Sunday, September 22, 2013

Chapter 6: Where Is There?

“Let’s go over there!”

“Over there…”
“What’s over there?”
“I dunno.”
“How are we getting there?”
“I dunno….”
“So.. why there?”
“Why not?”

Between Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, wine country and Northern California, Victoria and Vancouver in British Columbia, and 5 different cities in Thailand, Jeff and I have both instigated countless conversations such as the one above.  You already know where I’m going with this… the journey off the beaten path or our uninformed decision led to some special discovery or encounter.  We question each other at times, yes.  We never regret it.  Part of it may be upbringing, but much of it is a lack of money, technology, and expectation.

  • The beauty of not having money:

When you stay at a first class hotel:  The concierge plans tomorrow’s itinerary, hands over your attraction tickets, opens the door to your Lincoln, books a table at a fine restaurant, and brings you Starbucks (because you already know that nobody else can make a vanilla chai latte the way they can, and why even risk it?).  When you purchase a guaranteed intra-destination transportation ticket with a precise schedule:  You know when you leave, when you get there, and every turn, stop, and surprise to expect along the way.   

I can hire a Lincoln, visit expensive tourist attractions, eat at a fancy restaurant, stay at a resort, go to Starbucks, and get upset at late transportation in Arizona. I'll take a cheap place to sleep, where the locals know I'm broke, and can get me to the same places cheaper.  And more eventfully. 

  • The beauty of not having technology:

Open your iPhone:  Lonely Planet’s app recommends this.  Google Maps tells how to get there.  TripAdvisor says what to do.  When people ask me how a trip was, the last thing I will ever say is, “Hey, went exactly as planned!  It was everything I expected.”  That’s what airline pilots should say, not travelers. Close the phone.  Open your mind.

Pressed napkins, 30th floor hotel rooms, and fluent English speaking tour guides who get you to the elephant farm in a cushioned Mercedes van are nice at the time.  And of course they have good reviews -from people that don't know how much they're missing.  I have more memories from the National Lampoon-like experiences than the overpriced frills. 

  • The beauty of not having expectations:

Why would anyone show up at a city without a hotel reservation?  Why would anyone walk down a street without checking out Yelp’s restaurant reviews first?  Why would you visit the #37 rated attraction instead of the #1?  Well, because the number one attraction was crowded and restricting.  Because the hotel you found on a whim is actually wonderful, but they don't advertise on Expedia.  And the restaurant was appreciative of your business so they brought you a free plate of fruit.   Because when you discard expectations, you discard letdowns.  And suddenly you’re satisfied with less, you’ve saved money, and you’ve tried more.  

Sure, sometimes it is nice to just stretch out on a beach that you don’t have back home.   But your entire trip does not need to be a pre-planned checklist itinerary.

‘Explore’ and ‘adventure’ is not always elephant riding or tiger petting.  Sometimes it is ordering food you don’t know, ignoring Google  Maps, choosing a hotel once you’re there, and forgetting TripAdvisor’s recommendation because spontaneity took you somewhere else.    Just interacting with people who did not expect a tourist to admire their product or service (or just... a tourist) is a rare joy.  And sometimes it comes with a free sandwich and extra postcards. 

No, not every surprise, accident, and mystery will be a raving success.  But if your first two attempts are swinging strikes and you get a base hit on the third, it was worth going to bat.  

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Chapter 5ii: Mai Pen Rai

Mai Pen Rai (my-pin-lye)
adj., v., n.

It’s okay.  It’s all good.  Nevermind.  No worries.  Doesn’t matter.  It is what it is.  It’s nothing.  Oh well.  Don’t get mad, get glad.  Stuff happens.  Don’t worry.  Just smile.


