Friday, May 27, 2011

Well. I should say a bit more about the end of my Peace Corps experience.

As I said before, it was somewhat underwhelming. It seemed totally surreal to think about as it approached because I knew that after the end, I'd be doing the exact same thing. And so it was easy to ignore. But at the same time, as that finish line loomed into view, I was struck with a moment of clarity. I realized that my service as a volunteer had been a series of highs and lows (I'm pretty sure I've made that observation before), and that where I was emotionally at the close of my service would probably have a strong impact on how I viewed my service for the rest of my life.

So I sat down and had a good long talk with myself about what it would take for me to end things on a high note. I looked at the reasons for my good feelings in the past, and the reasons for my low feelings. It wasn't too difficult. I got positive feelings from being involved with projects and activities at school, from spending time in my community, basically by doing the things that I felt like I should be doing as a volunteer. Low feelings came about with frustration about school, from feelings of isolation and dissatisfaction with how I spent my time. Not too shocking, not too complex, and not too difficult to plan accordingly.

I talked to one teacher and we set up a sex education unit I had been kicking around in my head. That ended up being one of the most fulfilling parts of my Peace Corps service. Whoop! I accepted a bunch of requests to do activities at other schools, which, while of questionable value to students learning to speak English, do have value in students getting an opportunity to interact with a foreigner (and have fun doing so). I started going to Mae's school once a week. I started trying to exercise more (figuring that an increased level of fitness would improve my emotional state too).

And it worked. I was able to finish my end of service reports and feel good about (most of) what I had to say.

My new challenge is to find ways to feel personally fulfilled without Peace Corps service. I've made lists of ideas for activities for myself and things to do (learning to play guitar, gardening, helping Pa with English stuff, yadda yadda yadda, and for a few days so far (since I made this decision), it's been going pretty well.

Oh yeah, Gam and I got back last week from 2 weeks in Chiang Mai where we took a Thai massage class. It was pretty cool, and now I have souvenirs for EVERYone (in the form of free massages)! So look forward to it, punk.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Oh yeah! I still have a blog!


I have successfully completed my term as a Peace Corps volunteer. So that's cool. And at the same time, completely underwhelming. As my COS (completion of service) date drew close, it was hard for me to feel much of anything, since I knew that I wouldn't be going anywhere right away, and that, in general, nothing would be changing for me as I remain in the village waiting for Gam's visa to be approved (which will be who knows when). And my feelings haven't really changed.

Looking back on my Peace Corps service DOES elicit a variety of feelings. Regrettably, the majority regard what I DIDN'T do as a Peace Corps volunteer, but I manage that by pointing out to myself that that's probably pretty natural, and it's easy to fixate on one's short-comings rather than one's accomplishments. I am happy to report, however, that the overwhelming feeling is one of confidence that my service in the Peace Corps has been a positive one and that I have NO regrets about spending the past 27 months serving as a volunteer.

Hm. I know for a fact that I have a lot more to say than this, but this is really all I've got for the moment. I'll have to try again after the whiskey has worked its way out of my system. I just felt the need to say something that might be heard, so hopefully I have accomplished that.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

That's ill!

So when the doctor said the word "meningitis," the first thing that went through my head was the Ween song, "Spinal Meningitis Got Me Down," and I worried that I might die. Then he told me that I would be getting a CT scan and Lumbar Puncture (yes, big needle in spine). I can't say I'd recommend either, but my headaches improved considerably after the doctor drained some of my spinal fluid. I'm sure you're asking yourself, "What the hell is an LP like? Does it hurt?" No, it didn't really hurt, I got anesthetized first, but it did feel extremely weird. Unpleasant, and wrong, and mostly just weird. In all, I spent 5 days in the hospital, about 4 days and 23 hours longer than I've ever spent in a hospital since birth. Thanks, Peace Corps for footing the bill!

So yeah, that was my most recent illness, prior to that I spent about a month with one or more stomach ailments. I had pretty much every symptom of gastro-intestinal distress there is, and I visited 3 doctors.

