Thursday, October 3, 2013

Rainy Season. A poem.

“Thailand has three
Hot season, cold season, and __________”?
A test question asks my students.
Hot and cold they know already,
but rainy eludes them
even as they sit in a classroom the usual
kid noise of which is drowned out
by the drumming of torrential rain
on the school’s steel roof.
Sheets of water pour off the corrugated metal and
slide past the windows,
darkening the room.
Guiding them through the question
(this is a test of me as much as of them),
I ask, “What season is it now?”
and point out the window.
“Cold?” they ask.

Rainy season is sometimes cold
in the way it is always cold to be too wet
with no promise of drying anytime soon.

Mostly though, it’s cool and the days progress slowly.
It seems as though the sun has gotten lazy; it rarely
rises into perceptible view until early afternoon
when the clouds deign to share the stage with their brighter, more
ostentatious sibling.
But the clouds and the rain must depress the sun the same as they
depress me on some days,
because the sun slips away early, too,
letting the sky grow dark in late afternoon as the clouds gather for another
celestial game that the sun isn’t invited to join in.
Sometimes, they play long into the night,
a kind of heavenly match no mortal understands.
The scoring is too complicated, the object of it all elusive.
After long nights battering the ground below, the clouds look restful in the morning,
fluffy, white,
somehow satisfied with the damp they’ve wrought below.

In some weeks, the taa din daeng never dry out completely,
the muddy puddles in the red dirt only shrinking and growing
as if they’re breathing at some impossibly listless pace.
Sometimes the puddles become splayed ovals
taking their shapes from the ruts grooved out by
E-tans that pass through,
carrying farmers to their flooded fields,
bouncing over the less and less smoothly packed
dirt roads that criss-cross the paddies out behind the houses.

In rainy season there is always enough water
for dishes
and laundry
and bathing.
There’s no sense in restricting the flow from the reservoir to the houses when
the reservoir is threatening to overflow and flood the nearest ones.

In rainy season everything wet stays damp for days.
You can only do laundry as often as the laundry you’ve already done will dry.
Otherwise, everything mildews
and has to be washed again
swirled in the abundance of life (and chore) -sustaining liquid that
flows so easily from the tap
into the basin
and out the back into the yard
and from there under the fence
into the empty lot next door
which sits lower and has begun to serve an important purpose
as it collects the water that drains away
away from the houses
which for now
aren’t flooded.

In rainy season
the klong fills up to within inches of the level of the road.
Maybe sometimes it spills over
quietly, bringing mud and sand with it,
leaving the road that curves around the wat
full of red dirt and puddles that can’t be avoided by any form of wheeled transport.
Maybe sometimes it runs over,
but I haven’t seen it.
Near the bridge before the wat, upstream from it,
where the high school kids farm fish and spend their afternoons
jumping into the klong and swimming in its muddy sluggish current,
the school is constantly less than an inch away from imminent
But it hasn’t happened yet.
That road stays dry,
with the klong only lapping at the cement shore
quietly coming to meet it
and then sinking back as the water is called further downstream.
Someone is good
with the doors along the canal,
the locks that open and allow the water to flow into fields,
or further downstream
to other communities
that accept the water, or send it flowing
on back to its mother river.

A kilometer or so
past the wat
the road has straightened out and runs between fields
for a while.
No houses crowd the road or the rice.
If they did, they’d be sunk.
The paddies here have become local swimming holes.
A road between two villages carries an old man in a canoe
carefully putting bait on a hook
that’s attached to the end of a bamboo rod.
If these fields were planted,
they are now lost,
whatever rice had managed to sprout now trampled
by shrieking children
who are learning to swim for the first time.

“The children love the rain,” Kru Ning remarks,
as we pick our way back from the cafeteria,
across the flooded soccer field,
to the classrooms after lunch.
At lunch she had recited the old children’s rhyme,
“Rain, rain, go away
Come again another day,”
and now I thought about how few of my students,
given the chance,

would tell the rain to go away.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Ice Cream Days

Dear America (and friends, family, various others whose names appear in my FB feed for some weird, algorithmic reason),

I miss you. A lot. Really a lot.

I miss the emails we exchanged when I first got here and it was all so interesting and new. I miss your cheese and your green chile (shout out to NM here). I miss our late night chats. I miss knowing what's going on within your borders. I miss the anticipation of the start of ski season. I miss ice cream not being some like, magical amazing expensive thing.

But sometimes, even in Thailand, we get ice cream, and also, we get what I'm starting to think of as Ice Cream Days. You know, days when it just seems like everything kind of goes right (oh, and there's coconut milk ice cream at school and your friends take you out for ice cream after work, too. Yeah, that happens).

This week, I've had two of those. First: Yesterday, there was coconut ice cream at school (and then our friends took us out for ice cream after work, too), and in the intervening two ours between ice cream and ice cream, there was this: my kids dancing (begging to dance) to a bastardized Macarena remix that some woman with a pretty weird accent sings the months of the year to:

And then today, while they begged to watch the videos of themselves dancing this song, one student read the following two books. From cover to cover. Aloud. For fun. 

So, today, there was no ice cream. But it definitely qualifies as an Ice Cream Day. 

America, I miss you, but this is pretty okay. 

Love, /e

Friday, August 16, 2013

This was actually last month, but here's the story

This week Erin and I completed a six day camp in Nakhon Ratchasima Thailand in support of the Thai/US NGO, Brighter Thailand Foundation (BTF). BTF’s charter is to develop leadership skills in Thai youth, and these camps work toward that end by bringing in adults from multiple backgrounds to facilitate student centered activities with high school kids for two days, after which the high school kids facilitate those activities themselves for elementary school kids the following 4 days. Day one and two, we had 16 high school aged kids “camp counselors” from two different schools, 7 Korean “foreign ambassadors”, 3 “Thai ambassadors” and 4 Peace Corps volunteers which were a sort of mutt mix between foreign and Thai ambassadors at this point. We also had the assistance of a Kenyan born American who has been teaching English at the host school in Korat for 3 years, can both read and write Thai and who gave me a bag of the best Vietnamese coffee, named Joel. Over the 6 days of the camp, we highlight five vocabulary words having to do with leadership: citizenship, responsibility, respect, honesty, and perseverance. Each activity is aimed at building these qualities in the youth and also having them synthesize in their own minds what they mean and how these concepts have to do with life.

I got to spend a lot of time with the Korean ambassadors during the day and evenings, then a couple days after when I travelled to Ko Chang (Elephant Island) for a short holiday with them in the gulf. All the Korean volunteers are current University students, mostly in Seoul. They came to Thailand on a month long trip which included working two Brighter Thailand Camps, the one I attended, and another in Nong Khai near the Laos border. After arriving Ko Chang, I received a call from my host father who has been working in a town 10 hours from our home in a province near Ko Chang, asking me where I was. Since he is working in Rayong, and that is right on the path back to Bangkok from Trat province, I decided I might try to go and see him. Since he left Sukhothai, Pa has not given me a straight answer on when he will be coming back, so I was beginning to be concerned I might not see him again! On Sunday, July 21st, I got up after 5 hours of sleep and a long evening of mechanical bull riding and went for a long run. I decided I wouldn’t hang with the PC girls who had come down for the rest of the weekend but would hit the road. Our BTF crew left Ko Chang by ferry boat to head back to Bangkok. The driver informed me after speaking with “pa”, that he knew where he was and that it was actually not out of the way for him to drop me off there at all. Four hours later, we arrived in Rayong and then spent another 35 minutes trying to straighten out the directions to where Pa’s house was. The van driver was very confused because neither Pa nor the individuals with him knew quite how to guide us in, even though it was obvious that we were very close. The address system can be pretty unreliable in Thailand, and often the location of temples is how people navigate. This is what we did. During this time, I am delaying a van full of 8 other people who are trying to get to Bangkok before the Korean restaurants close, and essentially driving all around a neighborhood in their chartered van, on their gas. Luckily we are in Thailand, where even if you are inconveniencing someone out of their mind, they will not mention word one to you. After a while we finally found the place, at which time I saw Pa standing by the side of the road looking half the age of last time I saw him and smiling when he recognized that it was me sitting shotgun in the silver van. At this point I departed the company of Koreans wealthy enough to afford to pay to come volunteer in a foreign country for a month and entered the company of Pa and his only co-worker, who would quickly become my first “Khamen” or Cambodian friend. He and Pa live at a tire repair shop on a large dirt lot, littered with various metal truck accessories for sale, and a concrete block and sheet metal constructed shack that covers a variety of automotive repair equipment and a TV from the rain and one room that has no door handle or lock. Pa sleeps in this room, which he shares with the inner tube stock and a large variety of old pieces of metal and used parts piled in the corners all around. His (our) bed consists of a raised particle board platform with two blankets on it, covered by a mosquito net. Pa has been working down here for close to 3 months now.

