Wednesday, June 1, 2011

So It Goes


I stood, body next to bike, in the middle of the street.  Beads of sweat on my forehead formed into crystal balls under the pressure of the sun.  The road ran on, curving into mountains like a little child lost in the curves of its grandmother.  Men and women crouched in the rice paddy next to me, throwing their nets into the water.  Behind me was the school, ahead of me just that open lonely road.  What did this place look like before this road?  What did the bulldozers kill?  What was life in a place like this before televisions, trucks, pesticides?  What will this place be after me? 

A thousand miles from here they are building a road in Nepal.  A few months ago I hiked through the remote villages on the Annapurna Circuit, drinking tea with the mothers and running around with the toddlers.  Once some of the poorest people in the world, these people now live good lives.  The trail that carved through their villages brought trekkers from all over the world, which in turn brought donations for schools and business for the guesthouses.  However, within the next year that is all going to change.  They are building a road that will bypass the majority of the trek.  Now people will be able to hop in a jeep and see a view from the top of the earth that was meant to be earned.  And all those little villages along the way will be left in the dust.  Just like my little village in Thailand.

In order for the Peace Corps to send a volunteer to a site they must be requested by someone in the community.  It only takes one person and a few agreeing parties.  Then Peace Corps staff comes to visit the site.  Twice.  In my case, the principal from one my schools requested a volunteer, mostly because as I would come to discover, having a farong (foreigner) at your school earns you great bragging rights.  My co-teachers who I am actually supposed to be working with are apathetic at best.  And understandably so.  I, with no teaching certificate, no real desire to be a teacher, have come to tell them how to do their job better, to convince them to do something they don’t even want to do.  The only thing I bring to the table is my fluency in English, but even that seems more trivial every day.  After all, no one here speaks English and no one really needs to.  The vast majority of citizens grow up here, marry here, have children here, and stay here.  They have bountiful farms and homes amidst jaw dropping scenery. 

In order to use English the children I am teaching would have to leave this community.  They, like many others in Thailand, would go to the cities of Bangkok and Chiang Mai.  They might work in tourism, manipulating captured elephants and accompanying foreign hikers to exploit the quiet lives of hill tribe residents.  Or even more likely they would work for foreign companies where they would earn a fraction of what they deserve since this is Southeast Asia and the profits certainly aren’t staying here.  It’s not surprising the U.S. is so eager to send over volunteers to educate their future work force.  And what would become of that town they left behind in the hills of Mae On?  A farm without hands doesn’t grow and a community without young people cannot survive. 

In the midst of it all, the past and future, the hot spot on this road, my morals must lie somewhere.  On paper, the Peace Corps is a very good thing.  What a lovely blot it would be on my resume.  But here, in this country, in this program, in this town, I can’t help but acknowledge that it is just catalyst for a pretty poster of Kennedy and an excuse for a bunch of us to congratulate ourselves on being great humanitarians.  My faith in purely philanthropic intentions is crumbling faster than the governments in the Middle East.  Obviously, I can only speak for the site I was sent to in the country I was assigned, but it was with this realization that I made a heartbreaking decision.

The day I left Mae On I sat inside my suitcase, in the middle of the living floor of my empty house.  The wind was swinging the front door open and shut as I watched footage of Americans celebrating the death of Bin Laden on the television screen.  It was hard to tell which scenario made me sicker.

To my surprise, I didn’t cry when we drove away.  I simply watched the hills turn to dust and the dust turn to dark.  That youthful ambition to change the world died a little more inside.  Yet, at the same time something new was growing-a desire to shape my world on my own terms, without the help of charlatans in suits pushing for development at any cost. 

