Is This Thailand?

Ahh Thailand, 

DSC04812

I remember taking my favorite black jacket out of my suitcase, before leaving for my flight to Thailand two years ago, thinking, come on, I don’t need a heavy jacket. I am going to Thailand. Was I wrong!  We are in the third month of unprecedented cold in the North and Northeast. I wish I had that jacket. Mom, if you are reading this… can find it?

cold in the kitchen

dazed and cold with red nose and wet hair

Apparently it started the same time people began to protest in Bangkok. I am not superstitious, just sayin’. My community sees night time lows of 6 degrees Celsius, or 40.  Thais don’t heat their homes and inside is colder than outside. I know what you are saying the United States is seeing storms and snow, along with minus double digit temperatures. I feel for ya, don’t get me wrong.  Burr, that’s cold.

sunrise

sunrise

But this is THAILAND.  There are three seasons here: hot, hotter and hottest.

waiting for the snack shop to open after lunch

We still need our popsicles after lunch (waiting for snack shop to open)

My routine has been to close all the shutters in my house at night. I close the door between the living room and kitchen bathroom area. It is open to the air. I wear my long johns to bed.  Sometimes I wear a hat. I am comfortable with two blankets now and sleep well, having just been given the second from the principal at my school. One cotton quilt was just taking the edge off.  Unfortunately, I have to get up about three times in the night to go to the bathroom.  I make my way through the blast of cold air with a flash light.

DSCN0789

In the mornings, I wear my puff jacket and long stretchy pants my neighbors gave me. I have been avoiding bathing. I wash my hair every 3 days. This morning though was day 3 and I was loathing the thought.  I had a new idea. I filled a pot of water and put it on the stove.  My shower heater only heats the water to lukewarm.  I needed something else. Today I planned to only wash body parts and hair. Now I know why many Asian people squat.  They learned to when taking a bath as little ones. So, I squatted and squirted luke warm water on my hair and washed my parts.  Then, I mixed that water with the hot water I had heated and poured into a small bucket.  When I was done washing I poured the hot water over my head.  It was the most satisfying feeling ever.  I took a hot water bucket bath!  Now, I am in the Peace Corps!DSCN0787

Most Thais are pretty religious about their taking a daily shower regardless of the temperature. I don’t dare tell them I don’t do this everyday. They would surely think I was an infidel. I spot wash and toilets come with a butt sprayer, so I feel fresh. My skin is very dry however and I could complain. I apply Vasoline and then wear gloves, to ease the cracking.

feed a cold

feed a cold

The Thai people seem not to be bothered.  They just layer up, put on their cute animal hats and they’re out the door. You know it is cold season here when teachers start to wear socks under their dress shoes.  People wouldn’t be caught dead doing this in America.  We have to match.  I love that about Thailand.  It doesn’t matter.

DSCN0646

bear hat

I see people at the store or in the street wearing their pajamas, too.  It is just so cute. I am so amazed with their resiliency and stalwartness. My neighbors still get up at 4:30 each morning to go for their 2-3 kilometer walk. I have not joined them but I will one day soon before cold season ends, to show them I can do it.

DSCN0807

The cold is a novelty. Everyday we tell each other, “It’s so cold!” We ask each other if we are okay.  Six people have died in our district due to cold. Babies and the elderly are most likely to die.  It is heartbreaking. Poor people cannot afford the warm but expensive jackets and blankets. Some people only own flip flops.  People go barefoot. I am sure many people do not own shoes.

DSCN0814

Silalang School band performs

At my hill tribe school, children get up at 5:30am and exercise at 6am.  I know this heats the body and raises the temperature but, it is SO cold.  Like me, they are cold at night and like me they don’t like to take a bath everyday. But unlike me, they can’t heat their water in a pot. If and when they bathe, it is with cold water. Most classes have been moved outdoors because inside the classrooms it’s cold all day.

DSCN0841

My co-teacher asks 7th graders a question

DSCN0859

What is your favorite food?

DSCN0857

What is your favorite fruit?

DSCN0861

How old are you?

DSCN0831

3rd graders

DSCN0836

Students wai their teacher, Kru Pim, to show respect.

DSCN0840 At the other school, the kindergarten children do morning exercises to get warm.

We can jump!

We can jump!

DSCN0877

We smile.  We don’t swear or think its terrible. It is just cold. No drama. I still go to aerobics in the evening and bicycle back in the cold, wrapped like a mummy. It does not stop Thais from having fun.  I still hear some karaoke parties at night. There is time for pictures too.

glowing after aerobics

glowing after aerobics

Dr. Mos and Ann.  My meditation friends.

Dr. Mos and Ann. My meditation friends.

DSCN0780

I popped into say hello after aerobics. The office is open at night.

DSCN0781

Don’t you love them?

One of the tourist draws to my town is the Puka flower which blooms only in cold season, usually in February.  I saw on the news it is already in bloom.

Chompoo Puka Flower

Chompoo Puka Flower

flower 2

In Between

In between.  In between Peace Corps Close of Service program and the holidays, lay an island hopping beach vacation with fellow Peace Corps volunteers. In between a field trip with one of my schools, to even more first time sights, and Children’s Day, There was the unusual case of the disappearance of my luggage for 24 days.  With it, my computer and many other “things” I had come to depend on. Without these “things” I learned gratitude and happiness in living with less. I wrote by hand again. I journaled. Then, there was the surprise reunion, of my luggage…

DSCN0524

My initial reaction, honestly was fear. Did I want those “things” back?  I had begun to live without them… the shoes, clothes, toiletries, and yes, my computer. I had accepted the loss. I believed I had everything I really needed without them. I was happy. I was freer. Now, I feel more pressure. Now that I have more, how do I control the attachment to them?  How can I still live simply?  Do you know how many Thai scarves I have?  Purses?  Tee-shirts?  I thought Peace Corps was going to thrust me into a more simple life.  In many ways it has.

My job is not really my job.  I work in partnership with others and really do not have the lead. I do not have control over results or what will remain after I leave. I have to let go each day. I speak in a simple language and sometimes not at all. Not talking as much has its own benefits.  I see how much talk is empty.

