Thursday, October 31, 2013

So I was all prepared to miss the Halloween festivities this year, I even watched Ichabod Crane before I left cuz I knew I’d get nothing of the sort here. How silly of me! Halloween is a big deal in some parts of Thailand. But it’s different than our American holiday. For one thing, ghosts are very real. Buddhists believe that the spirits of those who have gone on and not been reincarnated yet dwell near their families or the places they died. There are spirit houses on nearly every piece of property, small buildings like elaborate bird houses where the spirits can live without bothering the inhabitants of the houses that now stand on the land. The families present offerings daily and even have to add additions when the real houses undergo renovations so that the spirits will be appeased rather than jealously move into the nicer, human homes. So, when they celebrate Halloween it’s with a sort of ghoulish realism that involves a bit of the Day of the Dead and old fashioned All Hallows Eve type full of superstitions and beliefs. People dress up but it’s almost always something dreadful and gory. There is no trick-or-treating but there are plenty of parties.

At school, the kids all dressed up and we ventured over to the elementary school for some games and celebrations. They had coffins and blood and mayhem strewn all along the grounds. There were typical games but they were tweaked just a bit to make them more gruesome; like trying to eat the donuts dangling by a string (and dipped in jelly to look bloody), or sticking your hands in a box of cold spaghetti and being told they were brains (there was also a box filled with real live snakes and one with giant frogs). There was a short story that I couldn’t understand because it was all in Thai but it involved the gardener dressed up as some sort of freaky mud demon jumping out and banging cymbals together and then chasing the kids around the grounds. It scared me! And there were all kinds of kids in tears and having hysterics. This, it seems, was the goal. The more tears the better! It was definitely more intense than any school party we ever had in the States (ie, if we’d tried half of those things there would have been lawsuits galore!) All in a day’s adventures here in Thailand. Happy Halloween!

These are two of the other teachers. The one on the right has her head down but she pretty much looks like the chick from The Ring--creepy!

an example of a spirit house

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

going back to school

It’s been about two weeks and I’m finally starting to get the hang of things. I’m teaching at a private pre-school working with four and five-year olds which I’ve done before so there’s not a huge challenge there. Kids are kids no matter where they are from or what language they speak. The challenge comes in the differences between the American and the Thai education systems and ways of doing things. And those differences are vast.

The building itself is rather lovely. It’s open with long halls, doors and windows to the outside (though there is no a/c so all that openness also translates into HOT!) and the grounds are filled with a pool, playground equipment, gardens and trees. There’s a separate campus on the outskirts of town where the elementary is housed. My kids are the oldest in our building with another pre-school class (ages 3 and 4) and a couple of day cares (itty bitty 2s) rounding us out. Each class has a head Thai teacher, an assistant Thai teacher and then an English teacher (that’s me). We’ve also got a few specialists who go back and forth between the schools for art, Chinese and swimming. Between all of us and then lunch and naptime I teach about 1 ½-2 hours a day on average.

We’ve already mentioned the lax timetables and schedules that go on with the transportation here. Those bleed into the daily schedules as well. I’ve been given several different versions of the daily schedule and the school calendar, gone about doing some rough planning and laying out the targets and goals for my time here only to have to scrap it and start over when I’ve been handed a ‘revised’ version. This happens on the spot as well. I’ll be getting up to do my chunk of the teaching for the day only to have the other teachers move in and take the kids to something not on the schedule or have them sit down and give me the floor when I have nothing planned. This is a daily (and sometimes multiple times a day) occurrence.

Next is the discipline. On the whole the kids are great, though as I mentioned earlier, they are kids. When the actual teaching is going on they’re relatively attentive (well, as attentive as 4 year olds ever are) but when the teaching is over there is mass chaos. I’m talking screaming, running in and out of the classroom and down the hall, jumping on each other, you name it. And this goes on for 15-20 minutes at a time with the teachers just sitting at their desk doing whatever it is they do until they call things back to order and teach the next segment. It’s madness at an earsplitting level. At first, I tried to quell things. I’d wander from fight to fight pulling kids away from each other and trying to make my ‘shhh’ heard over the din. But as I realized the other teachers were in no way concerned or going to back me up on any of it I decided I’d just let it be. Obviously this is the MO here and I, my little old self, was not going to be able to change that. So, the chaos reigns.

