Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Motorcycle fright

One of the most unnerving sights in Thailand, and much of southeast Asia, is the practice of packing a group of people onto a motorcycle, then speeding off through the chaos of the region's traffic. It is especially frightening to see entire families on a bike, with the smallest child perched in front. Generally, none are wearing helmets, and if one does, it is not the child. Even westerners adopt the Thai way: I have been surprised to see Americans driving motorcycles with un-helmeted children sitting in front, dangerously exposed to the harsh realities of traffic physics.

Using motorcycles is a relatively inexpensive way for Thais to get around; it's a practical mode of transportation used to get from one point to another.
Motorcycles weave through traffic with ease and are always three deep at the red light, roaring off the instant the signal switches to green. Westerners are especially vulnerable to taxi door-motorcycle collisions, as they are not used to the dashed lane markers serving as legitimate motorcycle lanes, and simply open the door upon arrival without bothering to look behind for fast approaching bikes. Westerners are also vulnerable as motorcycle drivers, often failing to carefully estimate the space available. One colleague is now in a hand cast, having been on the losing end of his motorcycle and a car's side-view mirror.

In addition to the increasing number of automobiles, it is very common to see pedestrians, bicycle riders, pedal carts (some actually on the freeway), push carts, wheelbarrows, sleeping dogs, small herds of domestic livestock, and the occasional elephant. Throwing all of this into the mix of speeding traffic seems to be a certain recipe for disaster. Amazingly, one rarely sees an accident at all.

Thinking about this oddity, I have my own theory: Because of all the obstacles that are guaranteed to be in a driver's way while negotiating traffic, there seems to be an instinctive "flock mentality" that has evolved. Entire stretches of traffic respond in unison, often several lanes across in the blink of an eye, much like hundreds of birds together in flight. As a result, errant canines, swerving bicycles, and distracted pedestrians are spared.
As a colleague wryly mused as we swerved our way to school in a taxi: "What are all these dashed lines on the road for?"

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Kindness of a Stranger

It is one of the most heart-warming experiences one can have anywhere: A complete stranger extends a helping hand with no expectations for repayment. In Thailand, it is known as "making merit," a charitable act that increases the chance of reincarnation to a better place and situation. Or in many cases, it is done simply because the stranger has empathy and a kind heart.

We were spending a night in a nearby province in an out-of-the-way hotel on a river, and had called a taxi to take us 30 km to the city of Nakorn Pathom where we toured the world's largest Buddhist pagoda, followed by a leisurely dinner and some shopping. There were large crowds due mainly to the festive atmosphere of a national holiday, in this case, the king's birthday. Thailand's King Bhumibol (Also known as Rama IX), who is the longest sitting royal in the world (62 years), is revered by the populace for many reasons, not the least of which is his sponsorship of over 4,000 projects, mainly in the poorer areas of the country. (Image from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhumibol_Adulyadej)

As fireworks exploded over the pagoda, we wandered to the main street to hail a cab. It soon became apparent that there were no taxis anywhere. Approaching a group of motorcycle taxi drivers, we asked about securing a cab. Our concern grew when they blinked and replied that there were no taxis in the city. As our plight was discussed, the traffic policeman came over and added his sympathetic voice to those of the cyclists. No one seemed to know just how to get us home, as there was no way we were going to hop onto the back of a motorcycle for a lengthy highway trip.

Presently, a man rode up on his motorcycle and asked if he could be of help. When we explained the situation, he paused and said, "I have a car. I'll take you." When he rode away, the taxi cyclists pulled up chairs for us to sit curbside, and chatted (mainly with Kat in Thai) about the situation and the holiday. In a few minutes, the man returned, we were ushered into the car (the policeman held the door for us), and were whisked away to the secluded hotel. As we drove, the man talked at great length about the king and the great esteem in which he is held by Thais. "To Thais," our Samaritan said, "He is like a god."