Writing is simple. Writing long hand captures my heart more than writing on the computer.  I will keep trying to do that. What moments I see, makes me wonder how many moments I let slip away, thinking about the past or future. What moments best capture my experience here?  What moments do my family and friends back home want to hear about and see? What have I become accustomed to seeing and hearing everyday?

Is it interesting to know …

On sunny Sunday afternoons, I have birds that mimic me and speak in a loud complex language? Hoo hoo hoo, ha ha ha, nee up nee up, cheu  cheu cheu cheu, raa raa raa.  I cannot help but look out at them (very skitterish), laugh out loud and speak back to them. The pairs sit very close to each other on the tree branch.

The little “puppy” that used to hang out at my neighbor’s and my house, is not a puppy but a mommy, and that she has been a mommy before? And, her puppies are hidden in the culvert pipe next to a neighbor’s house. Her head is visible … a food bowl inches from her nose.

It is so cold in the morning, fogs curls over the ponds and fields like reluctant honey. Below the water, fish.  Indifferent? Spiders cast their webs like greedy fisherman, dew stained grass.

DSCN0611

DSCN0314

I look closely at the wooden slats in my kitchen, and can see the mist marching inside, regiment after regiment.

A banana leaf is twisting in the wind, its broad shoulders, yes, no, yes, no.

Thais have an insatiable appetite much like America. Thousands of bamboo trees are loaded on gigantic trucks.  Barreling down the highway, men sit a top their kingdoms and duck under power lines. A greedy demand for disposable chopsticks. Will Thais write their version of “Where have all the Flowers Gone?”

I am in between coming home, and my last two months in Thailand. My thoughts, do I really wish to come back? What will it feel like to be back in America? What will my family and friends be like? What will I be like?  I do not have my 30 or 60 second sound bite yet.

Street Art on Khaosan Road in Bangkok

DSC04897

DSC04899

DSC04884

Little street urchin in diapers

DSC04890

Ultimate travel in Bangkok is the tuk tuk

DSC04886

white fur purse

DSC04888 DSC04887

DSC04891

Thai massage is an amazing experience; can you say pretzel?

DSCN0244

photographs around Wat Puket in my village

DSCN0239

Temple alms for the New Year

DSCN0317

Those moments when I stop and get off the bike

DSCN0235 DSCN0233 DSCN0316

DSCN0263

Hmong New Year pics

DSCN0278

mobile coffee and tea shop

DSCN0291

My students Nit and Docmai

DSCN0408

palm reading


 DSCN0289  DSCN0402  

DSCN0411

DSCN0413

courtship ball tossing

DSCN0415

Pron, my student , made what she is wearing

DSCN0432

The yais, elder women, showed so much affection for me and I them!

DSCN0437 DSCN0433 DSCN0442 DSCN0446

DSCN0480

Men and women’s bow and arrow competition

DSCN0449

going to sleep standing up with grandma

DSCN0461 DSCN0472 DSCN0475 DSCN0484 DSCN0486 DSCN0487 DSCN0488 DSCN0490 DSCN0456

Walking and Sitting

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you!

Peace Corps Volunteers are headed to Bangkok at the end of November for Close of Service program (two years almost finished), which will include a Thanksgiving dinner at the Ambassador’s residence. Not too shabby.

It is hard to catch up on the months that have gone by, but I’l try.

First, I get some questions about Thai people, what they are like and such, and I have to say they are very much like anyone else.  They love family and community above all else. Everyone wants to be happy.  I am not going to criticize Thailand and list all of its social, political, economic, and religious problems. There are many. I equally acknowledge that in America, the richest country in the world, three times bigger than Thailand, we have had (and still have) the same issues in our country at one time or another. Thailand is like no other country in the world.  The people are a mosaic of SE Asian culture, modern style, tradition, with belief in spirits and charms. Yet they also love the western world, materialism, enjoy the internet and youtube a much as anyone.  Here is an interesting info- graph illustration of differences. http://www.dramafever.com/news/eastern-and-western-attitudes-about-life-explained-in-18-simple-infographics/undefined

Some differences in daily life in the country:

  1. Thai people give alms to monks walking past their homes every morning around 7am.  They may not and chances are they do not, practice meditation or go to the temple at any other time, expect for funerals, which in Thailand last at least three days. And, for festivals, like New Years or Buddhist special days.
  2. Everyone has time to stop and say hello, or squeeze the cheek of a little child or baby. Even though the “head” is sacred and cannot be casually touched without great offense taken, Thai people pat little children on the head.
  3. Thai people believe in ghosts or “pi”. Parents tech about pi early in their child’s life, I think to keep them in line…
  4. Thai people do not get paid vacation days.  Teachers are the only workforce that have a break in their work because of student’s bit-term.  Many go to see their family during this break. Loyalty and respect of elders trumps all other plans.  My Thai teachers and friends have not been to many places that I have been in Thailand.  Volunteers get so many vacation days it is kinda embarrassing.  As it is, I will not be able to use all the vacation Peace Corps has given me. There is so much to see and do in my community, I feel much of it is unexplored!
  5. That said, Thai people always share and buy gifts for their family, co-workers (or friends) when they go away on weekends, travel for a meeting, or a trip. Even though they have no vacation days…. They do go places on weekend or just leave. I recently observed teenagers carry bags of goodies on the bus after a bus stop. When buses stop at other bus stations along the way, we usually get off to pee and buy snacks.  Sharing and giving are traditional values.
  6. Thai people always give gifts wrapped with bows. Presentation is everything.  They do not, however, open the gift in front of you.  That would be rude.
  7. Thai people take pictures of events we may consider silly, or a waste of time. A recent retirement party for Loong Chao, the janitor at one of my schools, received a gift from every employee. That is over 50 gifts.  One was a microwave oven. It had a big bow on it.  Also a water dispenser.  How can you wrap that!? Each gift was given to him in front of the room by the “giver.” A photographer took a photo of each gift exchange. Thai people are the best picture takers at large events and can coordinate large groups in minutes, but hey, what’s the rush? I have seen pictures of meetings….. on FB.
  8. Thai people love to sing and dance. I bet every home here has it’s own karaoke machine. From kindergarten on, they learn all the popular songs and shake their hips too.
  9. If you are a gay man, you are effeminate – (wait, most men in Thailand are effeminate). No, yes. In fact, there is a third sex here, called a ladyboy. I do not like labels but for the sake of explanation, I feel it necessary. There are transvestites (who dress like women) and transexuals (who have physically altered body parts, usually to become a woman). If you are a gay woman, you are butch.  You have to look like a man or boy.   No wiggle room.
  10. Most Thai people love the Thai dramas on TV. Some are on exotic locations with dramatic costuming.  I have seen sand dunes, elephants… p.s., I no longer have a TV in the house. If I have time to watch TV, I will read a book ormeditate instead!

