Monday, January 10, 2011

Post 35: Holiday "Thai"me

I assume most of you are aware of my brief return to the states in December. There are many things to say about those two weeks, and thus I’ve decided to take the nutshell approach and keep my remarks on that front uncharacteristically concise:
Mom-aneurysm-hospital-Emergency Leave-Winchester, VA-snow-ICU-Guttenplans-jetlag-coffee(x 100 cups) -bed pan-Hearst House-Target-hospital cookies-ipad-Drs. Fergus, Ferdieu, and Liu-car rides with Sarah and Shu-UVA-angiogram-baked potatoes-Courtyard Marriott beds-l unches with Dad-home-latke party-too much wine-DC to LA to Hong Kong to BKK to Plok to Wat Bot.
My mother is doing beautifully, by the way. She is safe at home, resting, recovering, and regaining her strength for the spring when I get home “for real” and drag her on excursions all over DC.
Now back to Thailand.
The days before my Mom’s “event” were the days of the Close of Service Conference. COS is our final, official meeting as Peace Corps Volunteers. The first day was held in Bangkok and consisted of an oral language exam and a panel about career options after Peace Corps. I received The Call from my sister while I was en route to my test, and thus opted to postpone it. I ultimately received an Advanced Low, which was what I expected and not too shabby. Later that day, we attended the traditional, Thanksgiving dinner held for outgoing volunteers at the American Embassy. The Ambassadorial Compound is beautiful, but with all the guacamole, turkey, and mashed potatoes on the premises, I didn’t do a proper look around. The cook was American, and the Thanksgiving fare closely resembled home food enough to make us feel comforted and patriotically full. I tried turkey for the first time in roughly 12 years. It turns out I am a big fan of turkey, a fact I confirmed at Panera in Winchester.
Then, all 38 remaining volunteers from my group were bused down to Cha-Am (a beach mainly patronized by “lesser affluent Scandinavian tourists”). We went over hours of administrative matters, discussed the future, prepared to readjust to life in America, and engaged in a slew of wonderfully sappy wrap-up activities. Cumbaya may or may not have been sung. Soon, people will begin trickling their way back to America and we will diffuse into the world with our oh-so-valuable Thai language skills and squatting abilities. With this in time, we treated our free time preciously, using it to ravage a full leftover turkey with our fingers, sing a group rendition of “Lacey Lost Her Cow”, gaze at stars on the beach, and make s’mores using candles on the hotel rooftop (thanks again to Dad for that care package). The time was predictably filled with conflicting emotions: excitement about going home; pride about completing our service; gratitude, or bitterness, for what Thailand has given us; and sadness that this incomparable experience is nearing its end. I spent most of the conference preoccupied with concern for my mom’s health, and working out the logistics of Emergency Leave, and it was my brief time in America that illuminated the things I will miss the most about Thailand, and the things I can’t wait to be home for. Perhaps for my next blog entry, I will expound on this topic.
[Halfway around the world and back]
I spent two weeks in America and arrived back in Bangkok on Sunday, December 19. Beau met me at the airport and we went straight to the bus station to catch a bus to Phitlok, as I wanted to be at school the next day. All the people at site were kind and concerned about my mother and me, and asked many questions about what happened. Peace Corps notified my counterparts however, people like my neighbors, other teachers, my regular fruit seller, had no news and were curious where I’d absconded to. My Thai speaking deteriorated rapidly while I was gone, and patching together an explanation was embarrassing and difficult to say the least. In true Thai form, everyone’s advice was that Mom should rest, be happy, make merit, and all would be well.
It was disorienting being back, and took most of the week to resume life as a functioning human being. My counterparts were very forgiving of my spaciness in the classroom, and focused instead on how beautifully white my skin was. I brought back Christmas candy necklaces and boxes of holiday Nerds for all my students, and watching their reactions to the candy was priceless. That Friday, after a rehearsal for the Dream School evaluation, Beau and I caught a bus to Chiang Rai for our Christmas weekend at Pu Chi Fa, or the “Mountain that Reaches to the Sky”.
Last year I spent Christmas at site. I planned a day’s worth of Christmas activities for 900 students, gave multiple explanations that “no, Christmas is not Santa Claus’ birthday or a pre-New Years celebration”, and strove valiantly to familiarize the locals with Hanukkah. I was chastised for not wearing red, which is apparently our tradition, and watched White Christmas by myself at home while waiting for the reindeer to show. This year, if I couldn’t be with my real family, I wanted to be with my Peace Corps family. Pu Chi Fa is a mythical mountain 2 hours outside of Chiang Rai that only Thais know about-it is not in guide books, nor will you encounter many foreigners who have been. There is no public transportation and the accommodation options are…rustic. However, if you can weather the transportation difficulties and devote the time, the sunrise is one of the most breathtaking views you will ever see.
10 of us rented a cabin on the mountain and reserved a song taio, which are usually forms of public transit, just for us. On our way out of Chiang Rai, we stopped by a store to buy booze and all of us came bearing Christmasy stuff, ranging from Ben’s Mom’s Christmas cookie box, to Christmas decorations from the Peace Corps Lounge, to my boxes of hot cocoa, cider, and s’mores materials, fresh off the plane from America. All of us crammed into one little cabin with one giant bed and one squat toilet. The bed took up the whole room, there was very little space to move except outside on the porch, where we set up our little Christmas tree and put gifts under it. We all sported a Santa hat or reindeer ears and Julia’s laptop played Christmas carols. It is genuinely chilly at Pu Chi Fa during the cold season, so we were cozily bundled up in sweatshirts and socks. After a group viewing of Home Alone, we did a White Elephant gift exchange with crap from the Chiang Rai market (Dear Santa, thank you for my plastic bunches of grape necklace and weird wooden house in a box thing). Then we played Apples to Apples, the Peace Corps Holiday version we made ourselves, which quickly devolved into wine-soaked chaos where some of us (who me?) attempted to play with snickerdoodles instead of cards. After romantic soul searching on the porch with Julia, we tucked into our giant bed for two hours of sleep before our 4 am wake-up and trek to the top.
It took roughly 30 minutes to make our way to the top. We were warned repeatedly about how crowded the mountain would get and how difficult it is to find a good viewing spot, so 2 hours ahead of time, we found ourselves alone on the summit. After doing some recon, we found a primo location, technically past the barrier, but on the edge of the world with a completely unobstructed view and convenient grassy knolls for sitting. Most of us curled up and took a two hour nap in the darkness, awaking to find the summit behind us filled with people and the legendary “red line” beginning to make its appearance.
Alas, there are no words to describe this incredible beauty. Actually, there are many, but none suffice. Mystical, enchanted, awe-inspiring, gorgeous, sublime. From the top of Pu Chi Fa, you are surrounded by sky. The horizon is free and open until the earth curves, and the space between your eyes and the distance is filled with the silhouette of mountains and clouds that look like a downy ocean, clouds you want to swim in and taste and make bubble sculptures out of, or look at endlessly. It looks like heaven up there. As the sun begins to climb, the encircling darkness is bisected by a red line that slowly becomes brighter and brighter until it’s a blinding neon and all of a sudden, the sun appears. And everyone cheers. Good Job sun! The horizon is now shaded with infinite shades of pink and orange. The clouds fade into opalescence, pastels flutter about the atmosphere, and more of the mountainous countryside is revealed.
Then the sun has risen, and the rest of the world comes floating back. The Thais behind us are discussing their favorite types of papaya salad and everyone in sight is taking peace sign pictures. We stroll around the mountain, catching the view from different angles, and then walk down to our cabin for breakfast and a nap. It may not be the most traditional Christmas, but there was cold weather, good spirits, and love, and really, that’s what it boils down to. Happy Birthday Santa!
New Years
I returned to site exhausted. In the wake of the conference, my trip to America, jumping right back into school, and my trip to the sky, I was sapped of all life force. I debated making the trip South with some friends, as I had previously planned. Then, I recalled the adventures of last year, when I spent a memorable night in Chiang Mai involving a knife threat, false rooftop countdown, and run-in with the police over a stolen tuk tuk sign. Ultimately, I wasn’t up for that amount of excitement and all I felt like doing was sitting alone in my house. Pathetic, perhaps, but it’s what I wanted. I watched a movie, drank a “Bloody Maree” with leftover ingredients from Pu Chi Fa (because vodka, tomato juice, pepper, and vinegar does NOT a Bloody Mary make), and wore the sparkly top I bought in America for New Years with my pajama bottoms. At 11:30, I made my way to my hammock and watched the stars. I couldn’t be sure when exactly midnight hit, but I had a general idea when my neighbors began shooting off their guns (without bullets). It was like being in the midst of a gunfight. This combined with the preponderance of drunk driving, which is always “acceptable” but more common on New Years, made me very content to be safe behind my gate.
