Thursday, February 26, 2009

Holy freakin' karaoke!

So mua wan-nii, pom luuk saan pasa enkri. That is, yesterday I finished with the practice teaching. To celebrate the moment, I and the other three volunteers who were at the school went up to a big room where the two classes we had taught gathered, and we sang and danced for at least an hour. They had a karaoke machine set up and the teachers and students took turns singing us Thai songs, and there was a students vs. volunteers dance-off, and then each student gave us each a flower, and a bunch gave us cards they had made. It was similar to things that have been done for me in the past when I finished practicum/student teaching sessions, but like times twenty. Which was fairly ridiculous. And awesome. We also posed with kids and teachers for a whole slew of pictures, and they gave us these awesome floral print Thai shirts that we're supposed to wear for the Thai New Year on April 13th (which is apparently a nation-wide water fight/huge party, which I am very much looking forward to).

Anyhow, as if that weren't enough, a while after I got home and was trying to get my mee (mom) to let me help with dinner, she informed me that pa and I were going to eat just a little and then go into town, where we would be eating more. Like a good boy, I said "OK," and ate my bowl of rice and fried egg, then hopped in the truck. Twenty minutes later we pulled into the great big lot where the Saturday market is, where there were great big ferris wheel-looking lights, a few hundred tables set up, and a stage with huge speakers. At which point I said, "Oh, I've done this before!"
So I started eating and drinking, and eventually I got pulled up front to dance on the ground in front of the stage, and I eventually realized that the singers this time were actually doing karaoke! Though, I don't think they were just anybody... But I definitely recognized people singing who I had seen shortly before walking around socializing with other attendees.
I found some other volunteers who had been brought along, and it turned out that none of us actually knew WHAT was being celebrated. It was postulated that it MIGHT have something to do with an imminent election, but nobody really knew for sure. I think this lack of understanding actually made it better.

Today we had our "mid-term training evaluations," and I was told that I am "on track" to being invited to shed my trainee status and become a full-fledged volunteer. So that's exciting.

Dag. I feel like I keep on thinking of things I want to mention on here, and then when I have a chance to actually post, I can't remember them. All I can remember is that I'm not remembering. Bah.

Oh, I got a Thai haircut. That's something. It's not THAT different from an American haircut, except that I didn't know how to describe what I wanted (though I DID learn to say that I like my sideburns, "pom chop jahn"). It's shorter on the sides and in back than I'm used to, and not much came off the top, but it's neater than it was, so that's good. I also got my first ever barber-done shave (done with a straight razor), which was pretty cool for the experience, though I don't think I'd bother again. I gave myself a better, less painful shave with my month-old bic (so maybe the ads talking about 3 blades versus 1 DO have a point, though I'm still skeptical about 5 versus 3). Anyhow, haircut? 40 baht (just over $1). Apparently a woman's cut with shampoo, scalp massage and styling is 100 baht (like $3). So, come get your hair cut? I dunno. You wanted to know about that stuff, right?

Peace Corps out!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

And another because I need a post for the time writing and posting the last one...

Yeah. The Thais know how to party.

Last night I attended a celebration for a young man (I understand he'd just turned 20) who had just shaved his head and will be spending the next while as a monk. This is a fairly common practice, my brother was a monk for a week when he turned 20, one of the Thai teachers told me he was one for 10 days, and another man I talked to about it had monked it up for a month.

Anyhow, I had no idea what to expect. And it turned out to be rather similar to the festival I attended the weekend before. There was a stage with a band and dancing girls, though this time audience members who wanted to dance did so on the ground in front of the stage (of COURSE I participated). There were tables and chairs set up and wait-staff-type people kept bringing more and more food and bottles of Hong Thong (the drink of choice around here, a molasses whisky that gives GREAT headaches). There was a cabaret show at one point in the evening, and a bunch of bikini-clad, GORGEOUS men took the stage (from a distance, none of us would have known they were men without having been told so beforehand) for a few songs, and it was hard to tell when it ended and the real girls resumed dancing.

