Sunday, May 31, 2009

Oh Ko Samet (Part Two)

Last time on our thrilling adventure, five backpackers were left stranded on a beach in Ko Samet, purses stolen…

And just kidding. If you want the first part of this gripping tale, please scroll down and read it. I will wait here. Okay, everyone caught up? So yada yada, I was on a beach at 4am, in the midst of a full blown emotional mess. I was consoled by many, many backpackers who were far more inebriated than myself. One Australian girl in particular kept assuring me how “funny” this would all be one day, before I knew it really. Which sure, maybe, but at that moment, not funny. I think the “funny” part is going to take a while, if ever. Finally after many, many very kind but sort of empty words of heavily accented and slurred consolation, someone came up with some actual help. And it came from the strangest and most unexpected of places. In my last blog I mentioned that there were fire-dancers on the beach. Well the two Thai fire-dancers, both heavily tattooed, had long since finished their show. They were at the bar, knew of what had happened, and had helped look for the bags. That would have already been above and beyond, but as I stood crying on the beach (I cannot tell you how much of a hot mess I must have looked like at this point. I was soaking wet. I’m sure my eye makeup was running from the combination of salt water and tears. My hair was doing what it normally does in response to humidity and salt water-pretty much turn into a tangled, frizzy web of insanity. And to top it all off there was a nice trickle of blood down my leg from where I had cut myself on the rock. Let me tell you, I was stunning. I have no idea how some modeling scout didn’t scoop me up right there on the spot). But I digress. So the fire-dancers came up to me and my friend Lauren (the other purse stealing victim) and offered to let us use the internet at their tattoo shop in town. Don’t worry mom, there was an Australian girl backpacker who knew these men, had friends who were friends with them, and who came with us so we didn’t ride off into the night with total strangers.

So we hopped onto a songthew (an open air pick up truck with rails on the side and benches-it’s pretty much a giant taxi and on Ko Samet they are the only form of taxi) and rode about ten very bumpy minutes (the roads on Ko Samet are not exactly paved) to “town.” And just as they promised there was internet. We both immediately went online to cancel our credit cards, write emails, and basically try to start putting our lives back together. It was an enormous literal and emotional help to be able to do this that night and not have to wait until morning to do something proactive. One of the fire-dancers (really wish I could remember their names) brought me a bottle of water. The other one, I kid you not, immediately gathered a first aid’s kit worth of supplies and ordered me to put my leg out, like some no nonsense school nurse. He went to work, first with an enormous spray bottle of alcohol (remember this was a tattoo parlor so they had plenty of this stuff on hand). Then he cleaned up the blood. Then he put some white gooey stuff on it and bandaged it up. I would not have been surprised if he handed me a lolli pop and told me that I was a good little patient. I was so helpless at this point and exhausted (it was about 5am at this point), and so it was wonderful to be taken care of.

After we finished our little emergency online session, we were given a ride back to the hotel on a motorbike (again mom I know you’re probably reading this and freaking out, but we had to get back, this was the only form of transportation, and our driver went at a snail’s pace to placate us). I know very little about these men other than they are tattoo artists who moonlight as fire dancers (or maybe the other way around) and that they were uncle and nephew. Like I said I don’t even know their names. But I wish I did. I wish I had some way of thanking them for their unbelievable kindness and generosity.They asked nothing of us. They didn’t want money. They didn’t want anything other than to help two silly Americans who had idiotically left their purses unattended to go swimming. Everyone told us during orientation about the Thai spirit of selflessness, how the second you ask for any kind of help, it will come at you from all sides, unyielding and overwhelming in its scope. And this past weekend, in my hardest moment thus far in Thailand, there it was. The more I think about what these two guys did for us that night, the more amazed I am by it. So even though at the time I wanted to punch people in the face who talked of silver linings to the situation, there really was something good in the midst of all the stolen purse related drama. There was real, honest to God human decency. Call me Blanche DuBois, but in Thailand I think it is entirely possible to rely on the kindness of strangers.

So the next morning, mere hours after I went to bed, I woke up so that Lauren and I could trudge down the steep and winding dirt road toward the police station to file a report. Now it may have taken me a little longer than it would have otherwise, but after a few beats standing on the hotel veranda, I realized where I was. Ko Samet in daylight; blinding, dazzling daylight. The sky was clear. The sun was out. All of the things that had only been darkened silhouettes the night before were now in techni-color. It was like I was Dorothy finally emerging from her broken, tornado spun house. Where before there was only shades of black and white, now everything was in bold, beautiful color. Lush green palm trees crowded the view in front of me, their soft fronds swaying ever so slightly in the breeze, enormous coconuts clustered in bunches near the trunk. An orange dirt road, muddy from the previous night’s rains, curved in front of the hotel, before a steep drop to the beach below. And then my eyes found the beach. And oh, what a beach. The phrase “white sand” is used so often it feels like the worst kind of cliché. But as I’ve often found, clichés are clichés because they’re usually an apt and concise way to describe certain things. And the only way to describe the beach of Ko Samet is to say white sand, the whitest sand, sand so white you almost have to shield your eyes to look at it. As my eyes were still adjusting to the sight of the sand, I looked up a fraction of an inch, and for a moment I didn’t know where the water began and where the sky ended. They were just two impossibly blue shades of turquoise with no discernible beginning or end. The water off of Ko Samet is like looking into a hazel iris, a brilliant, dynamic vista of color shimmering with flecks of light. There’s nothing solid about the color, nothing homogenous or easy to define. The second you think you really know the color of this water is the second you realize it would take a lifetime to know this color, not simply blue or green but every subtle, nuanced shade in between, shades that have no name expressible in human language, that could never be replicated or manufactured as paints or crayons. The water off Ko Samet is one of nature’s trump cards. Try as we might, humans, with all of our grandiose plans and ideas, all of our science and our education and theories, just can’t replicate a color like that. We wouldn’t even know where to start.

As we walked slowly and deliberately toward the police station (careful to avoid puddles and motorbikes and songthews) I couldn’t stop stealing glances to my right. I was exhausted and hot and incredibly thirsty, and I kept having painful flashes of all the things that were gone, but the sight of that beach and that water made me want to grin. It made me want to laugh and run, fly, down the hill and spend the rest of the day, the rest of my life even, in that warm ocean. But before I could shred my ties with the outside world and turn into a beach bum, I had business to attend to. So the Ko Samet police station, not exactly the most crack operation in the world. Okay, I should first say that by the end of this story the police station will have played their part, admirably even, but at the time, as we sat in the hot, open air police station (pretty much a police garage), I thought it was pointless. The man we dealt with seemed to not even work there or have any idea what he was doing. The only other person there, a twenty something girl in a bedazzled top, kept disappearing off to a side room to watch television. There were no actual police officers in this police station, and there was a giant, human sized cage in the middle of the floor which was apparently the jail cell. It was all very bizarre and surreal and by the time we left all I cared about was getting to the water. The purse and all attempts to locate the purse seemed to have reached their hopeless end.

I was determined not to let my weekend be ruined. As fast as I could I scarfed down breakfast at the hotel (all hotel food I’ve encountered in Thailand is about 90% Western/American, although not always entirely accurate-one club sandwich I ordered had an egg on it and something that tasted far too sweet to be any kind of mayonnaise), then grabbed my bathing suit, sprayed myself with Aveeno 45 SPF sunblock (ha! we’ll get to that) and headed as fast as my feet would carry me to the beach. And that’s how I spent the rest of the day. It was heaven and paradise and every other utopian name you can think of. It was probably the only place on earth where I could have even attempted to not think of my lack of money, cell phone, camera, passport, keys, etc. and etc. And even though thoughts of the kind kept bubbling up every once in a while, I did a pretty good job ignoring them. It was easy because all I had to do was look around me. There are supposedly very quiet and very isolated beaches on Ko Samet and ours wasn’t too crowded or too crazy (it’s low season in Thailand right now) but there was plenty to look at. First the Thai people, or at least the Thai tourist groups. There were several of these and there were some characteristics shared by all. They all sat far up the beach in the shade (which-very smart and I wish I had followed suit). They all had huge fancy cameras. They all were fully dressed and went swimming fully dressed (I had already read about this trait). And they all put on the most entertaining and extravagant photo shoots. One person would take pictures while the others came up with the most creative poses, always insanely complicated and pre-planned and sometimes taking minutes and minutes of prep time. They posed in the water. They posed near the water. They posed on the statue of a mermaid and a prince that sat atop a rock formation nearby.

Then there were other Western tourists. In Thailand there are a lot of Europeans which means a lot of speedos and a lot of men who are far too old to wear anything in the speedo family, but who wear them without a trace of shame or embarrassment. The Euro factor also means topless women. We only saw a couple but…how can I put this delicately? If you want to go topless bathing in Europe, sure, go for it. It’s your thing, and while it’s not something I would ever be comfortable with in a million years, I get it. You’re all very comfortable with your bodies and sex and all that and don’t have that whole Puritan guilt thing that we’ve got going. I lived in Paris so I got that even in a climate where everyone was fully clothed. But you’re in Thailand where people swim FULLY DRESSED. Ko Samet is by no means a conservative community but it’s still, despite the number of tourists, a THAI community. So the least you can do is tone down the European exhibitionism and put on a bikini top. I mean seriously? Do you have to flaunt your boobs to these poor people who aren’t even comfortable with the idea of bathing suits. It’s just incredibly tacky and culturally ignorant and well sorry to rant but it got on my nerves. At one point these women were swimming topless right next to Thai children. They probably scarred them for life. I know in a lot of places in Thailand topless swimming is illegal and I only wish it had been in Ko Samet. It would have been kind of satisfying to watch those clothing averse ladies get arrested.