While swinging in my hammock under massive amounts of bug spray, I reflected on New Years Past, my favorite moments of 2010, things I am looking forward to in 2011, and resolutions.
Here is a sample of my musings.
Favorite Parts of 2010:
1) 2010 was a year of self-discovery and growth. My first year of service was spent figuring out how to exist as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, and the second year was spent learning who I am. Now in 2011, I genuinely feel wiser, stronger, and more in tune with my being. I have developed my own sense of the world and my place in it, and while this is an ever-evolving perception, it fortifies me every day.
2) Becoming comfortable with teaching and improving my abilities to the point where I actually see progress in my students and teachers. I witnessed Pii Som apply what I’d taught her, without any input from me, at camp for kids with low test scores. I saw my first graders blossom into second graders with a higher reading level than the sixth graders at the school.
3) Being chair of the Gender and Development Committee, and frankly, accomplishing an impressive and valuable amount. Our wiki page is pretty awesome.
4) The bulk of experiences and adventures of life in rural Thailand: cooking lessons with the kindergarten teacher, a mediocre massage hut opening on the river where 3 old people massage me at once, Beau’s monk party where I badly folded scores of banana leaf rice treats and wore a bridal suit with shoulder pads, the ladyboy pageant at Wat Bot’s palm juice festival, mornings drinking coffee on my porch, days “educating” at school, afternoons reading in my hammock, biking through masses of trees and flowers on the way to the market…I could go on and on. Can you tell the nostalgia is already setting in?
5) Volunteer shenanigans. We had some good ones in 2010. There was Songkran in Chiang Mai, Tigers 2 in Ko Samet, weekend trips to Pai, Mae Sot, the Phitakhon festival, Pu Chi Fa, and of course, my sparkling 24th surprise birthday party
6) Trips with friends and family. I was fortunate enough to be visited for a wonderful two weeks by my Dad, Yvonne, and Sarah. My mom came to Asia for round two, and I frolicked my way across a smidge of Indonesia and Singapore during the summer break.
What I am looking forward to I 2011:
1) The last few months of my life here. My sojourn home and the knowledge that I have less than 100 days left have filled me with a strong sense of what I love about my life here. I am excited for the 80 or so more days of walking around barefoot, eating fresh fruit, gossiping with my teachers and neighbors, reading in my hammock, and the goodbye party the schools will throw me.
2) Traveling around India and Nepal with Kelsi for two months
3) Returning to America!!! Good food, hot water, soft beds, cleanliness, English, choice, convenience, anonymity, acceptance, real coffee, entertainment and on and on and on and on
4) Celebrations with my family and friends. My sister’s graduation from Navy, bringing the Guttenplan family whiffleball team to victory at the annual Crab Feast, the many Welcome Home parties I am expecting across the country (and they better be good), Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hannukah, birthdays, really any minor cause for celebration. Happy Thursday! National Woodland Creature Day! The anniversary of Paul Revere!
5) Urban life. Museums, bars, restaurants, movie theaters, coffee shops, stores. I can’t wait to be strolling through a city, any city, at my leisure and being filled with all the possibilities.
6) Out with the old and in with the New. I can’t wait to burn (I am speaking literally) my dirty, ragged, worn-out, bedraggled possessions and procure new, sparkling clean, fresh, things of quality.
7) Entering the next stage of my life- I have no idea what it will bring. As they say, “The only uncertainty is uncertainty”, and I can’t wait to find out where I will be this time next year. I am exhilarated by the prospect of my life unfolding.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Post 34: In a Hammock and a Happy Place

I swayed lazily back and forth in the afternoon quiet, my barefoot pushing off the dirt to prompt the hammock into gentle rocking. My book lay forgotten on the ground and I let my thoughts drift languorously where they pleased. Schools will open soon. This moment is one of many in the lull between vacation with my mom and the beginning of my last term in Thailand. There is everything to consider- the past and the future, what I’ve done and what I hope to do, the steps I’ve taken and the steps to come. But right now, in the soft light of the waning day with a cup of spiced tea and nothing to do, I’m not thinking, I am just being, and perhaps there is more wisdom in that than a thousand thoughts.
When I left for Bangkok to pick up my mom, I did not feel like myself at all. During my third time, I found myself enveloped in a malaise and confusion I could not shake. I went into my trip desperate for a break, searching for perspective, and hoping for an extra push to make it through to the end. I needed to regenerate, and the process began physically. Once I checked in to our lovely hotel, I took a hot bath and rested on crisp white sheets. Surrounded by cleanliness and comfort, I already felt something begin to heal. I took my time getting ready, enjoying the scent of lemongrass soap and the hair dryer. That night, Beau was taking me out for a birthday date before Mom arrived. I expected her to arrive around 10:30 pm, so our plan was to go out to dinner and then wait for her at the hotel’s “Wine Pub”. As excited as I was for our evening, I went to Bangkok harboring resentment towards my girlfriends, none of whom would be around to celebrate my birthday or meet my mom. Their excuses were terrible, the worst being “I am having a mosquito screen installed that day” (Kelsi), and in my ennui-ridden state, I felt very sorry for myself and abandoned, which I communicated via passive aggressive text messages.
I am not one to hold grudges, and a bottle of wine and a bowl of pasta later, I sat down in the Wine Pub perfectly content. I perused the dessert menu for some sort of decadent chocolate treat when I heard “Happy Birthday” wafting across the room. I looked up unassumingly and saw a large group of familiar faces holding bright signs and a glowing birthday cake. Surprise! Surprise? I was speechless. When am I ever speechless? I sat with my hands covering my mouth for ages before I could begin to react. Still stunned, we moved to a large table at the back and all I could say over and over was “I am flabbergasted. Flabbergasted. Flabbergasted.” Those wily minxes, Beau had been planning a surprise party for me for over a month, and everyone in Peace Corps knew about it. The excuses were a pathetic ruse which I believed hook, line and sinker, and we laughed at not only how gullible I had been, but also how angry at my perceived desertion.
A few bottles of Prosecco later, Katelyn kindly reminded me that my mother had probably arrived by now, and I raced upstairs to find her already in the room, wondering where I had absconded to. I gave her a huge hug and tried to tell her all about my beautiful, sparkling party and how flabbergasted I was and the ice cream cake and my gift of organic oatmeal in one breath. After I calmed down, we settled in for the night, but somewhere around 4 in the morning, realized we were both awake, her from jet lag, me from excitement, and stayed up talking until around 6. The next day, our first order of business (after the hotel breakfast, which if you know me, may also know I get irrationally excited about) was to buy shoes. I had nothing acceptable to walk around in, which was obviously an obstacle to site seeing. Poor mom trailed after me through multiple Bangkok malls until I managed to find a tenable pair. We rewarded our hard work with an ice cream sundae, and then continued on to a tour of the Jim Thompson House. That night, my mom generously treated a group of my friends to dinner in Bangkok’s Chinatown, a neon labyrinth of seafood and gold.
After the weekend in Bangkok, we flew to Laos where we would spend five days in the North, passing through Luang Prabang, Plain of Jars, and Vientiane. Mom had arranged for us to have a personal tour guide and driver, and our new friend Ken met us at the airport in Luang Prabang. He was about 25 years old and had an impressively large set of teeth. Luang Prabang is at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Kan Rivers. It is nestled in the mountains, as is 70% of Lao, and has a strong French colonial legacy. It was so charmingly charming, we couldn’t help but squeal every block or so. The quaint elegance of provincial Europe and the mystical beauty of Southeast Asia were intertwined in a way that was exotic, cozy, and delicate, all at once. In Vietnam, we saw evidence of the French colonial legacy, but Vietnam is much more chaotic and densely populated than Lao, and a strong Chinese influence is clear. Laos had a much more placid, serene energy.
