When I left Fayetteville, Arkansas almost 10 months ago to be a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand, it was the culmination of a lifetime dream. I was excited, terrified, thrilled, and anxious all at the same time. I was fully committed to serving my 27 month term. I sold my house and most of my belongings. I made my children promise to not have babies until I returned. I said my goodbyes and shed many tears. But I was ready. Now ten months later, I am leaving Thailand and the Peace Corps and returning home, 17 months shy of my committed time. In the 10 months I have been here, there have been numerous struggles, which is to be expected from attempting to integrate culturally into a foreign land. I feel I can safely say that every Peace Corps volunteer considers going home at some point, often, weekly. But it has always been a daily choice. But about 2 months ago, I finally found my “Flow”, and things were settling into a pattern. I was finally able to begin counting the small differences that were visible, partly because of my being here. I was content, if not fully happy. That was enough. Then three weeks ago I was in Bangkok for the weekend with my friend Jessie. She had a doctor’s appointment on Monday, and since I had been having some fairly severe back pain (I actually lost an entire week of work because of it), I decided to get checked out. My brothers were due in Thailand for a 2 week vacation, and I didn’t want any pain slowing me down. A call to Peace Corps and I had a doctor’s appointment with a neurosurgeon who specialized in back and spine problems. I met with him Monday morning of that week. After examining me and taking my medical history, he scheduled me for an MRI almost immediately. Due to my history with beast cancer, my age, and a significant recent weight loss, he stated that he was worried the cancer was back in my bones. I went for the MRI and then came back a few hours later for the results. He looked at me and said, “sometimes I really hate to be right. I am 99% sure this is metastatic cancer, and given how many lesions are on your spine, I suspect you have other organs affected as well. If I were you, I’d go home and start saying my goodbyes.” I can’t explain or describe my reaction, because frankly, I don’t want to relive that moment. But I will tell you that I called Dr. Rit, our medical officer for Peace Corps and told him I wanted-NEEDED- to explore the 1% possibility before I would allow Peace Corps to send me home. He agreed. I was clearly in denial. Dr. Rit arranged for me to meet with an oncologist who ordered a biopsy and said if that wasn’t conclusive, then I would need a PET scan. If the PET scan wasn’t conclusive, I would need back surgery to do an “open biopsy”. Let’s just say it was a really shitty week. As I jumped through medical hoops, riding the tornado of emotions, being poked, stabbed, injected, scanned, weighed and measured, I just kept hearing “99% sure” echo around in my head. Dr. Rit and Dr. Ullie, the two top PC medical staff, explained to me that if the tests proved conclusively that it was cancer, they would send me home. They also explained that if they were not conclusive and I needed surgery, they would send me home to have the surgery. At that point, none of us thought I’d be staying in Thailand. But my brothers were coming in two weeks and so I began to fight. At first I was fighting to stay until mid-November so that I could wrap things up at my school, say goodbye, and leave on the 18th when my co-teacher would be taking medical leave anyway. It quickly became clear that was not an option. So I began a different fight. My brothers were coming in a week and we had a two week vacation planned. I refused to go home until after that trip. A lesson I had learned the first tango with cancer was that it didn’t grow overnight and it wouldn’t kill me overnight, so I had time. And so I fought. Peace Corps in DC fought back. Finally we reached a compromise: my brother, Gary, was only here for one week, and my younger brother Josh, a wanderer like me, would be here for two. I could enjoy the one week with Gary, and then Josh would have to explore on his own. I wasn’t happy, but since this was the first trip the three of us had taken alone in our lifetime, I was at least getting something. So it was decided. I was going home. Either with confirmed cancer or with highly suspected cancer. 99% sure. My friend Jessie was the only one who believed in the 1% hope. As someone who has studied and worked in the psychological and therapeutic field most of myprofessional career, I know the strength and resilience of the human brain. Once faced with the surety of going home, I began saying goodbyes in my head. Goodbyes to students I would never see again. Goodbyes to my co-teachers and host family. Goodbyes to PC staff and fellow volunteers. And then, as the brain does when faced with a difficult reality, I began dreaming and imagining all the wonderful things I would do when I get home. Alleviate cognitive dissonance and restore equilibrium. Ahhh– flush toilets and toilet paper! Driving myself anywhere I want to go– no more begging for rides so I can go buy groceries! WooHoo! I’d be home for Thanksgiving and Christmas! I can see my nieces play basketball and go to the Hiking Club Christmas party! I’ll get to hug and scratch my old dog who is still alive and waiting for me! yes! Now keep in mind, all this was interspersed with telling my family I was dying, grieving the grandchildren I would never know, anger at having spent so much time bitching about my now gray hair only to know that soon enough there would be no hair to bitch about, and all the other things I never did, never said, would never see. I was angry, resigned, devastated, pissed the fuck off, and sad beyond words, all within any given five minute period. I never knew when these moments would hit. But I clung to Jessie as I grieved, and I clung to the happy thoughts of going home. When I went to that last doctors appointment on Friday to get the results of my PET scan, my friend Jessie was the only one believing I was staying. As I sat there with Jessie and the two PC doctors waiting for the oncologist, I knew I had accepted and was actually looking forward to going home. The PC staff had already begun the paperwork so that my medical costs were covered when I got home. I was sad to be leaving, but not as sad as I thought I would be. I was finally ready to go home. So when the oncologist looked at us and said, “This is definitely NOT cancer”, there was one long moment of shocked silence followed by a variety of reactions. I burst into tears. Tears of relief, but as I realized later, there were also tears of sorrow. When I arrived back in my village, full of gratitude, full of life, I said farewell to Jessie as she went back to her village. I spent a day of cleaning, dancing, singing, eliminating the gecko poop and fighting the ants who had taken over in my absence. I said hello to my neighbors, and I let the energy of this gratitude push me to exhaustion. House finally clean, balance resorted, I sat down in silence to reflect. In that first quiet moment, I was surprised when the tears flooded me, tremors shook my limbs, I couldn’t breathe. Why was I crying? I am not dying, at least not yet. This was a good thing! But then I heard the voice of my inner little girl sobbing, “but you aren’t going home”. I stopped for a minute and listened. I was not going home. I am still here. I am still content but not happy. I am still alone. In that flash of time I wondered, is it possible that I was happier at the thought of going home SICK than I was at the thought of staying here healthy? wow. So that brings me to today. I’ve given myself the full two weeks of vacation with my brothers. We travelled all over Thailand. I’ve refilled my metaphorical cup, and I’ve thought and reflected constantly. I brought my brothers to my village, introduced them to people, showed them my school, everything. But even then, I realized that it felt more like I was showing them what my life had been like-past tense- than what it IS like-present tense. One morning while we were here in my little Thai house, I sat on the front porch drinking a cup of coffee and I wondered what it would be like to come back to my village after they left, and to begin planning for the next semester of teaching. I am a very visual person and can usually draw a picture in my mind easily, full of detail. But this one time, that picture wouldn’t form. Becoming frustrated, I tried harder. It was no use. The inner artist was blocked for inspiration to create that mental painting. However, those images of things back home, those things I had begun looking forward to during that “scary week”, those images came cascading back. In full color. Three dimensional. Full of life and full of love. And they made me happy. This is why I am leaving Peace Corps. Because it appears that I had to leave behind all my family and friends in order to realize truly how important they’re to my inner peace And happiness. None of us know our expiration date, but what I do know is that I want to live today as if I were to die tomorrow. I now know that whatever differences I’m supposed to make during my remaining time in this physical world, that those people back home will play leading roles. I wanted to serve other people, travel, explore other cultures, and I’ve done that, selfishly leaving behind people at home who love and miss me. But now, after being given this second “second chance”, all I want to do is return and devote my energy where is it best served. Home.