What did I do over School break in October?  I went to a monastery in North Thailand for a 15 day meditation retreat.  I brought two sets of white clothes. I meditated in the rain, with mosquitos having me for dinner, 14 hours a day, eating one meal a day, sleeping at 10pm waking at 2:15am. Waking to ringing bells echoed by drums in the distance.  Which sparked an entire chorus of dogs barking for 5 minutes. Buddhist nuns and a female monks also called the Monastery home. We chanted before each meal. It was loud and busy, and quiet and serene. I LOVED IT!  In summary.  It changed my life. I want to go back maybe for a year or more and live as a mechee (Buddhist nun).  First, stay six weeks… Then decide.  When will have six weeks?!?

During a recent English Camp a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer asked me what my biggest three take aways were.  Oops, I wrote 4.

1. I remember coming to a clear realization about impermanence… it was triggered by my body…noticing scars, calluses, aging, my skin is cut and torn from excema etc., I realized why do I worry about how it looks. Can’t I just accept it? After all, it is not really mine.  I am borrowing or renting it for this life.  It does not go with me afterwards. I am happy for it, really, because it has accomplished and carried me through so much. It is just a shell though. But, it is not mine.  There is no ”mine.”  This awareness is wisdom or what the Buddha’s teachings call, right thought.  I take care of it … But no longer care.

 

  1. There is no “mine,” because there is no “self.” I watched my mind grasp for what’s mine, or what it thinks is mine.  We were told to leave the “monk’s robe” we bought for the robe ceremony on chairs inside the ordination hall.  When we arrived the robes were missing and moved to other chairs.  My first thought where is “my” chair.  I want my chair with my robe (which I endowed with much importance). Other people sat in “my” chair. When they offered it to me, I said no thank you, realizing my attachment to it.  I am glad to have had this experience though. I saw my mind grasping for “mine,” clearly. There is no “self” or “mine.”  That is a lie. I have so much more freedom in not having to keep watch or worry about, mine. The best way I can describe it is I am observing from a vessel. I see the mind think, attach, and that is what it is supposed to do.  But, like the Captain Crunch cereal, there is a hidden prize inside the box.  It is a pair of those magic glasses that let’s you see stuff that you normally can’t see. I can put on those glasses now and see!
  2. I began to lose the need to comment on things or make a story about people, or what they are saying; instead, noting “thinking” or, thought; then I could see how thought changes; how fleeting and impermanent. It is not really anybody’s thought. In meditation, I kept awakening from thought… increasing the space between thought, until there was deep concentration.  Thought moves away and is replaced by a knowing… space. Clarity is left. I can note feeling, seeing, hearing, knowing. It became clear to me that it is better to be unseen than seen, unheard than heard.
  3. I remember feeling so grateful. There are two types of gratitude… one internal and one external (like, I am grateful it is sunny, or, that I have a house). The other, internal, like I am grateful to practice what the Buddha taught, for what I am learning. I want to be of benefit to others and be a catalyst for mindfulness. If I can do that, it is enough. So, I had profound gratitude to the Buddha for sharing his teachings so we could all have them with us today.  They are free. Buddha was a teacher, who wanted everyone to find an end to suffering in their lives. He was/is not a god. Then one day, someone wrote down Buddhism. He became a religion. With it grew all these folk beliefs and superstitions that have nothing to do with the Buddha’s teachings, but the people of Thailand have adapted Buddhism to meet their beliefs.

Back up

Day 1 -  I meet the monk who supports foreigners with two other young men. One drops out the next day.  The monk is funny and strange.  He kept saying, “Learning by Do…. ING.”  “Learning by Do… ING.”   I had a nice little room with private bathroom. We were not allowed to have books, cell phones, notebooks. No distractions.  We could not leave the grounds. The pictures I took were on the first day, before I registered and the last day, when I left.

 

On the third day, I left my body and was in the stars or diamonds?  But, supernatural occurrences are normal and common. We are told to acknowledge them and not write a book about it- that would be attachment. During a Dharma talk, with the Bhikkuni (female Buddhist monk), she said, no one is special. People who have grown up in countries where Buddhism has been practiced for thousands of years know, have seen, or have experienced themselves, rapture.  It is considered one of the many obstructions to the dharma (the teachings), such as levitation, colors, lights.  People can get attached to the sensations, and want to recreate them over and over again….and think they are special.  Just acknowledge and note…nothing to do.

We met daily with the Abbot of the Monastery, Phra Ajhan Suphan.  A compassionate teacher and wise, wise man. I want to go back and learn more from him. His assistant was Thai and German.  He spoke English, as did Ajhan Suphan.  During my rapture, people were commenting on it …. in my subconscious. “There she goes.”  I could see the flash of someone taking pictures next to me.  I told Phra Ajhan this, he said to wish them well.  Of course I should do that. He asked if I could accept people. Can you? I said, “Can.” “Can Do.” “Can Do It.”  I spoke as if English was a second language.  I got it.  I started to be less affected from conditions around me, environment and people around me. There was a confidence not attached to external events or people.

Phra Ajahn Suphan, said, “There is a galaxy of stars out there… on the inside as well.”  I took this to mean inner-knowing is vast and possibly immeasurable, endless.

 

Does my sub-conscious have a voice?  Yes.  Awesome, because it was quiet enough to hear mine. Memory. Collective memory. The universal place we all can dip into? I remember learning in grad school that eye sight is not a physical act, it comes from the part of the brain that generates memory.  Seeing is remembering.  During chanting (inThai) about forgiveness in the ordination hall, I was singing words in Thai that I did not know. When I became conscious of it, I stopped. These are not extraordinary events. It is natural to experience phenomenon. Experience, acknowledge and let go.