The next day, we went on elephant rides in the morning. Mom and I dubbed our elephant “Eliot” and rode on a wooden bench on his back, while our guide sat on his neck. Mom held on for dear life while I chatted with our handler in Thai, which he understood because Lao people watch Thai TV and listen to Thai music. He told me how his doctor made him stop eating sticky rice for a month and he lost weight and wasn’t able to poop. Standard first conversation material. Then we spent the afternoon on a Mekong boat ride, ending up at a cave with hundreds of little Buddha statues sitting among its cool stone. Our final morning in Luang Prabang, we woke up at dawn to give alms to the monks. I have done this many times in Thailand, but it is a different experience in Luang Prabang, which has over 30 wats in close proximity, and thus the monks fill the streets as they collect rice, fruit, banana-leaf wrapped meats, and cookies. I dutifully rolled the sticky rice out of the bamboo basket as fast as I could, but there were more monks than I had rice. After a final wander through the lovely streets, we departed for Plain of Jars-an eight hour drive through the mountains. I am prone to motion sickness, and needless to say, I was sick as a dog for most of the car ride. My mom said I actually turned green and I had to curl up with my head in her lap until we could stop for Sprite and Dramamine. I couldn’t look out the window for a majority of the ride, but apparently I missed breathtakingly beautiful countryside.
The Plain of Jars is kind of like Laos’ Stonehenge. It is a large, green, open space in a remote area with ancient and inexplicable stone formations. In this case, jars. There is something like 88 different fields in Xieng Khouang that have jars, but only 3 of them have been cleared of mines. Visitors drive down a dirt roed, stop in front of a large sign warning about Unexploded Ordinances, and then stroll down a narrow path, which opens into the Plain. Scattered across the plain are scores of large stone jars. The most likely theory is that the jars were part of a funerary rite of an ancient culture. Ken continued to make bad jokes about the jars (“Look, they are houses for fish…?”) and Mom and I developed our own theories, including alcohol fermentation vessels and space-time portals which facilitate travel to all the other mysterious stone structures in the world. After we left the jars, Ken surprised me with a birthday cake and Beer Lao at lunch. A little tipsy and sugar high, we visited the landmine museum, and learned more about the aftermath of the Vietnam War bombing. Apparently, Laos was the most heavily bombed country in the world (or something to that effect). There are still so many unexploded bombs that people are afraid to cultivate the land, and countless people have been injured and killed. Squads, notably all-female ones, continue to risk their lives every day to clear them away in a necessary but seemingly endless process. We also visited an organic silk farm, and met the owner’s daughter, who spent a decade living in Minnesota.
From Plain of Jars, we departed for Vientiane and caught an overnight train from Nong Khai to Bangkok, but not before stopping by the Duty Free shop at the border crossing for red wine and sandwiches. On the train, we occupied the hours before bed by swigging wine out of the bottle, taking silly pictures, and working on crossword puzzles. I entertained a group of six train conductors, ticket collectors, and patrolmen with my ability to speak Thai, and finally Mom and I nestled in to sleep in the same bunk. Very cozy. I woke up at 6 am expecting to see outer Bangkok, and seeing only wet countryside. I questioned the women distributing rice breakfasts, and she said that due to major flooding, out train was delayed by four hours, quite a predicament considering our flight to Krabi was in three. I learned from a conductor that we could disembark in outer Bangkok and catch a cab to the airport, which we did, arriving minutes before check-in closed. Then after a flight, a bus, a van, a boat, another van, and an SUV, we arrived at our hotel in Ko Lanta, 26 hours after we left Plain of Jars.
On Ko Lanta, we stayed on the far South of the island, bordering a national park. Our hotel was known for its remoteness and described online as reminiscent of “Robinson Crusoe”. We hadn’t taken this literally until the hotel vehicle drove for 45 minutes on windy, dirt, pot-hole riddled roads through the jungle. We celebrated our well-earned arrival with fishbowl daiquiris and massages on the beach. After a few days on Ko Lanta, we took a short ferry ride to Ko Phi Phi, the island made famous by its appearance in The Beach (that Leonardo DiCaprio movie I never saw). As the long boat pulled up to our hotel, we couldn’t help gasping. It looked like paradise. It was paradise. The water was surreally clear and alternated shades of royal blue and teal. We could see hotel guests reclining on the beach chairs, swaying in the hammocks, or drinking cocktails at one of the tiki shacks set gracefully back on the sand. The hotel was on an actual coconut plantation, and the grounds were thick with palm trees. All the bungalows were nestled among the trees, and there were signs that said “Beware of Falling Coconuts”. Everything was made of dark wood and there were flowers everywhere, including out toilet bowl. We were afraid to use it at first.
We spent hours sun bathing, reading, and strolling around the resort. Most of the guests were couples on a romantic getaway, and we entertained ourselves endlessly with people watching and speculation. “Is the girl photographing the fat, hairy man in the water is his daughter or his lover?” “Have you counted how many times that Spanish couple returned to the buffet? It’s been at least 6 since we sat down.” A lucky alignment of the stars put Julia and her family on Phi Phi at the same time, and we spent quality Happy Hour time with them, as well as a snorkeling excursion. Julia’s stepmom Kas and I were the most enthusiastic snorkelers of the group, and stayed in the water long after everyone else, admiring the colors and patterns of the fish and the coral, giving them personalities, and turning their scales into clothes. “Did you see that pink teeny-bopper looking fish with the blue eye shadow?” “Yes, and what about that black and yellow fish. Wouldn’t that make a great print for a skirt?”
Then, sadly, we said goodbye to paradise and made the journey back to Bangkok. We had one more day together in Bangkok before her flight, and ended the trip how we started: with ice cream sundaes and tears. It was easier to goodbye this year though, because I will be home in six months. Six months…

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Post 33: Things Fall Apart

Everything around me is falling apart. I am not being dramatic, I speak literally. In the past two weeks, I have borne the breaking down of not one, not two, not three, but four pairs of shoes. A friend kindly pointed out the hole in the butt of my pants while I was walking through the market. My camera stubbornly refuses to turn on, my external hard-drive is behaving like a temperamental toddler, and my fridge and kettle seem to work at the whim of a capricious poltergeist living in their electrical socket. The clasp fell off my sole non-utility purse and the lock on my front gate is rusted open. Like I said, I speak literally. As if all these occurrences together were not enough, I just finished reading Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. It may a weird take on “order”, but I can’t help but be impressed by the systematic nature of all the collapse around me. Technology and I have always had a rocky relationship and I never expect much cooperation from it. Also, reading a book about Africa reminds me I am lucky to have electrical sockets at all in Peace Corps. But why did all my shoes have to self-destruct at the same time? My sneakers have holes, the soles fell off my one pair of flats, the strap broke on my school sandals, and the thong broke out of my house flip flops. I am condemned to going barefoot, which is Bekah-land is usually a good thing, but in Thailand a somewhat treacherous proposition if one leaves the house.
The breakdown of my material world and the end of the semester coincide in yet another example of existential consonance. This is testing week and on Friday, schools close. I have completed the third of four semesters I will teach in Thailand. It was a good term, work-wise. There were the inevitable highs and lows, but I can confidently say I had fewer in-classroom breakdowns this year and got a classroom management scheme off the ground that does not involve whacking children with wooden sticks. I re-used some of my better teaching ideas from last year, like playing “Guess Who” to learn about adjectives, and tried out some new ones, like Steal-the-Bacon with numbers. I kicked my library development project into high gear and expanded on my World Map class, although the kids still think Africa is a country in South America. I also did an afternoon of drug education at Thangam and got to watch Pii Orasa do a parody of her cousin who used to smoke weed. Priceless. Sadly, despite repeated efforts and nagging, I couldn’t make the sex-education seminar happen this term because my big school was swept up with this national education initiative called “Dream School”.
Achieving “Dream School” is kind of like being a Blue Ribbon School in the states. The school has to meet certain standard and shows a little summin’ extra extra. Let’s just say the school failed the first evaluation miserably. But the principal does not want to give up his dream school status pipe dreams, and thus loaded project after project on the teachers to make our school seem better than it is. The school is judged on subject-by-subject basis, and English is notoriously difficult. Ironically, instead of actually teaching the students (a novel concept), we dedicated weeks to preparing presentations for a handful of students to give. 100 kids may not have learned anything, but at least 5 can tell you in English how to properly wash vegetables. Furthermore, as my pronunciation differs from what the committee may expect (?), I was often tasked to do things like make a fake family tree and write out the names of all the local products in English. This was somewhat valuable however, because I learned that there is a crocodile egg farm nearby, although no-one seems to know what crocodile eggs are used for. I am leaning towards magic potions. Now I don’t want to disparage my school- I enjoy being a part of it- but it is not quite what one would call a fine educational institution (try as I might). I heartily encourage the spirit of improvement, but all the “improvements” being done are superficial, like rebuilding the shrine and hanging up English translations of Thai proverbs. And we can’t forget the vegetable washing demonstration, speech about a made-up family, and presentation about Wat Bot’s mythical crocodile eggs.