Goodbye Thailand, hello freedom.  Now what could be more patriotic than that? 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Cow Hugs and a Pajama Party


It must be before five, yet the rooster insists that it is morning.  The heat has already descended on my room, but I ignore it, soaking up the cool waves from the fan.  Less than an hour later my door flies open and Mae descends upon my bed.  “Amy!” she shrieks as if we have not seen each other in years.  It has been six hours.   Though I know she doesn’t understand, but I groan a response in English because it is far too early for my brain to start processing Thai.  Mae is fourteen and loaded with energy.  She insists that I rise out of bed to come assist her in feeding the monks.  After more groaning I decide this is a worthy activity even if it is a Sunday meant for sleeping. 

Outside we kneel in the gravel in our pajamas as the line of monks comes to pass us by.  We place ramen and dry rice in their silver bowls, careful not to touch them.  Mae instructs me to bow and kneel as if I haven’t done this several times before.  Though I am a teacher in the community, I am often reminded how much I have to learn.  The monks continue on and I dream of snuggling back into my hard bed, but that dream will have to come to pass as well.  Instead, I sit cross legged on the floor of the wooden house, joining my host family for a breakfast of sticky rice and vegetables.  Normally I enjoy Thai food but today’s vegetables taste like a dog kennel smells.  I nibble on the rice.

Even though it is summer break in Thailand, the children rise early to play loudly.  I laze around, relishing in the English words on the page of my book.  After two cups of bitter Nescafe I resolve to practice reading Thai, which is slightly more productive but a far slower process.  Naturally, I am quickly bored of this process and decide to see what the neighborhood children are up to.  They are in the street, screaming and throwing water on passing motorbikes.  Even though we just ate breakfast they are ready to hop over to the closest noodle shop for lunch.  I’m happy for food that doesn’t remind me of hairballs.

I order my noodle soup, sans meatballs and the whole restaurant murmurs about the strange foreigner who doesn’t eat meat.  I douse my soup with chili pepper and this gives me bonus points even if I didn’t eat the meat.  There are at least four condiments on every table and the kids make sure they add them all to their soup, including several tablespoons of sugar.  After the soup is gone they order condensed milk and sugar blended with neon colors which they call delicious, but I pass on it. 

Once everyone has come down from their sugar highs the hottest time of day has dropped like a sheet from the sky, signaling nap time.  A handful of teens lie spread on the thin mattress on the ground floor of the house, watching Thai music videos until they fall asleep.    I feign tiredness until they are all soundly asleep around me, whence I carefully remove myself from the mattress and sneak outside.  Thais are incredibly social creatures, which is what makes them so fun to be around, but as a independent American it often exhausts me.  I look forward to nap time as my time to just ‘be’ without an audience.

I quietly roll my bicycle out of the carport and head for the open road.  My host family has all the right intentions, but is still obscenely protective.  Even riding my bike solo is considered dangerous, thus the only time I am able to sneak off alone for some exercise is while everyone sleeps.  Though it is the hottest time of day, it is the nicest time to ride because the whole community is sleeping, making me less of a target to be gawked at. Of course, there are always the straggling children who refuse sleep and stand guard with their buckets of water. 

Thailand celebrates its New Year by throwing water on every moving thing in sight.  I take the mountain road, hoping there will be less people standing armed, but by the time my wheels leave the pavement and find the dirt road I am already soaked from head to toe.  The dirt road goes for nearly five miles, winding up and down the mountainside.  Farmers drive by me on their motorbikes, carrying huge bundles of baby corn and toothless grins.  Some people even stop dead in their tracks at the sight of a foreigner on this desolate road in Northern Thailand.  The bright green helmet is a bit of a giveaway.

The sounds of Thai pop music and traffic fade away and I find myself at the end of the road, gazing out at a large lake hidden like a whisper in a crowd.  I sit on the log, allowing myself a moment to breathe and allow the sweat to stop pouring down my temples.  Although I am constantly surrounded by people with watchful eyes, I am suffering from a new kind of loneliness.  The kind where I crave to be alone, crave to be somewhere where I am not the object of attention.  I have taken on a level of fame in the community that makes me want to hide within my own skin.  Of course that would be the worst place to hide since it was my skin color that made me famous. 

