Saturday, February 25, 2012

Krung Thep and on and on

Today is February 25th and Erin and I's first day in our site location. We are visiting until Tuesday and at this moment I am writing to you folks from the very government office I should be working in for the next two years. A little on our first trip to the big KT and our journey up north:

Yesterday morning we departed our training town to Bangkok (BKK) early in the morning. Our cohort paid a visit to the PC office in BKK which is a house built and once owned by the Royal Family that has been under lease by the PC since the beginning of PC Thailand. The place was stunning with hand carved wood and teak everything. The office is within a high security compound that also houses a medical unit and a few other buildings. Overall, just about snazzy enough to prompt one to ask for an application for work on the spot. After the short visit to the office, all volunteers were released into the wild for the first time to find their way to the bus station, buy a ticket to their destination, and go visit their host site.

Due to circumstances brought on mainly by my oversight, Erin and I ended up taking separate buses from Krung Thep (Bangkok) yesterday. I left my phone at our place in SingBuri and so was not going to be reachable via cellular, which is a situation the PC would rather avoid. It is a long story why, but ultimately Erin left BKK on a 330 bus, and I left on a 1030 bus. In the meantime, I was able to go back to PC office and pick up a loner phone, and after that, get a brief taste of life in the BKK with another volunteer who spent time in Thailand before. First we hit Kaosan road, which was recommended by several ajaans when I asked them about finding farang food over the last week. A slice of pizza was acquired within minutes of our exiting the taxi. Kaosan is a frenzy of a thoroughfare filled with many farangs of the dirty, hippy, variety, apparently from all over Europe (and the US I would guess) and Thai made world food of all kinds right along side all the Thai favorites. There are "Irish Pubs" that have that title because of one or two Guinness flags and a Guinness handle on the bar tap, you can sit in the Thai heat here and be serenaded by decade old pop-rock. Here I bought an Adidas jacket for 450 B and learned that when bargaining, it is not too much of a low-ball to start at half the asking price. The young man I bought the jacket from, acquiesced in his own victory when I offered him 450B, 100B less than his first price. Following beer Singha Dark and several other snack items and near misses with trucks and motor scooters, Jesse and I headed for the river.

There is a taxi that runs the Chao Phraya river in BKK. We hopped the boat and headed south for several miles in the muddy waters of Thailands main waterway.I captured many images which will be on Picasa soon. At the end of the journey, at stop 0, we went back on land and caught the sky train back north to a business district where massage parlors and coctail bars occupy the street level to see if the night market had started yet. It had not, so we walked around, did some bargaining and experienced the "come in and take a look" that you hear about in every Thai story. Since my main goal in the visit to BKK was to eat some food without rice in the infrastructure, we settled on an Irish pub called O'Reilly's and went in for a couple burgers and nachos. The quality was good and the price excessive, but we came out having gutted up on white cheddar, guacamole and the best bread (kaiser roll) in 8 weeks. The movement in Krung Thep is what was most staggering. from a distance everything looks still, but as with an ant pile, the closer you get the more you see that every single thing is moving, and moving fast. If you're not buying something you're selling something or walking really fast through a tight passageway. Sometimes the passage is bound by walls, but more often motorcycles and people. The temptation of this place is in the air as even in late afternoon every gaze inside the doors of the buildings here was rewarded with shiny stripper poles and black leather, oh, do you want to buy a bag? I make you good deal!

The visit was like being a character in an abstract indie film thriller, never quite knowing what the next turn would bring. Maybe another guy selling nylon sleeves that slide up your arm to make you look heavily tattooed. Maybe another boy with lipstick, and maybe some more nice looking belts.

We got out of downtown around 730 to make sure we were at Mochit station by the time our buses departed at 10 and 1030. There were only a few other volunteers left at the bus station at this hour but we found them handily. After boarding the bus to Sukhothai with a few others who will be stationed "in the neighborhood", I sat awake for the next 6 1/2 hours on a very fast moving bus and arrived to my destination at around 5 AM. Erin called the Nayoke and I had an extended cab pickup waiting for me with a welcome crew of 3 (plus my wife), the Nayoke (or mayor), the driver, and our host sister who is 27. This morning I woke up in a strange place again, with some more of the friendliest people I have ever met.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Ketchup (catch-up)

Most of the week I have in the back of my mind a very small secretary typing cryptic notes about what things I think people back at "the ranch" would most like to hear about. The notes she types are so much in bits and pieces that when I go back to examine them I find that some are missing, and the ones there, I will probably not have the time to cover. One that I have been meaning to talk a bit about for a while now is food. Nicole, here we go...