I would say the biggest challenges this term were not work related. Film, my “sister” person, went away to school and only came home for a few weekends. Other than my co-teachers, who I never see on weekends, she was my closest friend at site, and I profoundly felt her absence. Her departure also meant I see Jon less frequently, because it would be inappropriate for us to spend time at his house without her there. Thus, my main social connection outside of school was essentially severed. I still have plenty of local relationships- neighbors, the ladies at my favorite market stalls, policemen I met biking- but they are more acquaintances than friends. Whereas before, I had a reliable source of companionship a few nights a week and on weekends, I now spend that time alone. It can be hard. Sometimes I feel like I am becoming a hermit.
The other challenge was dealing with anxiety. I can occasionally be tightly wound, like anyone, but before June, I never felt overwhelming and inexplicable anxiety. Usually, if I felt stressed, there was a clear source, whether it was adapting to Thai culture, figuring out how to teach, or juggling too many things (i.e. 4 secondary projects and being chair of a committee). Those kinds of nervous angst were manageable and made sense. Either the cause of the stress would pass or I would figure out how to make it go away. But the anxiety with no cause, the irrational kind that washes over you, rendering you unable to do something simple like pick out groceries or buy a bus ticket, the kind that makes you hide in the bathroom taking deep breaths to calm down, I had never experienced before. This is not uncommon among volunteers used to structured, highly-stimulating environment, but the alleged normality doesn’t stop me from feeling a unhinged and not a little nuts. Still, like any good struggle, we cope with it in a way that hopefully makes us stronger. I am not sure if I am “stronger”, but I will say that seeing what concerns rushed to fill the “void” illuminated some driving forces of my character, which I had not realized before. I feel an odd combination of less in control, but more in tune, with myself.
Sometimes things fall apart, and sometimes we do. Life as a volunteer is not only hard on our physical belongings and bodies, it is hard on the spirits too. When existing in a different world, with few rules, no real structure, and no guidelines, it is easy to feel lost, to flounder, and to grasp at anything that seems solid or familiar. This past term was like being in the middle of an ocean. I’ve come so far and worked hard to get here, but there is a long way left to go. I am keeping myself afloat among miles of uniform, softly pulsating, opaque water, and when I look around, there is nothing to hold on to except the faith that I will make it through. I am overwhelmed and tired, but I know I won’t give up, because ultimately, I know I am where I should be. For now, all I can do is keep myself together, even if everything outside me is falling apart. And truthfully, I am kind of glad all my shoes broke, because it is an excuse to buy new ones. The trick will be finding shoes to last.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Post 32: Stranger in a Strange Land

Peace Corps Earth

I recently began reading Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. It is a science fiction novel, and a pretty big departure from my usual reading material. The book was brought to my attention because it addresses questions of consciousness and Buddhist principles. As these are two strains of thought that I ponder with regularity during the long, solitary hours at site, I was intrigued. I found Stranger in a Strange Land to be Brave New World meets Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy meets The Life of Buddha meets Thailand. The basic plot revolves around Valentine Michael Smith, a human baby born on Mars and raised by Martians. As a young adult, he is brought back to a futuristic earth and adapts to human life, while maintaining a Martian mindset. Martian culture strongly embodies many Buddhist principles, and the eightfold path is constantly referred to as “Mike” strives for Right Action, Right Speech, and attempts to avoid Wrongfulness. Being more perceptive than most humans, Mike can intuitively sense what is right and what is wrong, beyond society’s moral code. He can also dissociate from his body, immune to physical discomfort and is able to focus his mind entirely on what is in front of him, whether it be kissing a pretty girl or grokking an experience. He does not understand time or money, is not prone to emotion beyond profound brotherly love. He emphasizes the importance of patiently waiting for the right moment in any situation. All around him, he sees humans- hurried, anxious, insecure, angry, untrustworthy, misguided, and close -minded. He sees their struggles, but has difficulty comprehending why humans do not feel a connection to the Universe, to God, to Eternity the way he does; why they do not understand Truth. Martians know that in Eternity is the ever-changing Now, and in the ever-changing Now is Eternity. In English, one might say, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
This is my excuse for not writing in many, many moons. Schools re-opened in May and while there are countless subtle variations in my existence, there was not much to blog about beyond what I’ve already said. Inexplicable emotions, uncontrollable thoughts, philosophical musings, spiritual ponderings, self-discoveries- these have all come over me in deceptively forceful waves these past few months, and as I am not prone to baring my heart and soul over the internet, I found myself with little to write. But as I’ve learned from the Martians, from Thailand, and from a fictional French hotel concierge, that which seems little is just as worthwhile as that which seems big, and often they are the same.
This year, Thangam school finally received a full roster of competent teachers. The teacherless second, third, and forth graders now have actual teachers and are actually learning, and the first, fifth, and sixth graders who had to share their teachers last year are benefitting as well. The three new staff additions are all women under 50 and wonderful personalities. There is quiet Dtoom who doles out tough love to her rambunctious second graders, spunky Jiap who can’t weigh on ounce over 80 pounds but eats like a horse, and chatty Dta who wears Thai silk suits every day and whose husky voice dominates any room she is in. What used to be four person lunches has mushroomed into a packed table of 8, with the principal, office assistant, and random visitors joining us. Lunch usually lasts until 1, despite the fact that classes begin at 12:30, and it is something of a rush to fit in all my teaching before the milk truck arrives at 3 pm and the students stop studying.
This year, I am teaching a new round of first graders with Pii Orasa. They are a sweet group, as first graders tend to be, but their animal impersonations (D-Dog, E-Elephant-F-Fish) fall behind last year’s class in cuteness. One boy named Boong never seems to wear underwear, and has an unfortunate habit of dropping his shorts while adjusting his belt. Dtak, who also goes by “Big Butterfly”, is by all standards humongous for a six year old. Little Anuchit is already experiencing male pattern baldness and thinks every letter is called “C”. They are a motley crew, but they are growing on me. My former first-second grade split class I teach again. These are my favorite students and the ones who keep me here on rough days. There are 12 of them who learn so quickly I am amazed, run up for hugs every chance they get, and never cease to make me smile with how seriously they take our learn-to-read games. They can already read better than the sixth graders and my only issue with them is over-excitement, which is easily remedied by a quick round of Ghost in the Graveyard.
My sixth grade class from last year graduated, and I was hoping to focus entirely on first through third grade, but Dta and the principal felt I should teach the sixth graders to prepare them for the February tests. This is a challenge, because it is a class of mostly unmotivated kids with vast differences in ability. Some of the students don’t know the alphabet, while others can read multiple syllable words. How this happened, I do not know, but I am not yet an experienced enough teacher to deal with it effectively. Furthermore, one or two of the students are prone to misbehavior, flagrantly ignoring me and acting out. As someone who was always a dedicated and curious student, I get really frustrated with the kids who just don’t care. It’s not something I can relate to. In one of the first weeks, I got mad at a girl who doodled all over a flashcard and made her sit out the activity. Dta later told me that she was crying after class and has an awful home life-the usual story of poor, absent and/or drunk parents who take no stock in their children’s education. I felt terrible, and it is difficult figuring out how hard to push. Teaching is smoother now; I am more comfortable in front of a classroom, more confident in the things I do, and I have last year’s lesson plans and activity ideas to draw from. But teaching, particularly in a rural/poor school where most of the students aspire to nothing beyond the rice fields, is not easy, particularly with the language barrier. I have become much better at accepting my limitations, those of my students, and letting certain things slide.
Thangam is the school where I am working on the Library Development Project. We divided the library into six sections: Thai, English, Health, Science, Geography, and Art. Between the books sent to me from the generous souls back home, the books procured from NGOs in Thailand, and the library’s existing collection, the shelves are almost full. There are now educational posters on the wall and a globe, although a fourth of the covering was ripped off by a mischievous child, and my handmade geography posters are hung after I teach the lesson. I led an America lesson for the Fourth of July, and so a US Landmark poster (Statue of Liberty, Congress, Disney World, Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, Golden Gate Bridge etc…) now hangs next to an American Culture poster (football, hamburgers, Thanksgiving, democracy, cowboys, diversity etc…). After all the excitement about the World Cup, I planned an awesome Africa lesson where we would make masks out of construction paper, complete with an awesome poster with pictures of Africa’s Seven Natural Wonders, and information about the continent. Unfortunately, this being Thailand, I have been unable to execute it due to Teacher Appreciation Day, student home visits, sports day, budget meetings, a parent meeting, school re-organizing, random closings, and the beginning of Buddhist Lent. Someday. Patience Grasshopper.
