Sunday, March 25, 2012

Yes, indeed, we have arrived...

Today is our fourth full day in our new residence, the broad outlines of which Josh described more than adequately in his previous post. Like Josh, I find that my easiest access to internet is at the aubotau (spelling doesn't count. It's not an English word. And Thai has different letters...), from which I currently write. And like Josh, I am finding our settling in with the family to be comfortable and somewhat natural, especially compared to the first few nights we laid awake during our PST homestay.

Although Josh gave a pretty good outline of what he expects to be doing, at least at this point, my entry into the workplace will be somewhat delayed, since we have arrived at site during "bit-term" or summer vacation. "Bit" means closed. Term means just what you think it means because it's an English word. British English, that is.

Anyway, the students, with the exception of the anuban (kindergarten) kids, are off for the next six weeks, and just like in America, so are the teachers. I have seen one of my co-teachers almost every day since our arrival, and have begun somewhat planning with her what we will do and what I will be "teaching" when the term opens, but it won't be until tomorrow that we sit down again with the other co-teacher and discuss how the arrangement will work between the schools and what the expectations of each teacher and each paw-aw (school director) really are. While everything will be very fluid throughout the 2 years I'm here, we are responsible for turning in a two-year work-plan to an office within the Royal Thai Government that supports and oversees the work of volunteers and NGOs within Thailand.

As those of you who know me can well imagine (just try, I dare you), I'm ready to jump in and start writing the two-year plan, to start working on the wording of the objectives, the activities, and the timelines into which it should all fit. But my teachers are on a well-deserved and surely much needed summer vacation. Even though they have been remarkable enthusiastic under the circumstances, they have the right to a break. And as much as I wish I could, for purely selfish reasons mostly related to relieving my own inexplicable anxiety, strong arm them into figuring everything out RIGHT NOW, I'm learning to relax and learn a few much needed lessons myself.

After all, I'm not here to make the teachers do anything. I'm not here to teach. I'm here to be a resource, a resource used in as many professional capacities as make sense. But I'm not here to accomplish my goals. In fact, my number one goal, personally, is really not to have any goals. If I could remember the positions in soccer, I'd throw in a nice sports metaphor here, but I can't, so I'll let those of you with any remaining knowledge stemming from your AYSO days come up with it for me. Let me know when you get it.

I know that when the school year is approaching, rather than appearing like a spec on a distant horizon, that my co-teachers are full of ideas and will be as anxious as I am to get started. But for now, it appears that I will be learning to wait. And to find a mode other than anxiety with which to interact with this new and beautiful world.


We have arrived

For those who are not sure how this thing runs yet, brief recap: We came to Thailand with 52 volunteers in our group. We have trained with these people six days a week, 8 hours a day, laughed, cried together, struggled with Thai tones, and drank cold beer together for the past 3 months. As of last Wednesday, except for the 6 of us who arrived in Thailand with a spouse, each person was sent to a different place in Thailand to brave the soi dogs and losses in translation, alone. Needless to say, this is a big transition, probably an even a bigger transition than coming to Thailand in January. No more farang shoulders to hold you up now boys and girls; time for the real deal. We will be at our sites for the duration of this two year tour with a few occasions for trips to conferences, personal travel, and teaching events. In July, we can host farangs like you here as well!

Erin and I are together in a rural area just about half way between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. As we discussed with the other married couples and sode's (singles) during training, there are benefits to being with a spouse, and there are also drawbacks. For today, we will save that topic. Here is what life here looks like so far. There is much to see in this area. From the 800 year old capital city to a large national park 25 miles west. We are back living with our "new" host family and will probably be with them through the month of April. Our accommodations could hardly be more comfortable. Erin and I share what amounts to a downstairs condo (from the main house) with two of our host parents actual children. The boy and girl are my and Erin's same age, respectively and very friendly. The girl speaks some English and is already on a good routine with Erin. Our father, named (correction from last post) Sawaeng, has on several occasions told us already that we are "same family" and is very concerned with us eating a lot of food at every meal. He has so far been one of the most effective figures in my learning of the Thai language, as every night we have sat around chatting for at least an hour, and he knows enough English for me to specify "what does THAT mean", and get a comprehensible answer. I already love this guy. 55 years old, and not one, solitary, gray hair. Black as the night.

