Name : Michael Breen
Age : 78 years old
From : Australia
Period : February 2014, 2 weeks
Email : michaelbreen9@gmail.com

Rescuing from poverty and ignorance and rescuing volunteers.

Michael with the whole family

As many of the best meetings in life happen by accident, I met Neville by accident on the side of the road at the Chaing Mai Flower Festival. He was brimming with his recent experiences as a volunteer at Isan Survivor. By the end of the conversation I decided to check out their website and within a week I had arrived. With some misgivings about age, health, heat, lack of creature comforts and commitment I cannot say I was all eagerness, more wary and tired from a long bus trip when Jack met me with his generous smile and a lift to Ban Thin Dung his village and the home of Isan Survivor.


The Place.

At first I was captivated by the rice growing nearby and knowing that this was the rice we were eating. The bougainvillea, the coconut trees, the pond with waterlilies and the air of simplicity had me thinking that this was for me a place for catching my breath and living more healthily. It was. Isan has the reputation of having the most beautiful, and the least talkative women in Thailand. It is not a prosperous province. Compared with Bangkok its relaxed culture is often looked on as slow, even lazy. But when you live for the day, do not worry about tomorrow or angst over yesterday why sweat? Isan is also noted for its special dishes, many of which are from the Mekong River which snakes its way beside the province and forms a border with Laos. It was once part of Laos and as such has some vestiges of French influence. The people are naturals at living a sustainable life. Houses with the addition of an extra table downstairs, most houses have two stories, can become a simple shop. Minute bits of bare soil are turned into vegetable, fruit or herb gardens and the excess produce is then traded. There are local markets of different kinds usually food or food, clothing and household goods. On Saturdays people from Laos cross the river and set up very reasonably priced items at a large market on the banks of the Mekong. And oh the fruit! Isan has a large number of varieties of trees. Many of these like the tamarind, papaya, mango and jackfruit pop up around villages along with things like the rose apple so that it is not unusual to be walking along and an Isan person will reach up and grab an edible fresh fruit snack. Sticky rice is plentiful and along with steamed or fried rice is the base of meals.

Dinner at Grandfather

The people

Jack and his wife the gracious Patricia run the organization with the support of Jack’s parents, especially his mother Boonsom. Isan Survivor is a homestay not for profit. I didn’t realize how much richer the experience of living with a family was rather than mingling with the locals while housed in rented quarters. Every day has been a rich experience of living and learning about Isan life. Jack has a large extended family; his father is one of ten. So I have had wonderful times with relatives as well as the basic family. Further, Jack and his family are known and respected throughout the village and surrounds. Were I to get lost I was told to say I was from Ban Jack (Jack’s house) and I would get directions. As Thai people seem to shop almost every day and per meal I went to several small and large shops with the family. Added to that Jack has renovated an aged tuk tuk, which locals hail, and passengers feel entitled to give regal waves in response to, “Hello”.


The Work

Teaching to my way of thinking is being able to listen to students and sit in their seats to see what the world looks like from their point of view. Oh yes I had taught English, studied it at the university, taught teachers and run many communication courses. But nothing can lessen the vulnerability of facing a new class. You just have to be there, abandon the theory and get on with the students. As often happens the group I was scheduled to meet did not materialize. Instead I had a group of students too poor to go to school, but knowing that English is a passport and capital for a better life. Students do not nor can they always attend classes. Their family may need them to help at home. But their delight at mastering an English sound or phrase is fewarding. Small steps, small steps. Is not being a Thai speaker a disadvantage? Of course. Is it a major barrier? No. Amazingly if you are using the direct method it is not essential to speak the students’ language. Further if he students can each you things about their language that gives them some status and you some first hand learning. One slight drawback is that students do not have sufficient cultural permissions nor English to provide a lot of feedback, feedback which is always reassuring or guiding for further work.


Would I do it again?

If you asked me that some days ago I would have probably politely said. “No”. I would have argued age, inconvenience, the heat, the privations, but as time went on indescribable other forces strengthened. So would I? With such a well structured way of helping in some small way deserving children and adults to improve their lives, with the prevalence of crippling ignorance especially for the women, I would make the effort to work here at Isan Survivor, and I hope to do so: not just for the sake of the students.