Then there’s the Thai people who are totally working the tourists for all they’re worth. It wasn’t as bad as some other beaches I’ve been too (Barcelona in particular was really bad) but there’s definitely a constant stream of people walking past trying to sell fruit or sarongs or henna tattoos or massages or ice cream or…well you get the idea). They don’t really hassle you and they usually move on quickly if you wave your head no, so it’s kind of more entertaining than anything (although that’s easy for me to say after only having to put up with it for a day and a half). It’s just this parade of fruits (mangoes and coconuts and grapefruit to name only a handful) and fabrics (the sarongs are beautiful and cheap, I got one since I didn’t bring a towel and they serve that function wonderfully in a climate as hot as Thailand).

But when I wasn’t people watching or fruit watching or anything watching, I just laid back and watched the ocean, gentle and clear, the horizon only occasionally broken by a boat or jet-ski. Spaced far apart were tinier, rockier islands. When I got too hot to lie down anymore I went swimming. In the light of day it was even better than the night before, even warmer somehow, and so, so clear. I love swimming in the Atlantic. The beaches off Charleston are some of my favorite in the world. But there’s nothing like swimming in clear waters, being able to see your feet kicking beneath you. I could have stayed in that water all day, swimming or treading water or just floating on my back, looking up at the blue sky. From the water I could really get a grasp on the whole island. It was like any tropical island you’ve ever seen in a book or magazine, so perfectly lush and green and hilly and well paradise like, that it’s hard to believe it’s real and not some movie set. But it was real, every beautiful inch of it, every rise and fall in the topography, every palm tree, every burst of color from flowers or birds.

The day was perfect, so simple and easy after the events of the night before. You can go snorkeling or scuba diving or fishing in Ko Samet and I fully plan on doing these things because I will be back many times, but we all agreed we just wanted to rest and lie in the sand and swim all day. Plus it would be nice to work on my tan (what I should have thought was that for someone as pale as me the last thing I needed to do was try to tan underneath a blazing, tropical sun, but alas). Aveeno 45 you suck. I’m sorry. I thought we were cool, but despite dousing myself in you with your supposed promises of sweat proof and water proof, you didn’t seem to protect even an inch of my body from a hellacious sunburn. So you’re dead to me now. I will find myself another sunblock (or a hat…or a burka).

Roasted and revived from the sun and the water (can you be both at once?), we decided to try a bar a couple of beaches down (they all have names and I swear I will know them soon, but right now I have no idea). We took another songthew and were slightly alarmed when we were dropped off in a clearing that appeared to be in the middle of nowhere or to be more precise in the middle of a jungle, but our driver pointed to a path and said to walk. So walk we did, hoping that tigers or snakes or any other lethal animals were not native to this area. When we reached the end of the path we stood on a beautiful, quiet beach, which appeared to be in a kind of bay, the land curving in a semi-circle around the water, with a smallish opening out to the gulf. White yachts sat idly a little ways out, their windows dark. There were still bars and restaurants but this was decidedly less rowdy and back-packery than the beach we were staying at. The music was soft and low and more Jack Johnson than Lady Gaga. The bars were more ice cold beers than buckets of margaritas (oh buckets, so delicious yet so evil). It was exactly my speed for that night, actually exactly more my speed period. Most of the bars spilled out onto the sand, all with creative seating. Some had huge, colorful cushions in circles. Others had elevated platforms with low tables that you sat beside on the floor. We found a bar with a cluster of chairs and a couch around a table lit by candles, right on the beach.

The events of Saturday night were far less exciting than the events of Friday. The only thing of note really was that after about half an hour, we had made friends with an American seated nearby. One of the things I love about traveling in a foreign country, particularly an Asian country, is how fast you make friends with other travelers, especially if they’re American. America is an enormous country and when you’re in it you cling to smaller groupings. You identify yourself by your city or state because the country itself is too big to really be a cohesive thread. But that evaporates when you go abroad. You suddenly feel that America is tiny, that every American you meet is immediately your friend because well, as horribly corny as this sounds, we’re like this big, extended family. You feel this inexplicable closeness and protectiveness toward any other American you come across, that no matter where in the US they’re from, you’re connected to them. You hear an American accent and want to know right away who the person is, where they’re from, what they’re doing in Thailand, their whole life story. And 9 times out of ten, if you’re in a quiet place where there aren’t a lot of people, you will find out who that person is, where they’re from, what they’re doing in Thailand and their whole life story. So we found out all about Solomon (Saul), from Colorado. He joined our table and hung out for the rest of the night, and as difficult and strained as it is to meet new people at home, here it’s as easy as pie. Because being Americans abroad, well it does connect you. You know that there are just these intrinsic things that you have in common, and I’m not sure if I could appreciate that if I hadn’t traveled out of the country. It makes you feel really sentimental toward home and downright patriotic, because home is suddenly so much a part of who you are, ironically because of the fact that you’re not there. When you’re home you forget about America being America. You take it for granted. It’s just this big, abstract notion that isn’t that much a part of your day to day life. But then you go abroad and it’s everything, from your passport to your accent to your penchant for peanut butter and French fries. And you want to share that with other Americans, revel in your very American-ness, and so it makes it really easy to meet people and get to know each other in what feels like seconds.

But I really digress. The point is Saturday night went off without any more thefts or calamities. Sunday morning was spent again at the beach (burn on top of burn, oh my skin loves me right now). Around 2pm we got on the ferry to go to the mainland. As we crossed the water (much slower than we had on the speedboat) I watched the island recede in the distance. The farther we went from it, the more the entire island came into focus, no longer just disparate, magnified parts, but a miniature whole, large and green and hilly against the nearly fluorescent, light filled turquoise waters. It was as beautiful from a distance as it had been up close, the closest thing to paradise I have ever known, perfect in its every imperfection.

And I knew as we grew further and further way, that I would be back, hopefully many more times, in the future armed with the knowledge that a purse is something that should be guarded with one’s life, and that night swimming, while enjoyable, should only be undertaken with extreme precautions and unimpaired judgment.

And that’s when I thought this story was over. Until half an hour into the bus ride back to Bangkok, my friend Choua’s phone rings and the caller asks for me, says he has my wallet and passport. Dun, dun, DUN.

Stay tuned for the even more thrilling conclusion to “Oh Ko Samet.”

I really have no idea what’s wrong with me. I swear I will not end every future blog this way. Just humor me for at least one more post.

Monday, May 25, 2009

oh ko samet (part one)

There are two stories to my weekend spent in Ko Samet, an island in the Gulf of Thailand about three hours south-east of Bangkok. There is the story where I went to paradise, swam in the warmest, bluest waters I've ever swam in, sat on the whitest beaches, drank icy cold Singha beer at a bar so close to the water that my feet were in the sand (see above picture for proof of paradise like nature of said island). And then there is the story of how I went night swimming with my travel buddies and had all of my personal belongings stolen-camera, cell phone, wallet, passport, shoes, medicine, keys, all of it. Although to stop and think of it, there are many more stories than just those. It wouldn't be fair to sum up my weekend with either of them alone. So I will do my best to tell the whole story, the one containing all of the many threads and moments in a weekend that good or bad, could never be called forgettable.

As soon as my last class was done on Friday I was off. As I've written, I'm getting to like my teaching job. Within just one week I've gotten better, more patient. But by the time Friday rolled around I was ready to be off. I'm one of a handful of CIEE participants who are not at a school with another participant. And while this allows me to get to know my Thai teachers and be independent and all that, during the weekend I want to be with my other American teachers. I want to speak English rapidly, not having to pause between each word and repeat myself (I don't mean this to disparage the Thai people I know whose English is lightyears better than my Thai could ever be, it's just that no matter how well someone speaks a second language, unless they are incredibly fluent and have lived in an English speakin country for years, it will never be quite the same as talking to someone who is a native speaker of your own language). So I grabbed my backpack, took off my seersucker knee length skirt and button down navy top (my best teacher attire) and threw on a floaty yellow top and shorts (my best beach attire), and took a bus to meet my friends who live half an hour from me. Together we travled to the Ekami bus station in the east of Bangkok, got there in the middle of a downpour of course, and ran through the rain to catch our bus to Ban Phe (the port that is the jump off point for Ko Samet). It was my first substantial bus ride in Thailand (not counting the orientation bus which was private and just for our group) and I was pleasantly surprised. We were given water and snacks and even blankets. And if I understood Thai there would have been a movie to watch too (although even without understanding Thai, the Thai movies I've seen here seem to all start of funny and slap-sticky and then bizarrely end with people getting riddled with bullets-so a little confusing).

We arrived in Ban Phe around 9pm and within seconds of getting off the bus had already arranged to share a speedboat to the island with another foreigner (an Australian girl), who had been on the same bus. There are ferries that go to Ko Samet during the day but they stop running at 5pm. So your only option to get to the island is to charter a speedboat from one of the many private companies all over the port city. The ferry is only about 1.50 US dollars per person. But after taking the ferry the way back I can say that despite the price increase (the speedboats cost about 1,000 Baht to charter, around 30 US dollars, but if you have at least four people it's only ten dollars per person), I much prefer taking the speedboat. We clamored aboard with all of our stuff and sat down. Minutes later we were zooming across the inky darkness toward Ko Samet. For the first five to ten minutes, we were in near blackness, except for the distant pinpricks of light from the mainland on one side and the distant pinpricks of light from the island. The driver quickly increased the boat's speed and we were flying. I gripped onto my purse (oh the foreshadowing) and backpack for dear life and held on tight to the seat underneath me, as the boat nearly went airborned with every wave we passed. The sound of the engine and the wind combined into one enormous roar that blocked out all other noise. For the first time since I've been in Thailand I was outside and not sweating or sticky or hot. There was wind in my face, my hair was going nuts, and I couldn't stop smiling. Here we were, hurtling through space, pewter gray water on all sides, jet black night sky above, and growing closer and closer the outlines of Ko Samet, black, rolling hills against the night sky. Half way there the driver had to stop to refill the gas tank, and the second we stopped it was like a switch was flipped off. Where moments before it was too noisy to hear my own voice, the second the engine cut off there was the most unbroken silence. Everything grew still. It was one of the few occasions where the phrase "you could hear a pin drop" is applicable. We bobbed silently on the water while the driver poured in the gas, and I took in the whole island in front of us, mountainous and hilly in the middle, tapering off to flat outrcrops of land on the edges. And then we were off again, flying over the water, occasionally passing other speedboats, all the while the island growing larger, the lights growing brighter.