The mountains are ringing in a melodic song from the bells jangling from the cows’ necks as they cross through the hills.  A herd of them cross in front of me, most of them oblivious to my presence, with the exception of one cow that has stopped in its tracks at the sight of me.  She watches me curiously as I bravely walk toward her.  It occurs to me that no one had probably ever shown the slightest form of affection to these creatures.  Then again, cows probably do not crave affection like us unfortunate humans.  In my own search for comfort in a foreign land, I cautiously reached out my hand to pet this strange creature.  To my surprise the cow seemed to enjoy being pet and even took a step closer to me when I initially pulled away.  She then lowered her head and rested it against my thigh, coming as close as a cow can come to hugging.  I was touched, and not just by the cow drool that was dripping onto my toes.  The farmer was calling the cows home and with some resistance my new friend left me and headed for the pasture.  I returned to my bike with a renewed sense of belonging. 

When I returned home I was instructed to shower and change my clothes because we were going to a party.  In this rural farming community getting ready meant choosing my cleanest pajama bottoms and leaving my hair down.  Everything seemed very hurried so I rushed to get ready only to sit on the porch waiting for the girls to powder their noses for another hour.  When we finally departed I climbed into the back of the truck with a handful of other neighbors, grateful that fancy hairdos were a thing of the past. 

The parties here often remind me of high school when someone’s parents would go out of town.  The boys sit in a circle on the floor of one side of the room, the ladies on the other.  There is blaring bad pop music that everyone is drunkenly singing along to and occasionally a female dance party will erupt.  The notable exception is that instead of Doritos and card games in the center of the circle, there are dozens of bowls filled with a variety of noodle and rice dishes.  As soon as I sit down in the ladies circle several of these bowls are thrust in front of me.  Regardless of how many times I claim to be full, several different people will instruct me to eat throughout the night.  

The women offer me a drink which I accept, asking for only a small amount of liquor.  One must be precarious when drinking in Thailand because in many circles it is not appropriate for a woman to drink or smoke, so I am always careful to feel out the water first.  Or in this case, the whisky.  
My host mother seemed very concerned that I was drinking, even though her glass was being constantly refilled.  I assure her that even though I am a volunteer, I am also an adult and I am allowed to drink alcohol.  She still insists that I have only one drink.  I press on, promising that Americans drink a lot of whisky.  This seems to put her at ease and I realize her concern was that I had never had whisky before and would get very ill.  That’s cute. 

There have been all sorts of firsts in Thailand.  My big nose is revered, my chubby tummy is often publicly discussed, and I am suddenly the tallest person in the room.  Sometimes I think life in this cow field is so boring I might lose my mind, but then again where else could I find myself hugging cows and dancing in my pajamas while elderly women pinch my rice belly?

Thai-napped at the Elephant Camp


One suitcase, one luggage bag, one box filled with books, one backpack, and a purse for the handy items.  That was my life.  Funny enough, I have more possessions to transport in Thailand than I have possessed in the last year.  With my luggage in the boot I peered out the window of my Thai counterpart’s car, waving last goodbyes to other volunteers as we pulled away from the hotel and eventually the city. 

The principal of one of the school’s I will be working, and my new supervisor, is a classy gal.  To be a principal in Thailand is a highly respected job and one usually reserved for men. The image I conjure of her stems from when I came to visit the school a few weeks back on a site visit.  I was sitting in the cafeteria eating lunch, when I look over to see her in her government uniform (think tassels) and pumps, holding a vintage Thai umbrella with ornate flowers painted on it.  She held it like Mary Poppins, wading through the beams of sunlight that seem to follow her everywhere she goes.  It is only appropriate that she is also the owner of a well established elephant camp in Chiang Mai.  Her mansion is located within the city of Chiang Mai, which is where I spent my first two nights. 

