Thursday, December 19, 2013

Children Being ...

A Laughing Lao

One of the simple pleasures that Duang and I enjoy here in Isaan is observing the many small children that we encounter in the villages.

As soon as they are born, babies spend a great deal of time outside.  If they are not being held by their mother, grandmother or even great grandmother, babies are being rocked in hammocks suspended from the log columns of the thatched roofed elevated platforms that just about every home has in their front yard close to the narrow street.

Just about every passerby stops by to spend some time gossiping, eating, drinking and of course paying attention to the babies.  School children hustling along the village streets on their way home from school, stop by to play with the babies.  Babies develop surrounded by people of all ages.  Babies develop surrounded by the sights and sounds of an extended  family as well as community.

Once the babies are able to walk, their social circle widens greatly.  The toddlers are left to their own devices and although watched over by elders and perhaps older siblings, they are free to roam about the yard.  It is at this time that they start spending their time outdoors making friends and learning to play with cousins and neighbors.  If other children of their age are not available, there are always village dogs and chickens to occupy their attention.

By the time a child is two to three years old they are fairly well independent.  The entire village is their play yard.  They spend the daylight hours outside playing in the dirt, playing with bicycles, playing with rocks and sticks.  Puddles and mud are especially attractive to these toddlers.  You will come upon small groups of these children throughout the village - groups of focused, determined, confident, and vocal little people.

Khmu Children Interrupt Their Play to Watch the Visiting Foreigners

Our visits to Lao Peoples Democratic Republic are no exception - throughout Laos we find many groups of children playing and starting out on their life journeys.  On our last trip to the villages outside of Luang Prabang, Duang remarked at least twice that there were "many students (children) in the village, not have good, TV too much boom boom"  I suspect that the lack of quality television as well as the long and cold nights in the dry season does contribute to the large number of children.  Another factor is the demographics of the populations.  Thailand and Laos, as well as all of the other ASEAN countries are much younger populations than the USA.

Lao Children Huddle Over A Charcoal Fire at the Village Store
In the Lao Loum village of Xiang Muak or Ban Xiang Muark or Ban Xiang -Nouak (just as in Thailand the spelling of the native language villages and streets can vary and is subject to a great deal of interpretations), we encountered a small mixed group of heavily dressed children huddled around a small charcoal fire on the porch of the local market.  The children were bundled up and huddled around to escape the cold of the highland morning.  The children were as interested in us as we were in them.  We engaged in small talk with them for quite a while. The nine year old girl, the most outwardly member of the group, pulled a tuber out of the ashes of their fire, peeled it and gave it to me to eat.  It was a taro root and tasted similar to a sweet potato.  It is always rewarding for us to be able to bring some of the outside world to people especially children.  It does not escape us that as much as we are learning about the lives of the local people we are also teaching them about our life - a situation that we take very seriously.

Big Brother Watches Over His Little Brother
In another village we encountered two young brothers waiting as their young mother prepared food on the thatched roofed porch of their woven bamboo home.

AYoung Mother Prepares Food For Her Family
The home was a very humble abode - woven bamboo walls which allowed plenty of drafts in the home, a corrugated metal roof with an attached covered platform for preparing food and taking care of babies. As their mother cooked food over a charcoal stove, a gallon sized cement lined vessel, the baby played in his hand made crib suspended from the beams of the patio while his older brother divided his attention between his younger brother and his nearby mother.  I approached the home to speak with the children and to take some photographs.  Rather than being suspicious and perhaps apprehensive over a stranger approaching her home, the young mother was very welcoming.  This is a typical reaction here in southeast Asia, the people are extremely friendly and hospitable.  There are some hill tribes that are shy about being photographed so it is best, and always polite to ask permission first.

The children and their mother were dressed in heavy clothing to ward off the chill of the highland morning.  I suspect that the temperature was around 18C (65F) and the morning fog had just burned off.  Sixty-five degrees may seem a heat wave for early December in may Northern climes but hypothermia can be caused in elderly and babies overnight in a 60F house.  Drafts and moisture increase the risk of hypothermia.  In Thailand the government donates thousands of blankets every year that are distributed by the Royal Thai Army in the highlands to assist the people to survive the cold season.

Visiting and talking with the young mother brought back memories for Duang when she was a young child living in a woven bamboo house without much food.  Upon leaving the family, Duang gave some money to the mother.  I have always been impressed with Duang's compassion and her generosity continues.

Young Boy "Helps" His Father Make A Knife
In another part of the village we spent quite a bit of time with some knife makers.  The situation developed that one of the knife makers ended up making a knife specifically for Duang.  It was a great opportunity for me to photograph the entire process of producing a knife from recycled leaf springs of motor vehicles.  I had photographed knife making in the Luang Prabang area three years earlier and in the Luang Namtha area.  However just as in visiting the same location more than once, photographing the process a third time allowed me to recognize the nuances and different details missed previously.  At this stop, I was entertained by the knife maker's son who hovered over his father and even interfered a couple times with his father's work.