The first part of our conversation was to inform me that Lyn, Pa’s coworker and for all practical purposes current life-mate, is Cambodian. The next part of the conversation was a brief discussion about whose Thai was better, mine or Lyn’s where Lyn mentioned to Pa that mine definitely was but as I spent more time with him, very quickly came to disagree with. Lyn has been working in Thailand for 13 years, has a wife and daughter living on the coast near a town called Sattahip (who he visits on weekends), and spent the last couple of years selling stuff out of his wife’s store and the years prior to that on a sea going fishing boat as a chef. From what I could tell he is skilled in basic labor for automotive body work, which is what brought Pa to work in Rayong. Lyn does sanding and otherwise supports Pa who is a skilled welder and body man from his time working abroad for Korean firms in Libya and Taiwan. The work Pa and Lyn are doing right now is to turn a hunk of metal that was once a truck that had a devastating multiple roll-over accident, into a drive-able machine again. The truck has no glass, no seats, no carpet, no lights, no color. When I asked Pa if it the frame was bent, he said yeah, just a little bit, but the motor is still good. I stood there trying to imagine what Pa and Lyn had already done to this vehicle since it got there since basically I was looking at a truck body resembling one at a factory before it had anything but the metal. The roof was the only part that showed damage, but as if it had been pounded flat again, and put back on. For Pa and Lyn’s efforts on this truck, which is scheduled to take them a couple of months working almost every day, to repair or replace the metal surfaces, sand and paint them, the owner will pay 30,000 baht or $1,000 dollars. Other craftsmen will come to the shop to replace the glass as soon as the exterior work is done and all the interior paneling, headlights, etc. are replaced.

Since I bought a bottle of Beefeater gin on the island and because my coworker failed miserably to help me drink it, I arrived at the shop with over two thirds of that fine spirit remaining. I told Pa that I would need some ice and some limes and so he walked me across the busy street from the yard to unlock a store room, somewhere around 2000 square feet in size. We entered there and the room was full of shoes and jeans and jackets, in addition to big 50 kilo sacks of rice and as always a random assortment of other things that were for sale. Pa explained to me that all of this stuff came from Cambodia, is second hand, and that the people he is working for make a business out of selling it in quantities large and small. He further explained that almost all of it comes from factories or other companies in Korea; this was evident by the Korean writing on the fronts of the jackets. We did not have to pay for the ice, and Pa let me know that this is where the shower was as well. On returning to the lot, I made at least three rounds of gin and tonic for Lyn and another man who showed up just after I started mixing the drinks. Lyn commented on how the drink tastes so good that you just keep sipping and are drunker than you think before you know it. First time drinking it, Lyn described my favorite cocktail the G and T pretty well, I thought. We sat watching Thailand’s Got Talent together where I saw my first Thai beat boxer competing, and Pa and I took turns answering the standard questions about what I am doing in Thailand, whether or not I have a woman, and what the hell it was that lead me to be sitting there with them on what turned out to be Lyn’s bed (a thatched table, outdoors on a concrete patio with a plastic table cloth on it). Lyn commented that all his stuff had been stolen, pointing to the area around the “bed”, in the one display of negativity I observed in my time with him. Sleeping outside at the shop apparently does have some draw-backs.

After cocktail hour, it was time to go down to the night market and buy some dinner. We only had to walk a couple of hundred yards down the road to get to a typical Thai outdoor market that was just starting to close down. I procured a bag of “yam khaw mhu-yang” or grilled pigs neck salad (a barbeque pork dish made with mint and crushed red pepper) one of the most delicious foods in a country of many) and some sticky rice for dinner. Then I picked up some fried chicken just because they had some left. As we got to the end of the market everybody started laughing and asking each other “does father look like son?” We had come upon the owners of the shower/store room/ice place. They were selling all kinds of the Cambodia imported goods under a canvas tarpaulin. After a few minutes of looking at the various steel toed boots, and Korean, industry jackets, Pa told me he had to wait and drive the truck back to the store room because the woman could not do it. So I joined the five of them in stuffing this compact pick-up with an 8 foot high box on the back with shoes. I thought about how the Koreans I arrived with earlier in the day have parents that are probably high level officers at these very companies with which a chain of circumstance has lead their excess to be for sale in an outdoor Thai market in an industrial section of Thailand where I “worked” for a very brief moment in time. We packed up, went “home”, and Pa, Lyn and I ate dinner at the shop Thai style. I was pretty tired by then, so I called it a day.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The ants go marching 42X10....

The ants read my last blog, and are apparently determined to (re)claim responsibility for my impending, imminent, insanity. As evidence, I give to you: these pictures of ants migrating, during a downpour, from their home in the floor of our house to their rainy-season home in the ceiling.


And also this video, which you have to go to YouTube to watch. And which has a bad word in it. (I'm sorry.) P.S. This is also a nice slice of "married-life-in-Peace-Corps" reality TV. Enjoy.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

What I meant to talk about in that last post....

The last post I wrote was about relationships. And it got a lot of attention, which was pretty cool, and unexpected, because when I posted the blog, even though it was really true, it wasn't actually about the thing that I've really been thinking about that led me to write the blog in the first place, which is, well weird, except when you consider that the relationship most affected by living here is my relationship with language.

This is difficult to explain, and yet I know that there's not a single other Peace Corps volunteer who doesn't at least to some degree feel the same way. So forgive me for being self indulgent in describing how this feels to me and not trying to be universal about it.

I'm a words person. I don't know who many types of people there are, but there are certain people who are words people. I'm one of them - I generally find it a great deal easier to communicate in writing. I appreciate words for the tools that they are: of communication, of beauty, of meditation. I have an unfortunate and terrible talent for using words as weapons, especially against loved ones, especially in moments of anger. I wish words didn't have that power, but they do, and this post isn't about that dark side, of words or of me.

I like analogies. I like words that create worlds unto themselves. I enjoy puns and intellectual conversation that hinge on people's disparate understandings of single sentences. I like to study what words can do. I think that what you say depends on how you choose to say it. I am analytically inclined, whether about people or texts. I use language to gain insight into both the people I know and the ones I don't. I look for meaning, everywhere. I am particular. I really, really try to say what I mean, and to be very precise about it. I write blog posts  and personal essays and research papers while I'm running, reading, teaching, and trying to go to sleep and in those moments, I return to mental scripts and edit them, too. I cannot experience something without imagining how I would write about it later (or in the moment). Words are my most prominent lens. Actually, I believe words are really everyone's most prominent lens, since as language using animals, language shapes the way we think, interpret the world, and thus feel about it. But I know that not everyone thinks about it that way. Not everyone is always obsessively thinking about language in the way that I am - but I do think that being in Peace Corps probably turns on that tendency in every volunteer.