After enjoying the luxury of a hot shower and a sit-down toilet, I hopped in the car, unsure of what the day would hold.  We headed for Pat’s elephant farm where she said she had a meeting to attend.  We drove far out into the country, surrounded by a sea of green rice paddies and hills.  There were dozens of elephants in barn stalls, performing shows, giving rides to tourists.  I have my qualms with using animals as a tourist attraction, but I had to admit they were pretty darn charming and they seemed happy enough.  Plus, who can resist watching an elephant paint a picture?

Pat was busy doing work related activities so I was set free upon the camp, a rare opportunity in this country where my hand is held when I cross the street.  For once I was not the only white person in sight; there were heaps of tacky tourists here so I happily blended into the crowd.  I watched the elephant show several times, fed the baby elephants bananas and bamboo, raided the buffet on a couple of occasions and settled on daydreaming and watching the elephants bathe in the river.  The meeting looked to be nearly over, but I should have known better.  The meeting turned out not to be for the elephant camp employees, but for all the principals in the area.  After the powerpoints commenced the principals received complimentary elephant rides, in which I took partook. 

Everyone was walking down the river and I was ushered to join in on a bamboo raft.  Mine sank a little, but the cool water felt great after a hot day.  Several Huck-Finn style rafts floated along, resembling the jungle cruise at Disneyland, though I couldn’t help but think that it should feel the other way around.  Despite their respectable suits and ties, a few shots of whiskey turned those twenty principals into screaming monkeys, hopping from raft to raft as we sailed down river.  By the time we reached the shore it felt more like a frat party than a work day. 

We returned to the elephant camp to find numerous bowls of food scattering the tables of the restaurant.  I focused on the food while my new friends focused on the whisky.  Eventually I gave up trying to appear like a nice girl and let them pour me a red wine.  One of the only other women at the party came to sit next to me and noticed my drink of choice.  I was immediately embarrassed, knowing that it was often considered inappropriate for women to drink in Thailand.  However, rather than shunning me, the woman was inspired by me.  She decided if I could do it, she sure could, so she finished the bottle.  One day and already I was encouraging change.  I couldn’t have been prouder.

Naturally, it wasn’t long until they broke out the karaoke.  The thing that always amazes me is that Thai people actually want to sing in front of each other.  They take it very seriously, singing with the intense face of a ballad singer to keyboard melodies.  Of course they begged and begged me to sing, but I refused over and over.  I was the kid in choir class that was encouraged to lip-sync, thus these days persuading me to perform karaoke usually takes an obscene amount of liquor.  Unfortunately, they were relentless and I was near sober.  It got to the point that they were dragging me onto the stage and I had no choice but to sing in front of an entire restaurant the only English song they had on the machine: Jingle Bells.  Luckily, now that they have heard my voice it is unlikely they will make that request twice. 

Atrocious voice or not, I truly inspired the next singer.  He dedicated his song to me, in which the lyrics described how I was more beautiful than his wife at home.  Even though I understood this in Thai, several people felt the need to reiterate it in both languages over the microphone throughout the night.  Just imagine if I had worn makeup. 

Like any Thai party this one was not over until the giant fish on the table had been devoured and some poor soul had become absurdly drunk and made a fool of himself.  I spent most of the night smiling and nodding in confusion because everyone wanted to talk to me, but while I understand a bit of Thai, I don’t speak the slurring over the blaring speakers dialect.  

Friday, March 4, 2011

Riding Buses and Opening Doors


Like most good stories, this one begins with a lot of beer.  The backdrop is the tourist clad streets of Bangkok.  The characters consist of sixty-six Peace Corps volunteers who have been given one night of freedom.  It was the first time in seven weeks that any of us had been allowed to stay out past 6pm without supervision.  The twist?  It was my birthday.  You can imagine the pandemonium that ensued.  I will spare you from most of the gritty details, to avoid spending an entire blog on the drunken antics of Peace Corps volunteers and the unmentionable number of beers they are able to consume.  That being said, I must share with you the highlight of my night. 

