Monday, September 21, 2009

If blog entries were library books, I'd own this one by now!

I'd like to say that the reason I haven't posted anything in over a month is because I've been oh so busy. In fact, there have been numerous opportunities, but not much to say until these last couple weeks (and then, opportunities these last couple weeks HAVE been rather scarce). And there came a period where I just didn't feel like writing, and then I started and slowly I dragged this out of myself.

I think I'll start filling y'all in with the sanook sanaan (I'm going to translate that as "party") I attended at one of my schools in honor of myself and another new teacher. I arrived at school around five in the evening and met one of the head monks from the temple next to the school. He was a big jolly guy and greeted me by shaking my hand (which I later learned is- well, not taboo, but un-traditional). At that point, the paw-aw (principal), a few other teachers and a couple older men were the only ones there. They had the new teacher and myself sit in front of a great big centerpiece type thing made out of rolled up banana leaves and flowers (I'm not sure if I have pictures of one or not, but they're pretty common at any sort of Thai ceremony) and a man (not the monk, I think he was a retired monk) recited the long chant to welcome us and bless us and give us good luck. By the time he finished, some more folks had started to show up and people started tying strings on our wrists. By doing so, each person is drawing bad energy out and putting good energy in, and you end up with a massive torque of string wrapped around your arm.

People continued to arrive, and as I understand, they were various important people from the village, though aside from the elected guy, I have no idea who they were. There were also a lot of mee-baans (housewives) in attendance, and several of them thought to mention to me that they had daughters (one actually said, "I have a daughter your age, but she is not beautiful"). The best part of all of this was definitely when Wandii, my counterpart's wife and my mother told me in English, "You are my son, you are part of my family, I love you, I will take care of you." (That's paraphrased, but that was the general spirit of her words). This was especially touching because prior to this I had only heard her say "My name is Wandii, I speak Thai, I don't like to speak English," and a few random words here and there. It made me feel very good.

After a while we were told to take seats at tables and food and whiskey started to flow. The physical education teacher decided he wanted to drink with me and started pouring whiskey pio pio (straight). And didn't stop. I believe I have noted before that drinking with Thai people is dangerous because it is common practice to refill someone's glass for them whenever it is empty, or less than 2/3 full, making it difficult to gauge how much you actually consume (this is anytime, not just with alcohol). I had an idea of what this evening would entail in advance and had decided to allow myself to consume to the point of intoxication. And so I did. I sat at all of the tables, toasted everyone, and eventually sang the Thai song I've been practicing when the karaoke got going hot and heavy. In the end I walked home and regretted my actions in the morning.


Shortly after my sanook sanaan the other school I'm teaching at hosted a science exhibition. This was probably one of the coolest things I've seen here. Seriously.

The day began with a lot of that old time religion (it was a wan prat, and this school takes Buddhism pretty seriously) [right now is the Buddhist Lent and every full moon, half moon and new moon is a wan prat, or "monk day," and involves going to temple and making of merit]. On this wan prat, the temple came to the school. Four monks and most of the community came for a morning of prayer and bestowing food and gifts upon the local temples. Naturally, as soon as I arrived my paw-aw (principal) had me come up in front of everyone to sit with him (I'm getting used to this kind of treatment, though I still feel weird about it, but it's kinda fun sometimes). After the chanting and speeches and whatnot were over, the science extravaganza began. Began with some kids from another school in the area doing a sweet dance with drums and cymbals and play-fighting! And then some grown-ups from the area who are into model remote-controlled airplanes showed off their stuff. It was pretty cool, but what really struck me was how excited people were about this. It also made me realize that in my time here at site, I haven't seen any machines in the sky. Would an airplane flying over be a big deal out here? I am pretty sure the majority of my neighbors have never flown. Anyhow, I really appreciated the purity of the audience's wonderment. Not jaded at all.