When we arrived at the hotel, we offered to pay for the gas, and to buy our hero tea, but he waved it away. "I want to do it," he said. He then tapped his chest. "I do it because in my heart I love the king." He bowed and drove away into the darkness, and much relieved, we returned to our bungalow, thankful for the kindness of a stranger in a land where in reality, we are the strangers.

Monday, December 1, 2008


There are many ways in Thai language to pronounce what westerners may consider clear-cut consonant sounds. For instance, there is more than one sound that is close to but not exactly a “k.” Sometimes transliteration shows it as a “k,” sometimes a “g,” and differentiates between “kh” and “k.” Often, especially at the end of a word, it is not pronounced at all, what teachers refer to as “swallowing” the sound. Therefore it was not surprising, but yet amusing for me to see on a student’s paper, as one step in the procedure for a laboratory exercise: “Be sure to wear a lab goat.”

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Cool Season

It began as many changes do: Gradual and nearly imperceptible. As November arrived, there was a slight change in the humidity, accompanied by breezes that moved in during the night. Daylight comes a few minutes later each morning, and nighttime creeps in a bit earlier each evening, throwing off routines by the slightest measure. It then is apparent that rain has not fallen for a few days, then a week, then two. Nasal passages are suddenly dry, and the air conditioning gives way to fans, then to fans shut off in the middle of the night while half asleep we reach to throw covers over us. I notice that the shower heating knob has slowly been turned from the blue cool range of August to the red warm indicator as December approaches. I now must water the outdoor plants, and I take fewer showers, as there is not a constant sticky film of perspiration on my skin. More students come to school wearing sweaters or jackets, and Thai workers wear knit caps and down vests. Thankfully, the cool season has arrived--This morning is was 19 C (66 F), unusual, but welcome.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bangkok Airport Closed

Kat received a text message yesterday that her school would be closed in response to the closing of Bangkok International Airport by political demonstrations. The main road to her school is also the main thoroughfare from downtown to the airport. My school remains open, although there have been concerns voiced by staff.

It is an unusual event: The police seem unable to contain the mass of well-organized demonstrators, who want the government to dissolve (they charge that it is corrupt and bought the most recent election); the army is asking the Prime Minister to dissolve parliament, but he has refused. An interesting standoff, to say the least. Meanwhile, the world's 18th largest airport is virtually closed. Since tourism is such a large part of Thailand's financial base, the airport is a lifeline. An American arriving yesterday in the chaos of the airport complained that this shouldn't be happening on "one of America's most important holidays." I simply do not know how to respond to such provincialism voiced OUTSIDE of the U.S.

It may seem a bit curious to those who are from western democracies. How can a small group of people bring a government to a complete halt? Why is it allowed? When asked this question, I had to think about it for a while, but then realized that Thailand's democracy is unlike that of western systems, for non-political reasons. Being a parliamentary system makes it different in its stability than a system of separate legislative bodies such as in the U.S. Additionally, there is a history of cultural norms, the influence of the monarchy, the military's connection (or disconnection) to the ruling party and tolerance for corruption, as well as the growing number of people who want to change the system that is seen to be rife with unscrupulous dealings. In short, it's complicated. I am impressed with the restraint that has been shown so far. But who knows what tomorrow will bring? I know that the airport cannot remain closed indefinitely.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister and cabinet have set up quarters in the northern city of Chiang Mai, in effect becoming a government in exile within its own borders. Rumor has it that another coup is imminent.

