Soukpa, that I was in Laos, or me, that Soukpa was dressed in jeans and a nondescript blouse instead of the traditional skirt and blouse that she’d worn every day in Jakarta. I clasped my hands in front of my face and bowed. “Hello, Sabaidee. It’s good to see you again, Soukpa.”

Soukpa said, “I really happy you come Laos.” Eel-lee.

“Is this your brother?” A young man stood beside her, and if not for the age difference—Soukpa was mid-twenties, he was mid-teens—then he could have been Soukpa’s twin.

“My boy brother.”

He offered a strong grip and we shook hands.

Soukpa laughed and held her hands about two feet apart. “His name more than your student. I think you call him Pete. Is easy for you.”

Pete’s head was shaved. Maybe he was going to be a monk. I shrugged and said, “Okay, Pete. Nice to meet you.”

Pete wore jeans, tee shirt, and sandals. He smiled and said, “No English.”

“Me no Lao,” I said back, and we all laughed.

“You have more bag?” Soukpa asked.

I had my backpack and the carry-on size suitcase-on-wheels. The duffel bag was in a locker inside Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. “No, this is everything.”

Soukpa cinched a plastic trash bag around my suitcase. “It rain soon.”

I thought, soon? I was nearly drenched just from standing on the tarmac. I smiled and said, “Khawp jai deuh.”

Soukpa made a big O with her mouth. “So good!”

“Well, that’s all I remember. Hello and thank you.”

Soukpa cinched a second trash bag around my backpack. “I teach you more okay?”

“Sure. I’ll try to learn.”

Soukpa gave my backpack to Pete. “We go now.”

The arrivals hall was empty and quiet. No placard conventions in Pakse. Pete lugged both my bags, and I felt naked without my backpack. Just saying. The parking lot in front of the airport was also empty. A lone tuk-tuk was curbside with its driver asleep in the back, and I didn’t see any taxis. The sky was gray and a steady rain fell. I told Soukpa, “Thanks for picking me up. I hope you didn’t have to wait long.”

Soukpa smiled, but said nothing.

I was curious though. “When did you arrive in Pakse?”

“I worry it heavy rain so we come early.”

“You got here this morning?”

Soukpa shook her head. “Three day ago, after Indira call and say you will fly Pakse.”

Three days ago?

Three days ago I was planning painful deaths for Wallach and Mandiri. Three days ago I went to the Monas with Indira’s students. Three days ago … I gave Irma a piece of paper to give to Indira.

Was Indira’s faith really that strong?

I thought, maybe.

Probably.

Yes.

Soukpa’s motorbike was a black Honda. It had a few dings, but it was a Bentley compared with Pete’s bike-with-a-motor. Pete’s bike had a large frame—like an adult ten-speed—but his pedals were missing, and in their place was a two-cycle motor with just enough juice to trim your hedges. The motor and wheels were connected by two well-used fan belts. A sheet of corrugated aluminum was welded to the frame above the rear wheel. It made a platform that was handy for transporting items like my backpack and suitcase-on-wheels. Pete used twine to secure everything and then yanked the pull cord to start his engine. It took Pete a good three or four yanks before the engine coughed and spit its way to life.

I gave Soukpa my best “this is normal” face.

Soukpa gave an embarrassed smile in reply. “Sorry.”

“It’s actually kind of cool.”

Soukpa lifted the seat on her Honda and pulled a light jacket from the storage area underneath. “You will see more like it. I think you will be surprise what you will see in my country.” Soo-pies.

“Pakse is a lot quieter than Jakarta.”

Soukpa laughed, Indira-esque. “I almost die when I see Jakarta airport. Oh I feel so scare. I never see life so big. I never see many people or hear loud city. You will not find it here. Lao people are quiet. I think you like it here.”

I nodded and said truthfully, “It sounds great.”

Soukpa had the jacket on now, along with white cotton gloves and a cloth mask that covered her mouth and nose. “You ride with me okay?”

I thought, as if Pete’s bike is really an option…

I said, “Okay.”

Soukpa secured her helmet and asked, “You ready?” Her eyes were big and alive, and her voice was filled with excitement—the way she had been on the train to Bogor, as if this was a big adventure.

“I’m ready, but where are your bags?”