When that was over, the students spent the rest of the morning going around and looking at projects they had made. A group of my matayom 3 (that's like 9th grade) boys built a 3-person bicycle that people were riding around (of COURSE I went for a ride!). In the field, students were blasting off water rockets they had built from soda bottles. There were a few other stations with pretty typical experiment things, and a math and science fact contest in the cafeteria. And that was it (aside from the snack and drink vendors who showed up). It was simple, it was mellow, and it was fun. The students got to show off some really impressive work they had done (I'm still amazed by the bicycle, and the water rocket launching contraption was super sweet). But most of all, like with the planes, it was the atmosphere that made the day for me.

My next destination was the Youth Conference. I'm pretty sure I have mentioned that I joined the Youth GIG (I'm pretty sure that stands for Global Initiative Group), and our primary responsibility is to host this conference each year. In addition to us, 12 volunteers from all around the country came, each bringing one Thai counterpart (mostly teachers) and two students ages 13-18. The conference was hosted at a little place in the woods (although the "log" cabins were in fact made of concrete) a couple hours outside of Bangkok. The theme of the conference was "Dream, Believe, Achieve," and for 3 days we ran activities designed to get students thinking about their future, setting goals, and thinking about the things they need to do to reach those goals. Which means they built models out of random household items to represent their dreams, played team-building and problem-solving games, did some journaling and debriefing, talked with a panel of Thai professionals and danced silly dances.

I feel like there's a lot more to say about what we actually did at the conference, but to really understand you would have to have been there.

In any case, I feel it was a lot of fun and pretty durn successful. And it's got me thinking about what we'll do next year. There are definitely a lot of things that I think went well that I would like to emulate, and a few spots that I think we could improve upon. But I don't really wanna think too much about that right now. I'll just say that many of the volunteers who were there (myself included) have made comments to the extent that participating in that conference is/has been one of the most fulfilling parts of being a volunteer. This is because it is specific in whom it is targeting and applies to and works directly with those people, and because the benefit is so obvious and visible. A lot of the things that we do as volunteers are questionable as to whether or not they have any real value, and even if there is value, it may be hard to see, or may not show itself for a long time.

The last stop on this whirlwind blog entry will be Doi Tung, the home of the king's now deceased mother. It is located on a small mountain in the north of the province of Chiang Rai. The location is significant because one of the queen mother's (I THINK that's how you refer to her) big projects was to reduce drug trafficking in the Golden Triangle, and she had a lot of projects working with the hill tribes doing things like introducing alternative crops to grow instead of opium. Anyhow, we drove up this mountain and parked. Around the base of the peak (does that make sense? The house was right on the top of the mountain [and by mountain we mean really big hill], and the area just below that is what I'm talking about) is a pretty nice flower garden. I'd love to say more, but I'm really not that critical and couldn't rate it any more specifically than that. I'll post some pictures and you can see for yourself. Then we headed up to the house.

I had no idea what to expect. Pa had used the word "palace" when describing it, and I was kinda dreading something big and gaudy and western-styled. To get up to it, I had to borrow some pants (shorts weren't kosher), then we walked up a long driveway. And I was tremendously relieved. The palace was a big wooden house. We took a tour (the tour was in Thai, but they gave me a pamphlet in English to read with information about the house). The style was a fusion of Thai and Swedish (sounds odd, but the king went to school in Sweden when he was a boy and ma had a place in the mountains), so the aesthetic style was alpine cabin, but the form was more typical of Thai buildings. And all the pine paneling was from recycled packing crates, and on the ceiling of one room, the lights made a scale model of the solar system with everything positioned at the time of the queen mother's birth (astrology is kinda a big deal here). But we weren't allowed to take pictures inside. Then we got to check out the awesome views that she enjoyed and it was time to head home. I would say it was a really good trip, as it bolstered my opinion of the Thai royal family (not that I have any issues with them), as this "palace" could have been as over-the-top as you could imagine, but was actually incredibly modest (a ridiculous house by common standards, but considering royalty had lived there for 10 years, very humble indeed).

And I'm going to call myself caught up for now. There's ALWAYS more that I could say, but I'd say that's enough. I'd like to do some journaling in my personal journal (which I haven't been doing at all), so I think I'll make a date for some forced introspection, say tomorrow evening on the balcony? Great, see you then!

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