The food in Thailand is aroi maak (very delicious) as many of us have heard. We eat a lot of chicken, pork, shrimp, and fish dishes, and curries. Beef is pretty rare. Always with rice, unless of course you have noodles (guid tiao) then it does not make sense to eat rice (so Thais think). I have ordered almost every meal pet maak maak (very very hot) and still have yet to get burned. At first, I thought that the cooks were going easy on me because I am a farang, or because they didn't think I knew what I was asking for, but now I receive spicier dishes and at this point my opinion is that a serious pepperhead from New Mexico can roll with most of what Thailand has to offer. My friend Bruce Goddard in Albuquerque grows the hottest peppers in the world, and I have been eating them with teary eyes and a smile for years now. This brings me to one of my favorite thai quotes so far which is roughly "thais think that if it is not spicy, it is not good". We came to the right place, I could not agree more

Beyond this, Thais enjoy maximizing their flavor experience. When you order an iced coffee for example, the cup starts out with about 1/3 cup of sugar and gets healthy doses of coffee mate and condensed milk. Every bowl of pad thai comes with about a tablespoon of sugar on top. Most everything has MSG, which I was also told Thais consider a necessity of good food. I (and other asasamok) have taken to saying "mai sai pom churote" or no MSG whenever ordering at a restaurant, but Erin and I still get our fair dose at the house. The umami flavor is marketed in Thailand as a wholesome and delicious component of home cooking. MSG powders are advertised on television in a way that resembles Tide commercials. They are not the dirty little secret of the food industry they are in the states. We are still trying to figure out if that is why the veggies are so damned good!

The Thais typically cook with one wok over a large gas burner, at very high heat, outside. They crush garlic and chilies with a mortar and pestle to get a lot of things started and use fish sauce for everything. One of my favorite foods here so far is "kai taught" which is basically a deep fried "scrambled" egg that has fish sauce mixed in before cooking. For some reason the eggs are just amazing; always brown ones. It feels almost like I never really had eggs before coming here. We eat them for breakfast lunch and dinner and it doesn't bother me one bit. Although things are cooked one at a time in these woks, there are always at least 3-4 different dishes with each meal plus rice. There is no differentiation made for breakfast, lunch or dinner except thais tend to eat most in the morning. It has been work to explain to our host father that I am not sick when I leave the house after eating only 3 crackers and some fruit (sometimes I am sick:)

Things we love include nam prik, which is a sort of chile relish that there are about a million and five versions of, sticky rice and mango for breakfast, som-tom (papaya salad), deep fried bay shrimp paddies and deep fried corn paddies, most all the soups and curries and the VEGGIES. The veggies have more flavor than I can recall experiencing. Mainly chute types and cauliflower, and beans. If you taste the broth at any place you can tell that hours went into boiling the flavor of those very veggies into that water and it is a magical thing. Fruits are another subject that I do not have the time to into depth on but I will say that if wealth were judged by the flavor and variety of fruits, the US would be very poor compared to Thailand. I have never eaten or enjoyed so many fruits so often as I do here.

Things that are a little rough include fish balls and more fish balls. They all taste like fish. Fish skin, and fish skin flavored snacks like rice cakes (only time I have almost thrown up) are also the occasional curve ball. Congealed blood is served in soups, not a favorite, and intestines of animals sneak up on us some times but do not pass unnoticed. I sometimes feel like the first man to eat intestine was a total Emperor Wears No Clothes situation where somehow everyone convinced him it didn't taste like $*% because of his position. Just like in NM, lot of people like it here, maybe from pigs and chickens, I'm not sure. Erin and I know the emperor is naked.

There is TONS of fried chicken. Thais eat sugar like they breath air. The soda is delicious, Pepsi, Coke, it doesn't matter. It all has real sugar in it. As many of you may know I have drank on average 3 sodas per year for the last ten years in the states. Here I have one almost everyday. Partly because the are so damned good, and partly because they come in glass bottles that are recycled immediately as opposed to plastic bottles that are probably burned.

There is no cheese. I have missed cheese. This morning my neighbor asked if I missed my home or mother, I replied that I miss cheese. I am not sure if she got that. On the Picasa photos you will now find a photo of a group of us at a new restaurant that sells cheese fries with Velveeta on them. Several of the cheese lovers have taken to paying 80 baht for a small plate of Shur-Fine level fries with Velveeta on them. This is 3x more than a large plate of real Thai food costs here. Bankok next week. It will be a cheesy affair.

