Monday, December 23, 2013

a happy holiday.

It’s strange to celebrate a Christian holiday in a Buddhist country. There are enough expats here and I think western culture has crept in everywhere generally that they’ve made some concessions but it’s really just in name only. The mall has some decorations up; a tree, some lights, even some snow. And Santa’s face is recognized by many of the kids but there is no mention of Christ or the true meaning of Christmas at all. And none of the goings-on that you get in the US happen here. There aren’t concerts and endless holiday parties, no goodie exchanges or tv specials or 24-7 Christmas carols on the radio to remind you at every turn.

I’ve got my 1000+ songs on itunes that I’ve been listening to non-stop for a couple of weeks which has been awesome but without all the other trappings it sort of feels like I’m cheating and listening to it all in September. Instead it’s just a few days away.

We did have a party at school and they went all out. Each class performed a song/dance, the older kids put on a short play, and there were the ubiquitous carnival games and costumes. There was also a church Christmas program which was very low-key compared to what I’m used to. And after many delays and headaches my sister will be in town this week to do some traveling with me so we’ll spend the holiday together, which will be great, but we’ll be at the beach. (Also great, but nothing resembling a typical Christmas.) I’m missing the snow and hot chocolate, the lights, the gift exchanges, the concerts and performances, the cheesy holiday movies, and am homesick in a way I never have been before. I’ve been away from home for the holidays before but never been away from the holiday for the holidays.

So, drink some eggnog, go caroling and think of me. And I promise I’ll think of you while I’m snorkeling and drinking my fresh coconut juice! Happy Holidays from Thailand and I'll see you in 2014!

decor at the mall
getting ready to dance

Santa comes to the school party
my co-teachers and a mischievous elf

Saturday, December 21, 2013

modern facilties.

An entire blogpost about toilets. Who would’ve thunk it? But it’s amazing the different options there are here. You get everything from a modern, recognizable sit-down flusher (with or without bum rinsing hose or toilet paper) to a floor squatter with a bucket of water and a ladle. There’s generally no soap, sometimes no sink and never, ever any paper towels. Every time you open the stall door it’s a surprise. You just never know what you’re going to get. But I’ve learned to take toilet paper and hand sanitizer with me everywhere I go and I’m going to have some killer thighs by the time all is said and done.

My favorite, though, are the little teeny tiny toilets they have for the kids at the school. Look how cute! We won’t talk about how they squirt each other (in the face!) with the little hoses or run around all pants-less (the boys sometimes squirting each other with other things in the process) or how they never, ever wash their hands when they’re done. Let’s just focus on how darling the miniscule plumbed facilities are.

this beauty was in a family's home, amazing to think this is day to day life for some people--you take the pink bucket on the left which is floating in a pool of water and pour water down the toilet which is the flushing technique...all kinds of awesome
same idea as the above but with a slightly more modern feel (and no, you can't put tp in the toilets so if there's any paper available--unlikely--there's usually an overflowing trash bin in the stall as well) this one was in a public sports auditorium
here's the cute school bathroom, one for all to share with no doors as you can tell, everyone just goes together and has a jolly old time
here's my foot next to it to give you a sense of the actual tiny!
Confession-I have been known to squeal with joy when I've opened a door to find a sit-down flusher.  And soap? Well, the ecstasies that can bring are immeasurable. It's the little things, people.

Friday, December 20, 2013

waking from a strange dream.

It was only a matter of time before my crummy sleeping habits caught up to me on this side of the planet. Alas, for the last 3 weeks I’ve been fighting a killer cold that was made worse by the fact that I woke up nearly every day at exactly 3 am and never really went back to sleep (I wish I was one of those people that would get up and clean or bake or something instead of just lying in bed cursing the darkness and my constant exhaustion…maybe someday.) One of the side-effects of this poor sleep is a two-edged sword, I either don’t sleep deep enough to dream at all or I have super crazy dreams that are continually interrupted. Generally it ‘s the former but I’ve had a few doozy dreams lately that I just know you are dying to hear about. :)

In the first I had an invitation to a dinner party hosted by two of my most talented dinner party throwing friends, K and M. M was about 7½ feet tall and came to pick me up wearing a baby blue rain coat. It was rainy and wet but I climbed up on her slippery shoulders and we were off. She ran like a gazelle and I ducked beneath dripping branches trying not to fall from my precarious perch. Midway there K showed up and ran beside us carrying someone as well (I knew who they were in the dream but no idea who they are in real life). We made it to K’s house which was actually my old college boyfriend’s house on the outside but an amazing mansion inside and joined the rest of the people there, a conglomeration of people I recognized from elementary school on to my co-teacher here in Thailand. We were told we couldn’t have dinner until we’d made our own dessert; Dippin’ Dots. We were each handed a giant mixing spoon and a bowl of ice cream and began scooping little tiny balls of ice cream that we deposited onto a conveyor belt circling the room. And then I woke up…always at the vital parts! What did they serve for dinner?! I’ll never know.

