Work and play

Axel came to pick me up at the end of Wednesday and whisked me off to a restaurant by the Chao Phrah Ya river that bisects Bangkok. When we arrived we discovered that the restaurant also offered dinner cruises and we rushed on board as staff indicated that departure was imminent. We didn’t quite know what we had signed up. It was a two hour dinner cruise through Bangkok, one half hour upstream and one half hour downstream from the restaurant.

I had barely been in Bangkok and only knew the airport, the hotel and a few places in the neighborhood of the hotel which is in the middle of the commercial district, and might as well have been Los Angeles.

Axel had been exploring other neighborhoods and was now able to show me the places (main temple, palace) he had visited.  It was a national Buddhist holiday and the temples were full and festive. It was the best way for me to see the number and variety of Bangkok’s many temples, as all were lit up to see in their full glory while we were sliding by and eating yet another spicy Thai dinner.

On Thursday the expert presentations and powerpoints were done and it was time to funnel all the inputs into a limited set of critical and actionable ideas that would not overwhelm the participants when they’d get home.

The shift meant that my role changed: until then I had played the role of traffic police and ensured that slides were loaded on the right computer and formatted correctly. On Thursday my task became more intense and demanding. I created various structures and processes that would allow the distilling, checking, and focusing of the content presented thus far and making sure people applied their best possible thinking.  I also slipped in a thing or two about leadership, something that is taken for granted and misunderstood at the same time. There was a great thirst for more about this but this was not my conference.

In the evening the talent show took place as I had envisioned it. To everyone’s surprise, four days after I asked for talent show contributions we had 14 acts and quite a few displays of talent.

I opened with a poem that chronicled the conference from start to end, followed by the partners (GDF, TBA, WHO, GFATM, with a solidarity song accompanied by guitar played on an iPad. The conference organizing committee composed new TB lyrics on a South African song. We had a fashion show where all those in national dress were called on the stage. My dress, a facilitator uniform, was made out of paper and held together by blue artist tape and staples, and was decorated with hotel mints and markers. We watched samba dancing that included the Zimbabweans who surprised us with their fearlessness.  Also fearless were the Burmese with a dance and song and the always giggling team of Filipinos (the youngest participants). They pulled me in to dance the cha-cha-cha. For once everyone found me stumbling and unprepared.

The SADC countries sang and danced in a way that made it hard to sit still, bringing the Pakistanis right onto the stage. There was a slide show of the modeling clay products produced by various participants who had understood what these colored ‘sticks’ were for and some storytelling and jokes. We finished with a slideshow put together by a representative and expert photographer from WHO-Geneva who inserted call-outs in his slides that got everyone in stitches. What we saw was a demonstration of the the Pygmalion effect (remember My Fair lady?): people live up to the expectations you have of them.

On Friday at noon the conference came to a high energy end with the usual concerns about how to keep this up. It won’t of course and we all know it. Still, the participants expressed intentions and proposed mechanisms to encourage the partners and our own staff in the field and at HQ to help stay in touch, follow up and provide support and encouragement to the country teams. We produced a Bangkok Commitments document that took 90  minutes to be drafted (not bad, considering we had 53 people doing the drafting) and then another hour edit the product.  We pasted it on a large board with the conference title and sponsor logos and then everyone signed. We said our goodbyes over lunch and everyone fanned out over Bangkok while we headed out to airport for our flight to Chiangmai in the north where we are now enjoying the first of 3 days of R&R.

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