And then there’s nap time! But we’ll leave that for another day. Trust me. It’ll be worth the wait. Suffice it to say, there are some definite adjustments to be made here as there are in all areas of my life at the moment. Hopefully in the midst of all the chaos they’re actually learning a bit from me. That is why I’m here after all!

Monday, October 28, 2013

getting settled

After our little field trip to the jungle we had our final presentations and last minute advice from the group leaders before the 4 hour bus ride to head back to Bangkok to meet our school representatives. Since my school was so far north our representatives weren’t at our hotel, rather we were given cab money to get to the bus station for an overnight trip with our reps meeting us at the local bus station the next morning. There’s one other girl from the program teaching at the same school I am so we hung out in the lobby for a few hours before being whisked away on a terrifying taxi ride in the rain, going a mile an hour one minute, 75 the next, up one-way roads the wrong direction, listening to our driver cruse and mutter under his breath nearly the entire way, convinced it was because he was lost and we were never going to make it to our destination! We did finally get there with about an hour to spare to watch Thai soap operas before loading onto the buses at 11 pm for what we were told would be about a 7 hour journey.

Seventeen hours later we finally made it to our destination! No one is entirely sure what took so long. There was rain and considerable traffic heading out of Bangkok but nothing that should have nearly tripled our time. The bus was a nice one, with private video screens and plenty of leg room and cabin service just like an airplane, which was good since we were stuck on it for longer than I was on my flight to Tokyo. What we, in America, would answer with much cussing and threats of lawsuits, the Thais dismissed with one of their ubiquitous smiles, a figurative shrug of the shoulders and an utterance of “Mai pen rai”, essentially “it is what it is” or “que sera”. The culture here is much more laid back and forgiving than it is in the States. “Thai time” runs about 20 minutes (give or take an hour) later than the stated time, schedules are often lax suggestions. But the national mood is continually unruffled. Anger is rarely shown. So when we were met at the bus station by one of our co-teachers, a freakishly tall Dutchman, the matter was basically laughed off with a “Welcome to Thailand!”

The rest of the evening was spent taking a trip to Tesco (the European version of a Costco/Walmart baby only better) for sheets, pillows and other supplies and settling into the place I will call home for the next 5 ½ months. There are 3 other girls who teach at Paramin School who are living in the same building as us 2 newbies and they were more than happy to take us shopping and out to dinner on the backs of their motorbikes, the common mode of transport in these parts, and help get our feet back under us that weekend.

It’s been another rough week of adjustments and settling in. More to come!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

a bucket list moment.

One of the top 5 on my list of things to do while in Thailand was to ride an elephant. And I got a chance to cross that one off my list during our orientation week. We all loaded onto buses and drove a couple of hours west of Bangkok to Kanchanaburi where we were able to visit an elephant refuge. Situated right on the river it was exactly what I had pictured when I thought about Thailand; thick green jungle, rather primitive buildings, giant golden Buddhas rising out of the trees, water buffalo trudging through the water, birds of all colors, mountains rising in the distance. It was beautiful!

We spent the early afternoon with the elephants. They put on little shows for us, playing the harmonica, basketball and lifting people up with their trunks. And then we got to ride them! They’re so sweet and majestic but it broke my heart just a little to see them put to work for our amusement. No amount of ‘proper treatment’ can make up for what their lives in the wild should be. It made me think twice about visiting a tiger sanctuary (number 1 on my list!) There are horrible rumors about how they’re treated, drugged to remain docile for the tourists. As much as I want to see and pet a tiger I just don’t know that I can do that in good conscience.

Anyway, later that afternoon we were treated to a float down the river on a bamboo raft ala Swiss Family Robinson. It was the first bit of stillness and peace I’d really experienced since coming to Thailand. Bangkok was definitely the opposite of both of those things. It was also the first time my brain had had a moment to sort of process all the information and emotions that had been thrust at me solid for over a week. I sort of melted into it and regenerated for a few minutes. It was great!