So far, our day to day activities have not been affected, although western embassies in Bangkok are cautioning citizens to stay away from any area that may be potentially dangerous.
We do not consider ourselves in any danger. We do wonder about the inconveniencing of friends who are planning to visit soon, as well as our plans to fly south in a week for a three day holiday weekend. Kat is a bit nervous about her flight to the U.S. later in the month, but there is no sense worrying at this point. We are not in control of the situation, so must wait and see how it pans out.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Death of a Thai Princess

Two weekends ago Thailand paid its last respects to Princess Galyani Vadhana, sister of Thailand’s king, the cremation ceremony and procession coming 300 days after her death, as is the custom in the kingdom when a member of the royal family dies. Although I did not witness the procession in person, the images I saw on TV were like nothing I had ever seen or could have possibly imagined. After months of preparation and practice, the cortege carrying the ashes of the princess made its way through the city, accompanied by 2,000 royal guards and soldiers, all in regalia and in perfect somber cadence. I was mesmerized by the sight of gilded carriages high above the heads of spectators, reminiscent of the royal barges that once passed through the city’s rivers and canals with the level of royal family members never once falling below the height of the tallest citizen. No longer required to avert eyes and touch foreheads to the ground as the king passes, Thais nonetheless bow deeply in the presence of royals, and did so as the ashes of the princess passed the onlookers.

There are very few places in the world where a monarch or immediate family members are treated with such reverence and respect. From an American’s perspective, it is a bit of a surprise to see this atmosphere, one that many consider an anachronism in this century. Unless one spends time in Thailand, it is difficult to appreciate just how important the king--and by extension his family—is to Thais.

The funeral is reported to have cost the equivalent of 9 million US dollars, an unimaginable sum to nearly everyone in the world, but in particular to those in a country where the basic wage is about $5 a day. And yet I did not hear one negative remark from Thais about such extravagance. Of course, not only is it considered rude to demean the royal family, highly insulting remarks may land the offender in jail. I have come to think that Thais may not think about it at all. From Buddhist philosophy, one accepts his lot in life, and begrudges no one theirs; they simply strive to live a good life, making merit whenever possible in order to have a better life next time around.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Loy Krathong: Festival of Floating Lights

Loy Krathong is the annual festival at the end of the rainy season in which Thais offer prayers and thanks to the water goddess for the nourishing rains and to renew their pledge to keep the waters pure. As night falls during the full moon of the 12th lunar month (usually in November), thousands gather at waterways to release "krathongs," traditionally small floating pieces of lotus and banana leaf, often carrying candles, flowers, incense and coins for good luck. The scene is enchanting.

Photo from http://www.geocities.com/tokyo/towers/5265/loykrath.html

As can happen when technology and commercialism run ahead of good sense, the krathongs recently have been largely massed produced instead of being handmade, and with styrofoam as the main flotation material, with banana leaves stapled to the sides. The result is tons of non-biodegradable junk and sharp rusting staples dropping onto river beds and flowing into the Gulf of Thailand where they wash onto beaches for months afterward, turning a traditionally beautiful celebration into one with environmental destruction as an aftermath. Incredibly, Bangkok's former governor once decreed that all krathongs were to be made of foam! He reasoned that they floated best and were easy to clean up later. Since then, it has been difficult to make headway against the styrofoam mindset. But there is hope: Organic krathongs that disintegrate into fish food are becoming popular. Nearly all of the krathongs I saw for sale in our village were hand-made, and none included styrofoam; some were made of bread. Despite this trend, the krathongs still either end up rotting at the bottom of lakes and streams, or bob gently on water until cleaned up by concerned citizens. One can only hope that the river goddess will one day smile again upon the gifts being offered throughout the kingdom on this night.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Obama Factor

There is a perceived change in the attitudes of people here in Thailand since the election of Barack Obama as the next U.S. president. American expatriates are more upbeat and jovial, and students—even non-Americans--seem genuinely excited by the possibilities. Unless one speaks directly with Thais, it’s difficult to assess any new differences in their feelings, as they are always positive and smile at westerners anyway, particularly Americans. I am cautiously optimistic and find myself hopeful that America’s image may be improved, as it is now scraping ground in the global community at large.

