Gathering of the Tribes

September 29, 2007

Every Saturday morning Father Joe requires the 200+ children who call Mercy their home to attend Mass.  For some reason, over the years Michael and I have never attended.

Today I had to be at Mercy at 8:00 a.m. to test my three eighth-grade girls on their English skills, so Michael decided to come with me and we would both attend Mass at 10:00 a.m. 

Since nothing is as it seems here, I knew I was in for a surprise.  And I was not disappointed. This was certainly not your typical Catholic mass, although Father Joe is indeed a Catholic Priest.  It was more like a gathering of the tribes.

The music class played melodies on wooden Thai instruments and the children sang. Father Joe asked the children to pray for the children in Burma who are being murdered.  He asked whether prayers could cross borders or were they stopped by immigration?

Naturally, it was conducted in Thai, but out of respect for us, Father Joe translated much of what was going on.   There were stories, prayers, and blessings, and even a few laughs. As the family meeting got underway,  I was surprised that everything was discussed out in the open, with little shame involved and in great detail. 

One topic included this commentary from Father Joe: “Three of the girls stayed out until midnight last night and we had to send the security guards out to get them.” 

He quoted an old Thai saying that roughly means,  “You don’t raise cobras in your house. ”   (You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.)  He sounded matter of fact in the telling of this.  Later, he told us it was for the “housemoms” to handle, but everything is put on the table at this meeting each week: good and bad.

Birthday kids stood up and were honored. Often these kids just pick a birthday when they move into Mercy because they are throwaway kids and don’t even know when they were born. Some kids were awarded prizes for doing special things throughout the week.

We moved on to the sick.  One of the housemoms reported a child was in the hospital and had procedures (and these were described in great detail) and the treatments weren’t working and the child was not doing well. The community of children prayed for their own.  Then Father Joe moved on to something lighter.  Apparently the boys had been kick box fighting in their dorm rooms. Father Joe started kicking his legs out of his priestly robes to show the boys he knew what they were doing and good naturedly told them they needed to stop.  Someone might get hurt. 

The gathering of the tribes went on for almost two hours.  And so that we couldn’t forget where we were, the small child sitting next to us was a little girl about four.  The right side of her body had been badly burned in some sort of terrible fire before she found her way to this safe haven: this home of love and caring.


Ireland comes to Bangkok

September 28, 2007

Friday night we were invited to attend a golf tournament fundraiser dinner for Mercy.  There is an Irish bar/restaurant, The Dubliner, in Bangkok, (actually it is located right down the street from our apartment) and the owner is a great supporter of Father Joe. The event is held once a year and begins in the morning with golf and ends in the evening with a rather raucous cocktail party, buffet dinner, and evening of entertainment. Besides many Irish supporters in the community, in attendance were expats from all over the world, including a table near us of Israelis that included a famous Jewish woman comedian!  Everyone is there for one reason.  The children.  An auction is held during the course of the evening with the proceeds going to Mercy.  And the evening highlight was our very own Mercy girls, in native costume, dancing their hearts out for the crowd.  Then they came and sat at our table (pictures to come) and ate themselves silly from the buffet food ~ main course plates piled high with food and ice cream bars in the other hand, as they ate!

You know you are in Thailand when your nose runs after you eat

September 26, 2007

One of the perks of volunteering at Mercy is we are invited to eat with the staff every day in the canteen at the orphanage.  I look forward to this not only for the food, but for the camaraderie that goes along with this daily ritual.  The cooks at the orphanage whip up great quantities of spicy, tongue-numbing, delectable Thai dishes. 

It is simple fare.  Meant to feed an army. But you know you are getting authentic Thai food, the dishes that grandma makes up in her kitchen at home.  There is always a large vat of white rice.  Then one or two main courses, such as coconut soup, bits of chicken swimming in broth, or sauteed vegetables of all sorts.  

Occasionally, the main course is too exotic for our taste – perhaps fried and flattened fish heads with the eyeballs still in – and that is when it gets interesting.  Michael and I hang our heads a bit and wander into the massive kitchen where we bleat out plaintively, “Eggs?”   The kind cooks nod and scramble up some eggs just for us, throwing in veggies here and there for good measure.

Dessert in Thailand is almost always fresh fruit.  At Mercy, it is a huge bowl (on a separate counter) of cutup fruit,  oftentimes unidentifiable to us, so I use this opportunity to learn a new Thai word by asking someone, “What is this?”   When Khun Sombat, who speaks perfect English, is in the canteen with us he takes it upon himself to work with us on Thai culture and food.  Yesterday I knew by the location of the large bowl that this substance was the dessert, but peering in the large bowl, it looked like lentil soup to me.  I was confused, so I asked Sombat, “Is this the dessert?”  He said yes, that it was in fact peas cooked up til they fell apart with just a little sugar added.  It was good!

Most everything here is fresh, and close to the ground food.  Michael and I always lose weight while here (another perk we love) and last time when I stayed for two months my cholesterol count went down by 40 points! 

