Seuang River Committee Meeting
The impacts of tourists coming to the Seuang River Valley region are carefully watched. The Seuang River Committee is a group of village leaders and members from all the villages in the Seuang River. They have a village fund where roughly 10 0oo kip (USD$1.25) per tourist, per day is deposited. The funds collected are used to improve things such as village commons, electricity, water, plants and general maintenance. The committee has to wait until enough money has been accumulated and then every three months a meeting is held to decide on the next project. Projects are decided on a needs basis – what is most necessary and what the village feels happy to spend the money on. Once a project is decided on, one village member is put in charge of the project to ensure smooth sailing.
Asides from projects, the village fund can be used for a particular person or family who needs help but doesn’t have the funds – for example, someone needing to go to the hospital or get emergency medicine. This person or family can take out an interest-free loan and gradually repay the money back into the fund. These loans can also be used to buy a cow or buffalo, which is then passed around from family to family (particularly if one family has a baby, needs milk, the child grows, then another family has a baby, etc.). This is particularly helpful for families which otherwise would not be able to afford a cow, considering cows cost between 3-7 million kip (USD$375-875 – roughly the same price as cows in Australia).
In this way, a cow is one of the most important assets for a family. Succinctly put by our tour manager Graham, no animal = no income. Families with cows send their kids to school. Cows equal money in the bank. A cow, more than anything, is a liquid asset (in more ways than one, forgive the pun – the ability to sell milk and the ability to sell the animal).
Leaving Ban Na Pho – 26 June 2013
Taken straight from my journal:
This morning we farewelled the villages of Ban Na Pho. After breakfast they placed a small flower-animist shrine in the middle of the floor, laden with boiled eggs and packets of chips (it would traditionally be fruit – bananas, etc.). We sat in a circle around it and placed one hand on the shrine. The head man and woman of the village did likewise and all the villagers started chanting. It got quite loud – a mix of song and chant, weaving in and out of our bodies. After this, they handed out the food gifts to us – one egg, two packets of chips. If we had not just eaten breakfast moments before, we would have been expected to eat some of the gifts right then and there. Lucky they were forgiving, eating a boiled egg was not top on my list of priorities at the time.
Then came the frantic action and movement of strings of white, unprocessed cotton tired to our wrists, one by one, by each member of the village present. There were some 20-30 strands in total per person. The cotton was to give us strength and wish us luck on the rest of our journey. They do a similar ritual for their young people before they go off for school for the first time or before they sit their exams. When I was leaving, I felt this hot, burning and tingling under the cotton around my wrists. It was as if all the energy had converged to this location. It felt healing, calming, and strengthening.
It was all very moving and emotionally overwhelming. I can only imagine how silly and ignorant and presumptuous we would have seemed to them, yet they were so kind and I do hope they saw as not just as intruding tourists, tracking mud through their homes and through their lives. I think, hope, it was mutually beneficial for us both.
Our Activities… Mutually beneficial, or not?
As our tour manager Graham said, Buffalo Tours and the volunteering they offer is a ‘win, win, win’ opportunity. Buffalo Tours makes a profit, us students get a valuable learning and travel experience, and the villagers get more money and donations (I am still a little questioning on the ‘win’ of this last point…). To be honest though, I think that the most benefit anyone is receiving is the benefit that we, as students, get. We get = the opportunity to travel, a 10 credit point course that goes towards our degree, the ability to explore and be a tourist, and, in the end, we get to come home to our cushy beds and cushy lives.
What we give, summarised, is – 10 000 kip (USD$1.25) per person, per night, deposited in the village fund, some physical donations, some business by the way of souvenirs, and some money. Intangible ‘gifts’ include our insights, knowledge, thoughts, and ideas.
So, this is my question: is what we give the same thing as what they get? Do they just get our money, our business, our donations and our ideas? Or is this too simplistic? How can we know if we are doing or have done the right thing?
Ultimately, I will take solace in the hope that we helped and can help again!