This morning, I went back to the site of the party with my brother where I was immediately offered food and whisky (which I declined this time). After a few minutes, everyone started moving into the street and we began a very slow procession towards the wat. Now, it may have been slow, but it certainly wasn't solemn. There were several large speakers being pushed along on a cart hooked up to a band who were walking along playing. In front of them people were dancing and passing around bottles of Hong Thong, and behind people simply walked, many carrying what I assume were things to give to the temple and baskets of beautiful flowers made out of ribbon. The young monk walked right behind the speakers, someone standing behind him carrying a huge orange umbrella.
When we got to the temple, we began to circle the main building three times (the music and dancing and drinking carrying on the whole time) very slowly. Every now and then the new monk (or someone else) would throw handfuls of the ribbon flowers into the crowd. They turned out to have coins inside, and kids scrambled all over to grab them (adults too, but generally the kids worked a bit harder for them). It seemed a little odd to me for a while, as it felt so irreverent to be drinking and making so much noise at the temple, and for kids to be climbing on things and diving under statues chasing the flowers, but I found that I really liked it. I'd already felt that Buddhism is more of a philosophy than a religion, stripped of a lot of the dogma that bothers me in other religions, but it was a whole new experience to see... I don't know what.
Anyhow, after the third trip around, the band wandered away, and the people who wanted to keep dancing followed them, and most of the rest of folks began following the new monk into the temple (they'd settled down a bit by the time they got in the doors). I wanted to go in and see what happened next, but my mom kept shooing me away, though I'm not sure why. I don't think there would have been anything wrong with me going in, I think she just figured I probably wouldn't really want to for some reason.

Yeah. Then I rode my bike around with another volunteer and swung by the houses of some other farangs to visit. On the way to the internet shop, some lady called us over and we stopped and tried to talk for a little bit, and it was cool to just have a random friendly interaction. The feeling of community and openness here is probably one of the things I am enjoying the most. Everyone offers food and drinks everywhere we go (and I need to remember that I should be just as quick to offer when I have the opportunity), and I'm just really enjoying Thai hospitality.

Ok. I'm gonna go enjoy the rest of my Sunday.
2/11/2009 8:24PM (local time)

Apparently, life doesn't have subtitles.

Whodathunkit, huh?

I have now been in The Kingdom for two weeks, and it feels like so much longer. Not because I'm bored/having a terrible time and time is dragging by, but because I've learned and experienced so much that it seems impossible that it's only been a fortnight.

My host family is very mellow, my sister is at school most of the day (I understand she is preparing for exams for university) and my brother Don works most of the day. He IS a teacher, as I previously stated, but not the kind I thought. It turns out he works at a vocational school training mechanics, mainly in motorcycle repair/maintenance. I've met my younger brother, Sam, though our interactions were pretty minimal. I've definitely had the most luck communicating with Don who seems to have a bit more English than the other siblings, or is at least more willing to try to use it.

On the evening of my one week anniversary in Thailand (though I don't think anybody but me knew that), I went with Don to hang out with some of his friends on a little covered porch-thing outside someone's house and had nidnoy (a little) beer and was given a Thai nickname, "Ma-toom" which means "Fruit," though it must be slang, since when I want to talk about eating fruit, I say "pon-la-mai." Anyway, they were a nice group of guys, one of them is a local chief-type guy, there are some talented musicians and soccer players among their crew, and I ate a snail dipped in a spicy pepper concoction (pet means spicy).

Saturday afternoon, my parents took me into town to check out the great big weekly market. Of course, when they told me that's where we were going, I didn't understand, only getting that we were going into town, and was definitely not mentally prepared to get my shop on. I have plans to go back next weekend to try again, and I will give a better report then.
On Saturday night there was a festival at one of the two local wats to bless the upcoming rice-growing season. It was quite an experience. There were monks chanting and bestowing blessings and receiving donations in one (small) area, and the rest was devoted to carnival games (shooting pop guns at little toys, popping balloons with darts, knocking over cans with a ball, a ring-toss style game played with shower buckets, and a great big inflatable slide), vendors selling trinkets and all sorts of food, a beer garden (I'm not sure whether or not the drinking was sanctioned, but people were doing it) and a great big stage with a band and a bunch of ladies in go-go outfits. After looking around, my father took me to the dancing stage where we went up front and I saw some other volunteers there with their families. After a couple dances, a bunch of people from the audience ran up on stage and danced with the women. A couple songs later, when a new batch of people went on stage, all us asa-samas (volunteers) were herded on stage and ended up staying there for 3 songs or so. And let me tell you, I'm a damn good Thai dancer. That means I can shuffle my feet and wave my arms, and not look too goofy doing it (that's definitely an over-simplification, but you get the idea). Anyway, after our 3 songs we all headed off-stage, but either because I was such an amazing dancer, or because I wasn't moving fast enough, I was grabbed and pulled back onto the stage where I continued to dance with other audience members and the go-go girls (who ranged from young and pretty to middle-aged mothers wearing too much make-up). Every time I tried to leave the stage, and several times after I successfully got off, I was grabbed by either a drunk man or an older woman and returned to the stage. It was really a blast, and by the time I got off and stayed off, I think I had achieved some small level of fame (or infamy) in the village, as I have received occasional comments on my dancing since then.