“You must give up the life you planned in order to have the life that is waiting for you.” –”. ― Joseph Campbell.
I first discovered this quote in 1999 when I was at a point of transition, feeling unfocused, disappointed that the things I thought I wanted, things I had been working towards, no longer seemed right. I was lost. Once I heard this quote, I released all expectations to the universe and just said, ” I am ready for something. I don’t know what, but I’m ready.” After that, a new opportunity fell into my lap and it changed my life in ways I had never expected.
A couple of weeks ago, here in Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer, I had a similar moment. I came home from the school where I am supposed to be training teachers, but in actuality am mostly training students. All my expectations for what my job would be were shattered. I was feeling useless, resentful, unhappy, and as I rode my bicycle home, I was thinking, “that’s it. I’m done. I am wasting my time, the taxpayers money, and I’m not going to do it anymore.” I came into my house, burst into tears, fighting the anger and frustration and feeling completely disillusioned.
In the states, I ran a nonprofit, worked in the arts community, used art in transformational programs, and taught other community artists. I wrote grants, developed programs, and helped empower people to take control of their lives, using art. But here in Thailand, these were not the skills I was being called upon to use. I’ve felt a bit like a fish out of water being in the classroom–I mean really–I didn’t finish my PhD because I realized after a semester of teaching at community college, that I really didn’t enjoy teaching. And here I am doing what? Teaching. I love my students, don’t get me wrong, but the day in and day out, just wasn’t fulfilling and for a number of reasons, it felt forced and fake. And, on this one day, I was ready to quit. I’m not proud to say it, but I was finished.
I sat down to make a list of things I needed to do before I contacted Peace Corps and told them to send me home. I was in the middle of this list when I remembered that my two brothers have already purchased airplane tickets to come see me in October during our school break. I realized I couldn’t go home, at least not yet. So as I sat here, feeling sorry for myself, and a little trapped, I just said out loud, “OK, Universe–for some reason you think I’m not finished with Thailand yet. I’m not sure what I’m doing here, but please, help me find out. I need something to make sense.” I told myself that I needed a full month of seeing progress and finding meaning in what I was doing or I would go home with my brothers at the end of October. I needed to be able to see possibilities and impact, or I would be home by Christmas. After this, I started noticing the “nuggets of hope” that I wrote about in my last post, and then something else really amazing happened.
This past Wednesday, I left for a 3 day training. The training was called the Project Design and Management training, and I really wasn’t sure what that meant, but I went. As a TCCS PCV, even though our primary job is teaching, we have a community component where we are tasked with engaging the community in some meaningful way and thus far, I have been unable to identify how to do this. This training was designed to help us begin brainstorming possibilities.
When we go to trainings, we have to take a Thai counterpart and so I asked Mullika, my former host mother, to go with me. She is the head of the village women’s group, and I had some vague idea that maybe–just maybe–we could develop some project together. When I first visited my site back during pre-service training, I came to Mullika’s house, exploring my options for homestays, and saw about a dozen women, making baskets together. I also noticed a sewing machine on her porch. I thought then, that she might be “my kind of people” (as we say in the south). But because of the language barrier, I hadn’t actually been able to explore the truth of this observation—that is until this training.
As it turns out, I was right. The training was about the funding sources that are available to PCVs and their communities to develop projects, trainings, etc to help in various ways. With the help of interpreters, we were to discuss ideas to benefit our communities and then to develop a vision, goals, and objectives—I taught this very class back in the states for the community artists in Philadelphia for seven years. I knew this stuff. As the training progressed, I felt the earth shift, I heard planets colliding, I felt the stars and the moons get together as everything aligned perfectly. And the amazing thing is Mullika felt it too. We are kindred spirits, separated by culture and language, but in truth, we are the same.
Our vision is to “Increase economic independence of the women and girls in our community”. The women’s group has been making these baskets and has just begun selling them. Given my experiences in the states, we are writing a grant proposal to develop a crafts training program for the women and girls in the village, where they will learn four other crafting projects, with the goal of them beginning to sell products at community festivals in our province, and maybe in stores and shops around Thailand. As I sat telling the interpreter what my idea was, and then she translated to Mullika who began writing in Thai, I watched her face. Her smile started as a grin, and before I knew it, her face was aglow with possibility. At one point, Mullika reached over and squeezed my hand, and said, “thank you”. Through the interpreter, I discovered she had a proposal due in November for some potential funding, and that she had had the same idea for this proposal. She just wasn’t sure how to go about doing it. We developed an action plan, timeline, task list. All this happened on day two of the three day training. She looked at me at the end of this day and said, “I want to start NOW!” I was thrilled beyond belief. This is not the skill set I thought I’d be using in Thailand, but I guess the universe knows better than I do. I know how to do this stuff. I have finally found a way that I can help that will hopefully be both beneficial and sustainable.
Expectations are crazy things. And letting go of them is hard. I came here with visions of training teachers, groups of teachers, to be effective and passionate. My expectations did not meet the reality, and I think I have been grieving just a little. But once again I have been reminded that when I let go of what I thought I was supposed to do, great things happen, possibilities that I never imagined present themselves. And I begin living the life I am supposed to lead.
“On a good day, you blog. On a bad one, you journal.” Melissa Peterson, Peace Corps Thailand, group 125.
I haven’t blogged in a couple of months. Part of the reason for that has been my lack of good internet. But part of it has been because each day was filled with more challenges than blog-worthy moments. I don’t want to be a negative Nelly, but I also don’t want anyone to get the idea that Peace Corps service is a day at the beach, either. It is hard. Maybe not physically, but hard nonetheless. I am almost 8 months into my 27 month service. I finally have good internet, and I am hoping I am finally finding a flow. Or maybe I am just choosing to focus more, search more, and attempting to find the good moments amid all the gray ones.
I came here as a teacher trainer, working with two Thai co-teachers in a small village. The Thai educational system is very different from America’s. My school has classes from Kindergarten through ninth grade. The kindergarten classes are called “Annubahn”. Elementary classes are called “Prathom”, and Junior high and high school classes are called “Matayom”. I teach Prathom 4-6 (fourth grade through sixth grade) and Matayom 1 (seventh grade). I am very lucky in that I have a designated English classroom and the students rotate; other PCVs move from classroom to classroom going to the students. I am also lucky that my classroom has tables – six of them- where the students do their work. Other classrooms have no tables or chairs and the students work on the floor.