Oh yea, and the title of this post....two things Thais think we love are ketchup and spaghetti. Here, you need ketchup to make spaghetti.


30 revolutions from the entrance

Erin pulled off a birthday present that had me intrigued, aggravated, and confused, this year. Last week I turned 30 on the other side of the planet and it was a day to remember. Great job, honey. She enlisted the help of half of our cohort to give me the cards you wonderful people put together before we left home. It was awesome to read a piece of your minds at the Pink Umbrella last week. A few of the cards stick out in my mind right now and one could not make it into the group picture I posted on Picasa (nicely done btw Mr. G). Thanks to all of you who took the time to be a part of Erin's scheme. All of our Thai PC administrators were and continue to be fascinated by the selection and you helped set a record for most birthday cards I have ever received, 28 at last count, which beats the previous record of 5 :) Looking at the cards at the same time painted an interesting picture of what my life in NM was like. Thanks again, and no, I can't believe I am 30 either.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Josh's Birthday and a million other little things

Josh will have to post about his birthday so that you all get the 360 degree view of the day, but here it is from my perspective:

As you all know, last year (I can't even remember what month, and I can't be bothered to look it up in my email archive), I sent around a "TOP SECRET" email asking everyone to get Josh a 30th birthday card and send it to my mom's house. My mother, genius that she is, packed all the cards she received into an envelope with "Erin" and a heart written on it. Those cards that didn't get mailed in time, I ended up collecting surreptitiously at our going away party, and hiding in a couple of plastic bags in my underwear drawer for a week or so. Then I packed them up in a side pocket in my computer case and called it a day. The envelope that said "Erin" on it, I left in plain site in our luggage, telling Josh, when he asked if I was going to open it, that my mom had given me explicit instructions on when to open it, and leaving it at that.

At the hotel in Detroit, I received a package from my brother, with a mosquito net, a water purifier, and a card, which I snuck out of the package before Josh could see it.

I was also supposed to receive a card from Josh's sister and nephew, but failed to give them the right information about how long we would be at the hotel before checkout, so instead had to speak with the front desk and the mailroom at the hotel to get them to forward the package back to our house to be sent by our trusty keeper-of-all-paperwork, Nicole. (Package is now en route to us here in Singburi.)

Somehow, I managed not to go into total freakout mode and tip Josh off (or else, as is more likely, I'd already been freaking out for so long he couldn't tell that it was about something else), and have been carrying all the cards around in various places for the past 6 weeks.

On Monday morning, I packed them in my bag while Josh was showering. On Mondays, all volunteers meet at a central hub-site for the entire day (rather than breaking into small groups for language based on our specialty and village location). When I got to the hub, I began handing the cards out to a few volunteers at a time. Throughout the day, the other trainees delivered the cards to Josh, one at a time, in whatever manner suited them. He was so confused! At one point, he said, "How did you get my mom's handwriting?" and "Your cousins sent me a card." And finally, "I don't know what you're up to, Beas."

I was getting a huge kick out of it. It wasn't until we left the hub, and sat down at our new favorite after-school hangout, which Josh has dubbed the "Pink Umbrella," with a few friends that Josh finally started opening the cards. He was, if I do say so myself, a bit overwhelmed, and quite grateful for all of the thoughtful greetings and sentiments (and BEAUTIFUL CARDS!) that all of you sent to him.

By the time we got home (around 6:30), what seemed like the entire neighborhood had gathered. Our neighbor had bought a chocolate cake for Josh, and we had about 6 different dishes crowding the table, too.

I don't know how I'm ever going to top this birthday! (Thailand pretty much takes the cake...)

As for the million other things alluded to in the blog title: here are some things to think about while I ponder blog posts on all of them:

  • Dogs are like squirrels...
  • Ants in my computer...
  • Sugar in your soup?
  • Burning trash - will we have to?
  • Collared shirts, why oh why?
  • Riap roy, what is that?
  • Dinosaurs
  • Tones, tones, tones
  • Mushrooms!
That's enough for now. We find out on Monday where our placement is, so be on the lookout for that news. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Things that get lost in translation...