I will be working at a small government office called an abotaw that is comparable to what a government building in the states set in rural countryside would look like. This one is set up to serve, say 5-10 thousand people. In my first two working days I have made a map of everyone in the building along with their name and position. I have found that this abotaw has a balat's office (central gov. appointed local representative); an accounting section; an office of education, religion and culture; an office of design, engineering and maintenance, and of course an office of the nayoke who is most closely comparable to a mayor. There is a lawyer, a community development officer, an administrator, and a couple of interns. Although my office is only about 25k from a fairly good sized city, given that my only vehicle will be a mountain bike that has not arrived here yet, this is the most rural I have ever lived. For the next two years this will be my home base for learning, understanding and communicating ideas to people, though right now, they mainly enjoy laughing about the way I laugh. I am sure several of you will also be interested to know that even in Thailand, the way I hold a spoon is "wrong". This has been brought to the attention of others by at least 3 Thai's already, most recently by the office cook (mair-bahn, or house-mother) at the abotaw on my second day of work.

During the counterpart conference last week, a gathering where all volunteers and counterparts together were administered some training working together by PC, my nayoke and I came up several projects that sound very promising for our two year plan. With the help of a PC ajaan, I was able to communicate effectively my work history and education, as well as areas, given my very limited understanding of Thailand, I think I may be useful in. He seemed excited to finally know some of this information about me and quickly through out 8 projects that were very much in line with what I had talked about. The nayoke was out of town at a training conference on Thurs and Friday of last week, so tomorrow will be the first day we are in the office together. I curious to see what is in store. For today, some internet time in the AC looking out past a spirit house at some hazy rice fields and the movement of a soft breeze through tropical flora. Sabai, sabai.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Flashback to March 14 - Where there are no Garduno's

March 14, 2012:

It would be hard to overestimate the power of today. I don’t know what significance March 14 holds in the annals of history, but for us, it will forever be the day when we gave over the cooking of Spanish rice to three Thai women who had no idea what they were making or what we were saying, but who know their way around a coal fire and a pot of rice so well that within a few seconds of comprehending what we wanted to do, they were well on their way to doing it for us.

And so it goes…. Today we had the day “off” from our PST work – ostensibly a day to spend with family and to spend packing our stuff for our big move on Sunday. (By the time I post this, it might be right about Sunday, but that’s how this delayed blogging thing works.) Our big move on Sunday will take us and all of our crap (more on that, below) back to the hotel in Sing Buri where we stayed when we first got here. On Monday, we swear in – a phrase that doesn’t quite capture, as it should, the enormity of what we’re doing, unless you really think about it. Although at some point we have probably seen the words to the oath, that hasn’t been much in our heads since we have been so wrapped up in PST. But on Monday, we’ll get a copy of the promise we’re making, to our country and to this one, and then, this shit gets real.

All that said, I digress.

If you didn’t absorb what I said above, please think about it again: we somehow managed to make enough Spanish rice to feed thirty people by giving over the process entirely to three of our 5 Thai mees, and letting them do the job for us. The day officially started with a seven a.m. trip to the market, where we purchased five kilograms of chicken breasts, plus the carcasses of the seven chickens (minus heads) that had donated their fine white meat to the fajitas cause. (I say officially because by seven I’d already put in a load of laundry and eaten a cracker and washed my face. In that order.)

550 baht. 11 pounds of meat. Plus some unweighed quantity of bones.

Then we bought onions. Cilantro. Prik. Lime juice. Tomatoes. We had to get the prik yaai mai pet (large peppers, not spicy) because there weren’t any bell peppers (prik waan, or sweet peppers) available at the market.

150 baht. I didn’t see the scale but I’m pretty sure we ended up with about 12 yellow onions, 20 prik yaai mai pet, which are like exaggerated cartoon versions of the super small and pointy peppers that light your mouth up. They say they’re not hot, but after removing the seeds and then wiping the sweat off my face about 20 minutes later, I can assure you that they will certainly burn your skin. Not too terrible on the tongue though.

We also had more tomatoes than you’d care to shake a stick at (what does that expression mean, anyway?) and a bunch of cilantro. Actually, 3 bunches, which, it turned out, were not for our fajitas (as we hoped) but were instead for the som dtam that was also being made at our house.

Once we got home, around 8, I’d guess (I took off my watch and didn’t put sunscreen on my wrist in order to even out my tan today), it was go go go. And oh no, wait. And, what? And yes, and no, and okay, and a lot of shrugging and pointing and peeling and chopping.

Josh started skinning and chopping the chicken. Mee 1 understands that the bones need to be boiled, so she pretty much took that over immediately.

