My homestay father aptly described Don Donh my first night here: this island is quiet, yet noisy.
Readjusting our schedules to both Lao and island time has meant accepting that a full day consists of long walks, longer naps, and relaxed swims. Bedtime comes before nine and being awake for the sunrise is not unheard of, nor is sleeping for nine, ten, eleven hours each night. And this unhurried routine is punctuated with clicks & coo’s of birds, rooster raves, television sets blaring Thai-dubbed Hollywood Blockbusters, dog ears flapping, tractor engines chugging, cooking oil bubbling, brooms pushing leaves, laughter/crying/shouts/hellos from the youth. If you are in the fields there are the sounds of the end of harvest season: threshers, the rustle and hustle of stacking rice stalks, music coming from battery-operated radios. Quiet, yet noisy.
Estimates of when Don Donh’s first inhabitants arrived come in between 140 and 160 years ago. Whatever the actual year, it was long enough that levels of generations have been born, lived, and died here. Now over a hundred households speckle themselves along the edge of the rice fields and between the tamarind, banana, and palm trees. But around the turn of the 20th century when seven families showed up to this landmass that bisects the Mekong, what met them was unmanged jungle and buffalo, wild and reactive to these strangers. Along with hopes for settlement and creating community, those original settlers also brought Catholicism, making Don Donh Laos’ first Catholic community.
The church is the center point of the island and town. If you turn left or right out of the church doors, it will take you through the north arch or through the south arch, both along the ‘main street,’ a concrete road that runs fairly flat and straight for two-ish kilometers. There aren’t major differences between the north and south villages; both filled with homes and small shops, potted plants and chickens running around. The north village has a volleyball court. The south village has a shop with hammocks. We frequent both these locations daily. After the clustered houses end, so too ends the pavement, transitioning into a dirt track, which weaves itself through fields half harvested, jungles thick with obscured insects and reptiles, and staked cows and buffalo. Every path eventually brings you to the Mekong.
At church on Sunday the priest remarked that Don Donh was a place of slow, continuous improvements. Just this weekend each home sent one person from their family to go work on the road across the river. It is the lifeline to the mainland, and is rutted and cracked from a rainy season that dried itself into naturally occuring forms helped along by motorbikes and feet. Shovels and spades now pull and push the dirt into smoother lines, which will ease travel, for now.
Each of us are living with our own families. Being in rooms to ourselves and immersed in the daily rhythms of family time has resulted in finding routine and remembering what we love and value (and miss) about our own families. Cooking meals, watching after younger siblings, cleaning the house, and washing dishes has helped take the bite off homesickness, notice similarities and differences between our own cultures and Lao cultures, and find meaning in the day-to-day. Island exploration has also been a major focus; finding the best places in the shade to hang hammocks up for midday naps, digging seats in the sand along the river banks, walking along long stretches of quiet paths to connect feet and breath with land and air. Students are learning and studying hard: Olivia is learning how to play a traditional three-string Lao instrument from a home-stay sibling; there is an almost daily book exchange between all students on topics like history, economics, psychology, and art; Annika is gaining conversational fluency of the Lao language while connecting with all the neighborhood youth; Nick, Wes, Will, Joya, Nellie, Brit, and Mikey are among the core crew playing volleyball under the lights each night. X-Phase plans for Cambodia are coming together, despite lack of internet access. Between movements and stillness, eating and cooking, singing and sleeping, reading and writing, the days pass quickly.
The rhythm of Don Donh has a predictability that has felt soothing. One of the hottest times of the day is also the calmest. After the midday meal, the body gives way to rest, and a quiet descends upon the town. Children have come back from the primary school to eat and rest, and even the dogs and chickens and songbirds and buffalo know that to expend energy would disrupt the spell. And for an hour, the village is peaceful in its slumber and silence. Windy breezes and fanning fans help evaporate the sweat on our brows, and our minds, too, are calmer. And then slowly the birds begin to seek food and children mount their bikes to return for afternoon lessons and noise returns to the quiet island.