At Wat Bot School, business is as usual. Pii Som and I teach 3 classes of sixth graders and 2 classes of seventh graders. Thankfully, the kids are better behaved this year, albeit talkative. Last year, the seventh graders were the bane of my existence. I dreaded teaching the class, which had a contingent of rude and delinquent boys with serious attitude problems and they sent negative energy all over the classroom. My seventh graders this year were my sixth graders last year, and so not only familiar with me, but generally sweeter kids. However, this does not stop Pii Som from dedicating a significant period of time each week to chastising them on their bad manners, not particularly conducive to learning English. We set aside a time on Wednesday mornings for lesson planning and project development, and while I try to use the time to work on our Safe Sex Education seminar, these mornings are rarely productive. I’d like to say that this is due to Pii Som, who uses the time to get massages for her “leg aches” or buy pineapple to exhume her “toxins”, but I’ve gotten on board with the Thai mentality too. Wednesday mornings I don’t set an alarm (although the rice trucks wake me up early anyway) and luxuriate over a second cup of coffee before biking to school.
One Sunday morning in June, I was woken up to the sound of a chain saw outside my window. Groggily, I ventured out to see what was going on, and found my landlady supervising 4 men cutting down the trees in my yard. The workers stared at me as if I was the one amiss and kept hacking away. My landlady came onto my porch and said she is building another house to rent out, and will not only be using wood from my yard, but also storing it there. The first order of business was thus to build a huge, unsightly woodshed in front of my house. I was less than thrilled. Not only was my personal space being invaded without permission or courtesy, but there were strange men now laying in my hammock, taking away my trees, and throwing their garbage in my yard. Furthermore, I would have to live indefinitely with an ugly woodshed, no hammock (it is now trapped behind a pile of wood), and workers coming to my house at random to chop and collect wood. I made no effort to conceal my irritation and complained about it loudly to my neighbors, which is not very Thai of me, but I’ve lived here long enough where I do not constantly feel the need to tip-toe around smiling. But if I’ve learned anything, it is that sometimes things are out of my control, and fighting against what I cannot change only causes frustration and anger. Accepting reality is considerably less stressful. I feel a pang everyday when I see the haphazard shack in my yard, and my poor little hammock wrapped sadly around the one remaining branch on my jackfruit tree, but what’s a girl to do?
In Stranger in a Strange Land (a phrase also used in Paulo Cohelo’s The Alchemist-a book which never ceases to move me with its wisdom and has a surprising amount in common with Stranger), Mike forms a pseudo-religious sect based around Martian teachings. The members of the “nest” practice meditation, brotherly love, and patience. They know that pleasure in most things in amplified when shared; that jealousy, insecurity, and fear are the opposite of love, which elevates us and is the greatest good; and that hurrying through life with eyes forever on the horizon is the best way to miss it. Many of these lessons, I’ve begun to understand in Thailand. In a world where days move slowly, schedules are rarely adhered, and my routine is often commandeered by outside forces, I’ve learned to place less value on Time. I’ve seen that boredom is discontentment with the current situation, and by ignoring time, it can be overcome. Counting minutes, hours, days, months, is a quick way to feel restless and unsatisfied, and focusing on the present removes some of that agitation. I’ve seen that “waiting for fullness”, or allowing things to unfold in their own time (usually slowly), is always the best course. The universe reveals our paths to us, but we need to be patient and perceptive enough to see the signs.
I’ve seen that not every part of everyday needs to be filled, and sometimes it is good to sit and listen to silence. I’ve learned that to share something we value is to find more value in it. I see that money not scrupulously accounted for is far more enjoyable than counting pennies, and sometimes it’s just as fun to have no money as it is to have plenty. Obviously, saving money is prudent, but I also understand the liberation that exists in not needing to save, in spending what you have as you wish. I also have come to know that real happiness comes from within. While this is hardly a novel thought, I never fully understood it until I was entirely responsible for my own happiness. My response to a situation affects my happiness far more than any external factor. Furthermore, by finding joy in small every day things, and not needing constant stimulation, I am more able to exist fully in the present. It is so easy to get hung up on the future, money, adrenaline, relationships, image, convention, insecurity, and expectations. I am by no means free from any of these things, but I am loosening their hold on me. It is a difficult, daily battle. Slowly, it gets easier; the universe, my soul, and their connection seem clearer. I am just beginning to grok it all.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Post 30: Schools Out

Note: this is a sizeable entry but I divided it into three parts to make reading a little more manageable.


My trip to Indonesia was not what you might call “organized”. The travel group was an ever-evolving entity, with a revolving door of people that entered and exited at different points on different days at different times. There was no set schedule and no reservations- my favorite way to travel. Logistically, it made the most “sense” for me to fly to Indonesia by myself, a day after Haley and Kelly, but two days before Kelsi and Rachel. Thus I found myself patrolling the halls of the Bangkok airport at 3 am, hyped up on caffeine and free samples of rice cakes. I flew into Bali’s Densapar airport and pulled out a wrinkled sheet of paper with Haley and Kelly’s hotel address. The room was empty when I arrived, but the girls left me a note with directions to the beach. I found them easily enough, sprawled out on sarongs and already acquainted with most of the local, young, male, surf instructors.
For the first couple days, the three of us stayed in Legian, a beach in the most touristed, party-strip of Bali. The area is swamped by foreigners, as well as bars, clubs, restaurants, and shopping. The beach is beautiful, although not clean, and peddlers cruise the sand selling everything from toe rings to ice cream. The beach faces west, so around 5pm we moved our toasted bodies out of the sun and into chairs underneath the palm trees; chairs conveniently located next to a cooler where you could buy cheap, locally brewed beer and watch the sunset. We woke up around noon the next day, after having braved a monsoon and gone dancing on a pirate ship, and set out for another beach day. Sitting there on the sand, I felt far away from my life in Thailand. The vacation was right around our one-year anniversary of living at site, and it was time for a rejuvenating adventure.
After our beach days, we headed inland to Ubud, an arty enclave in the jungled center of Bali. It is known for being home to hundreds of artisans and their workshops, as well as for its local charm, and excellent food. I fell in love with it as soon as we arrived, totally digging the quaint European town meets Southeast Asia vibe. The roads curve around the winding hills, with a seemingly endless string of boutiques, cafes, jewelry shops, and restaurants lining the narrow sidewalks. At one end of the main road is a Royal Palace, where every evening Gamelan music and dance performances are held. At the other end sits the monkey forest, a heavily wooded enclave filled with monkeys and worn stone temples dotted with gargoyles, large and small. We disembarked near the palace and wandered down dark and residential alleys until we found an enclave that said “guest house”. The Balinese live in compounds, with ornate carved doorways that lead into intimate courtyards; surrounding the courtyard are multiple little houses for the various segments of the family. It is common in tourist spots for families to rent out their available rooms, and thus we found ourselves in the home of a local family. After our depositing our bags, we spent the rest of the day exploring, moseying into the shops, longingly eyeing the beautiful restaurants, and tried out Balinese oil massage. We ended our stroll at the monkey forest. The monkeys were rather aggressive, and I was far more enchanted by the temples which seemed to be born out of the forest and the demonic gargoyles.
Kelsi and Rachel were supposed to meet us that evening in Ubud, and by pure luck found their way to our guest house 15 minutes before Haley, Kelly, and I were getting picked up for a sunrise hike of Mount Batur, at 2 am. They quickly jumped on the bandwagon, and thus five rather than three girls loaded into the van, much to the surprise of our driver. We drove for about 90 minutes, stopped for a banana pancake breakfast at the foot of the mountain, and then began the actual climb around 4 am. We were accompanied by no less than 5 local guides, all hoping for tips. It was chilly and dark, so I focused my energy on not tripping. We walked and walked, stopping every now and then for water and a breath, and then soldiering onward with our intrepid entourage. Finally after an hour and a half, we reached the summit. It was shrouded in fog, and we huddled together for warmth in the little hut at the top, glaring at the clouds. We waited and waited, changing huts once or twice, but it was too foggy to see the sunrise. Disappointed, we began the walk back down, and while when the clouds cleared, the sun was already up, the view of the valley was breathtaking. The volcano was surrounded by rice fields and farmlands in innumerable shades of green. Overtop of this in certain areas was thick black rock formed by lava, which dried like a lumpy blanket over the land, its dynamic flow frozen in time and still full of movement. At the bottom was a large lake formed in a crater formed by an eruption long ago, dotted with homes slowly coming to life in the early morning.