A typical day at school begins at 8 am with the morning ceremony held at the flag pole. Our little school band, an 8 person band consisting primarily of drums and trumpets, plays the National Anthem of Thailand while the flag is raised. This is usually followed by the singing of the King’s song, and then a Buddhist prayer. All the classes sit in rows on the grass, lined up by class. The teachers mingle around, quietly (sometimes not so quietly) chatting and gossiping. Gossip is an art form in Thailand–more about that in a different blog. Often at the flag ceremony, there will be an English lesson, or some other little attempt to transfer knowledge. But from here, this beautiful little ritual often takes a dark turn and is the reason I no longer attend the flag ceremony.
Thailand is a collectivist society and anyone who rebels, or doesn’t conform for whatever reason is often singled out. This rebellion can come in the form of allowing your hair to be too long–and the answer is a public haircutting day where the boys will get buzz cuts. (this usually doesn’t happen to the girls because as long as they keep their hair pulled up into a pony tail, they are usually left alone.) Haircutting days happen about once a month. But every day, students who arrive not in full uniform are singled out and brought to the front of the assembly. These uniform infractions can take the form of not having on the school issued socks, or wearing the wrong shoes, or simply forgetting the little bow tie part of the girl’s dress. These students are brought to the front, and publicly scolded (often humiliated and called names) for being different. This can go on for quite a while. And I have to say, because the students do not wear shoes into the classroom, I have seen some of these socks–toes hanging out and the socks torn to such an extent that it just looks painful. I wouldn’t want to put these on in the morning either. But this ritual is designed to reinforce the idea of conformity. It is just very hard for me to watch, therefore I don’t.
So after the flag ceremony, students to to their home room class for 30 minutes and are given instructions for the day. If there are to be special lessons, school announcements about testing or club activities, this is when the information is passed along. After home room, they start their day of lessons.
Classes are designed to go for 55 minutes. But often because everything moves on Thai time (schedules are really just suggestions) it is more normal than not that the students will be upwards of 15 minutes late for their first classes. After lunch, there is a bell that rings, and students line up again, and they must wait for everyone to come back, and I’m not sure what else is said–but the class immediately after lunch always starts late as well.. Almost every week, some, if not all, classes get cancelled. These cancellations are sometimes for school wide activities such as “bicycle safety training”, or for talks by Buddhist monks. Sometimes, classes are cancelled for just a part of the day for marching practice or so some of the students can practice for different competitions. Yes, they will cancel all classes so that some can practice with the hope of winning prizes in competitions–Thailand is a very competitive place.
I began teaching on May 15. It is now the end of August. In that time, I have had only four (FOUR) uninterrupted weeks of teaching. Many of these cancellations are ordered by OBEC, the Thai Education supervisory board. I can only assume that they believe these activities are more important than actual learning. This reality is a point of stress and frustration for all PCVs. It is something we just have to get used to. I have heard that it will get even worse next semester. Instead of fighting this reality, I have asked that I at least be told of these cancellations ahead of time instead of arriving at school prepared to teach, only to discover there are no students. Progress is being made.
Another note– substitute teachers do not exist in Thai education. Therefore, if a teacher is absent from class for whatever reason, the students are left to wander or play and entertain themselves until the next class. Seriously.
On the up side, my classroom has become the cool place to hang out, especially for the Matayom students. They love to come in and try to talk Thai with me. Many times they will get out the Thai/English dictionary and will look up words or questions, and get really tickled when they teach me something, or they understand something I’ve said in English. They love for me to play music and to sing American songs, they love it when we dance and they laugh at me a lot because Thai dancing is very reserved and American free-style is very new to them. I taught my English Club students the electric slide last week and it was hilarity encapsulated, especially when I taught them to “get funky”!
Often when the students come to hang out during lunch or before school, I am rewarded by seeing them take the flashcards or other teaching materials that I have introduced, and then watch them actually practice with each other. If a teacher is absent in another class, students from those classes will often come sit outside my current class and watch whatever is going on as I teach. As a result, every day as I bike to school, I am greeted by shouts of, “Hello, Miss, Ba-ba-la, How are you?” I will answer something like “I am hot, How are you?” They respond with “I am tired/happy/fine/ok/hungry, etc”. More recently, “Miss Ba-ba-la, How is the weather?” I usually answer, “I’m not sure? What do you think? How is the weather?” They then answer “It is hot/ a little cloudy/ rainy/ perfect”. I love that their attempts to speak English are transferring outside of the classroom. Again, progress is being made.
The Thai students are the best part of my day. My teachers are learning different ways of teaching, and one of them is completely buying into a classroom management system that is geared to reward positive behavior and ignore negative. The other teacher still just walks up and smacks a “naughty” child upside of the head. Yeah, I forgot to say that even though corporal punishment is against the law in Thailand, it is still practice regularly. At least all the bamboo rods have disappeared from my classroom, ones that used to be used to hit students for misbehavior. I have no idea where they went? Nobody saw me do it so they can’t prove anything! 🙂
As I stated earlier, the education system here is very different. And I try hard to not judge it, or to not judge it too harshly, even though it is very hard not to. I see so many ways it could be improved, but the Thai culture is such that I know these changes might happen, but I won’t see them in my term of service. All I can do is plant seeds, demonstrate alternatives to the current ways, and hope that these different ways of doing things take root somewhere, with someone.
Side note–The classroom management technique I use involves each class having a different color ( I use different colored straws cut into small pieces). The class is rewarded for participation by me putting one of their colors into a jug. The class that has the most of their color in the jug at the end of the month gets to have a party. I tell you this because this week I saw one co-teacher, Parisa, arrive to school carrying a bag of different colored straws. When I told her we didn’t need any more that I had plenty, she grinned and said, “These are for my other classes.” Am I making a difference here? Yes, I think I am.
This past Monday, as I was teaching, doing some sort of charades for my students, I noticed a man standing in the door of the classroom, watching. I looked over at my co-teacher, Supattra and she went to see what the man wanted. I continued doing my thing.
After class, as I was getting ready to sit down with some luscious Thai oranges for lunch, which they call “som”, Supattra comes over and I can tell she has something to say. But Thais avoid confrontation, they avoid strong emotion all the way around. So I ask her what is wrong.
She blurts, “The policeman say there was an accident and foreigner was driving. I tell him he is wrong. But he wants Ba-ba-la to come to the station.”