All in all, I've been sick for almost 2 months. And I'll tell ya, I'm SICK of being SICK!

Now, I don't mean this to be a call for pity, though that may be what it sounds like. I don't need your damn pity. I'm feeling better now, and planning on taking it easy for a little while to make sure that I'm really all better. What I would like from everyone out there is more of a "get your rear in gear" mental push to get me back into the swing of things. I've been out of everything for a while, and I'm a little concerned about jumping back in. It seems like jumping rope, where the toughest part is catching the rhythm and starting, and that's where I am right now. The rope definitely hasn't stopped spinning.

On the positive side, I'm probably definitely the skinniest I've ever been, so that's cool. Granted, I'm pretty weak, since I haven't really been able to exercise for a long time, but still...

Ok, I'm gonna do some push ups.

Speaking of exercise, the Hula Hoop is the current exercise craze here (in my village for sure, and I've seen 'em elsewhere, I'm wondering if it's nation-wide or not). I think it's great fun to see EVERYONE hula-hooping.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010


So the school year has begun (it's been almost a month already!).

Already, I feel a lot better about my situation at one of my schools.
Last year I had issues with my co-teacher (we never figured out how to co-teach, and I ended up not really doing anything). I've rearranged my schedule so that when I'm at that school I'm working with other teachers, too (though it's only occurred a couple times that those other teachers actually stayed in the room while I taught, but I didn't mind). When I'm teaching my co-teacher's students, I teach my own lesson (focusing on speaking), and she stays in the room. I think she's a lot happier with this setup, too, and I feel a lot more useful. The other day, she took some notes on her own accord while I was teaching, which was way cool, and it occurred to me today that we could and should start coordinating our lessons (I've been prepping my stuff independently, probably a result of my frustration from last year).

Things are going smoothly at Pa's school, and I'm hoping to do some projects with the scout group this year. I should see about getting that ball rolling soon.

The insurgence in Bangkok and the rest of the country seems to be all over (but not before a bunch of fires were set in BKK in a big commercial district. Here are some pictures and a song.
Between living at the temple, restrictions on travel and other stuff, I haven't seen any other volunteers in, yow, over 2 months. I'm going a little Colonel Kurtz here. Social gatherings are on the horizon though, and it will be nice to speak English with other native speakers.

It's starting to rain more frequently, though it still gets plenty hot. Things are turning green, and I need to check when Kru Nuun is going to plant rice.

Um, Peace?

Thursday, May 20, 2010


On April 29th, I went over to Pa and Mae’s house bright and early. Pa was getting ready for his usual weekend group of students who come over to study English, and the house was full of relatives (she’s the youngest of 12, and with cousins and nephews and nieces, her family tree is rather impressive). They were making food and ornaments for my ordination celebration [gnaan bpuat].

I took a seat with a group of women on the living room floor and began wrapping slices of banana, uncooked sticky rice and peanuts in banana leaves to be cooked later (this is apparently an important treat for ordinations). Eventually I was called away to help Pa teach while he coordinated something else outside.

When I got outside, men were setting up canopies and tables under them, as well as Pa’s karaoke setup. A couple men were splitting poles of bamboo and making a big ornamental bed, and another group was splitting and scooping out a huge pile of coconuts. I entertained kids for a little while. Then kids went home and the back of the house got taken over with out-sized cooking equipment.

By this time (as I may have implied) quite a few more relatives had shown up and preparations really got under way. A whole pig had been acquired for the occasion (and I mean whole) and about a dozen people went to work separating the different cuts of meat, slicing intestines and skin (to be fried for laab), saving blood, and I don’t even know what else. I got to see the kidneys, and a whole liver, and the pig’s face and watch while they cut the flesh off the tail. If you’re curious, a whole pig is 5,500 Thai baht, a bit over $150. It was my job to distribute whiskey to the people working.

Then we had lunch.