“Sorry?”

“You came three days ago. Where’s your stuff?”

“Oh, here.” Soukpa indicated the storage area beneath her seat. “Okay?”

I straddled the seat behind Soukpa. “Okay, let’s go.”

Soukpa sped onto the main road. Pete puttered along in our wake. The rain fell with slightly more urgency and the wind buffeted Soukpa’s jacket. In the distance I glimpsed the Mekong, and I thought about my dad. Maybe this felt like a big adventure, but in reality it was a struggle between life and death that began beside this same river more than four decades ago. Maybe it would end here as well.

The asphalt road gave way to red clay and we could have been in rural Georgia if not for the rice paddies and nón lá hats made famous by Vietnamese farmers and now ubiquitous to Southeast Asia. We shared the road with peasant farmers who used tractors to pull flatbed trailers piled high with fruits and vegetables. An open-air bongo truck filled with women and children sped past, going in the opposite direction, and I spun to take a second look because I didn’t believe it was possible to fit so many people into one vehicle.

“You okay?” Soukpa asked.

“Fine.”

“Hungry?”

I hadn’t eaten a full meal since yesterday afternoon with Indira’s family. “Yes, a little.” Up ahead was a roadside canopy with wooden tables, plastic lawn chairs and a fire pit. A few older women stood in the road and waved meat skewers at passing vehicles. No one seemed bothered by the rain. Fast food, Lao-style. “What are they selling?”

Soukpa began to slow the motorbike. “Meat.”

Well, okay…

Soukpa’s lack of specificity was a bit troublesome. I thought, chicken, beef, pork? Mystery meat? I said, “Maybe I can wait.”

“You sure? Can buy if you need.”

I noticed a man tending the fire pit. He was also urinating. I said, “It’s okay. I’m not that hungry.”

Soukpa sped up. “We almost there. Can buy food beside river.”

A few minutes later Soukpa left the main road and we began to bounce along a poorly grated clay and gravel secondary road. It led to an elevated berm with tall, wispy reeds, wild grass … and the Mekong.

“Here is river. We go boat now.”

There was a staggering amount of commerce taking place. A wooden U-shaped quay jutted into the river and tied alongside it were dozens of boats—square heads, freighters, fishing—and nearly all resembled the traditional wooden boats synonymous with French Indochina. A dozen smaller, flat-bottomed canoes with long-tail outboards cut swiftly through the Mekong’s turbulent current. As we got closer, I noticed little kids were piloting many of the canoes. A market of sorts was set up alongside the river. A lot of cargo was being carried back and forth between boats and bongo trucks.

Soukpa barely slowed.

She navigated through a crowd of people, down a steep embankment, and then eased the motorbike onto the quay. A freighter was moored at the far end. It might have been twenty meters long—about sixty feet. A wooden plank about fifteen feet long and maybe two feet wide led from the quay onto the freighter’s aft deck.

“Hold on.”

I thought, what else would I be doing? I could already picture us on YouTube. We would definitely go viral. Maybe even earn a Tosh.0 Web Redemption.

Soukpa accelerated…

Halfway across the plank began to sag. In front of us the freighter began to roll with the current. Or maybe it had been rolling already. I wasn’t sure, but I was a little worried. I glanced down, but I barely glimpsed the water because by then we were safely aboard the freighter.

Soukpa said, “I go pay.”

Soukpa climbed from the motorbike and made her way to an enclosed cabin where the ship’s crew was conducting its business. I took a deep breath and began to look for some shelter. A moment later Pete caught up to us. It sounded like he was riding a Weed Eater. He never hesitated, just drove right up the plank. I cringed, because my backpack held all my electronics … but Pete and my luggage arrived safely on the deck. I told him, “Different way of life.”

He smiled. “No English.”

Soukpa came back and I could tell something was wrong. “You okay?”

“I so sorry.”

“What?”

“It rain soon.”

I laughed. “It’s been raining this whole time.”

Soukpa shook her head. “It rain soon. Cannot take boat today. I so sorry.”

“What should we do then?”

“We find guesthouse okay?”

“It’s fine. Don’t worry.”

