Thursday, February 24, 2011

Meet the Haberstocks!

This has been the hardest entry I have written thus far. I have been putting it off for far too many days, because I was too intimidated to start on it. It's intimidating to attempt to put into words such a great experience. We packed so many wonderful things into just a few days. I don't think it's possible for words to do it justice. I don't want to leave any details out, but you'll be reading for hours if I did. So, grab a tea, a bowl of popcorn, some chocolate covered jujubes (what I wouldn't do for a bag of those right about now!!) ...and get comfortable.

Jonathan and I had the privilege of meeting the Haberstocks through your typical random travel connection method. My super-fun cousins, Carolyn and Rob, have a friend named Jill whom they met through their U2 connections. Jodie is Jill's sister and, through a series of events, phone calls, emails and messages, we were lucky enough to catch up with fellow Canadians, Jodie, Joel and their three wonderful children Caleb, Anica and Rebecca at their home in Prao, north of Chiang Mai, in Thailand. We were especially lucky as Joel's parents, Jeanette and Alymer, were also visiting from Saskatchewan so we had the added bonus of their company. It took a bit of organization on all of our parts, but we are so happy that everything worked out the way it did. Our time spent with the family has been some of the most memorable highlights of our trip thus far.

Prao is a small town. We knew this before we even got there, based on the number of bewildered people at the bus stop that were positive that we had it all wrong and were meaning to go to Prae, a popular tourist town in the opposite direction. They weren't too sure about us, but they let us board the bus anyways, with our take-out papaya salads in tow. The bus ride was a quick two hours. The ticket girl even let us use her cell phone to call our guest house so the proprietor could pick us up at the bus station. Our call ended up getting cut off so we weren't sure if we had relayed the message of our arrival to Pamela, the owner of Aomdoi Resort, where we were staying. The locals at the bus station were so friendly and helpful. A few people got out their cell phones for us to borrow, including the motorbike taxi guy who didn't even try to convince us that he should take us there on his own. This certainly wasn't a tourist town, and it was very refreshing!

The Haberstocks are an incredible family. They left their home in Vernon, British Columbia in search of a Family Adventure. That, they most certainly found. An adventure with a cause. On the property that the Haberstocks live on is First Wiang Phrao Church and Home of Grace boarding house where thirty seven children live, as well as the house that the Haberstocks currently reside in. When they arrived in August the family helped build the house that they are now staying in. When they leave, it will become the boys dormitory. The children who live at the boarding house are from the Lisu Tribe and most of their families live in the surrounding Hills. (Although not necessarily anywhere close by.) In the best case scenario, the children are sent to Home of Grace by their parents, so that they can live somewhere that makes attending school possible. Many of the Hill Tribe villages are so inaccessible and isolated that there would be no way for the kids to get an education. Unfortunately, other children live at Home of Grace because their families are abusive, drug addicts or prostitutes who can't care for the children. In some cases, the kids have been used to run drugs or have been physically and/or sexually abused by older, intoxicated, members of their home villages. Home of Grace is run by a generous, friendly, compassionate man named Satit and his wife, Ratna, who feed, clothe and love the children for the time they are there. Each child has a story and the Haberstocks have been working diligently to make an individual profile of each child, so that the child's details can be sent back to a prayer circle in Canada. The youngest child at the house is three years old, and she is as adorable as three year-olds come. Although not everyone is in agreement over the idea of boarding houses as an ideal solution, there is no doubt that Satit is doing the best in this very difficult situation. He is trying to give these children a chance, or at least a choice, to have a different life.

Jodie and Joel are more closely involved with the church. They run free English classes for the community and we had the privilege of being guests in a couple of these on our short visit. They also have three kids from Home of Grace over to their house every Friday night for dinner and games. The kids get to taste pasta, Jodie's homemade sauce, and yummy 'traditional' (as in cookies, brownies and crisps) desserts. Then they play cards, or board games or Wii and get to hang out with the family for the evening. It seems like a fantastic way for everyone to get to know each other and for the boarding house kids to have the opportunity to experience a loving, open, generous and fun, family, Canadian style! Plus, it sounds like fun for Caleb, Anica and Rebecca too!

We had arranged to meet up with the Haberstocks at Home of Grace where they live and volunteer. They run two free English classes. It happened to be the last class for their beginners and we were to be the 'guest farangs.' Joel met us outside. 'You look just like you do in the pictures!' He told us. 'See, its a good thing I didn't shave my beard or cut my hair,' Jonathan said to me. Sigh.

Joel mentioned that the students were pretty nervous when they found out that ourselves along with Jeanette and Alymer were coming to their class so that they could practice their English with us. When the course started, the adult students spoke no English whatsover, but now, merely weeks later, they were able to have simple and social conversations with us. We took our time and had individual conversations with the students. They asked us our names, where we lived, what sort of work we did, and questions about our families. It was great to have the opportunity to communicate with real people from the Prao communitiy. Joel and Jodie must have been so proud to see their students putting to use everything that they had learned. Learning to communicate is such an important, and possibly life changing lesson.