After over thirty volunteers had taken over the top floor of a bar, things were getting wild in all good ways.  Then, the band started playing a song and it seemed everyone around me knew the lyrics.  Then there were candles in front of me and I realized the entire bar was singing happy birthday to moi.  After seven weeks of stress, confusion, frustration, you name it, it was all starting to feel right.  I had the realization that the people surrounding me were no longer strangers, but my closest friends for the next two years.  And how lucky am I?  I actually adore every one of them.

The day after our romp in Bangkok was one spent mostly horizontal.  Understandably.  But even the world’s worst hangover couldn’t get me down because I was about to go on a trip.  I have a lot in common with puppies.  I like going for runs, I will eat just about anything (often after it has been on the floor), and if you say the word ‘go’ I am jumping for the door.  Put me in a moving vehicle and I am a happy dog.  Thus, when I took my overnight bus to go visit a current Peace Corps volunteer, the only place my head was, was catching wind out the window. 

I spent the next night eating pizza and ice cream with a good group of female volunteers.  The next day I was full of nerves as I headed for the city of Chiang Mai to meet my future supervisor/principal and one of my co-teachers.  I figured we would head straight for the village, but instead I was treated to a day in Chiang Mai walking through markets, eating delicious street food (two words: carrot slushie), and visiting the most important temple in the province.  It was instant friendship with my Thai counterparts which is great because those connections are priceless.  Oh no, not for future jobs, but for the fact that my principal owns an elephant camp and offered to come let me ride her elephants whenever I please.  Hey, if this Peace Corps gig doesn’t pan out maybe I can just become a professional elephant princess (this would entail riding the elephants and wearing a tiara because training them would be too much work and picking up the poop is obviously not an option, but wearing a tiara is always enjoyable).

The following day I hopped in the truck with my principal and set out on the one hour drive to reach my village.   The buildings shrunk and the greenness pulsed.  We turned off the main drag and onto a quieter road that eventually led us up a steep winding hill, through a National Park, then dropped back down into the trees.  When the road leveled I could see we were driving through sprite farms nestled in the embrace of several small mountains.

Despite all the awkward moments that hung in the spaces between language and culture, I was completely enamored with the little Amphor called Mae On.  While I was being whisked around on my grand tour I couldn’t help but feel like I was walking in somebody else’s life; the beauty of this place couldn’t possibly be mine to relish in.  It all became real when my co-teachers took me to the house I am to live in for the next two years.  On the bend of the quiet road sits a little blue house.  To its left is a pond, and on the other two sides lie fields of green that reach their generous arms until they grab onto the feet of the mountains.  Cows can be seen grazing out my kitchen window and I can plant my herbs in the hanging baskets out front. 

Sometimes you walk into the things you never knew you wanted.  This time I opened the front door.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sanook


It is true – I have always been funny, but never this funny.  They say laughter can cure anything, which would make my host family so healthy they will never have to see a doctor again.  The health of this family is so resilient that their children’s children will never have to see a doctor.  What could be so insanely funny to make these people burst into belly-holding laughter morning, noon, and night?  Me speaking Thai.  I’m that good.

The communication is hazy, but I know enough to tell them what I ate for every meal of the day, which is pretty much the most important topic of discussion for Thai people.  My basic human habits and needs are monitored very closely in this household.  Where did you study today?  What did you learn? Did you shower today?  What did you eat?  Coconut?  That’s why you’re fat.  And of course, there is always the useful advice, such as when you golf you should wear sun lotion.  If you are sweaty you should take a shower.  Don’t eat too much, it will make you fatter. The bucket of water next to the toilet is not a decorative pond, it is your toilet paper. 

Joining the Peace Corps is like reliving childhood.  I am learning how to speak, poop, clean myself.  I have to call my ‘Ma’ for permission to play at my friend’s house.  Sound weird?  It is.  But it is also completely wonderful in every color of the word. Because despite all the awkward moments and exhaustion, there is that moment every morning when I ride my bike across the canal, gazing upon the wooden houses raised above the water. I can hear the monks chanting at the temple behind me and see the children waving from the school in front of me. The birds streak across the sky, diving into the rice paddies that are so vibrantly green I swear I can feel my blood buzzing just to be near them.  There are the evenings of sincere laughter as my family and I attempt to navigate a path between our two languages.  The food is something amazing, the children are ever-smiling, and I am constantly finding personal heroes in all my fellow volunteers.