Soukpa and Pete had a brief conversation and then we made our way back across the plank and onto the quay. A fast-minute later we were on the main road toward Pakse. I could see buildings ahead in the distance. I thought, a kilometer, give or take. Maybe three minutes on Soukpa’s motorbike. A steady rain had been falling, but now the sky had different plans. A brilliant cascade of electricity lit up the distant horizon. Fiery red streaks fell from the heavens and shook the earth. A far-reaching arc lit into a magnificent shade of blue as it danced across the Mekong’s turbulent waters. The sky had been gray, but now it shone brilliantly in reds, blues and pinks until finally, and suddenly … everything went dark. The world around us was eerily quiet, and ominous. It stayed that way for an exceptionally long beat. After which it began to rain.

29

The Mekong itself could not have been more turbulent than the waters that flooded the road. Its clay surface was pulverized by raindrops the size of cherry bombs that fell with devastating velocity. If I had blasted the clay pointblank with a shotgun, that’s the image you need to understand how intensely the rain assaulted the earth. A streak of lightning gave us a reprieve from the darkness. It was reddish-orange, and close by, and the thunder chasing after it shook the whole world around us.

In that brief moment of light, I could see Pakse, maybe a hundred meters ahead … but I also noticed the water had nowhere to go—

“Soukpa, watch out!”

—and it swelled and gathered strength until it had only one option left: the water cascaded violently toward us and I feared we would be swept into the river and never be found or seen again. Soukpa struggled mightily to remain upright as the motorbike shuddered and its engine quit. In a matter of seconds the road had been transformed into a riverbed. My feet were under water. In fact the water was halfway to my knees. Soukpa desperately tried to restart the engine. It whined and spewed a mix of smoke and water. But it didn’t start. I quickly climbed from the motorbike and grabbed hold of its frame. I planted my feet in a wide, strong base, and lifted until the engine was fully clear of the water.

I said, “Try it now.”

Soukpa flipped the key and the engine sputtered to life. It raced for a quick three-count, and then it died again.

My feet began to slip, and I was losing my grip. “Hurry!”

Soukpa flipped the key a second time. The engine clicked, but wouldn’t start. She flipped the key one last time. Nothing at all. Soukpa jumped from the bike and we began to push it furiously against the oncoming and rapidly rising deluge. Soukpa glanced anxiously behind us. I did too. No sign of Pete. For ten long minutes we trudged toward Pakse. Maybe one hundred meters. For sure the slowest time anyone has ever run a hundred-meter race. And believe me, it was a race. The storm gave no sign it was abating.

Soukpa said, “You see tourist hotel?”

Ahead and to our right was a modern western-style hotel. It had a circular drive and a covered area for curbside drop-offs. “I see it.”

Soukpa and I began to push harder, but I don’t think we went any faster. All we did was breathe heavier. But at last we made it to the circular drive and higher ground. A slow-minute after that and we were safe beneath the front portico. Soukpa secured her helmet and motorbike and immediately went back into the storm.

“Soukpa, wait. Call Pete’s cell before you go back out there.”

Soukpa shook her head and kept walking. “He no have phone.”

I left my Birkenstocks on the sidewalk and peeled off my ruined socks, and then I chased after Soukpa.

The earth beneath my feet and a violent storm were not new experiences—after all, I grew up outside and barefoot in rural Florida with sixty lakes, forty churches, a solitary stoplight and a devastating hurricane season … and after surviving adolescence I’d gone to college in Oklahoma where new student orientation included a session called “Sirens & Shelters.”

And yet I was unprepared for Pakse.

It was difficult to see more than a few feet in any direction. The water stirred the clay, and as it flowed relentlessly through the streets it was shockingly cold and disturbingly blood red.

“Soukpa? I won’t be able to see you if you don’t slow down.”

“Please go more fast.”

“I can’t see anything and the electricity is out in these buildings. If there’s a live power line in the road, we’re dead. If there’s a curve in the road and we walk into the river, we’re dead.”

“Please.” Peas.