One day the assistant held our appointments. Phra Ajhan was resting. I asked him about the chanting and whether it was important to know our past lives?  No, not really, unless it could help stop suffering today, he said.  I asked because I had this feeling that I was a young monk in another life but had to stop studying.  I was not finished.  Perhaps I died young. He said, “There is a reason you are here studying Buddhism at a monastery.”  I so wanna go back!  I also reflected on the fact that I had numbly wandered into the monk’s area… there was a very cool looking garden with elevated stone seats for meditation under trees with private mosquito netting and just a lovely area.  I had noticed the monk quarters but I had been at temples before where it was free to walk around.  I work at the temple school.  Women can’t stay overnight or go in the rooms.  Here, I didn’t get the hints. There were no signs and no one told me not to go there. But I choose not to listen to my subconscious… Which said there are no women here… That monk is looking at you strange. Later, I reflected and came to the conclusion that it was greed that I did not “notice.”

Phra Ajhan observed, “Try to be small and take up no space.” I became a bee inside the honey comb.

A tall man walks through the crowd unseen, unheard. A small man knocks over an apple cart.  I was the small man but needed to get smaller. I am still working on it. This is my attempt at a visual.

“Don’t go too far away, everything you need is right here. … Don’t be too attached to anything. Where you are, where you are going.” He added.

It is all about practice.  When you give time to concentrate for hours, walking and sitting, insight arises.  Walking and Sitting. That’s where is starts and ends.  Actually, it doesn’t end. Phra Ajhan Suphan still practices. But not all of his monks practice meditation. In fact, not all monks practice meditation.  Becoming a monk is a tradition in Thailand.  Young men can enter and leave after three weeks, three months or three years. Whatever. They choose. I have talked about the young monks I teach in other blogs.  They don’t have a choice.  They are from poor families, hill tribes, and/or have behavior problems.  They spend their high school years at the temple school. Bless them all! May the Dharma protect them. May they be happy.

I know you have read too much already. May I share the “Robe Ceremony” Day?

Katin Festival

More than two thousand years ago the Buddha walked the earth, searching for answers to the human condition of suffering and the extinction of it. He and his students lived on donations of food and gave his teachings freely. His fellow monks walked and wandered from hills to mountains and communities that lie within to share the dharma with people near and far. This became a problem during rainy season, so the Buddha told monks to sit tight at one monastery for the rainy season, which lasts three months. During this time they were supposed to meditate and purify themselves by following some 227 rules.

After the rains had stopped, communities would gather to give to monks robes and other necessities. Once a year, in October, (during a full moon, I think) the ritual continues across many countries, including Thailand.

I had the opportunity to attend “Khatin,” at my meditation retreat which landed on these special days following the rains retreat. Community women gathered with their spinning wheels and weaving machines to pull cotton from the seed, to spin the thread and then to weave, dye, dry and iron the fabric. All done by hand using the same technique and hand operated machines passed down centuries ago.

At Wat Ram Poeng, women gathered in a large hall to make a new set of robes for the Pha Ajhan (lead monk and teacher).

This was extraordinary to see. I had never actually seen a cotton seed.

Three weavers worked through the night, weaving the thread through looms and into cloth to make one set of robes. While the rest of the women, untangled thread, pulled the cotton to make it flat and smooth. In the morning, it was dyed, dried, ironed and wrapped in a beautiful pink bow.

It is like a big fundraiser for the monks and monastery. People donated anything and everything.  From toothbrushes and toothpaste to stuffed animal and blankets, everything is donated for the health and well being of the monks. They are not allowed to touch money. This monastery was also in the middle of big capital project. A new ornate monk ordination hall had been built.  New monk dorms and other supporting buildings are still being built. For one day, we meditators tried to be mindful as we navigated a feast of food and flavors, from Thai canooms (sweets), to pad thai, som tam, grilled chicken, vegetable dishes and dipping sauces, sticky rice and many other dishes, making it impossible to taste everything.  The community members gave it all away fro free. We and the novice monks who had been eating one or two meals  a day….took flight to favorite foods.  I craved som tam, and so did the novice monks, who pilled their bowls high with it. I also got  bag of sticky rice and coconut canooms. We ate our way through the table stands. I was keenly aware of the gluttony taking place and tried to move mindfully through the crowds, not rushing, observing. My night time, everyone was gone and all was quiet.

You will have to go to my Facebook page to see these photos! https://www.facebook.com/susan.alotrico/media_set?set=a.10151659212201991.1073741856.556891990&type=3

 

 

The Alchemy of the Thai Classroom

I wrote this recently for another publication and thought it would be a good blog post too. I was thinking about my experiences from a broader perspective.  Hope you like it.

spry

Teaching English in Thai classrooms is a bit like practicing alchemy. The students can be irrepressible, headstrong, quick to play games and ever ready for fun.  Success is a mixture of spontaneity,  games, and patience. What is going to work and what the co-teacher will take away can be unexpected, unclear, and unknown.

Brush teeth

The lines are blurry. Are the students learning or are they playing games?  Both. They are doing both. It is part of the sabai sabai Thai culture. In Thailand being too serious is a problem. This takes some getting used if you have a results-oriented mindset, like me.

ice barceona girls

But this may be the very key to teaching English in the Thai classroom.  In  high school classes, which begin at grade 7 in Thailand, students can be shy and quiet, even bored. In primary grades, such as 2 and 4, the classroom can be described as a zoo, the cacophony, deafening.

musicboy

Students swarm together like swallows in a flock, ebbing and flowing, then, by some secret self-governing mechanism, they change and refocus in a single moment. Students must have fun while they learn.

writingboy

Teachers often judge the lesson’s success by this fact. Singing songs and playing games are sure ways to approach learning and to keep students from getting bored.

greenboys

Some Thai teachers are passive bystanders in the classroom. The children have the lead and the teacher acquiesces to their wishes. Others may tell you that the Thai student is not motivated to learn English. There is a culture of copying and not doing independent work. For PCVs, these are difficult challenges to manage. What are PCVs passing on to their teachers? The games and creative ways to teach vocabulary and grammar for sure. PCVs also help teachers understand classroom management starts with the structure of the classroom, routines and rewards. They get no training for this in school.