Our plan for the next day was to visit Besakih- Bali’s Hindu mother temple- and then drive out to the coast for snorkeling a ship wreck and a bit more beach time. The temple was beautiful, built against a mountain (Mt. Agung) and divided into the three parts- Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu. The Shiva section was central and the most striking. A long staircase leads up to the courtyard at the top, which is only open to devotees and houses the sanctuary and offering area. The whole temple complex is terraced, with many different levels, sacred spaces, and structures on each tier. A guide led us around, explaining about the history of the temple and a bit about Balinese Hinduism. There was a funeral that morning, so we watched a long procession of people wearing Shiva’s colors of black, white, and yellow walk up the stairs carrying large baskets filled with offerings on their heads. The temple was beautiful itself, but also afforded wonderful views of the mountainous and fertile central plain of the island. We finished our tour just in time for a midday rain and hoped the weather wouldn’t interfere with our snorkeling plan.
Fortunately, it cleared up by the time we made it to Tulamben, and we were able to go snorkeling. To really see the shipwreck involves scuba diving, but it was still fun to paddle around looking at all the fish and bits of the boat’s stern visible from the surface. Tulamben isn’t much of a town, so we had our trusty driver take us to a beach called Sanur, down closer to the capital and allegedly beautiful, quiet and clean. It was dark when we arrived, but Kelsi and I were all excited about the prospect of quality beach time the next day (Haley and Kelly left Bali a day before us), without garbage and throngs of tourists. The planets were aligned, and it was a lovely beach on a lovely day. We lay in the sun and swam out as far as we could in the translucent water. A dozen brightly-colored rowboats lay on the sand, with eclectic designs painted on the bow, and thin flags fluttered in the air. We had a good portion of the beach to ourselves and no-one tried to sell us anything. It was the elusive, idyllic beach we had been searching for.
Our initial plan was to spend our last night in Kuta, near the airport. The cab driver convinced us it would be good to go to Jimbaran for dinner, a small fishing town where there are scores of fresh seafood barbeque restaurants on the beach with sunset views. Jimbaran is not a place where people tend to stay overnight- generally they get a cab from Kuta for dinner and then return. Kelsi and I, short of funds, decided to stay overnight. Our cab driver insisted there would be nowhere to stay, but we were stubborn, and roamed the streets for an hour searching for a guest house. We attracted some questioning stares, but as Peace Corps volunteers, we are so used to being the oddly placed foreigners that we were unphased. Our ramblings brought us into an open-air fish market and down muddy alleyways until finally, finally, we found a place. Sweaty and exhausted, we waited for the water and electricity to be turned on so we could bathe and cool off, and then walked down to the beach to enjoy a few beers on the sand before dinner. The local guy who helped us locate the guest house was a waiter at one of the restaurants and said we’d get a discount if we ate there. When the sun began to dip lower in the sky and the fading light made silhouettes of all the fishing boats anchored in the water, we picked a table on the sand and giggled over the romance of our situation. Picking live fish out of a tank was quite the adventure, as both of us were weirded out by selecting a fish to be killed, and on a limiting budget. Sated and sad to be leaving Bali, we went to bed early in preparation for our 5 am flight.


When Kelsi and I did our minimal planning, we agreed we wanted to visit more than one island. Bali is the most well-touristed island and for good reason, but in a predominantly Muslim country, we wanted to break out of the Bali bubble. We opted to visit Jogyakarta on Java. Jogyakarta is considered the cultural center of Java. Jogya was also an accessible journey from Bali and there are two famous temples within daytrip distance. We had three days and planned to spend the first day exploring the city itself; then the last two days we would visit Borobudur, a Buddhist temple, and Prambanan, a Hindu temple. We found a windowless room in a cheap guest house, but there was complimentary tea and coffee, as well as a quaint balcony for guests to hang out on.
Jogyakarta is a center for batik production, and anything from dresses to backpacks to fine art paintings are sold. When we walked down the promenade on Jalian Marlioboro, we were bombarded by hundreds of batik vendors. We emerged at the other end, in front of the Colonial post office, and sat down to rest our feet. While we consulted our map, a friendly looking Indonesian man sat down on the other side of the bench and began asking us questions in excellent English. Kels and I were on a guard a bit, but quickly warmed to our smiley and helpful new pal, Wayan. He showed us how to get to the palace and explained the cheapest way to get to the temple the next day. He asked if we were interested in art, and said if we wanted to see the best batik artwork, we should visit an art school where the government subsidizes students and teachers, as well as masters. It was a 15 minute walk away and not a tourist trap. Wayan gave us a rough sketch of how to get there, and helped us cross the chaotic street by flapping his arms like a bird.
Kelsi and I wandered around slightly lost, until another, very small man approached us with a huge grin. He pointed to my tan skin and said “brown-very nice, very nice. Where are you from?” When we said America, he squealed with glee and asked where we were going. We told him, and he again squealed with glee. “But how do you know about this place? Foreigners do not usually know.” We told him about our friend Wayan and he said “Wayan! I too work at the post office. He is my friend. I am so happy you want to visit the art centre. I will help you get there,” and he guided us in the midday heat to the art centre, which was of course, down a narrow alley. The inside looked very much like an art school, with canvases stacked everywhere and two college-aged girls hunched over cloth in the back, under the watchful eye of the teacher. A man came to greet us, and he too spoke excellent English. He further explained about the centre and their mission, and invited us to look around, ask questions, and urged us not to feel obligated to buy. We were in heaven. Kelsi and I must have spent an hour wandering from room to room, rummaging through the stacks, picking our favorite paintings out, discussing what we thought some of the artwork meant, and asking the man dozens of questions about the works and the artists. We fell in love with the place and its ethos. Despite our thirty-minute discussion that very morning about how admirably frugal we were going to be in Java, neither of us could resist buying small paintings. Feeding our souls was more important than our bodies, and we were willing to exist only on food from street carts and oatmeal in order to support the arts
The next day, we went to Borobudur, the UNESCO Buddhist temple about an hour away. Borobudur is allegedly the world’s largest Buddhist stupa and is said to be the greatest piece of classical architecture in Indonesia. It is a representation of the Buddhist cosmic mountain, Meru, and is shaped like a pyramid, with nine, increasingly smaller levels. Each level has walls on either side, as well as four staircases oriented at the cardinal directions. Pilgrims are supposed to start at the East and walk clockwise around the base, ascending each time at the East staircase, and continuing to walk around this way until reaching the top. The base represents the earthly world, and thus the walls on the lower level are somewhat oppressive, and covered in carvings depicting sensual pleasures. As each level gets smaller, the walls also begin falling away to reveal glimpses of the surrounding valley. As the thick stone falls away, so to, do material concerns. The summit is nirvana, a platform with unencumbered and breathtaking views. The journey around the temple is meant to represent the path towards enlightenment.
PS: We did not make it to Prambanan, as we spent the entrance fee money on paintings.


Unlike the small and spare Jogya airport, the Singapore airport was huge, spotless, and filled with intriguing sculptures. We took the subway into the city center and emerged onto wide, clean streets with skyscrapers lining the horizon and not a street-seller in sight. Nobody noticed us, much less called out to us, and the general vibe was so orderly and calm that Kelsi and I felt like singing through the streets. Thailand and Indonesia are wonderful, vibrant countries, but sometimes it feels like you can’t take two steps without an unfortunate smell, being hassled to buy something, or being stared at like a freak. Between the quiet, the shining, open sidewalks and the cosmopolitan crowd rushing by, we felt blissfully anonymous. In addition to modern architecture, shopping, and strict laws, Singapore is also known for its food. It was a country which started as a trading post, and thus from its inception was the melting pot of Asia. Malay, Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, Indian, Arab, Japanese (and so on) all went for trade purposes and stayed. Like Americans, most people from Singapore have a country they are originally from. They moved to Singapore and settled in neighborhoods with distinct personalities resonant of their homes. The most prominent of these are Little India, Chinatown, and Arab Street. Kelsi and I were determined to visit and eat in every neighborhood, a food and temple crawl of sorts.
Our first stop was Little India. On our way, we walked through the Bugus arcade, which is a covered market with everything from dresses to dildos. On a search for coffee, we happened upon one of the legendary Singapore food courts. It is basically a pavilion with dozens and dozens of stalls selling all types of Asian food. We walked through overwhelmed and wide eyed until we found a coffee stand. We were continuing on with our coffees when a rainstorm broke out and after seeking refuge and purchasing an umbrella, we ventured back out into the storm, not wanting to waste any of our precious day. We made it to little India soaking wet and chose a restaurant filled with Indian men, which we figured it must be good. We ordered a biryani platter to share and followed the example of the other patrons by scooping the rice and curry up with our fingers. Now only slightly damp, we ventured off to peruse the rest of the area. Little India was charming, and the two/three story, brightly painted buildings formed a cool contrast to the skyscrapers in the background. The scent of curry wafted out of restaurants, ornate Hindu temples peeked out from behind gates, and colorful saris hung from store fronts. Our senses felt happy.