Monday was a Buddhist holiday, and all us Peace Corps folks went to a wat and observed a much more solemn ceremony, complete with chanting, incense, and a procession that went around the building three times in a clockwise direction ('cause that's how you're supposed to do it). We also got to make donations, which felt good, since the Buddhists apparently do much cooler things with the money they receive than other churches, like building and maintaining schools and whatnot (hm, I might get in trouble with that last comment, so I shan't say anymore). Afterwards we went back to the hotel we'd stayed at initially and learned a traditional Thai dance, the Ramwong (more shuffle steps and arm swaying, but we did it right this time).
Don took me out the other night and showed me their farmland. Out in middle of the rice paddies and sugar cane plots, with a full moon rising and a blood-red sun setting, all I could say was “Bprataa Thai soy maa.” (Thailand is very beautiful)(and that "bp" is pronounced like a 'b', but popped like a 'p' and don't forget to roll your 'r').

These last two days, we have gone into Thai classrooms and had a chance to observe some English lessons. Starting tomorrow, we will actually be teaching English for a couple weeks. I'm pretty psyched.

General things you might be wondering:The food continues to be amazing, though only occasionally very spicy, and I'm eating more eggs than I ever have before (they're a staple right up there with rice, which I had never really realized). They also have delicious sweets and pastries, and my donut consumption has increased dramatically (though that's not saying much since I really didn't eat donuts in the US). And the fruit is exotic and delicious (and since I figured out how to tell my mother that I like to eat fruits and vegetables, plentiful).
Thai people are generally AWESOME, at least in these smaller communities. Smiling at ANYone will pretty much always get you a smile and greeting back. Everyone you visit wants to feed you.

Gift giving is big, and it's an unspoken assumption that if someone gives you a gift, you will return the favor in the future (just keep that in mind if you ever visit).
No, it's not ALL dancing and eating, I'm learning a lot of language (though not nearly fast enough, as I really can't speak with my family and frequently mis-communicate, like telling them “I don't eat Pad Thai” instead of “I haven't eaten yet and would like some Pad Thai.” Whoops!) There are fairly regular frustrations with the bureaucracy of the Peace Corps and the conflicting information we receive. I realize that I am in a very different place, and the things I am familiar with and the people I know and love are far far away. But at the same time, I can see that this is a wonderful place, and more than that, this land has the potential to be a wonderful place for me, as the Thai way of life feels very comfortable and compatible with my own ways and ideals. But there's that language barrier and my roots on the other side of the world to contend with. I am very interested to see what the next couple years hold for me.

(How am I doing with this blog thing? Seriously. I'm very open to feedback. If I'm too long-winded, I wouldn't mind hearing that, though that sounds more like your problem than mine. And if there's anything y'alls want to hear more about, lemme know that too and I will do my best to oblige. As this is a public journal, it's clearly not just for me.)


Saturday, February 7, 2009

Farang! Farang!

Farang! Farang!

2/3/09 7:45 PM (local time)

I'm trying to think of a clever way to sum up this afternoon, and words are simply failing me. So here's the play-by-play narrative.

We met the local governor today (I'm still not entirely sure how the break down of region, province, city, village works out) which was a pretty big deal, as meeting with any high-ranking official is. All us farangs (that's foreigners) got to wai (hands together, slight bow, bigger bow for him because of his status) and introduce ourselves (in our mangled Thai, of course). There were some speeches in Thai and English, and the we had a coffee break and got to socialize a bit. By the way, the Thais do GREAT pastries, which makes up for Nescafe being the only coffee drink that I've found so far. (On a side note, I heard that there is no official hot drink of Thailand, which was surprising at first, but makes sense considering the climate. They DO have a wide variety of iced drinks, including tea and coffee.)