Behavior Board

Behavior Board

Each PCV experience is unique but some common denominators allow PCVs to share what works and support one another.  From English and ASEAN camps, to Sex Education and Health and Life Skills camps, there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

puberty

Puberty lesson

Peace Corps volunteers can tweak activities to meet the goals of their classrooms and community.  I have done just that. Students at my hill tribe school were the recent beneficiaries of two successful projects in August.

tree girls

A two-day English Camp, financially supported in part by the local primary education office, was held for over 200 primary and high school students. PCVs from other provinces joined as facilitators.  We taught vocabulary and basic grammar by playing games and getting students involved with their bodies and minds. What happens in two days, can stick. I see students playing the games from camp, weeks afterwards.

instruction111

In addition, a two-day Sex Education and Awareness Camp was held for high school students. Community health experts from the local health clinic, hospital, municipality and high school, taught sessions in Thai. Everyone wants to have the camp again next year, which is the sustainable piece. As a result of the camp, students know what puberty is, how babies are made, and that girls can get pregnant if they have sex during their menstrual period.

make box 1

Making egg box

Students learned that the decision to have sex and to wear a condom is both the decision of the man and woman. In traditional Thailand, sex is a taboo subject, so young people mistake myth for fact. The camp included a session where each student was given a cucumber to put on a condom.

condom

putting condoms on cucumbers

Girls and boys giggled a lot but they behaved as young adults who will have families of their own one day. They know how to read the expiration date on a condom and were serious about taking in that knowledge.

balloon

condom balloon with a message

Students also carried an egg, made a box for it and had to care for it for two days. One student commented the activity made him think beyond himself. He said he was uncomfortable going places where the egg might not be safe.

nook

Egg box

Peace Corps World Map Projects are popular in schools. PCVs work with co-teachers and students to paint a large mural of the world.  Student monks at the temple school where I teach English uses the world map they created to learn about ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations.

nen map

Where is America?

My sights are now set on an emerging project with potential for both sustainability and youth leadership development. It is a storytelling project in which a children’s picture book is read in English and Thai.

Alfred

As the story unfolds through dramatic interpretation, students are asked to make predictions, “What do you think will happen next?” When the story is over, students reflect on favorite moments and what the story teaches. Extension art activities such as making bookmarks help students retain story events, characters and lessons learned. Next semester, I want to train students to take over the project, which started last year.  Luckily, there are many Thai English books available to select from.

DSCN0515

Story hat

These varied experiences have given me the keys to understand and navigate the alchemy of the Thai classroom.  You have to be prepared to be the Pied Piper, Momma Bear, and Mr. Bean, all within a second. If all else fails start singing!  If you can do that, your life will be happy in Thailand.

some kids

hangin’

Mother’s Day Monk Style

drawing

A school drawing competition from 2012 mother’s day

‘Wan meh’ or Mother’s Day, was honored at the temple school Friday where I teach young monks English. The official Mother’s Day (and queen’s birthday) is Monday, August 12.

My nens (young monks)

In a large auditorium, mother’s and family sat on one side of the room and the young monks sat on the other.  The program included long presentations by a teacher and an opportunity for young monks to pin a jasmine flower, (the symbol of Mother’s Day) on their mother and give them a hug.  Each mother was given a framed certificate. Many young monks received financial gifts.

Happy mom

They also showed three memorable videos. The first video was of a detailed c-section, including the first cut until the head emerged and was taken from the belly. It was about a 30-minute operation. Cutting through the belly fat alone, took about 10 minutes. There were cutaways to the natural or vaginal birth of a child. First baby, then placenta. The videos spared no detail and I must imagine it was quite shocking for many of the young boys who never really considered the physical act of birth, unless they watched dogs or cats give birth. Everyone’s eyes were glued to the screen.

A second video was an emotional one that chronicled the life of a young boy seen through his adult eyes, looking back on his childhood remembering his mother’s love. It showed his mother taking care of his emotional and physical needs. Then it cut to present, the boy now a young man, melancholy, looking at the picture of his mother, sitting on the mantle. He, bowing to her, lighting incense or candle, honoring her. She had obviously died. I had to look away many times as tears were relentlessly running down my cheeks.  I was not alone, others were wiping away their tears too. It kept going back and forth through past and present, pulling heart strings. The feeling was very sad because the young man was alone, just he and his guitar, without family.

Tree planting

The third video had an English voice over but the words were few.  The pictures said it all. The reoccurring words were, “If we only took the time to smile.”  This video was about domestic violence by a father to his wife and son and his final redemption after his son falls on the job, believing no one cares about or loves him, and is paralyzed. His son cannot walk, but the father devotes countless hours and days helping him recover.  With his son’s body slumped over his back, the father drags his son as his feet shuffle along the tiniest bit.  The tear jerking end comes when the boy stands in the door way and says, “Dad, look,” or something like that, and the sons is taking small steps. The father’s tear stained face is elated.

New nens with freshly shared heads on alms round

After the films, the young monks had an opportunity to thank their mother’s and their families in front of the group. One young monk, Ju, who is also an excellent artist, took the emotional journey of declaring his love through sobs of tears and broken words. He wiped his tear streaked face and nose in big sweeping gestures. It was so courageous and I love him so much more for his emotional sensitivity and strength. I believe his mother has passed on and he has no family.

older nens

Ju gives peace sign

Why are the boys seeing these films at the temple school? I believe it is to reinforce honor, family values, and why it is important it be a virtuous person, kon dee, a good person. And, to honor their mothers for all that they have given to help them have a good and happy life.

Nen from Mae Salong

DSC01942

insert random photo here

On Monday, I will go to Wan Meh at one of my schools. There, students will place their heads in the laps of their mothers in an emotional gesture of love and honor. I will see performances of traditional Thai dance, a showcase of student art depicting all the good things a mother does, and performances of little girls dressed up like beauty queens lip syncing and dancing sexy to popular Thai songs.

youngbeauty

Little queens

Stranger, Welcome

DSC02119

I just returned from four-day weekend because Monday and Tuesday were Arsarnha Bucha Day and Buddhist Lent. I headed for Chiang Rai, a Northern province.

DSC01911

First stop, the white temple or Wat Rong Kuhn. It was designed by an artist, Chalermchai Kositpipa, and it is a fascinating wonderland of bizarre and beautiful sculpture.  Think highly stylized Buddhist art meets Salvador Dali. Everything is white, or white-washed inlaid with mirrored porcelain chips.

