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!


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What the heck have I been up to?

The school year has been winding down here, and this is the last week for students, just wrapping up testing and doing celebration stuff now, my 4-6 graders will be taking a trip to the beach near Bangkok next week (though I shan't be going, as I will be busy greeting my family at the airport! Whoop!), and everything school is pretty much over until mid-May.

I have had a conversation with the folks at the Aw-Baw-Daw and explained my conflicting feelings and reached a resolution. That is, the Nayoke (head honcho) had twisted my desire to teach an English class once a week to interested adults in the community once a week into my coming to the Aw-Baw-Daw to teach the staff there three times a week. At first this was OK, but as time went on, I grew frustrated as it became apparent the staff had no real interest in practicing English, and though I enjoyed hanging out with them, my three afternoons a week there were preventing my participation in other activities, and the farang in me made it difficult for me to not do what I had agreed to do. Anyways, I pretty much laid this all out, trying hard to emphasize that I wasn't angry about this, but that it was a situation for me, and ended up with a happy arrangement to come hang out when I'm free, but not to sweat the teaching stuff and the schedule.
Then I went to the sports day with the Aw-Baw-Daw staff and about 50 people from all over the tambon (as well as the other 7 tambons) and had a blast playing relay games and winning more medals than some countries got in the olympics (I'm assuming there were some that got zero, right?).

I have found an outlet for my Dance Dance Revolution prowess in the local aerobic dance group (a group of mostly mee-baans [housewives, though I'm sure most of them do work outside the house, too]). This is similar to the aerobic Issan dance group I stumbled across a while back, but it's even closer to my house, and involves loud techno remixes of techno songs (only in Thailand, eh?) instead of traditional-er music. And they meet every evening. So I'd like to make a more regular appearance there.

I also found out that one of my matayom 1 students (that's equivalent to 7th grade, I was told she is 15 years old) is getting married (well, she actually got married the other day), which threw me for a loop. I got laughed at by some other teachers for being surprised, and at first I thought this meant that they weren't surprised and were totally cool with it, but it just occured to me that laughing at an uncomfortable situation is a very Thai thing to do, so perhaps it's more like that instead of Eli being the silly farang.
Anyhow, the rumor was that her husband is a 24 year old soldier (her being 15 sits slightly better with me than my original thinking that she was 13, though I'm not exactly sure of her [or his] age). When I first mentioned this to some of you folks in the states, it was questioned if this was an arranged marriage (because why else would a kid get married?!), but I'm 99% sure this wasn't the case. I haven't heard anything about arranged marriages here, though men do pay a dowry to the family of the girl. What I do know is that this particular girl had numerous boyfriends (my counterpart was pointing out all the broken-hearted boys at school) and it is my (completely unfounded) assumption that she managed to get pregnant (I couldn't come up with a tactful way to inquire about this), and that marriage was the best way to save face.

So, "Wow."

My frustration with my counterpart at the matayom school kinda peaked, as I realized that this year at that school has essentially been a complete waste of my time, and I have vowed to myself to do things differently.
I have heard other volunteers express complaints about their counterparts expecting the volunteer to do all of the teaching on their own and frequently leaving the room while the volunteer teaches, effectively eliminating the sustainability aspect of the arrangement. I have experienced the opposite, with her expressing no desire for me to teach and more or less ignoring or twisting my advice and suggestions into something very nearly worthless. I feel like there is a lot of greng-jai between us, and maybe this is not really the way she wants things to be, but we have established such a routine of me doing nothing that I really feel bound by it. My decision for next year is that, in my most face-saving way, I am simply going to tell her that I will teach 2 days each week I am there and perpare for those lessons independently, and supply her with copies of my planning. Any additional time I am there, I would like to work with other teachers in the school and prove to them that I am not the incompetent, worthless lump that I feel they perceive me to be.

Hoo. That's a bit of a rant, ain't it? I'm serious about teachers thinking I'm incompetent, though. I think that they think I cannot speak a lick of Thai and hardly attempt to communicate with me, either addressing me with the most basic questions and statements ("It's hot, isn't it?" "Are you hungry?") or not even attempting to speak to a non-native speaker and going along in Thai that I have no hope of following, addressing my counterpart to translate to me instead. And the shock another teacher expressed when she saw me practicing reading and writing Thai and her confusion when I asked how to spell a word (she started trying to explain what it meant, then instead of telling me how to spell it, she wrote it down for me to copy). I dunno. Maybe it's not so much that they have a low opinion of me, but that I have a low opinion of my role at that school and I'm imposing that low opinion on other people. Next year WILL be better.

