Travel as Metaphor

The blog of novelist Sue Swift.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

From the “Who wouldda thunk it” file: Sue and the orphans

My buddy Gladys, who used to teach the weightlifting class I take, recruited me to help out with what seems to be her favorite charity: an orphanage. The residence, which houses twenty children of varying ages, is a series of shabby buildings in a suburb of Chiang Mai.

I am not quite sure how Gladys persuaded me to fix the kids an American meal. I am not a kid person. If it were left to me, the human species would reproduce by cloning.

The whole pregnancy thing creeps me out. It’s like the movie Alien, where the monster is growing inside a victim’s body and finally bursts out, killing the host.

Did you know that women still die in childbirth?

As a child, I never played with dolls. We had puppies, which are—face it—much cuter, don’t need their diapers changed and don’t get colicky.

When Gladys asked me what I really enjoy doing, I told her that I love to cook, never dreaming that she would persuade me to cook for twenty orphans.

But she did.

My first idea was that I wanted to make something thoroughly American, food that the kids would never eat in Chiang Mai. Hamburgers and hot dogs, of course, with fries.

Then I went to see the orphanage. It’s not as primitive as the average Boy Scout campsite, since there’s a fridge, big sinks and long tables. But there’s a dearth of silverware and there’s neither a grill nor an oven.

But I am a creative cook and well able to switch gears when necessary. There’s a range with a couple of burners and two big pots, so I could prepare spaghetti with tomato sauce. OK, so it’s more Italian than American, but so what? Gladys assured me that the kids would love whatever I cooked, and knowing the appetites of growing children, I was sure she was right.

Then I had oral surgery and a tummy ailment and just felt generally tired. I suggested to Gladys that we simply take the kids to Pizza Hut. We could get a couple of sang-dhows—these are pickup trucks outfitted with camper shells and bench seats down their length, and very cheap transportation--pile the kids in and take them to the restaurant. Easy-peasy.

Gladys nixed that as too expensive, and when I figured out that the excursion would cost about $100, I decided she was right.

So a spaghetti feed it would be. Today we went to the biggest supermarket in Chaing Mai, the Tesco Lotus near the airport, to buy food. Accompanying us was Steven, one of the orphanage staffers, who drove an Explorer so we could carry all the food.

We get to the store and start to look for the ingredients. Basil--check. Italian pasta—check. We pick Tesco brand fusilli, a noodle we’re sure the kids have never seen and would enjoy.

But when we got to the sauce fixings, we crashed into a brick wall. There were a few sad-looking jars of Prego, but we’d need about ten of them to feed this crowd. Because they’re imported, that was out of sight. And although there are plenty of tomatoes grown in Thailand, there are no canned tomatoes except—you guessed it—expensive ones imported from Italy. Because it’s winter, the tomatoes in the produce section are more green than red, and we’d need about a bushel of them to make sauce for the gang.

But if I’m anything, I‘m creative. If these kids wanted to experience what American children actually eat, I could do that easy. I grabbed three loaves of bread, two jars of peanut butter (Jif smooth and Skippy super chunk, my fave), strawberry and grape jams. I found hot dogs, buns, mustard (French’s) and ketchup (Heinz). Potato chips and Tesco cola.

I was good to go.

We hurried back to the orphanage, where I found out that the kids would return from school at 3:45, no doubt hungry. I whacked out two dozen or so PB&J sandwiches while Gladys made fruit salad and another staffer warmed the hot dogs in a wok. Then Steven and I put together the dogs. I squeezed mustard onto the buns, he plopped the meat in and put them on plates next to the sandwiches.

The kids arrived, an astonishingly organized, polite and well-dressed group. Two or three of the girls and a couple of the boys were dressed in scout-style uniforms and, instead of the kids attacking the partially laden plates like a plague of locusts, two older boys washed their hands and helped open chip bags and arrange chips onto the plates.

After a very few minutes, we were good to go. With a minor amount
of prompting, the kids chorused, “Thank you Auntie Susan” before sitting down and eating.

I’ve never encountered so much gratitude for so little effort…really, this could not be defined as my finest culinary moment. But the kids were curious and explorative, finding the mustard weird but liking the ketchup so much that one was spooning it into his mouth as though it were a food (remember when the Reagan administration sought to define ketchup as a vegetable? This kid would have gone for it).

When we left, Gladys explained that some of the kids were actually orphans while others were abandoned by parents who preferred drugs to parenthood. Some of the moms and dads were in jail while others were just…gone.

The orphanage is privately owned, but the couple who started it is running out of savings. Only four of the twenty kids have sponsors.

It costs about $100 per month to sponsor one of the Rainbow House orphans. If you want to contribute to the orphanage, or just want to know more about it, here’s their website:


  • At 6:59 PM, Blogger Vanessa Hart said…

    You're right, who would've thunk it? **G**

    Well-behaved, appreciative children touch your heart. Unfortunately, those are way outnumbered by the spoiled brats in the world.



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