I sit for a minute trying to understand what she said. I ask, “He thinks Barbara was driving and caused an accident?” She says, “YES! I know he is wrong!” I grab my purse and say “Let’s go”.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand, we are forbidden from driving a car. That and riding a motorcycle are “non-negotiables” and Peace Corps will send us home immediately if we break the rule. Even though I know I am innocent of this crime for which I am being accused, during the short drive to the police station, my active brain goes into overdrive. The conversation in my head went something like this:
“I can’t drive. Don’t they know that? I can prove it right? But I saw the movie “Brokedown Palace”–people go to Thai jail even when telling the truth. Tina said she was worried I would end up in a Thai prison. Crap. Maybe Supattra got it wrong. Maybe I caused an accident while walking around somewhere. Did I? I could have. Thai drivers are crazy. Maybe as I was crossing the street someone did something. Crap. Why would someone blame me? Don”t they like me? Why don’t they like me? I’m going to jail. I need a bathroom.”
When we arrive at the police station, all eyes are on us. They sit us first at a long conference table and then bring us into an office with several policemen. The main guy asks if I speak Thai. I answer that I speak Thai a little. I answered in English because at that moment, every bit of Thai I know seems to have vanished from my brain. My heart is pounding, I know my face is red. I’m actually praying for a heart attack versus a Thai jail. The policeman asks for my I.D. and for Supattra’s. He takes copies of them and says something to Supattra. She says to me, “The driver is Austrlian”.
“What? Some crazy Aussie has accused me of doing something? Causing an accident? *&^*&%%. ” I said to Supattra, “Tell them Barbara cannot drive. I would get sent home.” She says, “I tell them. They are wrong.”. Thai people do not like to be wrong. There is this concept of “breaking face” and Thai people will go to extreme measures to not break face–admitting a mistake would be breaking face. I’m screwed. I’m going to jail. Where is that bathroom?
Fighting the urge to laugh maniacally, and the sister urge to run as fast as I can, I finally stand up and say, “I need to call Peace Corps.” I step outside the office and call our security director, Kuhn Pahnutat. He answers on the second ring and as I try to hold back the tears and the fear, I tell him what is going on. He asks to speak to the policeman. I really need to find a bathroom.
I walk back into the office, hand over my phone, and then sit, frozen, trying to understand anything that is being said. All I hear is Charlie Brown’s teacher, “Wah, whaha, wah, wah wa wah.” After what seems like an eternity, a time where I am trying to ignore the ever increasing buzz in my ears, the police man gives me back my phone and I walk to the corner, my heart in my throat, my head ready to explode. I hear Kuhn Pahnutat’s voice.
“Barbara, no worries. They don’t think you caused the accident. A foreigner was driving. They want you to help translate when they question him. It would be a big help to them.” Whoooooooosh. My blood is finally back in my head. I instantly feel my blood pressure drop. Suppatra got it wrong. Either she didn’t understand what they wanted, or communicated it wrong— I don’t know. But for the first time in an hour, I took a full breath and suddenly didn’t need a bathroom anymore.
Oh, Thailand……You got me again.
It has been a month since I last posted. In that time I have started my teaching job, completed 2 more English training camps, one for school principals and another for school teachers, I have broken my finger on my first bicycle accident, traveled to one of the many beach towns in Thailand, and have become familiar with the hospitals in Korat and Bangkok. Lots of emotions have accompanied these experiences, and not every day has been a good one. But in some quieter moments during the last month, I took out my phone and typed in what is happening in that instant, and I will share some of those entries here.
May 15, 2013
First day of school. I store my backpack and purse in the English classroom and head to our home room, a fourth grade room. I have no idea what to expect, and yet, this is not a new sensation. Much of my time in Thailand this far has been spent in a perpetual sense of confusion. I never have all the information I need and for a recovering control freak this is a huge frustration.
As I sit dropping sweat into my burning eyes, I see hundreds of little faces, some cautious and observing, others saying “Babala” as I walk past. Everyone seems to know me and I know very few of them. Parents urge the children to “wai” me in respect and I have to fight the urge to do it in return. Teachers are not supposed to “wai” students, but during PST we got used to “waing” all the time and ignoring that training is hard. I sit in our home room class as many little faces peek in the door to see the Farang (foreign) teacher. They are unsure yet excited. The voices chattering in the hall outside could be those in any school in th states, yet I don’t understand a word they say. Although at some schools working with teens in the U.S. I didn’t understand much either. Many students walk around with brooms– it is daily routine to sweep the classrooms and walkways. Here there are no janitors. They even sweep the grass as I’ve become accustomed to seeing, every errant leaf disposed of. Cleanliness is important value to the Thais, but that doesn’t seem to transfer to the bathrooms. Funny that my biggest fear is of actually having to use the school hong nam (bathroom). There is not one specifically for the teachers and the one the children use is horrid. I am actually fearful of having to go. But as much water as I drink, I sweat even more, so maybe I can manage my bodily functions.
It has been a couple of weeks since I blogged last. In that time I’ve spent a weekend with about 30 other PCVs at a meet up in Kohn Kaen, Thailand, and then spent time with six others at an English camp for school principals. I will share some highlights and observations but will spare you the details.
Highlights of Kohn Kaen: So the meet up in Kohn Kaen was planned by a group of Peace Corps 124s, the group that arrived last year. They wanted to provide an opportunity for us to get to know them in a fun and stress releasing way. Kohn Kaen is about four hours north east of my village in Chaiyaphum. A long-hot-crowded four hours bus ride away. But totally worth it. On my way to Kohn Kaen, however, I noticed several Amway stores outside the bus window, at least three. I found this hilarious. My mom sold Amway for a short while when I was a kid, but I had no idea they had stores, and it just seemed bizarre to find those stores in Thailand. Anyway…
I had a lovely time at the meet up. I got to see many of my friends from training. We went to a movie theatre and saw Iron Man 3 and I had popcorn with salt! We went to a place called Mickey’s Pizza and basically took over the place. The pizza was amazing and I had my first DARK BEER since arriving in Thailand! Best. Thing. Ever. Many PCVs blew off steam in a variety of ways, but my friends Jessie and Jeanette and I had a quietly fun eveing in the room, drinking wine and playing cribbage. At one point when they were deeply entrenched in a game, I went downstairs to get some food. There was a band playing music outside so that is where I spent my dinner hour. I am a sucker for live music. My dad was a musician, my brother, my son, my best friend’s husband, my children’s father—I was even in a band in high school. Live music is in my blood. So it was natural for me to find myself in a familiar setting.