The boy seemed to be torn between the curiosity about a strange man visiting his family's business and a naturally reservation about something completely foreign to him.  Standing by and over his father seemed to meet his needs - to learn and observe the foreigner up close but still be within the safety zone afforded by his father.

Khmu Boys
In a Khmu village we found a man busy making bird snares.  We saw children at play throughout the village.  Our presence in the village interrupted the play of some of the children.  Shortly after we arrived and set up taking photographs several little boys joined us.

Although they interrupted their play, one boy continued to chew on a piece of freshly cut sugar cane.  One of his friends was completely oblivious to the fact that he was completely naked from the waist down.  When I asked him where his pants were, he just smiled and laughed with no sign of embarrassment or care - just happy and content with his situation.

Two of the boys had been playing by rolling a motorcycle tire around the village much like I had read about children playing with hoops in the earlier days of America,  The tire that the boys were playing with did not have a rim or wheel.  No problem.  The villagers had bamboo.  You can do just about anything with bamboo - eat it, build scaffolding with it, make a raft with it, build furniture out of it, cook in it, build shelter with it, create lacquer ware with it, support bean plants with it, make ladders out of it, make bird snares out of it, make rat snares out of it and now I saw how it can be used to make a wheel.  The wheel could never be used on a bicycle, motorcycle, car , tuk-tuk or truck but the wheel was fit for the purpose of allowing a tire to be rolled around using a short piece of bamboo.

Pieces of bamboo had been cut to fit inside of the rubber tire and woven together to keep the tire round or at least round enough to roll along the dirt paths and dirt roads of the village.  Once again fit for purpose and the ingenuity of local peoples made the most of what was available to them.  I suspect that these children have never been and will never will be bored.  Imagination and practicality go far in meeting any one's needs.

Khmu Village Boys Playing Petanque
Village children in Southeast Asia are free.  They are, by and large, free to play amongst themselves without adult interference.  There are no organized and adult supervised youth soccer teams, no Little League Baseball Teams, no cheer leading teams, no CYO basketball leagues, no swim clubs, or even youth bowling leagues.  The children are free to pick their sports, their teams, officiate their own competitions.  There are no adults imposing their will and choices upon the children.  Most importantly there no adults interfering with the disputes that arise from competition as well as all the childhood issues that cause disputes.  The children have the freedom to resolve their own disputes.  They have the opportunities to learn the arts of negotiation and skills of compromise on their own and at their own pace.  They are empowered rather than coddled. At an early age they learn to solve their own problems.

What Some Children Have to Do To Go Outside to Play

I was first introduced to the French game of petanque when I lived in Algeria.  Just as Algeria, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic (LPDR) was a French colony.  The French, besides bringing French cooking and French pastry to their colonies, they also introduced petanque.  Thailand, previously known as Siam, was never colonized by European powers.  However here in Isaan, people do play petanque undoubtedly another cultural connection to their Lao Loum cousins across the Mekong River in the LPDR.

Petanque is a team competition were a small ball is tossed down a a rectangular court usually compacted earth or sand but sometimes, especially in the case with children, a strip of ground as it exists.  Teams then take turns tossing heavy metal balls towards the small ball at the other end of the court.  The object is to get closest to the small ball.  You have a choice to make when you toss your ball down the court. You can flat out try to get your ball closest to the small ball or you can attempt to knock your opponent's ball away from the small ball so that one of your team's balls becomes closest. One point is earned for each completed round.  The match ends after 10 minutes with the winning team being the one with the most points.  In the case of children without watches they just play until they get bored.

In the adjacent village, a Hmong village, we discovered some children, boys and girls, playing what appeared to be a game of war.  A game with picking up logs, throwing them, running to them to throw them again all the while yelling.

Hmong Boys Playing Spinning Tops

Further into the village we found our third group of the day playing with spinning tops. Tujlub is a game where a heavy wood top is set to spinning people then take turns tossing their spinning tops trying to knock out the original top and cease its spinning.  Often children play a variation where they just toss their spinning top at the center of a circle and watch the collisions.

The top are home made carved solid pieces of heavy wood.  The free end of plastic strapping is wrapped around the top.  The other end of the plastic strapping is tied to the end of a stick.  The top is tossed out and as it flies through the air the stick is jerked in the opposite direction to impart a spin to the top.  I tried it once an failed miserably much to the amusement of the onlooking children.

Letting the top fly and spin
As we sat in the back of our hired tuk-tuk bouncing along the dirt road on our way back to Lunag Prabang, we were both very pleased to have witnessed so many children ... so many children being children.  These were confident and independent children preparing for their adult lives.

The greatest gift that parents can give their children can not be purchased.  The gift is not shielding them from the challenges of life or the realities of life. The gift is to empower their children to be confident, to allow them to make mistakes, to allow them to solve their own problems ... to let them be children.

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