We trudged onward as debris raced by and brushed against our legs. I had a few thoughts about rats, diseases and tetanus. But mostly I thought about the Mekong, and how its muddy water had been blood red many times in the past. Soukpa began to shout something incomprehensible. It sounded about two feet long, and must have been Pete’s given name. No response. We came across a bongo truck stuck in the road. Three men sat in the cab—one was asleep, and the other two were smoking cigarettes—but the open-air bed was filled with women and children. Lao-style, perhaps. Though I didn’t see any better options. Soukpa spoke with a woman, but seemed discouraged by what she heard. No one else had seen Pete either. We came across an abandoned motorbike. No sign of its driver. The motorbike was on its side, and like a mighty boulder it made the muddy floodwaters into rapids. We left it untouched, and trudged onward. The rain fell in blinding sheets. I had no sense of time or distance, and no bearing for the road or hotel—and yet the river had a presence all its own. It was just out of reach, a few steps into the darkness.

Soukpa yelled her brother’s name.

No response.

An onslaught of debris pummeled my legs. Soukpa yelled some more. Then in the blood red waters we came across a bike. It was built like an adult ten-speed but without any pedals. It had a platform made with corrugated aluminum and a long strand of twine was twisting in its rapids.

Soukpa was seized with panic.

She yelled her brother’s name again, and again, and again.

Ahead in the distance a wispy shape took form. Pete emerged from the storm. He was lugging my backpack above one shoulder and my suitcase-on-wheels above the other. He waded toward us, against the current.

I lifted Pete’s bike.

We secured my luggage once more on the platform, and the three of us began to push.

30

The tourist hotel had a generator and its lobby was our lighthouse. It was surrounded by darkness, and water. My shoulders ached and my lungs burned. I had a rip in my jeans but no idea what caused it. My feet had a thousand cuts and scrapes and the rain beat against my face with such ferocity that I could not look skyward.

The world lit up again.

For a brief moment I could see Soukpa’s face. It was remarkably passive. We trudged onward, through a blood red river that should have been a road. I don’t know how long it took us to reach the hotel for the second time, but when we finally made it beneath the front portico I felt like collapsing onto the sidewalk beside my Birkenstocks. I shivered, and my legs and feet were numb.

“You are okay?” Soukpa asked.

I doubled over, hands on my knees. “I think so. You?”

Soukpa shrugged. “This is our life.”

When I asked the desk clerk for two rooms, Soukpa said, “We no have money. You stay here. We go guesthouse okay? Is more cheap.”

“Wallach is paying for it,” I lied.

Soukpa hesitated a beat. “It is okay?”

“One hundred percent.”

“Khawp jai deuh.” For lying and the room.

“How do I say you’re welcome in Lao?”

Soukpa laughed. “We say it bo-ben-nyung. It mean everything is good.”

“Bo-ben-nyung? It’s all good?”

Soukpa nodded. “It is Lao-style, our life. Bo-ben-nyung. Everything is good.”

“I like that. I’ll try to remember it.”

The rain was steady now—more melancholy than violent—and the sky had lightened considerably. Pete was on mechanic duty beneath the front portico. He had borrowed some tools and was tinkering with Soukpa’s motorbike, but so far the engine had made a few clicks but was steadfastly refusing to start. A group of men had gathered around to watch him work. They didn’t look like hotel staff or guests. I had no idea where they came from, but the scene was reminiscent of Jakarta. How many Indonesian men does it take to park a van?

“Is Pete going to be okay?” I asked.

“He fine.”

“You rely on the motorbikes for a lot, don’t you?”

“For everything.”

“Pete looks frustrated. What will you do if he can’t fix it?”

Soukpa spoke confidently, “He will not give up.”

“I’d offer to help but…”

Soukpa laughed. “I think he have too much help already.”

“Is he good at fixing things?”

“It is his job in our village. Do not worry okay?”

“My grandfather was a great mechanic. He knew everything about engines.”

“He teach you?” Soukpa asked.

“He taught a lot of people—my mom and uncles, my brothers and cousins—and he even taught auto mechanics to high school students. He tried to teach me, but I never learned. My grandfather loved engines though. He had a big shop beside his house with engine parts everywhere. He would take old cars and restore them like new. The bodies, engines, interiors … everything. He also taught me to drive.” I thought for a moment, and then added, “I wish I had listened more. Maybe I’d be able to build or fix things.”

“You are okay?”

I nodded. “Jetlagged, not sad.”

Soukpa was confused. “What?”

“Nothing. I’m fine.”

“You are hungry?”