A lot of things have happened in the last couple of weeks. Josh and I have each spent the afternoons of the last week in our "practicum," which for Josh included talking to a lot of people and asking a lot of complex and difficult to answer questions (like, where and why do you burn trash?). I'll let him tell you about it.

I spent Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of the past two weeks in a Thai classroom, working with another Peace Corps Trainee and also with the Thai teacher whose classroom we were taking over.

Needless to say, it was stressful. If you know me, you know a few things: 1) I'm hard on myself; 2) Teaching doesn't exactly come naturally to me; and 3) I don't do that well without structure.

Enter situation in which: 1) I don't really know what I'm doing; 2) I don't really know how to communicate with my Thai counterpart; 3) Classes both start and end at the same time (i.e., no passing periods), meaning that they always actually start late, and well, you get stress.

After the first couple of days, I felt like the honeymoon period with the PC had ended. Suddenly, I was stressed out, feeling upset in the face of constructive and well meaning criticism, and kind of mad about everything. (A couple of emails ago, my mom said that she hopes that being in a Buddhist country will rub off on me, or something to that effect. And in some ways, it has... I am having to remain calmer, by sheer necessity, and to let things roll off my back, and to just be comfortable with just being. But that doesn't mean I like feeling like I don't know what the crap I'm doing...). As usually happens when I develop an unshakably bad and cranky attitude, things started going wrong: I lost about 10 blank lesson plans and observation sheets. I kept forgetting my homework (yes, homework); my bike lock stopped working. I forgot to bring silverware with me so I could eat som dtam at the market. My helmet started falling apart. All silly things that just made me realize how easily I manage to manifest stupid silly and upsetting when I let myself fall into a bad-attitude funk.

And then something mortifyingly funny happened. It wasn't either mortifying or funny when it happened, but now, it's both.

In the last class I taught, I wanted the students to write sentences regarding activities that I had taught them (horseback riding, camping, fishing, swimming, ice-skating, and something else... Don't ask. They were in their  textbook.) Specifically, I wanted them to write sentences in which they correctly use third person subject pronouns (he and she). So, "He went fishing. She went horseback riding."

Gendered pronouns are difficult for Thai kids because there isn't a gendered pronoun except for the "I" - "pom" is male; "dichan is female."

So, anyway, I used Krista as an example, gesturing to her and saying, "She" and then to myself, and another girl, and saying "she." Fine. All fine. I then gestured to the students (all male) in the front row, saying "he," "he," "he," "he." Giggles. Giggles from the bows in the front. Students in the back also quite distracted and trying not to laugh. I think, "whatever" and try to move on with the lesson (which turned out to be a total flop because the students really, really did not want to participate, at all.... but no matter).

Later, Krista says, "Oh my god, Erin, do you know what you did in class today?" I honestly had no idea. She then reminded me of an unfortunate fact she'd learned the day before: In Thai, "he" (especially said slowly, as I was saying it) essentially translates to what in English we would call "the 'c' word"--you know, that especially naughty word reserved only for the worst of women or the dirtiest references to female genitalia? Yeah, that one. And I had essentially pointed at four male students and called them "he."

Krista had actually learned and shared the fact the day before, when she related to us the story of trying to learn how to say "snow" in Thai. Snow is a combination of two syllables "he" and "ma" which need to be said fast and with the right tones, otherwise you're saying the above mentioned "c" word and "dog" together, to get yet another explicit and disgusting word. Which she managed to say about 40 times in her language class  before finally breaking down and asking her quite amused aa-jaan, "What am I saying???"

So yeah. This is learning Thai.

And I have a much better attitude this week.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

This week in CBOD

Since Erin already through down a pretty nice post today I will keep it short...All CBODers are now doing PCAT at the end of every week. This has been very useful in developing skills most people don't even realize they don't have. The basic layout is this:
You look over a list of questions in a language you began learning 3 weeks ago. The list tells you which type of people you should ask the questions of and what you are trying to find out, generally speaking. After you hear how good your thai has gotten from your ajaan for a good half hour over lunch, you get on a bike and find some people to go talk to, oh yeah and that list was only for practicing.

This week we went to an elementary school, a high school and a hospital. We walk in, ask whoever we see if they have time to talk, in Thai, and then proceed to find out as much info as possible. The fruits of this venture are consistently impressive. I talked with two medical professionals who each graduated from the top Universities in Thailand. One was a psychotherapist and another a physical therapist*. I found out a lot about drug and pregnancy issues in this village and what sorts of things are commonly treated in this very small hospital. The kids at the schools have different things to teach us, much of it having to do with the state of education here, just by interaction. They are also excellent at helping to improve your Thai. At the end of the day we come out better at speaking, less scared to walk up and talk to someone, and this week, better TaCraw** players than last.