After class Jodie took us on a tour of the small town. We wandered through the very local-local market gawking at all the interesting treats, such as grilled frogs and pig ears. Yum! The girls pointed out their favourite 'everything' shop, because really, why would a shop limit themselves to selling just one thing, some restaurants and a nice park. We arrived back at their house just in time for dinner. Joel had picked up some yummy fried chicken while we were gone and had made some of his signature sticky rice to accompany it. It was so great to feel like we were part of a family again, as it had been so long since we have been with ours. We even learned a new grace to bring back home. The conversation was fantastic and it felt like everyone had something interesting to say. We could have talked for hours. I can't say enough about what a fantastic, open and inspirational family the Haberstocks are.

After dinner Joel and Jodie had to rush back over to the church for their second English class of the day, the intermediates. We followed shortly with Jeanette and Alymer as guest speakers. The students in the evening class spoke English quite well. With the students we all took turns introducing ourselves and then going into a little more personal detail. We asked each other questions and in the end, we all learned quite a bit about each other. Among many interesting facts, we learned that Jeanette and Alymer have been travelling throughout their retirement, mostly to visit their far-flung children living, at various times in Central and South America and now Thailand. You would never guess that the lively couple is in their 80s and 70s, respectively. They are absolutely amazing! If we are half as adventurous and healthy as they are when and if we are 80, we will truly be blessed. We also learned that Maly and Noi, two of the friendly Prao women in English class, love to dance and that we were welcome to come to their dance class the next night! Maly was particularly interested in 'snow' and how exactly it is that we Canadians go about living in it. How do we drive in it? Are there more accidents? How cold is it? How much snow is there now? Its funny that people are so interested in the things, that, when at home, we usually are trying to escape.

When the class was over there was yet another amazing surprise. The kids from Home of Grace were going to put on a performance for us! The girls filed in, all dressed in their beautiful velvet Lisu dresses, followed by the boys, who had just come for the entertainment. A few of the older girls even wore the silver belts and elaborate head dresses that are worth several hundred Canadian dollars. Active church members, Ahtit and his family, make the Lisu clothing and very generously donates a few of the exquisite belts to the boarding house every year. A woman would only get one of these belts in her life and it would be worn only for special occasions and her wedding. The younger girls performed first. They formed lines on the sanctuary/stage and performed a beautiful dance. Even the smallest members of Home of Grace participated, following the lead of the more experienced girls from the front row. They were adorable. Next up were the older girls. There were three of them, adorned with silver belts and head dresses. They danced gracefully to the soundtrack accompanied by the jingling of their bells. We felt very lucky to be there and honoured that the girls would go to such effort to perform for us and the Haberstocks. Jonathan had the opportunity to chat with Satit a bit after the dancing. As Kristen and I suspected, Satit (and folks like him who are committed to addressing a pressing need in their particular community) allocates resources according to what is needed most immediately and importantly to the children. That is, money is spent on food, the improvement of sanitation (plumbing, toilets and clean water aren't a given like they would be for us in the West) and if possible, trying to create a play area for the children. There simply isn't money to spend on advertising on the internet. Therefore, folks who want to help organizations like Home of Grace can't easily find them. You know there are needs out there and that organizations like Home of Grace is doing their part in addressing those needs, but they can't contact you and you can't find them. Satit said that if we know any friends or family back home who want to volunteer their skills and hobbies that he and Home of Grace would without hesitation open welcoming arms. We will post their contact information soon and hope that you look into the opportunity if you have even a little bit of an interest. As for us, Kristen and I hope to visit Home of Grace again for a longer period. You can still be involved without leaving home, too: Satit has asked that we pray for Home of Grace. We would like to extend Satit's request to you.

The next morning Joel called and said that there was a festival up in one of the hill tribes about thirty kilometres out of Prao. Plans are very fluid in Thailand. One minute you are enjoying breakfast on a terrace and the next you are bumping up along a steep, windy mountain road, past breathtaking scenery in the back of Ahtit's truck to a distant village celebrating the Lisu New Year. What a life. The kids and Jodie stayed back to get some school work done while Jonathan, Joel, Jeanette, Alymer and I hitched a ride up the mountain to the village. It was barely ten in the morning and the celebration was in full swing. Dozens of women were chop, chop, chopping up ingredients and stirring the most massive cauldrons of simmering lunch, men were taking welcome shots of locally made rice whisky and everyone else was dancing. It was the same dance we had come across when were were biking outside of Pai. In theory, I should have been an expert, but in reality my previous practice wasn't all that apparent. Again, we were the only westerners there and were welcomed almost immediately by being pulled up into the dance. Round and round we danced, to different instruments. Joel and Jonathan were experts by 11:00. When I took a seat for a well deserved break I was designated baby sitter of a cute little girl who steadily munched her way through a bag of corn-on-the-cob. I think it was cooked, but they were all still in their husks, so its hard to say. She watched as her mother, who had the craziest gnarled toes I have ever seen (not that they impeded her dancing in the slightest) glide away to dance, her eyes widening as she realized that she was being abandoned, and then turned to me and stared with more than a little apprehension. My little corn chewing charge was too adorable not to photograph. I took a few pictures as she continued to give me the stone stare, and showed them to her. She immediately transformed into a sullen sulker to an exuberant, excitable subject. She would smile and wait a couple half seconds for me to click and then she would demand to see the camera and laugh and laugh. Soon, being my subject wasn't enough. She wanted to be the photographer. I tried desperately to hold onto the strap as she swung the camera around. She aimed and clicked and clicked and clicked. There was significantly more clicking than aiming. Either that, or she was just really interested in people's footwear. Then she got the idea of self portraits and delved into that for a bit. It was all going swimmingly until other curious kids came by to see what all the fuss was about. Then she got jealous. If I even aimed the camera at anyone else she would pull out her cutest smile and stick her face in front of the lens (Wally and Penny: does this sound like any little girl that you've known?). She was hilarious. Overall, it was an overwhelmingly authentic experience that we feel very, very lucky to have been a part of, thanks to Joel and the in-the-know Prao community. When we were all tuckered from dancing we took a songtheaw back to Prao to relax a bit before our big dance lesson that evening.