“A little, but mostly I’m just tired. I think I’ll go upstairs now. I’ll get cleaned up and probably just sleep.”

“I ask they send food to your room, okay?”

“Thanks.”

“I also ask they take your clothes and clean.”

“Even better.”

“Your computer is okay?”

“Don’t worry. The clothes inside my suitcase are wet but my computer and everything inside my backpack are dry. That reminds me though. I have a gift for you.”

Soukpa’s version of oh come on was the wide O her mouth made when she was surprised or excited. She made it now, and her eyes lit up much as the sky had done when electricity was dancing across the Mekong. “A gift?”

“It’s from Lucy.”

“Lucy?”

I gave her the Ziploc bag from my backpack. “Open it.”

Her eyes welled with tears. “Oh Lucy, Lucy.” Soukpa’s hands trembled as she unzipped the bag. When she saw the necklace, the tears fell freely across her cheeks. “It is so beautiful. I not have something so beautiful before now.” For a long moment Soukpa held the necklace tight against her heart, and then very carefully she put it on.

“Lucy still sings the song you taught her.”

Soukpa made the O again. “Really?”

Eel-lee?

“She sang it for me in English, too.”

Soukpa began to sway back and forth. She was dancing with Lucy again.

“Where did you learn a Christian song?”

Soukpa brought Lucy’s handmade cross to her lips and kissed it softly, and then she began to sway some more. “My mother teach me many song to help learn English.”

“The necklace you gave Lucy also had a cross.”

Soukpa nodded.

“Was it a gift from your mother?”

“My mother give to me when she come home after learn English in Vientiane.”

“I thought your family was Buddhist.”

“We are.” Soukpa wiped away her tears. She hesitated for a long beat, and then she added, “But my mother was Christian. Are you surprise?”

Soo-pies?

“Maybe a little, but it actually explains a lot.”

“You are Christian?”

“Yes.”

Soukpa fidgeted with her necklace. “Lucy and Indira are Allah.”

“I know.”

“I am Buddha,” Soukpa said, though this time she didn’t sound too sure of it. Soukpa swayed with Lucy one more time, and then she told me, “Thank you for come to Laos. My father will listen for you.”

“Soukpa, that afternoon at Starbucks—”

“No, no. It is okay.”

“Thanks. I am sorry though.”

“Bo-ben-nyung. Everything is good.” Just then Soukpa’s motorbike roared to life. The men that had been watching Pete work began cheering and clapping him on the back. With a triumphant smile, Soukpa added, “This is our life, but we do not give up.”

goodreads-badge-add-plus-71eae69ca0307d077df66a58ec068898


The Rainy Season: “An indiscriminate giver and taker of life”

Prologue

Its headwaters flow out of the Tibetan Plateau along with the Huang He and Yangtze rivers in an area that is part of Qinghai Province, China. Its name is Lan Xang Jiang—literally, the “Turbulent River”—and it flows southeast through Yunnan Province and the Hengduan Mountains for more than fourteen hundred miles before it turns fully south and takes on a different name for the rest of its journey: the Mekong.

The_Rainy_Season_cover-HIGH-RESIts currents are no less turbulent in Burma or Laos where the river is a line of demarcation, the place where China ends and Southeast Asia begins—but here its name has a different meaning, given by peasant farmers in Laos who depend on its waters for fish, transportation, irrigation and life.

Mekong is the “Mother of Water.”

It’s an appropriate name given that the river crosses nearly three thousand miles on its journey from the mountainous terrain of Tibet to its delta in Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea—and at various points along that path you can stand in Laos and look north across its waters into China, south into Cambodia, east into Vietnam, or west into Burma and Thailand.

No matter the border, the Mekong has been an indiscriminate giver and taker of life in Southeast Asia for thousands of years.

It’s a paradox like civilization’s other great rivers—be it the Nile, Indus, Euphrates, Ganges or China’s Sorrow the Huang He—for without its waters life is a daily struggle for survival; yet with its waters life is a daily bet that natural disasters and diseases will visit someone else’s village, because it’s not if, but when it’s going to happen that’s the relevant question.