I'm also a very serious person. I don't feel comfortable acting silly or being in the limelight, and the jokes I enjoy and the things I laugh at usually tend toward sarcasm, irony, and even a kind of cynicism.

People don't call me because I will make them laugh. They call me because what I say will probably make them think. With friends, I tend to be honest, probably more honest than they'd like in some instances, but I think very hard about how I deliver the comments I make, the advice I give; I try to make sure that what comes out of my mouth doesn't come tumbling out, but is measured, true, thoughtful, and, let's be honest, well-composed. I don't like to make comments in casual conversation unless I know exactly how they'll come out, unless I know my audience and the effect those comments might have. I feel terrible when my words are misconstrued or misunderstood, or when they miss their mark, partly because that's usually when someone ends up hurt, and partly because I think that how someone receives what you say and what they think you mean is as important as your intent. So, you think I'm crazy now, right? Fair enough. (I think I'm a little bit crazy, too.) When operating in English, this constant self-editing, this handle-with-care sense that I have about words, well, it works. Automatically. Easily. Less like a robot than it sounds.

It doesn't work in Thai. It doesn't work in Thailand. And this means that a lot of things that I have taken for granted for my entire life just don't work here. I didn't really expect this to happen, and even though it was probably the case the minute I stepped of the plane onto the Tarmac at Suvarnabhumi (the "v" is a "w" and don't pronounce the "i") airport, it's a fact that has only been slowly seeping into my consciousness and poisoning it. I take to languages easily - I like them - and I learned Thai quickly and easily during pre-service training. At site, those skills impressed people. And that made me feel good. I probably let those early successes with talking about family and fruit and food (fruit is not food, in Thailand) with strangers fool me into thinking that I had this language thing under wraps, that it would continue to be easy and self-satisfying to add to my Thai vocabulary and grammar repertoire.

It hasn't continued to be easy or self-satisfying. I never expected to be fluent in Thai. I don't even know that I expected to be as decent at it as I am now. But I am still a fool.

In short, a few things have converged during this experience to make me feel as though I'm Alice falling through the rabbit hole--un-anchored, watching everything I know disappear until even the point of light that marked which way is up as closed in on itself, the walls too far away to touch, the bottom still a theoretical probability. (Yes, I'm being dramatic. This is that cynical sense of humor I alluded to.)

1) It's really hard to keep learning Thai without the help of your ajaans, even if you were pretty good at it in the first place.
2) If I don't know what's going on in a conversation, I retreat into the inner conversation, the one always running in my head, and the editing and the thinking and the English, by God, block out everything else going on around me.
3) Something about people assuming you know what's going on makes it really embarrassing to ask when you don't.
4) For months during PST we were basically advised not to be direct (this is an oversimplification, I know, but it sunk into my consciousness like this, and I have really stopped being able to be as direct or as honest with people as I probably would be at home. Then again, at home, I wouldn't be encountering some of these situations and would probably be at a loss for English words, anyway).
5) My desire for precision in my own language means that I generally put myself on mute until I know exactly how whatever comes out of my mouth is going to come out. Until I have a sentence mentally lined up, and one on deck, and another waiting in the wings, I generally have trouble joining a conversation.
6) Since I rarely ever know what's going on, I have absolutely no insight, none that I trust, anyway, into what people are thinking or what motivates them or why or even, most of the time, what they're really trying to say when they're saying something.

In my case, it's these last three that have really turned my inner world upside down, left that "indelible mark" I mentioned in the last post. Because I don't really know how to read people's reactions, and I don't really know what's appropriate to say, -- I mean, yes, there are some basic cultural guidelines that are easy enough to follow, and have become automatic enough in a year and a half that I'm not going around offending everybody all the time with impunity and not really knowing it -- and I am always already editing what I want to say, I often feel nothing more than tongue twisted and confused. And isolated in my own mental state (yes, mental state is a double entendre. See how not funny I am?).

The constant second-guessing communication, wondering if I heard people right, if they heard me right, if they understood what I meant and are just ignoring it, or really didn't understand is bad enough with Thai co-workers and friends. That's become par for the course. And also kind of funny, and not exactly a complete hindrance to friendships or work or general existence. It is distracting though, the constant second guessing of what I'm saying, the weird hole in my memory where lots of that English I like to speak used to be--words that were once accessible and readily available to be used precisely when and as needed seem to have disappeared, or else recessed into cobwebby filing cabinets at the back of my brain, the creeping uncertainty about what's appropriate to say in conversations with friends, Peace Corps staff members, Thai colleagues, and relatives, the weird and terrible guilt and shame that creeps in and sits in the back of my throat at not being able to say the right thing in the right way at the right time. The complete breakdown of rhetoric, for the love of all that is good and Aristotelian.

I thought the ants would drive me crazy. It turns out, however, that the break downs occur because the foundation of which I have been so sure for so long - language - has crumbled.

Josh, never one to spare me his thoughts (or the words they come in), tells me that this is all ego. And I suppose it is. But, well, you take out your ego and bash it on some rocks for a while and see how that feels, huh?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

there : here :: then : now...

I'm a dork. On standardized tests, I used to really like the analogies, trying to figure out the relationships between words, to see the nuances, to fill in that enticing blank with something that made everything all fall into place. I guess it isn’t just analogies, though; in my life I have tended to be a student of relationships, especially of disparate things: chemistry and literature; madness and history; education and health; writing and landscapes. It is perhaps no wonder that culture fascinates me, that the idea of living in a different culture has always excited me so much. 

During PST, when volunteers are still trainees, when they are still motivated by “the work we came here to do” and when they are struggling to find footholds in anything that seems, feels, smells, or tastes familiar, the training staff attempt to bury a particular piece of wisdom into their brains: It’s all about the relationships, they will reiterate over, and over, and over, and over. Yeah yeah yeah, thinks everyone, and then right about that time they’re trying to get some work done, this bit of advice starts to make sense. It is fortunately lodged in the brain, and creeps out as soon as school starts and everything that the volunteer thinks should be orderly is actually chaos.

The volunteer soon discovers that work doesn’t get done, not in Thailand anyway, without establishing rapport. Change simply doesn’t happen: roads don’t get paved, houses don’t get built, often, classes don't get taught – not unless under all this is a foundation of relationships among people. In some ways, you could argue that it’s the same everywhere, but I can assure you it’s not, and I will just leave it at that. It’s personal, it's hierarchical, it's cultural. It's confusing. 

What PC staff doesn’t tell volunteers, what they can’t tell them, because maybe they don’t even know, or maybe they take it as such a given that it doesn’t require a warning, or maybe because it just can’t really be articulated very well (watch out readers, this doesn’t bode well for the rest of the post), is that living in a different culture isn’t just about the relationships with people that you build to get things done (or to survive without being totally lonely)--it also goes to the very core of your relationships with, well, everything and everyone.