95% of the country is Buddhist.  Therefore, 95% of the country will not dwell on something one cannot change.  95% of the country does not know what ‘upset’ means.  Sharing and collaboration replace the American ways of individualism and competition.  The term “mai pen rai” epitomizes this way of life.  It’s a common expression whose meaning is elusive, and trying to completely understand it is the dizzying mental equivalent of eating jello with chopsticks.  Frustrating?  Mai Pen Rai!

On one hand, this is a wonderful philosophy.  Situation is out of your control?  Oh well.  Don’t get mad, get glad.  Stuff happens.  Just smile.  Can’t change it right?

On another hand, this is a terrible philosophy.  Situation is life threatening?  It’s all good.  Don’t worry.  It’s nothing.  Doesn’t matter.  It is what it is.  Just smile.  Can’t change it right?

The country with the highest death rate by motor traffic accidents in all of Asia, and the 6th highest in the entire world, is one whose people are exceptionally fatalistic.  A higher power is thought to be at work and if you die, well, you were meant to.  Consequently, personal and road safety tend to be low priority for Thais.

  • Red traffic light.  Should I stop or should I go?  For a Thai, they’ll likely leave it to a coin flip (with the hand that’s not holding the cell phone, laundry, and bamboo stalk).  As a foreigner, I am taught to gently engage the brakes when approaching an intersection and stop once I arrive at one (more on that below).  Or another car.  Or a pedestrian.  Or wall.  But if there’s a Thai behind you, you’re playing their version of Russian roulette.  Many have no expectation of you stopping, nor any intention of stopping themselves.   You never know who does or who doesn't.  So what do you do?  If you’re on a motorcycle or scooter (which is probably... 95%... of the population, as well), get as far left as you can – as soon as you can.  That could mean the sidewalk or in between tables at a street food vendor.  Mai Pen Rai!
  • Tailgating.  Whether there are an eye-popping total of two vehicles on the road or a thousand, and whether their average speed is 120 km/hr or 20 km/hr, traffic is the same:  bumper-to-bumper.  Undeniably one of the more pernicious aspects of road travel, and I have lost count of the number of times my rear view is clear and in seconds, Jeff Gordon’s younger Thai brother, Chanarong, is 4.3 mm from my rear, flashing his lights for me to move over to the shoulder.  This is only a mild exaggeration.  Mai Pen Rai!
  • Braking.  The bus driver flips a coin.  Tails.  Okay, he’ll stop at this red light.  But, wait!  It won’t be red when we get there.  Just kidding, sure it will.  Time to slam hard on the brakes!  I don't know the appeal of playing chicken with red lights, but every driver does it.  What results is an unintentional, full body, human wave moving towards the front of the vehicle.  The elderly lady, going home from the market, is now seated on the cracked wooden floor.  Sumalee, the cute 7-11 clerk, has dropped her purse, phone, dinner, and pet dog to grab on to the last remaining overhead hand strap.  Pravat, a member of the Royal Thai Armed Forces, crowdsurfs the university students who are now distraught that their hair has been ruffled and makeup smeared.  The woman fare collector gets knocked down, but she gets back up again.  And the old guy in the back?  “Mai Pen Rai!”

Monday, August 26, 2013

Chapter 5i: How Did I Get Here?

I have never wanted to be a stand-up comedian, but I’m good at it.  In Thailand.  When I speak Thai. 

I have never wanted to laugh in the midst of humiliation.  But I can’t help it.

I have never wanted to smile at the school janitor, the taxi driver, the waiter, the painter, the lady who doesn’t speak my language, or the money collector on the bus.  But they do, so I do.

I have never wanted to say that the best decision I have made for my life was drunk.  But it was.

Tonight, the restaurant owner and live band insisted I drank with them… On the house.  A month ago, the person behind me in the ATM line gave up her place in a long line because I forgot my card and ran down to the previous floor of the mall to give it back. Two weeks ago, the bus driver detoured to cater to my convenience.  Last weekend, I was walking along the road and offered front door service by a passing by pickup truck.  Every day.. I leave my doors unlocked…  my bicycle on the street… my iPhone on the table, and am never concerned about the safety of my belongings.