I started cutting the onions. Mee 3 (or is she 2?) saw what I was doing and immediately started peeling, washing and chopping her own onions just like mine. Then with the garlic. Then with the prik. Finally (after we switched out bowls approximately 11 times), we ended up with a vat (yes, I mean a vat) of chicken and onions and prik. Josh was poised on the kitchen mat with a bottle of lime juice (and surrounded by the fish sauces, MSG, sugar and other various sauces we didn’t intend to use). The gasps of disbelief that arose from the crowd (our 14 year old neighbors, Ice and Beng) as Josh poured in half the bottle onto the chicken were hilarious. Followed with oil. Then pepper, salt, and cumin.

Then a bit more drama as we realized that it’s about 9 am and already about 99 degrees out. And the vat of chicken won’t fit into the fridge. And the guests aren’t coming till 2 or 3 pm. So Ice and Beng and I trot off to the corner to buy two bags of ice, which, after some more negotiation, we end up tucking into the vat of chicken, which then goes into the shade, i.e., that portion of the kitchen which happens to be in the house.
On to the salsa. Easy enough, except Josh was a little at a loss without the blender. Nevertheless, tomatoes, onions, prik, lime, pepper, salt, garlic, and love in a bowl, started to look like salsa. (And that bowl fit in the fridge.)

And onto the next thing… Josh brought up the rice, which as any good New Mexican knows, you have to fry first, with garlic and onions, before boiling in chicken broth and adding tomato paste and tomatoes. At first, the Mees were apprehensive about the idea of frying the rice. They tried at least three times to sell us on the idea of making the rice in the rice cooker. Josh at one point even thought he should give up on the idea. But somehow, he got across the process and the ultimate goal, and then Mee 2 (or is she 3) took over. Josh fried up the first batch of rice in a small wok with onions and garlic once the Mees got the charcoal fire going. He and I looked skeptically at the remaining rice, which Mee 1 had cleaned already, which was waiting to go into the pan. I’d already put all the garlic and onions I had prepared into the first batch. Josh and I were clearly each feeling the same skepticism about the rest of the rice: “if we make it, will they eat it?” and we voiced this to each other, each deciding separately, and then together, that we would probably forego trying to make the rest of it. But then, I noticed the Mees were cutting more garlic, chopping more onions, and taking over from Josh as they dumped more and more rice into the wok, combining it all with the broth we’d made, and setting it back over the coals to cook boil. To hell with us. They’d decided to finish the batch, and all we could hope was that someone showed up to eat it.

A few times we checked in on it. They added more broth, turned the pot, stoked the coals, and pretty much told us to go away. So we gave up on that, figuring they probably wouldn’t ruin enough rice to feed the whole village.

Finally, the tortillas. We had already bought the flour, baking soda, and Crisco (yup.) at the supermarket in town on Sunday. I had copied down two recipes from about 3 minutes worth of internet research. We had expressed our need for a hard round object to roll out the dough. (Rolling pin doesn’t translate, at least not in our rudimentary Thai.) We managed to get the dough into a serviceable condition, and I was provided with an empty and cleaned Hong Thong whiskey bottle to roll out the dough, along with a clean plastic mat to lay on the counter. As I rolled the dough into small balls and laid them on the counter, my audience of teenage girls grew. They seemed fascinated, but they didn’t want to help. I wonder, would I have wanted to, at that age?
The rice was finished and set aside, and the coals reappropriated for use with a small, flat-bottomed skillet (perhaps the only one on the block) to make the tortillas in.

The girls moved outside as I provided Josh with batch after batch of ready-to-cook tortillas. He sat by the fire, under a lopsided beach-like umbrella, metal spatula in hand, while the girls watched. I rolled tortillas. Josh talked to the girls. I rolled more tortillas. They came into the kitchen to deliver them to Josh. Finally, after I rolled about the 50th tortilla, I came outside. Josh was trying to explain the state of New Mexico and its unfortunate lack of a seashore. So I brought out the Atlas. (The size of the U.S. is always a crowd pleaser).

After oohing and aahing over the Atlas (it’s in Thai) a little bit, the girls grew bored. We mentioned limeade and suddenly a new flurry of activity erupted. I took over the tortilla making while Josh went to start frying up the fajita meat, onions, and peppers is a wok that’s practically large enough for you to sleep in. I was soon called away from the tortillas to start the limeade; somehow the women had juiced about 20 limes and lemons in a matter of minutes, and soon I was boiling water to make simple syrup and adding it to the lime juice. Our neighbor/little sister, Ice, couldn’t have been more delighted that I had another task to do. She immediately took over the tortilla making.