For example, PC warns you about this in all sorts of ways before they sign you up as a married couple. They ask you all sorts of questions during the recruiting process about how you each handle stress, what you'll do when one of you is more successful with language or your project than the other. They ask what your support systems are, who you talk to other than each other. And they're right to prepare married couples for this. You’ll experience your ups and your downs at different times and over different things. You will admire your spouse and feel jealous of his accomplishments at exactly the same time. Simultaneously, he’ll feel like he’s not accomplishing anything. You’ll become disturbingly co-dependent. You'll recognize that what people think of you depends in part on what you think of him. You will constantly have to explain that you are not worried about him working with women (even beautiful ones). You might even have to explain to your host mother that you don't actually share her concern that he's sleeping with the elementary school teacher across the street. You'll take things personally that weren't ever personal before. In Thailand, you'll probably become overly combative in your personal life because you repress so much frustration elsewhere. And yet, you'll still feel lucky to be doing this together, undergoing these changes in your relationship, and hoping you come out of the kiln tougher, smoother, and with a nice, glossy finish.

Speaking of that nice glossy finish, you'll forget what your skin looks like without a gloss of sweat on it. You'll realize that makeup is a cruel joke. That the expensive power you brought with you from home only works in air-conditioned parts of Bangkok. You will develop dandruff or your hair will fall out.  Your intestines, bowels, lungs, muscles, nails, and all sorts of other parts will suddenly quit working the way you think they should. Formerly pleasant foods will now curdle your stomach; exercises you previously enjoyed will become impossible or nonsensical; your daily fare may well rack your stomach with pains for weeks on end. You might poop six times a day. You might poop once every six days. Neither situation makes sense, and it won’t be pleasant. Your relationships with other volunteers, even the ones you aren't married to, will begin to involve conversations with the following sentences: "I might have to go to Bangkok to get my penis checked out"; "I was bleeding from my ass"; "Seriously, it feels like there is something moving around in my stomach. All. The. Time."; "God, I smell so bad today."

You will look in the mirror as little as possible, because what you see staring back at you will be: shiny and sweaty with unplucked eyebrows, a strange sunglasses tan, and frizzy hair. And that's just your face. If you are unfortunate enough to find a full length mirror, you'll see a size XL body in an XXXL polo with a mismatched skirt and long-ago-faded Chacos sitting below that head. Wait, an XL body? Yes. Because it's Thailand, and you are officially now too big to fit into anything that doesn't have an L somewhere on the label. Even if you don't catch yourself in a mirror, you'll find that changes in your body size, shape, weight, or color are not off limits for general conversation. In the same day, you will be told that you are both fat, and thin. Sometimes, you will be told that you look like crap (not beautiful) and should re-do your hair. Sometimes your eyelashes will be fawned over. Sometimes you might overhear people telling other people that you usually wear that shirt with a skirt, and it looks much better, and please excuse the fact that you are wearing pants today. In America, we have this idea that we can kind of hide in our bodies. If we need to hear someone comment on it, we elicit a compliment by fishing for one. Then we feel better. And we can rest securely in the knowledge that no one, unless they are a total asshole, is going to come up to us and say, "Today, you are ugly. You are fat. You have gained weight." It's kind of nice in America, isn't it? If someone told you that, right after you said hello, it's nice to see you again, you would probably punch them in the face, right? In Thailand, you have to smile while they pinch your love handles. See, even your relationship to your body (and everyone else's) is culturally constructed.

Of course your relationship to your family and friends will change, too, when you choose to live abroad. You will feel pain and guilt and confusion at missing certain events. You will feel glad that you are not there for others (and the subsequent pain and guilt for feeling glad about that). You will find that everything that they think you are doing doesn’t resonate with what you feel like you are doing, and you aren’t sure whether this is your problem or theirs, or something in between. Others around you will suddenly insist on referring to themselves as your “mother” and this will become something of a giant annoyance, because you have a mom already, thankyouverymuch. You will feel a desire to connect your family at home to your family at site, and it won’t make any sense, because they could never understand each other anyway, and you wouldn’t consistently want to broker their relationship. You will stop receiving long emails from your friends telling you how much they miss you, and it will become something of a faith thing to believe that they do, indeed, still miss you. You will stalk facebook photos of your friends' new babies, and wonder how their lives have changed since you last saw them, and how you will fit into those lives now that they revolve around the little people. You will miss people so much that it hurts, especially when you see beautiful and powerful things that you think only they could understand. Even when your close friends or family come to visit, something will be different, and you won't just be on one side of the cultural divide anymore. You will straddle it, uncomfortably, wishing you could unlearn everything you know about Thai culture, or American culture, for that matter, so you could just sit easily and be where you are. You will become very scared about going back to America, because you'll realize that you don't really understand how to relate to people any more. You'll resonate with another piece of wisdom a PC staffer once quipped, "You know, you guys get pretty weird after two years. Really pretty weird. You might not think so, but you do." 

You'll develop a relationship to water and electricity that is far more accepting of their inconsistency than you ever would have been at home. You will get used to doing dishes outside. You will live with ants in your floor and lizards in your ceiling. You will only scream at snakes if you are currently running them over with your bicycle. You will learn that the only fences that make good neighbors are the ones that can be climbed over easily for the purposes of sharing food. You will remember being apprehensive, scared even, about talking to your neighbors at home, and think that this was a really really silly way to feel. You will get used to your neighbors walking into your kitchen and asking what you're making for dinner. You'll get used to them watering your plants when they think you are sleeping, or showing up to look for a particular green in your miserable garden. You'll never have enough to give back to them. You'll never quite feel comfortable invading their space in the same way they invade yours.... but you'll start to think about going home, and your chest will tighten because, really, who's going to walk into your kitchen and ask what's for dinner? Who's going to bring you a bunch of bananas, a coconut, a second dinner? Who will give you unsolicited advice about what to do with the pigeons on your roof? Or notice that you left your bike outside, or your door unlocked? Who is going to line up outside their houses to cheer you on when you finish your run? Who's going to time that run for you because they have nothing else to do but wait on their porch for you to finish running and then tell you that you've been gone for over thirty minutes already!!!???? Not in America, they's not. 

This has been more or less a rambling post, for some reason written in the second person, which wasn't an experiment I planned... But I've been thinking for some time about how culture dictates our relationships with everything. With our concepts of everything. What is a party? What is a job? What is work ethic? What is responsibility? What is learning? What is family? What is important? How many people fit on a motorcycle? The answer to all of these questions is embedded in the contexts of cultures - to be taken out of one context and dropped into another means that the limits of all of my original answers have stretched and bled into the answers that are so obvious in this culture, and yet so different from my original assumptions. At the core of it, your relationship to yourself must change when you come to live in another culture. You must realize that you are constantly negotiating the things that make you you, that these assumptions that underlie your identity are neither givens in the new culture, nor may that be particularly important to the people around you, who will define you according to their assumptions, their cultural norms. It is impossible to be the same person in one culture and another, because although there may be a few things that are essential to each of us, we are also a constellation of relationships--between ourselves and those around us, between us and the world we live in. 

I don't know if I love or hate this fact, but it's left its indelible mark. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


In the course of a conversation about English teaching techniques and teacher training with a colleague this morning, I was informed that we have 309 days remaining until our official close-of-service date on March 20, 2014.

This particular colleague has a countdown app on her iPhone. Such calculations are well beyond the capacity of my Samsung Hero, which, while it will convert temperatures, lengths, weights, and a few other units between metric and American units, has nothing to say about the passage of time, except always to reset to January 1, 2010, when the battery is removed and replaced.

According to the online calculator I used to verify my fellow PCV's iPhone, we do in fact have 309 days left, not including March 20 (which I suppose is relevant, considering that will be the day we're released from our vows as PCVs). By the time that day actually rolls around, we will have been here for a whopping 799 days. (Minus the 10 or so that we spent in India.) But still, nearly 800 days away from home. That means we're just over 61% done with our service.

And that means....

Well, I'm not really sure. But I thought I'd share.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Buat Chang anyone?

