Monday, December 3, 2012

Projects, projects, projects

It seems the last few weeks have suddenly been busy, which means most of all that although there have been plenty of things worth writing about, there hasn’t been any time for the gathering of thoughts and committing them to paper (or screen). It also means that the housecleaning has been taking a serious hit in our estimation of its importance, which could explain why I just poured hot water all over my computer bag in order to kill a nest of ants that had taken up residence there. (I am a bad Buddhist.) Of course, I had just put my computer in that bag this morning, thinking it would be safer (from what?) in there than out in the open in the house, and so I’m now periodically also smashing ants as they crawl out from between the keys while I type this.

The activity consuming most of my mental and physical energy for the last three weeks has been the painting of a mural at my bpratom (elementary) school. I initiated the so-called World Map Project a few months ago, hoping to include some geography and nation related terms and ideas in a few lessons that I thought could lead up to the eventual painting of the map. Although initially well-received, the project was almost immediately back-burnered because I brought it up during the rainy season, and part of the set-up involved using a projector to project the image of the map on the wall we had chosen. So, while we chose a wall outside, and painted in white in anticipation of the eventual map, nothing else happened. My co-teacher and I decided to wait until the end of rainy season when it would be safe to run an extension cord outside and when we’d have more than a couple of hours of decent, dry weather to complete the map with the kids.

I had wanted to wait until January, since it made more sense with our curriculum and since that would give me time to incorporate the correspondence I’ve started with a teacher in Florida and maybe get our curricula on the same page for a magic week or two. No such luck. A few weeks ago, the school found out that someone from the Jangwat (province) level is going to visit the school, and essentially grade them on a variety of measures of performance. A visit from an official in Thailand is a major event, one that has necessitated the cleaning out of many an old closet, cabinet, desk, and drawer. It has mean the cleaning and recleaning of stairs and walls and the putting up of posters, black boards, and various other instruments of learning that until now, we have done without. We now have a word of the day program (both English and Thai) and fancy new black boards to write those words on outside where the kids have their morning assembly. We now have binders upon binders of evidence of projects that the school has done over the last five years. Grades are being tallied by hand in thick record books. Children’s heights, weights, and speeds at the 50 and 100 meter dashes are being measured and recorded. Letters, pictures, documents are being printed and bound with delicate precision. Many a “jackboard” (bulletin board with stuff on a particular theme) is being assembled around the school. Josh and I even got to create a jackboard with information about AIDS for World AIDS Day (Dec. 1). Fortunately, we had our friends at the anamai help us out with this one; otherwise, it would have been a heck of a task to Google-translate our way to coherent and accurate information!

In the midst of all this, long meetings began to happen on a regular basis. I attended the first two, at which I was asked to start the World Map project ASAP to be finished in time for the Saw Maw Saw visit on Dec. 4. I couldn’t really say no. I mean, I don’t really think the random white patch on the wall looked very good either. So, we pulled it off. Three weeks, two extra 8-hour days per week later, we ended up with a beautiful map of the world on the wall. Of course, up close, the detail work is a little lacking.

We managed to revise the coastlines of all seven continents – call it global warming taking its toll. We also resolved a few territorial disputes in the Middle East, Europe, and Central Asia with a few brush strokes. I doubt Israel would be happy with its current containment (but then again, Syria probably isn’t, either). We didn’t manage to get Palestine or Tibet on the map, but those political developments seemed a little out of our hands. Several times, I had to save light-colored countries from the naam-tuam (flood) the kids were inflicting on them with their wild painting frenzy.

Nearly everyone is unhappy that Thailand is dark green – but this turned out to be a blessing when we lacquered the map and all of the black marker we’d used for the borders ran, creating a few new mountain ranges and river valleys at the borders of France and Spain, northern Russia, parts of Mexico, and basically anywhere else that was originally yellow, orange, or light blue. We nearly lost Hawaii to the cavalier brushstrokes of a few 5th graders who shall remain unnamed – I had to re-paint the home state of our president from scratch as a last minute measure.

I painted and repainted borders, mixing and remixing colors, with the expert help of my co-teacher, who is also the art teacher. For days on end I recalled old memories of painting with my grandfather in the sunroom at his Albuquerque house. I had to remind myself as I asked the kids, “tam arai??” (what are you doing??) with rising panic every time they dripped paint down the whole of the wall that I was once just as clumsy and unschooled with a paintbrush, and that I have my late grandfather’s patience and love to thank for my even now novice ability to create art at the tip of a brush.

Tomorrow, the officials from the jangwat (province) will show up, and who knows what scrutiny they will bring to bear on these tiny projects. If they criticize the lack of labels, the hastily done borders, the height or size of the map, it won’t be a surprise. But, they won’t see the 120+ tiny hands that helped to make the map what it is, or the surprising conversations that have already taken place because of it.

“Where is Korea? My dad works there.”
“Where is Canada? My dad works there.”
“Wow! America is big!”
“What’s the biggest country in the world?”
“What country has the most people.”
“Do you know what country this is? This is Australia.”
“What’s all that white at the bottom of the world?”
“Where is it the coldest?”
“Where’s your house, Kruu Erin?”

I guess this is what it's all about. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

India - Erin's Perspective

Er, Erin's camera, that is. Enjoy these almost 200 other pics of almost the same things. :)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A (post) birthday birthday post

Depending on where you are, it might still be my birthday. For me, though, it's over, and year 29 begins on a cool, cloudy Thai morning. (Yes, I'm 28, but that means it's the beginning of year 29, since yesterday I basically celebrated not getting myself killed for the first 28 years of my life.)

Today I woke up (relatively) early - I say relatively because it was early for me, but the birds, the farmers, and the neighbors had all probably been up for hours already, and I only felt compelled to join the fray when I remembered the mountain of greasy dishes from last night's birthday dinner still sitting in the kitchen (surreptitiously attracting ants). I also heard a funny noise that convinced me that someone was either attempting to (further) break or to fix our broken fence, so I figured I might as well get up and get something done before school.

The dishes were the aftermath of a hastily conceived and somewhat poorly executed meal of French fries (frozen, purchased Sunday), fried chicken, terrible beer, and "floor brownies."

Josh was responsible for the first three items, although the fact that the beer is terrible isn't his fault.

I am responsible for what turned out to be VERY chocolaty and a little bit  banana-y, not very sweet cookies.

They were supposed to be brownies, but in the manner of my mother, who once forgot to add the flour to the batter, I made some sort of terrible measuring mistake and ended up with something quite unlike a brownie batter. Thinking I had no sugar left, but needing to turn the "brownies" into something more like cookies (or else they would never fill the pan I had to bake them in, resulting in a thin layer of who knows what once baked), I added a little bit of coconut oil (sweet-ish, right?), some more flour, and then mashed a few bananas into the mix and called it a "cookie dough."

After we greased our hands and our bellies on the chicken and fries, I set about baking my new creation. First batch in and out of the oven and....
.... promptly dropped onto the floor.

And then from the floor onto the cooling rack because this is Thailand and chocolate is precious, and there was a worm in the garlic yesterday and I could ignore that, and there's always lizard poop somewhere and ants somewhere else, and further more, it's my birthday.

I managed not to drop the rest of the chocolate-banana cookies. And they were all delicious. And now we will call them "chocolate banana drops" and make them for years to come. But you can call them "floor brownies," if you like.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Blogs don't update themselves

In Thailand, people are rarely direct. If someone is concerned about something you did, or something you said, or that your hair is too long or your skirt is too short, or you forgot to close your fence last night, or really, anything at all, they wait until your neighbor gets home and then they gossip about you.

In the course of their conversation (something I've never been directly privy to), something happens and the person who wasn't originally concerned becomes concerned. And so they talk to someone else. Eventually, whatever you're doing wrong is communicated to you by the person determined to be the closest thing to an actual friend. This is how you sometimes find yourself at dinner listening to comments that begin with, "The yaais (grandmothers) are concerned about .... ."

It's also why I can really appreciate my American friends, who have absolutely no qualms whatsoever about saying things like, "I miss your blog." And then I know that it's time to write again. Thanks, friends. Keep the directness coming.

