Monday, October 8, 2012

Cement. An essay by Jake Paron

photo by Jake Paron
Our goal was to create positive energy, or at least that was the motto of our community service program. As we mixed freshly collected sand and rock with cheap bags of concrete using primitive hoes and shovels, the mood was far from positive. The concrete was needed to create a “wedding lot,” which was used by the small Thai village to hold weddings and other ceremonies. Now I had never heard of a wedding lot, but if that is what the villagers asked for, I was determined to help create it. Before we began constructing the lot, two days were spent taking nearly one hundred buckets of rock and sand from a nearby river. Collecting this amount of rock and sand with four shovels and fifteen people took much longer than I thought. Nevertheless, we completed it after many long hours of work and complaining and could finally start mixing the cement.
            If someone had asked me how to mix cement before this experience I would have said with a cement truck. It turns out they don’t have those in Thailand, at least not in this remote village. Our process was much slower. Fifteen buckets of sand, one bag of concrete, six buckets of rocks, and water. What do you get? One batch of lumpy concrete that covers about three square feet. So we mixed a lot of concrete.
            “This work is pointless!” “Why do we have to do this?” “Why can’t we build a school?” The complaints go on. These kids really did want to help the village, but they could not see how this slab of concrete was going to make a difference in the lives of the villagers. We asked the village elders what needed to be done, and they told us. And although the final product was a lumpy slab of concrete, it was going to help by providing a space free of mud, in a very rainy climate, where important ceremonies could be held. This was probably not the heroic work many people had envisioned, but it is what the community needed.
            After the project was complete we left for the next village. That was the first of three villages we would stay in over the course of our month spent in Thailand. The group packed up in the back of two pickups and set off for the second village. Everybody hoped the next project would not involve mixing concrete and that we would be more culturally integrated with the community. Only half of that was true. We spent several hours of driving up winding, muddy roads and finally arrived. There were no cement bags or tools in sight, so we thought we were in the clear. Unfortunately we learned that we would be mixing cement this week as well to construct a tank to collect excess water. We then learned that this tank was located on top of a mountain only accessible by a steep muddy path and the bags of cement were at the bottom. The project required us to carry these bags, weighing around one hundred pounds per bag, up the path and then mix them at the top of the mountain.
            After the difficult task of carrying the bags to the work site was complete, we began mixing. The work was much harder than I had thought. We all sat down after a couple hours of work, sweaty and exhausted, and relaxed at the top. As we rested, a group of Thai men approached us. Many of them had a bottle in one hand and a chicken cradled in the other. I had met one of the men the previous night and he acknowledged my presence with a, “Hello Harry Potter!” He insisted that I was Harry Potter, and that another girl was Lady Gaga. They proceeded by us toward a small temple. As we began working again, the men began drinking. They were laughing and yelling, all the while holding these chickens. I started to piece everything together and figured out our group was about to experience something very cultural.
            BAM! BAM! Gunshots rang through the air. I quickly got behind one of the large water tanks for cover. Our group was frantically running around trying to figure out who had the guns and more importantly, who they were shooting at. We soon learned that the villagers were firing the guns to call up to the gods. Once they got their attention, they sacrificed the chickens in their honor. When I peeked out, I saw the chickens, which were previously being treated with much respect, running around headless in a crazed frenzy. Shovels were thrown down, buckets were kicked over and people began pacing around in distress. These chickens jumped and stumbled their way into our work site. Blood spurted out onto three of the girls working, all of them unfortunately vegetarians. “Don’t they have the respect to wait until we are done?” The Thai culture was clearly different than our own, but these comments, deliberate or not, showed that some of us thought we were more important than the native people. We were guests in their home. They were not required to help us, although many did. I recognized that the sacrifices were disturbing, and I would agree that I could have done without them, but this was their way of life. They should not be expected to change it for our convenience. We came to Thailand as visitors. These men lived here.
            Many community service organizations do not aid the direct needs of the people. However I believe our group was different. We asked the elders of each village what needed to be done and they told us. Simple projects, like constructing a concrete slab, may not be heroic work, but they are essential for the growth of these communities.


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