This week, we returned from our mid-service conference where we had 3 days worth of mostly great sessions and were honored with the appearance of a special guest speaker, Surin Pitsuwan who enlightened us on many issues pertaining to this country we are trying so hard to serve. Following that was medical check-ups, the standard western food bank account draining ritual, and then for me an early return to sight while Erin waited for her childhood friend Sherron to arrive in BKK.

I opted to come back early based on an invitation that E and I had received from a teacher in a neighboring village. He told us that on the 7th of April, there would be a Buat Chang (lit. transl: elephant ordination) in Sukhothai, and that we were invited to attend with him should we be free that day. Erin had to decline the invite straightaway because of arrangements that were already made with Sherron. I told the guy that I would like to go and would call him when I returned from BKK to make arrangements. For some reason I got the feeling that the offer was less viable when he knew Erin would not come, but I had already decided that an elephant ordination sounded like something I had better at least try to attend.

Fast forward to when I do return to site early. My buddy, fellow volunteer and Americanist, JM, decided to come back with me and stay for a few days. Immediately upon arriving at site Saturday evening, I called the teacher to make arrangements. Over the phone, I could pick out only that he had some sort of excuse as to why he could not go, and that he was "not free". I told him that was no problem and that I would call someone else. So I did, and was able to recruit another friend, Pi Noi, who said she had nothing to do and would be glad to take the trip with us. Incidentally, the original teacher called back five minutes later and was excited to offer that he had found a friend who would take me in his stead. He was also quite surprised to hear that I had already found another ride.

The next day we departed my house at 7:17 AM to get to Si Satchanali by 9. We were surprised by my friend Noi's early arrival, because usually a 7:30 plan equals an 8:15 (or later) departure.

This is where the text part of this story ends and the photographic part begins. Once a year, only in this province, an elaborate ceremony is put on for a group of young men who are entering the monk-hood. How do you enter the monk-hood with true style you ask? On an elephant.

Friday, March 29, 2013

And the seasons, they go round and round...

In January, we noted our "year in Thailand" mark with little fanfare. A few Facebook posts and a couple of conversations marked the day for Josh and I. That was it. Then, sometime in February, we passed our official "half way point" in Thailand. Someone else was counting the days, and I didn't question them when the posted it on Facebook, just noted down the date - I think it was Valentine's Day, which is the only reason I now remember it - and moved on. Nothing much seemed to have changed; our language skills improve gradually every day, as do our cultural comprehension and relationships. (Well, most days, anyway.) 

But this last month, the effects of time have come into sharper relief for me. My mom used to sing me that Joni Mitchell song, 

... and the painted ponies go up and down. 
We're captive on this carousel of time. 
We can't go back; we can only look
behind from where we came, 
and go round and round and round, 
in the circle game...

and it's be drifting in and out of my head as the events of last year start to repeat themselves in this one. As the Thais might say, "Same, same. But different."

The first event that was the same, but different happened on March 20. I don't know if the Muu-Baan (village) party was the same date last year, but the purpose of the party we attended last Wednesday was certainly the same. Every year, the village pools a fund of money, which they give to the village leader (puyaibaan). With that money, the puyaibaan purchases food (which is usually prepared by members of the village) to serve to the monks, a collective tamboon (merit-making) activity. Then, they use the rest of the money to throw a huge party, to which everyone in the village (and the bigwigs from neighboring villages, and the Nayoke) are all invited. People give to the puyaibaan what they can. They don't have to give, but no matter what, they're invited to partake in the feasting, drinking, dancing, and festivities (which of course include karaoke and coyotees - young women dancing in skimpy outfits). This year, we missed the tamboon, as it took place in the morning, but we made it to the party, which was held at the puyaibaan's house, right outside the house where we lived with our host family last year. This year, the food was delicious and familiar, and the people were friends, neighbors, and familiar faces. This year it rained. This year, we weren't afraid to pipe up when we were ready to go, and our Paw fetched our host-brother to drive us back to our house right away. 

Last year, we didn't know who organized the party or why. We followed Mee out the door at about 5 pm and made it to the tamboon, sitting on the floor in the open-air village meeting area, embarrassed and self-conscious that people we barely knew were serving us cokes, sending us to the best seats in the house, and generally whispering about us instead of paying attention to the chanting of the monks. We didn't know how to react, but tried to sit up straight and pretend we didn't notice, when one of the monks pulled a cam-corder from his flowing orange robes and trained it on the crowd, spending a suspicious amount of time on us. Of course, this was made even more awkward (and hilarious) by the fact that the video camera was connected to a projector that was simulcasting the video recording onto a screen mounted behind the seven or so seated monks who were variously chanting and sitting throughout the ceremony in which our village donated uncooked rice and other non (immediately) perishables. Then we went to the party, which was held in an empty lot where the weekly market is also held, and close to a hundred tables were set up to accommodate the guests. We sat near the back with our family, in a bit of shock, and wishing we could hide, when of course we were called up to the stage to be introduced to the crowd by the Nayoke. A few minutes later Josh was belting out Hotel California and I was laughing and making my way back to my seat. (Karaoke isn't in my repertoire. Wasn't then. Isn't now.)

This week marks several more iterations that bring into sharp relief just how much really has changed here. It was the last week of school when I arrived last year. The students were already out, but the teachers were still coming in to work and grading and sending their final student reports, etc., to the central state government. I came a few days to one school and then to another, sitting around, mostly, eating mangoes with a few female teachers I didn't really know that well because my co-teacher wasn't around for one reason or another. We spoke broken Thai and English to each other, as necessary, alternately playing on Facebook and doing work. We sat downstairs, cooled by fans, and on a Wednesday night, four teachers kidnapped me for a ride to "Hot Pot" a restaurant about an hour and a half away for an overpriced, but silly and fun, meal. Last year I planned for about two days with my primary co-teacher before she promptly disappeared to deal with family matters and preparations for the Thai New Year (fast approaching on April 13). I only interacted with my secondary co-teacher for one day, when I came to the school to celebrate the graduation of the sixth grade. I sat with the teachers, eating hot-pot at our table while the kids reveled in their special meal at their own tables. I was appalled and confused by the consumption of alcohol at the teachers' table, right in front of the students, and especially put off by the level of intoxication some of them reached. I worried what it meant for the next year. I was asked to say a few words to the students, and I spoke in Thai, using my dictionary to prepare the speech and checking it with a teacher who has since moved on to another school in another province. 

This year, when I spoke to the graduating sixth grade students, I spoke to a group that I had taught, a group that, as I told them, is truly wonderful. I spoke to students that I will truly miss, some of whom I will teach again next year at the other school, and some I will likely never see again. I didn't shed the tears they did, but I felt the sadness of the passing of time, time that can never be gotten back. This year, I expected the alcohol and was pleasantly surprised that few teachers partook of the opportunity to get drunk at school in the middle of the day. (As I will have to explain another time, my fears about the alcohol at school have turned out to be both overblown and completely founded.) This year, I end the school year, sitting among new friends, who are grading papers, eating mangoes, and cursing their computers - upstairs, in an air conditioned room that was installed several months ago. We are speaking Thai to one another as I write this. I brought the mangoes. I know what's going on. 

This morning, I came to school after stopping by the preschool graduation that was hosted by the aubautau, yet another repetition of something that happened last year, and this time, like the Muu-baan party, it was smaller and less overwhelming. But there were still overly made up girls (and boys) dancing with wildly inappropriate (to our still unaccustomed eyes) moves to songs that we find barely listenable. There were still long speeches to preschoolers, the presentation of certificates and teddy bears by the highest ranking government officials in our town, and of course, a large, catered lunch (which I skipped to come to school and sit with the teachers). But this year, I knew some of the kids dancing their hearts out on the stage. I decided at the last minute to come so the teachers I know would know that I care, that I find their kids and these events worthwhile, and important in some way. 