Today is my first day back at school after a month-long bit-term (school break), which, as you might have noticed from Josh's "pictures-are-worth-a-thousand-words-I-don't-have-time-to-write" blog post, included a trip to India. I haven't written about India because I haven't yet figured out how to write about it, but I'll give it a shot. The only word I have yet been able to use to describe it involves profanity, so I'll settle for this sentence instead: It was chaos--chaos of the senses, the intellect, the heart.

Chaos of the senses: The sights! The sounds! The smells! The cool, cool air! The fooooooood!
We arrived at night to a very modern-looking airport, and before we even disembarked from the plane, we were startled by an announcement that, "Prudy, passenger Prudy, we have a message for you." So Prudy, who had been with us for 10 days prior, seeing all sorts of crazy things at our site and in Bangkok, went and received the message that our "driver" had called to say he would be late. Our "driver" was actually our friend C. whom we'd gone to visit, and it turns out he was flying in the same day and his flight got in later than ours. From the minute we left the airport lobby with C. to the minute he dropped us back off at the ticket counters there 10 days later, we encountered a whirlwind of activity and confusion and excitement. Here are some highlights:

In Bangalore:
The bull temple, a monolithic bull (statue carved from a single piece of stone), that is still worshiped today and that is black because it is cared for with offerings of butter and oil that are rubbed on it daily.

Tipu Sultan Palace: The palace of Tipu Sultan and it's beautiful grounds/garden were one of the calmest places were went. A bit of an oasis in the middle of the city. The Sultan fought the British four times.

The ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) Temple: Chanting the Hare Krishna barefoot with devout believers was a compelling experience. Outside, we joined barefoot worshipers in their walk from stone to stone as they chanted the meditation 108 times. We blessed ourselves with fire and spent a few good long minutes meditating on the beauty of the inside - no pictures allowed - which was decorated in golds and whites, carvings and paintings of the Hindu deities adorning the walls. The walk through the gift shop (lots of pressure to buy) and the line for food (lots of pressure to buy) and the plans for the new ISKCON Center (which resembles an amusement park more than anything else) were less calming and slightly off-putting. But, that wasn't the only temple we went to where we were expected to "donate" for the right to worship and it seems to be common.

Indian Hospitality: C.'s cousin, D. was kind enough to let us stay in her home for several nights when we first arrived. She also served us incredible food, in portions large enough to feed a small army, night after night. Sometimes, we were so stuffed we couldn't imagine eating anything more, and then a new roti, chapati, or rice would appear on our plate, followed by a serving of some delectable, spicy, brightly colored dish, yellow dal, red chicken curry, green chutney. To die for.

The roads: hahahahaha.

The driving: I figured out that the rules of driving in India are just like those of downhill skiing: You are responsible for not hitting whatever is in front of you. That's it. But you also have this cool horn you can use to say, "hi!" or "I'm going to give you a love tap if you don't move over," or "holy *&^%!," or even, "I'm coming right for you and I don't plan on stopping!"

The directness: Like Thais, Indians don't seem to have any qualms about asking questions regarding money. But they will not politely tell you paid a little too much for something. They will tell you, with a horrified expression that you got ripped off. Then they will take you shopping and argue way more fiercely on your behalf than any Thai ever would. And you will get a good deal. And then they might buy you a present. (See Indian Hospitality, above.) They will tell you you are too skinny and that you need to get fat. (They will not understand why you can't get fat or why Thais think that's a bad thing.) They will attempt to make you fat. (See Indian Hospitality, above.)

In Madikeri:
I got sick. Mountain roads. Pollution. More mountain roads. Too much coffee.

In Mysore: Great food. People people everywhere. Festival. Palace!

In Hampi: Calm. Amazing views. Incredible landscape. Ruins. UNESCO Heritage Site controversy (google it). Sunrise hike to top of hill to see the Hanuman temple, at which the priest and other devotees read the Ramayana 24/7/365 (they have 3 hour shifts). Gift shopping. Delicious vegetarian food. Terrifying bus ride (see roads and driving, above).

It's not fair, really, to reduce the last six weeks to this post or the soundbites above, but it just doesn't yet seem possible to say more.

Plus last week other big things happened: Like, Amanda's English Camp, at which I did arts and crafts with the kids, broke up a fight, and got a new nickname (Pailyn, or sapphire).

Then Obama got elected, Karl Rove went crazy, and Petraeus resigned. And of course, school started again. I promise, I'll try to keep up the blog - but, who can compete with all that news?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Lots of Photos from India

Monday, October 1, 2012

Ants. Ants. Ants. A Cliche.

FIRST, AN UPDATE: The soap works. It lathers. It is in bottles. It has been placed in the bathrooms. It is still a foreign agent looked upon suspiciously by the children. Now, to make handwashing fun.

And the ants.

If anything in this country is going to make me crack up, and I mean seriously lose it, it’s going to be the ants. Sure, getting your love handles grabbed by your co-workers, with the added insult that they actually tell you that you’re fat as they do it—that gets old. Really old. So does the heat—getting out of the shower only to start sweating again; arriving at school after a ten minute bike ride dripping already, with helmet-hair plastered to your face. That’s not really that exciting anymore. Neither, might I add, is the fact that our water goes off from about 8 am until about 4:30 pm every day. Which is fine unless it happens to be Saturday and you’re halfway through a load of laundry (your sheets) when the naam stops lai-ing. Even the giant spiders are okay because they come seldom and because Josh has a pretty good technique with the broom. But I don’t want to complain about those things. I can live with all that.

I want to complain about this: Apparently (predictably?) I also live with thousands, probably more like hundreds of thousands, of variously-sized insects. They waltz right in the front door. In fact, they’ve set up camp, and they think they’re going to achieve a permanent residence right inside the concrete foundation of the house. Then they’re just gonna use the front door as their entrée into what is apparently a veritable buffet for them.

My research on these little creatures reveals that they are in search of either sugar or protein, and that the scavenger ants bring the morsels they can carry back to the colony where they are fed to the larvae, which then excrete a liquid that the adult ants eat. Gross. Research and anecdotes from friends also suggests that baiting them with borax-laced peanut butter can kill whole colonies, but so far I’m uncomfortable with inviting the enemies in such a devious manner. Also relatively uncomfortable with the prospect of spraying the place with yaa gan mot (“medicine against ants”) because it comes in one of those scary looking spray cans with black and orange on the label and has probably been outlawed in various other countries with more progressive laws regarding chemical agents. So the options are somewhat reduced to being a SUPERFREAK when it comes to cleaning (not really an option), sealing the entire house (not really an option, this place is open to anything less than an inch big in any one dimension. Vinegar has been suggested. Cinnamon too. They don’t like garlic (no protein, no sugar). They apparently don’t like coffee (those grounds and coffee rings could stay put on the counter for weeks if we let them—like most Thais, I guess they don’t really know a good brew when it’s right under their noses).

Yesterday, I ordered Josh to bring the hot water boiler (which, under certain circumstances yet to be completely revealed the ants also love to inhabit), full of boiling water, so that I could squirt it into the entrance to their underground kingdom that I’d discovered right outside the front door. We were cleaning everything else. I figured drowning some ants couldn’t hurt the cause and one ant forum had included the suggestion of pouring boiling water into their colonies to flush them out. Let them know they’re not welcome in the neighborhood, you know? So I drowned some ants. Twenty minutes later, they were rebuilding. I swept them away. Rinse repeat. Twenty minutes later, they’re rebuilding. More water? Rinse repeat. Maybe we’re the ones not welcome in the neighborhood.

We cleaned and cleaned and cleaned. Josh took the strings off of his guitar, unscrewing the keys only to find that hundreds of our six-legged friends had been living in there. They came out carrying their eggs and looking for a new home. We have ant-proofed a table in the kitchen and an eating table by placing the legs in yogurt cups and filling them with water. We have discovered that the cheese packets in the precious mac ‘n’ cheese we received from home are anything but ant-proof. Unlike most Thais, ants apparently have an insatiable desire for powdered cheese. Now the remaining unharmed mac ‘n’ cheese lives in the freezer, which the ants have so far not infiltrated.