Dream two saw my frenemie from Jr. High all grown up and nine months pregnant. We were besties now so she invited me over to her house for the birth. And I was lucky enough to be the attending physician. When she started doing the Lamaze breathing I held out my hands (I was across the room so it wasn’t as kinky as it sounds) and there magically appeared 5 bulldog puppies! They were all fuzzy and cute (yeah, I know, fuzzy bulldogs) and I have to say, they looked just like her!

In the last one I had a confrontation with Ben Affleck and Christian Bale about who was the real Batman. They both showed up at my door in costume to find out what I thought. (Just FYI, I’m a Bale fan all the way but I have no problem with him being done and handing the torch to someone else, it’s his choice. So, it’s not like I’m one of those people who is going to boycott the new movie. Therefore, not quite sure why this was going through my brain but obviously I’m a little more loyal than I’d admitted out loud.) After some randomness in the middle that I don’t remember they left me, both uttering in unison in the trademark Batman-husky-whisper voice, “Anyone can be Batman.”

There are more but I won’t subject you to them all. :) Hope your sleep is less eventful and more restful than mine. Sweet dreams!

Any dream analysts out there? I don’t want to know what they mean--unless of course there’s some hidden message about my true calling in life or how underneath it all I’m the most brilliant person alive. Basically I’m thinking Freud would have his work cut out for him.

just some random Thai street art to accompany the random thoughts

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

learning a language.

My attempts to capture the language unlock the parts of my brain that are rarely used and inevitably finds me stumbling for Thai phrases but coming up with my high school Spanish or the bits of French, German or Italian I’ve picked up on other travels and are miniscule indeed. I really have to think before I speak, not just to try to translate or find the right word but to make sure the words match what I’m trying to say…and each other. I’ve had to stop myself on multiple occasions from saying things like ‘muy aroi’ (‘very’ in Spanish and ‘delicious’ in Thai) or responding ‘grazie’ when wanting to thank someone.

It makes a great contrast to teaching English to the kids. It puts you in their shoes, not knowing what’s going on, not being able to make sense of the scribbles that are supposed to be letters, the babblings that are supposed to be words and hold a meaning that you have yet to discover. But when you do unlock that meaning, even just a tiny bit of it, enough to order dinner or be able to pay with exact change, it’s an awesome feeling. It’s a process both frustrating and exhilarating and one I’m afraid I’ll never completely conquer.

a random Buddha

Monday, December 16, 2013

a quiet morning.

The Thais in Udon welcome the day with a fellow I’ve come to affectionately call Morning Announcer Guy. Intercoms all over the city crackle to life every morning at 6:30 and MAG drones on and on about who knows what (it’s in Thai after all) for up to an hour. And it’s really loud. It’s a good thing I’m already up by 6:30 (and that MAG doesn’t make an appearance on the weekends) or I’d have to say I hate that guy. And maybe he’s broadcasting Buddhist messages of love and understanding, or maybe it’s the news and the weather, or maybe it’s discussions of art or how the aliens are coming to take over the planet but whatever it is, I can’t believe that it’s important enough to break into the peace of a lovely morning. Sorry, MAG, no hard feelings but I definitely won’t miss you when I’m gone.

nope, not MAG, just some random lotus blossoms

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

escaping wildlife!

Ginormous insect encounter #2: Night of the Monster Cricket

The other night I was settled into bed listening to the sounds of the neighborhood (dogs howling, music thumping from the park across the way and the neighbor’s tv—which she turns up all the way and then opens her door, yeah, she’s awesome) when above the din I hear the loudest cricket ever. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever heard one so loud in my life. My first thought is oh crap, he’s in my house. I’ve played that game before for weeks at a time playing hide and seek with him as he makes noise only when the lights are out and just when I think he’s gone he’ll come back for an encore. So, at 3am I turned the lights on and sure enough he stopped but not before I realized it was actually coming from outside.

Out on my deck, just outside the door is a large drain. The chirping echoed in its cavernous depths (it’s like 3 whole inches deep!) I did the only thing I could think of, poured boiling water down the drain to try to drown the sucker. Of course, that plan backfired and I only succeeded in chasing him out of the drain and onto the deck. The thing was the size of my fist! (What is it in the water here that grows monster bugs? Maybe that’s why no one drinks it.) I run back in to turn on the light and grab some ammunition and then head back out in my slippers screeching and hopping around trying to avoid him while simultaneously whacking at him with a shoe on the end of each hand. I’m sure it was an awesome sight. Especially when I finally got him. Just enough to stop the hopping so I could pummel him another twenty times, scrape his twitching body up the side of the half-wall and fling him into the darkness.