We curved around the outer edge of the island and the scene changed abruptly. Where before there were only scattered lights and darkness, now the beach in front of us was alive with color and light. A row of beach front bars and restaurants sat back a few yards from the shore, there neon signs visible as we grew closer. We could hear music and as my eyes adjusted I could make out firedancers on the shore. I looked for a dock of some kind but there wasn't one in sight. We headed straight for the beach, the jungly, moutainous island rising steeply behind it. And then when we were almost on top of the shore, the driver cut off the engine again, and motioned for us to hop down. And hop down we did, straight into the shallow ocean waters which even at night were unbelievably warm. It is a strange but awesome feeling to arrive on an island in this fashion. As we trode out of the water right up the beach toward the bars and hotels, backpacks and all, I sort of felt part cast away, part James Bond. It's quite a way to make an entrance, I can tell you that. The nice part about the speedboats is they take you directly to the part of the beach where your hotel is, so we only had to walk across the road to get to Naga Bungalows.

The bungalows were interesting, very basic, very rustic, very hippie, backpacker-y, beachy. They were cheap as dirt (12 dollars per person for both nights) and they took care of what we needed. However, even though I'm only 23 it's getting harder and harder for me to stay in "rustic" places. I think my days of hostels are rapidly growing to a close. I like AC. I like private bathrooms with hot water. There's something that comforts me about having a minibar in the room, even though I never use these. Yet I like knowing it's there, same with cable television. I'm spoiled okay, and if it means shelling out some extra money I'll do it. But we barely spent any time in the bungalows so they worked for what we needed and were right next to the beach. But next time I might splurge on somewhere where you don't have to sleep under a mosquito net.

After throwing on dresses the five of us set off toward the beach. Now the game plan was for a mellow night, back home early so we could be well rested for the next day. That was the game plan, and it went well for a while. We found a bar right on the beach, and we sat at a table with our feet in the sand and drank pina coladas and watched the firedancers (who are incredible by the way, I have no idea how they dont burn their faces off, there's so much twirling and throwing and jumping going on with these huge flames, but obviously they know what they're doing). The water spread out in front of us, the color of a nickel underneath the black sky and moon. The waves were soft but there was still a rustle everytime one crashed, more of a soft lapping than breaking. It was the perfect quiet evening. That is until the dancing started. With the dancing came a few, ahem, more drinks, and then came more dancing, and it's sort of a vicious cycle. The bar was crawling with backpackers and we got into conversations with them and with the Thai bartenders and even the firedancers. It wasn't an early, mellow night, but we were having an awesome time. At around 3am (this might make me sound geriatric but it's been a very long time since I stayed out that late) we gathered our things and set off for the hotel, only a little ways down the beach. On the way back someone (can't exactly remember who but knowing my penchant for this I wouldn't be surprised if it was me) suggested a quick swim. The water had been so warm when we got off the speedboat and it was so calm and shallow, what could be the harm in a quick dip before bed. We set our stuff on rocks on the beach and waded in, careful to keep an eye on our things. And the water was as amazing as I thought it would be. Even in the dark you could just feel how clear it was, how the next morning it would be blindingly blue. It was soft in that weird way water can be soft, absolutely one of the best feelings in the world, the air the perfect temperature so that even in wet clothes it wasn't cold. After about ten minutes, someone walked up on the beach and started talking to us. Just a couple of harmless questions, where are you from, etc. and etc. We thought nothing of it and he moved along down the beach after a couple of minutes.

After just a little more swimming (wherein me and my friend Choua collided with an underwater rock and got some nasty scrapes, hers way worse than mine, she seriously looks like she's been attacked by a bob-cat), we walked out of the water to get our things. It was really dark so we thought nothing of it at first when we couldn't immediately find them. The beach where we were was really rocky so it wasn't easy to find the exact rock we had left our stuff on. But after a few minutes of searching, a panicked feeling started to bubble up in my chest. Our things had to be there, they just had to be, but why couldn't we find them? There was no current. We hadn't come out of the water at a different point than we went in. And our stuff was left just feet from the water. Finally I saw a bag in silhouette a few yards away. I went to it and thought it was my gray, cloth bag. When I picked it up I knew right away it wasn't. It was one of my friends. Instead of giving us more hope that we would find the two remaning bags (mine and my friend Lauren's), this sort of dealt the final blow. Our bags had all been very close to each other. If this bag was here, then the other ones would logically be right by. Except they weren't. They were completely and utterly and hopelessly gone. Which we knew right then. Of course we did. But we did what all people do when they have lost very important things. We convinced ourselves we could still find it. We walked up and down the beach, far, far from where we had put our bags down, thinking maybe just maybe they'd turn up. A group of British (or possibly Australian) backpackers we had met in the bar came down to help us. Then the firedancers and the bartenders joined in. It was like some makeshift search party, all of these half dressed people (it was an island after all) walking in circles along the beach, eyes straining in the dark to make out something, anything that could possibly be a purse. When this proved fruitless we went to plan B. Obviously our bags had been taken (almost definitely at the moment the random guy talked to us from the beach, thus distracting us while his cronies ran up behind him and took the bags unseen), but maybe the thiefs had dumped the bags after taking cash and cell phones and cameras. It still was horrible, but if we could at least get our passports back and maybe our credit cards, then it wouldn't be quite as terrible. Hell I would have been estatic to find my shoes (mine were the only pair taken and for whatever reason this just struck me as incredibly cruel, fine take the expensive electronics and cash but do you really need a pair of women's size 7 flip flops?, especially when the owner only brought one pair of shoes that weekend because she was trying to pack light for once in her life). It might have been a half hour or an hour later when we finally gave up. We could come back in the morning, but nothing was turning up that night. And that's when I lost it. I couldn't wrap my head around how I was going to replace everything or even just function without money and a cell phone until I could replace them. Tiny, trivial things like food (once I got back to my town and wasn't with friends) and getting around and just these inconsequntial details you never think about, suddenly became magnified. They loomed monstrously over my head. My apartment keys were in my bag, and my apartment office was closed on Sundays so I couldn't get back to my town till Monday, but how was I going to let my school and coordinator know without a cell phone. The list of things I had to do and the complexities of doing them were just too much. And it was made worse by the fact that this was supposed to be my relaxing, beach weekend. School had been so exhausting and so overwhelming and the weekend was going to be my little paradise get away, so I'd come back refreshed and energized and glowing from the sun (ha, more on that later). And now everything seemed ruined. The items that had been in my purse kept flashing before my eyes, in sharp focus, one after another, on a loop. Boom-nice digital camera that I had gotten for my birthday, boom unlocked international cell phone that wasn't only my phone but my only way to access the internet at my apartment, boom passport which logistically was a nightmare alone but sentimentally was a blow because while I could replace a passport I couldn't replace my stamps and my visas and all the little mementos of my travels thus far. I couldn't stop seeing these things, and each time they flashed before me, they seemed to weigh heavier than before. The shock and confusion and denial were wearing off, and it really really really sucked. There's no mor eloquent way to sum up how it felt. And so I sort of, kind of, just lost it. But that's where this seemingly straightforward horrible story took a turn and become something much more complex and much less just a cautionary tale for stupid backpackers who leave their purses unattended to go night swimming.

And that's where I must leave off for now. I've been in Starbucks at one of Bangkok's fancy malls but must head home before it gets late. I should be able to post again tomorrow from the school. I kind of feel like this is back in the day and I'm writing one of those serialized stories where every chapter ends with someone hanging off a cliff or about to be run over by a train or mauled by a tiger, but maybe the suspence angle will be good for this blog, spice things up a little. So for now I'll leave you with another image of Ko Samet (from google images, obviously not my own because if you've been paying attention my 350 dollar camera is probably being sold for 200 Baht on some street stall right now), which will hopefully clue you in to the fact that despite the shiteous events detailed above, the story of my weekend can't be all bad, because, well, I really was in paradise.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

marching bands, the power of coloring and other observations from my first week

So before I start, I just have to set the scene a little. I’m sitting here, on my bed in my apartment at around 4pm. I just had a delicious bowl of Milo cereal (a Nestle brand cereal they sell here which is pretty much Cocoa Puffs). I stopped eating that sugary type cereal at home a couple of years ago (except for the occasional slip when Reeses Puffs or Lucky Charms are calling my name a little too loudly), yet it’s easy when you’re abroad to let the dietary rules slide a bit. My theory is that since everything else is measured differently here (you know, that whole metric system that everyone in the world uses besides the U.S. and which makes it incredibly difficult for Americans to know what the temperature is, or the distance from one thing to another, or even one’s own weight the second you step abroad), well I’ll just assume calories and sugar are measured differently here too. They just don’t count the same. But I digress. I’m sitting on my bed with the AC on full blast (the sun was actually out today and it’s absolutely baking, although I have no idea the exact temperature because again, I’m American, measurements lose all meaning when I leave my country). And while I don’t have any music playing, there is a full soundtrack, because every single afternoon around this time, my little apartment is filled with the sounds of a marching band. If I go onto my little back porch I directly face a large building which I just learned is another school (pretty much across the street from my school). And this school apparently has a world class marching band. Which is lucky because if they sucked I would have to listen to them sucking on a daily basis. But they’re awesome, amazing, incredible even. And their choice in music is even better. Two days ago as I was hanging laundry out to dry, I was serenaded with Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” followed by “Let’s Do the Twist.” As I sit here right they’re warming up and I’ve heard traces of, unbelievably enough, “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” And this band must have been practicing all summer, because despite the fact that it’s the first week of school and that none of these kids could be older than 15 or 16, they sound impeccable. I cannot tell your how surreal or quite frankly, lovely it is, to be here in Thailand and to hear every day, from the comfort of my bed, these American classics interpreted in big, booming, beautiful fashion. One thing I’ve definitely learned so far is that Thai students don’t do anything half ass, and this secondary school band is the perfect example of that. They’d be at home on any college football field in the United States, seriously, like straight out of that movie “Drumline.”