I have no idea what else this year will bring. Certainly it will be different. Certainly it will be over before we know it. Right now, we approach another holiday, Song Kran (Thai New Year), that will again be the same, but different. The differences are startling reminders of how many, many things have changed, how different we are, how little time we in fact have left. Each day is both a repeat and a new day. Who knows what each of these days will reveal, either about the present or the past?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Nung bpi

This week marks one year of living in the little village we have called home since breaking company with the other 50 volunteers we came to Thailand with, last March. Group 123 is going/gone home, group 125 is finishing training, and 124 is down to 45 members from 52. We have a thriving garden on one side of the house, planted by our landlord, and a failing one on the other, planted by us. We have our Thai eating habits and weekend routines. I read more books last year than any in my life. Finally, the same events have arrived on my calendar as the one's that were there when we dropped into this cute little village.

On the 29th, there is the graduation ceremony for the pre-school students. Some of you probably remember those photographs. Toward the middle of next month will be the massive new years water festival, Sonkran. We know this not just by meetings going on in our SAOs, but by the multiple warnings issued by PC regarding drunk driving and careful passengering when traveling around Thailand this time of year.

"One year in, and one to go" I tried to explain to my nayoke over the lunch table today using the language of what I know to be 1/2 and the word for time. The concept of a halfway point was more difficult to communicate than I thought it would be, and after going through it with 3 different people, I have concluded that Thai's just do not think in "halves". Once I did get the point got across however, the nayoke immediately mentioned the project that I began working on in February and started yelling at the officer around us about when that was going to happen (I have been waiting on SAO support). Not in a mean way, but in an authoritative "what is going on with this?" kind of way. He immediately thought of this project because while Thai's may not think in halves, they certainly do think in subtext. My comment about half my time being over was immediately understood by the nayoke as a question about why my work involvement at the SAO is still fairly non-existent. Even I did not realize this when I initially brought it up today, but on reflection it is stupidly obvious. The nayoke repeated to the staff several times that "Josh wants to work" to which of course I could not appreciate any meaningful reply. So I opened another line of questioning on how exactly it came to be that I wound up in this community. Essentially asking the nayoke, what he had to do, and whether it was difficult. Every time I broach this topic with someone, I am surprised about what I find out. As my language continues to improve, what appeared to be conflicting information before seems to gain clarity. Not become clear, but gain clarity. Enough on that for now.

One year in of course, is a time of questions. For the two volunteers living in Sukhothai for sure, and I assume also for everyone else out here trying to do something meaningful with their lives under the banner of this organization. These questions may include what have I done in the last year? Why have I not been able to do more? How is my second year going to be different from the first? And also a lot of much more critical and indicting questions that one should be careful about posting on a blog. Thinking these things over, and discussing them with the "old lady" late into the night, we realize we don't really have any answers. It's hard not to feel like you are failing a lot of the time out here. Especially for those who are used to achieving in a more conventional setting. It is hard not to have animosity for hosts whose national government has requested your presence, whose local government has facilitated it, but who do not seem all too concerned with making much use of your time while you are here. Also, we often have the opportunity to compare ourselves to other volunteers whose situations at times appear to be going so much more smoothly than our own.

For the most part, the country of Thailand has been so generous and so welcoming that it is hard for me to hold hard feelings about any of our hosts...for the most part. People really are happy that we are here. As a friend mentioned to me earlier today, "[the Thais] seem to be happy just to be your friend." And I am happy to have made such wonderful Thai friends as well. The hitch is, Erin and I are Americans, and as such we measure ourselves by our work. We know that we will return to a world that focuses on productivity and compete with peers there who have spent their lives trying to master that, whatever it is. This is a stark contrast to what appears to be the general attitude in rural Thailand. So while we struggle to find ways to make a contribution in Thailand, many here cannot imagine what it is we are so concerned with doing. That, in short, is our 1 year dilemma, through this farang's eyes anyway.

It's not that we have not done anything at all in a year living in the rice fields. Erin's co-teachers now use some teaching methods she introduced. I never hear the end of how "geng maak" she is from other teachers at the schools. I have seen several peoples' faces light up when using certain IT tools for the first time that I showed them how to use. We are now building good relationships with our jointly taught life-skills activities on Friday's. For all else I could list out here, for a year's work, it does not seem like enough. We think daily on how we can be more effective. We discuss nightly how we can be more effective. We mentally bash our heads against a wall at work, on the weekends, and sometimes in our sleep. The volunteer's situation is complex, and for all the well wishers back home who have said how proud they are that we are out here helping people in need, you are not looking at the same picture we are. We are not out here helping people who need our help. We are not out here helping people who cannot help themselves. We are out here learning about life, humanity, and elusive concepts like "better" and "developed". We are learning about causes of happiness, and the framework of beliefs. We are out here trying to communicate what skills and knowledge we bring as Americans in a way that might improve the lives of Thai people, but at the same time we are being confronted with great cultural strengths of Thailand that our own way of life decidedly lacks.

Can a job be hard without having an abundance of work to do? Yes.
Does it still drive an American a little crazy? For most of us, the answer there is yes too.

The noodle stand where I ate on Saturday

Sunday, March 3, 2013

What did you do this weekend? Peace Corps Week parade

Last week was Peace Corps week - a week in which PC was concentrating on it's "Third Goal," which is where we PCVs, and Returned PCVs are supposed to be sharing other cultures with Americans. And obviously, that's what we try to do here, every time we write. But, sometimes it's hard to know what to write here, because, for the most part, the stories we tell can be summed up like this:

And we rode our bikes to the school, and everyone was late, and the materials weren't available, so then we went to the health center and they made us eat a lot of fruit even though we said we weren't hungry, and then just as we were going home, someone yelled at us and we ended up going over to someone's house and refusing several offers of whiskey. Then we went home, where we watered our plants and tried unsuccessfully to convince the neighbors that they don't need to sweep our porch. After that, we went inside and poured buckets of cold water on our heads since the water stopped running, and then we sat in front of the fan and complained about the heat. And then we went to bed.

There's no story line. There's no arc. There's no transformational moments. There's just a whole lot of stuff that seems to happen, one thing right after the other. And it usually involves food.

And, see, this is pretty normal to us now. It's so normal that sometimes I kid myself into thinking that all you delightful readers back home probably  have similar days and that this kind of bouncing from here to there without much control doesn't sound stressful or even particularly strange.

But then sometimes, we have weekends like this one, in which our Amphur (county, roughly), is in the midst of celebrating it's "Kong Dii" or "Good things" and people from all of the Tambons (subdistricts within the county, small farming communities, roughly) come together to share their OTOP products and compete in various contests. (OTOP stands for one tambon one product, which is English, and I don't know why it's English, but it is. To be actual OTOPs, products have to meet certain standards and they somehow get certified. Anyway, a lot of Tambons have groups that create crafts, food products, clothing, or other wares, and then sell them to the larger community. We don't have an OTOP product here, but we soon might if the school that Josh helped briefly with a dental project is able to turn their natural-herbal based mouthwash into an actual OTOP venture.)

For over a week, we'd been hearing about this weekend, and people had been asking us if we were going to walk in the parade. We said, at first, "probably" and then increasingly, as we didn't hear anything explicit from anyone who actual has the power to coerce us into walking in a parade, "we don't know." And then finally, "no one tells us anything."

