This is the fourth time I’ve visited this remote school. Getting there’s not easy. Now in the rainy season, the roads become deep trenches of mud. At the same time, the rain helps the forest flourish into hues of emerald and jade. Other than a few electricity lines, the village is pristine enough to attract tourists on treks. Visitors love the remoteness and probably go home with the revelation that, “Children are so poor but so happy.”
We cross the last pass and reach the village just as a curtain of rain rolls down the mountainside. With no wifi or phone signals there is an astonishing peace. This village will only become more attractive as plugged in people seek ways to detox from online overload. I’ve heard that a new trend in boutique hotels is to offer units with thick walls that make signals impenetrable.
The food is always good here and we manage to get it all cooked without MSG. We have fresh bitter bamboo, free-range chicken, local greens and I assume everything else that comes from the surrounding earth and water. For the first time, many people at the table seem to be convinced that food can taste good without spoonfuls of MSG.
The children, however, come in a steady stream to buy junk food at a little stall. I see one pudgy boy come three times in an hour as if he’s addicted to vending machines and convenience stores before knowing what they are. They must be hungry, or they’re just not interested in fresh mountain vegetables anymore. The trail of candy wrappers leave littered evidence of Hansels and Gretels who will never find their way home again.
The children look healthy, but they’re not. Many suffer from skin rashes and boils. Someone explains matter-of-factly that it’s from the herbicides that they’re using on the fields. They know how strong it is. One person told me the wrong dose killed all the teak, corn and bamboo on his land. Still, it makes farming easier and it’s not the only thing that’s damaging their health anyway.
I ask who is smoking all the fresh tobacco in plastic bags being sold at a stall. If they’re rolled, they’re no filters. I’m told that many of the smokers are young boys who start as early as 11 or 12. That’s about the same age that some start drinking hard alcohol. The vendor laughs and admits that kids can’t consume unless someone sells, but also admits she’s not going to be the first one to stop.
Girls don’t smoke, but some get married off at 13. One used to be our student. She sat with the other girls who were intent on studying. It’s taken for granted that her education stops now. We hear of another very young girl who had twins that died in childbirth.
We’re talking about all this while filling tobacco bags and watching TV. The program is a typical Thai drama in which women are screaming in jealous brawls or being attacked and abused. I just can’t help but comment in a way that spoils the party. “Nothing remotely good goes into these children.” Their daily dose of sugar, MSG, agricultural chemicals, tobacco, alcohol and misogynist TV is not helping them to learn many things useful in life. We’re sobered by the thought of how desperate it is to make education the one good thing that goes in.