Wednesday, August 26, 2009

More Ordinary Thailand Moments and Observations

So in my last post I talked about an ordinary day in Thailand, but there are other ordinary moments, notable in their very non-notable-ness (yes I just invented a word) that I couldn’t fit in. So here are a few more examples of what my life is like here, on a day to day basis. These don’t really fit into any kind of coherent thread so I’ll just throw them out there one by one.

My Third Graders Really, Really Love Me:
Okay now first let me say that in general most of my kids like me. This is not to toot my own horn. I am the equivalent of a bright, shiny object to them, new and different and interesting to look at. I am their American, pale, blonde farang teacher and there is only one of me and about 600 of them. As a farang teacher I would have to be really, really lame for them not to like me. Trust me, if you ever need a self esteem boost come to Thailand and teach English at a primary school. It’s hard to feel bad about yourself when there is a chorus of “I LOVE YOU” and “BEAUTIFUL” following you around everywhere. This could mean that at this very moment all of this is going to my head and I am turning into a vain and pompous person, but I hope this is not the case. Like I said, I could be deformed and painfully boring and smell bad and these kids would still like me. But my third graders, well for whatever reason, these 150 or so kids LOVE me, to an almost creepy and inappropriate extent. I’m not sure if someone told them I was some famous American actress before I came here, or maybe they’re just really good at sucking up, but these kids act like I’m a rainbow made of puppies covered in candy.

I walk into the class and I barely have time to get my bearings before I am mobbed. Little arms and hands clutch at me from all directions. I get hugged from the front, from the side, from behind. There have been times where we I am literally swept up in the sea of nine year olds and moved several feet along the floor, all of us one tangled mass of limbs. I try to disentangle myself and this takes about five minutes. Usually I end up having to pry tiny fingers off myself, and this is no easy feat. These kids are small but they have death grips. And it’s not even my own well being I’m worried for. There have been times where I’ve thought to myself “wow, this is about two seconds away from being one like one of those stampedes you read about on the news”. All the while the Thai teacher is usually still in the room at this point, a bemused expression on her face. I try to smile and shrug my shoulders, all “what can you do? Kids right?” but I’m pretty sure that all my face shows at that moment is wild panic.

The same thing happens at the end of class but usually it’s even worse. I’ve been picked up off the floor on several occasions by the stronger ones in the grade. And let me tell you it is hard to maintain teacherly dignity and poise when you are being picked up by your student. I usually try to make a quick exit toward the door, hoping I can get out without them noticing, but they always notice. And suddenly I am back in a mob, only this time they’re really hanging on for dear life because I’m leaving. I try to point at my watch and mime that it’s time for me to go. I try to explain that I’ll be back next week, that I’m really not that cool. But they’re not having any of it. I am their shiny thing and they don’t want to let go of their shiny thing. There have been classes where I’ve had to cover my head with my arms and literally run from the classroom. And on these occasions it’s very possible I might have screamed like a little girl.
My third graders also love to give me things. Now I have several friends who teach and I’ve witnessed them bring home gifts from their students, cards, little store bought trinkets, even a Kate Spade make up bag. I don’t get these kinds of gifts. I get random, crumpled pieces of paper, a midget pencil that’s worn down to the nub. I’ll see kids come up to the desk and put things inside of my little plastic briefcase, little stickers or rulers (I try to tell them, seriously kids, keep your ruler). They’ve given me little Thai comic books, miniature little toys. I’ve gotten candy (often unwrapped). One kid even gave me a random assortment of paper flashcards (in English and Thai). Sometimes I don’t even know if it’s a gift or just them showing me something. They’ll come up to me an English workbook and hold it out with an expectant look on their face. What do they want me to do? Read it to them? Finish their homework for them? Take it home? Is this some kind of offering or just them being weird, little kids. I never, ever know. I have gotten every strange little kid item under the sun and it never ceases to amaze me what they come up with to “give” me.

But the strangest part of my third graders love for me has got to be the signing. As in me signing my “autograph” for them. It started innocently enough. One class a few weeks ago, one of them came up to me, handed me a blank piece of paper and a pencil, and said “name.” I stared at them for a few moments, confused. “Name” they repeated, “write name.” Finally I did as commanded, wrote “Elizabeth” on their piece of paper, handed it back to them and tried to continue with the lesson. A couple of minutes later another one came up to me, same deal, only this time they wanted me to write my name in a little notebook. And then another one comes right after. Okay, I thought, this is getting ridiculous. But before I could think too much here comes the mob. Suddenly I am engulfed by screaming nine year olds, like I’m Miley Cyrus at a mall full of preteens. Pieces of paper were thrust in my face, notebooks, random pieces of cardboard that looked like they were ripped out of the back of notebooks. I tried to stop it, but I couldn’t really think how to say no without sounding really mean. And seriously how could you say no to a bunch of kids who are acting like little nutjobs about getting you to write your name on a piece of paper?

And this has become a tradition. It doesn’t happen every class, but every once in a while, that one kid will come up to me, often at the most inopportune moment, like when I’m trying to go over flashcards. And as soon as that one kid starts, here they come. I have been backed into a wall by these kids and their requests for me to “sign.” I have been shoved into a corner, trying desperately to fend them off. They elbow each other and hit each other in the face with their notebooks. I’ll try to sign one piece of paper and five more are shoved at me. I’ve had to turn my back on them and write on the wall, but even this doesn’t really stop them. I’ve had kids beg me to sign their hands (this is where I put my foot down, no way am I stupid enough to sign my students and have them go home to their parents that way). I cannot tell you how bizarre this is. I want to say to them, “look kids, I don’t know what you’ve been led to believe, but I am not famous. I am not cool. I am just a random American and trust me, there are plenty of us.” But at the same time, of course it’s a little endearing. Of course it’s a little flattering. Again I warned you, this whole experience might be turning me into a terribly vain person. At the very least I’m getting well prepared in the event that my life takes a strange twist and I’m suddenly famous (my guess, my fame would come from falling into a tiger enclosure at the zoo or something equally embarrassing).

So that about sums up my third graders. They are completely, unreasonably, head over heels in love with me and I have no idea why. They blow me air kisses and hug me and cling onto my arm if I walk past in the hall. They cheer when I walk in a room and try to prevent me from moving when it’s time to leave. They ask for my autograph for God’s sake. And I would be lying to you if I said their bonkers, silly, very sweet behavior wasn’t one of my favorite parts of this job.

Thursday Nap Day:
Oh Thursday. I could write a poem about you. I could sign you a song. You are so me. But seriously, Thursday afternoons have become sacred to me since I've been teaching here. I look forward to them almost as much as I look forward to the weekend, because napping on a weekday is just so much better than napping on a weekend, isnt it? There's something so decadent and improbable about it. And my Thursday naps are the epitome of decadent.

Here's the thing. I can't nap Mon-Wed. I start work at 8:30 and go until 5:30. Not techincally I have a break in the middle of the day where I could nap. But on some of these days I'm busy doing teacher stuff, going to town to make copies, buying supplies, making lesson plans, etc. And even if I do have nothing to do I'm very wary of naps where I actually have to wake up for something. I'm not good at waking up period, but waking up from an afternoon nap, not a pretty picture. I'm usually so disoriented that I can't even remember what time it is, or what day it is, or you know, my name. Half the time I think the alarm is in my dream and I am come this close to sleeping through it. If I do manage to wake up, I'm always groggy and cranky and that is no way to take on my extra class (which requires full alertness and minimal crankiness, seriously if I go into this class cranky there's a good chance I might throw one of my kids through a window). So napping is kind of out for the first three days of the week. But then comes Thursday, oh Thursday. I start at 8:30 like every other day and teach four classes. These happen to be my most taxing classes of the week because three of the four are first graders. First graders are nearly impossible. English wise and age wise they're only a step up from kindergartners (but with the first graders I have no help) but attitude wise they might as well be preteens. And they always cry.