Sometime on Friday morning, approximately 8 hours before the event was going to start, Josh got a call from the Balat (government official appointed by the central government to work in our Tambon) instructing him (and me, by proxy) to arrive at the SAO to dteeng dtua (get dressed up) by 3 p.m. Unfortunately, 3 p.m. is right in the middle of the 2:30-3:30 p.m. time slot in which Josh and I were to be teaching about handwashing and soapmaking to my sixth grade students. So of course, I got mad at Josh for agreeing to a time-conflicting issue, and then we met for lunch. As would happen in Thailand, the two teachers with whom we are working on the soap/handwashing project also came to eat lunch at the restaurant we'd picked. So we had lunch with them, explained that we had to walk in a parade, and they agreed (or rather, suggested and then insisted), that we change the timing of our project to 12:30 so we had time to go back to the SAO to get dressed.

So then, we did this.
Students present what they remember about germs and handwashing from first lesson.
Students present.
Choosing the best poster.
Starting the soapmaking process with ash and water.

Washing hands, the right way!

And then we hurried on our way to the SAO, where when we arrived, I had a momentary freakout because the place was packed with people and it was clear that something terrible was about to happen to my face. That is, I was about to be dressed for a parade. So, they gave Josh this:

And they promptly took away the rice, the rice harvesting tool, the hat, and the woman.

And then they delivered me into the capable hands of a gatuey (man dressed as a woman with varying levels of body-modification to complete the sometimes disconcerting transformation) in order to transform my face into something nice enough to sit atop a "chuut Thai" - Thai wedding dress, like the ones I'd worn in the last two parades.
Getting made up at the SAO. All make up artists were gatueys, far more comfortable with blush, eyeliner and power than I am!

Then a lot of the SAO workers, all young, pretty women like you see above, made a lot of phone calls attempting to track down such a "chuut."
Unfortunately, they failed, because the one chuut they produced was about 12 sizes too small. Which is how I ended up wearing this:

Just like your average Thai farmer. 
 By 8:30 pm, we were wiped out, and caught a ride home.

But then, on Saturday, we rode our bikes to the second day of the celebration of Good Things (back for more!) and spent close to 5 hours watching a singing contest. I'll let you judge for yourself, but I don't think there's a county fair in America that could outdo this production quality. The sequins! The lights! The seriously smokey smoke machines. (Oh... they're supposed to be fog machines, you say?)


And, just in case you were wondering what other PC volunteers are up to, you can read Acting Director  of Peace Corps, Carrie Hessler-Radelet's piece on the Huffington Post about Peace Corps week.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The month of my birth

(the following I started last Saturday and finished on Tuesday in case of any time discrepancies)

I am not sure just how many buses I have boarded since we got back from our trip at the beginning of January, but in the last ten days, I have logged over thirty-two hours. 2013 has started off very busy due to a broken tooth, a training session with this year’s new batch of volunteers, a life skills camp across the country where I taught and supervised seventy-one 6th-9th grade girls in condom application, and some other outings that I already can’t remember. Today I am on route to Bangkok again to visit the dentist on Monday when she will complete the placement of my first dental crown. Long story shortened: there was a rock in my rice. Now its a big joke at the SAO "when you come to Thailand, be careful, there's rocks in the rice".

I started the day at about seven AM when I woke up in a house that is seldom cool, all by myself, nuzzled in our “summer” blankets because of the low temperature of 26 C. Erin had left to the big city on Thursday evening for a volunteer advisory council meeting yesterday. By eight I was able to convince myself to leave the warm comfort of our queen mattress under the mosquito netting to attack a short stack of dishes and contemplate the laundry situation before departure. Thailand sells very low end models of washing machine which require movement of clothing between a wash/rinse tub and a spinning device on the right. There is no computer in the machine, so water filling and cycle initiation are still tasks of human responsibility. The machines actually work really well, the spinner leaving a pair of undershorts almost dry to the touch when finished, much dryer than my $1000 washer back in the states. Naturally though, when your washing machine has a retail value of about $185 dollars, there are some plastic parts that may not hold up. At just about 6 months in, our drain valve has decided it does not hold water any longer. So the first hour of my day today, was of course taking the back of the washer off so I could manually adjust the drain valve and get one load of laundry done before heading back to the city. Part of the reason for this is saving Erin’s sanity for her return Sunday, two days before me, and the other part is that I have pretty much exhausted my stretched out boxer short supply.

Feeling fairly triumphant at getting the stuff washed and hung in less than two hours, along with the dishes washed, French press filled, and some bread toasted (in our circular, counter top, plug in, power eating convection oven) for a much anticipated peanut butter sandwich, I proceeded to have my breakfast and get my weekender bag together.

Right around Erin’s birthday I discovered a life changing slip of paper that appeared to have all departing buses from our local bus station on the same schedule, and in English! This paper, I included as part of Erin’s birthday present, although she did not find it as sweet as I had imagined. I knew from the schedule that buses originating in Sukhothai would be coming in around 11:00 and 11:30, so I shouldn’t have any problem getting myself on one. My neighbor Aek strolled by right around this moment and after a brief conversation about where he was going and what I was eating, he offered to take me to the bus stop. When we departed, in the car with Aek were his wife and his daughter, both of which he was taking to work. As far as I can tell they both work 7 days a week, most weeks. Aek is off weekends, which is when him and I often run errands together.

On arrival at the bus stop, the question of seat availability was treated with the same formality that people in Thailand treat almost any question pertaining to business of any level of minutia, and a serious conversation began to take place between my neighbors and the person at the ticket office. Although they all know, that my Thai is certainly passible for getting a ride to one of the most obvious places I might be going, they all three got out of the car to assist. Not far into the conversation, the ticket lady made a phone call to confirm a seat was available and I heard her repeating back to the person on the other end the Thai equivalent of “oh, there are a whole bunch of seats available”.  She got off the phone and continued the conversation with the neighbors without making it apparent that I could get on the bus. She was telling the neighbors something about the situation of me boarding at this station and her not having any tickets to give and most of this I did not understand. Finally I interrupted to confirm with her in Thai that there was a 10:30 bus and an 11:00 bus, and that the 10:30 had already come, but the 11:00 had not, and that both of these buses were bah 1 or first class, and that the latter still had seats. The neighbors and the ticket lady all smiled bigly and commented that I knew everything already. Then the ticket lady proceeded to tell me directly that I could board the 11:00 when it came no problem, but I would not have ticket to eat lunch with when we stopped halfway through, as is customary on a Thai, first class bus. She said the ticket would be 300 baht and I told her no problem, I was already full of bananas so the meal was not a big deal, and really just wanted to avoid any possible delays in getting on a bus. At first the ticket lady told me to pay the bus driver when I boarded, but just as my neighbors were getting ready to leave she decided that I should pay her instead. I asked why she had changed her mind and she told me because the bus driver would not understand me. To that I replied that I have taken this trip many times before and beyond that, been all over this country by myself. She asked for 350 baht and I was not going to argue further, because really, I just wanted to get on the bus.