But the point of this blog is not to detail my neighboring marching band, but to talk about the last three days of teaching, i.e. the three days following that hectic, overwhelming, dreaded First Day. So first things first, it got better. Not to sound arrogant, but I got better. I had to. As I mentioned before the first day forced me to throw my theoretical lesson plan out the window and come up with a lesson plan that would actually work in the reality of a Thai primary school. I had second graders the second day, and I will tell you that my first class that day was a dream. They were adorable, well behaved and enthusiastic. I think what really helped was the addition of several new components to my lesson. They told us a lot during orientation that Thai students are insanely competitive. Make anything into a game and they’ll be into it. So I divided the classes up into three teams, and played this flashcard game, where I hold up a flashcard and see if they can name what the picture is in English. Whoever answers correctly gets a point for their team. I bought a ton of simple picture flashcards before I left, and boy did these come in handy. One they’re a great time filler. To get through the whole pack takes about fifteen minutes. And two it was an awesome way for me to find out what the students’ vocab level was, which even in my “worst” classes was always surprisingly high. Way more advanced than my French language level at their age. I’ve used them in every class since my first day, and the kids really respond. Even in my best class there’s usually a couple of kids ignoring me and talking to each other, but for the most part they get really into it, almost too into it in fact. If I show a card everyone knows, there’s just this insanely loud chorus of “TEACHER!” and kids literally bursting out of their seats to get my attention. And pretty much every time a team gets a point all of the kids loudly cheer and high five each other. So pretty adorable.

My last two second grade classes on my second day were a little more challenging, but with every class I felt like I was getting more and more used to the rhythm of a class, and a little better at keeping calm even in the midst of chaos. My best classes, coincidentally were also the ones were the Thai teachers came in and out of the room. Like I said before, Thai kids behave beautifully for their Thai teachers. But the advice I got a lot and which is really important is that the noise and the restlessness are in no way a reflection of me or their enthusiasm for the subject. Because at the end of every class I was always surrounded by a group of kids who wanted hugs or handshakes (I even got several “gifts” like a random candy and a Winnie the Pooh post-it), sometimes even by kids who had been the “bad” ones during class. I think the truth is that the kids are very tightly scheduled during the day, they don’t get recess, and so they seize their “English Conversation” class (a class they’re not graded in by the way) as a time to just have fun. And I can’t really blame them. The oldest I’ve taught are only ten after all.

Which brings me to day 3. Fourth grade. I was supposed to teach four classes, but only ended up teaching one (which was not the class I was supposed to be teaching that hour by the way). I was also warned that it’s not too uncommon to go to a class and be told that the class has something else to do that day (ie a trip to the library, or play rehearsal or an assembly). There’s this thing called “Thai Time” which I think bleeds into a lot of life here. Basically it means that punctuality and rigidity aren’t really all that valued. If something is late or disrupted or changed Thai people don’t get worked up about it. Getting angry or upset is a no-no in Thai society, so really a rule of life here is to go with the flow. So go with the flow I did. And when I accidentally taught the wrong class (it’s so confusing knowing which room is which, all the numbers are in Thai!) the teacher (my coordinator actually) didn’t seem to care at all. She just told me no big deal and that I’d teach the right class next week. In American schools I have a feeling that might not go over as well. Just a hunch. The class I did teach was a little interesting. Fourth grade is old enough to sort of be over the novelty of learning English. And there was already that noticeable group of “cool” kids who sat at the back and outright ignored me. You know the ones, mostly boys, shirts casually untucked, looks of boredom on their faces. I haven’t really experienced that in any of the other grades but I think 4th grade is about when the first traces of that start. Which makes me really happy I’m not teaching secondary school.

Which brings me to today, first grade. I was kind of dreading first grade. I just assumed their English level would be so low it would be really hard for me to communicate with them and that as six/seven year olds they’d be a little hard to control. But one important thing happened before I started today. I slept. I slept through the night. Which is normally not an issue for me. But since literally the day I got to Bangkok I’ve been sick. It started as a throat thing. I got an antibiotic. When the throat thing started getting better the day I took the first antibiotic, I assumed it was just a cold and that I didn’t need to continue the antibiotics until the end. Stupid, stupid move. Because apparently the throat thing was not just a cold. A few days later it came back with a vengeance and was now not only a throat thing but a chest thing. I lost my voice last weekend. And Sunday night the coughing got bad. So bad I woke up constantly, coughing so hard I ended up gagging. You know the kind of cough. The one that makes you sore. The one where you’re bent over and sweaty by the end of a particularly nasty coughing fit, gasping for air. It was not pleasant. And so yesterday evening my coordinator took me to the hospital (Thai people go to the hospital to see doctors, even if it’s for something like a sore throat). My doctor confirmed what I suspected. I had a throat infection which didn’t clear up because I needed antibiotics and so without the antibiotics it started creeping its way into my chest, thus producing the terrible, sleep depriving cough. So now you know my full medical history. The point is I got drugs, lots of them. An antibiotic, two different pill form cough tablets, and one little bottle of liquid cough syrup. All of these prescription, all of them paid for without insurance, all of them amounting to a grand total of about fifteen US dollars. Sigh.

So I medicated up last night and actually slept through the entire night. It was glorious. I woke up and felt so much better than I had in days. I didn’t realize how exhausted and run down I’d been all week until I actually got a full night’s sleep and remembered what not being exhausted felt like. And the energy level made teaching a lot easier. That and the fact that my first graders are probably the cutest things on the planet. I don’t remember being that tiny in first grade! But they’re tiny, just babies practically. And they are so well behaved (well except for my last class of the day but oh well, can’t win ‘em all). But my first two classes were angels. They were so enthusiastic and actually knew a lot of English vocab and just so tiny and cute (I can’t get over it!). One girl in my second class was seriously miniature. The smallest one in the grade by far. But she was smart as a whip and knew every answer. She was better at the flashcard vocab than some of the fourth graders. Their ability to string together sentences is a little weaker. It took me a while but I finally realized that the random ones coming up to me and speaking in Thai were asking to go the bathroom. Luckily I figured it out and didn’t end up with a class full of Thai children with nearly exploding bladders. And they bow after they ask permission! So freaking cute.

But the best part of today was learning the power of coloring. Now American children love coloring too. I remember this from when I was little. I’ve seen it with my babysitting. But Thai children, like I’ve mentioned before, are very exact. They use rulers for everything. They’re all little perfectionists and slight control freaks. It sort of makes me wonder why Thailand hasn’t taken over the world by now.

I figured I needed something a little simpler for first graders so I got copies made of a worksheet with a black and white American flag that can be colored in. I hung up an actual flag and then asked them to color. And in my first two classes (that third one was tricky) there was immediate silence. Every one of these kids hurriedly and very seriously set to work, coloring in the most perfect, exact American flags you have ever seen. Ten minutes went by and half the class has only finished one red line. The other half was meticulously coloring in blue around the stars. Not a single color outside of the lines, I can tell you that. And then to see their little faces light up when I told them they were doing it right. Well maybe it’s a little early to be biased, but I officially love my first graders. This might all change when I teach my grade 1, section 4 class tomorrow which all of the Thai teachers have warned me about and call the “monkey class,” but for now I’m just happy to have had a good day. It wasn’t perfect. Like I’ve alluded to my third class was kind of wild. But having energy made an enormous difference.

So right now, with the marching band playing in the background, a good day behind me, and another hopefully restful night’s sleep ahead, I can say that I’m feeling good. This first week teaching was really hard, possibly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. There were times when I wanted to run screaming, when I couldn’t imagine dealing with these insane children for 5 months. But the times when I felt okay, when I really thought I could be good at this and actually teach these kids some English, well those just seem to matter a lot more.
So those are my first four days. I probably won’t post again until at least Sunday because I’m going to Ko Samet this weekend!!! It’s an island about three hours from here and it’s supposed to be beautiful. A bunch of us from CIEE are going and I cannot wait to finally set foot on a Thai beach. So bye for now. Lots of love from Thailand :)

Monday, May 18, 2009


So if I haven’t already made this clear, the reason I came to Thailand in the first place was to teach English. Now I’m not nor have ever been a teacher. I respect the profession but it is not my ambition. But it was a cheap (ish) and easy (ish) way to live abroad, and so I thought what the hey. How hard can teaching English be? Up until this very day I would have told you it was a piece of cake.

Let’s back up a little bit. Today was my first official teaching day, but it was not my first day at the school. I went in last Thursday and Friday for full days and sat at a desk and worked on lesson plans. Here’s some basic information about the school. It’s called Amnuavidya School, and I’m still not 100% sure how to pronounce that correctly. It runs from grades K-8. It’s private and Buddhist, and there are almost 2,000 students, all in matching uniforms. The person I deal most directly with at the school is my coordinator, Pe Tuk. Her name is Tuk, but “pe” is a Thai term used when talking about or addressing someone older than you. Thus for me she will always be Pe Tuk. She is for all extents and purposed my Thai mother. When I first got to the town she took me shopping in Bangkok for teacher appropriate clothes and then took me to a Tesco Lotus (which is apparently a British supermarket chain and which are everywhere here) to get all of the apartment things I need. She’s showed me where to eat and where to shop, and she is very firm in her opinions. My second night here I ate at the pub across from my apartment building and paid about 5 US dollars for my meal. A steal right? Well think again. I told Pe Tuk this the next day and after hearing how much I paid her face went quickly to disapproval. After a couple of beats she told me that she would take me to dinner that night, show me where to go that wouldn’t be so “expensive.” And she did. I now can name three places in Pra Pradaeng where I can get a full meal for no more than one American dollar. I’m sure by the time I leave I’ll know many, many more.