I am almost twenty four years old.  I earned a respectable college degree, I have a reasonable chance of getting into a decent graduate school, and I have goals.  These goals would require accumulating debt with which I would find myself saddled as I begin my career and maybe a family.

I’ve been asked how I got here.  

In a simple answer, I want to see the world.  I want to immerse myself into a culture – not just visit the foreign tourist traps designed to satisfy a 2 week holiday.   Such an experience, at the fundamental level, requires time.  Time requires money.  I am not blessed with money, thus the only way to sustain a lifestyle in which I get to see the world is to work while traveling.  Such options are limited, but many countries need English and don't speak it.

I had nothing *really* tying me down in the United States.  Most of us don’t.  Employers want experience, and few are willing to give it.  That scenario renders my Pre-Health Bachelor's Degree virtually useless.   Meanwhile, I have a teaching certification that took 4 intense weeks and a lot of coffee to obtain.  And I have no teaching experience.  Yet, I am an invaluable asset to a rural high school in Thailand, earning twice as much as the native teachers.

Wanting to see the world is a goal I’m sure many people can relate to.  Tonight, I spoke Thai to someone who speaks no English.  In return, he spoke English to someone who speaks no Thai.  In a month, I have amassed more pictures, memoirs, and recollections than I thought I would in the full 7 months.  Maybe I lack maturity in these aspects, but I have no desire to pay back loans or start a family.. yet.  I want to try deep fried frog.  I want to wear silk shirts.  I want to hear Rock music in a language I don’t understand. 

Perhaps most importantly, I want to see MY life through someone else’s. 

What potentially stopped me from making an inebriated decision with Jeff at our usual Irish bar a reality?  Well... Nothing, really.  The fear of the unknown and abandoning the comfort of familiarity?  Too often, people contrive illusions about the obstacles that bar their path to adventure.  I had as much at stake as you do.  Maybe not the same things, but maybe just as much.  Jobs, obligations, a relationship, etc.  Your adventure may not be teaching in a developing country for 6 months, having your blood sucked by flying insects, living in the tropics with no A/C or hot water, waging war on ants, or dealing with the metric system.  Understandable.  But you have one.  Find it and do it. 

And if not?  Offer someone a drink.  Or a ride.  Go out of your way for someone you don't know, have never cared about, and may never see again.  It might make a difference in their life.  It might make a difference in yours.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Chapter 5: First Day of School

"Goohd mawning teachaa"

For Westerners, Suphanburi's claim to fame is either the 10-story Chinese dragon or their wanna-be Space Needle (or CN Tower, depending on your alliances).  Neither has a bar inside.  Disappointing.

It is August, and I have barged in to my school at the end of the term like a new kid on the block.  Keep in mind, I have no idea when the end of the term actually is; Could be October, could be January.  They haven’t… told anyone yet.  The kids are teenagers, so not quite the cute devils I envisioned corrupting.  Just devils.  They even throw down the pitchfork (see above).  They talk, and talk, and talk… until you want them to talk - then they become deaf mutes.  The silence is awkward; their dark eyes just fixate on me like an alien.  And I stand there.  And I stare back, scouring the room for someone who knows what the crap “What Is Your Name?” means.  Then they smile.  And it’s all good again.  Speaking of smiles - when I walk down the outside halls, they wave and say “Hehrro, teachaa!!” and it’s just impossible not to smile and wave back.  I have never seen so many smiling faces in a classroom or school.  Not even on yearbook day.