From Little India, we mosied East to the waterfront where there was a giant Ferris Wheel. The Ferris Wheel was $30, so Kelsi and I opted to sit on the sidewalk, rest our feet, and watch its slow movement instead. Our dinner plan was to visit Arab Street, but as we weren’t hungry yet, we bought a bottle of wine (we calculated it was more cost effective than beer) and drank it on the roof of our hostel, watching the sunset mingle with the neon lights of the city. Arab Street was a quaint and refined, a neat array of cream colored buildings and cobblestone lanes, all under the watchful eye of an elegant mosque. Keeping with our tradition of sharing sampler platters, we searched out a restaurant with Meze, hookah, and sidewalk seating. We each had $5 left in our daily budget after dinner, and walked to back to Little India with the hope that one of the backpacker bars would have drink specials. Turned out there were no drink specials for under $5, but a bar owner took pity on us and offered free beer in exchange for going inside-the bar was empty. Sold. 2 hours , 5 new friends, multiple pints, and 1 free pizza later, Kelsi and I still had our $5 intact, as well as a lesson on Shiraz from a Tazmanian sailor and debate about James Joyce with a Malaysian-German kid raised in America.
On our last day, we visited the beautiful Asian Civilizations museum. The museum is housed in a stately, white European building with wood floors and high ceilings. We saw many familiar Southeast Asian images, but it was very different to experience them in a museum context rather than as a part of daily life. After the museum, we went to Chinatown for the last stop on the food crawl and final opportunity to buy souvenirs. It was the most clean and orderly Chinatown I have ever experienced. Chinese lanterns hung from the sky and there were stalls of herbs, clothes, and trinkets everywhere, but the usual seediness and chaos of Chinatowns was absent. Singapore’s Chinatown is home to a famous Buddhist relic temple, with hundreds of small Buddha images lining the wall. The temple practices Vajrayana Buddhism, the Dalai Lama’s strain, and so many the images and rituals were saw were unfamiliar us (Thais practice Theraveda). Just down the road at a Hindu temple, we watched the lead-up to a coal walking ceremony, where men dressed in white cloths wrapped around their waist prepared a fire pit behind a group of musicians. The proximity of all these varied and vibrant religious traditions was astounding. To walk past saffron clad, Buddhist monks, and then spot a Yogi 10 seconds later. In front of a mosque. Next to a Chinese fortune teller. With a sleek mall in the background. That was Singapore.
We spent our last dollars on Subway at the Singapore airport, and returned to Bangkok exhausted and ready to stay in one place for a while.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Post 30: Schools Out!

It is quiet in the oppressive heat. Sound moves slowly through the thick air and lethargy pervades everything. Schools are closed during the hot season because it is too hot to go to school. Minute actions, like walking to the trash bin or tidying my bedroom, can leave me feeling dizzy and weary. The only tenable way to pass the sweltering days is to read in my hammock, shaded by the thick leaves of a jackfruit tree. The summer break lasts for two months. March and April were busy months for me, filled with visits, Songkran and travel. Now it is May and I am back at site, waiting and melting away the few weeks before school starts. Both due to the temperature and the absence of anything structured to do (like go to school), I’ve been reading more voraciously than usual, painted and scribbled poetry, introduced neighborhood children to Frisbee and Twizzlers, and worked on various side-projects for school. With my open days drawing to a close, I want to write a bit about the wonderful experiences vacation from school offered, starting back in March.
The Grants Conquer Thailand
Dad and Yvonne timed their visit with the last days of school. They wanted to see what the schools were like in-session and came prepared with Frisbees and DC key chains for my graduating sixth graders. Like my mom last October, Dad and Yvonne successfully navigated their way to Phitsanulok on their own. That evening, we met nine people from my site-an assortment of teachers and friends-for a fresh fish dinner on the river. Dad and Yvonne tried Thai chili relish for the first time, and elicited laughter around the table when they gulped down water afterwards. My dad paid for the meal at my request, to thank all of them for supporting me over the past year. As the youngest, I am never allowed to pay for meals, and this was an indirect opportunity for me to give back.
I took Dad and Yvonne with me to Thangam School the next morning. Back in the beginning, the teachers and students were shy when I brought other farangs around. Now after a year, they have met so many of my friends and family members that all timidity has evaporated. We started with a grand tour of the school, and then my first graders performed Alphabet Zoo and “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”. After distributing and demonstrating with the Frisbees, one of my sixth grade boys jumped on my dad and straddled him. One of my other students was so excited about her keychain, she took it apart and was unable to put it back together, so we promised her a new one. We ate school lunch with everyone, and then my plan was to make som tum (to review, the spicy papaya salad). Som tum is a big part of life here in rural Thailand. People eat is fairly often, and making it or going to a som tum shop is always a social, communal, shared activity. That morning before school, we’d stopped by the open, daily market to explore and purchase the necessary ingredients- unripe papaya, limes, chili peppers, tomatoes, shrimp, and green beans. The sugar, fish sauce and wet soaked tamarind were already at school, along with multiple mortar and pestle sets. Som tum is easy enough to make, the trick is to assemble the right ingredients and mash them together in tasty ratios. Some people prefer sweeter som tum, while others lean towards spicy with fermented fish paste, or salty with weird little rice-paddy crabs. I made the first round under the watchful eyes of the teachers (sans rotting fish goo and crabs), and Dad and Yvonne tried their hands with the mortar and pestle as well. Then the teachers and students took over, and we spent the next few hours eating and comparing, making more som tum, and then eating and comparing again.
The following day, we went to Wat Bot School, which has a totally different vibe. The school is more than 10 times bigger than Thangam, and while the little kids are just as cute, the big, district school lacks the charm of the tiny, village one. Dad, Yvonne and I meandered around, said hello to many of the 40 teachers, peeked into the music room, played with the kindergartners, and watched the elementary kids chant their Buddhist prayers. As it was a cloudy day, we took the opportunity for a long, leisurely stroll around the community, passing by my favorite spot-the rickety wooden suspension bridge over the river. For lunch, we ate some of the best noodles I’ve had in Thailand (made special for us because I am pals with the cook), and visited the hospital and the prettiest local wat in the afternoon. The next day we departed for Sukothai and Chiang Mai, where my sister would meet us in a few days time.
March 13th was National Thai elephant day, and the three of us celebrated at an elephant camp outside of Chiang Mai. The camp held a festival with lots of food, shows, and activities. We saw elephants painting pictures by holding the brushes in their trunks, and over 60 elephants eating simultaneously from massive piles of bananas and watermelon rinds. Many elephants in Thailand are treated horribly, tied in chains, hit, and forced to walk the streets looking for people willing to give money for a ride. These elephants however, were protected and well cared-for. It was beautiful to see so many borderline mythical creatures uncaged and content. We passed the time until Sarah arrived with spa trips, lounging by the pool, and shopping at Chiang Mai’s awe-inspiring Sunday night market. When Sarah finally emerged through the gate at the airport, I made a bit of a scene by flinging my arms around her and crying on her shoulder, but I was so happy to be reunited with my little sister, I didn’t care. Plus, (for those of you who know her), a bit of forced cuddling probably did her good. Over the next few days, the four of us went on an abbreviated Chiang Mai wat tour and ate too much . Then Sar and I did Jungle Flight (a 6 hour zip-line-through-the-forest excursion) and took a short trip to Chiang Rai as a twosome, for some sisterly bonding time.
Our next stop after the mellow North was Bangkok, which no-one would describe as mellow. Our hotel was beautiful and we pledged to take full advantage of its amenities. After a regroup, Beau met us at the Jim Thompson House, a museum that was formerly the home of an American ex-pat living in Bangkok. His home is a series of teak wood buildings, very well-decorated, as Thompson managed to amass quite the collection of Southeast Asian art before mysteriously disappearing one day, never to surface again. My dad wants to write a movie about it and is currently searching for a leading man  At sunset, we all went for drinks on the roof of the Siam @ Siam hotel, which offers awesome views of the city and excellent mojitos. We spent my family’s last full day in Thailand doing a site seeing highlight tour of Wat Po and the Royal Palace. Even though I’ve been to Bangkok many times, I never do the touristy things there, so it was my first time to the palace as well. I took Sarah to Khao San, the crazy New Orleans-esque backpacker quarter, for souvenir shopping, and that night, we ate dinner on a boat. Many a time on the river taxi, I had seen old wooden barges slowly gliding up and down the water at sunset, lit up with twinkling lights and the tinkling of wine glasses. I knew my dad would love the idea of dinner on a boat, so we booked a table through our hotel, and had a magical meal while floating on the river.