So last night I found myself, as I increasingly do, bent over staring at a line of ants. “Where are you going?” I asked them. This is what they’ve done: ants have reduced me to muttering to myself in the kitchen. I tried the cinnamon, precious seasoning though it is, having had to be purchased in BKK and all. . I sprinkled it outside the entrance to their lair in the wall just above the kitchen counter. They went a little nuts, and the more I spread the cinnamon out, the more they just kept going a little crazy, walking their scent trail and doing a little arm wiggling and hugging when they met their brethren going the other way. A whole gaggle of them stopped at the cinnamon, walking this way and that, but not able or willing to move forward. Not entirely satisfied with the result, there wasn’t much more I could do besides imagine the content of their conversations, and that seems a little crazy.

Didn’t I say if anything in Thailand makes me completely crack up, it’ll be the ants? It doesn’t much help that the little ones bite in self-defense if you accidently step on them and that sometimes my body freaks out a little and swells completely out of proportion with the offense. Now, I can spot one across the floor at 20 feet, and Josh is probably sick of me pointing them out as if it’s some kind of novelty, but I can't help it. I'm obsessed. I'm developing a grand fascination for the little creatures that makes me both immensely curious about them even as my hatred for them grows. 

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

project: avert soap disaster. Countdown: t minus 15 minutes.

The title of this blog is taken from a Facebook post that I made last Thursday morning, at about 9:15 am (local time, that is).

About three weeks ago, on a Wednesday, I suggested to my co-teacher at one school that maybe, just maybe, we could make soap at the school and put it in the bathrooms and at the sinks so the kids could use it to wash their hands. I had found a glycerin-based soap recipe and instructions on our PC Thailand Wiki, along with a video a former volunteer had posted about the hand-washing projects and lessons she had prepared to go along with her soap-making project. (I later found out that the liquid soap recipe might be for washing dishes, but whatever. Germs are germs. Soap is soap.) My co-teacher immediately mentioned my idea to another teacher who was in the lounge. She thought it was a great idea. Sweet! I thought, This might actually happen.

Two days later, I was sitting in a staff meeting at the school, trying to pay attention and keeping one eye out the window in case the thunder clouds started gathering ominously and I could make a dash out the door with the "dtong bpai gon fone dtok" (gotta go before it rains!!) excuse. I had no such luck. Instead, at the very end of the meeting, my co-teacher produced the documents I had printed from the wiki, and gave them to the pa'a, announcing that next week, I would make soap with the kids. My face did the thing that it does when I'm a little shocked and annoyed, and kind of worried. And then I did my best to rearrange my face into a smile, and agree to the project.

Crap. I thought, This is going to happen next week. This is only a problem because we hadn't yet discussed a) where to procure glycerin, rock salt, four kilos of limes/kaffir limes, and lye and b) the fact that the limes have to ferment and if you make lye from scratch with ashes, it takes at least a week before it's ready. I shouldn't have worried. The following week, the students showed up, as planned (and as they were ordered), with limes and kaffir limes (they're wrinkly, so from here on out, I'll call them wrinkly limes) and also with empty water bottles for bottling the soap. I brought some from my house, too. Someone else who works at the school showed up with a bunch of ashes. The water at the school was on. We had buckets. We had kids who were excited to be let out of class for 2 hours to watch the farang do something weird. It went fine. We cut 4 kilos of limes, added sugar, water and put the cap on. We added 12 liters of water to 4 kilos of ashes, stirred, and put the cap on that bucket, too. We made big plans for finishing the soap the following week.

And then, I went and changed all the plans on everyone because I had to go to the doctor last week, and that's like a 24 hour long process of travelling, checking into a hotel, travelling some more, talking to the PC doc, getting an appointment, etc., etc. So I was going to have to leave before the Friday when we'd planned to finish the job. I asked a few teachers if they could rearrange their schedules for the Thursday morning so we could finish the soap. They happily obliged. I created a PowerPoint about handwashing that I hoped to use on Wednesday in the English classes. I figured it would all be okay.

On Thursday morning, though, 15 minutes before go-time, I hadn't seen my co-teacher. I wasn't sure if the ash-water would have turned lye-like enough because it had only been 6 days, not 7-10, as stated in the instructions. We hadn't been able to do the handwashing lesson on Wednesday, mostly because I hadn't been able to convey the importance of the lesson to my co-teacher, so we'd done more phonics instead. I was tired. I was told that the 5th grade teacher, whose rowdy class no one can really control, least of all me and my co-teacher during our English classes, was not going to be able to come and help during the soap session. (As happens a lot here, she had a training she had to go to. I think it may have been in the afternoon, but she had to leave around 10. I didn't argue.) So I posted on FB about averting disaster, while taking a break between googling more "liquid soap making" pages and hoping for something brilliant that I hadn't yet come across to pop up. (No such luck.) About 3 minutes later, I found out my co-teacher had something else to do (painting the set for something for the anuban [pre-school] or something I didn't really understand, and although I did wonder whether we would have taught English during our regular time were it not for the soap-making that was replacing it, I decided not to press the point that my co-teacher really should have been available). Not much else to do but roll with it.

Rolling on over to the cafeteria, where we had started the project the week before, I found the school's janitor/handyman setting up a white board for me. But it was right in front of the table on which I planned to do everything, and blocking the students' view. So I tried, rather desperately, to communicate that the board was blocking the view and somehow this resulted in the poor old man going and getting more crap to put in front of the table to block the students' view. I gave up. Sometimes desperation gets in the way of communication. We got out the buckets of fermented wrinkly limes and ash water. The students sat down. I asked them to recall what we had done the week before, and promptly confused them and myself because I couldn't remember correctly. That straightened out, I proceeded to introduce the glycerin, the salt, and the process, as well as a few vocab words: germs, clean, wash your hands.

I invited a few students to come up and help me strain the juice from the wrinkly lime bucket. We set it aside. I asked if the remembered the name of the wrinkly lime in English, and one kid did. He could still even spell "Kaffir."

I invited students up to mix the salt and glycerin, then carried the bucket around the room to the tune of their "oohs" and "aahs" - polite kids, these, pretending to be so excited.

Then I put on long rubber gloves as we -  the mee krua (cook) and the janitor and I - strained the ashwater into a separate bucket. I tried to explain to the kids that I was wearing gloves because lye is dangerous, but the whole thing went over their heads - mostly because the mee krua and the janitor were bare handed, and I was wearing sandals and had bare legs anyway. (I mean, come on, these kids watch their parents solder without masks, build houses in flip flops, and spray pesticides on their fields in t-shirts).

I wrote the following song on the white board (theoretically sung to the tune of "Row Row Row Your Boat"):

Wash wash wash your hands
Wash them every day
Wash them with soap and wa-ter
And keep the germs away!

I had the students read the lyrics a few times, and then I sang it to them (never an effective teaching tool, my voice).

They kinda got it, but mostly the whole thing just fell flat (musically and metaphorically).

I invited the kids up to stir the mixture as I added lye water in a few liters at a time. I tried to lead the other kids in keeping time by singing the song, but that was disastrous so we just ended up counting to thirty and back down. And by we counted, I mean, I counted, they repeated, and we all got sick of each other pretty fast.

Soon, we had added all the ashwater, and all the wrinkly lime juice, and we had a bucket of soapy stuff. The janitor had rigged an electric drill with a stirring stick, and after all the kids had taken turns stirring the mixture with a long bamboo pole while their friends counted to 30 (with some significant help, in some cases, though not all), we pulled out the electric mixer, and the boys went wild.

Then, we put the cap on the bucket. Cleaned up. Got ready for lunch. Had no time to bottle the soap, mostly because my time-management skills are not awesome.

And then I ate lunch, and I left for Bangkok and four days of medical appointments and farang food.

Disaster averted? More or less. No one lost an eye or left covered in lye. There's a bucket of soap waiting to be poured into smaller bottles and distributed around the school, ready to meet the small and dirty hands of grade school children, several times a day.

At least, I hope that bucket of soap is still there.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

On making things that last

Sometimes people ask us how long we're going to be here. This question usually comes after we have exchanged a few sentences in Thai, and they've asked when we got here. Eight months ago, we say. Explaining that before we came to this town, we were in another town, learning Thai 4 days a week, 4 hours a day. This is by way of explanation of the question that always comes (or at least that we anticipate is coming): Why do you speak Thai?