They day continued about that way. I continued to make social rounds, sitting with Pa at a table with a group of men talking and drinking. Pause. While sitting at this table, a number of people selling things came by (I guess when they see celebrations when they ride by on their motorcycles, they stop to check things out), like lottery tickets and peanuts. One guy pulled up and showed us a huge mass of honeycomb in a plastic bag full of honey that he had inside a bucket. Negotiations were made and a price of 100 baht a bottle (that’s 3-ish dollars) was decided upon. He started pulling empty whiskey bottles out of a shoulder bag and pouring the honey from a corner of the bag that was cut off, then rubber-banding a piece of plastic over the top. He said he could get about 10 bottles out of the piece of honeycomb he had, and he sold 5 or 6 bottles while he was there. I think the best part was watching people hand him shots of local whiskey (sticky rice moonshine) as he poured the honey. I think he had 3 shots and a cigarette. Then he hoped on his motorcycle and took off. And now I have one of the bottles in my cupboard.

Later in the afternoon I did a bit of prep stuff (studied some of the Pali I would be saying a bit more, that’s the language all the monk chanting stuff is in, so it felt a lot like studying Hebrew for a Bar Mitzvah). We also made epic quantities of Kanom Baat, another traditional ordination treat. We boiled rice in a huge pan until it was very well done, then added all the coconut that had been shredded in the morning and several kilos of raw cane and palm sugar, all the while stirring the concoction with the stems from palm fronds (it was a two-person stirring job, and went in shifts). It comes out like a really thick, sticky pudding. Tasty. We made like 40 trays of it and gave some to everyone who visited the next day.

Then in the evening I took advantage of my last chance to drink whiskey and sing and dance for a while (though I did so in moderation, jing jing).

At 9 the next morning, we went to the temple by Pa and Mae’s house and I had my head and eyebrows shaved. The hair was all collected in a big lotus leaf (though I’m not sure what they did with it). It was pretty cool. All the people who came all took a turn cutting my hair, and then pouring water over me. Then I was dressed all in white and we gave some respect to Buddha.

Then I got loaded in the back of a pickup truck (I sat in a big wooden chair, and Pa and another guy held umbrellas over me) while another pickup truck with big speakers in the back played loud Thai music. All the people who had come with us got in front of the trucks and we proceeded on a tour around the village, with everyone in front dancing and drinking and picking flowers. I think we did that for the better part of two hours. And don’t worry, people brought whiskey to my umbrella bearers, and at some point they traded places with other people so they could dance, too.

When we got back to the house, I took up residence in what became my corner of the living room. The bamboo bed (it was purely ornamental) was covered with all the things that I would be using as a monk (my robes, my baat [the bowl monks use when collecting alms], etc.) and some banana tree-based sculptures were there, too, though I still don’t understand the symbolism behind them (no one I’ve asked has actually known either). I was given lunch (I had to eat alone, that is, not from communal dishes). After everyone ate, we did one of the banana leaf sculpture chanting things and I gave a blessing (the one I’d been practicing) over the microphone.

The party continued outside, but I spent the rest of the day in my corner of the living room, accepting gifts (people give money to help cover the expenses of the celebration) and bestowing blessings. The party continued outside, and people came and went. Mae sat with me for most of the day, and explained to me that staying in my little space was meant to acknowledge the discomfort and suffering and hard work I have inflicted upon my parents. And not that I have been a terrible child or anything, but in having children, parents sacrifice some of their freedom and take on more responsibility. Not being able to go do stuff was to help me practice patience.

So I sat in my corner, and I slept in my corner.

Interesting note, Mae invited 60 or 80 people (mostly family and teachers), but in the ledger Mae kept (tracking expenses and donations and people, she’s all organized like that), there were I think just over 170 donations, and presumably most people who gave something didn’t come alone. So that’s pretty cool. It felt really good to see so many people coming out to support me for whatever reason, whether they just wanted to see a farang with a shaved head giving blessings or because they know me personally and wanted to share the event. I liked it.