I hate the crying. I never see what starts it, but am suddenly surrounded by a gang of first graders all talking in rapid Thai and pointing to about five different people as the "cause." Even if I did see who started it what can I really do? Wag my finger at them? Lecture them in a language they don't understand? I could techincally send them to sit in the hallway but that makes me nervous. I don't want to be that farang teacher who sent a kid out into the hall one day only for that kid to never return. So usually I walk over to the crying kid (almost always it's just because one of the other students call him or her a name or took his or her pencil, and they definitely play the tears up), pat him or her on the back a few times, console them (once again in a language they don't understand). Then I look very sternly at whoever I think is responbible (and who the heck knows if I even have the right kid), and walk back to class and try to commence teaching. Sometimes this works. Sometimes the kid keeps on crying and I somehow ridiculously try to keep teaching while 99% of the class is occupied with the crying student. Sometimes the kid who caused the crying starts crying also either out of guilt, embarassment or because I made them give the other crying kid back whatever he or she took in the first place (and who knows who it actually belongs to, I can never really know for sure). And so then I have two kids crying and I feel like some heartless robot for continuing teaching but my only other option is to sit down on the floor and start crying myself. So what can you do?

I deal with physical fights amidst my first graders, way more than any other grade. They clobber eachother. The other day this one adorable little kid in glasses was standing in the back of the room with a heavier set, bigger kid. The bigger kid just wallops the glasses kid, sends his glasses flying across the room. I yelled in a very loud voice at the bigger kid and tried to make them sit on opposite sides of the class, but about five minutes later the same thing happens, and then again about five minutes after that. I don't know what tiff was going on between these two, what blood feud was started between PE class and arts and crafts, but they were locked in mortal combat all fifty minutes of the class. My first graders don't understand me. I don't understand them. It's a very tricky situation. And so I crawl through three fifty minute classes of this on Thursday. By the end of it I am a battered human being. I have literally been through war, and war between six year olds is not a pretty thing. Who knew they were so violent? What are they feeding kids these days? Steroids? Can a first grader have roid rage?

So anyway, I make it to the end of the day, and unlike Mon-Fri when I have an extra class at 4:30, on Thursday afternoon there is nothing in my way. The afternoon stretches before me like an endless rainbow (yes I just used the word rainbow, but such is the depth of my love for Thursdays). I walk home, the heat weighing me down, my feet sore from running to the back of classrooms to break up fisticuffs. I get to my building, walk up the stairs, down the hall. I get to my room, turn the AC on, change into a tank top and boxers. Then I lie down and in an almost horizontal position eat a giant bowl of cereal (weirdly being a teacher has returned me to my student habits, I always pigged out on cereal after school when I was younger). I maybe watch a few minutes of a TV on dvd show. And then when I'm full and the room is cool, I climb under the covers, close my eyes, and instantly I am asleep.

There is no alarm on Thursday nap day. Alarms do no exist on Thursday nap day. I sleep until my body wants to wake up, or more often than not until my stomach gets hungry for dinner. I rarely sleep less than four hours. I've napped for five. I could nap longer but my hunger wakes me up. This is no nap sprint. It is a marathon people, one that I have trained for my whole life. All of my naps have led me to these Thailand naps. Before napping was just an hour or two, a little break, a siesta. Now my naps are intense, coma-like states of being. I love these naps the way a fat kid loves pie. Sure I usually can't fall asleep on Thursday nights until midnight, but since I have no class until 10am on Friday it doesnt matter. Its as though the whole universe is working to give me the perfect scenario for these naps. And it gets even better. Since it's rainy season there's always about a 75% chance that it's going to storm in the afternoon. And if you're a true napper you know there is nothing better in this world than napping during a storm. You lie there as the thunder and rain starts, comfy as can be, and suddenly every little worry fades away. The only important thing in your life is that you're dry and warm, and never before have you truly appreciated those two things the way you do right then. You have no where to go, nothing to do. Other people might be scurrying around outside with umbrellas and wet shoes, but you, you are in bed, hours of sleep stretching before you. The roar of rain surrounds you and you close your eyes. Heaven. Oh, just my little, perfect slice of heaven. I'm fairly certain naps may never again be this good.

One of the reasons little kids are way more awesome than adults:
They haven't gotten good at hiding who they are. Because really that's what people do. The older you get the better you become at keeping your mask on. Sure you might show glimpses of your true self, to family and good friends, but isn't it true that we're all in some way, at most times, acting? You change who you are, even if in small variations, depending on who you're with. You're yourself, of course, but not really your self, that indivisible, untarnished self that we're all born with, that informs all of our decisions, but which is covered up by words and habits and all of the debris we accumulate through life.

Kids start to learn how to be other people, even at a young age. The way they act with their friends to be cool. Their ironic attitudes, the over it thing. I see all of that even in my youngest students. But here's the best part about kids. They haven't perfected it yet. Their masks, their alter egos, the faces they want to show to the world, all of those things slip. They can't keep it up all the time. Their true, perfect, little kids selves poke through, despite all their best efforts. Like when the two second grade boys in my extra class, who spend so much time joking around and acting up and acting tough, get intently, earnestly into coloring and cutting out paper butterflies. Or the fourth graders who ignore me on purpose most of the time, and sit with bored looks on their faces, suddenly get really into a game to the point where they're jumping up and down and screaming. Even my "thug" kids, the ones who start fights and hit and act like little monsters most of the time, they have these moments where all of that fades away and suddenly they're just themselves, beautiful and honest and perfect. You can see it in their eyes, or the careful, precise way they unpeel a sticker to put on an art project, or their wide, toothy, smiles when I give them a high five for winning a game. Kids may start learning from a young age how to be different people, how to construct these masks we humans make for ourselves, but the best part about kids is how often they forget the masks, how often they let that guard down. Sure two seconds later they're screaming at each other or trying to take things off my desk behind my back, but you kind of put up with it because you've seen what's underneath all that. You've seen who they really are, and you realize how rare and wonderful that is.

An Ordinary Day in the Life of a Farang English Teacher in Thailand

So I feel like my blogs of late have been less about my day-to-day life here than about the more notable moments I have experienced, visa run trips, bouts with sickness, extraneous mishaps etc. But the truth is my day-to-day life here makes up, well, my day-to-day life. Five days out of the week I am an English teacher, and while it may not be glamorous or particularly exciting, it is my life right now, and in its own, more ordinary way, worthy of attention. So I thought for this blog I would document an ordinary day of my life here in Thailand, as ordinary as a day in Thailand can be for a farang English teacher.

Monday. Monday was the beginning of a new philosophy for me. The previous week, despite only teaching two full days, I ended Friday exhausted and nearly in tears. I had come to terms with the fact that I can’t really discipline these kids (I can’t threaten them with grades seeing as I don’t give any and while I technically could threaten them with physical violence, I haven’t been a teacher long enough to resort to hitting them). The difficult classes were going to be difficult right up until the end, but there had to be a better way of dealing with it, there had to be a strategy where I wouldn’t end the class as an exhausted wreck. So in a moment of inspiration I decided on a new philosophy. Love. I’ll give you a few moments to stop laughing. Okay, get it out of your system. I understand. If I read that I would probably laugh too, but my philosophy stemmed from the book “Eat, Pray, Love” (which is sort of my new Bible). See, in the book Elizabeth Gilbert has a problem meditating because all of these intrusive, pesky thoughts keep interrupting. And at first she gets so angry at these thoughts that the whole experience is ruined. But then one day someone suggests that maybe the answer is to not get angry at these thoughts, to just accept them with, yes, that’s right, love.