Reports on the internet claim that the authors who are Americans living abroad no longer hide their citizenship in order to avoid confrontations about American foreign policy. Strangers smile at them and one journalist in Vienna reported being kissed by a stranger on the bus a day after the election once she knew he was American. Americans who do not travel out of the country are not usually aware of just how badly our country’s reputation has been tarnished by the Bush administration. It is little wonder that so many reports of optimism abound around the world.

For me as an American, it is much more personal. Having grown up during the civil rights movement, it is astonishingly wonderful that a family of color will occupy the White House. It is gratifying to know that many of the barriers that prevented African-Americans from voting as recently as just over 40 years ago have fallen far enough to usher into the Oval Office the son of an African father and white mother from the American plains. I have never understood the illogical racial prejudice that has divided our nation, often violently. Perhaps now true healing and soul-searching may occur, led by a man who is neither white nor black, and yet both. It is the perfect stage upon which to move forward. Let’s hope we do.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Global anxiety

Sitting on an idyllic tropical beach, I feel pangs of guilt as I think of people around the world, especially in the States who have, through no fault of their own save for a trust in the American economic system, great anxiety about their financial future. Of course, little in this world, including a tiny island in the Andaman Sea, escapes the effects of America's latest blunder.

So, in many ways we have felt the jolt: In transportation costs, in our retirement folios, in food prices, to name just a few. Overall, although we wanted to return because we enjoy the Thai lifestyle, we were very fortunate to come when we did; lucky timing, that's all (Checking the math, we discovered that this vacation as residents here would cost the equivalent of a week's trip to Chicago if we were in the U.S.).

Knowledge is not always a good thing. The Bible's metaphor involving Adam and Eve is apropos: naiveté often releases us from anguish. We have been isolated without TV or newspaper for nearly a week. How the presidential race is shaping up, or how the Dow has tracked this week will have no effect on the tides that move the lapping waves, the
hornbills that squabble in the palms, the crabs that race across the sand, or the islands that steadily erode imperceptibly with each monsoon downpour.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

End of quarter

The first quarter of the school year has ended. My relief at surviving the beginning is matched only by my astonishment at how quickly the time has passed. As is typical of starting any new job, it has taken me this long just to feel comfortable in my role as science teacher. It is only this week that I am able to plan ahead one week. At the beginning, it was by the hour!

It has been quite a struggle getting used to the strict schedule: No more leisurely strolls to the restroom whenever I feel the urge, or to linger at a colleague’s desk to discuss strategies. Generally, I’m running between classes just to show up on time.

Reflecting on the first nine weeks, I find that as usual, I am “behind” in at least one class, Biology, when compared to the other course teachers. I tend to take my time when involved in helping students understand key concepts, especially those that are complex, in this case evolution. I don’t like to hurry through them, just to be “on time.” This has caused some problems with colleagues in the past, and I’m sure that it is the same here. But, I can’t worry about that. Surprisingly, I am pretty much on schedule with my advanced Biology class, a two-year course, and with my ninth grade Physical Science classes.

The students are wonderful. They are inquisitive, energetic, and for the most part, respectful of the learning environment and of each other. I have no discipline problems, which is a blessing. I had expected that, however, as most are Asian, coming from a variety of cultures, all of which place great emphasis on respect for adults, especially teachers.

My greatest challenge has been the inability to communicate convincingly enough the unprofessional nature of my assignment. The school has one more science teacher than available rooms, and as the latest hire, I am the traveling teacher. They call me the “floating” teacher, and I refer to myself appropriately as the “floater,” which I feel adequately reflects the nature of the position. I have been a persistent, although respectful, thorny voice in the administration’s side. I have learned that there are at least four available classrooms in the school, and although none are equipped as a science facility, it would do nicely for consistency, not to mention time efficiency. I have yet to hear a reasonable answer as to why I cannot use one of them (Three are in the elementary building, one is in the English Intensive study building). To underscore the difficulty I have trying to work at my desk (I call it the “orifice”), which is in the noisy teacher's lounge, I recently plopped myself down in the administration office, ipod and all, to grade tests. No response (the avoidance was actually quite humorous to behold), so I will just have to visit often. I have a feeling that my gentle persuasion will pay off. Apparently, I am the first “new” science teacher to make a fuss. That’s what one gets when one hires a veteran educator: The others have been young and therefore hesitant to speak their minds about it. When I hear others rationalize the situation ("Other new science teachers have gone through it."), I reply that it doesn't require that it become a tradition, particularly an ill-conceived one.