Anyhow, the whole event was a pretty big deal, but for me, it paled in comparison to what followed.

After coffee and chatting, most of the government posse dispersed, and after a while, the room began refilling with Thai people. These were, of course, our host families (krap-krua), or at least the member(s) who were picking us up. After waiting for the volunteers ahead of me, I met Suria, my new father. We had a chance to speak for a while via one of the Peace Corps staff (he doesn't speak any English, and I really don't speak any Thai). He is about 50 and a council member of the local SAO (I don't recall what that stands for, but it's local government stuff) and has a small farm with a few cattle and chickens, and he grows sugar cane, corn and rice (cash crops). Eventually we loaded my stuff into his truck and he took me home.

My new home is awesome! I have my own room (which I did NOT expect, as I had been specifically told I would be sharing one) which is actually a separate building. I have mixed feelings about the seclusion, but it is and will be nice to have my own private space to decompress in, and I certainly feel welcome. I have one pii-chai (older brother), Don, who is 28 and a teacher. He speaks a (very) little bit of English (though a whole lot more than I speak Thai) which was (and will be) tremendously helpful. I also have a noong-saao (younger sister), Feng. I didn't share many words with her, she had a couple of English phrases, but we failed to have any meaningful exchanges. I'm hoping we can trade some language lessons in the coming weeks. It sounds like I also have a noong-chai (younger brother) who is in the city at school and will be around on the weekends. I think I've figured out that the pii-saao (you figure it out) I was supposed to have is actually my mother (which I was lead to believe I would not have).

I spent a good long while sitting quietly and smiling at people and watching Thai television. At one point, a group of people came by to buy a bunch of huge sacks of khao (rice) and I hung out and greeted them with my farang friend who is living just up the street and had stopped by with his host father on the way to go shopping. It was really nice to have a chance to speak coherently to someone.

I had a super tasty dinner of rice and Thai omelet (fried seasoned scrambled eggs and tomato in this case) and tom yum goon (I think that's right), a vegetable soup with a little bit of ground pork in it (yeah, I'm definitely not a vegetarian any more, though I want to be). There was also some fried or grilled whole fish, but I kinda failed at figuring out how to eat it. Anyhow, it was probably one of the best meals I've had so far (and that's saying something), though I still haven't had anything spicy!

I took my first bucket bath! I'm really glad we talked about the proper way to do that in a session this morning, because I certainly would have made a foul if we hadn't. The toilet (if you're wondering) is not a squat toilet (which I had been told it would be, I guess I can attribute all the misinformation to the fact that the Peace Corps IS a US Government organization), it's a western-style toilet, though it doesn't flush. I'm not sure how it handles solid waste, and fortunately I haven't needed to go, so I figure I'll wait and ask my ajaan (teacher) about it in our session tomorrow. And then I headed to my room. Tomorrow I will take a bunch of pictures, and when I upload this, I'll post them too.

I feel very welcome here, but the language barrier is tremendous. I now have that much more empathy and respect for every person who's had to learn English in America.

And now I have nothing more to say but, “Tomorrow is another day.”

Monday, February 2, 2009

Saawatdii krap!

So let me tell you about the Land of Smiles. Or rather, let me tell you about the little bit I've seen. It's hot. Not THAT hot, it IS the cool season after all, but having walked on snow about a week ago, it's hot. It's really smoky/hazy from the burning of sugar cane fields (they set fire to them to get rid of the leaves so a machine can go through and harvest the stalks). There's a bustling little downtown loaded with shops and street vendors just a little ways from the hotel where we've been staying. It's amazing how you can feel like you're in the middle of a big city, but if you go in pretty much any direction for more than a few minutes, you're surrounded by farmland.

The Peace Corps has been doing a great job of gradually immersing us in all that is Thai, and I guess that makes sense, since they've had a few years to practice (they will be celebrating their 50th anniversary while I'm over here). We spent the first few days solely on the hotel grounds, surrounded by our American compatriots and the hotel staff. They (the Peace Corps) introduced some culture stuff, we met the staff we'll be working with for the rest of training. Every day since has just been a little bit more. We got our bikes and got to go for some rides around the immediate area and see the fields and houses and a school and the downtown. We started language lessons (which are HARD, but feel awesome!), and have progressed into some of the finer points of cultural concepts. Yesterday we had a big chunk of free time. In the morning I went for a hike with a couple guys and we went up one of the great big hills that poke up all around us to see the area. We had to go find our own lunch, which was pretty challenging, but made me even more determined to learn more language. In the afternoon, I got to lead a few other volunteers downtown to a bike shop, then we wandered around the market where we tried some fried crickets (or grasshoppers, I don't know) and bought some fruit. Tomorrow, they cut the cord and we move in with our host families. What an experience that will be!