My first glimpse of the Mekong came from the window seat of an MA-6 at about three thousand feet as it was on final approach to Pakse International Airport. The twin turbo-prop engines and narrow fuselage fitted for about four dozen or so passengers weren’t designed to instill one’s confidence in flying—and the plane being manufactured in China was no help in that regard, either—but for someone who has never had a fear of flying the one thing that was a very real concern as the plane descended through clouds and banked hard to the right was the weather. It was summer, the beginning of the rainy season in this part of the world, and for the last ten minutes the plane had been buffeted up, down, left and right at the behest of high winds and torrential rain—but then the river came into view, and whatever worried thoughts I’d had were pushed from my mind. I stared out the window, trying to take in as much as possible, because this river, more than anything else, was a visible symbol that represented why I’d embarked on this journey in the first place: my dad survived a war that he fought beside this river; my uncle died in that same war; and now I was here because of a war, too—that other indiscriminate giver and taker of life.

This new war began before my nieces were born but it continues today, even as they prepare for middle school, which means the only world they’ve ever known has been one that’s at war, and they can’t picture it in any other form. I belong to the other group—the one made up of people who not only remember how it was before but who, because of this war, have lost something along the way. Not a spouse or mom or dad or brother or sister, like so many others, but a small group of society that lost a part of our humanity all the same.

When you’ve lost something that important you go searching for it.

I did, anyway.

The MA-6 descended rather smoothly, all things considered—though we’d been so low flying over the river that it felt like we were making a water landing. I could see villages, boats and people whose way of life I’d known and experienced only through books, pictures, and videos, but one I’d soon walk amongst. The runway was an elevated strip of asphalt cut through a rice paddy, and the terminal was built to resemble a Buddhist temple. The plane landed and I disembarked with the rest of the passengers onto a tarmac area that was considerably lower than the runway. No doubt it was meant to facilitate the runoff of water during the rainy season. It also meant sloshing with carry-on luggage through seventy-five meters of ankle deep water.

But I didn’t care about that.

I stood on the tarmac as the other passengers scurried to the terminal. The sky was low and gray and I braced myself outwardly against the rain and wind. Inwardly I steeled myself for what was ahead. The first flight on this journey had been more than three weeks ago, but in reality my whole life had led me to this place. I had seventy-five meters left to cross on foot, one final passenger terminal to navigate, and a rendezvous with destiny on the other side—for at that point I would have gone as far as possible by all other means. For the rest of this journey I’d be relying on the river.

goodreads

On Teaching

A few quotes on teaching from You Look Like A Teacher, The Day Before 9/11, and The Rainy Season. You can read more Tucker Elliot quotes on Goodreads.


“In large part, we are teachers precisely because we remember what it was like to be a student. Someone inspired us. Someone influenced us. Or someone hurt us. And we’ve channeled that joy (or pain) into our own unique philosophies on life and learning and we’re always looking for an opportunity to share them—with each other, our students, parents, or in our communities.”

The_Day_Before_9-11_FINAL-RGB-72dpi“The only thing worse than losing hope is to be the reason someone else loses hope.”

“The reality for teachers is we don’t know if we’ve been successful or not. It takes years to see how a kid turns out, and it’s impossible to know what role we’ve played, for better or worse. It’s why so many teachers burn out—our successes are limited and rarely celebrated, but our failures are always out there for everyone to see and judge.”

“The task of teaching has never been more complex and the expectations that burden teachers are carried out in antiquated systems that offer little support—and yet, teachers are finding success every day.”

“Teaching isn’t rocket science. It’s about being engaged, listening, paying attention. Despite conventional wisdom, you don’t need to talk a lot to teach well. You do need to care, though. Not so much about what people think of you or whether or not they like you, but about the kids and doing what’s best for them.”

“It’d be easy to blame everything on 9/11 or the wars that came after. It’s really about the choices we made. By necessity we adapt to the realities of the world we live in, but if we forget that how we live shapes and influences the world around us, then we’ve already lost.”

“It felt like we were reliving the first day of the school year, when students and teachers do the get-to-know-you dance—teachers tell students something about who they are, students pretend to care, and then vice-versa.”

“The look of a smug teacher is priceless.”

“Educators are in the news, too. Usually that’s bad. I had a favorite college professor. He used to tell us, ‘If you make CNN as a teacher, you’re probably going to jail.”