DSC01862

DSC01830

Destination: Mae Salong.  This is a Chinese village perched in the northern hills of Chiang Rai.

DSC02143

It was settled here by Chinese anti-communist soldiers when fighting raged in the hillsides in the 1950′s.  They first settled in Burma but then moved to Mae Salong, where they were granted citizenship. It is interesting to me that the Chinese forces basically defeated the communists and the Thai government had little involvement from the standpoint of soldiers.  U.S. supported the anti-communist effort. The Thais owe freedom, perhaps, to these resilient Chinese people. Yet, their descendants, the hill tribe people who live here now have no civil rights. They were granted permission to live in Thailand but they are not recognized as citizens of the Thailand.  This is one of the more disheartening truths of “Amazing” Thailand. In the past and present too, the Thai government called on other nations or organizations to help them. They even had support from Taiwan for higher education services.  However, Thai government and King did provide economic infrastructure to help hill tribes wean themselves away from growing and selling opium, which was the cash crop of the 60′s and 70′s. Now, as far as the eye can see, the hills are covered with tea, corn, coffee, mango, berries and many other fruit and veges, you cannot see from the road.

DSC01939

DSC01941

DSC01949

The different hill tribes, Lahu, Lisu, Akha, may live close to each other but their live in their own villages. They are all descendants of minority indigenous Chinese and Burmese people.

DSC01984

DSC02004

DSC02043

DSC02041

DSC02086

DSC02066

DSC02074

Saturday

This is an agricultural Shangri-La.

DSC02012

DSC02013

Sure there are tea shops and open markets selling hill tribe crafts and clothing.

DSC02158

DSC02153

But, I did not want to leave. If I could, I would live here for a year. It is breathtakingly beautiful at every turn, and there area lot of those. It is quiet and serene.

DSC02088

I immediately connected with the “place” and felt at home. Yen sabai. It is naturally cooler here, and it reminds me of home.  The hills are amazing.

DSC02278

Rolling. Steep. The Views. Stunning. Rice terraced high in the hill sides. Corn grows right up the side of the road. I have spend two days walking around the villages and it is a total workout.  There are 718 steps that lead to a temple on top of a mountain.  I was the only one there. Most foreigners are here on tours it seems, so I see few walking like me, instead they get in and out of their mini-tour vans. It is hard though and perhaps a little dangerous on the roads, there are no shoulders. The streets are not really made for people walking, though the locals walk the roads regularly.

DSC02014

DSC02291

I arrived around 6pm.  After unpacking in my room I head for the temple on the hill above me. It is 718 steps.  It is dusk and the idea of seeing the mountain views at twilight compel me. I easily find the road and start the journey.  I am alone.  It is quiet and refreshing after several hours of bus and truck travel. I detour to explore a lovely Mechi temple and grounds. I enter through a cascading canopy of white and yellow tubular flowers. The yellow blooms are intoxicating. The white blooms, a foil.

DSC01937
DSC02190

DSC01974

Here I find such good light for a photo or should I say, for wrinkles, which seem to have left my face. I move on to find the steps. The steps are through a thick jungle, mossy, wet. I am in love with the moss. I still have good light once I reach the top. Good.

DSC02181

DSC02171

DSC01955

I will stretch tonight for those calves will be hurting. I skip down the steps off to a dinner of Chinese Yunnan pork and rice.  It is delicious. It is spicy but with flavors I do not recognize.

Sunday

The rolling hills of Mae Saelong will get you in shape.  My legs were sore after three days of walking the hills. I see hill tribe women, elders trekking along, not a single tired breath. They are strong, independent, no walking sticks. Everyone, unless they are on motorcycles, and there are plenty of them, walks. I visit the morning market for some hot soybean milk and Chinese donuts.

DSC01978

DSC01979

DSC01980

Not really donuts because they are more like deep fried fingers, which are not sweet, but a bit salty. They are called bah torng goh. I like them. They must be soooo fattening. Everyone I see this morning has a cup of hot soybean milk in their hand and they are dunking the “fingers” in the milk. Fresh soy milk from soybeans grown right here. So good! Everything you eat is grown right here.  It has to be. Nearly two hours from Chiang Rai.

DSC01994

DSC01975

The owner of the bungalow I stayed at handed me a hand-written map, poorly copied, yet I could make out the 10 kilometer walk to four different kind hill tribes in the area.  My journey began when I decided not to go on the five-hour “horseback” trek to neighboring hill tribe villages.  Good choice. I met two American guys who work in Cambodia for Human Rights Fairness (addressing hill tribe rights) who did go on the horse trip only to stoop halfway through.  Apparently, the two young adult men, didn’t like the idea of being led by the reins on “smallish” horses, by a man in flip flops. I am so glad I decided to walk the route.  On the walk, it was quiet and pleasant, cool, with a breeze, the air was clean.  Except of the motorcycles whizzing by, I was alone. If you are on a motorcycle people ride fast.  It is as if they are all training for the grand prix of motorcycle races. It felt so good to be walking and soaking up the views and the environment.

DSC02017

There was an old sign in Chinese and overgrown steps leading somewhere, I took them.  A small memorial.  Moss, deliciously frosts the plants and ground in many places. Again, I feel at home.

DSC02015

I approached a sign for the first village, turned on small dirt road and immediately felt intrusive.

DSC02025

DSC02022

DSC02031

DSC02026

The simple and impoverished lifestyle was shocking. I took photographs of the daily lives of the people.  They are the Lahu. Then I realized, they enjoyed it.

DSC02036

They smiled and greeted me.  Most of the children were shy. I ventured further and with each step I was lead to more discoveries and kinship.

DSC02038

DSC02039

I reached out to people. If they gave me a smile or a hello, I stayed with them for a while, got their picture. Told them they were beautiful or handsome. I made small talk, which is the only talk I can make in Thai.  One teenage boy told me he spoke, Thai, Lathu and English.  He did not speak Chinese.  I guess that makes sense. He told me to keep walking, which was now a dirt path and that people were preparing for a tamboon.  This means people were preparing for a temple offering, in this case, the next morning.