So, how long will we be here? Two years, we say. And then correct ourselves. Well, in total, two years, but we've been here 6 months, so only another year and a half, we explain. Most people nod and take this in. Then they ask us if we miss our family. We go through variations of this dance several times a week with different people. Sometimes the same people who have asked us before ask us again, like our host mother did just a few weeks ago. When we said "2 years" she started laughing. Oh, "Bap diao!" she said, chuckling to herself. Just a moment. No time at all.

And tomorrow, that's how long we'll have been married. Bap diao. Just a moment. No time at all. Sure am happy to have many more moments ahead with my wonderful husband.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

In the tradition of not letting your blog die, I offer you this

It is lunch time in. I am at the SAO thinking about the list of self-imposed deadlines and expectations that I now need to deliver on. This week I have been tired, really tired; more on that in a moment. I arrived today at approximately 9:30 am, my pants soaked through from the 10 minute bike ride, yet shirt in pressed condition protected underneath my North Face water coat (yes, it is the rainy season, and it rains enough to say it rains every day). About five minutes after arrival I am called into a meeting of all abotaw (SAO) personnel at which time the Nayoke seems to give a pretty thorough ass razzing to all who were present. This was the most serious I have seen Thai people, for the longest amount of time since we have been here. The meeting lasted about 15 minutes during which I think I heard the term "pak-pon" many times, which means to recover. I estimate that I understood about 40% of what was being said which seemed to have to do with the community thinking that the abotaw workers just screw around all day and that they all really need to change the way they act while in the office. Of course none of this is being directly at the one guy in the room who doesn't really speak Thai, but I definitely got that cool feeling  that comes in a meeting of this sort. I tried to ask my friend about the meeting after we got out, and for the most part she seemed to substantiate my thoughts, although was not able to offer a whole lot more detail other than that there was a smaller meeting with the higher ups yesterday afternoon that was much worse. The investigation shall continue.

This is the second week that I have been working at a bratom (primary) school across the street from our house. This is the only school in the village that Erin does not work at, and very small with less than 50 students. I have agreed to teach grades 4-6 environmental education as well as computers. On Monday night, I will hold a computer class meant to help adults build their computer literacy, though I do not yet know what participation will look like. So now the tired part...

It is exhausting. I have taught only two and a half hour sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday morning, Tuesday being computers and Wednesday being environment, and am ready to go to sleep by the time I leave. So far this has been my experience with teaching kids, that any knowledge I can give them leaves me in the form of my ability to think, walk, or forecast the future of my life (eg. to take a shower). I think I need to find a more relaxed way to instruct. The constant reformulation of approach that necessarily occurs when teaching a subject in a different language while trying to also impart English language vocabulary, seems to be more than I can give right now which must mean I am doing something wrong. Next week I will try with better lesson planning. I mentioned that phrase to my fellow teacher yesterday and she said that lesson planning "gives you a headache". This goes a ways to explaining the copy and repeat learning style in many Thai schools.

I am also teaching at the hospital two nights a week with a classroom of doctors and nurses who want to speak better English. This course was thought up by myself and the district director to be of 6 week duration with a focus on terminology for health and medicine. The "students" for the most part all speak some English, understand a lot more and are mainly interested in pronunciation and phrase order during day to day interactions. PC Thailand has a workbook available that was made up by several previous volunteers which is what I am using for the framework of the curriculum. This class if often a lot more fun to teach because I am able to use adult commentary which as many of you know is a specialty of mine :) We talk about shots, and allergies, and everything else you talk about when you go to a hospital too.

So these are sort of the forefront of my daily activities right now although by no means the whole picture. Other projects that are in the works have to do with waste management/recycling, sexual education and drugs. I am still reaching out to as many places as possible to try to paint myself a better picture of the state of Thailand. Next up is visiting a large recycling plant in Phitsanulok and hopefully a visit to a university science department to discuss Thai environmental issues with the science faculty. Although many volunteers complain that they were not sent to the middle of no-where and living in a grass hut, Thailand is a fascinating place to be as soon as you start to see this big picture. It is a country in rapid transition and despite the very questionable effectiveness (or unquestionable ineffectiveness) of the government, things are happening here and they are happening fast. They have electricity everywhere, internet is fast becoming ubiquitous even in remote places, everybody has a cell phone (or 2), there are 7-11s and gas stations and many of the other modern conveniences people are used to in the so called first world countries. On the other hand, there are huge disparities in knowledge between the wealthier city class, and poorer rural class. Many modern conveniences just got to most of Thailand, and many of them are flooding in now. People have access to the internet, but most of them have little idea the capabilities that brings. In some places I meet people who have studied abroad in China or Texas, and in others I meet people who have no idea how small this country of their's is, and that we don't teach Thai culture in American schools. Everybody asks me "majok bratet arai" or what country are you from, and a select few have a friend who is living there or sister who married over, but the rest could not find it on a map and are not sure if America is in Europe or not.

These contrasts make project work difficult because in some instances you are not bringing to the table anything people don't already know while in others you observe behavior or hear ideas that take you back 50 or more years. Thailand is not the US and we are not here to help make it the US but there are many things Thais today can still learn from us Americans. I am on the look out for parties who are interested in learning those things, while at the same time soaking up as much of their non-judgement, non-dollar, non-western religion based, community value philosophies as I can. I invite the reader to just ask next time I see you and I promise, you'll get an earful.

Some new pics are here:


Monday, August 27, 2012

After a while

I believe that I made a lot of promises in my last posts, to tell you more about Reconnect, the 50th anniversary, the trip to the beach... but, in the intervening weeks, a lot more stuff has happened. It always does, here, life just sliding along until, after a while, certain stories fade and others seem more important.

Like for example, the fact that in the past week, I've made brownies, not once, but twice. (No pictures, sorry, they got gobbled up too fast.) I also made homemade yogurt with the help of Pii Gai, a neighbor from our home-stay family's house, who mentioned once that she knew how to make it. On Saturday, we finally got around to doing it - a trip to the city to buy milk, yogurt (you know, like a sourdough starter, only it's a yogurt starter), and a few other items ended with us warming milk over a gas stove while Pii Gai confessed she'd only ever made yogurt once. I decided it wasn't worth it to be worried, so I just smiled and said, well, I've never made it. I transported a batch of yogurt stock about 3 km back in a plastic bag in my backpack, having a few stray thoughts about how terrible it would be if it burst (that smell would never come out!) and becoming moderately worried about what the outcome would be. As instructed, I left the concoction out for 8 hours (!) before putting it in the fridge and turning in to bed. On Sunday morning, the yogurt was edible. Delicious even, although it had a somewhat grainy texture. Nothing that couldn't be fixed with a little experimentation. So, there's gonna be a lot of yogurt in my future now. :)

Or how 'bout this: Yesterday, after eating the yogurt for breakfast and taking a trip to the internet (local health station across the street, where the employees are gracious enough to tell us to "tam sabai" - make ourselves at home - and use the internet and computers) I came home to see several neighbors cutting down banana leaves from the trees that stand in an empty lot next to our house. People use banana leaves for lots of things here, so it's not really that strange to see a 60-some-odd year old woman hacking them down with a scythe tied to a giant pole. It is weird that people turn around and give you a guilty look as they're doing it, though, so I took note of that as I walked back into the house. Josh was already cleaning up the kitchen in preparation for two bpas (aunts; older women) to come over and teach us to cook two of his favorite dishes: geeng nommai (bamboo curry) and pakana muu krop (crispy pork with chinese kale). I didn't say anything about the banana leaves. What is there to say when you have no idea what's going on?

When the bpas appeared, laden with baskets full of fresh produce and meat - lemongrass, kaffier limes, galangal, bamboo, coconuts, dried chiles, onions, garlic, pork - we sat on our front porch and watched and took notes while they unloaded everything and began turning it into delicious looking ingredients. One of the banana cutting neighbors came and sat down - then got up again to drag another large leaf off the tree from our side of the fence. "What have they done to those trees?" said Josh, looking up at the pretty mutilated forms. "I know," I said, telling him the story. Then the neighbor explained to the bpas (in Thai, so I only caught part of it, although Josh understood more) that they'd been cutting down the trees because they couldn't see our house from theirs, or from the road. Josh responded that we don't want to see the road! Or hear the cars! But that explained the guilty look. I guess now, if we're so inclined, we can spy on them too.