Admittedly, it took me 10 minutes on my first day to decide which tie I wanted to wear.  Appearance over substance:  My competence is based on how I present myself.  Makes sense, right? Why would methodology, lesson planning, or communication be important for a teacher of a second language?  Or third.  Or fourth. 
Many of these kids apparently engage in Chinese and Japanese languages at the school as well.  And they can’t speak any of them.  Or they mix it.  Who knows.  Throughout my days, I listen to the Thai teachers teaching English.  It takes a good 10-15 seconds to realize what language it actually is.  They are wonderful, bless their hearts, at grammar and sentence structure.   The kids can identify a noun like nobody’s business.  Ask them to speak it?  Silence.. stare.. smile.  :)

I had a rather incorrect preconceived notion of what the students would be like before I got here: well mannered, silent, diligent, assembly line status - all uniform.  But, alas, the only consistency in existence are the uniforms themselves:  White shirts, navy blue skirts/shorts, and the haircuts.  Right below the ear for girls (bangs mandatory), and ½ inch long for boys. 

The school itself is, miraculously, almost as non-expressive and monotonous.  Like any institutional trap in the States, color is almost nonexistent, amenities are basic (squat-toilets and no A/C?), and the grounds are surrounded by giant used-to-be-white walls topped with barbed wire for good measure.  Certainly, no intruder would voluntarily want in, so I assume this is to keep the students from getting out. 

I teach 14 different one-hour classes per week, and have no intention of asking for more.  I use the same lesson plan for every class that week, and my goal is for them to be able to introduce themselves, tell me how they feel, how to get somewhere, what they like, don’t like, and maybe order food or tell time.  Trust me, it’s all more ambitious than it sounds.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Chapter 4i: A Day In The Life

It was an unfamiliar sound I woke up to this morning.  A human voice, a melodic verse, yes.  But was it comprised of words?  Perhaps an incantation?  It will take a more ambitious morning to find those answers.  To be certain, it was coming from the high school.  Where it lacks in aesthetic qualities, it suffices in its auditory pleasures.  This, despite the sounds prevailing at an ungodly hour of the morning.

While the high school itself possesses a rudimentary and institutional front, it epitomizes Thailand.  Modernization simply cannot be found, and in a sense, maybe that is good.  There is something nostalgic about watching children ascend cracked wooden steps and mosey through the outdoor wooden corridors, a pair of leather shoes in their grasp. 

It was a desperate, yet futile attempt to return to my euphoric state of sleep.  A mob of stray and owned dogs arrived at a disagreement at a nearby house and the bickering that ensued proved impossible to disregard.  The temperature was mildly acceptable; it was warmer in the house than outside.  But the light.  Ah, the light.  Yes, it was settled; the day simply will not cheat me.  If the town is awake, so am I.

And so I gallantly rose from the concrete slab I reside on for five hours each night.  Unfortunately, the trek from bedroom to bathroom, which, interestingly, can only be accessed through the kitchen, was not so spirited.  My lead topped eyes did not agree with being open.  Had there been furniture – any furniture – in my living room, it would still be sore from knocking into my shins. 

In many cultures, it takes a good minute to allow running water to reach a warm, comfortable temperature.  Here, one will impoverish the town’s supply of water, and accrue an impressive electric bill – even by Western standards – waiting for such an occurrence.  Hot water is a luxury nowhere to be found for many a kilometer.  For spoiled folk, cold showers are not an easy adaptation.  Quick, perhaps.  But not easy.  I had a friend today, and took some comfort in my first morning shower with companionship.  However, he took little, if any notice of me.  It was the trail of microscopic ants leading up the corner crevice that caught his eye.  And as he scurried closer and closer to them, defying gravity with glue-like feet, his long olive green body vanished into an otherwise unbeknownst sector of the corner of the wall.  I shut the water off.

My stomach longed for a meal.  Wheat bread, oatmeal, and bananas would pleasantly suffice.  What a disappointment, then, to realize that even ants need food.  My counter was serving as a buffet for even earlier risers than I.  The bread seemed to move and of course many were enjoying dessert first as these six-legged insects crawled up, down, sideways, and diagonally on the surfaces of my only source of fruit.  My first
thought was to respray the kitchen counter with insecticide.  I had been outsmarted.  Even the can was held captive by these seemingly immune critters.  With sixteen minutes to transform my towel-wrapped self into a presentable schoolteacher, tie and all, I simply had no time to rectify the situation. 