The next day (that’s May 1st) around 1 in the afternoon I got loaded into a pickup (I wasn’t supposed to walk) and was taken 50 meters to the temple. I did some “repeat after me” stuff and answered some questions and traded my white clothes for orange robes, and I was a monk! We took a bunch of pictures, then people started leaving, and eventually it was just me and the fam and Jay (he was my kanyom, the kid who hangs out with me and runs errands for me, like buying ice; he volunteered). And then eventually the fam left.

For five days I stayed inside the temple. For the same reasoning as the staying in the corner of the room. I got up at about 5:30 and took a bath, then swept the building I was staying in (the main building with the big Buddha statue). Then I meditated for a while (usually 40-50 minutes) and waited until Gam brought me breakfast. I’d eat and we’d talk for a while. It was interesting, because the interactions had to be “proper,” which meant no touching (avoid my robes brushing against her or something, we kept our distance) and our conversations were reserved. But it was still nice.

Then she’d go home and I’d wash my spare set of robes, then hang out with the Nen for a while. Nen are the boys who live at the temple for whatever reason and act as novice monks. All the Nen at that temple were there to be taken care of and attend the monk school. They were an interesting group. On the one hand, they were perfectly typical 11-13 year olds with all that that implies, but at the same time they observed a set of rules and way of life (to at least some degree).

At around 11:30, Gam brought me lunch and we’d hang out a bit more, then she’d go home and I’d meditate again. After noon, monks aren’t supposed to chew anything (though that wasn’t observed at that temple and they ate dinner together, though I followed the rule, figuring since I was only a monk for 15 days, I could do everything all “riap roi”), so I drank a lot of water and soy milk. I wrote in my journal a bit, and sat and thought a lot. I started getting bored on about my third day and started reading my book (I took Les Miserables, which I’d already started). In the evening I bathed again and meditated one more time. Members of the extended family came to sit in the evenings, and Pa slept in the temple with me.

On the morning of the 6th, my initial confinement was lifted and there was a short ceremony and special breakfast at the wat with all the monks (counting me and the Nen, 9 of us) present. Then my day was exactly the same as the previous days, except that I went for a short walk with the Nen in the afternoon to get some drinks for the monks.

The morning of the 7th I collected alms [bin ta-baat] for the first time. We took off our shoes and walked around the village while one of the Nen went ahead banging a little gong (to let people know we were coming). Then when people came out to the side of the road (or yelled for us to stop if they weren’t quite ready, we’re pretty laid back up here in the North) we’d stop, they’d put the food in our big bowls or in the cart Jay pushed along behind us, and we’d give a blessing. Then we’d keep walking. It was way cool. When we got back to the temple, we ate breakfast, and the rest of the day went pretty much the same as before, though I ate lunch from the leftovers.

On the 8th, I bin ta-baat-ed one more time, then Pa took me to my own village (I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that he lives in a village about 1km from my own) where I moved into MY local wat. And continued doing about the same thing I had been for the past week. The only real difference was that every evening around 7 and every morning around 5:30 we would “Tam Wat.” All the Nen and the monks who were around (I don’t know where the ones who didn’t come were) would get together and do some group chanting. There was a book, and I tried to follow along, and in the slow parts I did alright (it felt like good reading practice), and when I inevitably got lost when they got into the fast chanting towards the end, I’d just close the book and put my hands together. In the evenings, after Tam Wat-ing, Pra Kruu (that’s how the head monk is referred to) showed me new methods of meditating. It was way cool. I especially liked the walking meditations.

Bin ta-baat-ing in my village was cool. I am a more generally recognized face there, and I saw a lot more people I knew. I feel like it was a good means of further integrating myself into the community, and I was proud that I was able to do the two blessings I learned.

One morning we went to a gathering (as I understand it was a general, making merit ceremony) where we were fed (feeding monks is a big deal). At the end, Pra Kruu grabbed the microphone and told everyone that I would teach English to their kids at the temple on Sundays. Whups! Kinda wished he’d run that by me beforehand. But no biggie. It’s pretty clear that no one is super serious about anything here, and I’d like to give it a shot and see if any kids actually show up (and if not, I’m sure Pra Kruu will play English lesson with me). But it was funny.