So last Wednesday Pe Tuk gave me a tour of the school. The main building is huge. It’s four or five stories tall (see I already forgot) and in an L shape which surrounds a courtyard. Now I’ve been there three full days, and I still cannot begin to tell you the rhyme or reason to the layout of the school. There are lots of staircases and hallways, all of which seem (in my mind at least) to never lead the same place twice (ala Hogwarts). The classrooms are identical, and would be distinguishable by the signs above their doors with the grade level, except for the fact that these signs are all in Thai. If the students are out of the classrooms things get even more confusing because the hallways are mobbed with boys and girls in navy and white. My tour was very informative, but the second we moved on to a different part of the school, I immediately forgot what I had been told before hand. What was that room for again? Which bathroom exactly was I supposed to use? And my desk, come again? But of course, I nodded and pretended that it was all sinking in.

So the next day I was to come in before 8am and go to my desk (one of many desks in a room with all Thai women teachers and one lone male British teacher, and me of course). I put on my best knee length skirt and collared shirt, grabbed my plastic brief case (called James Bonds here, which I think is absolutely hilarious), and marched right up to the school (or less marched and more fled across the street praying with all my might that I wouldn’t get hit by any of the rapidly moving cars). I confidently strode across the large open air cafeteria on the first floor and up the staircase that I was sure led to my office. Except the staircase didn’t seem to open up to the second floor this day. Instead it kept going right up to the third floor. Perplexed but still confident, I backtracked, trying to ignore all of the stares I was attracting from the students. I put on my best “I know exactly what I’m doing” face and tried again, up a new flight of stairs. I walked down the hall, again expecting to come across the room with my desk, except this time I walked past some infirmary I had never seen before, so wait a second, that can’t be right. After about three more attempts, I gave up and sheepishly walked down to the ground level to the school’s office. Feeling less like the new, confident and capable English teacher and more like a first grader on her first day of school, I confessed that I couldn’t find my desk. And to my immense embarrassment a twelve year old was summoned over (along with a gaggle of friends, these students, much like their American counterparts, only travel in packs) and told to lead me where I needed to go. So obviously I was off to a fantastic start.

The next couple of days I spent poring over the lesson plans left by old foreign teachers. My head swam with ideas for my first lesson and I put together what I thought was a very detailed and very fool proof lesson for my first day. I practiced at home the night before and felt ready. So today arrived, my first actual teaching day. It was the first day without morning showers so there was an assembly outside (which they do every day it’s not raining). I stood in the back and watched and it’s sort of like what I used to do in elementary school (pledge of allegiance, some kind of prayer if I remember right) except much, much, much longer, much, much, much hotter (two little students in the rows in front of me had to be taken/carried away because of the heat) and much, much, much more in Thai. Tomorrow I can look forward to being introduced to the entire school at the assembly (gulp).After the assembly I had two hours before my first class and though the nerves were building I still felt confident and capable. I was a college graduate for God’s sake, an English major, a nanny. I was perfectly capable of handling 30-35 eight year olds. This would be easy, just like being a camp counselor. It would be fun.

10:10 arrived and with some assistance (still have no idea which classrooms are for which grades) I walked to my first class, grade 2, section 1 (there are four sections for each grade, from what I’ve inferred the higher the section number the better the class). So 2-1 would definitely not be any trouble right? Right? I walked in as the Thai teacher walked out, smiled broadly, and walked to put my things on the desk. I had been pre-warned about the next part so it didn’t take me as much by surprise as it probably would have. The “class leader” instructed the class to stand up, and then in unison they said “good morning teacher”. So that’s definitely a good thing about Thai students. They know how and when to be respectful. Walking through hallways students literally bow to you (in Thai it’s called a wai, I bow whenever I meet someone older, especially if it’s someone who works at the school). So I smile, tell them they can sit down and prepare to start class.

Now during orientation we were taught that a great way to break the ice is to write a list of answers about yourself (ie my name is liz, I am 23 years old) and have the students tell you what the questions would be (ie what’s your name, how old are you). So I launched into this with my spirits high. I say the first answer and ask if anyone knows the question-blank stares. But that’s ok. I prepared for blank stares. I explain what the question is and move on. More blank stares. Except now only half the class is staring blankly. The other half is talking, loudly, to each other, to me, to friends across the school judging by the volume of their voices. I try to get things under control, use the shh-ing motion. And am promptly ignored by half the class. So I try and move on. I try to spice things up a little. Show a purple piece of paper when I’m talking about my favorite color, show a picture of a penguin when I’m talking about my favorite animal. I’m ready for the kids to be captivated, except well they’re not. Or maybe about 5 of them are, the good ones,( I’ve only taught three classes and I can already tell that you know in seconds who the good ones are-they sit at the front, they remain quite even when chaos erupts around them, and they look at you with these weirdly mature eyes, as if to say “I feel you teacher, these other kids are so childish”). I start to panic a little but I try and keep it in check. My mind keeps flashing blank and I have to remind myself what the lesson plan is, remember that carefully constructed, brilliant lesson plan I talked about. So on to the next thing, a focus chant. I got this idea from some of the lesson plans left by old teacher and I can tell you it was the one thing that worked across the board today. Basically whenever the kids get rowdy you get them to chant “hands up, hands down, hands up…”and so on and do the motions.

But that ends quickly, too quickly and when I glance at my watch only fifteen minutes have gone by. Shit! According to my carefully calibrated lesson plan, I should be halfway done. Except I’m not, not even close. So what was I supposed to do? Oh that’s right, try and get them to tell me their names. So I toss a ball to kids (again an idea from former teachers) and have them tell me their names when I ask. And this works fairly well for a while. But then only about half of the kids are into it, and while I’m trying to work with them and have them say “My name is…” the other half start shouting and running and just being little, squirmy, impatient kids. So deep breath, hold it together. What’s next?

Oh that’s right. The “About Me” cards, the most brilliant of my many brilliant ideas. I would have the kids make “About Me” cards with their names and pictures of their favorite animals and food. I even drew up one for myself as an example. How could that possibly go wrong? So the kids come up to get their paper and then go back to their desks and then stare at me. I repeat the instructions, draw a pretend piece of paper on the white board and wait for them to start. In seconds I’m sure they’ll be silent and captivated by their individual works. But they continue to stare. Or some of them. The other ones are talking to each other. One boy runs back and forth in the back of the room. Three of them come up simultaneously and ask me questions in Thai which I can only blink back in response to.

After another five minutes or so of this confusion, some of them start to draw. Little groups of them keep running up to my desk to look at my “about me” sheet which kind of throws me off, but okay, maybe they still don’t understand. Now one thing that really cracked me up is that they all took out rulers when I told them to draw. Apparently Thai children are very, very exact with their artwork, even eight year olds, and let me tell you their names on those pieces of paper were as straight as arrows across the board.

So I start to walk up and down the aisles in my best teacher fashion and I notice something strange. They’re all drawing penguins for their favorite animals. And they’re all drawing spaghetti for their favorite food. And this is when I realize that this supposedly “simple” and “easy” exercise I dreamed up is anything but. If I spoke their language, sure it would be easy. But this is not the case. For the briefest of moments I thought about trying to clear this up. They’d understand right. I wanted to see their favorite animal and food, not mine. But as I opened my mouth to talk, I realized there was no way they’d understand now if they didn’t understand to start with. I made a very simple and very fundamental mistake. I thought something was easy and simple just because it would have been easy and simple if they spoke English. But they don’t speak English. That’s precisely why I’m here after all, to teach them.

So as chaos continued to reign (these kids cannot stay in their desks, which I’m told is because they don’t get recess, which really kind of sucks and makes it hard for me to order them back to their desks, sigh), I walked around and couldn’t help but be a little amused by the level of care and detail they were putting into drawing the favorite animal and food of their new, weird, difficult to understand foreign English teacher. There were some really good penguins and spaghetti. One of them even drew a penguin eating spaghetti which I think showed remarkable initiative.

So that was my first lesson. It was kind of a disaster. I thought the lesson was foolproof and it was the opposite. What’s the opposite of fool proof? Foolish? The kids had way more energy than I anticipated and many of them were clearly of the opinion that English class was a good enough time as any for recess. But I regrouped, frantically tried to come up with some new ideas, and walked to my second class of the day.

On the way I passed the students from my first class. I was sure the last thing they wanted to see was the crazy lady who made them draw her favorite animal and food, but to my surprise they greeted me with huge smiles and waves. Some of them even came running out of the class to see me. So they couldn’t have hated it too much right? Knowing that even a disastrous class apparently didn’t faze the kids, I went to my second class with a little more confidence. I tweaked what I thought needed to be tweaked and the class went insanely smoother (the Thai teacher also happened to be in the room for a good chunk of it which I have a sneaking suspicion might have something to do with their better behavior, just maybe). After it ended I was again thinking I might have a foolproof first lesson.

And then I went to my third class of the day, 3-4 (which if what I’m led to believe is right, is the most difficult section of grade 3). And well if they’re not the most difficult then so help me God. Because it was rough. Only about 10 of the kids really listened. The rest talked amongst themselves or played or just flat out ignored me despite my most valiant efforts. By the end of the lesson I was so desperate and so exhausted from shouting that I feebly suggested they all make name tags, which went over about as well as the “About Me” cards. One kid even came up to the front and right beside me started break dancing. For a few seconds I just stared in shock, then took a deep breath and pointed to the Thai teacher just outside the door (who happened to look in at this moment and let me tell you, break dancing kid got an earful out in that hallway). And then the day was over and I could barely see straight I was so tired. My voice (already nearly lost from being sick) was on its last leg. My head was pounding. My fingers were covered in marker smudge. All of my carefully laid plans were stood on their heads.