And in a weird way this sort of parallels my situation. Because these intrusive, pesky kids in these classes are not going to stop running or wrestling or screaming or playing or throwing or whatever the heck they decide to do that day in their ongoing attempt to drive me bonkers. I’m not a Thai teacher. They are not scared of me. I can’t really blame them. Before my only reaction to these kids was anger, and that anger would consume me and ultimately ruin the class. But, in my moment of inspiration, I wondered, why not try love. Let these kids throw anything they’ve got at me (and sometimes they do, literally, frikkin’ paper airplanes, I thought only kids in movies or cartoons threw paper airplanes), and let me react with the only thing that will keep me sane, love. Kid sitting at his desk doing his homework, love. Kids dueling with their plastic rulers, love. Kid running around in giant circles (I kid you not), love. Kid riding on other kid’s back (again, kid you not), love. This doesn’t mean I’ll completely let chaos reign. Usually when I see one kid clobbering another I’ll intervene (which is approximately once per class). And every few minutes I’ll walk to the back and attempt to make the 80% of students out of their seats go back to their desks. But I’ll do it with love in my heart. And yes this may sound like I’ve gone over the deep end, but I assure you I have not snapped. Nor am I on any kind of mood enhancing drugs, legal or otherwise. I just figured it had to be better than letting anger get the best of me. And you know what, when I set out on Monday with this philosophy, shock of shocks, it kind of worked. It changed absolutely nothing about the classroom atmosphere. All it did was change my outlook, my mood, my heart rate, and that made everything easier. So hey, maybe, this hippie dippie philosophy has got something going for it. Embrace the love people.

So Monday was a better day from the start. Here’s how a typical school day goes. I walk into school, sign a little book to say I’m there, go up to the tiny “office” that houses me and about nine other Thai women (and one British guy), gather my things, then head over to the Kindergarten building. The Kindergarten building is across a little street from the main part of the school. It was built recently and it’s exactly what you would expect a building would be like if it was built for the sole purpose of housing a Kindergarten. The steps are tiny, little kid sized (which by the way really work out your calves). There’s a big playground in the main courtyard, with swings and slides and all sorts of wonderful little kid things. There’s even a koi pond in one corner, which if I were a little kid, I would be glued to. My class starts at 8:30 but sometimes when I get there the little Kindergarten procession is still going on. They have a separate one from the regular school, but around the same time. All of the kids gather in straight lines outside the building and sing various songs, some of which come with intricate dance moves (which somehow they all know). About a fourth of these kids sob throughout the whole thing (the Kindergarten comprises three levels, so the youngest ones are like two years old, you’d cry too). And one cool thing is that most of the parents hang out and watch until every last one of these kids is inside the building. Family is hugely important in Thai society, and you can just tell from these parent’s faces that it’s killing them to have to send their little babushkas off to school. You imagine a Kindergarten drop off back home and maybe a few parents hang around but most drop the little munchkins off in the carpool lane and then rush off to work or to yoga classes or to other parent activities, but here nearly all of the parents stick around, every single day, for a solid twenty, thirty minutes, standing outside the gate, waving and smiling until their kids are ushered into classrooms and out of sight.

So after this I walk up to the third floor to the English Center. And so begins the best part of my day. I love teaching Kindergarten for several reasons. One I have a designated Thai teacher in with me every day. This Thai teacher is intrinsic to me being able to teach for fifty minutes. She’s a wonderful lady who switches from scary to kind in about two seconds, which I think is sort of how you have to be if you’re teaching five year olds. She can quiet these kids like nobody’s business and I really wish I could take her to all of my classes. She also is invaluable as a translator, because five year olds don’t know a ton of English. Kindergarten classes are small, only 25-30 kids in each, but without her it would be impossible. Now I do teach classes of forty six and seven year olds without any help, so that might give you a hint as to how difficult that is.

The Kindergarten English Center is a wonderful, clean, brightly lit room with no desks which is how I wish every one of my classes was. Desks are the enemy. Desks allow kids to hide things and store toys. Desks are hazards if I ever try to play any running game (I spend the whole time tensed, waiting for a kid to knock themselves out and get me sent straight back to the United States). Also about 80% of the ESL games you find online are IMPOSSIBLE to play if you have desks in the classroom, especially if there are forty or fifty desks crammed into a classroom that should have half that many. But my wonderful Kindergarten English center is a desk free zone. There’s a huge floor space and the walls and shelves are lined with English related games or books or puzzles, all sorts of things that I can use in my lessons. There’s even a little bathroom right off the room that has tiny little toilets and sinks (so cute!) The fifty minutes I spend in this room are quiet and easy, two things that do not exist outside of the English Center. I can talk at normal volume. I can do so many things I would never attempt in another class because of the floor space as well as the help of the Thai teacher. And these kids, oh, I don’t know what happens to a child the summer between Kindergarten and 1st grade, but obviously something big, because the difference between these perfect, wonderful, adorable little babies and their crazy, hyperactive 1st grade counterparts is immense. When they come into the class they all run up to me and hug me and then when the class is over they do the same thing. They’re enthusiastic and they learn quickly (probably because they, unlike some of my other classes, can actually hear the words coming out of my mouth). Oh, Kindergarten. If I could teach Kindergarten all day here I might not ever leave. They’re perfect. We sing songs and play games and I never want it to end.

But inevitably it does and 9:20 arrives. I have a free period so I always try to grab a computer but this is tricky as there are two and a half working computers (the half is what your computer was like back in the 90s) and lots of teachers. If I can get a computer I spend the next fifty minutes g-chatting and facebooking and just feasting on the internet. If I can’t get a computer I go up to my “office”, sit at my desk and either read or try to make lesson plans. Sometimes I go to our school’s little snack bar and get water or canned coffee (kind of as nasty as it sounds) or a yogurt. I’ve befriended the lady who sells tokens, Pe Oi (you exchange cash for tokens to use for food) so I stop for a little chat where I try to speak Thai (which pretty much means asking her “how are you”). 10:10 rolls around and with it my first non-Kindergarten class. On Monday I have second graders which (minus the 2-4) section are pretty good. They’re old enough to not be as totally insane as the first graders, but young enough not to be smart asses. I teach my lesson using the white board, flash cards, games, whatever teaching device I can come up with that I think might keep them entertained. Sometimes I really feel like I’m a paid clown, that that’s really the whole point of my job at this school. The kids certainly expect that if their chorus of “play game!” is any indication. I never attempt to “teach” for more than ten minutes (by “teach” I mean me standing at the front of the room talking while they sit at their desks, 50% listening, 50% ignoring me), and even ten minutes is a stretch. I think that might be why it’s so exhausting. I feel like at all times I must keep things fun and zany. Games! Songs! Crafts! I’m supposed to be entertainment, educational entertainment, but entertainment all the same, like a PBS kids show. They have teachers who teach them English grammar. They even learn math in English. So after nearly four months here I have come to terms with my true purpose. I am an English clown.

