Ock Pop Tok: Part 1/2

Ock Pop Tok – Volunteer
English Teacher/Trainer/Marketing/Public Relations

October 2nd to December 1st, 2013

(Note: If you are considering any volunteer work overseas please stay safe, read our blog disclaimer and consider your personal decisions carefully. Also consider that volunteering with a family in tow, involves far more considerations, compromises and sacrifices, than that of a solo traveller).

I first encountered Ock Pop Tok (the Lao translation for east meets west) when I picked up a free postcard at a cafe in Luang Prabang. I was intrigued as it contained an extract from the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost – one of my favourites. On entering one of their stores in town, I met Mon. She is a charming and friendly shop assistant, often with dictionary in hand, always ready to learn English. She is also a Katu Weaver. We had a deep discussion about the words, “Geek, Nerd and Dork”. (Little did I know then that we would become firm friends – laugh and cry together).

I was thrilled to know that Ock Pop Tok was helping staff like Mone and that their business aimed to ensure ethical practices. To foster Lao traditions and craft, through textiles.

Plus, I fell in love with their superb textiles at first sight. Hand drawn silk threads laboriously woven by skilled weavers – every piece an artistic creation. Beaded Katu masterpieces. Hand created and dyed cottons. Intricate Hmong indigo batiks.  Who wouldn’t? So then I was hooked.

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Hmong Indigo Batik on hemp cloth

After writing an email to enquire about volunteer work, I went to visit their Living Craft Centre (LCC) with my family. The LCC has a pretty, quiet and peaceful setting. We enjoyed a great lunch there on the banks of the mighty Mekong. We went on their free centre tour and enjoyed watching the magic of the weavers. I was honoured to meet the co-founder Joanna Smith. She, a British photographer, and Veomanee Duangdala, a Laotian weaver, first met in 1999 and co-founded the business in April 2000. Since then it has grown from strength to strength.

Ock Pop Tok is one of the founding members of the Lao Fair Trade Group and through their Village Weavers Projects, Fibre2Fabric and other initiatives are trying to keep the traditions, culture and art of Laos Textiles alive.

After an initial rejection email, I somehow ended up volunteering for them anyway. Firstly, my role involved an assessment of their current tours. This led to some key changes. Then an assessment of individual staff members English skills. These results led to fourteen individualised programmes with the staff, fitted into their daily work schedules, over three sites. A challenge to say the least. We all had a lot of fun and I felt privileged to spend one-on-one time with these fine Laung Prabang locals. Their program goals were wide and varied, so we relived childhood fears for an autobiography, listened to pop songs, sang, revisited traditional proverbs, wrote crazy stories, role-played conversations, read business letters, wrote emails and even learned to read.

Then came three sessions a week with the Weavers. A very mixed bunch of strong, warm women. Together we sat on the floor and again started at the beginning. After the first baby steps and a few ups and downs, with fluctuating attendance. We settled in and began to really learn. They gave everything a try and laughed about the set backs. Barriers began to slowly break down. I started eating with the weavers and staff every Friday (due to my workload, it was the only day where times coincided). I enjoyed these peaceful moments. We ate together on the open verandah, while some weavers snoozed. It was a rare chance to just be together, for them to try out their English and for me to try a little Lao…

Read about the rest of my journey with OPT in Part 2.

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