I do remind myself that this is my “retirement” job, and I am happy to be in a quality school with good people surrounding me. I am also fortunate that Kat and I have found a wonderful house in an interesting Thai neighborhood, and that we have opportunity to explore this fascinating part of the world. For now, we will spend a quiet week on an island in the south of Thailand, and try to not spend too much time thinking about work.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

International School

Once known as "American" or "British" schools, the concept of an "international" school is now a fixture in the world's major cities as well as many other locations scattered across the globe in smaller cities and even in countryside settings. Students from many countries take courses in a variety of languages and curricula. In the school where I am teaching, for example, students make take a college-preparation American curriculum, complete with Advanced Placement offerings, or an international European-style curriculum, the International Baccalaureate.

Today, representatives from more than twenty U.S. colleges and universities will visit our campus to speak to high school juniors and seniors.

Although the majority of students in my school are Thai
nationals, students from over 35 countries attend. This spreading phenomenon reflects our growing global community. Even in the midwestern United States, urban schools often have over twenty countries and languages represented by their student population.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


Bangkok is an exciting, exotic city, but it can be overwhelming at times. It is necessary to escape the noise and traffic, even for a weekend. To celebrate my birthday, I was determined to get out of the city, even though our suburban life is relatively peaceful. We were finally able to get away for a weekend to a resort we love that is on the Gulf of Thailand, a 4 hour trip by car or van. Here's a photo of what I did during our stay.

Monday, September 29, 2008


One would think that time-honored customs in far-flung corners of the world would be exempt from the advertising mania of global corporations, but no. Even in Thailand, whose beautiful custom of greeting others with a "wai" is simple and elegant, fast food giants take advantage to sell more of their products. Could anything be more arrogant and disrespectful than the silly sight of Ronald McDonald greeting one with a Thai "wai" while dressed in his gaudy clothes? It's an embarrassment.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Small Business Capital

I received a letter from a friend in the States, who bemoaned the loss of the small "Mom & Pop" stores of his childhood. With a melancholy pen, he mourns the extinction of small shops by the encroaching mega-chains, even into the small towns of America. Living in Thailand, even in a huge city such as Bangkok, one cannot escape the world of the small business man or woman; tiny shops line every street, and many stay open all night. Motor bikes with sidecars holding nothing more than cold soft drinks compete with noodle stands for Thai baht. The entrepreneurial spirit is not only alive, it is thriving. It is sometimes difficult to imagine how some of these shops manage to survive. However, as I learn more about Thai culture, I understand that the basis of business ownership is about simple survival, not about making a huge profit in order to buy a large house and two cars. Most of these folks make just enough to get by, and in Thailand, that is the main point. The man who sits next to his table on the sidewalk all day long, selling bananas at fifty cents a bunch seems as jovial at dusk as he does at dawn when he sets up. The photo shop owner, whom I awoke from a nap on his floor when I entered his small shop, may see only a few customers a day who buy a roll of film for 100 baht ($3). Sometimes I am the only customer in a barber shop for hours.