And I think that’s when I realized what it means to be a teacher, this strange mix of moments that melt your heart (this one little girl who marched right up to me and said she loved me about five minutes into the class, or the clearly shy kid who raised her hand and got the answer right when no one else knew it) and moments where you think your head is going to explode (see exhibit A, break dancing child), all in this haze of exhaustion and frustration and above all else, a desire to do it better next time, make it simpler, more easy to understand, better for the kids.

So for a first day I’d say it went about as rocky as I could expect. And I’m guessing every class this week will be like that. But I didn’t do this because I thought it would be easy. And I’m not going to go in tomorrow thinking it will be easy. I’m going to suck it up, forget all those well thought plans, and just do whatever I can to teach these crazy kids English, even the ones I sort of want to strangle by the end of the day.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Pra Pradaeng

So last I left off, we were at the tail end of orientation, happily dancing the night away on a floating barge with disco ball and strobe lights (as one does). The next day we set off for Bangkok and three hours later we arrived at the hotel to meet our coordinators. And then in a blink we were all off our separate ways. I was ready to get to my town and finally see my school. I was ready to unpack and stop living out of a suitcase. But I'm not sure I was ready to leave my little Western, American cocoon, to leave the other participants and the OEG staff and the safety of hotels. To be honest it was really, really hard. I almost feel like there were two stages to arriving in Thailand, the first stage where I stayed in a hotel and was fed constantly and had satellite television and kids my age who spoke English. And then there was the second, much more overwhelming and scary phase, where I rode in a van across the river from Bangkok and was deposited in an apartment in a strange town with no other foreigners in sight.

My first night was hard. I had travelled approximately thrity minutes from the hotel in Bangkok but I felt a million miles farther away from home than I had felt my whole first week in Thailand. The full weight of being in a foreign country hit me. It's easy when you're in a hotel to cling on to the trappings of home, especially if it's a hotel with American Idol on the television and wireless internet and french toast for breakfast. But the second I got to my apartment that was all gone. I was really in Thailand, really thousands of miles away from Virginia and my family and my friends. And I was sad and I might have cried a little bit (I could lie and say that nothing fazed me in the slightest but I'm trying to be honest in this blog), but once I sort of got through all that, I realized that I didn't come to Thailand to have everything be like home. I came to Thailand because I wanted different and new and strange. And so I dried my eyes, took a deep breath, and really looked at my new home for the next five months.

So the apartment. It's basic. It's not a hut. There aren't elephants ambling past (oh how I wish there were though). I have running water. I have AC. I have a Western style toilet (i.e. not a squatter-which is not uncommon in this part of the world). I even have a television (with nine channels all in Thai-so clearly I'll get a lot of use out of it). I have a nice refrigerator which I have already stocked with bottled water, milk and singha beer (you know, the essentials). I'm on the second floor of a building run by a very nice man who handed me my key along with a roll of toilet paper (Thai people are always giving westerners toilet paper, for them it's not essential, but I think they know that us Americans are very attached to our bathroom paper products) and two bottles of water. It's nothing fancy but compared to what I had prepared myself for, it's downright modern (when I first decided to come to Thailand I literally had images of me in a grass hut with a mosquito net over my bed). There are some strange facets to the place. My sink for instance is outside on a tiny balcony. The balcony faces a huge building that is under construction and so I do not go onto my balcony a lot because there seem to always be a huge number of Thai construction workers staring back at me when I do. My shower and my toilet are pretty much in the same space, so every time I take a shower my toilet gets a nice rinse. I'm definitely not living in luxury, but I think compared to what most Thai teachers can afford on their salaries my digs are pretty darn fancy. And I keep reminding myself that when I go home and start looking for an apartment, I'm not going to be too choosy. Anywhere with an indoor sink for example will seem extravagant.

The town. Pra Pradaeng is for all extents and purposes a suburb of Bangkok. If Bangkok were Manhattan then I'm in Brooklyn. It's not quite as fast paced in this town as in the city. There aren't any skyscrapers or mega malls (I will write another time about these ginormous malls they have in Bangkok, like take the biggest American mall and put it on steroids), but it's still very much urban. The town sits right across the river from Bangkok, under a huge suspension bridge. When I first saw the bridge my immediate thought was of Charleston. Any suspension bridge maks me think of Charleston, and this one looks very much like my beloved Ravenal bridge. I look out my apartment window here and see the bridge, those enormous beams soaring through the sky, and in a small, strange way it brings me a sliver of home. About five minutes away from my apartment there is an enormous market, full of shops and vendors. The market is about as far as I've gotten in terms of exploring Pra Pradaeng, but the market alone would take forever to truly know. In the evenings it turns into this bustling, chaotic frenzy. I think a lot of people in the town get their dinners or dinner ingredients from the market and you'll see people loaded down with bags containing meat or fish or rice, weaving their ways through the food stalls. There are vendors selling souvenirs and clothes. There are 7-Elevens galore (they're everywhere in Thailand), Western style coffee shops next to family owned restaurants where nothing on the menu is in any kind of English. I've only tried one food stall. My coordinator, Pi Tuk (more on her later) took me there my first night and told me how to order paad thai with fresh shrimp. For 30 baht (about one US dollar) I can go to this stall and get a large order of paad thai with shrimp along with a two heaping sides of sprouts and green onions. It is very easy and very cheap to at well in Thailand.

There's a really pretty walkway that runs along the river, a perfect spot to read or sit or run (if I were the sort of person that did such a crazy thing). There are restaurants right on the river (really just big stoves and then a cluster of super low tables that you sit at without chairs). There are pretty much no other Westners (or at least none that I've seen). There's a famous floating market somewhere near me that I'm assuming draws in a lot of tourists, but at least in the center of the town where I am, it's pretty much all locals (and me of course). It's strange to feel like the only foreigner but I really don't even get that many stares. People smile and are friendly and helpful. The paad thai vendor in particular seemed thrilled that I chose his stall for my first Pra Pradaeng dinner. There's a little supermarket where I can get bread and water and even peanut butter (!).

And that's my town, or at least what I've learned of it so far (which I'm sure is only a fraction of what there is to know). Before I came here I didn't want to be anywhere near Bangkok. I was sure I would hate the city. But I was actually enormously relieved when Pra Pradaeng ended up being so close. For one I'm really close to 4 other Teach in Thailand program participants which gives me an enormous sense of comfort. It will be really easy for us to get together on weekends to hang out in the city or travel. But most surpisingly of all, being close to Bangkok comforts me. It's the last thing in the world I would have expected, but I think I really like Bangkok. It's big and chaotic and loud and crazy, but there's something there that's already gotten to me, something that keeps me wanting to go back for more.

My next post I'll fill you in on my school and the staff of the school, in particular my wonderful coordinator Pi Tuk who is like my Thai mom, and after tomorrow I'll be able to fill you in on my first day teaching (eek!).

Thursday, May 14, 2009

orienation part deux: aka the part where i ride an elephant and all my dreams are fulfilled

So the remainder of the orientation in Bangkok kind of resides in my memory as one big, often fun but also often overwhelming (especially since I was sick) ball of blurriness. The people were awesome. The OEG staff (the overseas partner of CIEE which is the organization behind my foray abroad) were incredible. We were taken care of indecently well. As in every two hours on the dot there would be a coffee, tea and pastry/sandwich/treat spread waiting for us, not to mention the huge lunches and breakfasts provided. We had awesome teachers to teach us Thai language and teacher training. One very sweet and very enthusiastic Thai lady was given the daunting task of teaching us about professional standards for 6 hours (something mandated by the Thai Teacher’s Council, which regulates who can get a work permit) and she set about it with incredible aplomb and somehow, miraculously made it not mind-numbingly boring. I am incredibly grateful to the entire staff for making this first week so smooth and for making us feel exactly what we needed to feel our first week in a strange country, namely safe and taken care of. I’ve learned that I really like authority, maybe not the authority that’s mean and bossy, but the authority where you know if you have a problem that someone is there who can take care of it. It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I still look for “adults” in scary situations. Despite the fact that I’m 23, I haven’t really shaken the need to locate a “grownup” somewhere and follow their lead. It’s something I’ll have to work on obviously, especially now that I’m a teacher, but for that first week it was exactly what I needed. There were always “adults” around and I always felt like there was a safety net. Without this my first week would have been far more overwhelming and terrifying.

But enough of all of this and on to the fun part, namely our two night venture to Konchanaburi, a province about 3 hours west of Bangkok. We arrived after dark and even without daylight I could tell the hotel was gorgeous, all open air and space and walk ways that were seemingly endless. It’s the low tourist season in Thailand right now (rainy season to be specific but more on that later) and I’m sure this poor hotel staff did not know how to handle our loud and boisterous group as we descended on the “pub”/entertainment area and immediately began requesting Singhas (one of Thailand’s nation beers and so, so delicious, possibly my new favorite beer in fact). After a couple of relaxing hours sipping cool beers in the humid, sticky evening air we were off to bed. And the next morning, well the next morning, I awoke to one of the most beautiful places I have ever been and probably will ever be.It was evident even from the hotel, how beautiful this area was. In the distance small mountains rose into the air. In the foreground lush greenery stole the focus, palm trees and vivid pink flowers, lakes and a fast moving river. A mist hovered over everything, and all of the pollution and smog I had grown accustomed to in Bangkok were gone. The air was clear here and sweet smelling and even though it was still very, very hot, it didn’t feel quite as stifling as it had in the city.After another massive breakfast spread (seriously Denny’s and Shoney’s have nothing on these Thai breakfast buffets) we loaded up onto our bus and headed off to the elephant camp. Now I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this but one of my goals in life, not just this trip, but life in general, has been to ride an elephant. I love elephants. I think they’re beautiful and smart and perfect. I know they trample people now and again and are big enough to squash me without blinking an eye, but I don’t care. In my eyes elephants are noble, glorious beasts. And I’ve always wanted to ride one, not in a zoo or at some weird fair, but in their natural habitat. And so to be able to do this my first week was beyond what I could have hoped for.