Then one day (the 15th), I was done. At 1 in the afternoon there was a brief ceremony where I did some more “repeat after me” chanting and reviewed some of the stuff I had learned at the wat (mostly just the meditations) and changed back into regular clothes, then was ferried back home.

Having written this all, this is definitely mostly just a journal entry of what happened. And that’s all I’m going to give you. All the quiet time I spent sitting and thinking without all the distractions I typically impose upon myself, that was for me. But it was nice, and if you get a chance, I’d highly recommend taking a break from everything that you usually do and find a spot and sit quietly and just let your mind wander for a while. Speaking of which, have I told you the difference between meditation and sitting quietly? Meditation (to me) is when you try to unfocus your mind and disassociate from yourself and everything. You actively try not to think. Sitting quietly looks pretty much the same from the outside, except you impose no restrictions on yourself. You give your mind free reign to go where it may, and sometimes you come to a revelation, or solve something that’s been bothering you (or identify what has been bothering you) or come up with an idea for a lesson plan (or what have you), or get side-tracked and think about that movie you watched last week. They’re both awesome.

And now people call me Nan Eli (Nan being the northern way of referring to someone who has been a monk). I’ll post pictures soon. Gam managed to take something like 1,100 photos, though, which is a little intimidating.


Oh, and while I was spending all that peaceful, quiet, introspective time at a Buddhist temple or two, Thailand continued to embroil itself in insurrection. Hm. At least it looks like it MIGHT be wrapping up now…

PEACE (that’s an order, not a request)
Nan Eli

Friday, April 23, 2010


So I understand that the situation in Bangkok has gained more international attention now as violence has escalated, and I thought I'd share a bit about what it's like to be in a nation where there is such civil unrest.

But before I go into my perceptions, I'll give you all the best, un-biased run down of what's up that I can. Feel free to check facts for yourself, I'm no news/politics junkie.

So a few years ago, Prime Minister Thaksin was in charge. He gained the support and love of most of rural Thailand by providing funding for projects in the countryside and (as far as I understand) NOT simply ignoring the country-folk. At the same time, however, he was involved in some shady dealings in the city and got into trouble for something financial. At that point half (I think) of his assets (which are in the billions, USD) were frozen and he fled the country to avoid a jail sentence. He is now living abroad under self-imposed exile, though it sounds like he's found plenty to keep him busy.

As I understand, Thaksin's successor, PM Abhisit was appointed, not elected, and his apparent failure to attend to the needs of the people in the country-side (and that IS the majority of the Thai population) has generated a lot of discontentment and calls for the re-instatement of Thaksin (which I'm pretty darn sure won't be happening) or to have a legit election. Thus we have two factions, the Red Shirts (who support Thaksin) and the Yellow Shirts (who like how things are now). The Red Shirts are basically the common people from the country, and the Yellow Shirts are the city-folk and more affluent.

Over the past few years, there have been clashes (the Red Shirts shut down the international airport in Bangkok for a while shortly before I came here, and there were demonstrations in Bangkok last spring), which have apparently culminated in the current events. What is going on now started out peacefully enough about a month ago(Red Shirt party tried to get enough people in BKK to block traffic in some key areas, peaceful, light rallies). It escalated a bit when a bunch of protesters donated blood to be thrown on the residence of the current PM and some grenades were fired into an army base. At first, the protesters were tolerated, and peaceful dissolution was attempted. Now the Thai government has declared a state of emergency and called for the end of the protesting, granting the police and military permission to use force as needed. Also members of the Yellow Shirt group have joined in, and the violence has increased, from shooting marbles with slingshots to increasing use of explosives. People have died, people have been injured, and the Peace Corps has (quite appropriately) banned all non-essential travel into BKK, and the US State Department has issued a travel advisory to American travellers.

So what's it like for me to be here now? Surreal is an excellent word.