This weekend I will travel to my friend's site in Issan to celebrate with him as he becomes a monk for a little while (something that all young Thai men do and many volunteers decide to do). I am planning on doing this myself, as well, in October. This will be my first "bpuat pra" (monking) since training, and my first one for a volunteer ever, so I'm looking forward to it.

Anyhow, I'm at school right now (I played some game with kids already and there's no teaching happening today), and I think someone else is waiting for the computer, so I'm gonna wrap this up.

Hey family! C'mon already! Though I'm sorry that the timing is corresponding with the air being really bad (I hope it rains in the next week! Though it hasn't really rained for months now), and it's too bad you're leaving before Song Kran, but it's all good, na? I'm really looking forward to seeing you!


Monday, February 15, 2010

a death in the family

So I've been to a few funerals since being here, but yesterday my neighbor (a teacher at one of my schools and a house I've eaten dinner at more than a few times) 's mother died. This didn't come as a huge shock as she was 92 and her health had been failing for some time. Anyhow, I am now in the process of developing a better understanding of the Thai funeral and Thai attitudes towards death in general. (People have asked me quite a few times how the Thai funeral compares to an American one, I respond by saying that I've never been to an American funeral, but because America is a melting pot of cultures, religions and whatnot, there isn't exactly a standard)

Anyhow, the first and most striking difference is that at Thai funerals, people don't "grieve." I think I've mentioned before (but I'll do so again) that in Thai, the word "serious" is a bad thing, and if people do their best to be "no serious." This applies to death as well. I'm sure the advanced age of the deceased and that it wasn't terribly shocking helps put people at ease, but even at funerals for relatively young people I've been to, I haven't really seen any great outpouring of bereavement.

I don't, however, want to imply that this funeral was a wild party with karaoke and dancing girls.

When I arrived yesterday evening there were only a handful of people there (yesterday was the first of four days). I greeted my neighbor and was taken into the house to wai the buddha figure and the deceased (there was a photo of her and incense and flowers to "offer" to her, I think the body was in a casket buried under flowers, but I'm not sure). Then I sat outside with some other people who had showed up. And things were pretty mellow. People asked me about what kinds of Thai food I can eat, my girlfriend, my age (pretty typical stuff) and other conversations seemed pretty comparable. The only way to tell that this event was different than others was that (most) people were dressed in black and white (though dark jeans and t-shirts were pretty common). More people arrived, snacks were had, and eventually a group of monks showed up. The monks did a series of chanting prayers, people wai-ing while they chanted, though many conversations continued through it, and nobody shushed the kids who were playing and trying to get me to talk to them. Then people sat and talked for a while, then started going home. When I walked back to my house there was a group of men drinking and gambling.

This morning I went over before school and ate rice soup with a group of people.

Anyway, as far as belief-y type stuff, it's important for the family of the deceased to give lots of things away (make donations) in response to a death. The belief being that everything that they give away, the deceased will have in the afterlife (so the make donations and gifts of food, clothes, refrigerators, gazebo-type things called "sala"s. I'm under the impression that the next few days will be similar, and I've heard that food, drinking and gambling will be more prominent (or maybe that depends on what time I arrive).

All in all, it's pretty interesting stuff, and I really like the choice to essentially honor the deceased's life and try to make them comfortable in the afterlife rather than mourning their death.


P.S. Completely unrelated, but I meant to mention it a while ago in a random blog post I never made, but my family here is genuinely afraid that if they close the windows and turn off the air conditioning in the car, they will die of suffocation. I tried explaining that this was not the case, as when it is cold in America and we don't open the windows or have the fan on, we don't die. They said that's because American cars are different from Thai cars. That was while we were driving in their Isuzu. I just thought it was amusing, and slightly annoying on the mornings when it's actually kinda cold here.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

My most awesome experience?

Today I headed to the Aw Baw Daw at 3:30 for what has now become my regular, thrice-weekly English lesson. When I arrived, people were saying something using the word "fei" (I think it was fei mai). This word has many uses, and refers to everything involving fire, light and electricity. At first, from the pantomimes, I thought they were talking about a fireworks display, but it quickly became apparent that they meant something was on fire that wasn't supposed to be. I had been wondering about the presence of the big red tanker truck that was always parked at the ABD, and I became illuminated as three office guys threw on their flip flops and headed out the door, asking if I wanted to come as they went.

So, we hopped in the cab and roared off. And they were probably the most laid back fire crew in the world. As we went, one of the guys kept playing with siren, honking it at girls and pretty much anyone else, and the other two cracked jokes back and forth and asked me how to say some fireman terminology in English.