The minute we approached the elephant camp I was in heaven. There they were, at least a dozen elephants standing around eating or drinking or you know, doing elephant things. A couple of elephants were in a different area, one with enormous tusks. This, I learned was the designated “photo elephant”, as in take a photo with him and you are expected to make a “cash” donation. Kind of a scam but I thought what the hey. His tusks were really cool and none of the other “free” elephants had tusks like that. And then even cooler, we were given bags of tiny bananas to feed to the elephants. I approached with some trepidation because while I love elephants, the thought of letting one eat out of my hand still kind of freaked me out. But all I had to do was stand there and the elephant easily found the banana, bunched it up in his tusk, and put it into his mouth where it was quickly gobbled away. It was magical, and at this point I hadn’t even gotten on an elephant yet. A few minutes later this was remedied. Elephants are so big we had to go up onto this elevated platform in order to climb on to the two person saddle/bench attached to the elephants back. An elephant driver (?) sat bareback in front of us and we were off. We followed a very steep trail at first and going up was fine, but going down was kind of terrifying. Luckily the bench thing had a seat belt because I’m fairly positive I would have fallen off without it. And it’s a long way down from an elephant’s back. After a few minutes we got to this little village right near the elephant camp on the banks of the Kwai River. It became apparent later this tiny village pretty much lives off of the tourism brought in by the elephants. The houses were very modest and simple, more of huts really, all built up on stilts because of the nearby river. And there were a ton of kids who I’m sure have long since stopped being impressed by the sight of huge lumbering elephants walking past with Westerners clinging on for dear life on their backs. But they did run out to greet us, many of them carrying beautiful pink or white flowers which they adorably handed up to us as we rode by. A couple other people in the group even got these elaborate hats with leaves and flowers which I’m sure took forever to make. We eventually moved past the village and down to the river, where I was 99% sure I would get soaked. But again, elephants=huge. Even though they were half submerged in the river, we were sitting literally high and dry.

When we moved out of the river, something startling happened. Our driver hopped of the elephant. Now I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure elephants are hard to steer unless you know what you’re doing. Plus we were in a very hilly, rocky area, and I really didn’t want to take any chances with the elephant navigation. Just as I was shooting panicked looks at my elephant riding companion, the driver gestured to me, then gestured to the elephants back, as if to say hop on. I looked around and saw that many of my other fellow teachers were also in the same position. And none of them seemed to be in danger of falling off, so I followed suit. And it was awesome. Riding on an elephant in a saddle is really sweet, don’t get me wrong. But to ride one bare back, you actually feel like you’re on an elephant. You can feel this massive animal beneath you, feel how leathery the skin is, and how prickly (I had no idea elephants were so hairy). Every few seconds our elephant flapped his ears back and forth and each ear was big enough to completely cover my leg. I stopped worrying about falling off or our elephant walking right off a cliff. I sat there, on an elephant, amidst this incredible scenery, a huge river and mountains and lush jungle, and I could not have asked for a better moment. It was everything I wished for and more. I can now cross something pretty major off my life to do list. Because elephant riding was seriously right up there with having a successful career and husband and kids.

After the elephant riding, we were ushered into trucks and driven to a point up the river to go bamboo rafting, which is exactly what it sounds like. Big sticks of bamboo tied together to make a raft. Now this experience would have been cool if I had just sat on the raft the whole time. Again, the scenery could not have been more gorgeous, just the Thailand you picture in your head (or at least I did). So green and tropical and peaceful. I could have happily sat there and enjoyed the view as we drifted quietly down the big river.But then I noticed someone in our group swimming a little ways away (we were on several rafts spaced apart along the river). I was hot and sticky (kind of a constant in Thailand) and the thought of diving into the water sounded perfect. The other people on my raft seconded the idea. Now maybe in another life I would have worried about whether or not the water was sanitary, whether there were crocodiles in this part of Thailand, whether there were water buffalos in this part of Thailand (are those lethal?), whether I would get sucked under by a strong current and drown, even whether I would regret being wet the rest of the day. But this lifetime I didn’t think about any of that. All I thought about was how nice the water looked, how good it would feel, and how I may never again have the chance to swim in the Kwai river with mountains and jungle on either side of me. So I stripped down to my bathing suit and jumped. And it felt as good as I imagined. The current was so fast we barely even had to paddle. We could just tread water and let ourselves be drifted along with the raft. Like the elephant there’s really only one word to describe it, awesome. Rarely in life do we really feel like we’re living in our skin, just utterly present, tied to nothing but our senses and the moment. This was one of those moments. I will always remember it, how good that water felt, how happy I was that I jumped.

After our little river excursion we had lunch in the village by the elephant camp, then it was off to Moon Bak Den, an orphanage not far from there. I was little nervous about this. You think orphanage and you think sad and heartbreaking and kind of horrible. We were going there to teach an English lesson and I really didn’t know what to expect. But turns out I didn’t have to worry about anything. Because the kids there were amazing. Literally the second we walked up to the village (it’s called a children’s village, all of the kids live in houses with adults who act as a family, they literally call them the Thai equivalent to mom or dad-it’s a really beautiful system for these children who have lost or who have been abandoned or abused by their biological families), we were embraced. And I mean literally. Kids jumped onto backs and reached out for hands. Kids smiled huge smiles and could care less that we were foreigners or that we didn’t speak their language. They were incredibly open hearted, far more than kids who have been through what they’ve been through, could ever be expected to be. They bounced and they ran and they exuded energy. I thought this orphanage would be depressing but the place itself was anything but. It was like a big summer camp, set in one of the most beautiful places on earth, right on the Kwai river,on a hilltop overlooking jungle and mountains and water. Walking around, it was hard to imagine a better environment for an orphanage, like if you could come up with the perfect orphanage in your head it would be this. There was an organic garden where the orphanage grew its own food. There were dogs running around and one very scared kitten that was carted around by one kid who had clearly claimed it. There was a big river where we were told the kids played and bathed in every night. There were classrooms and libraries and playgrounds and a basketball court. It was summer camp meets boarding school, but most of all it felt like a home, somewhere these children could feel safe and nurtured and taken care of. And you could see it in their eyes that they did. The fact that they could be so open with us and just immediately launch themselves at us with affection and energy said everything we needed to know. These kids should have been hardened and afraid. And they were the opposite. They were beautiful. Their eyes were full of life and life and excitement. They played games with us and giggled and surrounded us with this whirling mass of energy. And how selfless must the staff of the orphanage be, these men and women who don’t go home at the end of their work days, who are there all the time for these kids, who are all things to them at all times, surrogate families and teachers and guardians and babysitters and traffic cops. I cannot tell you how amazing it was to be in this place for a few hours. It’s so clichéd to say this but it did give me so much perspective. It made me thankful for what I have and it also forced me to acknowledge how little of the material things I surround myself with really matter. Not to get to deep, but well, I can’t help it, going to an orphanage forces you to get a little deep. I’m so happy we were given the opportunity to visit and I firmly hope I can one day go back there.

Our next stop was a trip to the bridge over the river Kwai (like the movie), something of which I didn’t really know the history and which I’m now glad I do (look it up, it’s very interesting and relevant to American history as well as Thai history). And we ended the day with what else, dinner aboard a floating barge that turned into a discotheque (complete with disco ball and strobe light) the second the meal was over. As we floated along the river in the dark and as I bopped along to Thai versions of American favorites (yes, most of the music here has been covered by an accented Thai singer, have no idea why or how this is legal), I couldn’t help but smile, knowing that this experience, that all of my experiences thus far, have been singular and unique. It’s really easy to get stuck in a rut in life, and I think I was starting to get a little rutty before I left, going to the same bars and restaurants, doing the same things. And I really needed something to get me out, an experience that would be truly different, something that I would probably only experience once in a lifetime. Riding an elephant, bamboo rafting, going to that orphanage, yes I might do these things again. I hope I do. But in all honesty they are all probably once in a life time experiences for me. And that’s what I wanted. That’s what I needed.

Again I feel this blog getting to a dangerous length so I will end it here, at the end of orientation in Konchanaburi. Next time I will discuss my apartment (air quotes implied here), my town, my school, and all the kookiness that has come along with all of those things. Miss everyone at home. Be safe and be good.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

and it begins

And it begins…

So this is a little delayed. I’ve been in Thailand now for a week and a day. I’ve had opportunities to post, internet access in both hotels we stayed in during orientation. But until right now I haven’t been able to wrap my head around even trying to write something about my experience thus far. What can I say about my first week in Thailand? How can I possibly put into words the thousand and one overwhelming, amazing, beautiful, stressful, insane, funny, interesting moments I’ve encountered in this short space of time? And I’m really not sure I can, but I will try for posterity’s sake, so that I can look back on this time when I’m old and gray and force my tried, forgetful mind to remember every vivid moment.