My favorite venue back home is called George’s Majestic Lounge. My favorite cover band, Big Un’s plays there about once a month and when they play, I dance like there is no tomorrow. Now at George’s, there is a regular named Ralph who dances in a corner, usually by himself, barefooted with duct tape wrapped around his arches for support. Ralph is there every Friday night. Well at this little place in Kohn Kaen, there was a Thai version of Ralph. A little old Thai guy who danced by himself, every song. I was tempted to go dance with him as I have many times with Ralph, but it would be frowned upon in Thailand. So I contented myself with sitting and eating my fried rice and watching. The band was a four piece–drums, guitar, base, and female lead singer. The singer was good and the band was better. Their song list was an interesting mix, designed for the comfort of the visiting foreigner, with American songs that the Thais seem to adore. Country Roads (John Denver), My Heart Will Go On (Celine Dion), How Deep is Your Love (Bee Gees), I Will Survive (Gloria Gaynor), Do That To Me One More Time (Captain and Tenille). The lead singer did not have an accent when sh sang–she sounded very American, except for her ‘r’. Thais don’t have the “r” sound in their language and it generally comes out as an “l” or a ‘d’ sound. Hence my name: Ba-ba-la or Ba-ba-da. But this girl had practiced her ‘r’ sounds–to the point that she became almost a growling pirate. “aarrr”. “My Hearrrrrt will go on”. Her only tell that she was not a native speaker. At one point, her lead guitarist decided to step up to the microphone and let me just say now, you have not lived until you have heard Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” sung with a Thai accent. Even better was when the bass player sang James Taylor’s “Handyman” but sang it as “Candyman”. “Hey baby, I’m your candy man.” The absolute best part of the set, however, was when the lead singer took a break and turned the microphone over to RALPH! That old guy was so excited to get up on stage and I have to admit, I was too. I couldn’t wait to see what HE would sing. It was “Your Cheating Heart” by Hank Williams. But wait— then he got the tambourine and sang Johnny Cash’s “Old Cotton Fields Back Home” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vCK8mSyhb0
PRICELESS. Oh, and I got to feed a baby elephant. On the sidewalk. Pretty cool.
Highlights of the English Camp in Surin: I won’t bore you with most of the details here. We had about 150 school principals for 2 days, and it went really well. I worked with some amazing PCVs who did an excellent job. What I will mention is that on the trip there, I saw my first Thai “hipster”. This young man was dressed with tight, super tight skinny jeans, that were barely hanging on his hips. My first pair of Thai baggy pants. Why, why whhhhhhyyyyyy is this an American trend that has made its way here? It is so not necessary in the States, and because of the modest nature of Thailand, it was quite shocking to see it here. Oh well. I also saw a giant DUTCH windmill, and several adult men wearing fanny packs draped over their shoulder like a regular purse. I just found it interesting.
After being in Thailand now for four months, I find myself getting very comfortable with some things, and noticing many others that I know I will never get used to. Here is a short list:
1. Eating with a spoon. In Thailand, people use a fork in their left hand to push food onto a spoon in their right. It is actually a very efficient way of eating. I find I am shocked when I eat somewhere that doesn’t have a spoon on the table.
2. Carrying my own toilet paper. Bathrooms in Thailand rarely have toilet paper. I carry purse packets of tissues to use. Yes it is necessary. What I won’t get used to is that there are generally no trash cans in which to dispose of the tissue and you cant flush them.
3. The heat. yes, I am a constantly sweaty mess with drips falling off my nose. But hey, it’s hot. Everyone tells you it’s hot. And I’m getting used to it being hot. No sense in complaining because it’s not going to change.
Not Ever Going to Get Used To:
1. Seeing babies and entire families on motorcycles. I saw a woman holding a squirming 13-14 month old in one hand while navigating traffic with the other. I’ve seen infants in the laps of parents. I’ve seen tiny 2-3 year olds holding on for dear life to the waists of the parents driving. In our village we lost an entire family in an accident. Nope, never going to get used to this.
2. The noise level. For a typically quiet people, Thailand is one very noisy place. I’ve posted before about the loud speakers in the fields and at the temples. But there are loud speakers on top of cars, driving around neighborhoods, blaring out advertisements for something——- and they are everywhere. Anywhere there is a microphone, there is a Thai person loving the sound of their own voice. In the mall, salespeople with screech into a microphone to encourage you to come into their store. Really? Does this work? It just makes me want to run as fast as I can in the other direction! And even though I loved loved loved going to the movies last weekend, it was SO FREAKING loud, that when I left, I felt like I had been at a Bon Jovi concert in the 80’s standing right in front of the wall of speakers. I swear it took several hours for me to be able to hear clearly without a ringing in my ears.
3. The apparent lack of or disregard for traffic laws. Now I debated which category to put this in because to a certain extent, I have gotten used to this. But then again, there are moments where I am seriously terrified for my life and can picture my portrait hanging in the Peace Corps Office “in memory of”. (Yes,they do have such a gallery). In Thailand, the roads looks like home. They usually have two lanes, dotted lines, and traffic signs and signals. But once in Kohn Kaen I was in a tuk tuk (motorized rick shaw type thing) and I realized we were zipping down the middle of both lanes, ON the dotted lines. The giant buses (Bawkawsaw) that are my main transportation, go as fast as they can, whipping around cars in front of them, using either the shoulder or the other lane to do so. If they can’t pass, they will get right up on the back of the car in front at speeds that make you believe you are going to smash them flat, and then will brake quickly. But they will stay there until they can pass. I’ve seen two buses, traveling in opposite directions, both pass cars in front at the same time. For a moment it looks like we are playing chicken. But always, at the last minute, somehow they both make it safely. And traffic lights are just pretty and for decoration only. I have come to this conclusion. Traveling is not for the weak of heart in Thailand.
Today is Mother’s Day back home—so Happy Mother’s Day to all those amazing women in my life. I love you all. And tomorrow I start school so wish me luck. Life will be busy once this chapter begins. Till next time……
I’m standing in Bangkok. I’ve been here briefly twice before. Once when 51 of us future Peace Corps volunteers first landed in Thailand shortly after midnight. We were met with orchid garlands by our future Thai friends and trainers. We were exhausted after 27 hours of traveling, yet we collected our luggage and got on a bus for another two hour bus ride to our training site. I only saw Bangkok as lights and shadows on our way through.
The second trip to Bangkok was shortly before we were sworn in as Peace Corps volunteers. We came in to tour the Peace Corps headquarters, complete more paperwork, meet the rest of the staff that will take care of us for the next two years. Then I hopped into a taxi and headed to the bus station to make my first solo trip to my village in Nongbuakhok. Again, I only saw Bangkok through the window as we fought traffic and raced along the city streets.
This past weekend I came to Bangkok for my first real trip, a chance to explore this “wonderful city that is very close to Thailand.” I hear this phrase often as Bangkok is huge, very metropolitan, and not at all representative of the Thailand I have gotten to know; I understand its sentiment. There are over 8 million people in Bangkok, as many signs in English as in Thai, huge shopping malls with boutiques such as Christian Dior and Jimmy Choo selling high end apparel, and open air markets selling clothes, crafts, and puppy mill puppies. It feels very familiar, yet upon closer inspection, isn’t really.
Standing up on one of the many pedestrian walkways that allow one to cross busy streets, it is interesting to look down and observe. This city has a look and a feel that could make you think you were in LA or NYC. Except that it is cleaner. I love NYC, but it isn’t a clean city. Most of Thailand is not what I would consider clean either. Trash is haphazardly thrown by the side of the roads, plastic bags fly along dirt roads in the breeze as often as birds. But Bangkok is clean. Really clean. Surprisingly spotless. The modern buildings in most of the districts and the sky train that connects the city can fool anyone into thinking that Thailand is a land of progress, except that I have experienced otherwise. It is almost like this city grows, while the rest of Thailand struggles. It is an illusion. It is not Thailand.