I get to where there is only three minutes left of class and then I count up the points. Usually the kids will count with me in English (hey subtle teaching tool! See I’m crafty) and then one team is announced as the winner. The kids cheer and dance and I give the winning team high fives or fist bumps (I never initiate the fist bumps, they do, and each time I do it I feel like I’m a 100 years old). Then I get a kid to erase the board (this is not difficult, they usually end up fighting over the eraser like it’s made of chocolate) then make my triumphant exit. Then comes lunch.

Lunch is pretty much the same every day. I grab my tokens, go down to the cafeteria, buy a water, then go to the food line. I could get noodle soup but I always end up splashing myself and staining my clothes, so I usually go to the section where you get a plate of rice and your choice of several toppings. There are a few curries and a hot dog type dish, but I almost always get the same thing (I am nothing if not a creature of habit). I go for the omelet (mmm always yummy and they always eat omelets over rice here, which at first I thought was weird but which I might keep doing when I get home, that’s how used to it I am) and this spicy pork (I think it’s pork) minced salad. Some days they have these fried chicken pieces and I’ll get those, although it’s always a tad embarrassing because none of the other teachers eat them. They are, however, a big hit with the kids. I grab my silverware, put a little spicy sauce on top (they have a big bowl of it by the silverware and the kids put it on everything, they grow up with it so it’s their ketchup), then go back up to my office. There are a few tables in the cafeteria for teachers but all of the teachers who have desks in my office eat there, which I much prefer. Despite being here for nearly four months, I still get a lot of attention walking around the school, especially in the crowded cafeteria. I’ve perfect the look straight ahead walk, but a chorus of “HELLO TEACHER” follows me everywhere I go. Some kids are constantly trying to touch me, and after the germ fest that was my first two months here, I’m not so big on the touching. I feel like eating in the cafeteria would be tantamount to feeding time at the zoo, me being the zoo’s star attraction. I do feel that I am well prepared if, in the future, I ever become an instant celebrity, people staring, people reaching out their hands to touch you, people shouting out your name as you pass. There’s really only one way to deal with it. Accept that you’re going to be stared at as though you have an extra head and keep walking.

After lunch comes two more classes, and then I have a wonderful three hour break. Usually if it’s Monday I’m going to need groceries so I use this break to walk the five minutes or so to the main street in town and visit our little Tesco Lotus express (about the size of a CVS). I load up my shopping basket and every time I get in line to pay there’s a moment where I look down and think, wow, my purchases could not be more American if they were wrapped up with a big red, white and blue bow. I always get whole wheat bread, a half gallon of milk, tuna fish, corn flakes (they are sold everywhere here and despite earlier reservations I’ve become an avid fan) and apples. Sometimes if I’m out and can’t wait to go to the bigger Tesco Lotus or Gourmet Market in Bangkok, I get a little jar of Skippy Peanut Butter. Like I said, could not be more American. The girls that work there know me by now and I always try to get through the transaction without speaking English (not too difficult seeing as all I have to say is hello and thank you). If I have heavy stuff I take a little bicycle cab home. They’re really common in my town and the easiest way to get around unless you want to take a motorbike (which I never will, I’m sorry but I’d really like to leave Thailand with all of my limbs). I felt bad at first taking pedicabs because all of the drivers are about 60 years old and look as though they’ll have a stroke if they go more than two blocks, but then I realized they’re making money and they must be stronger than they look, biking people around in this crazy heat.

I get back to my apartment, rest or work on the lesson plan for my extra class that starts at 4:30. The first few weeks I napped but I try not to now, because once I overslept and was late. I’m very bad at waking up to alarms, especially if I’m napping. I tend to get disoriented during afternoon naps, so often I’ll wake up, confuse my alarm with something else, and then just go back to sleep. So as a precaution I’ve tried to stay awake despite being utterly exhausted by this point in the day.

A little after four I head back to school for what is the hardest part of my week. I teach this extra class three times a week and it is the same fifteen kids each time (the first month it was thirty kids from four different grades so it has gotten easier). So I have to come up with three extra lesson plans every week that cover new subjects not taught in my regular classes (I have all of these kids at other points in the week so I don’t want to repeat what I’ve already taught). I’ve tried to get creative and some things have worked better than others, but at this point in the afternoon the kids are cranky and hot and tired (so’s the teacher). They’ve spent the last half hour before class stuffing their faces with candy from the school’s snack bar, so in addition to the crankiness they’re also hyperactive. It’s trying, I will say that. But I get very well compensated so in the end it’s worth it. 5:30 rolls around and I’m done, free!

Sometimes I’ll go online if there’s a free computer. If not I’ll either go home and make dinner (a favorite of late, tuna sandwiches, yes such a departure from what I eat at home) or I’ll walk back to the market and get food there. Usually I’ll go for Pad Thai. There are two vendors, both with excellent food and I try to alternate so as to not offend either of them. I order my Pad Thai with dried shrimp and stand while they make it. At this point the market is crowded with students in their uniforms (there are three different schools in like a 1 mile radius), and people home from work picking up dinner. The air is hot and sticky, and most days it has either already stormed or will soon (remember it’s rainy season). I stand, usually covered in sweat after the long day, and no matter how many times I’ve seen them do it I always watch, fascinated, while they make my pad thai.

It takes about a minute and costs less than a dollar so it’s going to be real difficult for me to go home and sit at a pricey Thai restaurant and wait a half hour for my 10 dollar pad thai that’s half as good. The lady who cooks it has clearly done it enough times where she could make it with her eyes closed. First she cracks an egg onto the large skillet that sits over a small flame. A few seconds later after the egg has started to cook (the skillet is kept super hot so it cooks fast), she throws the noodles in, then she pours a brown liquid over the noodles (nothing is measured, nothing has to be). Next comes some tofu, some sugar, the dried shrimp, some brown stuff which I can’t really identify. Last come the green onions and sprouts. Everything is tossed together, the delicious smelling smoke wafting up from the skillet, mingling with the smells of all the neighboring street vendors, chicken and duck and fish and assorted fried things. Taxis and motorbikes rush past only inches away. Kids talk loudly as they walk past sipping on iced coffee drinks (hugely popular here). Mothers loaded down with a dozen different bags stop to inspect the food at various stands before moving on.

Finally my pad thai lady takes the contents of the skillet and dumps them onto a plate which is passed off to another woman who works there, assembly line style. Skillfully and quickly the other woman takes the content of the plate, dumps some crushed peanuts on it, wraps it in paper, ties it with a rubber band and puts it into a plastic bag. She then takes a bunch of green onions, a handful of sprouts and a packet of dried chilis, puts those in the bag too, and hands them to me, a very happy customer. I give her my 25 baht (again that’s less than a dollar) and walk home.

There’s a quicker route but I usually walk over to the road by the river. It’s a quieter street and I like to walk past all of the restaurants that come to life at night all along the river. They’re not restaurants as you would imagine, just a collection of low tables on top of carpets (you sit on the ground). The kitchen is a big stove and some counters under little awnings. By 6 these places start to get crowded, people sitting on the ground enjoying soup or rice with a cold beer. I reach my school and cross over one street, then walk a few more minutes until I get to the tiny alley where my apartment building is, almost directly underneath the huge suspension bridge that leads to Bangkok.