At first I had been under the impression that a house was on fire, and my head filled with visions of running into a burning building and manning a big hose and I was excited and nervous, since I really wanted to help, but had no idea of what to do or how to do it.

But that didn't really matter. We shortly arrived at the site of the fire about 10 km away. Or rather, we arrived near it. It turned out that it was actually a field that was burning, explaining why there wasn't a great sense of urgency. Fields are regularly burned here (it was fallow), and the only thing that made this special was that apparently it wasn't intentionally set ablaze, and presumably steps to control the fire had not been prepared.

Anyhow, we got to the end of the little side road and started out onto the rice fields, but the guy driving decided the truck wasn't really the right vehicle to navigate the humps between rice paddies (typically gone over by motorcycles, pickups and tractors). So we sat for about 10 or 20 minutes looking at the smoke a few hundred meters away contemplating what to do. They made a few calls and talked to some onlookers to try to figure out if there was another way. They even had a guy scout ahead on his motorcycle to see if the way got better or worse (it got worse). Then we turned around and kept on going down the road to a house that had a private road out to the fields, closer to the fire. They scouted that road, decided it was too narrow, made the decision that a tractor was better equipped to deal with this fire (it could push dirt around and whatnot, and actually get to the fire), then we headed back to the ABD. Honking at pretty girls and joking all the way.

The only disappointing thing about the experience was that they wouldn't let me get up on the back of the truck to wave at my students playing volleyball when we went past my school. Actually, one guy was all for it, but the other two said it was dangerous. They did tell me they'd call me for the next fire, though.

We got back to the office about the time we usually wrap up the English session. I hung out for a few minutes (to see if the whiskey they'd been joking about would turn up) then headed home to tell everyone about my awesome experience.

So yeah. My status update is that things are going really well for me. I'm still doing more outside of my house and spending more time in my community, and I'm feeling really good about it. I wouldn't have gotten to ride in a fire truck if I hadn't started doing this, and I'd probably still feel frustrated and question my presence here.

Whoop whoop! (That's my fire truck whoop.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

One year in and feeling...

Today is the day that marks the completion of my first year of Peace Corps service in Thailand. That’s twelve months in the Land of Smiles. Fifty-two weeks of volunteer work. Three-hundred-sixty-five days surrounded by a foreign language and culture. Eight-thousand-seven-hundred-sixty hours trying to understand my role here. Five-hundred-twenty-five-thousand-six-hundred minutes of shifting moods and feelings. Thirty-one-million-five-hundred-thirty-six-thousand of the most challenging, rewarding, confusing, boring and exciting seconds of my life.

And I suppose that any of what I’ve done and experienced here alone might not be that monumental in terms of my life experience, but taken as a whole, this has probably been the most extraordinary period of my life to date. And I really like that word, “extraordinary.” Because it doesn’t really FEEL extraordinary anymore. I know I’ve talked before about how nothing here really fazes me anymore, but that’s because being here has changed me, not anything about the things around me changing. And I wouldn’t say that any of the changes have been particularly drastic. I’m a little more patient (though I thought I was pretty patient before), a little more “go-with-the-flow,” and I move a bit slower (though I think that has as much to do with adjusting to the weather and traveling with people with shorter legs than any internal change).

I feel incredibly fortunate that my personality seemed to fit into Thai society really well. I may not always know what’s going on, but I’m comfortable and like the people around me, and I feel like I fit in pretty well. I definitely know that isn’t the case for every volunteer, there are many still trying to adjust to “Thai people,” and I’m glad my experience seems easier than theirs.

I think I’ve been hung-over here as many times as I had in the rest of my life, and I’ve sung lots more karaoke than I ever had before. I’ve taken far more cold showers and pooped without sitting down more than ever before, too. I talk to my neighbors more than I ever did in the states, with minimal communication skills to boot.

But that’s all about my year in summation. I bet you want to hear more about my current state after my first year here. And I guess the best way to tell about that is to recap my time at site since returning from Bangkok.

I arrived back in my town before it was light out. I actually had a pretty comfortable trip back and managed to sleep a bit, so I wasn’t too disoriented, but I was still getting off a bus at quarter to six. I wandered around the market for a little while until my co-teacher/father arrived and took me back to the village. I spent a few hours at his house before I headed back to my own, stopping at my market to get some oranges. I got back to my house, and then… I kinda hit a low spot.