Of course, there are giants of capitalism here, as in any major city: Huge malls, multi-floor mega-discount stores and fast food icons. The difference, however, is the accessibility of the small shops. They line the streets of every neighborhood, so that they are not far from local consumers. In America, we rely so heavily on automobiles to take us to centralized shopping districts, that we must travel relatively long distances just to buy a loaf of bread. When was the last time I walked anywhere in the States to buy groceries? Only in those small towns and villages where I by chance lived near them. Here, no matter where one lives, it is but a short walk or bike ride to get most of the necessities for basic living

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Saturday Mornings in the Moobaan

On Saturday mornings, I generally arise by 6:00, as I haven’t figured out a way to get the message through to our cat Guido that there is a difference between the weekend and every other day when we get up by 5:00. Six o’clock is a luxury that I manage by ignoring his persistent cries outside the house until the garbage truck rolls by. The two together are just too much for me to sleep through. I do not need an alarm clock.

But, I have found that this is the best time to experience life in this Thai “village” of 10,000 souls (and who knows how many ancestral spirits). While Kat enjoys the opportunity to sleep in, I feed the pets and throw in a load of laundry, then hop on my bicycle and pedal a half-mile or so to the newspaper vendor to buy an English language daily, either the Bangkok Post or The Nation. I ride through layers of different flower blossom fragrances that float on the heavy humid air, their sweetness enhanced by the lingering effects of the rain t
hat came a few hours before dawn.

As I leave my “soi” and approach the main street through the moobaan, few human sounds are heard—the birds are stirring, and the morning dog ritual of howls, snarls and yips can be heard. An occasional cigarette cough or scuffling of flip-flops float through from behind the hedges, but otherwise it has the sleepy feel of the weekend. As I ride toward the village center, I see sidewalk vendors readying their grills, smoke waftin
g above the street as patrons wait patiently for their breakfast. A few cars pass me as I silently sail by closed shop fronts.

Nearing the newspaper vendor, I see saffron-robed monks walking barefoot along the street, following their daily path to receive alms and give blessings. A man kneels on the sidewalk in prayer with his gift for the monk, who stands before him chanting. A toddler standing on the rear passenger pad of a bike, her arms around her father’s neck, instinctively presses her palms together in the “wai,” a sign of respect as they pass a monk. The heady smell of incense curls from spirit houses as offerings are left for ancestors.

I pay for the paper and ride on to the main shopping street, and as I approach, the sights and sounds intensify until I am in the center where there is a bustling as people hurry to buy the freshest fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs and breads from sidewalk vendors or open air grocery stores. I finally arrive at my ultimate destination, the center of modern Thai society: 7 Eleven, the 24 hour convenience store. Known by Thais simply as “seVEN,” (emphasis on syllable two) it is the most common store in Thailand; one sees them virtually everywhere. To illustrate the ubiquitous nature of the store chain, there are two within a block of each other on the street. I withdraw money from the ATM outside the store, then go inside to get milk, pay the utility bill, and buy a phone card (I have learned that one may also pay for plane tickets here). This early weekend ritual adds to my enjoyment of living in the “moobahn,” and I linger just a bit to take it all in before retuning home to sit under the tree, sip coffee, and read about what’s going on in the rest of the world.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

White Quest

Wandering the aisles of the local supermarket, I came across a section of personal products that promotes a physical attribute desired in the tropics: White skin. Many Thais avoid direct sunlight as much as possible (shielding their face with umbrellas, purses, newspapers and if nothing else is handy, their hands), as it is fashionable to have light skin. Dark-skinned Thais are considered “country” or “outdoor” people, which indicates a sort of class-consciousness: Working indoors reflects a higher status job than working in the sun. Models have exceptionally light skin, which helps drive the desire for a lighter dermis.

The supermarket shelves stock such items as Healthy White Lotion, Whitening Sun Protection, UV Whitening Milk Repair, Whitening Cream, Nivea Bye-Bye Melanin, Pond’s Flawless White Facial Foam, Whitening Deep Repair (for men), and for the ecologically-minded shopper, Tea Tree Natural Whitening Complex.