DSC02027

As soon as I walked into the gathering, I see the women, weaving plastic string around their gifts to hang on the bamboo pole.  These are basic gifts for the Buddhist monks: toothpaste, deodorant and other toiletries. Money is also affixed to decorative bamboo sticks. In turn, the monks provide their spiritual teachings and are the foundation for the people’s spiritual lives.

DSC02053

People (and their loved ones who have passed on) earn merit for their generosity to the monks.

DSC02055

DSC02056

There are welcoming gestures for me to sit down and everyone seems excited to see me.  I get the feeling no white people walk this far into the village. Then, they shuttle me into an area when more women are cooking food and men are making beautiful decorative bamboo skewers, that later would be affixed with the financial offerings. It appears, part of their creation is made from a fried flour to look like the petals of a flower. I see a pea, or bean that serves as the flower center.  Awesome. I have never seen this.  The men are making the decorations. I also see older brothers and men carrying the little boys on their backs. So far, I have only seen women do this.

DSC02058

I am taken in by an out-going elder man. I would describe him as frisky.  He reminds me of an amalgam of men I have known. Including my grandfathers.  He has a playful and cheerful attitude. His voice bounces.  His body bounces. He comes over to me and talks excitedly and raising his hands.  I have a short movie of him playing the drums on my Youtube video channel.

DSC02083

The women ask if I have eaten, and before I can answer, I am served a big bowl of noodle soup with all sorts of ingredients.  It is spicy and the women laugh when I sputter and say, “pedt,” or spicy. I eat the whole bowl though.  It tastes different from the Thai noodle soup. The noodles and broth are different.

DSC02057One woman seems to be in charge.  She is lovely and wiry with muscles. She talks loudly. She is lauding over the soup cooking in the huge pot.  Soon, everyone from the village will come to get a bowl.  I am served before everyone else and am honored.

DSC02060This is the kind of hospitality I see over and over again in Thailand. Before I finish the bowl it starts to pour buckets of rain.  It pours for an hour, or more. I stay.  It is rainy season and I have an umbrella. Rain is dripping from the holes in the tarp canopy but it is holding and most people stay or run to a nearby. Then I go inside a small shack, where the men are making bamboo poles for the money.  Others, are sitting and smoking.

DSC02071

 

DSC02068

DSC02064

No one was drinking alcohol.  I think energy drinks may have been a replacement on this Buddhist lent weekend. It is time for me to leave, the rain is now a soft drizzle. I said thank you and goodbye. I follow the now muddy path that they say will lead me to the temple on the hill. I am excited about this because the temple has a huge white Mechi (female monk) statue and another under its own temple. The path is steep and I am headed down hill.

DSC02089

I step on the side grass to avoid slipping. My hiking legs appear and they know what to do. I pass through gorgeous scenery. Tea plants at my fingertips. I see another steep yet paved path up to the temple.

As I hike I feel my butt muscles.  I think to myself how strong everyone is that lives here.  No wonder the women have such beautiful bodies, including their butts. In general, Thai women do not have butts.  Many are tiny, fragile beauties.  Some of these hill tribe women are bigger boned, strong as well as beautiful.

DSC02095

DSC02097

I am at the bottom of the last steps going up to the chedi and temple.  I see a small nen, young monk, prancing his way down the steps carrying a silver umbrella.  He follows the path I just walked up and does not see me. His maroon robes and hat are a striking colors. His smallness conjures an image of a elf skipping merrily down slippery steep steps.

DSC02118

The chedi, temple statues are beautiful.  I find a monk’s quarters, I think, and just looking at it brings me peace. I pour water over my muddy feet.

DSC02100

DSC02101

DSC02107

DSC02106

DSC02099

 

Monday

I depart for the temple at 6:30am and pass many people dressed up and carrying flowers, food and other respectful offerings for the Buddha. They are going in the opposite direction so I imagine they are headed for the other temple. The one I climbed 718 steps to reach Sunday night. The views there are breathtaking you can see above the clouds. I am at the temple at 7am as told to arrive, Yet, I should have known not to rush but instead to slowly drink my soy milk and eat my little chinese “fingers.” Instead, I drank and noshed while I walked.  It’s Thai Time!  Which really means be there an hour and a half later than the spoken time.

DSC02206

It has rained. I take pictures. DSC02209

DSC02216

DSC02220The temple has many new elements I have never seen before. The horses, the interesting guillotine shaped gong.

DSC02213

I see people on the road I recognize from the day before. They yell hello and smile wide. Then I see my favorite old man.

DSC02226

DSC02230

DSC02227

People make offerings of wild flowers, grasses, slices of fruit, presented beautifully on banana leaves or baskets. People are walking around the chedi, another act of devotion.

DSC02235

DSC02234

DSC02240

DSC02238

DSC02239

A woman hands me three incense sticks and three candles. I light the incense, the candles. Incense goes in the pot, candles go on the tray.  Earlier, at the chedi, people were getting the wat ready, putting the tamboon money on the bamboo trees sticks. I wanted to contribute so I tell one man who is helping that I want to hai (give) to the tamboon.  He nods and puts the money in his pocket. Huh?  I don’t say anything. I should have given it to the other man who I met yesterday because this guy, who knows what his plans are.  I turn it over and let it go.

DSC02231

inside, sticky rice with peanuts, beautifully wrapped in corn husk leaf

DSC02257

DSC02242

Walking back, I buy bracelets made by Lishu, an ethnic Burmese tribe, from the girls I meet on the road.

DSC02269

There are vegetable gourds, beans and belts for sale.

DSC02163

Walking back from everywhere, I notice young men getting their hair cut in a salon.  Detour. I approach and smile, make small talk.

DSC02193

They ask me where I am from. I am from America. Only teenage boys are getting their hair cut.  I have seen this attention to hair by the young Hmong hill tribe men in Pua.

DSC02198

The Thais wear their hair much more traditional. Everyone else, it seems, wears their hair longer. They love their hair and it looks good.  It reminds me of the 60‘s. Almost all have long bangs that are swept across the face and the rest of the hair in a style in what only can be described as a shag with benefits. I had a shag in 8th grade. The next day I notice a similar ritual going on. About four men stand over the guy in the chair, gesturing and talking about what should happen to the hair next. Shave the head here, leave a little long hair here, and a wisp  there.  It is creative expression for the young men, with a touch of “catch a girl” potion.

