The SongKran festival is long passed, but let me tell you about it. We have been told that SongKran is the Thai New Year. It is a time of year for renewal and forgiveness. This year it seemed to come at the height of summer and the pinnacle of a drought, but that did not hamper the activities in the area we live in.

We returned from traveling (Vietnam and Cambodia), met my brother Jason, and did the one-day tour of everything in Bangkok. Next, we hopped on the overnight train and headed home. We were happy to be back, but there was no time for relaxation. We had an altered week due to the holiday festivities, and a long-passed communication mishap meant we missed the celebration with the patients. We arrived in NongKhai Monday morning and were ready for work.

On Tuesday, there was a SongKran festival with the Hands of Hope team at what we call “the farm” - where agriculture training, pottery making, and seminars sometimes take place. We had no idea what to expect. And there they were, Jason and Susan called up to the front of the group to take part in some type of Thai-tongue twister game. Jason was able to figure out the pattern and do well repeating the words - sans meaning - in the correct order. There was a lot of laughter as people sidled up to the giant for photos.

Next, everyone lined up as the Sisters, Antonia, and staff at the farm sat down at a long table. After filling decorative bowls with water and flowers, we proceeded down the line. We poured our water into the hands of the seated individual, and they placed that handful onto our shoulders with a blessing. People kindly blessed each other as well. It was a heart-warming activity that felt filled with the intended sense of renewal. After the formal blessings - it seemed all societal rules went out the window. Kids launching buckets of water at anyone and everyone, regardless of age or expected level of deference. Sister Pranee wielding the hose until there were no victims within firing distance.

Did I mention the festival is 3 days long? Well it didn’t even officially begin until Thursday.

Susan, Jason, and I rode our bikes to the Convent on Thursday and met the patients and staff to watch the parade. Everyone was smiling and having fun, filling bellies with meat, sticky rice, and papaya salad while we waited for the parade to start. The day was already warm, and we went in to visit with Sister Mary. After a little while, Sister Pranee came to get me because one of the patients was “having a fit.” When I came out she was unresponsive, but had a pulse. The ambulance came and took her away - everyone was upset. A few people went with her, and then came back.

I don’t remember a weekend filled with feelings of such profound sadness and joy. As our friend was in the hospital with a couple members of the community by her side and her body clinging to the final hours of life - we simultaneously held the sadness of her situation and the joy of the holiday. We were again reminded of how fragile and temporary life is, but willing ourselves to enjoy the festival and each others' company. Before the parade started, our group was on the sidewalk next to giant drums filled with water and flowers. A pickup truck riding low from people and a water-filled kiddie pool in the bed would roll up, and all out water warfare would take place. Gallons of water being exchanged between rival camps - all the time laughter continuing. Next, a moped would drive by and slow as the inevitable deluge was unleashed.

And so we laughed. And we cried. And you saw people drift off to be with our friend in their mind, and then come back to the celebration. The parade began and a line of honorary monks walked by in bare, pruned feet. They were dripping water. The Buddhas were brought down from the temples, loaded on floats, and paraded through town as all the people doused the Buddha and the monks who sat beside them with water - sometimes ice cold.

That evening we visited our friend, sneaking through allies and asking people as best we could not to ‘bless’ us as we walked to the hospital. We spoke our words to her, told her again that we loved her, and then we left. And that same evening she left: leaving us with her own blessing of an acute awareness of what a gift it was to know and learn from her. Though she hardly spoke a word; the emptiness was palpable.

In the evening Aaron and Heather arrived. The next morning,they rented some bicycles and we were off again. Just 5 foreigners riding our bikes through the streets of NongKhai. Much of the city was still asleep, but families and children were already waiting for us. We stopped at every tent: wishing people Happy New Year, or Good Luck in the New Year. They laughed as they covered us with water: sometimes with a little hesitation, sometimes with the sly look of knowing how cold their water was, and sometimes with an intent to maximally soak us. We laughed all day long. We laughed - until our faces hurt.

The presence of my brother was amazing and so appreciated. I think we talked more over the course of his stay than we do over months when we are back home. This is not to discount our time spent together back home, but my family spends a good proportion of our time quietly together - presence. It was fun to see how he processed and understood a completely new culture, and to talk about our community and the different personalities. It never hurts to have your big brother around when you are dealing with a significant loss as well. He was a great sport as we showed him how we aspire to live the GSV tenets, and I think he enjoyed being a fly-on-the-wall of our lives. To be sure, his presence was missed the moment he was gone.

This Photo Album Courtesy of Jason Freund.

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