THE BLOG
11/26/2012 07:28 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2013

Voluntourism In Laos And Saying Thank You With Flowers

I started the day by heading to Didi's home in Vientiane, the Laotian capital. Didi means big sister in Hindi and this Didi was a sister of Ananda Marga, a global spiritual and social service organization.

She and her colleagues were in Laos to operate the Sunshine School, a K-12 school that breaks with the traditional Asian rote-style of teaching in favor of more innovative methods. We were headed 50 kilometers from the capital to the 100-family village of Veuntaen, too small and remote to be on Google Maps.

The village was like many I've seen before: dirt poor by Western standards, rich in family values and caught between the modern and traditional worlds. Homes are built on stilts due to the nearby river that floods annually. The diet is based on sticky rice, which most families grow themselves for subsistence consumption. Most of all, it's quiet.

Machetes in hand, the local teenagers welcomed us and helped us cut down bamboo stalks for bamboo soup and pluck unripe papayas to make papaya salad. The soup was cooked over wood gathered from the farm.

I was there to volunteer, as I volunteer each place I go on The Happy Nomad Tour. I taught English to the teenagers in the afternoons and during the day I was a handyman around the school, painting and cleaning to the best of my ability.

I stayed in a rustic wooden loft and hung my own mosquito net. I was less concerned with the mosquitoes and more concerned about the infinite supply of strange bugs I came across there. The bathroom was detached, as is common in the countryside and in places with no plumbing.

Throughout the week, the teenagers became less and less shy. Still, it was difficult to connect with them given their shyness and the language barrier. We did our best though and always found ways to laugh and smile.

As the week drew to a close, I was sad that I'd have to move on. I really like being in nature, and this place was a hotbed for wholesomeness and positivity. I had no idea the village had even more beauty in store for me.

On the final evening I was there, I went out with the teenage boys to collect banana leaves. It was for some ceremony the following day. Being boys, they also whipped the leftover stems at their fixed machetes creating edible projectiles that stung on contact.

The girls collected flowers and other items from the garden. Everything was brought back to the school, which also doubles as a community center, and a marigold centerpiece was created.

Someone also brought a microphone and speaker from the capital. A USB stick of Lao songs was plugged in and the karaoke began. The teenagers also taught me the Lao Bamboo Dance. Although not captured on video, it gets progressively faster and more and more difficult. It reminded me of jumping rope.

The next morning I found out that the marigold centerpiece was for a Basi ceremony. It's a traditional Lao ceremony for both happy and sad occasions that must be held on auspicious days in the lunar calendar. I didn't know why they were holding this ceremony, but it happened to occur the morning we were leaving.

I entered the room and saw the marigold centerpiece beautifully sitting on the floor. The village elders had all assembled as well as many of the teenagers' families. We all took a seat.

The village chief said some words and prayers. I didn't understand anything, but periodic translations came my way. We bowed our heads touching the marigold centerpiece. He was calling the spirits that may have left us to come back to our bodies, or something like that.

After the prayers, rice was thrown all around and the white strings decorating the marigold centerpiece were taken by the villagers and put on my wrists. The white strings symbolize the undying connection between the giver and the receiver. As each person put a string on my wrist, he or she said a prayer. Most were in Lao, but some said phrases in English like "Thank you" and "I love you."

It was all too much. As they did this, the translator told me the ceremony was being held to inaugurate a new school year and wish the students success. It was also for my recent birthday and to wish me success going forward on my trip.

I knew in that moment that I wanted to keep traveling forever even though I didn't want to leave. I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

PHOTO GALLERIES
A Week In Laos

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