DSC02000

Mae Salong has a mosque.  I never knew there were Chinese Muslim. I also popped into a Baptist Church, where teenagers and little children were singing upbeat hymns, I am guessing about Jesus, in Thai. I followed some Akha hill tribe people going into a building under construction.  I wondered in they were going to work in their indigenous clothes. I had to climb up a wooden plate and step over scaffolding.

DSC02002

There were going to some meeting in one of the unfinished rooms. I said hello. One woman gave me a card for her Akha homestay.  I will check it out. Next time.

DSC02307

Shin Shan guesthouse, where I stayed

I have 20 minutes to pack before the song taro (truck taxi) arrives to head back to Chiang Rai. The ride back is beautiful with more stunning views and endless hills covered with tea and villages perched high among them. I spend most of my time talking to the interesting Americans in the vehicle.  One young women in her 20’s teaches at an International School in Bangkok.  She has 10 primary age students in her class.  She teaches all subjects and they are all angels.  Her students come from all over the world. She is paid well and loves it. Her friend works in her family’s line of business, “jewelry” in a jewelry high tower in the Silom District.  She, Jewish, said she didn’t like Israel because the people were rude. The others are a family from California. The husband and wife, she Taiwanese and he, American, are nearing the end of their one year journey around the world. Their two lovely grown children have joined them on this leg, as they have joined them at other pivotal points.  They love that there parents pulled up stakes and left on this journey. We talk about everything.  How, anyone can get a job teaching English, if you are white and can speak English. The international school teacher says she was asked to sing a children’s song in her interview.  You’re hired.  It didn’t hurt that she has big blue eyes, blond hair and a huge beautiful smile.

DSC02128

Chinese Martyr Memorial museum

DSC02009

DSC02267

DSC02284

DSC02302

DSC02287

DSC02264

On the way home in Chiang Rai, I stopped at Wat Phra Kaew and its many beautiful temples and museum. Photos you will have to find on my Facebook page, along with the wonderful video of the elder playing the drums.

Hello, I Love You

Smiling

smile

Being a teacher in Thailand can go to your head.  Children yell your name every time they see you and not just at school. I will be riding my bike around town or out of town and children and adults too, will yell “Hello,” “Hello Susan,” or just “Susan.”  I don’t always know who they are.  I smile big and greet them back. You can’t leave the house with a frown on your face, people just don’t get it. If you do, your mood will quickly change when the first smile will greet you, and it will, with a big “Hello!” You don’t have bad days in Thailand, not for long anyway.

little girl

Then, I think about what Thais have to endure: the heat, the rain, the mosquitos.  Most people are up at the butt crack of dawn.  The monks are up at 4am. My neighbors start the power drills, weed whackers and other machines before 6:30am.  Today, the village leader’s announcement came on before 6am. It is just too hot to do the work in the day.

Shack

farm rest shack

The farmers, however are the exception. They work all day. They are always quick with a smile and their relaxed manner reveals another value in Thai culture, you do things slowly, not rushing to the finish. After all, the field work will be there tomorrow and after that too.

butterfly

I have to laugh because the cartoons I watch, yes, I watch cartoons, some from South Korea, France, Japan, have characters with little sweat balls on their faces. Children at school drip with sweat too.  They barely comment on it. A quick flush of cold water solves that.

three

Wai not

In addition to the hello’s, children and adults will “wai” you.  You get “waied” a lot. Hands in prayer position and a little bow.  I like the wai.  When the little ones wai, it is adorable. One of the first things parents teach their children is to wai. Teachers are revered in Thailand. I will get waied by adults as well as children for being a teacher. I must admit I like it. I wish Americans would adopt a little “wai ‘ness” into the culture. The wai is like saying “namaste.” You stop for a brief moment and acknowledge the other person.

wai powder

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thailand is rated the tops for its hospitality. People go out of the way to accommodate you, give you a chair, a cold drink of water, or something to eat.  They want to know if you have eaten, “gin kao laeo ru yang.”  I took a long bike ride yesterday and stopped for water along the way and quickly chatted it up with the local people.  Always friendly and curious.  One grandmother crossed the street to see me and said, “I Love You.”  I laughed and said, “I love you too.” I am sure she got that phrase from a television show. Another woman told me she was learning English on her own.  I quickly did an inventory and reminded myself that I ought to do that too with Thai language. Her daughter goes to Pua High School, the big local high school. But she is about a 30k bus ride away. After a few minutes she warmed up and introduced herself in English. Young people really do not like to speak English because they are so shy and believe that if you can’t speak perfectly, you don’t try. I constantly remind my students to “fuk pudt” or practice speaking.  I tell them not to be so serious.

Heart words

I like the “jai” heart words in Thailand.  There are 100’s of jai words. I only know a few.  Naam jai or “water heart” is a generous person.  “Jai yen” is someone who is calm and cool. “Dee jai” is someone who is happy and “jai dee” is someone who is kind.

teacher

Phra Ajahn Somboon

The most interesting and confusing of all jai words is “greng jai.”  There is no word in English that translates. It has to do with saving face or preserving face. It is a sense of not wanting to impose oneself on another person.  It is also telling people what you want to hear.  This is typical when asking for directions in Thailand.  Rather than not have an answer for you… Thai people may give “directions” that are not correct at all out of respect for you and preserving their face. Greng jai is also respect, generosity, obligation. If you understand that harmony, an important Thai value is behind this, then you can understand. The extremes of greng jai are mind boggling to a westerner.  You might say yes, but don’t really mean yes, or never follow through on the “yes.” It also might appear to us as lying.

wat phuket

I am dealing with the annoying disappearance of one of my Nike aerobics shoes, only one. My mother sent them to me a few weeks ago.  They were not new, but worn and comfy.  They were on a shoe rack, which I have had outside all year, like all Thai people.  I immediately want to blame someone.  My neighbor thinks it is a dog who took it.  So, after anger, I get to Jai jen, after all nothing lasts and is it really that important? Do I need shoes?

mudffin

I am learning a lot from this culture of people with water hearts and who wai out of respect.

puan baan

Beautiful clouds of Thailand.  No stratus here… they come big and billowy.

cloud

Cloud 1

Cloud 2

Cloud 3

Cloud 5