I know Jon Stewart has already given you your Zen of the day, but here is mine:

Four days a week I study with a small group and language teacher at What Kun Tip primary school.  Before jumping into our lessons, the four of us join the students on the lawn in front of the school.  First we hang the flag, then we say our prayers to Buddha, then we DANCE!  They blast music while three girls lead the school in what could be interpreted as the Thai electric slide.  It is no wonder that one of the most important words in the Thai language is sanook – it means to have fun.  And do they ever.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Sunsets and Sing-a-longs

My feet were fast on the pedals, carrying me into the road.  My fellow Peace Corps volunteers rode their new bikes in circles around the school, down the road, ringing their bells like laughter.  The earth had spun to that perfect moment when the sun bathed everything in a warm yellow.  The colorful oriental buildings came alive in early shadows, lending a sense of life to these otherwise unresponsive buildings. Reveling in the cozy colors, I drove my bike along the road where small children had dashed from their homes to see the silly Americans riding bikes with helmets.  “What is your name?” a little girl called to me.  “Di-chan chuu Amy ka!” I cried back with a smile.  It was incredible to think we had not been in Thailand for even 24 hours yet. 

Just a few days before I had spent my last evening drinking IPA and eating Italian food with my mom – the perfect farewell to American life.  We woke early the next morning to quick lattes and loaded my suitcases.  At the airport it was too hard to say goodbye so we strung it along with more steamed soy and teary eyes.  Finally, I stood in the security line alone, looking around like a lost child, with the crashing comprehension that my childhood was a thing of the receding past. 

Upon arriving to Philadelphia for staging I was greeted by the immense comfort of the quickly arriving 65 other volunteers.  The plethora of accents was a testament to just how varied a group of Americans can be. Varied and simply wonderful-I adore the people I will be going through this experience with and could not be more excited to have them along for the ride. 

The days are so full they feel like weeks.  I have one week behind me, but it feels more like a month.  The week began with a watercolor sunset on a bicycle and ended with sing-a-long 1990’s songs on the terrace.  It is the quintessential Peace Corps experience and I am loving every second of it.  While friends strummed their guitars, fireworks erupted from across the river.  Whether it was with the wind in my hair or the light in sky, I felt something I had not felt in years.  It felt something like home.

So Here I Go

It feels like my entire life has been leading up to this moment.  As a younger, more na├»ve traveler I imagined I could run away from this life of mine and disappear into the world.  The only problem was everywhere I looked-there I was.  Somehow, this time, it feels different.  I hug my ratty old childhood blanket and lay it on the bed.  I pack my vitamins, my hats, my skirts that have swayed from my hips in a dozen countries before.  They know where I’ve been, the things I have seen.  These travel mementos understand me more than most people I know.  So they come.  This is it, I tell myself.  This is when it stops being goodbye, see you soon.  This is when my life in the world starts. 

Now I know it will not all be glory and elephants.  I have traveled enough to know that crying myself to sleep amongst the cockroaches on a rickety train is as inevitable as skinny dipping in Greece.  This time, however, I am ready to swallow it all.  There is no return date on my ticket, no deadline, no expectations.  I am not thinking about how skinny I will be next time they see me or how grown all the children will be.  Our reunion is tenuous.

It is not to say I hate life here.  In fact, it is quite comfortable to live in America.  Everyone glides through their lives like quiet mothers on an early morning.  It would be so easy to stay.  To work 9-5, to buy a house, to get married, pregnant, to eat the American dream like a big fat prescription pill.  Yet, it seems that anything that comes easily in life was never really worth having.  The adventure, the heartbreak, the utter lust for life, these things take guts.  It means stepping into a fast flowing river and simply letting go. 
So here I go.