I usually pass the daughter of the man who owns the building. She’s in her twenties and runs the building’s office and she has a four or five year old son. At this time of day they’re usually outside playing badminton or some kind of game. Sometimes one of the men who works at the pub next door (also owned by the man who owns the building) plays with the little boy while his mom takes down laundry from the hangers outside. I wave to them, reach the door to my building and walk up the stairs to my apartment. The first thing I always do, even before turning on the AC or eating my dinner, is to take a shower. There’s no hot water and I’ve realized that the best way to deal with this is to take showers immediately after coming inside when the apartment is still warm from the day.

And then a little after 6, with the sky darkening (it gets dark here around 7 every day) I finally sit on my bed, put on some TV on DVD, eat my delicious, cheap dinner, and relax. And that’s an ordinary day, maybe not the most thrilling thing in the world, but it’s how I’ve spent most of my minutes and hours here in Thailand. And I have to say despite the crazy kids and the heat and the no hot water, I will miss these routines when they come to an end in a few weeks. Whenever I reach my apartment building now after a long day teaching, I have that unmistakable feeling that you get after truly living somewhere, even if just for a little while. I feel like I’m happy to be home.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

I Love This Island

me lounging on Ko Samet, the island I love dearly, but which does not, apparently, love me back in return

the Ko Samet version of a restaurant (this was the one at our hotel)

fancy a coconut? you dont even need to get up from your beach chair

tree house bungalow (the only form of accomadation I've ever stayed in there)

how could you not love this island?

It is a Tuesday afternoon around 12pm, and I am not at school. School is in session. Despite the government holiday tomorrow (Mother’s Day, aka the Queen’s birthday), today and yesterday have both been regular school days. From my apartment I have been able to hear the various and often loud noises coming from the secondary school next door. Around 10am there was a man talking very, very loudly into a megaphone and then some kind of singing contest? Concert? Impromptu dance party? This was all in Thai of course so I sort of have to just guess.
So why you ask, am I at home? Why am I not hard at work corralling second graders, chasing down wayward ten year olds, teaching a lesson on items of clothing (which was supposed to be my lesson plan this week)? Well the answer goes back to Ko Samet, where I spent this past weekend. Now I still have my passport (I didn’t bring it, nor will I ever bring it with me anywhere again unless it is absolutely necessary). I still have my phone, camera, money. No my lovely, little Ko Samet didn’t take any material items from me this time. It did, however, take away the use of my right foot, at least for the next few days.
“Liz!” I can almost hear all of you shout in exasperation. For the last time, stay away from that island. That island has it in for you. And well, maybe it does. But as smart as it would be for me to stay away, as practical and as logical, I’m fairly positive that I won’t. Because I love Ko Samet, and as I mentioned in a past blog, sometimes the things you love mistreat you. Sometimes they put you through pain or hardship. But if you really love something, the way I love travel and my dear Ko Samet, then it’s simply irrelevant.
So now for the short hand tale of how I tore a muscle in my right foot. Don’t worry this blog isn’t about my misadventure, this blog is a love letter to Ko Samet. But for posterity I must first record my less than graceful mishap.