Next was a stop at the famous bridge spanning the river. There's a movie, you may have heard of it or at least its catchy theme song, though it promotes the mispronunciation and spelling of the river’s name as Kwai (kwy) when it’s actually Kwae (pronounced like quack without the ‘ck’ at the end) all about the horrible conditions surrounding the building of the bridge during WWII. Thousands of POWs were killed during construction and it was bombed several times. The bridge is still there and still in use but now it’s surrounded by t-shirt and refreshment stalls. Progress? Hard to say. But it was a lovely way to spend an afternoon and a much-appreciated respite from the week’s events.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Grand Palace

One of the excursions the host group arranged for us was to visit the Grand Palace in downtown Bangkok. The official residence of the kings of Siam since 1782, the 200,000+ square meter compound also houses the Royal Chapel (which in turn houses the Emerald Buddha) and various government buildings and offices as well as a couple museums. Back in the day the area, situated near the Chao Phraya river, was part of the bustling Chinatown port and there are many distinct Chinese influences noticeable among the decor and statues.

Various courts and gates mark different reigns and historical eras but I'll admit my knowledge of Thai history is pretty scant. Most of what I know is based on the movie The King and I, but we did happen to see the royal court room where the dancing takes place (well, where it did in real life...not where they filmed it.) 

It was opulent beyond anything I've ever seen before. The buildings were coated in gold leaf, colored glass and gemstones, and porcelain and enameled surfaces polished to a shine.  Every available inch of space was covered in something that gleamed or an intricately detailed flourish. Near the end of our tour it was almost too much to take in any more.  See for yourself.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A journey of a thousand miles...

Sawadee ka, my friends! I feel as if I've lived two lifetimes in the past 10 days. I've traveled over 9,000 miles, and spent at least 70 hours flying, riding buses, riding motorcycles, riding elephants, rafting and walking, walking, walking! It's been one sensory overloading experience after another and I'm finally getting to the point where I am feeling settled and comfortable with this new reality.

The adventure began with a week long orientation with 200+ other Teach-in-Thailand participants in Bangkok. We spent hours in language and education classes, getting to know each other, and exploring the city all while trying to recover from jet lag. Not an easy task. This was one of many reminders that I am getting old. Most of the others in the program are fresh out of college and spent all of their nights out clubbing and drinking. It took me the full week to get back on my feet! I'm also very much a homebody.  Knowing I would be here for awhile I was more than happy to spend some of my evenings reading, watching Thai soap operas (and creating my own plots and dialogue), and trying to process all the information we'd been given.

I lucked out having a roommate who was much of the same mind so we bonded but we did venture out on several occasions to explore the nearby neighborhood, get lost in an outdoor market or two and experiment with some of the crazy and amazing food sold on the streets. All in all Bangkok (at least the parts I saw) is just a big, dirty city. There is an overabundance of traffic and noise and people and chaos. I can only handle that sort of manic pace in very small doses and it didn't help my poor overwhelmed mind process through all of the changes and information overload and culture shock it was dealing with. But as the week progressed and I came to realize truly that I was here to live, not just visit, and the jet lag subsided a bit I found more and more to delight in and discover and things that reminded me of home or other places I've visited. Here's a sampling:

Crazy, fun food at every turn (much more on the food to come!)
Spirit Houses in front of nearly every building (more on these later as well)
Bright pink taxis
Endless stalls and markets selling everything you can imagine
Strange new plants and bugs
Plus: 7-11 Convenience stores on every corner, countless stray dogs everywhere, monsoon-like rainstorms, entire families crowded onto a single motorbike, fresh pineapple and watermelon at every meal, getting the hang of having the steering wheel on the right and driving on the left, and so much more! You're going to get awfully tired of hearing about it all. Or you'll love it and want to come see it for yourselves.  I suggest the latter. I've got a spare bed all ready for you visit!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

being on the cusp of a new adventure.

It’s hard to believe that I’m getting on a plane tomorrow. In some ways this has all come around incredibly fast; from the decision making to the follow through, my life has change dramatically in a little less than six months. And yet, because of the multiple steps I’ve taken (moving out of my apartment, moving away from Virginia, moving back home and now finally leaving) it feels as if this day would never actually come.  But here I am, crossing my fingers that my suitcase doesn’t weigh so much they’ll kick it off the plane and that I haven’t forgotten anything.  (I’m not betting on either of those!)