The things I notice most are the taxis. The bright yellow ones feel very familiar. But the pink, orange, and lime green ones which are much more prevalent, not so much. Unlike NYC, here there is an absence of horns blowing. The taxi drivers in NYC are notorious for honking, and as I have experienced the immense noise pollution of Thailand, I marvel that THAT particular noise is missing. But the colors are lovely. One thing Thais are not afraid of is color. In NYC people wear mostly black, or gray, or shades of dull lifeless “sophisticated” colors that all blend together. In Thailand, the color is vibrant, alive with an energy you can’t help but feel. The sights are familiar. The smells are not. The young girls dressed for a day of shopping at the mall look familiar, but their excited chatter in any number of different languages is not. The street vendors are familiar. The food they are selling–corn desserts and fish on a stick, or roasted frogs or a bag of bugs to snack on, are definitely not.
The first place I entered out of curiosity and in a desire to find some air conditioning is a mall and the first store I see is a Forever 21. This is familiar. As I enter and begin looking around, I realize that this familiarity again, is an illusion. This store, like so many others in Thailand, does not carry clothing bigger than a size 8, and no shoes larger than an 8 1/2. Almost familiar. Six months ago for me, shopping in a mall would have gotten me excited, even if it was just to window shop. Now its only attraction is the coolness of the temperature. The western influence is apparent everywhere I turn from the DKNY stores to the SWATCH watches to the Starbucks coffee shops. Yet there is an essence that makes it different, an unexplainable quality that refuses to let you believe you are anywhere other than in a foreign place. The fashion is cutting edge and familiar. But I know that this too is a mirage. We are taught in training about the concept of “riap roy” meaning modest and appropriate. Women keep their shoulders covered, shorts and skirts at least knee length. But this is not what I see around me in this mall. I see super short shorts, strapless blouses, spaghetti strapped sundresses. This looks much more like the clothing you would see in the states, again with the exception of color–you almost never see black here. In fact as I stood and looked around, I didn’t see one black outfit anywhere, in the stores or on the shoppers. As a definitely color-girl myself, I found this refreshing.
I spent the weekend with my friend and fellow PCV, Mimi, who lives several hours south of me in Thailand. We booked a small moderately priced hotel room with two twin beds, a bathroom, and air conditioning. Again, it looked familiar. But upon closer inspection, you see that in our tiny bathroom, you have about one square foot of floor space for the shower and that it is easier to sit on the toilet while showering. The whole room was about a 3×3 foot space.
We went to a weekend market and explored for several hours–hundreds and hundreds of booths, items for sale from tacky souvenirs to beautiful hand carved Buddha statues and glorious hand painted porcelain. The vegetable markets could be any farmer’s market in the states, except for the fish, and pigs heads scattered around for sale. Some of the fish and eels are already dead and ready to be taken home. Others you can pick out and they will kill them freshly, on the spot. I have no idea who buys the pigs heads or why. I didn’t ask.
We met up with some other PCVs for Mexican food one night. In the four months that I have been here, I have missed that almost as much as I have missed family and friends. The margaritas were good, the cheese dip was almost–bland and tasteless. But the guacamole and my spinach and mushroom enchiladas were to die for!
The other PCVs, being young twenty-somethings, were ready for a night out on the town, drinking and partying. I know that Bangkok has areas made for these activities. Mimi and I opted for an early evening and didn’t partake of this particular agenda. Back at the hotel, however, I sat on the balcony and had a lovely conversation with a young woman from Toulousse, France who was traveling with her mother, and with a nice woman from Cape Town, South Africa. We chatted for a while, and as I’ve been to both of their home countries, we shared perceptions and experiences and laughed. After the woman from South Africa retired for the evening, a man came out and said, “which of you is from Arkansas?” Turned out he was the boyfriend of the woman from Capetown. When I acknowledged my roots, he laughed and said his entire family was from Little Rock. How cool is that? His family consists of many Baptist preachers, and once his dad left the Baptist church and became a pagan atheist, he was pretty much run out of Little Rock, so that this man grew up living in Hawaii. The world really is a small place.
In our journeys across the city, we put our lives into the hands of the tuk tuk drivers, a sort of motorized rickshaw. These are faster than taxis, not quite as expensive, but much more expensive than the bus or skytrain. But they are fun! Yes, they zig and zag and sometimes you question your sanity at riding in one of these so-called vehicles, but there is something so charming about them that they are my favorite way to travel. The tuk tuk drivers take one look at two, middle aged white ladies, and immediately try to lure us, “hello Madames. Where you go? I take you.” You can see the surprise jolt across their face when we speak to them in Thai and negotiate the price down to one much more reasonable than what they give the non-Thai speaking foreigners. Each completed negotiation feels like a battle won, an accomplishment, and we smile to each other at our success. We are probably still being over charged, but not as much as we could have been.
I can’t wait to go back and explore more. After our lunch of some really good Thai food at a street vendor, we discovered Little India and its many many many Indian restaurants—oh, if only I hadn’t been full already! But now I know where I will return for lunch upon my next visit. Indian, Mexican, Thai food–my three favorites. and Bangkok provides access to the first two and I live on the third daily. Joy.
In this “land of almost”, it is easy to escape and become invisible. In my home village, it is impossible to do either. We are warned in training about “living in a fishbowl”. I don’t think anyone can truly be prepared for just what that is like. That is the hardest part of this experience thus far. But a weekend escape to a city where you are “just another foreigner” was a blessing, one which I feel I will search out fairly often over the next two years. At least it is somewhat familiar. And there is comfort in that “almost”.
Outside a women’s clothing store in Little India–not sure exactly what kind of suit they were selling.
“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
― Eleanor Roosevelt
“To serve is beautiful, but only if it is done with joy and a whole heart and a free mind.”
― Pearl S. Buck
Four weeks ago today I arrived in my remote village in Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer. I was sent here to work with teachers and educators, but for the past month, school ahs been our for summer break, and to be honest, I have had more than one “why am I here again?” moments. I have struggled with the answer to this question, but in the moments of greatest doubt, I try to quiet my thoughts, close my eyes, and say, “I trust I am where I am supposed to be.” This past weekend, the universe allowed me a glimpse of a possible reason for my being here.
A little over a week ago, Jessie (another PCV who lives fairly close to me—fair being about 40 miles away) and I were asked to assist with an English camp that had already been planned by our PESAO (Primary Educational Service Area Office). In Thailand, the PESAO is where all the Superintendents of all the regional schools work and their bosses, the Sawnaws. Also in this office are the Curriculum Supervisors, School Technology Specialists, as well as Human Resources, assistants, etc. The English camp was planned to teach “English for Every Day Use”. The outline had us training about 40 school Principals and some PESAO employees on Friday. Then Saturday, the training moved to a resort about 2 hours from home for a weekend retreat continuing the English Camp just for staff of the PESAO. With a good measure of nervousness combined with a profound feeling of fate, I expectantly said yes.