For a few weeks before I had left, there was water from a mystery source pooling on my kitchen floor, and my internet had been down for a long time. I had gotten used to both of these things and hadn’t been terribly concerned about either, but having just come home from a pleasant week in a pretty comfortable setting, they were pretty frustrating. I spent a few hours in my house, trying to adjust to being back at home, but the longer I was there, the more frustrated I felt. Finally, I realized that being in my house was the source of my frustration, so I decided to go for a walk.

I started walking with the mindset that I would walk until I felt better. I began walking with no particular direction, hoping to interact with some of my neighbors and feel like a part of the community a bit. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really find anyone who wanted to try and have a real conversation, and I ended up looking inward, trying to analyze the source of my frustration. Let’s just say that not being able to find someone to talk to made things worse, as it only made me feel less connected to my community. I began to question many things, but in general it was a, “What am I really doing here?” kind of time. For some time I have been rather dissatisfied with the way I spend my free time. I find that much of it is spent inside my house doing my own thing (playing on the internet or watching a movie or reading or listening to music) or at my co-teacher’s house in the next village. Sure I exchange pleasantries with my neighbors, but how much a part of the community am I really? How much do they know me, and how much do I know them? I had made resolutions to be more engaged in the past, but I had never really effected a real, lasting change in my behavior.

It was about this point when my mood bottomed out. My stomach was in knots, I was short of breath, and on the verge of tears. I stopped for a moment and looked around, found myself on a deserted road with houses on one side and rice fields on the other. I considered going home to sulk, and then remembered my intention to keep walking until I felt better, and I certainly hadn’t achieved that yet. So I took some deep breaths, tried to calm down, faced forward and kept walking. And maybe my mood didn’t lift right away, but I got my feelings under control and was able to think rationally.

I had a lot to think about from the Mid-Service Conference, hearing about everyone else’s successes and difficulties. We had a goal setting session and I declared that I wanted to be more involved with my community, to find a balance in how I spent my free time. A balance between being in my house, my co-teacher’s house and engaging with my community. But I was also faced with a fear that no matter what goal I set for myself, as before with any attempt to change my actions, I would simply regress to my current, dissatisfying ways. And that’s when I had my revelation. It’s never too late. Which maybe doesn’t seem like too great a revelation, but when I really thought about it, about what it really means, and means about my Peace Corps service, and what it could mean in terms of life in general, it really did feel like a revelation. As long as I am here and not packing my bags to go home, I can change (or at least TRY to change) anything. And so I did. I made a mental list of things to accomplish the next day, to talk to my landlord about the mystery puddles in my house and broken internet, to visit the Aw-Baw-Daw (local government office) to discuss my idea of working with adults to practice English I’d been kicking around for a while but had avoided doing because I felt either lazy or shy, and visit my village temple. Then I headed back home.

Before I made it to my door, my neighbor from across the road called me over, and before long I was drinking some local whiskey (moonshine made from sticky rice) and finally having that real conversation I’d been looking for.

The next day, I talked to my landlord, visited the Aw-Baw-Daw, and sat at the temple for half an hour or so. I have gone on a number of walks and had conversations with people I had never really talked to before. I have started trying to learn my students names (something I neglected to do at first since it’s hard for me to remember Thai names and I work with some 200 students, and I had resigned myself to not knowing their names as I was somewhat embarrassed to admit I didn’t know them, though I’m sure they knew I didn’t know), and I am now starting to call a handful of students by name and regularly ask students their names, even if I have already asked before. Eventually people started coming around to fix my plumbing and internet. After a handful of fruitless trips to the Aw-Baw-Daw I have started to practice English with a group of grown-ups. I’ve slept in my own house (as opposed to my co-teacher’s) far more than usual, and I spend less time hiding inside my house. In general I’m feeling much better about myself and my position here.

All that’s left now is to keep it up.

Su su! (That’s like the “fight fight!” cheer at a sporting event)

Saturday, January 16, 2010


(Saturday January 16, 2010, Thai Time)

Right now, I mean NOW now, as I am writing this, I am sitting in the Bangkok bus station, waiting to go back to my site. I have a few hours to wait, and I'm pretty due for a post, so I'm going to write this now and type it up when I get back home.

I've been here in Bangkok for almost a week for our Mid-Service Conference. Yeah, that's right. MID-Service. Like middle. In truth, it still hasn't quite been a year (that anniversary won't come for 12 more days), and I have about a year and three months to go after that, so it's not exactly mid, but it's pretty mid. Pretty wild, huh?

As far as official Peace Corps functions have gone, this one was very relaxed. I got in monday morning for our medical appointments (a flu shot and quick chat with the PC medical staff), then a dental exam at the hospital. And that was an experience.