While she finished that, and after I set the limeade out to cool, I started chopping the cheese (yes, delicious, real cheese that we’d purchased three pounds of!) It’s hard to grate cheese without the proper instrument, so I spent about 20 minutes attempting to hack it up into small strips with a meat cleaver. Oh well.
Within about 5 minutes of finishing the limeade, the tortillas, and the filling, our friends started showing up. We began dishing out food, and then the real fun began.

After each of our family members tentatively accepted a plate of food, we watched a few of them go back for seconds, and even thirds. Even Nick’s family, who received a carry out bag of Spanish rice and chicken (tortillas and salsa were long gone by then), ate and enjoyed it. By the end of the day, we had gotten through most of the food (the rest was sent around the neighborhood or with our friends in small plastic carryout bags), and our mee’s were asking Josh to tell them the ingredients for each dish.

I wonder when they’ll next attempt a New Mexican meal… Maybe they’ll cook it for us when we come visit.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

More or Less

Had to get that fajita blog out of the way but wait there's more, and before anything else happens I guess I'll write some of it down here...I am presently, once again, sitting in a swanky room at the hotel. A room that did not look swanky at all beforeI lived in rural Thailand for two months and now, with internet and a bumping AC, I give it the swank title.

This morning all 52 Peace Corps trainees in group 124 were brought back to the hotel about 15 miles from our training village and said goodbye to their respective host families. There were a lot of tears, and presents and promises. We have lived with these people since the second week of January and they have taken care of us lost Americans with every problem we have had adjusting to Thailand up til today, and in some cases caused them.We were separated into five dtambons during training which is basically a small group of villages. Each dtambon threw a going away party for the asasamok in their dtambons last night and they were, without the possibility of finding a more appropriate term for them, ridiculous.

Our dtambon had 8 asasamok living in it, and the party for us last night had over sixty attendees. Each table was outfitted with about ten different dishes, produced by different families, ranging from papaya salad, to fried chicken and fish, to roast chicken, sticky rice, vermicelli and cabbage. I do not know the names or flavors of everything on our tables last night as I mostly ate the som-dtam and fried chicken. We had a stage that was five feet above the ground with lighting effects and a massive karaoke system that we worked until the technician told us no more songs. Above that stage, as you can see in the photograph above, was a sign that is so priceless I will not even attempt add on to it with words. We danced for the Thais, they danced for us. We sang for the Thais, they sang for us. With an intro from our ajaan, each volunteer made a short speech in Thai to thank the host families for their hospitality while experiencing perhaps the most generous gesture of this hospitality yet, this party. It required hours of cooking by at least 8 households not mentioning the DJ and bottles of cold LEO each of us received. Once again, the volume of the sound system was at a level that provided me with an instant headache and anxiety and so I asked one of our language ajaans why Thais like the music so loud. She told me "because when Thais are having a celebration, they want people to know". I hope you all have a chance to check out the pictures from this evening when they are up because this was another one of those situations one comes into the PC imagining but when they occur your realize is plain to strange to imagine.

We had a wonderful time with our host families and fellow asasamoks. We started today with the prospect of going into another new community of people we don't know yet and starting to build ourselves into that community all over again. This time, by ourselves.

Tomorrow the 124th group of Peace Corps volunteers to serve in Thailand, on the 50th year of the program will swear in. For the first time in several years, all PC trainees who arrived in Bangkok on the plane together, will be taking that oath together. Erin and I had the good fortune to be among this group and we area excited about going from trainee to volunteer status and getting started with what we came here to do. Erin was one of two individuals (the other being a damned good looking chicano named Joel) in our group of 52 that were selected to give a speech (in Thai of course) to the folks wearing the suits.  This will be followed by the opportunity for her and our buddy Joel to dine at the VIP table in a secluded room on the second floor.

We will spend the next couple of days getting to know our counterparts and trying to outline some of what we will be doing here for the next two years. I will wear shoes for the last time for a long time. We will eat more fried chicken and eat more noodles. Finally, this craziness that has been pre-service training is over and I can sleep past 5:40 again.

Where There Are No Garduno's

This post has been removed as it accidentally preempted Erin's much more comprehensive one on the same topic. Please keep an eye our for that one!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Dogs are like squirrels.... or something

In the post about Josh's birthday, I made a (hyperbolically titled) list of "a million little things" that I knew I needed to blog about...

So, we'll start with the dogs. I was warned about dogs in many capacities before we actually arrived here. Friends who had lived in/been to/otherwise heard about Thailand mentioned that there were a lot of stray dogs, street dogs, here. I think the guidebooks probably even mention it too, though I can't specifically recall.