There are two things you have to understand. One, I am a complete and total klutz. I know a lot of people say that, but in my case, it’s really, really true. A year and a half ago I fell down a flight of stairs in Charleston (completely sober and in flats, and nobody pushed me) and bruised my leg so bad that even now, a year and a half later, it’s still bruised. A couple of months ago in Bangkok I slipped (in my defense it was monsooning at the time and I was wearing my zero traction, worn down flip flops) and landed on my rear so hard I was sure I had fractured my tail bone. I fall a lot. I fall in flats. I fall in heels. I fall on pavement. I fall on dirt. I am an equal opportunity faller. I will never be one of those women who can be described as graceful. Me and coordination do not get along. I’m one of those people in yoga classes who falls down repeatedly whenever we try and do a balancing move.
The second thing you must understand is that Ko Samet has one road and “road” is putting it nicely. It’s not paved. It’s not flat. It’s not straight. It is a red dirt road that winds around the exterior of the island and it is chock full of pot holes and giant craters. Whenever it rains this road turns into a muddy, slippery mess and the potholes grow and multiply. It had rained in Ko Samet before I arrived on Friday night. I got there around 8pm (after buddying up with some random girl travelers on the bus from Bangkok and sharing a speedboat with them) and met up with two of my teacher friends who were already there. We went out, we had a couple of drinks. And around 2am we decided to walk back to our bungalow (another facet to this story, NOTHING good happens after 2am, one of the truest and most often ignored rules in our world). We had two choices. We could walk along the beach (we were at a bar that was one beach over from where we were staying), but then we would have to walk over a large series of rocks (the same rocks incidentally that had been the scene of the purse snatching crime). So thinking it was the safer choice (and because I had no fond memories of those rocks), we took the road. It was dark. The moon was hidden behind clouds and there aren’t a lot of streetlights in Ko Samet. I was wearing said, slippery, no traction flip flops. We picked our way tediously through the mud and holes for a few minutes and then boom, it happened in an instant.
Foot in hole, wrenching, twisting movement, Liz down, foot hurt. I knew right away something was wrong, worse than just a mild sprain. I could put some weight on it but it hurt, a lot. I hobbled all the way back to the bungalow (which luckily this time was a different hotel, not one of the ones where you literally have to climb a miniature mountain to get to the room) and then examined my foot underneath the porch light. A lovely bruise was spreading over the top of it, even though it had only been a few minutes since I fell. The next morning I couldn’t put any weight on it at all and it was swollen to boot. One trip to the “clinic” later (I feel like a lot of things on Ko Samet have to be put in quotations, like the “police station” or the “post office” which shares space with a hostel’s internet room) and I was diagnosed, torn muscle, no walking for seven to ten days. I was given a pair of crutches (unlike any crutches I had ever seen, these ones you don’t put your weight under you arms, you put your weight on these little hand rests about half way up, they seriously look like old school, polio crutches, in fact they may well be), and sent on my merry way. Let’s just say the rest of the trip was interesting. There’s nothing handicap accessible about this island. Everything is up or down crazy, winding, muddy hills. Our bungalow was up a nice, steep set of stairs (no railing of course). And then there’s the sand, which isn’t the easiest surface to crutch on. It was just like the time I broke my foot at summer camp. At the time I thought summer camp was the worst place to be on crutches, but now I’m fairly positive it’s a Thai island.
I limped through the next couple of days (still enjoying myself because while I couldn’t swim or take any long walks, I could still sit in a beach chair and read, which ain’t too shabby a way to pass time) and then came the most arduous part of the weekend, the ferry back to the mainland. To get on the ferry I had to get down a pair of steep concrete steps (with water on one side), get through on empty boat, and then climb onto the full one. To get off I had to cross a narrow wooden plank, get up a pair of steep, rickety wooden stairs, then crutch my way down a wooden dock (with a good couple of inches of open space between each plank). Suffice it to say I had help.
So there it is, my latest mishap, one in a long series. I’m pretty much immobile right now, because to get to the market I would have to crutch for a good half hour to forty five minutes in the hot sun (normally it takes about ten to fifteen minutes walking but I am not a fast crutcher). The landlord of my building saw me get out of the taxi on Sunday and immediately rushed to my aid, carrying my backpack to my room, giving me his cell number if I needed anything, and even showing up yesterday morning at 8am with two bags full of breakfast foods (a 711 hot pineapple toasty, corn and bean yogurt (yes that is a flavor here, weirdly not too bad), gyoza (of course) and two cans of pasteurized milk). But like I said before, this blog isn’t just about my inability to go a full month in Thailand without some kind of minor calamity.
It’s about Ko Samet, beautiful, tropical, quirky Ko Samet. I love this island. Have I mentioned that? Well I’ll put it in one more time just in case. I love this island.
I love getting there at night (which is the only time I have arrived in all of my three trips). I love getting off the bus in Ban Phe, feeling the warm, breezy, salty air. I love the speedboat over to the island, whipping through the night air, going airborne with every big wave, ocean spray in your face and hair, and not caring because ocean spray is so much better than the alternative, sweat. I love when the speedboat rounds the turn in the island and you see Hat Sai Kaew (the backpacker beach, where I’ve stayed each time in true backpacker fashion) and suddenly the shore is a blur of color and light (but not in a horrible, over-crowded way, just in a lively, vacation way). I love Ko Samet almost the same at night as I do during the day. There is nothing better in this world than getting to the island after a long week of work, after a five hour journey, putting your stuff in your room and then going to one of the many restaurants and bars (all right on the sand). You sit with your feet in the sand, sipping a cold drink, with the water sometimes only feet from you, or sometimes coming right up to your feet. And you breathe, truly, truly breathe.
I love the mix of people. Yes it might be a little touristy, and some of these tourists can get loud and drunkenly obnoxious. But a lot of them are there for the same reason as you, to relax, to have a fun beach weekend and just take a break. In one night you can have conversations with people from a dozen different countries. On Friday night this past weekend (pre-foot hurting incident) we found ourselves crowded around a tiny little bar, right on the beach. Our bartender was Cambodian (he wore board shirts and a tie and nothing else), the guys to our left were British, the guys farther along the bar were Swedish (by the way, is there a single person in Sweden who does not have platinum blonde hair?). There was a Thai women and a Western man at a table behind us with their gorgeous child (all of these children who have one Western parent and one Thai parent are painfully gorgeous). And we all happily chatted and sipped our cold beers while Bob Marley or Jack Johnson or some other typically beach music played in the background (and yes it’s a little clichéd but that music is beach music for a reason, you hear it when you’re at the beach, with the sound of waves mingling with the beats, and suddenly all is right in the world).
And that’s just Ko Samet at night. You wake up, and I always love getting there at night, because then there’s that moment you wake up in the morning, step out onto your porch, look out across the trees and the tops of the bungalows beneath you (all the bungalows on this part of the island are on a steep little hill across the road from the beach) and there’s that water. On a sunny day it’s the most soul shattering, unearthly color in the world. If it’s cloudy it’s merely beautiful. I love the tree house, summer camp feel of all of the hostels. In some of the bungalows I’ve stayed in you’re so far up the hill that you practically are in a tree, perched precariously over the steep drop to the road below. Every little bungalow has its own porch and you look over and there are other guests emerging, yawning and rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, your fellow campers in this strange, island dream world.
I love that for all of its prettiness, Ko Samet is at its heart an off kilter, quirky place. And thank God for that. If it was simply pretty then Ko Samet wouldn’t be nearly as memorable as it is. It wouldn’t have the same soul. Post card pretty is nothing if there isn’t a pulse beneath it, something realer than what’s on the exterior. True beauty comes from that pulse, from that living, breathing soul. If you just glance then Ko Samet might seem like any touristy island. But look just a fraction deeper and you’ll realize that there’s nothing slick or pre-packaged about the “touristy-ness”, which is what makes it endearing rather than cloying. It’s not like some vacation spots in the US where the corporate feel is everywhere, where chains dominate the land, and no one who owns a business in the place is even from there. Ko Samet restaurants may cater to Westerners but it’s always a little off, whether it’s the misspelled words on the menu, or the strange combinations of food, hot sauce on the burgers or ketchup in the “American fried rice”. There’s something a tad bit ramshackle and spontaneous about every restaurant or bar.
For example the first time I went to Ko Samet we ate breakfast at our hotel’s restaurant (open air on a porch, I don’t think anything in Ko Samet is indoors really, why would it be?). I ordered an omelet and bacon. Everyone’s food arrived, including my omelet but no bacon. After we were nearly finished, the waitress assured me that my bacon was on the way. And then she looked up toward the street, pointed, and said “see there it is now”. Bewildered I turned and looked in the direction she was pointing. Sure enough there was my bacon, zooming our way in a plastic bag carried by a guy on a motorbike. Normally you hear “bacon on the way” and assume it’s on the way from the kitchen. But nope, my bacon was on its way from the market or store, winding its way along the steep island road, to arrive cooked and delicious on my plate.
I love the people who live and work on the island, who play along with us tourists, but always with a bemused smile on their faces, like they can’t get over all of these silly people. And they work hard. You’ll see the same person working from morning to very late at night in a restaurant. Or the firedancers who helped us out on our first trip to Ko Samet. They were firedancers by night who also owned a tattoo parlor. And then on the way back to the mainland, who should I see working on the ferry, untying lines to get us away from the dock, why the same multi-tasking firedancer. I love that the official post office of Ko Samet is in the same room as a hotel internet café and library. I love that both the police station and clinic close at night. So if you’re robbed and/or stabbed at 2am then well you just have to wait until the morning to deal with both.
I love that the beach doesnt even begin to get crowded until noon, as tourists sleep in, amble down from their hotels, eat a late breakfast at one of the restaurants on the sand and then finally make their way onto the beach. There's a magical laziness that permeates the air in Ko Samet. Most people flop down on beach toweles or chairs and stay that way throughout the afternoon, pausing occasionally to nibble on fresh fruit sold by men who walk up and down the sand, or maybe take a dip in the clear, calm waters to cool off. Some people stay up in the shade at the restaurants, drinking and eating intermittently throughout the day, one endless summer picnic/siesta. Nothing about Ko Samet is hurried or judgemental. You want to sleep in and then lie in the sun all day, the whole island seems to hum with encouragement for such lazy behavior.
I even love the dogs on Ko Samet, or at least the puppies. There are a lot of dogs on this island, but they’re all friendly and love people (as most dogs do, but some ones in my town are not so friendly). And every time I’ve gone there have been at least a couple of puppies! Adorable, toddling, clumsy little puppies that come up to you and wag their tales or fall asleep underneath your table. For someone who loves dogs and who wants a dog very badly, it’s paradise.
And maybe that really is Ko Samet; paradise, a weird, beautiful, flawed, touristy, bacon on a motorbike version of paradise. I know there are probably islands in the south that are ten times more gorgeous, more isolated, with clearer water and whiter sand, and I may go to these islands and fall in love. But I think first in my heart will always be Ko Samet, part summer camp, part Neverland, part booze cruise. Ko Samet is the kind of island that a little kid would have created from thin air using only crayons and glue(well minus the booze cruise aspect), dogs and puppies everywhere, everyone sleeping in tree houses, men walking down the beach selling ice cream all day. It’s a wonderful, make believe world that is improbably real. And I will go back, despite what this island has done to me, I just don’t think I could stay away.

Border Running

Vientiane, Laos

the Scandanavian Bakery, home of the delicious pastries and sandwiches

charming little French town? nope, just Vientiane, Laos, smack dab in the middle of South-East Asia

A week ago I went on a border run to Laos. Now “border run to Laos” might connote to you various and sundry illegal activities. I know that whenever I heard the phrase that’s what I thought of. And the actual border run, at least at the start, for all of its legitimate claims, still felt, well kind of illegal. We met in the parking lot of a Tesco Lotus (giant British supermarket and Thailand’s equivalent to Target, except much, much bigger) at night, and were promptly herded into several vans, cattle style. I was with a friend (who had also lost her passport and visa in the Great Night Swimming Incident of 2009), and both of us kept remarking on how much we felt like illegal immigrants, smuggled away to go work in some sweatshop or field for two cents an hour. But luckily a sweatshop was not our destination. Instead it was Laos, the capital city Vientiane, to be more specific. Me, my friend and all of our visa run assorted companions (and wow were they assorted) all were paying this company to take us to Laos, handle all the complicated paperwork and procedures, so that we could end up with brand, spanking new, perfectly legal visas. And so at 8pm, from the parking lot of Tesco Lotus, we were off.