Jessie and I were asked to edit the workshop handbook as we are “native speakers”, and it is a really good thing we did. As someone who is learning the Thai language, I know how difficult sentence structure is to grasp and how vocabulary meanings often differ in different contexts. So for instance, in the section for speaking with a health care professional, the original question to be asked by a health care professional was, “What is wrong with you?” We suggested it be changed to, “What seems to be the problem?” And instead of asking, “So how about the food?” we suggested it be changed to, “So how do you like the food?” Minor changes but with big impact.
Friday arrived and participants joined one of six groups and rotated through six different mini-sessions throughout the 8 hour day. My session was on greetings, introductions, how to address people, and “How are you feeling?” The usual greeting I experience here goes something like this.
Me: Hello. My name is Barbara.
Stranger: Nice to meet you again, Barbara. How are you today?
Me: I am fine thank you. And, you?
Stranger: I am fine, thank you. And you?
“Nice to meet you again” is a very normal thing to hear. And if you don’t stop the maddening cycle that is the “How are you standard answer”, it can get frustrating very quickly. So I took the content challenge head on., and at the end of the day, you heard many people giving other answers for that question. I felt very pleased.
Day two saw me up early, packed and waiting for the van to pick me up and take me to this resort. We arrived about 9:00 am and had to be ready to begin about 10. Jessie and I were in charge of the large group activities on Saturday, each facilitated one mini session in the afternoon, and were to make ourselves available to each team for the evening. Their evening assignment consisted of shopping for and cooking one dish to be shared by everyone, writing and presenting the recipe and cooking instructions in English, and creating a song about their dish again in English. We spent lots of time editing things like “4 garlics” and “3 fruits”. We helped them understand the difference between the word “recipe” and “menu”. We helped them understand that onion is “chopped” and hands are “clapped” and that “Lemon” really does not have an “a”.
I have to say that by the end of day two, the participants that had been in both days of training were blooming. You could see their confidence level grow right in front of your eyes. In Thailand, many people read and understand English. But very few actually speak it. Even among the English teachers, they rarely feel confident to actually speak the language they are hired to teach. English is a big priority here right now because in March of 2015, the ASEAN pact goes into effect. This is a joint initiative of 10 Asian countries to help standardize trade practices, educational standards, etc to make them more competitive in the global marketplace. The main language of the ASEAN initiative is ENGLISH and right now, Thailand is at the bottom for proficiency. These people that we were working with are the trainers of the teachers. To see them grow gives me hope of a trickle down effect. Anyway, on with my story.
Saturday night, after eating and presentations, Jessie and I were asked to present awards to the group with the best presentations, and then to judge the best female and male dancers for the Turkey in the Straw dance. Yes, our Turkey in the Straw. When they began teaching the moves and I heard the tune, and I looked around, I was pretty sure I had stepped into the Twilight Zone. After the dance contest, Jessie kicked off the karaoke portion of the evening by singing the Thai favorite, “My Heart Will Go On” from the movie Titanic (by request of course as they already had the song cued up on the machine before she even said yes). Eventually I sang “Proud Mary”, and we watched everyone dance, some begin drinking and then dancing more enthusiastically. We were asked by most of the Thai people there, men and women, to dance with them and if we took one dance off, people worried. All in all, it was really fun but I played the “age” card and was able to leave about 10:30. Jessie wasn’t as lucky and stayed for about another hour.
Sunday was all Jessie and me. For three hours, we led them through many different activities, games, conversational starters, and let me just say, that the final activity had them carrying on 12 different conversations with 12 different people about 12 different topics, all in English. That is how far they came this weekend. I felt as proud of them as I did with my clients at Ozark Guidance or my students at Youth Bridge back at home. I was very full of joy, watching and listening, and knowing that I was able to encourage and facilitate this. THIS is what I am good at. It doesn’t matter the subject matter—teaching people at the university level, teaching art to students, working with mentally ill or emotionally challenged. I am a facilitator. The funny thing was that at the end of the day, when we were allowing for final thoughts and comments, one of the men, as he was thanking me and Jessie, actually said to me, “…and thank you Barbara for being a good counselor and helping us to feel good about speaking English.” I guess that really is who I am. Even in a different country. Who knew.
One of the biggest changes we were able to help facilitate occurred when one of the Sawnaws, a wonderful woman named Chotica who is the Curriculum Supervisor for all the English teachers in our district, asked us to, “Please arouse the participants for their presentations tonight.” Jessie and I looked at each other a minute, and then I asked, “Do you mean encourage, or get them excited to present?” She said yes, or course. We then had to explain that in English, although a heightened sense of arousal is good for learning, that if you “arouse” someone, it usually means to get them ready for sex. After being shocked and horrified and us all having a good laugh, she explained that she had attended a 2 month training in Singapore about teaching English. She said on the powerpoints, and in the entire curriculum, they used the word “arouse” constantly—-“these games will “arouse” your students.” “You want your students aroused so they can learn better.” Yes, we want them engaged and excited to learn, but I’m not planning any of THOSE types of games….just saying. She thanked us profusely and now we have a great story to tell.
I had several epiphanies this weekend, made many observations, and have a lot to process. I know that I probably could not have enjoyed this experience as much as I did if Jessie had not been there, for many reasons. One, I’m not sure I could have sung karaoke by myself in front of that audience. I also know that co-facilitating is much better than doing it alone, from planning through execution. And I know that the overall experience, because it was shared and discussed, dissected and analyzed, was more meaningful. Alone, I would have retreated earlier from the party, or been very self conscious being the only one under the microscope. Somehow having another “farang” in the mix allowed me to be more truly myself and much more comfortable.
All in all, a good weekend. Sanuk, mak.
I have officially been a resident of NongBuaKhok Thailand for two weeks. Life is slow here. And quiet. My village is organized around an intersection of two major highways. When I bike east-west, it takes me less than 10 minutes from one end of my village to the other. When I bike north-south, it takes me less then ten minutes from one end to the other. To say it is small is completely inadequate. I’ve been to shopping centers back home in Arkansas that were bigger than my entire village. Hence the slow and quiet description. I get seriously excited on Tuesdays and Fridays because I know those are market nights. YIPPEE! But this past weekend was a Thai national holiday festival called Songkran and we Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) have heard about this festival since we got here. I was excited to see what my village did in celebration. As the time approached, ever little roadside market began selling water guns and super soakers as this is called the water festival. I love a good water fight!
Late Wednesday afternoon I received a text from my Thai co-teacher telling me that we were going to a Songkran ceremony at the district educational offices (PESAO) on Thursday morning. Yippee! Let the fun begin! We arrive at the office at 9:30 am and meet Jessie, another PCV, and her co-teacher, and two hours later (Thai time is relative and never actually specific–we were told it would start at 10am), people move outside –finally. In Thailand, every office, building, house has some sort of shrine with a Buddha statue. So we moved out and gathered around the one for the PESAO and watched as the Director climbed up and poured water on the Buddha while everyone wai-ed (The Thai greeting referred to as the wai consists of a slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion. The higher the hands are held in relation to the face and the lower the bow, the more respect or reverence the giver of the wai is showing. The wai is traditionally observed upon entering formally a house. After the visit is over, the visitor asks for permission to leave and repeats the salutation made upon entering. The wai is also common as a way to express gratitude or to apologise.)