A volunteer from the pervious group (will be going back to the states soon) warned few of us about a female dentist from last year who is very concerned about gingivitis and works quite painfully. When I entered the exam room, I noted that my doctor was a woman, she told me she was going to check me for gingivitis, then began carving up my gums. Not only did she dig painfully, but she carried on a conversation with her assistant, not always watching what she was doing. More than once, she (presumably accidentally) dug her tool into the meat of my gums and dragged it up onto the surface of my teeth. In spite of the pain (my hands remained tightly clenched in my lap for the duration), I had to fight to resist laughing when she explained that the blood whenever I rinsed was "because of gingivitis."

When she was finished with my cleaning and exam (this was the first time I'd ever had the actual dentist do my cleaning), she told me my teeth looked good, then launched into a long lecture on what gingivitis was and what it could do, breaking out big models of teeth to illustrate. She wrapped up by telling me not to eat raw meat at my site, because people eat with their hands where I live and doing so could put me at risk to contract hepatitis. And that was my trip to my Thai dentist, my only real dissappointment being that they did not take x-rays.

On Tuesday I went to the dermatologist and had a mole on my back removed (he showed me the removed chunk when I asked about it, which was way cool), which turned out to be, um, NOT melanoma, but at risk to become bad, so I'm glad it got taken off.
On Wednesday, all of us moved from wherever we had been staying (it was up to us during the medical time) to a hotel to have our meetings. And that was all the official business for the first three days of MSC. It was nice to have some free time (or a lot of free time) to re-connect and relax with other volunteers.

Our actual meetings, when they began, were quite laid back, with lots of opportunities for us to share and discuss our experiences, successes and frustrations from our sites. In the evenings we all continued to get our big city fun (though in more, smaller groups than in the past which I found interesting), and I nerded up and played some of the most enjoyable Dungeons & Dragons I have ever experienced with seven other volunteers.

On the last night, I went with five other volunteers (a pretty small, comfortable group for us) to have Muu Ga Ta, which is an awesome meal. They bring charcoal braziers to your table, with metal things that go on top shaped like a big cake pan with the middle area bulged up into a big dome. You pour broth (or maybe plain water, I'm not entirely sure) in the trough around the edge, and get raw meat and vegetables and noodles and sauce from a big buffet. You put chunks of fat on top of the bulge to flavor the water, grill meat on the rest of the exposed bulge (or boil it) and boil vegetables and noodles and meatballs and tofu in the water, making an awesome soupy meal that can just go on and on and on and on and is fun to eat and prepare. And there was a fat guy in neon green tights on a stage singing happy birthday every five minutes or so. He also sang "Zombie" by the Cranberries (a song I'd never heard before coming to Thailand), replacing all of the lyrics with the words "Happy Birthday." It was amazing.

Then we went back to the hotel and had a couple beverages in our rooms (and rounding up some more volunteers) before going down to the hotel bar and singing karaoke until they closed and asked us to leave. Definitely my best karaoke experience to date, and I've had some pretty good ones.

Then today we wrapped things up and one thing led to another and I found myself here, in the cafeteria at the Bangkok bus station (well, one of the bus stations), waiting for my bus. And I will say that this has been my most enjoyable time in Bangkok. Usually I'm anxious to leave after just a day or two, but this time I don't NEED to leave. Although, I do look forward to getting back to my home and not spending anymore money in Pangkok. Hah. That's my new joke that I just made up, and it's funny because "pang" means expensive.

Hey. It's six o'clock. Being the bus station at six o'clock is awesome. Every day on TV and radio (everywhere in the country, on every station) they play the national anthem (at eight in the morning, too, but it's evening now). Back home that doesn't mean much, but at the bus station, with a large group of people, everyone stands and all activity stops for the duration of the song. It's relatively quiet, and you can hear the song clearly. Then it ends and everything resumes as if there were no interruption. Awesome. Literally. Like awe-inspiring.

Anyhow, this relaxed, low-pressure Peace Corps week has felt like a mandatory mental health break, and I've enjoyed it. I've had some enjoyable new experiences in Bangkok and found a few more places and things I like. I've had a good time re-connecting with other volunteers.
The new Peace Corps group will be arriving here soon and I will be a senior volunteer. And that's a trip. I remember meeting volunteers from group 120 and being really impressed with their language skills and their ability to navigate life in Thailand, and soon that will be me. Yow.
I suppose I could say more on that topic, but I feel like I have more reflecting to do and I think I'll save that for my one year anniversary post.