On the eve of it all I wanted to give a quick re-cap of all the fun I’ve had at home the past few weeks. Despite my complaining I haven’t actually spent all my time studying, packing, and getting ready (just most of it!) I have had a plethora of opportunities to spend time with my family: my sweet new niece, my rambunctious nephews, my three remaining grandparents, brothers, sister, cousins, aunts and uncles and my ever-patient and accommodating parents. (How grateful I am that they are willing and able to welcome their wayward, 30+ year-old daughter back into their basement, no questions asked.)

The highlight was a trip to Disneyland, truly the happiest place on earth. It was fun to visit with kids and see it through their eyes (though it was also a bit of a challenge, fighting against nap times and temper tantrums!) We finished our trip with a stop in St George in southern Utah where I got to hike and soak up some red rock vibes. The desert feeds my soul in a way that nothing else seems to be able to. It is instantly nurturing and centering. My breath slows and deepens, my mind clears and even the most horrific of problems seems small and manageable under the vast blue of the desert sky.

My mom and I spent many an hour wandering farmer’s markets, harvesting from the backyard garden and creating various dishes from plum jams and barbecue sauces to peach cobbler and tomato, basil salads. Check out these fun little cucumbers that look like bitty watermelons!  (They were delicious mixed with heirloom tomatoes, basil, lemon spinach, goat cheese and balsamic vinegar.)

Missing my fix of all things bookish I dragged my mother to a reading/signing at the local independent book store, The King's English. Phil and Erin Stead came to introduce his newest book (a darling story about a little bird in search of a friend) and read some of their past releases including my very favorite, their Caldecott winning collaboration, A Sick Day for Amos McGee. They were delightful to listen to and visit with. And it always makes me happy to introduce a favorite book to someone and have them love it as much as I do! My mom was smitten with McGee and bought signed copies as Christmas gifts for everyone she knows!

My local musical guru (aka my sister) and I took in an amazing performance by Mr. Ben Folds, my last concert for the next six months. He’d just come from a massive tour with the Bare Naked Ladies and others followed by a seclusion spent writing a musical score.  He told us he’d wanted to book a forgiving venue where he could just play and not have to think too hard about anything, to give himself a break. It was one of the best shows I’ve seen. He took requests from the audience and from twitter, made up words to songs he hadn’t sung in years, lead us in a couple of group sing-alongs and just had a blast doing it all. And we had a blast watching/listening/participating.
Then there were visits to the fair, trips to the farm, countless thick and frosty shakes and meals with friends, afternoons spent in the cool of the movie theater watching this (meh) and this (hilarious) and this (fun but not nearly as fun as the first), and hours enjoying the turning leaves in the nearby mountains.

It’s been a fun and eventful couple of months but I’m ready to move on to the next phase of it all. I’m off to the airport bright and early for a 26+ hour journey to the other side of the world. Adventure, chaos, culture shock, a steep learning curve and who knows what kinds of experiences await. And I say bring it! See ya'll in Thailand!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

listening to a prophet's voice.

This weekend was General Conference for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (aka Mormons.) Every October and April we forgo regular church meetings to gather around our tvs and computers to listen to the General Authorities (12 apostles and prophets who lead our church much as they did in Christ's time) preach and offer words of comfort and counsel. It's always a weekend that leaves me edified and buoyed up, ready to face what the next six months will bring.

The church's official website has the video feed from the broadcast that you can watch or listen to right now and downloadable transcripts will be available later this week. But I wanted to share a few of my favorite highlights to get you started.

We are infinitely more than our limitations or our afflictions.  -Jeffrey R. Holland
Doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith. -Dieter F. Uchtdorf
A grateful person is rich in contentment. An ungrateful person suffers in the poverty of endless discontentment.  - David A. Bednar
Man's law cannot make moral what God has declared immoral. -Dallin H. Oaks

And that's just the beginning! I love being reminded of God's love and plan for us and having the chance to take a step away from the pressures and commitments of the world to bask in those messages of love and peace. Now, on to the packing!!