I slept the well-earned sleep of the victorious for the rest of the night. Critters 0, Amy 2.

Alas, no pictures of this one either. (Did you not read the part where I said I had shoes on both my hands? It's physically impossible to hold a camera with your shoes!)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

a good book.

It’s been a while since I’ve done a book review but it’s not because I’m not reading. I’m definitely not reading as much as I was when I could do it at work (I don’t think I’ll make the last 45 books to reach my Goodreads goal of 500 for the year.) But I still do squeeze in at least a chapter or two a day. My method however has changed drastically. There was no physical way to pack 6 months’ worth of books into my one suitcase to come to Thailand with me so my mom generously loaned me her nook while I was gone.

I have a love hate relationship with that nook. While I do love having books and access to so many in one relatively tiny location I desperately miss the smell and heft and physical, tactile experience of reading an actual book. Also, I decided to work through the books she already had on there before I branched out to the library or trying to buy something new so my selection process has shifted as well. Instead of having free range to choose whatever I want or reading the latest and greatest and working through my TBR pile I’ve been doing a bit of re-reading that I rarely allow myself time to do and reading books I might otherwise not have read. It’s kind of nice to switch things up a bit. (But I do miss my YA and picture books!)

The first series I ventured into was written by one of my favorite authors, Barbara Michaels. (Her real name is Barbara Mertz but you may have heard me talk about her before under her other pseudonym, Elizabeth Peters.) EP tends towards the historically set, more in-depth mysteries set purely in the human realm. She’s probably most well-known for her Amelia Peabody, female Egyptologist, series. BM always has a touch of the supernatural in her stories. The writing isn’t as sophisticated somehow but they are still great cozy mysteries. I was sad to learn that Ms Mertz passed away earlier this year. I mourn the loss of all the books she won’t have a chance to write. But she was quite prolific, with more than 65 titles under her belt, so there is plenty for me to read and re-read for years to come.

This series follows a couple of characters throughout several years with each taking turns acting as main and supporting characters. The stories can be read independently but it’s most fun to read them in order and watch the relationships progress and shift over the years.

In the first book, Ammie Come Home, we meet Ruth, a middle-aged heroine living in Georgetown with a visiting niece, Sara. She ropes herself into hosting a séance at her hundreds-year-old home. But things take a dark turn when a presence settles on Sara during the event and refuses to let go. It’s up to Ruth and Pat (Sara’s professor and eventual love interest for Ruth) and Sara’s boyfriend Bruce to figure out what the ghost wants to bring peace back to the home and its inhabitants.

The second volume, Shattered Silk, also takes place in Georgetown. This time we meet Sara’s younger sister, Karen who is in the middle of a nasty breakup. She’s housesitting for Pat and Ruth and basically wallowing in self-pity and derision. After a few encounters with an old flame and a mean girl from her past (and with the help of Pat’s eccentric mother) she learns to stand on her feet again and decides to open a vintage clothing store. This is more of a straight-forward mystery. No supernatural encounters.

The final installment, Stitches in Time, published in 1998, is probably my favorite of the three. Here we meet Rachel, a grad student who is struggling to find a topic for her thesis and winds up working at Karen’s vintage clothing store. When a bag of old quilts shows up on the doorstep the family gets caught up in a possible theft/murder while trying to figure out who the rightful owner is. Meanwhile Rachel is drawn to a wedding quilt from the collection that seems to have a dark story to tell. When she begins to see and do things not of her own accord she enlists the help of Pat and Ruth to uncover the history of witchcraft and betrayal literally sewn into the seams of the quilt and bring closure to its former owners.

This first book was published back in the late 60s so there are a few things that will date it a bit (feminist quirks and old-fashioned attitudes of the men being most predominant). The second wasn’t published until the mid 80s so we’re still a tad dated but our feminist sensibilities are a little more on track for this one (once Karen kicks the no-good husband to the curb). The final installment, published in the late 90s, is obviously the most modern of the three. In each we’ve got a female protagonist coming into her own with the help of an unlikely but strong support system, yet the ways and means are a little bolder in each successive story. If you’re not too hung up on that sort of thing you’ll not have any issues as the stories themselves hold up quite well. Grab a cup of tea or cocoa, curl up in front of a fire and enjoy some spooky chills while you read these light, gothic-flavored tales.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

a road trip.


This guy was massive-notice the lady kneeling near the sign
I've had the chance to take a few mini-road trips the past month or so.  Not quite the extensive traveling I had planned to do while here but it's still interesting to see the different parts of the country. Every moment is an adventure, even if it's not a grand one.