Or maybe bring them some yogurt, brownies, and geeng nommai.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

To be, or not to be, me.

I didn't think this would happen to me, but it has: I just don't feel like myself anymore. Or my self, whichever you prefer. 

In the past, when pressed--think resumes, job interviews, bad icebreakers--I have consistently described myself with a few of the following words: smart, honest, irreverent, caring, silly, hardworking, articulate, detail-oriented, goal-driven, compassionate, empathetic, more or less patient.

Timeworn as these words are, they just don't all seem to apply anymore. Thailand has turned me into a high-strung, worried, inarticulate, frustrated person. Ironically, that's precisely because I'm still detail-oriented, goal-driven, and hardworking. Fortunately, I'm becoming more patient--with people, buses, weather, and dogs, if not myself.

During our PST, I got along pretty well. I felt comfortable in the schedule- and assignment-driven environment (even though I thought plenty of it was banal and annoying). It fit with my understanding of how things get done, and with those aspects of my personality. I could play by the rules of dress and conduct, give the right answers in the cultural sessions, and imagine that life was going to be pretty dandy because I'm just so damn culturally sensitive

Fast forward to site, and things aren't quite like that. The truth is, I like rules. So, I'm still dressing riap roi ("appropriate" i.e., long skirts, high collared shirts--things that don't show thighs or shoulders), smiling at everything whether I understand it or not, trying to bring gifts or food to people on a regular basis so they don't think I'm stingy (a word that translates as "sticky shit"), being the PDA police and not letting Josh hug me in public, and, well, you get the idea. I'm trying to be proper. All the time. Sorry, not enough emphasis. "Proper." ALL the time. 

Turns out that that pretty much sucks. In a lecture from Dr. Klaussner (a resident and expert on Thai culture) during our Reconnect (which Josh largely glossed over in the last blog - more stories forthcoming after I get this off my chest, I guess), we were told that no matter what, we will be judged by the Thais in our villages for how strictly and consistently we adhere to traditional Thai values. This even though Thai values are rapidly modernizing and changing, and also in spite of the fact that plenty of Thais engage in behavior that doesn't epitomize those supposed standards at all, anyway. Not so different from how immigrants in America are often the most gung-ho Americans you can imagine, we can't fit in, or even be accepted here unless we go super-Thai. 

Dr. Klaussner, who's been here something like 40+ years, seemed to think that there's a way to do this without losing yourself. As you might imagine, he said that you just have to remember that you're wearing a mask, you're acting, you're doing what you have to do in order to do the work you came here to do. I can dig that, in theory, I really can. But in practice, the image I've constructed of what it means to be "Thai"--the one I'm trying to wear, daily, is suffocating and burdensome. I have to breathe a little easier, or I won't get anything done here. 

There's a silver lining to this, however, and that lies in what's probably my greatest and most enduring personality trait: I'm really good at being wrong. In fact, sometimes, I love being wrong, because it's exciting and somewhat titillating to be forced into a new perspective, to try on new ways of thinking and being that might just be better.

And right now, I think that many of the rules I've learned and tried to internalize, the notions that I have about what it means to be Thai, what it means to act correctly and be appropriate in this cultural context, well, they might just be wrong. Maybe not entirely (don't expect to see me in booty shorts and midriff baring tanktops outside of the annual PCV 124 fashion show--more on that later), but wrong enough that it's time to start looking at things differently.

So today, I'm just happy to be wrong, even if I'm not sure what it means to be me. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

this could be a book but I ain;t got time

On July the 11th Erin and I left our home site in Sukhothai for Bangkok. We traveled the usual route by bus and arrived in the BKK around 7 PM. The purpose for our visit was a Peace Corps 50th Anniversary Ceremony with events held at the home of the US Ambassador to Thailand and other Thai government buildings. I had purchased my first tailored suit for the occasion which set me back a dazzling 7000 Thai baht. Purchasing this suit was for a long time a point of stress, embarrassment, and uncertainty because all the Thais in my village considered the price outrageous. We are now fairly used to getting what I call the "laka farang" or foreigner price. For most things we can talk the price down, but in this arena, I was completely unprepared for that. I have only purchased perhaps three suits in my life, and never a tailored one   but I imagined it would be hard to purchase such a thing in the states for less than 1500 dollars. When I finally received the suit, I was extremely happy with the quality and fit. It turns out that while you can purchase a tailored suit in Thailand for 3-5 thousand baht, a high quality Italian wool suit is probably gonna run you closer to 6-10. Although 7000 baht for me is just about one months pay, when we decked out in Bangkok, it was worth it. PCT 50th Anniversary events lasted 3 days during which current volunteers got to chat with those who came before, some in 1969, some in 72, some in 2004. We heard wonderful stories of a Thailand before cars and motorcycles, a Ko Samoi with no boat docks, and how some of the leaders of the Peace Corps Thailand organization were taught English by PC volunteers 40 years ago. There is a very clear difference between people who will work hard as farmers their whole lives and those who will leave the village to work in a city and learn about the bigger world. A big part of that difference today is learning to speak English.

Several volunteers were able to have words with Her Royal Highness, Princess Chakri Sirindhorn. Erin was part of a select group who was able to be photographed with her. From all accounts, this woman's greatness could be felt when speaking with her. I did not really believe in that stuff until I read some accounts of friends of Bill Clinton's, but sometimes you just feel it, I guess. Meeting the princess is a huge honor in the eyes of Thai people as they revere their royalty to an almost holy level. The princess who presided over our 50th Anniversary celebration is well know for being very progressive with project ideas that improve Thailand and Thai people's quality of life.

All said, we were in Bangkok for nearly a week. I had my first meeting with the Information Communications Technology GIG (Global Initiative Group). We painted the town most evenings and stayed in a very damp yet beautiful middle eastern decorum hotel. Bangkok is a welcome relief from site because one, they sell international food there, and two there is also everything else. Arguably our best evening was the night we went to the Jazz Saxophone jazz club recommended by one of our language instructors. This is a high class place where the price of the drinks more than makes up for the lack of a cover and the music more than makes up for the price of the drinks. A posse of about 10-15 of us rolled in there dressed to the nines after the final PC event, and bobbed our heads and tapped our feet to the best sounds to pass my ears in quite some time. A brass band played all variety of jazz from latin to Sinatra tunes, the Thai singer able to manipulate his voice and facial expressions perfectly for the song of the minute. This will be an evening to remain in memory for many years as will the taste of those Paulaner Dunkels lubricating the evening and the hardened forging of lifelong friendships with our fellow volunteers. Pictures to follow soon cause damn, we looked good.

Today is the second to last day of RECONNECT. This is a second training session held after 3 months at site. We all have new progress and problems and our Thai counterparts were invited down here for two days to talk about those and other things. The training is two weeks long, and we study Thai for 3.5. hours a day. The rest of the time is spent with various guest speakers who talk to us about various project ideas and the state of Thailand. I had lunch with a couple of Foreign Service member from the US Embassy following one session and learned a lot of about their work and what sorts of opportunities might be there for someone with interests like my own. Tomorrow, I will co-present a session on environmental topics with one of the PCT staff as well as 3 other volunteers. My focus will be waste management and pollution prevention. I am excited to begin projects in these areas at my site, now that I learned a little more about the Thai "landscape" for such things. Tomorrow night, extra-curricular class on Thai cooking.

After Friday, RECONNECT will be over and so will the good breakfasts and other fringe perks of this nice hotel we are calling home. Erin and I will head back to the Khothai and try to get back to work and being the only Americans for miles. When we return, we will have been gone for almost four weeks. This after living in our new home for only two, still not making a full shopping trip yet. 

The next time we will see our fellow volunteers in an official capacity will be for mid-service in another eight months. By then, group 123 will be packing their bags for home and the 125s will have been here for 3 months. The world turns.

Special note to my boy P-Dimas who is now finishing the second week of his mid career hiatus and touring the red crescent to the north, con diao (alone). Proud of you brother. And also my boy Deeds whose son just decided to show up to this clown show we call life. Congratulations and give Aldice a head sniff for me.