After this, everyone formed a line and approached a table where bowls of water with floating flowers and fragrant oils sat. We took small bowls or cups, filled them with this water, and approached a table with several Buddha statues. We went down the line and poured a little water on each statue, and then at the end, the Director sat with his hands outstretched, and we kneeled and wai-ed, and poured water on his hands. Throughout this, people were coming up to us while we were standing in line, sprinkling water on our head and shoulders. This was done in a very constrained way so were weren’t getting soaked by any means. But I knew that Songkran is called the water festival and in my experience, anytime you get lots of people together throwing water, eventually it can get out of hand and someone is going to get wet. As I sat there watching these professional people go through this ceremony one by one, I started seeing more water being thrown and sure enough, eventually someone tossed the entire bowl of water. And people got wet.
Friday morning my host family told me I needed to come to the school in my village about 9:30 am for our Songkran ceremony. I excitedly arrived at the school to see a stage, and several long tents. I spent the first couple of hour or so playing badminton with some of the village kids while other families arrived. Once the music started, people began dancing. Everyone kept coming up to sprinkle me with water and everyone tried to put white stuff on my face– they take the fragrant oil water and mix it with prickly heat powder to make a paste and then they put this paste on the face to bless you and keep you cool. I explained that my facial skin is very sensitive and allergic so I had white arms instead. When the village women’s groups were presented to the Mayor in front of the stage, I was asked to help hold the banner with Mallika. Mallika is the wife in my host family–I can’t call her a host mom because she is only 45 which is two years younger than me. Anyway… there I am with Mallika and her friends, standing in front of the stage where the mayor was with the the entire village watching us from the sidelines and suddenly my foot starts stinging. I take my other foot and gently scratch/rub the offending one never once looking down. And suddenly my foot feels like it is on fire. I drop my part of the banner and bend down to see what is going on, only to discover that my entire foot and pant leg are covered in attacking ants! I had heard that the ants here would actually attack a person and they did, en masse. There I was with a huge “spotlight” on me and I begin hopping around, slightly shrieking, swiping at my foot doing what I’m sure will now be called the ant dance, in front of my entire village. Then once my foot was saved, I had to get first aid from one of the yais (grandmothers) and then returned to holding the banner, all while smiling. Jeez.
Next came more music and more dancing, and then the village women’s groups began a cooking competition. Each had their own tables set up and decorated. It was a som tam competition. Som tam is a salad made from green papaya, peanuts, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, sugar, lime and usually has small shrimp. They put all the ingredients in a mortar and use a pestle to mush it all together slightly to blend the flavors and release the juices. It is some seriously good stuff!
All these women begin shredding papaya, peeling garlic, and dancing with their mortars and pestles while the village cheers them on. It was fabulous. Then of course, because it’s Thailand, we ate. You always eat in Thailand. When in doubt, eat. And we did. And I’m buying a mortar and pestle because I think som tam is my favorite Thai thing to eat.
After eating, the same water ritual that I had experienced the day before, was replayed. Only this time we poured water in the hands of the monks and their acolytes. The acolytes are young boys who are apprentice monks, helpers in the temples. And in our village, I guess we have a lot of them because, as you can see in the picture, it was a long line of orange (monks and acolytes wear orange robes). My favorite part was when a monk came through the crowds with this bowl of water and a bunch of sticks tied together. He dipped the clump of sticks into the bowl and shook it vigorously, sprinkling the crowd with water. Water symbolizes the washing away of past sins, and sprinkling blessings for the new year as Songkran is actually a Thai New Years celebration, that is a three day water fight.
The festivities continued into the evening with more music and more dancing, and more kids with water guns. I went home early looking forward to a full weekend of activities. Alas…
Friday seemed to be the only day my village celebrated. But I heard from other volunteers about people driving around in pick up trucks with huge barrels of water, dousing people as they drove by. I saw videos on facebook of huge water cannons shooting water over the crowds. I got shot with a water gun. But hey, there is always next year.
I did enjoy watching my host family, though. Mallika’s brother and sister and parents came to visit with all their kids, and I got to watch every one of them, no matter how young, perform the water blessing ceremony again, this time pouring water over the hands of the parents. I find it quite charming. And then I saw that family is family, no matter what country you are in. The adult siblings started teasing each other., They took turns bragging about their children, how smart they were. The yai scolded them if their bragging and teasing got out of hand. There was laughter and children running and loud voices….. and it reminded me of my big loud HeeHaw family and the gatherings we used to have with Grandma scolding us lovingly. And I felt at home and homesick, all at the same time.
All in all, a good weekend. Here’s hoping next year I get a little more wet. 🙂
So I have been at my permanent site a week now. I adore my new host family partly due to the fact that they give me plenty of space and don’t tell me when to eat and when to shower or go to bed. They do however have a constant need to know where I am going–but I get that from many Thai people. “Ba-ba-da, Where you go?!?!” is a constant shout in my direction. I need to come up with a snappy answer.
My work at the school won’t start for about 5 weeks. School is in “summer break” right now. However, I am working creating classroom materials and posters, and researching just about anything related to teaching….because I have a whole lot of time on my hands. After 10 weeks of having practically every minute of the day scheduled for me, this sudden lack of schedule is taking some getting used to. I’m pretty sure my family is tired of me calling all the time. I’m getting tired of watching movies on my computer. And even though I have been really creative–painting, hot gluing stuff, generally getting messy and loving it– I still can’t fill 12-15 hours a day….
I’m not the only PCV in this boat. Based on the number of Facebook posts and blog updates from my fellow 125ers, we are all having an adjustment period. I am not complaining mind you–just acknowledging that right now, your tax money is paying me to sit and explore the internet and walk around my village. I’m sorry about that and I promise I will work doubly hard when school is back in session so that not a cent is wasted.
So my new address is: 237 Moo 1 T. Nongbuakok, A. Chaturat, Chaiyaphum 36220
Right now I am craving Velveeta Shells and Cheese, salty snacks of any kind, high temp glue sticks (the fat ones) for my glue gun, Dunkin Donuts coffee, and Nature Valley peanut butter granola bars, and instant oatmeal–apples and cinnamon or maple and brown sugar flavors. Mmmmmm…..oatmeal! Cans of refried beans… and corn chips of any kind…. Some instant mashed potatoes would be good, too since potatoes are hard to find here. Don’t know why but they are. Cards, letters, notes, magazines, newspapers— If anyone knows where I could download the Sopranos or Dexter or Sons of Anarchy episodes for free, that would be awesome.
I promise I will work, too–really. But right now, I’m daydreaming about backpacking and kayaking and Mexican food. In between sweating and showering that is……