I feel like there's so much more I could say here, but I don't want this to simply turn into a play-by-play narration of my life over here. Then again, I've never kept a blog before, maybe that's what I'm supposed to do. Or more likely, there is no "supposed" to for this, and it can (and should) be whatever I want it to be. Meh. I'll figure it out.

Saawatdii krap!
(it's kinda like "aloha" in that it's hello, goodbye, and everything else)

Somewhere over the Pacific...

Let me preface this by saying that I've had a bit of an adventure getting my computer to talk to me in English when online since arriving here. Google (and all Google related functions) have been displaying in Thai, so logging in hasn't exactly been easy, and I haven't really wanted to invest the time to straighten it out, as there HAS been other things to do. Imagine that. Anyhow, I thought I'd get a couple posts up here while I had easy internet access before I go to stay with my host family tomorrow.

ctrl+v PASTE!

1/27/09, 3:52pm PST

Yesterday was a pretty amazing day.

It started bright and early, although that isn't a great description, since it was still dark out. Hm. I'd never really thought about that until now. Anyhow, I felt mentally prepared, but physically, my body definitely had some nerves going. Anxious stomach, kinda twitchy, sort of an adrenaline rush that lasted for like six hours. I would describe the feeling as “nervous excitement.” Like the long ride up to the top of the first drop on a roller coaster. You know everything is going to be fine, you know you're going to enjoy the experience, but it's impossible to be calm about it.

The flight to San Francisco was pretty uneventful, though the arrival was pretty anti-climactic. Due to a last minute change of plans, I got to hang out in the airport for a few hours eyeballing everyone who walked by, trying to guess whether they were possibly in the Peace Corps and making phone calls and sending text messages to everyone in my phone saying goodbye. It was actually kinda nice, a little time for decompression.

Eventually I met up with some other people in my group, and I almost immediately began to relax. As I met more and more and we got to talking, I was very happy to realize that I had been completely justified in my excitement to meet these people. These are kindred spirits, folks whose lives have brought them to the same experience by completely unique routes, and here we all are, poised to throw ourselves headfirst into the unknown. For the first time since beginning the application process, I am in a crowd who can identify with my feelings, and I with them.

So we had our orientation meeting, discussed anxieties and excitement, risk management, and the logistics of traveling to Thailand. Then they gave us our per diem and we split up to go find food and drinks. And drinks. I followed a guy who knew the area a bit (along with 20 or so other volunteers) and ended up at a pizza place before heading to a really cool jazz bar. I felt pretty good heading back to the hotel around 10, thinking I'd get in a decent night's sleep before heading out in the morning, but for some reason I woke up at 2 in the morning and couldn't really fall back asleep. LAME.

I stopped trying to get back to sleep around 5:30, got myself ready to fly and canceled my phone service. They had us check out by 6:30, then we loaded on a couple buses and headed to the airport. It was pretty funny, prior to this experience, all of my group traveling was overseen by someone (like a teacher). This time, we got to the airport, the Peace Corps employees who had led the orientation handed us our passports and said goodbye, heading for their own flights to their homes. We all stood around for a few minutes wondering what to do, then a few people decided to take some initiative and got our passports passed out and figured out where the right ticket counter was.

As we got our luggage checked, we spread out throughout the concourse and found food. Most of us spent the next couple hours walking up and down the halls, trying to move as much as possible before becoming confined to the plane for the twelve hour flight to Tokyo.

And then it was time to board.

I ended up in a window seat (which is probably definitely better than being in the middle of the middle row), without a seat-mate, which I guess is nice since I have a little more room to spread out, though I think it might've been nice to be next to another volunteer, too. Oh well. And then I decided I should pull out my laptop and write an entry to post on my blog when I get internet access.

I hope my posts aren't too boring! I imagine they will get far cooler once I'm actually in Thailand, but you'll just have to bear with me until then.