Have Dad, Will Travel
After Arkansas Governor’s School and before summer band practice, how about a trip to Laos?
Delaney Farris, a busy senior at Alma High School, was on board for yet another adventure with her world-traveling father, Greer. This is the second time the magazine has followed the journey of dad and daughter – they appeared on the cover three years ago when Greer took Delaney to Ireland to an Irish music school, where she took lessons on the pennywhistle.
This summer’s trip to Asia, however, was a daughter-and-dad trip. Delaney was invited by their cousin and his wife to teach at a summer school for primary-aged children in Laos, their home for more than a decade.
Their cousin S–– (we agreed to keep his name unsearchable on the internet as he travels between borders frequently and a Google hit of his name can cause delays) builds and supervises schools supported by Church World Service, a global Christian interdenominational mission. Xuyen (pronounced “Swin”), his wife, is a social worker who asked Delaney to participate at Donkoi Childrens Development Center at Vientiane, Laos, the capital city.
At the summer school of about 70 children, Delaney had the opportunity for about 10 days to teach English and be taught a bit of Lao language, lead a group art project and participate with the Laotion students in Lao classical dance and theater, cooking, textile-weaving and traditional games.
Delaney is in the midst of college applications and besides the excitement of travel, hopes to burnish her personal resumé so she will stand out in the competition for school admission and scholarship opportunities.
The first challenge was simply to get there, Delaney said. “We were traveling 37 hours – more than 19 hours on the plane – and through a 12-hour time change.”
The departing flight from Arkansas to Chicago was delayed, putting them in peril of missing their international flight. Greer, who is irrepressably friendly, struck up a conversation in-flight with a resourceful and experienced traveler who kindly led them at dead run through O’Hare airport.
“I don’t know if he was an undercover air marshal or an airline employee,” Greer said. “But who cares? He made a phone call and it looked like they held the plane for us!”
They transferred in South Korea to a flight to Bangkok, Thailand where S–– met them for a short rest and tour of the city before continuing to Vientiane. S–– became a bit concerned about Delaney’s passport. Although it was valid for six more months, Laos requires that an entering foreignor’s passport be good for a year, a rule Greer had not known when he planned the trip.
They strategized to fly to the Thai border and cross on land, sending Delaney through customs first. “Our taxi driver said ‘Bo Pen Nhang,’ (no problem),” Delaney said. It was the first time she heard the unofficial but common motto of the relaxed and hospitable Lao people. “I was nervous anyway!”
They were in luck. At the customs checkpoint, the electrical power was out. The officials were sweaty and unsmiling, but all three sailed through and continued to S––’s home, only 20 miles away, where they were met with a celebratory spring roll dinner.
Xuyen took charge of Delaney immediately, providing her with a wardrobe of the beautiful hand-woven wrap skirts worn by Lao women. In short order, she found herself at Donkoi school, meeting not only the gracious and friendly little Lao students but four other teen-aged volunteers who turned out to be three British boys and a girl from New Jersey. The efficient Xuyen set them to work right away painting a mural of “The Secret Garden.”
Delaney discovered on her own how to buy lunch from street vendors and, after waiting hours for a ride home, how to hire a scooter taxi to take her home after school.
“Even the little children spoke English,” she discovered. “I was sent to teach the four-to-six year old kids to count, and they could count to 100! They were just shy.”
She also learned a few cross-cultural surprises from Jack, Julian and Edward, the Brit boys. “Tic-tac-toe, to them, is ‘naughts and crosses.’”
Students began weaving a scarves as gifts for Delaney and expressed their friendliness with countless small works of beauty, she said. Every plate of food was a composition of bright color. She got to learn intricate leaf-folding for a closing celebration. The visitors also did their best to act in a traditional folk play.
The ten days of school flew by. The last portion of the trip was for touring ancient Buddhist temples and a boat trip on the Mekong River. Delaney found herself sad to depart her sweet and friendly students and fellow volunteers.
“I felt like I should show up the next morning,” she said of their going-away party. “It was strange to say goodbye. But they never say goodbye, they say good luck.”
Delaney stayed awake through their return flights, jet-lagging in the reverse direction. The day after she returned, she was at Alma High School band practice.
Her dad doesn’t know if this will be their last epic travel adventure together, as Delaney leaves for college next year. But after this trip, he saw she’ll have no trouble trying it on her own.