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Yu song con

One week in our new home, one 5 foot snake crossed the road, one palm sized arachnid on the wall and one very severe case of streptococcus. Today, which is July 4th in Thailand, is approximately one week before our 6 month anniversary here. Next week we will depart south to celebrate 50 years of Peace Corps presence in Thailand with a few American and Thai dignitaries as well as many volunteers presently serving and from years past. Following the anniversary ceremony, our group, 124 will be meeting in another suburb or the BKK for our second training session which will last another two weeks. All said and done we will be out of our site for close to the rest of July and have a chance to swap stories and talk about progress with the rest of these crazy people who think they belong out here. While we have made some very close relationships at site, and are even able to communicate a little more than where we are going or coming from now, it is always nice to see some fellow Uh-mericans and get an idea of who has been more effective than you out her so far :)

Since we last spoke...
We have gotten out of under the wing of our host family for better or worse. We are eating a lot less MSG. I am now weighing in at just 64 kg, which takes me back to sophomore year in high school statistics, I think. No bread, no cheese and very limited beer has got me in the slim trousers. Our new house is quaint, cute, and now has drinking water, rice, a bed, and a bunch of tables in it. For me seems like a pretty good set up but for Erin seems like it needs a lot more work. We spent a good chunk of our "readjustment allowance" on the purchase of a nice queen size bed which ran us about 7,000THB. Our host mothers response when she heard about this price was that she has never seen or heard of a bed that cost seven thousand baht. Most of the Thai's that we live with sleep on what we have heard referred to as Thai beds. These Thai beds are spring-less mattresses about four of five inches thick and were a cause of many poor nights of sleep for us before we bought our new "ti-noan" (bed). I know that for many who may be reading this the word: "princess" or question: "what about hardship" may be coming to mind right about now. You can save it. There are plenty of other things to make someone miserable when living between jungle and rice paddy at 17 degrees latitude. Last week I discovered one in the form of a Thai strep throat virus. It started with a migraine level headache that lasted approximately 8 hours and then declined into a sub-migraine level headache that accompanied a fever for another couple days until turning into a sore throat that prohibited sleep throughout the weekend. As any one who has lived close to me can attest, although I am a person who likes to imbibe on fine barley and malt beverage, I rarely take medication, even Advil. Well this fix had me begging the the doc for something stronger that 800 mg Ibuprofen I was eating like PEZ. It has been a very rough week.

So six months in and how else are things besides sick again? Things are good. We continue to find ourselves in situations of incredibility and every so often it looks like I might actually have some serious work to do. While Erin is chugging away at the schools, I am still working on building relationships with various members of the community. We are taught that we must first create trust with people before even beginning to understand the issues and help with the solutions. It feels like I'm getting there. The public health workers I am now spending a lot of time with, have many good ideas and even specific plans for programs pertaining to topics I was brought here to help with. As soon as we return from the south next month, I am scheduled to begin teaching a class to all of the district public health workers. The idea is that I will focus on interaction between health and environment with related English terminology. My pressing goal is to get a local Thai tutor to further my speaking and reading skills. In our first visit from Peace Corps personnel last month, the office I am working in agreed to provide funding for projects; now I just need to get to writing them up and pounding the pavement (dirt road) some more.

Happy Fourth of July everybody! Put another piece of cheese on that burger for me.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Dental work and other things: This one's for Nicole

I have been told that in the United States, they don't let you take your teeth with you after they've been extracted. I've never had a tooth pulled in the U.S., so I don't know if that's true, but what with our general American germophobia and whatnot, I wouldn't be surprised. (Biohazard, schmiohazard.)

Anyway, as you know, over a month ago now, I was in Bangkok to have my wisdom teeth (2, not 4) extracted, and I joked about having a cloth put over my face while they were yanked out.

Okay, so I wasn't joking. I went to the dentist, whose office is in a hospital, and within ten minutes, she was ready to yank the teeth. And then, when she got all her instruments set up, she literally put a cloth over my face (with a hole for my mouth), and went to work poking me in the upper and lower gums with local anesthetic. After I indicated, by drooling onto said cloth when prompted, that I was numb, the dentist began dutifully wrestling with my mouth. If I winced, I received an exasperated-sounding, "What's wrong?" but exasperation and concern sound a lot alike when emerging from  behind a face mask in someone's second language, so maybe I was taking that a little personally. Then I'd receive another shot, drool to show my gratitude, and the jaw-wrangling would begin again. I actually did think about Gloria Anzaldua's "How to Tame a Wild Tongue" (google it) while staring up at the blue cloth over my face and wondering just how much of a workout the dentist was getting. Ten minutes later, one tooth was out. I heard it plunk down onto the cold metal tray that had previously held the instruments. The dentist rearranged her chair to get a better angle on the upper tooth. That one gave up easily, perhaps not having the same vigorous spirit as its lower-jaw counterpart. Maybe its roots were just a little more shallow.

At any rate, five minutes later, the dentist was threading a needle and sewing up the two open wounds. Then everything was packed with gauze and I was sitting up, again drooling to show my appreciation. Soon, though that turned to disappointment when I realized that the doctor was actually not prescribing any follow up pain medication. "You were already given antibiotics and ibuprofen, correct?" she asked. I nodded. "Okay, well come back next week to get the stitches out." It's hard to say, "WTF?" when you are chewing on soggy gauze. So instead, I asked if I could have the teeth. Call it a consolation prize.

And now, they're sitting on my dresser - testament to the efficacy of local anesthesia, competent medical care, and ibuprofen in maximal doses.

Oh, and the other things: well, you'll just have to tune in next time.


Friday, June 1, 2012

This one's for my mom

A while ago, my mom sent us a postcard (only the second piece of mail we’ve received from state-side thus far) and she asked that when I get the time, I send a few recipes and instructions for cooking aa-haan Thai. Actually she asked about Thai food, but I just translated that for you.

At any rate, a few days or weeks from now, she’ll receive a postcard back with a recipe for naam-prik (or, well, really the translation on this doesn’t make a lot of sense, it’s “chile water” and it’s just an all important condiment that goes with everything here). But in the meantime, I’ve been wanting to write a blog about the cooking here (and not my cooking, either; I haven’t been doing any). (This is also the blog I meant to write almost a month ago that I reported I didn’t have the pictures for, and then entertained you all, and garnered some emails by posting a screen shot of my empty Gmail inbox.)

Anyway….When we moved to site, our neighbors had just started building another house next door to their own – between our house and theirs, actually. Within a month, the house, all one room plus bathroom on top of poured concrete floor and under steel roof was complete. By Songkran, a family had moved in (the sister of our neighbor, who owns the shop next door, and her family). A week later, Pii Gai, the sister who had just moved in, and her husband, Pii Lan, had turned the front of their new house into an extension of the shop. Another day or so passed, and Pii Gai and her mother had turned the back porch into a commercial kitchen, and they were selling two meals a day from the front of the house. Pii Gai is an excellent cook. Within about six days, her curries and soups had almost entirely replaced our mee’s cooking at home. We have also had a new social center. It took me about two weeks to get up the courage to venture over there, which I do almost every day now, and to sit myself down and try to “help” with the cooking. Seriously, a two year old is more help than me most times. I mean this literally, not theoretically, because our paa and mee’s grandson is often over there too, and he at least understands when he’s told to get out of the way, or hand someone the onions.

One day, I brought my camera over and snapped a few pictures while the ladies cooked up geeng kiaow waan (sweet green curry) and geeng som sai nommaai (orange curry with bamboo). I’ll let the pictures tell the story.