Let me first say that my flight, excuse, my flights to get to Bangkok felt like they took about a two weeks. This was not helped by the fact that I touched down in four different time zones along the way, changed planes three times, went through security three times, and took a total of four endless flights. I couldn’t help but picture my journey displayed via one of those old timey movie maps. You know like in Indiana Jones when he jumps from continent to continent and they show his progress with an animated line drawn across a cartoon map. That was me, bouncing from Richmond to Chicago to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Bangkok, except it was less of a jaunty, thrilling adventure and more of a tedious, never ending transit from hell. My journey took 30 hours and I was barely walking by the end of it. I have never been so profoundly exhausted as when I walked off my flight in Bangkok. I had slept about 4 hours in the last 40 (15 hour plane ride + coach + a middle seat + no leg room= not conducive to in flight sleeping). I had no idea what time or day it was. I had been served plane food breakfast about 3 times in a row, which only added to my confusion. It was the fifth airport I’d been in in two days, and there was a whopping eleven hours difference between Bangkok time and the time I had just left. Add to this the surreal nature of my last two flights where all of the attendants were wearing swine flu preventative face masks (I swear to God I felt like I was in the midst of some science fiction movie). Also side note I got the feeling that as an American (and thus from a nation sharing a border with Mexico) I was viewed as somewhat contaminated. On one of my flights I sat next to an Asian couple who were both wearing face masks and I’m pretty sure they saw me as one giant germ. I had to fight the very strong urge to fake a violent coughing fit, just to see the looks of horror on their faces (or the parts of their faces not covered up by medical masks). But I digress. Let’s just say the 30 hours spent travelling left me more than a little delirious. It was definitely an out of body experience, and I’m frankly surprised I didn’t just curl up on top of one of my giant suitcases and take a nap right there in the airport. Also note to self, never take a heavy tote bag, a heavy lap top bag and a heavy purse on a plane journey again. I had bruises all over my shoulders the next day from hauling these items from plane to plane to plan to plane.
With frankly more poise than I thought myself capable of in such conditions, I managed to get my bags onto a trolley (with some assistance from a burly man, my bags were, ahem, a little over weight, okay fine they were so overweight that they had to put a special tag on them instructing that whoever lifts them bends their knees due to their excessive heft). I wheeled my way through the airport, and walked in circles for about half an hour until a girl with a trolley much like my own asked if I was there for Teach in Thailand. An hour later we were picked up by an arranged driver and taken to the orientation hotel (Pinnacle Lumpini if you’re curious). Thus the next phase of the journey began.

I have no idea how but I stayed up until 7pm that first day. I even tried to nap and found myself incapable of it. You know how sometimes people say they’re too exhausted to fall asleep. I had never experienced that until that first day. Every fiber of my being was bone deep tired, yet I couldn’t fall asleep. So with no other alternative, I ventured out with a couple of the girls in the program to the Lumpini night bazaar, just across the street from our hotel. The first impression walking out of the hotel (even in my hysterically tired state, everything was vivid, maybe even more so because I was so tired) was the heat. Then I felt the sticky humidity, pressing in on every pore. We walked onto the street, and my senses were bombarded. People everywhere, crowding the sidewalks. A steady stream of traffic on the street, cars and taxis and tuk tuks (auto-rickshaws, called tuk tuks for the distinctive noise they make). A few more steps and we’re in the midst of vendors selling street food. And oh the street food. After a week here I can say that one of the most distinctive features of Thailand is the street food. You walk anywhere and you can’t help but be surrounded by it, the smell, the sight. You turn your head one way and there are whole chickens sizzling above leaping flames. Another direction and you’re confronted by the biggest, most bizarre looking fruits you’ve ever seen. Sprouts and shrimp and noodles sizzle loudly in frying pans while huge vats of aromatic red and white soup bubble near by. There’s every food you can name. Beef, chicken, pork. Whole fish deep fried with their heads still on. There’s rice, steamed or fried up, more rice than you could ever wish to eat in a lifetime. There are charcoal fires with huge chunks of raw meat cooking away on top (forget the health department, I’m pretty sure every American health code is violated in just one of these stalls). People line up on their way home from work to collect plastic bags filled with spicy prawn soup or a wrapped up package of paad thai. Or if you’re not in the mood for a full meal, how about one of the many vendors selling fruit. There’s pineapple and mango and watermelon but also the strangest fruits you’ve ever seen, huge green things with spikes all over them (durian, which apparently stinks to high heaven and is banned in many hotels as a result), tiny round fruits with green hairs sprouting liberally from the surface. There are rows of whole, peeled coconuts. There are fried pastries and doughnuts. There are vendors who sell crushed ice which in traditional Thai style you top with various gelatinous objects and sweet, sugary syrup. There is so much more food than what I’ve just named, all just sitting there on the street, impossible to ignore. You walk a block in Thailand and you’ve seen an entire nation worth of cuisine.

My stomach was too confused to eat a real meal that night. Poor thing had been subject to airplane food for 25 hours, couldn’t blame it. So instead I enjoyed a delicious fruit shake. There are tons of stalls selling these all over Thailand, and it’s sort of the equivalent to an American smoothie. Except take out the sugar, the frozen yogurt, the booster powders, the frozen nature of the fruit. A fruit shake here is crushed ice and insanely fresh fruit. I had a coconut one and it was one of the best drinks I’ve ever head. Bursting with the flavor of the coconut, far more than any frozen concoction ever could.

And then finally, finally, I went back to the hotel, and slept for twelve hours. I think I might have woken up once. It was glorious. The next morning I met the rest of the Teach in Thailand kids at breakfast (every morning we had breakfast at the hotel-a huge spread of western favorites like French toast and pastries along side thai staples like noodles and rice). On first impression they were a really cool, interesting bunch, and that impression remained the rest of the orientation. We’re definitely from all over. I’m one of a handful from the east coast, and one of only two southerners. There are two Canadians, one Australian and a Russian who came later. Without much preamble we were herded onto a bus and taken immediately to one of Bangkok’s and Thailand’s famous sites, the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Looking back that whole experience is kind of a blur. My jet lag was starting to really set in, it was so, so hot (we’re right at the tail end of Thailand’s hottest month), I was trying to meet everyone and learn everyone’s names, we were led by a tiny, Thai woman who was half tour guide, half drill sergeant. I was wearing capris (quite tasteful ones if I do say so myself and the second we got off the bus, she took me by the hand, led me to a little stall selling wrap around skirts and put the skirt over my pants herself). Apparently capris are not appropriate clothing for going to a temple, who knew? What I do remember is that it was this colossal structure of gold and gems and statues, techni-color bright and elaborate and ornate and huge. There were elephants and monkeys aplenty (the statue kind, not the live kind mind you). I saw the emerald Buddha (which you have to knee in front of and take careful consideration to now point the soles of your feet in its direction). I blessed myself with holy Buddhist water using a lotus flower. I did several other things that are supposed to bring good luck. I took lots of pictures, which is good, because again, the events of this day are sort of blurry.

I do remember with more clarity our boat ride in the river. Bangkok has a river flowing through it, and there are houses lining it. We took an hour ride through the river on a traditional Thai longboat, although it had a motor so maybe not so traditional. The boat went very fast and I spent a lot of time trying not to inhale spray from the not so clean river, but I did make some observations. For the first time I really noticed the spirit houses I had read about in the guide book. They’re little structures that are built near pretty much every house/office/building in Thailand. It all goes back to animism which to grossly oversimplify is a belief in spirits in all living things that is prevalent in Thai culture. You’ll see the tiniest, beaten down shack and sure enough there will be a little spirit house, kind of like a larger, more elaborate bird house, usually white but with colorful trim, with little statues and offerings all over it. Other observations-the tiniest, most beaten down shacks will also often have satellites on their roofs, kind of a nice commentary on our technology obsessed times. There are some really beautiful trees and flowers in Thailand, even in its biggest, busiest city. There are coconuts and palm trees everywhere.

After the boat ride we ate lunch at a restaurant on the river. There has been some stiff competition, but this meal was perhaps the best I’ve had in Thailand thus far. This might be due to the fact that this meal coincided with my first ever spicy prawn soup, aka, the most amazing dish known to man. It’s a soup flavored with lemon grass and chilies (and many, many other things which I will one day look up and try to recreate), bursting with delicate prawns (aka shrimp) and mushrooms, and so, so, so good. It’s sweet. It’s spicy. It has more flavor in one bowl than some seven course meals have in all of their assorted dishes. Please go out to a Thai restaurant and try it if you’re curious because it’s really incredible. Subtle, nuanced, aromatic, but most importantly, utterly tasty. I also got my first real glimpse into staples of Thai food. Lots of fried seafood. Lots of rice. Lots of ambiguous meat (delicious yes, but ambiguous, you’re never quite sure if you’re getting chicken or pork or some other anonymous meat). Lots of spice. Like coughing, gulping water, nose running at the table spicy. I have to admit something. Before I came here I thought I could handle spicy. I put hot sauce liberally on things (the extra hot kind even). I sought spicy food out at restaurants. I grew up with a Texan for a mom after all. But coming here, well, I realize I don’t know from spicy. Thai mild is American extra extra extra hot. And I’m pretty sure all I’ve had so far is mild (apparently they don’t usually serve real spicy to farang-aka foreigners who obviously can’t handle it). But wow, even mild, is the kind of spicy where you’re panting by the end of it. Awesome but intense. Random aside, I’ve learned that to combat spicy food you’re not supposed to drink water. Water actually makes it worse and spreads the spiciness around in your mouth. What you’re really supposed to do it eat rice. Hence why every meal here is served with tons of the white stuff.

After lunch we had our first course of lessons (we had many over the orientation) and of course one day into the trip I immediately get sick. I never get sick at home and one day in Thailand and my throat is horribly sore and I feel like poo. This did allow me a glimpse into how pharmacies work in Thailand though. Pretty much everything is over the counter. I walked into a pharmacy the next morning and literally pointed to the amoxicillin behind the counter. And it cost ten dollars, no insurance, no nothing. I’ll let you digest that for a second. Pretty much we are grossly overcharged in America and maybe there’s some good reason behind it, but I’m just saying. How come in Thailand, a relatively less affluent culture than the US, people can get their meds for dirt cheap while I spent 80 dollars a refill on my prescription meds before I came here. End of mini rant.

So this blog is crazy long and I’ve only reached my second day. I think I’m going to have to leave it here for the moment and continue where I left off next time. I’ll try to post more frequently and get caught up to the present. I will say that this experience is only a week old and already I’m feeling like something important is happening to me. Thailand is pretty amazing. I miss home, but I’m this trip it for the long haul (or the 5 month haul). I can’t wait to see what happens next.
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