I have to pause here to describe some of the primary characters in this little escapade. There were nine people in our van (three in each row, and that includes the driver’s row). Despite the close quarters the vans were as nice as vans can be and even had a fairly large television screen to watch DVDs on. But at the end of the day, the vans were still vans. And there’s no way you can spend ten hours in a van with eight people without observing some things about your fellow travelers. So without further ado, our cast (or at least the star players).

Cranky/Crazy Old American Man: Early 60s, teacher, and a perfect example of what I like to refer to as the Crankification and Jerkification Process that Happens to Western Men in Thailand Who Have Lived Here for Many Years (I think I may start a Wikipedia page for it any day now). Now that’s a generalization, and I realize that not all older men become cranky who have lived here for a long time. But out of the old Western men that I have met or observed, most of them fit this description to a tee. I don’t know what exactly it is, but I have a couple of guesses.

Maybe it’s the sad reality that older white men in Thailand, no matter their physical or emotional attributes, tend to be able to have their pick of young, pretty Thai women. There’s probably a whole thesis you can write about this, but if you come here and spend about five minutes out in Bangkok, you’ll see it, over and over and over again. All types of older white guys walking around with much younger and usually much more attractive Thai girlfriends. It’s very possible that some of these relationships stem from genuine love, and I don’t want to judge, but unless you are the most optimistic person in the universe, you can’t say that all of these relationships are based on mutual understanding and respect. You have to admit that many of these relationships are nearly business transactions. Each party is receiving what they want. For the men it’s a young, pretty Thai girlfriend. For the women it’s security and the promise (whether real or not) of power and money. And maybe men who live in this environment for years and years start to get influenced by all that power and money that’s projected onto them (again whether real or not, most of these guys are teachers, so not exactly rolling in dough), and they start thinking that they are powerful. Again there could be many reasons.

The reality is that so many of these guys that I’ve been around act like complete and total tools. There’s no other way to describe it. They are completely condescending toward Thai culture and speak of it with such animosity and disdain that you just have to wonder what in the world they’re doing living here. And they talk to Thai people in exactly the same vein. Like the guy in the van. Over the course of ten hours I cannot count the number of times he loudly and rudely shouted at our Thai drivers (in English of course, another characteristic of this species of expat, they never speak Thai, despite many of them living here for over a decade). First he freaked out because we stopped at a rest area and he couldn’t get the door open. It was locked, because you know, most cars now have automatic locks. He couldn’t find the lock to open it so he immediately starts raging at the drivers (again in English) about how dangerous it was for them to “lock us in”, and how they can’t do that, because if we were in an accident we would all “burn up”. This was his general argument and he proceeded to repeat it about twenty times, the same thing, with all the talk of burning. Here were these poor drivers, probably underpaid, getting screamed at by this crazy American man (in English may I remind you) for something that was in no way their fault. And it proceeded this way the whole trip, whether they were driving too fast, or too slow, or that they needed to STOP RIGHT THAT SECOND at a rest area because he PAID FOR THIS and could in no way wait like the rest of us until a scheduled stop (and they stopped at least every two hours). Everything he said was in caps, everything laced with rudeness, everything just stinking of this white male, superior, downright colonial attitude that I can’t stand. Guess what white dudes? Thailand isn’t a colony, never has been. So don’t come here, live for a few years, and act like you own the place. Because that’s exactly what they do. Act like they own the place, get offended when Thai people don’t understand them (despite the fact that they’re speaking in ENGLISH, for the last time you’re in Thailand you crazy maniac!) and then spend most of their time discussing all of the things they hate about Thailand and Thai people (I cannot tell you how many of these conversations I witnessed on this trip and it made me want to barf, on them preferably). So yeah, this guy pretty much sucked at life and I wanted to push him out of the van, but unfortunately the opportunity never presented itself.

Younger American Dude Who May or May Not Have Been on Drugs the Whole Time: So this guy was the antithesis to the above guy, and for that fact alone he was a much better traveling companion. But he was still not exactly normal. From the moment he stepped on the van his speech was about 10% actual words and 90% dudes, rockstars, superstars, sexy and various other nicknames given out often and at random. For the first hour he spoke loudly and incessantly, seriously at a faster speed than I’ve maybe ever heard anyone talk in my life. He was sitting next to this poor Swedish guy who gamely tried to keep up with the “conversation” but really with this American guy I don’t think a conversation could be anything but one sided. He swigged down whisky from the back seat and discussed the large Xanax that he was planning on taking for the trip. He was in many ways the prototype of American surfer boy, shorts, ripped t-shirt, spiky hair, but then you look closer and guy’s looking a little rough around the edges, little bit hollow cheeked. And at that moment his appearance, combined with his endless and hyper speed stream of consciousness style of speaking, was when I realized he was probably on drugs. Don’t get me wrong, he was a nice guy. He didn’t talk to our drivers like he was King Leopold touring the Congo. But this nice guy, very likely on something, I don’t know what, but I’m pretty sure humans aren’t supposed to talk that fast without some kind of chemical assistance. That is until about an hour into the trip when the talking abruptly stopped. I looked around, shocked by the sudden silence and the Xanax and whiskey had obviously done the trick. And I kid you not, he didn’t wake up until we were almost to Laos.

Random Europeans: I lump them all in here, because while the other Americans in our van were embarrassingly impossible to miss, these sweet and understated Europeans were quiet, unassuming and helpful. A British guy who sat in the front conversed with the drivers (like actually talked to them, not at them, and shock of shocks, in Thai, the language they speak, the language he had learned after being here for two and a half years because he had made an effort and wasn’t a giant jerk face). Then there was the poor Swedish guy I mentioned before, Pelle, who somehow managed not to knock out crazy, rambling American dude before the Xanax did. I have to admit, it was a wee bit embarrassing to be an American in this particular van. We were not represented well. It would have taken an Olympic effort of generosity and diplomacy on my part to wipe out the evil Olympics of horribleness from cranky old dude and the special Olympics of crazy from younger surfer dude. But alas.

So those are some of the people I shared cramped quarters with for ten hours (and then ten hours again on the way back). I can’t exactly say that wonderful friendships were formed, but it wasn’t boring.

After a little wait on the Thai/Laos border (the bridge that forms the border crossing is called “Friendship Bridge”, how cute right?), we were off to Vientiane (which ended up being about 15 min. from the border) and straight to the Thai embassy. The first clue I had that Vientiane, despite being the capital, may not exactly be a “city” was that the embassy was on a dirt road with farmland surrounding it and roosters clucking about. Cue more waiting, more having to prevent myself from strangling loud, obnoxious older American men(and one Canadian) who were loudly discussing all the things they didn’t like about Thai people (at the Thai embassy, of course, because why be offensive if the target of your offensiveness isn’t right there to hear it). And then we were back in the van and driven to the guesthouse where we would be spending one night. All of the visa related stuff was done for the day (and at this point it was only around 10am) so we had the rest of the day to explore Vientiane.