*One of my medical interviews was a gatuey (more later)
**TaCraw is a game most aptly described as hacky-sack volleyball soccer. I will be teaching you all this game when I get back. I love it.

Gotta go. RED

Sports Day and Practicum Week

Josh and I are, once again, at the internet cafe in Bang Rachan after a rowdy morning of Thai sports at a local wat. For some reason, Peace Corps thinks it's a brilliant idea to get all volunteers up and at 'em by 8 am on every Saturday morning (so far, we're surviving). Last week, we had Thai day, during which we presented the Electric Slide, Cotton Eye Joe, and a slew of music and accompanying dances from the 50s through the 2000s; watched a presentation of Thai dancing by our aa-jaans, learned a little bit of drumming and instrumentation (gongs, symbols, etc); presented Thai foods and desserts and how to make them; tasted a few Thai foods and desserts; ate lunch (at around 11), and then sang, danced and watched more of our aa-jaans demonstrate a less, shall we say, customary form of Thai dancing. All before noon.

This week, we met at a wat, got into teams and created cheers (yeah, not kidding), and then played three games:  Dta-graw (like volleyball meets hackey sack), Chair ball (like something you would play in your basement until someone got hurt), and petang (bocce ball). Those of you who know us may or may not be surprised to learn that Josh's team cheer was far more enthusiastic and well-put together than mine. (School spirit anyone?)

After that, we had a relay race, including a four legged race, a game where you tie an oblong object to a string around your waist, hang it between your legs, and try to push a round object across the floor. In my case, I had a Chinese eggplant hanging from a string between my legs and I had to roll a lime about 10 feet. I SUCKED! But I did get a good ab work out from laughing. Really, really hard. Then there was, feed a banana to a blindfolded person, chug a coke and eat a kanom (dessert), transfer a ping pong ball with chopsticks, and then run blindfolded with a bamboo stick to a box that you have to smack. Not kidding. Really. And I was the way weak link with the eggplant and the lime. Seriously people, picture it.

Then we had lunch. And ICE CREAM! (All by 11). Then an hour of dilly-dallying, then bike maintenance, and now, in the market at the internet cafe that's become our Saturday go-to spot. Later, we will partake in iced-sweetened green tea and beer.

It is ridiculous here, in the best and most incredible sense of the word.

Last night, at the wat that's less than a quarter mile from where Josh and I live, there was a huge.... party. It was like a combination of a county fair, and... um... something else that might be sponsored by red bull? I only say that because this was sponsored by the Thai version of red bull, some energy drink whose name I can't yet read or pronounce. At any rate, there was a huge stage, the loudest speakers I've ever heard in my life, and about 100 people sitting in plastic chairs watching some pretty decent Karaoke. The thing with this Karaoke is, anyone going up to sing was automatically made really, really cool because there were four dancing girls (maybe not all girls, but that will be another post), wearing some Vegas style clothes and dancing their asses off. They were pretty talented, I must say, and they made those singers look good. Within about 10 minutes of showing up with some other volunteers (Josh wasn't back from his afternoon sessions yet), Nick and I were pulled into the front of the crowd by my neighbors. We were pushed into the front to dance and pretty soon, the rest of the volunteers that live in our dtambon (district?) were up there dancing, too. Not long after that, my pa-a (host father), showed up and took my back pack home with him so I didn't have to dance with it. Then Josh appeared, and disappeared, because it was too loud (it was really loud). And then, Nick's host mom and Amanda's host mom, and various other women, kept feeding us som dtam and kanoms.... Plus there were vendors selling food, knick knacks, and also carnival games (darts/balloons, win a stuffed animal kind of stuff).

The truth is, I don't even know how to tell this story. I will try to upload pictures soon, because it is just too ridiculous. The Thais absolutely love to have fun, and they do it in ways that I never could have imagined.

More on this when I'm able to post pictures. But for now, I'll leave you with the parting thought that makes the whole scene the strangest: This was taking place in the courtyard of a wat, which roughly translated, is a Buddhist temple.

The monk who came to speak with us last week, however, let us know that the goal and purpose of the wat is to serve and to be a part of the community. So that's totally natural. Just don't try it at church.