Thanks to our pre-departure Facebook group, I also heard a lot about the stray dogs from currently serving volunteers - that they were mangy, not well-fed, aggressive, and generally full of fleas, and that there were especially a lot of them at the temples. There was also a lot of advice for dealing with dogs while riding your bike.

When we got to Detroit, for our first real Peace Corps pre-departure session, it became clear that all the Facebook talk about the dogs had predisposed everyone to a perhaps unhealthy or unwarranted fear of dogs. So, a lot of our Detroit pre-departure session was spent asking a couple of PC staff with no Thailand experience whatsoever a lot of questions about how to deal with dangerous dogs. Needless to say, we got few satisfactory answers, and well, the issue came up again at many a safety and security session, and a cultural session or two, during our PST once we arrived.

So... what about the dogs?

Well, it turns out that they are, in fact, everywhere. I can't figure out if there's any cultural (or physical) equivalent in the US to what the dogs are here. They are, in some cases mangy. In many cases flea ridden and unvaccinated. Almost always, they are uncollared and sleeping in the middle of the road. Even if they have collars, the are often sleeping in the middle of the road.

There are so many of them that at first, I thought they might fill the niche of squirrels. You know - they're everywhere, they're skittish, nobody really thinks to take care of them, but occasionally someone will leave food out. And nobody tries to pet them, or think they can control them. But then.... I started noticing that some of them are cared for, and loved. And the ones that aren't often seem to beg for attention, or recognition, or food. And they have visible friendships, boundaries, home territories. And they have the ability to look you in the eye, and ask you for something you don't understand. And so I started thinking of them more and more as filling the niche of the homeless in the States. (You don't see homelessness here. At least, I haven't yet.)

But that isn't quite right, either. I was having both of these thoughts long before I ever got seriously chased by one of those things, and now they aren't really competing in my mind for merit anymore. Dogs in Thailand are dogs in Thailand, and don't you forget it. This realization washed over me the other night as Josh and I rode our bikes (with very bright headlamps) back to our house from our neighbor's after dark (well after dark, I should add). I have been chased by dogs before, and sometimes for a good distance after I pass their patch of pavement and they feel the need to chase me off of it even though I was already pedaling in that direction. However, there is nothing like turning around upon hearing barking to see the four dogmen of the apocalypse slowly closing in on your bike with flashing green eyes and sharp, snapping pearly whites. (Granted, they probably are doing exactly the same thing in the day time, except that they look a lot more friendly and playful when you can see more of their body parts than teeth and eyes.)

Squirrels don't do that. Neither do any of the homeless people on Central Avenue.

And now I know why people were so worried about the dogs. Because they are DOGS that are very territorial and rather untrained in civility. We are thinking of investing in supersoakers.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

One Thai man's story and reflections across the Pacific

Last week Erin and I got our first peek at what will be our home for the next two years. After my Krung-Thep extravaganza we both spent the next three days with our new host family in a beautiful teak house that was designed by our host mother without the aid of paper or pencil. She basically just walked around and told he contractors what to do for the duration of the building process. Our host father, Samung, was off working in Libya at that time where he has spent ten of the last seventeen years working abroad. Stints in Iran, Taiwan and Libya, away from the his family, have earned enough cash for him to be retired at the age if 55. Samung worked in four year increments then returned to Thailand periodically to check in and apparently father another child (they have four, ranging from around 20-30 years old). When I asked Samung what his vocation is, he said farmer, even though his work abroad was always auto body repair. I was struck by the apparent modesty in his answer. Samung was a fleet mechanic in Libya for a large Korean corporation who 20 years ago secured a contract to build a water pipeline from Egypt there. The project was scheduled to take thirty years but Samung says he doubts it will finish in that time. If what I understood was correct, this pipeline will be 1000 kilometers long, about 4 meters in diameter and buried in the ground. I was impressed by the story behind his early retirement. He speaks four languages, among them enough English for me to understand just how warm hearted a man he is. I asked if he missed his family over this time and Samung said the work was too much fun to think about that. Thinking about this now I am reminded of my grandpa Tito, who is the only other person I know who seems to like work this much.

We have heard many times since our arrival here how common it is for Thais to move away from their rural homes for work. Samung's is the most drastic example I have encountered yet.

The day before we came back to Sing Buri he received a phone call from his friend in Libya asking if he would come back to work. When Samung told me he would probably go in three or four months I smiled at him and said "I thought you were retired"?