In my village, things are quiet. A fair number of people have their red flags out, red-supporting shirts, and sometimes when I go to the market, people will have their radios on listening to people making speeches and they (the people at the market) will cheer every now and then. And maybe that's because my community is fairly homogenous. I did have an interesting talk with a local Yellow Shirt supporter who criticized the Red Shirts for being too reactionary and not using critical thinking, but I also feel like he keeps his views to himself for the most part, so as to avoid conflict. I've heard several false reports from community members that, "The Red Shirts won! Abhisit is resigining!" but this does not appear to be the case from the news sources I've checked out.

So it's interesting. There are definitely a LOT of layers to everything that is going on, as I feel would be the case in such circumstances anywhere, but because this is Thailand and things can be very subtle and indirect (not that blowing shit up is very subtle and indirect, but the underlying-underlying motives might be), those layers can be tough to perceive (especially for me, with less than perfect Thai and an imperfect understanding of the political situation). I think that within the Red Shirt party, there are a lot of conflicting interests (the people who had only wanted a peaceful demonstration, and the agitators who were hoping and waiting for things to escalate). And then there are all the Red Shirt supporters who stayed at home, some of whom support things openly (with their flags and shirts and loud radios), and some of whom do so quietly, and those who maintain their indifference.

So my plan is to be like my neighbors. I keep my political opinions to myself (though every now and then I get a chance to discuss things with people in private settings and it's interesting to hear their views), and I'll keep checking headlines. There really isn't much more I can do besides hope that things don't get too much more out of hand. I do have a meeting in BKK coming up in about 4 weeks, so if this could all get cleared up before then I'd really appreciate it, OK guys?

So if you see headlines about violence in Thailand, you don't need to say, "Oh my goodness! Eli is in Thailand! I wonder if he's OK?!"


Monday, April 19, 2010

Did you know?

Did you know that the Thai word for "orgasm" is the same as (one of) the word(s) for "awesome?" Now I understand why my girlfriend used to say "Orgasm!" when something cool happened. And really, it makes perfect sense. Can you name something more awesome than an orgasm?

Anyhow, that seemed like a better opening than another stupid apology for tardiness in blog posts. Without re-reading all of my blogging to this point in time, I feel like my entries have evolved from descriptions of what I'm doing (though those are still included when cool things go down), and shifted more towards my thoughts, impressions and epiphanies. And I just had me one of them epipha-thingies.

The thing that is so cool and bad-ass about the Peace Corps, at least for this volunteer, is the two year commitment. It would be very difficult to put myself into the circumstances I find myself in any other way, with a reasonable amount of language and cultural instruction, followed by a work placement in a cool rural community. And I get to do this for two years. After about 6 months, I was feeling like, "yeah, I've seen it all." Nothing was making me say, "Oh my goodness! I can't believe things like this are happening!" And that feeling has simply continued to grow. I think that realization became most apparent to me after my family's recent visit (Hey family! Thanks for coming! It was great to see you!). I kept thinking, "Yeah, this is probably cool for them, but it all seems so typical to me," which led to me always wondering if I was doing my part as a host (I'm sure the fam will say "Of course you did, Eli!" but I still have to wonder).

And anyway, my new epiphanimity is that this sense of jaded-ness is actually an amazing thing. If I were only here for 6 months, I never would have got past that, "Holy crap! I'm in Thailand! Everything is so amazing!" state of mind, and yeah, I would have had an awesome time and gone home and told everyone about how cool it was to be a volunteer in Thailand for 6 months, but...

Here I am now at a little over a year in, with about another year (of Peace Corps service, already thinking about possibly staying beyond that) to go, and I'm well past that, "Holy crap!" phase. I feel like I can view things from a fairly Thai point of view, my communication skills continue to improve, I have established myself as some sort of member of the community, and I get to do all of this for a substantial amount of time still.

And that's why Peace Corps is cool.

And now I'll wish everyone a happy Songkran (remember that crazy water-fight New Year's party I talked about last year?) and let you all know that I will be shaving my head an eyebrows and donning orange robes for a few weeks shortly as I become a monk (something pretty much all young men do for a brief period sometime in their 20s). It'll be like that Bar Mitzvah I never had. I'm even learning to chant in a dead language!