The absolute first thing on my list: coffee. Now you might scoff but let me first say that coffee is one of the cultural aspects of Laos. They are famous for their coffee. So this was less about me needing caffeine (and boy did I need it after a night on the crazy van) and more about a cultural learning experience. I was dedicating myself to the subtler aspects of Laos society. It was to be an eye opening experience. Okay fine it was all about the caffeine. So me and my friend, Lauren, caught a ride into town, and as we reached “downtown” that’s when I first began to realize that Vientiane was just the kind of wonderfully absurd, strange little town that I could so easily fall in love with. It’s a capital city but it’s about as small town as you can get, quiet and peaceful, few cars and almost no traffic. From my limited knowledge of its geography it seems that the bulk of the town is spread out along the Mekong River, which gives the whole place that sleepy, waterfront feel that only a place on a large body of water can have. It’s wonderfully cool there. Or at least cool relative to Thailand. I’ve grown so accustomed to it never really being below 90 degrees during the day that Laos seemed practically chilly to me, and it was probably in the 70s there. You can walk around there and not sweat and that in and of itself is a miracle.

Oh and it’s French, so, so French. You see, Laos was a French colony and the effects of this are obvious everywhere you look. The buildings are French. The wideness of the streets. The large open square in the center of town with a big, dramatic fountain in the middle. All of the street signs are written in Laos first and then French beneath. The mailboxes say “Boite aux Lettres”! It may seem silly to get excited over a French language mailbox, but if you know me, you know that I love France and all things French. I spent a semester in Paris and I loved every single second of it. And I’ve missed France ever since. And never in a million years did I expect to find a cure for my French homesickness in the middle of South-East Asia. But that’s exactly what I did. Except Vientiane isn’t simply French. It’s not simply anything. In the one day I spent there (and yes I realize that is a very feeble amount of time) it seemed to me like it’s this wonderful hybrid, a kind of pretend, anything goes fairy tale land that changes from second to second, from whim to whim.

You want a French pastry? Well here are about a dozen wonderful bakeries. There’s a kind of famous one, called The Scandinavian Bakery, and in just over a day we managed to eat there twice. The largest, most delicious chocolate croissants, every kind of fresh bread behind the counter, the smell of its wafting from the kitchen in all of its flour-y, earthy, sweet glory. Tiny, delicate cookies. Massive, decadent brownies and scones. Salty, perfect salami or ham sandwiches on fresh baked croissants or baguettes. And of course the coffee. You get some of this wonderful food, and then you take it and sit on the upstairs balcony, in these tiny Parisian chairs at these tiny Parisian tables under this very Parisian awning. You look out at the very French square and fountain, but it’s surrounded by palm trees. And walking through the square are two women in traditional Asian skirts, holding umbrellas, and you realize that every time you think you’ve got a handle on this town, it shifts and becomes something else entirely.

You want cheese or wine? What about one of the many, many French restaurants. We went to one for some after dinner cheese (an included dinner was cooked for us at the guest house by the tour operator’s Thai wife, and it was hands down one of the best meals I’ve eaten in Thailand, and that’s saying something), and I was back in Paris. It was called “La Cave des Chateau” or the Cellar of the Castle (thank you rusty French!) and the place was a little cave, the walls and floor all in stone. It was tiny, and in the back was a tiny bar, just like the many tiny bars I saw again and again in Paris. And like in Paris, standing at this bar were two very French men, one in an apron (the chef). They smoked cigarettes and sipped wine and conversed loudly in their native tongue. And as I sat a few feet away, eating delicious goat cheese and sipping delicious French red wine (and all for so cheap), again I could have been smack dab in the middle of the French countryside. But then our Laos waiters came up to us and we conversed with them in our broken Thai, and I wasn’t so sure where I was anymore.

In my 24 hours in Laos there were so many moments like this, strange, wonderful, moments that spanned cultures and continents. I only saw the very outside surface of Vientiane and I’m sure there’s a much richer, much more complex world within, but what I saw I really loved. I loved the quirks, how currency there seems to be a very fanciful thing. The Laos currency is called a yip (what an awesome name for a currency, I wish we had yips back home), and I’m not sure what the exchange rate is, but it’s a lot of yip to a dollar, like up in the thousands. But most places will take Baht. However if you pay baht you are probably going to get yip back in return, so most of the time I had no idea how much I was paying or getting back in change. One store didn’t have enough yip or baht to give me change so she asked if she could pay me in American dollars. The restaurant we went to said on the menu that it accepted Baht, Yip, US dollars and the Euro, to make matters even more confusing.

The people were kind, all of our assorted taxi and tuk-tuk drivers who we could talk to in our very limited Thai (apparently the Laos and Thai languages are almost identical). Fun fact about Laos tuk tuks. Whereas the ones in Bangkok are actually one, solid vehicle, designed as a tuk tuk, the ones we took in Laos were literally one part motorbike, and then like some planks and benches cobbled on to the back and somehow made to balance. Yet another endearingly quirky (and kind of terrifying) facet of Vientiane. Oh and the beer, how could I forget the beer? Laos is known for Beer Lao, which I’ve had in Thailand and have liked. But according to Lonely Planet, you can only get the draught version of Beer Lao in Vientiane (where it’s bottled). And so at one bar I ordered myself a draught Beer Lao, and it was perfection. Light and airy, almost sweet, and again, very, very cheap.

Without planning it, we met up with most of our visa run group at a hotel bar later in the night. This hotel is hard to miss because it’s the only high rise in Vientiane (according to Lonely Planet, I know I’m a dork, it’s the tallest building in Laos, and it’s not an exceptionally tall hotel or anything). It sits right on the Mekong river and it also possesses a bar that stays open past midnight, when all bars in Vientiane are supposed to close. Our tuk tuk driver took us there when all the other bars were closed and I’m assuming this happened to the other people in our group too. So we finished up the night with more beer Laos, talking with all of these random people about random things. Somehow I ended up in one conversation about the American healthcare system (and shockingly it did not end in tears or shouting) and another conversation with an Irishman about why it is or isn’t okay for Americans to claim that they are English or Irish or Norwegian (people from those countries apparently think we should just call ourselves American and get over it) But as I explained there are no true Americans (unless you’re Pocahontas’ great, great, great, great, great, great granddaughter), we are a glorious melting pot, and yes I actually used the phrase, “glorious melting pot.”

Maybe it was the Beer Lao, maybe it was the cool, fresh air (no pollution in Vientiane!), maybe it was the view, the Mekong river running past the hotel in the dark, so much open space around us (such a nice reprieve from the urban bustle of Bangkok) but despite wanting to strangle some of these people only hours before, I ended up genuinely enjoying their company. Or maybe it was none of those things. Maybe it was just Vientiane and its affect on us, this tiny question mark of a city, charming and weird, lovely and diverse, a European face planted on a traditional Asian town with centuries of history and a fair share of tragedy buried beneath its ground. I know it made me feel something, the way only a few cities ever have in such a short period of time. I wish I could have spent more than a day there, and I very much hope I can go back.

But after just one day, with a new visa in hand, we were back on the van (different cranky old American guy this time, same horrible attitude, this one freaked out because there were no DVDs not dubbed over in Thai for us to watch). We crossed over the Friendship Bridge and I was back in Thailand, but with a newfound love for the tiny little Laos city I was leaving behind, and about 30 dollars worth of yip in my wallet, which despite its absolutely adorable name, I found is nearly impossible to exchange for Baht in Bangkok. I guess not everywhere can be as multi-cultural as Vientiane. Oh well, I still love you yip.
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