One hour north of Udon by motorbike is Nong Khai. Three of us American teachers had decided to take a Sunday excursion to a waterfall marked just beyond the city on the tourist map we had. We figured we'd ride the bikes part of the way and then find a taxi to take us the rest of the distance. (Your bum can only handle so long on a motorbike and an hour is a bit past my limit.) Once we got to the city though we had a hard time finding a taxi and then we finally found one who told us that the falls were another 75 km. Our map made it look much closer but that was 1/2 again the distance we’d already come. So we plan B’d it and had an amazing lunch of Indian food and took a leisurely drive home, stopping at some temples and markets along the way. Not quite the afternoon we'd hoped for but a lovely one nonetheless.

looking up

looking down

1 ½ hours south by bus is the city of Khan Kaen. My friend Jessie and I had decided to venture out one Saturday after our school camping trip for the weekend had been cancelled. Jessie had friends with an extra hotel room in the city so we decided last minute to hop a bus and join them. It wasn’t until we’d made it to the station, got our tickets and were on our way that Jessie realized they were waiting for us in Chiang Mai, not Khan Kaen. Good thing we had our guidebook with us. We quickly devised a plan of attack, made a few phone calls so they wouldn’t think we died somewhere and had a fun little un-planned adventure in a new city. We spent a couple of hours exploring some of the temples and the park in the heart of the city. We paddled boated around the lake, wandered through a few markets and had a very un-Thai dinner at Pizza Hut (sometimes this girl just needs some cheese!) before hopping back on a bus and heading home. Again, it was nice to get out even if it wasn’t the adventure we had in mind.

look close and you can see the road winding through the middle there
a horrible picture but you can kind of see the campsite
and I couldn't get this one to turn, but here's our dinner prep
sunrise over a cabbage field
bikers racing up the mountain while we were coming down--because the road wasn't scary enough!
nope, not all that cold!
And then this past weekend we finally took that school camping trip. We loaded 16 teachers (5 American, 1 Dutch and the rest Thai) and our principal into two of the school vans and drove about 4 hours south (I think!) to a national park for the night.  And none of it was what I expected.

First off we had the mountains.  They were gorgeous. Very high, respectable mountains, not hills masquerading as mountains as happens so often. But they weren't really forested like I expected. There was some wild growth, some bushes and small trees, but mostly they were cultivated fields. The area is known for cabbage and strawberries and the hillsides were covered with both.

Next, the roads were super steep. The last couple of miles were all switchbacks and there were several moments where I honestly thought we might die. The van stalled and proceeded to roll backwards; once into the closely following on-coming traffic, and once in the direction of the very steep cliff. When those disasters were averted our driver (bless his soul) put the van into first gear and then floored it the rest of the way up the mountain. Which meant we took some of the hairpin turns a lot faster than we should have. And you can imagine how steep and sharp those turns can only go so fast in first, even if it's floored! I had horrid visions of us tipping over and rolling down the previously mentioned steep mountain cliff. It was a stressful half an hour or so.

Once we made it to the top of the mountain I expected open spaces, peace and solitude.  Silly me! Instead we found more narrow winding roads, these lined with the ever-present stalls and markets, stretching as far as the eye could see. We drove past them to a crazy crowded parking lot where there were a few more close encounters with the edges of cliffs and other cars. (At one point there were 8 or 9 random Thai people pushing one of our vans up a hill in search of a parking space big enough to fit it.) No peace and quiet or solitude anywhere!

We finally drove to the other side of the mountain to a much quieter area where we were able to set up camp for the night. Steps were carved out of the hillside, each step about 10 feet deep and 30 or so feet long, that constituted our campsite so you were no farther than about 8 feet from your neighbor on both sides. We set up our tents all in a row on one step and used the other to set up our 'kitchen'.  The Thai teachers threw down some ground covers and proceeded to whip up an enormous batch of Sam Tam. There was also some grilled octopus, fish and pork along with vast quantities of beer and whiskey for everyone but me. We sat around eating (and drinking) and talking and laughing until late in the night, pulling out candles as it got darker. 

Once the sun set I finally felt like I was really camping. You could no longer see the camp right next to you or the hillside filled with cabbage (though when the wind shifted you could still smell it). Instead, the temperature dipped and the sky filled with stars, (and thanks to the new/no moon that night we could see millions of them) and you could almost pretend you were alone on the mountain.

The next day we got up to watch the sunrise and had camp torn down by about 7. One of the teachers' husbands' family lived nearby-ish so we trekked to their place for a home-cooked Thai breakfast of rice, vegetable soup and eggs to warm us up and then hit the road for home. A small detour was made to visit a temple along the way and to make a stop at the consistently coldest place in Thailand but otherwise it was a much less-eventful journey than the one we took to get there (going down the mountain was far less treacherous than going up!) And it felt shorter since we all slept most of the way, making up for the lack of sleep we'd gotten during the night.  It wasn't the trip I anticipated but it was nice to leave the city for awhile (even if it seemed as if all the city people had the same idea!)