It was Friday so the Haberstocks were having three of the boys (from Home of Grace) over for dinner and games that night. Jodie was making homemade tomato sauce and I asked if there was anything I could do to help. 'Not really, we were just going to make some cookies,' she said nonchalantly. COOKIES? COOKIES!! I was so excited!! In hindsight, I maybe should have contained my excitement a little more, seeing as we had just met the Haberstocks and I didn't want to frighten them with my crazy cookie cookiness just yet. But they were making cookies!! I absolutely love baking and haven't been able to bake anything since we left Vancouver more than four months ago. I don't know why baking is so overly exciting to me. Maybe it's the process, maybe its the familiarity, the coziness. Likely its the cookie dough. To my absolute delight Jodie even suggested we make my favourite chocolate chip cookies with the Tollhouse recipe! Jeanette and Alymer (bless their souls) had just brought Canadian survival provisions (aka a Costco-size bag of chocolate chips) to replenish the supply. It was very fun. Anica, Rebecca and I made the cookie dough, being sure to taste it for quality at each step, while Jodie and I chatted about life in Thailand and Canada and everything in between. It was everything cookie making is supposed to be and more! And, of course, the finished product was pretty darn tasty in itself.

In a flash it felt like it was time for Jonathan, Jeanette, Alymer and I to scoot off to our Thai dancing lesson. Joel walked us over to a building behind the hospital where we met with a second Noi, who was the dance instructor, Maly and Noi from the English class, and a bunch of other Prao women who were keen to practice their moves. Noi, the instructor, was 59 going on 30. She was petite and agile, a fantastic dancer and patient teacher. We learned to waltz, chacha, ballroom dance, and then lastly, a traditional Thai dance. To learn the Thai dance, we followed Noi in a circle swinging our arms back and forth and trying our best to imitate the awkward, but graceful movements that the Thai women were performing so effortlessly. They made it look so easy, and were very encouraging as we twisted our wrists around in vain. Whether we can actually dance or not remains to be voted on (there's no need to place your ballot yet), but either way, we certainly had a lot of fun trying! It was an amazing experience to be welcomed so warmly and take part in something that regular, fun loving Thai people are doing in their day to day lives. Again, we felt so lucky to be temporary members of this fantastic Prao community. I know the Haberstocks are going to find it hard to leave these wonderful people.

Since the Haberstocks weren't sick of us just yet, we all journeyed together to Chiang Rai, via a longtail boat from ThaTong. It was pretty entertaining as the nine of us piled into the songtheaw headed to ThaTong, taking up the majority of the space on the benches. There are too many highlights to discuss in detail, but we enjoyed the novelty of hoisting a motorbike onto the songtheaw's roof, the gorgeous scenery, the leftover cookies and, above all, the company. The boat ride up the river was fantastic, and we had a great time in Chiang Rai sampling all the market food together, attending Church in Thai and playing a very fun new card game while the night market buzzed around us. By the end of the five days Jonathan and I felt like we had known Joel, Jodie, Caleb, Anica and Rebecca our whole lives. Home of Grace and First Wiang Phrao Church is so lucky to have such a dedicated, open, friendly and welcoming family. If more families treated each other with the same amount of love, respect and encouragement as the Haberstocks do, it would go a long way in making the world a better place. We can't imagine our time in Thailand with out them and we truly hope that our paths will cross again. Thank you, Thank you so much Haberstocks! Korp Kun Ka!

If you are interested in following the Haberstocks, you can find their blog at:

ps. For most posts from now on, we will also add some more photos to our Flickr account to accompany it.


Karly said...

That is so cool what you are doing guys!! Sounds like you had a amazing time there! I can just picture Kristens face for cookies!! Lol you guys are doing amazing things. I love you so much! Miss you xoxox

Anonymous said...

Did you use the ancient chineese secret for the cookies?

Twila (nee Haberstock) said...

awww! That was nice to read! Those adventures sounded aunthentically "Haberstock"! How fun you got to adventure with them! All the best in the rest of your travels!