We could learn something from the Thais…

First Day of Work

September 25, 2007

I could begin and end every post with one sad story and one happy story about Mercy. There are so many!

I may not keep up the tradition, but for today, here goes:

Sad story: Delightful twelve-year-old Note, born HIV+ looked gaunt this morning when he came to visit us, and when we asked Father Joe he told us that indeed Note had just been in the hospital for two weeks and had a bunch of blood pumped into him to keep him going. 

Note has been obsessed with Michael ever since they worked together in the woodshop creating a wooden box for Note to keep his things in.  Note is exceptionally bright and does his “own thing” around Mercy, so he didn’t exactly attend Mike’s woodshop class, but Mike couldn’t resist that smile and helped him build a box anyway.  Khun Sombat, who works in the office, came along and saw what was happening and asked Note what he was going to do for Mike in exchange.  Note told Sombat that he would paint us a picture and thus we ended up with an original Note painting that shows Michael handing Note his finished wooden box and me next to them in a yellow mini-skirt. (?!?)  Artist license.  Anyway, it hangs in a place of honor in our home.  And today, seeing Note for the first time in two years, we added a worry bead to our string…

Happy Story: Well, I guess this is more funny, than happy.  The older boys live in a building called Soi 40, which is a warehouse really, about a mile from the main orphanage compound.  The older girls used to live there, but they switched the boys and girls recently and now the girls are closer to home. (Boys and girls are separated for obvious reasons.)  Anyway, I asked our friend Tom how the switch was working and he said, fine, but there have been a few bumps in the road.  When I asked what, he told me the boys were feeling a little short of pocket money one day, so they carefully unscrewed all the wall fans in the place and took them out and sold them all.  Entrepreneurship at its finest! 

What are we doing?  Michael headed over to the woodshop, took an inventory of what was needed, and began to plan his projects for the next month.  The older boys at Mercy have requested a Saturday class in woodworking.  The Street Kids School wants their students to have classes too.  Father Joe wants two more Adirondack chairs and Usanee has requested a large table for the AIDS patients to use in the gardens. 

As for me, I am testing and then tutoring three eighth-grade girls, who hopefully will qualify for an accelerated English language school next year. 

In a few words, we are simply both so happy to be back that we find ourselves grinning from ear-to-ear all day long.

An emotional reunion

September 24, 2007

Michael and I arrived at Mercy this morning after an absence of almost two years.  I really didn’t know what to expect as it is a Thai Village, with all the clannishness of a tight community.  Everyone knows everyone else’s business.  And we are first and foremost, outsiders.

The Thais are a lovely people, but not demonstrative.   But this morning we hopped out of the taxi in front of Mercy and the head teacher from the street kids school happened to be crossing the street.  She spotted me first, let out a small cry, ran over to me, and breaking with long-standing Thai culture, wrapped her arms around me like she was never going to let go.  She is tiny, as most Thai women are, and I tower above her, but she and I have quite the history.  It was into her arms I flew the day of Nid’s funeral almost three years ago, when I nearly collapsed from the shock of his sudden death.  Thai people don’t cry in public, and everyone was staying away from me during the service when I was clearly becoming very publicly unglued.  That horrible morning, this same teacher came over and patted me as though comforting a small child.  She was Nid’s teacher and she loved him too. 

But back to the present. And what a day it was!   We walked through the Mercy compound, and staff member after staff member came up to say hello and wai [hands in prayer position at your chest] to us.  We were overcome by the warm greetings and one-by-one we renewed our Thai friendships. We met with Usanee, the executive director, and she eagerly gave us our work assignments for the month (a sure sign of being accepted). 

We walked through the AIDS ward and I know that my eyes will need to get used to once again seeing men and women reduced to bone and skin by that ravaging disease.

Before we left for the day, we walked through the kindergarten and there for the tenth year or more in a row,  sat Galong.  And If you don’t know WHO Galong is by now, read about him on the Web site:

Look under Articles/Current and read the story titled “A Ride on the Wild Side of Mercy” ~ it is worth it.

“Galong, Galong!”  I called to him through the open classroom door, ignoring the fact that school was in session and the teacher was talking.  He looked up and saw me and smiled and I blew him a kiss, and he blew one right back, and then he got back to the serious business of kindergarten. 

We have arrived~

September 23, 2007

We arrived in Bangkok after fifteen hours in the air and made our way to the taxi line at the airport.  We told the driver we wanted to go to Soi 22, but Michael and I both have a habit of saying “twelve” in Thai when we are trying to say “twenty-two,” they sound remarkably similar, and this made for some tense moments during the ride through the city.  The driver laughed aloud when we arrived at the Admiral Suites successfully.  I relished our early morning chuckle with the taxi driver and it reminded me once again that Thailand is called “The Land of the Smiles.”

We gobbled our first perfect plate of Phad Thai noodles, indulged in our first mind-blowing hour-long foot massage, and fell promptly into a deep sleep in our room.  Tomorrow (which is Monday here) we plan to go into the Mercy Centre. 

Returning to Mercy

September 9, 2007

We are about to return to the Mercy Centre in Bangkok, Thailand