Side note for thought: Letting pictures tell the story is a new one for me. I am freakishly uncomfortable with cameras. (Being in Thailand is teaching me many things about my fears and discomforts.) I am rarely comfortable having my picture taken, although life in the digital age has forced me to come to terms with the fact that yes, 90 percent of the time when someone wants to take a picture, I’ll look funny in one way or another (usually rather large) and I should just get over it. Taking pictures, on the other hand, would seem to be comfortable compared to the alternative, but in fact it’s far worse. I have discovered I have a deep discomfort with intruding on other people or doing things without their permission, and somehow taking pictures falls into this category. (Using your nice shampoo without asking while staying the night at your house, however, does not. Fair warning. Go figure.) While snapping these photos, I felt like an absolute sore thumb. Thinking about this, I’ve gained an entirely new type of respect for my friend Jakob, who also happened to snap a great deal of fantastic shots at Josh’s and my wedding reception – and didn’t feel awkward at all! The camera makes me self conscious and clumsy – and that’s probably why so far, our blog (at least my posts) have been mostly devoid of visual aids. And will continue to be, until I get over this photo phobia, so I hope you can all make do with my words.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Word Lists

Today, as I mentioned in the previous post, I am not teaching, because my co-teacher is not here. He is instead at a teacher training in the Amphur Muang Sukhothai (the capital city of our jangwat). Side note: originally, I wasn't going to go. Then, yesterday, I was invited to go and told that I could attend all three days of the teacher training. So today at 7a.m., I was picked up by my co-teacher, and we drove the 25 km to the hotel in Sukhothai where the training was being held. We arrived at about 7:55, and were greeted as we walked to the conference hall by one of the trainers, whom I now, in hindsight, think may have been the same woman whose rental house Josh and I looked at just the other day. She greeted me in English, then spoke rapidly in Thai to my co-teacher, the gist of which I understood to be: Farangs aren't welcome here. She seemed quite flustered that I was there, and I gathered from her Thai explanation that they hadn't wanted Farangs to come to the training because the Thai teachers would then feel embarrassed about speaking in English and practicing their teaching techniques. To me, in English, she explained that none of the Farang teachers from her school had come, and that Farangs already know how to teach, so I would be bored for the three days of training. I assured her that I understood what she had said in Thai, and then I think she realized that I understood what she had said to my co-teacher, and so he and I turned around and he drove me back. And then I came to school, and he went back to Sukhothai for the all-Thai English-teacher training. Sigh.

The kids are pretty disappointed I'm not teaching - four of them came to find me and seem a little confused as to why I'm not. I had to break a rule that I've been trying to keep up - not using Thai to talk to the kids - in order to explain it to them. Of course, the rule has been bent at least five or six times before this morning - sometimes, like yesterday when I found myself teaching PE to a bunch of really hyperactive 8 to 12 year old girls, in skirts, no less, it just seems easier to tell them to put on their shoes or walk in a line in the language they understand! (Duh.) But we'll see how that impacts my authority, or my masquerade that I don't understand Thai, in the classroom next week.

At any rate, this is the second week in the classrooms and there have been some positive developments. I was able to convince one teacher that the books she uses are too difficult for the students, and that she and I will be better teachers if we plan more and use the books less. I am working on convincing the second teacher of the same concept, but that will take a little bit more preparation. He teaches six out of six periods per day, whether it be other English classes, PE, or art, and obviously that has left us little time to plan what we're going to do. So, right now I'm blogging while taking a break from searching our extensive Peace Corps volunteer wiki and various other resources for ideas on how to start the semester, essentially, over again in the next couple of weeks.

Specifically, I'm alternating between researching word lists and classroom management techniques.  I do not know how to manage 30 8-year-olds. For those of you teachers and parents out there, laugh it up. (And currently listening to another teacher teach the class that I would have been teaching had my co-teacher been here. Of course, it's all in Thai....) This weekend, I hope that the two of us will be able to make some decent progress on a course plan and some lesson plans. I will also need to figure out how and where to procure materials to make teaching materials (posterboards, glue, books, tape, markers, etc.). I know that lots of the teachers here use their own funds to stock their classrooms - I'm hoping I don't have to do that, and that the materials I end up making are durable enough to be used for a few years to come, so that my teachers can stop doing that, too.

And now, back to those word lists and humane reward-punishment systems... (Uh-oh - I just heard my name, "Kruu Erin" coming from the class I'm not teaching downstairs. What is the substitute teacher saying about me?)This is me learning to jai-yen-yen.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

2 weeks away: Refreshed.

If only that were the end of it. Two weeks away, refreshed. Four days back, exhausted!

Eventually, I'll get around to writing about the reason(s) I spent two weeks away (not on a purposeful vacation, although that was one pretty sweet outcome of having two of my teeth yanked out under local anesthesia with a washcloth draped over my face, but like I said, more about that later.)

At any rate, I'm back. And I'm finally working in both of my schools, although what that means is still somewhat under negotiation and up for interpretation.

My good friend Emily, who taught sixth grade (I believe) in the States, just wrote a great blog about her frustrations with teaching in the Thai system, and especially in the TCCO program that Peace Corps and the Royal Thai Government have created. She says, "My job is to help train my co-teacher in how to write effective lesson plans that include student-centered learning activities, help her create materials and integrate the local culture into the lessons, and to help her build a network of teacher support. My job is not to teach English. My job is focused on the teacher, rather than the students and this is the aspect that breaks my heart the most right now. I understand it’s for sustainability purposes (in hopes that we’re training the teachers to teach English more effectively, even after we leave in two years), but it is still hard to sit back and watch the students miss out on English for a week because my co-teacher is at a conference in Bangkok and I am not allowed in the classroom without her.... The other hard part about my job is that I’m not here to change how my co-teacher does her job, change the way the education system works, or stop teachers from hitting the kids. I’m simply here to add to what they’ve already got, to help, support, and encourage my co-teacher whenever I can and to love the kids the best I can."

That pretty much sums up the frustrations a lot of TCCOers express. For me, the frustrations of the co-teaching situation are somewhat different, but not entirely. Primarily the differences stem from the fact that my pre-PC experience is very different from Emily's, and that of many volunteers who were teachers before they arrived here. In short, I never really wanted to teach English to kids. (I never really wanted to teach kids anything.) I was always more excited about teaching teachers, and so while I share Emily's frustration with the fact that the students sometimes lack instruction because their teachers have other priorities and there are no viable substitution options, I don't feel (or at least I haven't yet) inclined to jump into the classroom and start doing the damn thing myself. Granted, I haven't yet faced the prospect of being at school when my teacher is not--the first time that happens will probably be next week, when my teacher is at a training that I may not be able (or allowed) to attend.

No, my frustration and confusion about how to do my job stems from the fact that I'm realizing that the teaching/learning techniques - rote memorization, choral repetition, and copying down "the right answer" - are ingrained not only in the students, but also the teachers. The problem is the system, if you will, as Emily also alluded to. In just four days of teaching, I have seen both of my co-teachers be completely unable not to tell students the answer to a question I asked them. Completely unable not to lead the students in a chorus of repetition even when they agreed to having the students work in pairs or alone. Completely unable to give the students time to think and then respond to a question. This isn't to say that they aren't actually able to do those things, just that to them, they're such foreign ideas that even if I expressly ask them to do something (or not to), what I ask doesn't make any sense to them. Likewise, the students are almost completely unable to write an answer unless they are copying it, and that's because they're scared. They don't ever want to say anything wrong, do anything wrong, or be corrected in front of their peers. Today, after having given students a worksheet as part of a game, I asked them to write one sentence (one!) at the bottom of the worksheet, a sentence about any of the 16 pictures that we'd previous been talking about during class. (Seriously folks, the sentences were of the following format: There are some tomatoes. There is some milk. There aren't any lemons. There isn't any yogurt.) They couldn't do it. Okay, not fair, about 6 out of the 25 could, and did. The others just waited, pretty patiently, until my co-teacher wrote a few examples on the board, and then they copied those down.

The same thing happened in another class. I asked students to write three sentences (of the form, It/she/he looks sad/happy/ill/beautiful/sleepy) describing any three of the 15 the pictures we had already talked about, using the same sentences. Even after my instructions were translated into Thai they still were terribly confused about the fact that they could CHOOSE to write about anything they wanted. Baby steps.

Disclaimer: So far, I have not "planned" a class with either of my co-teachers (meaning, if you can't read between the lines, that neither of the above lessons is anything like where I would have started, thank you very much!) Instead, I have been jumping in to help during what I tried to create as an "observation" week before we really get down to business. Both teachers have been, predictably, pretty willing to give me the reins during class, and fortunately, neither of them are wilting violets when it comes to playing their part. We are definitely co-teaching, although I'm not sure yet what the benefit to the students is, since we're co-teaching and playing tug-of-war at the same time.