About an hour into the ride I get off the phone with my buddy Dan and I start to get a little annoyed that the snack and water bottle already provided to every other passenger on the bus had still not found its way to me. We took on several new passengers at stops after mine and they were immediately provided refreshments. The service person on the bus seemed to disappear right after the last round of refreshment delivery and ticket taking, so I began to wait for his head to pop back up. About this time I also start to wonder why I paid the full price for a first class ticket, evidently was not being given refreshments on purpose, and should not be expecting lunch. I decided at the lunch stop I would ask someone for a lunch ticket just to see what is was that they might say, and maybe get the meal that I had actually paid for already.
When we stopped after about 3 and a half hours, at the halfway point to Bangkok, I got off the bus and went to the bus service person. I proceeded to give him my story about boarding and not receiving a ticket. I asked him if there was a way that he might provide me with one and he, looking a little alarmed, directed me to the driver of the bus. When I stepped up to the driver, the typical surprise a Thai has to hear a farang speaking Thai passed very quickly as his interest grew in my story. I asked him who I should talk to in Bangkok about this because I was not happy. He asked me where I got on the bus and where I paid for my ticket, and he also seemed perplexed by the fact that I had not received an actual paper ticket. The driver immediately started discussing the story with another officer of the bus company who asked me the same questions he already had and then confirmed again that I was actually on the bus I had just stepped off of. She then said something about a 2nd class ticket being 279 baht, and I once again told her that no, I had not paid 279 baht, knew this was a first class bus and had paid 350 to the woman at the bus station, “muan durm” (same as always). By now both her and the bus driver had evidence of dissatisfaction on their faces; not at me, but at my story. The bus driver next tells me to hurry along and eat or that I might not have time. I entered the outdoor rest stop restaurant full of people, and ordered a plate of pad Thai. Seconds later the bus driver comes up behind me, pulls a Thai bill from his own pocket, and tells me to get something to eat while putting the money in my hand. I graciously thank him and he asks if I have ordered yet. I respond that yes I ordered pad Thai. A big smile crosses his face as he laughingly asks farang can eat pad Thai? Immediately on boarding the bus again, the crew member I had spoken with initially delivered my refreshments with a very big smile on his face.

I never approached anyone when I arrived to Bangkok and I never really found out what happened with that ticket. I was inspired to write this blog because it illustrates how the simplest things can become consuming mysteries in a land that is not your own and the similarities of people in general. Even though it seemed to me that this woman at the bus station pocketed sixty baht and informed the driver that she sold me a second class ticket based on the assumption that he would not understand me, when I explained to the driver what happened, he could not help himself but to make it right, and did so, evidently, out of his own pocket. Just people, I guess.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Time flies. (fly flew flown)

I have a feeling I'll be saying this more and more often as we creep further along in our service, but: I can't believe it's been almost two months since either Josh or I has found the time to write! And now, of course, when I am trying to take a few free moments in which I have both time and an internet connection, I find myself surrounded by my students, who are all commenting on how fast I type.

It seems this minor interruption (all of which has now gone off to class) is pretty much par for the course in Thailand. Just when I think that I will have time to relax, exercise, write, clean, call a friend, Skype, read, sit in a hammock, or otherwise chill out, something else comes up. 

Since December 3, when we last posted, a lot has happened. For the sake of updating everyone (and excusing myself for not writing), I'll just run you down a brief list of what's been going on:

First, sports days. For about 2.5 weeks in December, school was cancelled so that the students could play sports. There are no school sports in the same way they exist in the US, as far as I can tell. Students don't play a sport for a season, practicing only after school and playing games only on weekends or when school is not in session. Instead, students all practice all sports during PE times, and/or after school with a coach. Then, every December, practice ramps up. School is cancelled in the afternoon so students can increase their practice time. English teachers, Science teachers, Math teachers - everyone becomes a coach after 1:30 in the afternoon. (My co-teacher and I coached volleyball at one school.) Then, the games begin. The schools in our Amphur (district) met in a series of tournament-style days over a course of about 3 weeks. Students played volleyball, soccer, footsal (like soccer but on a concrete court, instead), petang (um... wikipedia?), and dta-graw (like volleyball and soccer combined. sort of. look that one up, too). There were also ping-pong tournaments, I think, but I didn't actually witness any of those. 

That takes us up through December 19, when my program director came for a site visit. That day was the "opening day" for the sports day in the Amphur, and so she and I sat through a parade and opening ceremonies, and then retreated to an open meeting room (within full hearing range of the incredibly loud commentary going on about boys' soccer) to discuss what's going on at my schools. Everything seems okay, so far. 

Then vacation. Thanks to Josh's incredible planning, we found ourselves on Goh Lipe, Goh Tarutao, and Goh Lanta, three islands in the south (Josh posted pictures, I believe). I felt at one time that I had so much to write about the experience, but as with all things, it seems to have been somewhat lost in the waves of other experiences washing over me. The islands were beautiful. For me, the guilt about being away from site was palpable, but so was the relief at finally being able to relax. On Christmas, we called our families, and then on New Year's, exchanged Secret Santa gifts with a few other friends. None of it quite felt like the holidays. 

We ended up staying an extra few days in Bangkok on the way back to meet Josh's aunt and uncle and their good friend, an experience that made me realize just how crazy this place is that we actually live - things I'm so used to already, I was able to see others experiencing for the first time. Fresh eyes really do see things differently. 

Finally, we got back home long enough to do laundry and get whisked into the ONET fever - the ONET is the national test that about 1/3 of my students (6th grade, 9th grade) will take on February 2nd, and everyone is crazy about it. Long enough to find ourselves at a New Year's party given by the public health staff in the Amphur, where Josh and I were presented with silk scarves as a thank you for the English class he taught to the hospital staff some months ago, and where in answer to the question "Josh, who do you love the most?" Josh answered, "I can't say." Long enough for Josh's program manager to come and visit our community, and both of my schools, hopefully clearing a way for Josh and I to begin working on life skills classes once a week. Long enough to create two lessons - Healthy Relationships and Contraceptives - to include in the sex education camp we'd been planning with our fellow married volunteers in Khon Kaen.

And then, away again, back to Bangkok to meet my cousin and his boyfriend (a couple whom my fellow volunteer friend described as "perfect for each other") and take them around Bangkok. Fortunately they were game for the snake museum (king cobra, anyone?) and for walking around a few corners of BKK that we hadn't seen before. Another weekend of surreal displacement from site, not only because it was Bangkok, but also because I was seeing my cousin Nick for the first time in 9 years! This fact alone was probably what made most of our community okay with us traveling again - "you have to go" they said in the week leading up to our departure to go meet them, when I would tell them how long it had been since I saw Nick!

Then back again to site. Long enough to do laundry, dip toes back in the ONET fever, and then out again to the sex education camp. One day of planning and rehashing our sessions, translating materials, creating name-tags, discussing group activities and games, and smacking our foreheads over the things we forgot. Then two days of small-group sessions with middle and high school girls, teaching about contraception, pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, STDs, and healthy relationships. One hour of answering the girls' most intimate questions, submitted anonymously at a no-boys-allowed session. Ten minutes of watching one of the most graphic "cabaret" shows I can imagine as we all sat around a campfire in a circumference far wider than was appropriate to actually warming ourselves on the fire. About 48 straight hours of head scratching at just how many things Thais and Americans do differently. And finally, one compliment from the Thai teacher who had envisioned the camp in the first place: He was glad the volunteers had come and had planned the activities, because in our culture we  focus on discussion, and Thais are often uncomfortable with open discussion. However, he thought the students got more out of our sessions than they would have if they had been planned by our Thai counterparts -- even though in the end, it was the Thais running the sessions after all. (This is how we define success in the Peace Corps, by the way.)

After the camp, a night of serendipity and perfect Thai-ness, when the Nayoke (mayor) insists we all stay in the National Park another night, then makes the arrangements for another volunteer, traveling with two people - a Thai and an American, and both perfect strangers to all of us who had done the camp together - to stay with us in the National Park as well. Barbecued pork. Barbecued sticky rice dipped in egg. Brownies. Warm beds. Cool night. Hot shower in the am. And then....

Back home. Long enough to do laundry and break the washer. Attend an ONET English camp. Teach a few classes. Maybe plant vegetables before we....

go to Suphanburi to meet the new crop of volunteers, and tell them what it's like to be in Thailand. We leave on Sunday. Wish us luck.