Moisture consumes the air, and there is simply no way around it.  Riding the motorbike a grand distance of a third of a kilometer provokes my sweat glands.  By the time I have parked, walked to the office to sign in, and proceeded to the coffee shop, the freshness of my morning shower has long dissipated.  But after thirty-five baht, some translation difficulties, and nearly ten minutes of waiting, I am equipped with my vitalizer.  Cah-fey yin, or iced coffee, is quite the concoction.  A cappuccino mix and what appears to be equal mixtures of evaporated and sweetened condensed milk is the perfect blend of strong and sweet.  Every morning at eight, the students are immersed in the singing of the national anthem and an assembly, much like the morning announcements at any other high school.  I believe this to be given by the director through use of a megaphone.  This theory will be tested at a later date.

The teachers’ ‘lounge’ is indoors, to be technical.  But it has an open entrance and the ceiling fans barely lessen the severity of the heat and humidity.   The computers are in Thai and the wired connection is hit or miss.  Hours upon hours are spent in the dungeon reading curriculum and researching activities to do in future lessons.  Inconclusive.

So I sit and think sometimes.  I am here to teach.  I am here to learn.  I wonder, can there be one without the other?  My conscience chuckled as I realized the distinct possibility of learning more than my students.  After all, I see ‘them’ twelve times this week, soon to be more.  But ‘they’ see me once:  each class meets with each English teacher once per week.  As the beads, or streams, of sweat crash down my forehead, neck, arms, and torso, it is easy to step into class prepared to lecture, read from books, or train robots.  No.  Be enthusiastic!  Engage and be engaging.  Turn a self-introductory lesson into a game.  Crumple up a piece of paper.  Throw it around the class.  Make them speak to me.  Make them speak to each other.  Play duck-duck-goose.  Sing the alphabet song.  Butcher names.  Does it really matter WHAT they say?  No.  I am here to teach.  They are here to learn.  Those who want to, will.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Chapter 4: Don Chedi, Suphanburi, Thailand

Here we go.


To travel half the country on ground:  560 Baht.  From the beach town of Hua Hin in Southern Thailand to the semi-rural region of Suphanburi in Central Thailand, I spent less than $20.  The journey took considerably longer than the mileage (kilometerage?) would indicate; Thais do things at their own laid-back, relaxed pace, always with a smile on their face.  Schedules are mere suggestions and being in a rush is reserved for emergencies.  They make the best of all situations and fail to understand visual signs of irritation.  In fact, the more agitated one becomes at them, the greater their smiles.  Thai culture is preoccupied with pleasing others, and will lie, misinform, and blindly respond rather than admitting to a lack of understanding or knowledge.  Questions must be asked multiple times to multiple people and your multiple answers must be taken with a grain of salt. 

Side patio

Thailand attracts many international visitors and continually exports goods.  English is an essential commodity to Thais, and in addition to the need to appeal to tourism and English-speaking industries, many students study abroad in an effort to gain experiences necessary to rise above the middle-lower classes.  This demand for native English speakers in Thailand makes the job a popular choice among Westerners (“Farangs”) who wish to live well in another country.

Living Room

Thus, when one such person arrives in the country (which already values appearance over substance) the need to make living situations appeal to Western expectations is not only important, but mandatory.  Communicating with Thai schools can be tricky.  Our program placed me with an agent who serves as the middleman.  He is commissioned for each month I teach at the school.  His pay and mine are independent from one another:  I am on salary and he gets a fixed rate as well.  However, it is in his best interest that I remain at the school and will go out of their way to make sure we are happy.  My and Jeff’s agent is Michael Collins, a retired Canadian airline pilot and flight instructor with a Thai wife.  He is spoiled and understands the Western culture well.  Do not confuse this with a lack of heart or appreciation for Thailand and its need for us; he and his wife operate the store and teach a combined 40 classes per week at the local private primary school in Suphanburi city.