Looking back, the whole visit feels like a blur that went by too fast, but a happy blur filled with pools, temples, fluffy beds, markets, and long conversations over breakfast omelettes and Singhas (but not together). When they left for the airport, I felt overcome by the dreaded sense of emptiness which I’ve grown sadly used to- that of saying goodbye to people you love. I consoled myself in thinking that if this first year passed so quickly, so will the next one and I’ll be home before I know it. But before then, many things awaited me. Like Songkran and Indonesia.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


I’m not sure what roused me first-the neon sun rising electric over the banana trees or yaai telling me it was time to wake up. I sat up from my mat on the hardwood floor and looked out at the mystic pink morning. Sticking my head through the naked window, I inhaled deep breaths of Isaan air, heavy with the scent of sticky rice and the noise of women in the kitchen, up cooking since before dawn. Languid, twangy strands of long drum music mingled with the sounds of chopping and chatter, and I could sense a unique energy hovering in the air over the house.
It was the day of Beau’s monk ordination. His site is in Mahaserakham, an Isaan (Northeastern) province roughly 9 hours east of where I live. In Isaan, the people speak a dialectic blend of Lao and Thai, which I don’t understand. The diet staple is sticky rice, which grows easier in the dry climate, and the people are known for their unusual noises and irrational love for fermented fish paste. The language barrier was not a problem when Beau was around to translate, but at one point I was left in the kitchen with 5 Isaan women to make treats for the party. We spent hours wrapping a goo made out of sticky rice, coconut, sesame, peanut treats in banana leaves, and while I was certain my banana leaf folding technique was being lamented, or at least mocked, I couldn’t be sure. It was like being a new volunteer all over again. The preparations for monk parties are the same in Isaan as in Northern Thailand, but I had never seen the ordination process all the way through, or I had never been close to the person entering the monkhood.
Around 60% of men in Thailand will become a monk at some point in their lives. Like bar mitzvahs or confirmations, it is a cultural and religious rite of passage. A son becoming a monk, bpuat pra, is a huge source of pride and status for the family. Although to be a Buddhist monk means to be a follower of Buddha, any male can become a monk regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation. Many male volunteers choose to “bpuat”, and can be a monk for anywhere between 7 days and a lifetime. Beau chose a time period of 15 days, and within that period will observe the rules of the Sangha: no touching women; no consumption of alcohol, caffeine or tobacco; no killing even the tiniest ant or most irksome fly; no food after noon; no underwear, the list goes on.
Ngan bpuats tend to be extravagant affairs, with copious amounts of food and alcohol, multiple ceremonies, Buddhist rituals, Pali chanting, gift-giving, and parades through the streets. Yaai, the grandma who lives next door to Beau, collaborated with Pii Chan, the supervisor of the local health station, to plan his ordination. They selected the wat, squared everything with the monks, and organized the actual event, which was held at Pii Chan’s house. Her house is made of teak wood and elevated on stilts; the event took place on straw mats underneath the house. Guests began arriving around 8 am, and the old women immediately set to work creating an offering out of banana leaves and flowers, while the men organized the merit-making donations. The table was piled high with pillows, toiletry gift baskets, and monk robes.
After some mingling and good-natured teasing, Pii Chan’s husband Boon carried a chair into the center of the straw mats, and told Beau to sit down. Boon handed me a heavy, pewter bowl filled with water and one banana leaf. Everyone formed a line, and each person snipped one piece of Beau’s hair and placed the snippet into the bowl. When the line was finished, Boon took Beau outside to complete the job by shaving his head and eyebrows. When not a hair was left on his head, Beau went upstairs to change. He came back down wearing his novice outfit, a green and pink silk cloth wrapped around his waist, an open-front white lace robe, and a Buddha amulet.
During this interim, I had been whisked away to change clothes as well. Apparently, my own clothing was not “beautiful” enough, and thus a collection of traditional Thai suits were assembled for me to try on. While I am a small person, I couldn’t get the long, narrow skirts over my foreign hips. Three women hovered around me, trying desperately to squeeze me into a number of binding Thai outfits, while I stood dishabille in the center of the room, awkward, but glad I chose not to wear my cartoon underwear. The only suit to zip was a coral pink number with shoulder pads. Despite the fact he was not supposed to laugh, Beau couldn’t help but giggle as I walked uncomfortably around the party like a sausage out of 1983.
The family shrine was brought downstairs and 10 cushions were placed in front of a tapestry hanging. 10 monks filed in, their saffron robes casting spiritual warmth over the room, and each sat in lotus pose facing the group. Beau sat in the center and the chanting began. While praying, everyone holds their hands in the wai position and those who know the words chant along. I hoped the dress wouldn’t rip as I kneeled and bowed on the ground. Lunch was served just before noon, and everyone told Beau to eat up, as he wouldn’t have another meal until the next morning. By this time, Heather had arrived from her site 25 kilometers away, and we marveled together how Beau no longer looked like Beau. He was Beauddha (I couldn’t help myself).
The monks left after the meal and the speech and gift-giving portion of the day began. Beau sat in front of the banana leaf offering, surrounded by mostly old women wearing white, and there was another round of prayers and chants. Men who are close to Beau in the community made speeches and wished him good luck, and we all took pieces of white string, or “kwaam”, to tie around his wrists, representing the dispelling of evil and wishes for good spirits. Finally it was time for the parade. I ran upstairs to change yet again, because the idea of walking in midday heat for over a mile in that dress was unbearable, and as I hurried back down, I saw the float was already pulling out of the driveway and the parade assembled.
Beau sat stoically on the float with his hands in a wai position. Someone had given him sunglasses, which created an odd contrast to his novice outift. Boon stood next to him, holding an umbrella to shield his unprotected scalp from the sun. Hoards of children hung off the truck, ready to pounce on the coins and candies tossed off the back. Next came the older women, serenely holding the gifts. Theoretically, monks have no money or possessions, and thus rely on in-kind donations for sustenance. Behind the elder women, the party began. The best long drummer in the village had been hired for the day, and a huge, mobile, speaker unit was rigged to follow the parade. The music was loud, and dancers surrounded the band and speakers. The women who spent all day cooking and cleaning were now holding bottles of beer and enjoying themselves, along with younger members of the community and random fun-seekers who hitched onto our parade. We all danced our hearts out under the hot sun, and the women were diligent in teaching Heather and I Isaan dance moves and fighting off the drunk teenagers who wanted to dance with us.
When we arrived at the wat, Beau disembarked from his throne and the parade followed him around the sanctuary three times, to represent the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. Then two men picked Beau up (two little Thai men and a 6’2 American boy-not an easy task) and carried him up the stairs and into the central sanctuary where the monks awaited. Only men were allowed inside the sanctuary, and all the women sat on straw mats outside with the gifts. The people closest to Beau were invited to sit at the top of the sanctuary stairs and peer in. The monks lined the sides of the room and Beau sat in the center in front of a large Buddha altar. After a while, the monks closed the door, and we could hear more chanting echoing in the small room. Maybe 45 minutes, the doors opened again, and we could see the monks wrapping Beau in the orange robes. There was of course some more chanting, and finally they emerged from the sanctuary. Beau held an alms bowl, and we bowed to him before placing money in his bowl. The monks descended the stairs and Beau stood regally at the top, waving at the people waiting below.
The official ceremony was over. He was a monk. We took pictures, walked around the lake to his monk house, a one room wooden huts on stilts. Heather and I waved goodbye and hopped onto his float for the ride back to town. We joked how it felt like dropping a kid off at summer camp, and we worried if he would have enough to eat or if the other monks would be nice to him. A teacher took me into the town for the bus back to site, and 10 hours, 5 vehicles, and 750 baht later, I made it home.
It was an intense whirlwind of an experience and when the dust settled and I found myself processing it all in my hammock, I was struck by two things. The first was how natural the robes seemed on Beau, how they suited him in a way that not all farangs can pull off. Secondly, I was overwhelmed by the support and love evident in the community. It was moving to see how much people cared about him and how excited they were to share the experience. They accepted him. Watching him at the head of a parade 100 people thick, listening to the speeches in Thai about his good heart, and seeing the tables heaped high with food and donations in his honor, I saw the magic that can be a part of Peace Corps. I truthfully had not felt that in a while, and I am grateful that it has come back.