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Fireworks and rain in Chiang Mai -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Fireworks and rain in Chiang Mai

Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, are shown on a big screen admiring fireworks as another display bursts in the skies above a temple during opening ceremonies of the 2009 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project at the Royal Flora in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo by Habitat for Humanity/Gregg Pachkowski

By Teresa K. Weaver

An unlikely cloudburst in Thailand’s dry season could not steal the thunder of opening ceremonies Sunday evening at Habitat for Humanity’s 26th Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project in Chiang Mai. A dazzling display of 82 rockets—celebrating adored King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s upcoming 82nd birthday—punctuated an hourlong-plus program complete with traditional Thai dance and music.

“God has blessed us with a beautiful evening,” said Jonathan Reckford, chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity International, welcoming some 2,000 volunteers from 32 countries—and 42 of the United States—to this year’s Carter Project in the Mekong Delta.

After the Carter Project, 166 families in Thailand, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos—82 of them in Chiang Mai—will have new homes that are safe and affordable.

“But we want to make this a beginning, not an end,” Reckford said, officially launching Habitat’s campaign to serve 50,000 families in Asia in the next five years.

President Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, arrived in Chiang Mai early enough to take in one of the region’s most popular tourist attractions: an elephant camp. After enjoying an exhibition of the mighty elephants’ skills at soccer, hula hooping and other diversions, Carter and company watched as one especially talented elephant painted an intricate design for the volunteers at this year’s project.

“She asked me to bring the painting to show you tonight,” the president said, smiling as he unrolled a brightly colored rendition of the Habitat for Humanity logo.

“I thought it was one of the most miraculous things I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Early in the opening ceremony, a crew of Sabadchai drummers—using their hands, elbows, knees and heads to pound their drums—provided a rousing welcome. In ancient Thailand, such drummers often heralded war. Their role was to boost the morale of soldiers headed to battle.

In modern times, such drumming is pure art—a graceful blend of martial arts, performing arts and music. But it seems a fitting metaphor for the launch of the 2009 Carter Work Project. Bolstered by the drumbeat of an ancient tradition, thousands of volunteers, wielding trowels rather than weapons at 6 a.m. Monday, will march into battle.

Teresa Weaver is a senior writer/editor for Habitat for Humanity International.