His wife found me a two bedroom, one bath house for rent by a Thai teacher at my school and arranged a monthly rate of 3500 Baht plus utilities and WiFi.  $170/month for accommodation.  Food is negligible, but perhaps my greatest expense, at $180-200 for food and grocery.  Michael has bought me a brand new motorbike and is leasing it to me for $63 a month, after fuel considerations.  Free maintenance.  It will be essential for commute to school and the nearby "city" (using the shoulders and making minimal turns).  To use my pay-as-I-go phone, I am facing a $13/month charge for a $10 phone.  I live in a very welcoming community, have already been approached for after-hours tutoring (good source of money), and can enjoy the view of my backyard rice-paddy.

Front patio

The owner is installing air conditioning in one bedroom as I type.  She is bringing in a sofa for the living room and pots and pans for the kitchen.  Thais rarely cook.  Stoves and ovens do not exist in homes.  To my knowledge, a portable stove and refrigerator will become available later this month after other English teachers merge residences in the nearby city.  Michael has bought me a steel frame king-sized bed, a wood wardrobe, full bedding, a floor fan, a desk and chair, hot water kettle, dishware, amongst other miscellaneous items to get me on my feet.  Despite such lavish treatment, I certainly am willing to relinquish some luxuries, trading laundry service for a bucket and detergent, urban life for rural, and refusing the free TV.


It’s a simpler life.  It’s modest.  It’s humbling.  And until you’ve had the chance to see your comfortable bubble from another perspective, you have not lived.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Chapter 3ii: Discovering New Comfort Zones in Hua Hin

"Sawadee Kap"

I will make bad decisions.  I will mess up.  I will embarrass myself.  I will hate my life.  I will miss home.  I will question myself and my abilities.  I will drink beer alone.  I will long for companionship.  I will give up.  I will lose hope.

And this is precisely what inspires and motivates me.  It is why this will be the best time of my life. 

Twenty-two people, of differing backgrounds and English-speaking origins, unite in a developing country.  We all have a similar purpose, but our justifications are largely selfish.  For some, they are escaping familiarity and comfort.  For some, they want spicy food and cheap beer.  For others, they want to assimilate into another culture and travel.

Few of us have taught.  Few of us have worked with children.  Few of us have stepped foot in the country.  None of us have spoken the language.  And for all of us, fear and discomfort envelopes a fa├žade of security and confidence.  For now, we are each others’ crutch.  When we get lost, run short on Baht, order the wrong food, and escape death on public transport, we are reassured by recognizable smiles and a common language and background.

In one week, we have become a family; our curiosities, secrets, motives, and desires have served as catalysts to bonds typically reserved for months of interaction.  With this family, I have experienced blessing by a Buddhist monk at the Khao Tao temple and received a fortune reading.  I have fed, hugged, and played with elephants.  I have bagged food for over 2,000 rescued dogs.  I have cooked Pad Thai and spring rolls.  I have eaten deep fried frog.  I have had wordless conversations.  I have been waved at by school children.  I have been clapped at for taking my shoes off as I enter a building.  I have been smiled at as I bowed for the King passing by.  I have trekked the beach at night.  I have divulged my life to strangers.

In one day, I will be greeted at a bus station in Suphanburi, Thailand.  I will likely part with Jeff as our school placements, 30 km apart, will render it difficult to share accommodation.  For rent, food, transportation, and other living expenses, I will expect to spend $400 a month, leaving $700 at my disposal for October travel during the country’s school break.  I have no idea what I am doing.  There is one 7-11 in my rural town.  Nobody will speak English and my Thai is unacceptable.  I am scared and I am excited.  But I am ready to bridge the gap between the Yin and Yang of cultures.  Here we go.