At any rate, I'm enjoying the kids more than I thought I would, and I'm baffled at how to get my teachers to see that giving the students the answers and ignoring their mistakes and letting them horse around for 45 minutes isn't really teaching them any English. Then again, what do I know about teaching English?

Green. And yes, I promise, more on that blog that I said I didn't have the pictures for, weeks ago, and more on Bangkok. Later.

Monday, May 21, 2012

May brings life

So the blog has slowed down a bit. Hopefully this has not caused you lack of sleep and caused us lost readership by leaving our dedicated readers in limbo. Seriously though, it has not been a busy second month at site, but there were a lot of things going on that dragged our thought patterns in new and erratic directions. That is sort of the point of this whole excursion, yet as always, life at any point is more textured than what you imagined it to be.
We came out of April with a newfound understanding of hot weather. As I have long suspected of of tobacco products, extended periods of weather above 36 degrees C (about 97 F) have serious psychological effects. Our hottest day last month was 44 degrees C which broke a one hundred year record even during the hottest month for a country at 17 degrees latitude. I will leave the conversion to degrees Fahrenheit to you on that one. The physical I think we expected; increased fatigue, decreased appetite, longer sleeping hours. But the brain too gets worn down by the heat. It’s sort of like being overworked for a long period of time. Even if you sleep a lot, and eat enough, you still feel like you are lacking somewhere, and this drives you a little crazy. Although the weeklong Sonkran water festival was a spectacle, to say the least, I can say now that I really did not enjoy it very much, and the reason why is because it was so damned hot. Now that the hottest month of the year is over, and a few decent rains have helped to cool the sauna conditions of rice paddy living, I can see an overall improvement in my feelings toward everything about life. Toward the beginning , the life of many PC volunteers in Thailand is one of waiting, one of confusion, and one of desperately seeking to be useful, somehow. My personality is better suited to the “sabai, sabai” (think “manana” with people that don’t use calendars) attitude of Thailand than Erin’s, but even I was struggling with nothing to do but read this last month. That was compounded a disturbedness brought on by the heat.

A few decent breakthroughs have been made on the order of community development in Sukhothai this month. Erin and I met the medical practitioner at the dtambon clinic earlier this month. Our new friend is 28 years old and married to a woman just slightly older than him who as well is a medical practitioner at the clinic. Assisted by two nurses, they administer government sponsored healthcare to all of the Thais in our village for free. Interestingly, the only people who are required to pay something for healthcare, medication included, are government workers (who later get reimbursed). The clinic is supported by some 140 volunteers in the dtambon who perform house visits, mostly to elderly in the community. All together the dtambon has about 5000 people divided about 10 villages. When I asked the doctor (all medical professionals are called doctor in Thailand) about how many of those volunteers were really active, he said about 20. Since my background consists primarily of working with environmental issues, working with the clinic seems like a great opportunity to learn about health and environment interactions in this area and identify projects that address both. In fact, PC encourages CBOD volunteers to make contacts at the clinics early in their service. I feel lucky to have found such a young and approachable counterpart there.

Since we met the folks at the clinic, I have altered my schedule to spend two full days per week with them. On Wednesdays and Fridays I have been going to the clinic and observing what I can about how they operate as well as discussing local health issues. They are extremely hospitable and up until this point have insisted on feeding me for free every day I come over, as well as taking me to the market after work or along to run errands in the city during the day. Both the head clinician and his wife are Master’s of Public Health students and work five days a week at the clinic while doing 8 hour days at a Sukhothai university on Saturdays, and half days on Sundays. The man speaks some English, while his wife seems to understand more than him but can speak less. Both are a great help for improving my Thai.

Although we identified 5 excellent projects we could work on together on during only our second meeting, it is difficult to formalize any sort of agreement to pursue these projects. We have been trained not to be too pushy, but since I am still scraping around for things to submit to the PC and Thai government, that has been challenging. It seems when your voice takes on any sort of a serious business tone here, Thai people become uncomfortable. Maybe that’s because it’s hard to know what they are agreeing to through the butchered Thai leaving this farang’s mouth. Most of the volunteers we have met from the previous two groups of PC Thailand insisted they did not begin work any actual projects until they were in their community for a full year. Some days that makes you feel better about things, and others it does not.

Related, and often somewhat infuriating, is when some Thais talk right in front of your face about how you never do any work, and how your coming to Thailand is essentially a two year vacation. Our Thai now, is better than I would have imagined after 4 months, and beyond that, bad-mouthing has a special way of traversing the language barrier. Without getting too deep into the controversial topic of the value of work done by organizations such as the PC, I will, in one of my should be famous analogies, state that work like this is like going to help clean up an island. It is not that difficult until you realize you have to build a boat to get there. I have started work on that boat and often find myself thinking back to something a mentor from Sandia told me about development work: “if it were easy, it would be done already”.

Erin and I need to submit our two year plans to PC by the end of this month. Erin met with her counterparts a few weeks ago to get hers done. It’s a bit easier for a TCCO volunteer I think, because people in Thailand have a better idea of what you came here for. So far, projects with the clinic, and my two day per week English class at the abotaw are the extent of what I have lined up for my plan. Before coming to site, my Nayoke mentioned he would like me to assist in water resource and waste management, as well as teaching information technology among other things, but so far there is not much going on in any of those areas. In America, three months to come up with a two year plan for one person’s work might be reasonable, but here it seems like at bit of a stretch. I have 8 more days to make that stretch.

We are still looking for a house, though prospects are improving. Last week, after passing one vacant house on my way home from the abotaw many times, I decided to inquire about it with the neighbors. It turns out the owner lives in Bangkok and the house has been sitting vacant for over two years. Seems like the perfect place for us with proximity to the abotaw and our host family’s house.  From the outside, I really liked the design. One hitch though, is that the house is not finished. I was able to have a look inside the place last Saturday evening, and found that the flooring and ceiling have yet to be installed. The plumbing in the kitchen is still lacking some work and of course the outside, as I already knew, needs painting.  With two bedrooms, a nice kitchen, a western toilet, and even two bathrooms though, this is the best looking option we have seen so far. I met with the owner’s father on Sunday and indicated to him we would be interested in renting the place. It sounds like following my inquiry, after sitting vacant for at least two years, the owner now has plans to finish construction within the next few months. In what I believe is possibly a direct contradiction of Thai subtlety, I plan to prepare an offer for the man this week and see how he responds. His father said that the house would be finished in the next few months whether or not we wanted to rent it, but I am afraid that if they do not think we are serious about renting, they may not finish the work. Hopefully we are settled in by the time some of you would be Thai tourists get to buying some tickets. And that’s over 1500 words folks.


Thursday, May 3, 2012


Just a quickie today, as I left my camera at home and therefore don't have the pictures for the blog I really want to write.

So, this thought, instead. I am amazed at how much we have grown to hate e-mail in our culture. It is a bother, it is spam, it results in an obligation to contact someone else or take care of some business that really isn't that pressing but since it's right in front of our face, we have to deal with it. I know that this is the pervasive sense of what e-mail means to people in the Western world because, well, look:

Look at what? you might think. Well okay, fair enough. It's just a screen shot of my computer before I started writing this blog. It's my Gmail inbox. So what?

Well, look closer. I have the inbox set so that all the unread messages filter to the top, separated from anything else I've managed to take care of. See there, under where it says "Unread": Google has taken it upon itself to make this empty inbox a joyous occasion. "Woohoo!" it says, "You've read all the messages in your inbox." (I'm surprised it's not followed with, "Now, go grab a beer and relax. That was hard work!")

Truth be told, this little message makes me sigh. I have no pressing e-mail business. No new bills (okay, not so bad). No new announcements about movies at the Guild (I asked to be removed from the mailing list, so that's my own fault). No new messages from friends or family (I MISS you guys!).

But the truth is, it's just an apt little commentary on how much things have changed. A few short months ago, I would have resonated with that "Woohoo!" and probably gone and grabbed a beer after all that hard work, paying bills, sifting through special offers, reading e-mails about jobs or from former professors or students, or Peace Corps updates... Today, that stupid "Woohoo!" kinda irks me, but I guess it would probably be bad marketing for Google to offer alterna-text in the form of: "Geez, loser! Go outside and play in that 105 degree heat!"