We humans are so humorous in our quest for what we consider the ultimate physical appearance. Next to the whitening lotions and creams are the “Protective Tanning” oils—for westerners, of course, who want to be darker like the Thais.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Urban Wildlife

I find that foreigners either enjoy the company of geckos (known as “jink-jokes” in Thailand) or are repelled by the idea of having them share an abode (Thais naturally coexist with the little creatures). Coming from a temperate climate where lizards are rare, we welcome the mosquito-eating reptiles that scurry from behind picture frames or plants to gulp down the annoying insects, but have to admit that it is rather disconcerting to find the severed tail of one on the couch or in the jaws of the cat.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Religion and Politics

Imagine if you will, a front page story in your capital city press, in which it is reported that “Lately, many astrological forecasts have spelled trouble” for your national leader (president/prime minister), and that “at social functions, the prime minister hands out tokens of a Buddha image known as ‘defeating the enemies.’”

As the Thai PM struggles with low morale in the face of mounting calls for his ouster, the press reports (on page one no less) that in the past, a well-known astrologer said that “the stars showed that he would find himself in great trouble and it is highly likely that he could lose his position as prime minister.” Upset by the forecast, the PM “was seen attending a ceremony worshipping Bahu, the god of darkness.”

This may seem quite odd to those who are not familiar with Chinese astrology, but then again, what religion does not have strange beliefs as viewed by others? Being from the U.S. where the founders wanted to ensure the separation of church and state, I am weary of the very common practice of political leaders claiming the moral high ground due to religious beliefs.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Thai Heat

Living in this tropical city requires a shift in the way one thinks about errands. Bangkok is the world’s hottest city, and with its high humidity, it is simply impossible to make a “to do” list. If the list is any longer than two entries, upon returning to the house, one simply collapses into a whimpering soggy blob.

On a rare day off (akin to a “snow day” except this was for a state of emergency called by the prime minister), I decide to “get lots of things done.” I should know better.

After repotting some outdoor plants and hanging newly framed photos around the house, I remove the laundry from the washing machine and hang it out to dry. A new faculty member wondered why there are no electric dryers in any of the homes; not only does it take longer than simply hanging them on a rack, it also costs money! Despite staying in the shade and the use of two fans, I take my second shower of the day, a simple rinse in cool water straight from the water tank. I rarely use air conditioning, and am not sure why exactly. Maybe it is because I am in and out so frequently that it doesn’t seem practical. But I also feel that a fan cools me sufficiently. There is also something rather exotic and a bit sensual about the Thai heat: With windows open, I can enjoy the birds, the soft jingle of wind chimes in the tree and the rumble of thunder as a storm approaches. Or, maybe I’m just cheap, although I like to think that by resisting air conditioning I am reducing my carbon footprint on the environment.

I pedal my bicycle to the main road just outside the moobahn entrance and stop at a furniture shop that is a simple structure: Awnings cover an array of beautiful handmade chairs, tables, and desks. I buy a rosewood coffee table, which will be delivered today along with the small hardwood table we are having made for our spirit house to sit on. I check in with my friend Marc, who is on his way to have breakfast, so I travel a few blocks to a western-style café that serves a wicked good omelette, and have a mocha “frappacino” while waiting. As do most restaurants, the café has two types of seating; indoor and out. I choose indoors where it is air conditioned, not because I prefer it, but I know that Marc does. Coming from Arizona, he suffers from the humidity. Besides, it is nearing noon, the hottest time of day, and I can feel the sweat running down my spine.

After breakfast, I ride to a nearby grocery store, “Get It,” to—appropriately--get an ironing board to replace the small Asian-style board that we inherited. I am simply too tall to iron comfortably on such a board. Not only do I buy the board, but the cashier rewards my patronage with two free gifts: Laundry detergent (I had just bought some along with the board), and a pack of Oreos. I suddenly realize what a fantastic trick it would be to ride my bike back home while attempting to balance a full sized ironing board. I stand in the street with, I suppose, a rather bewildered look on my face, trying to size up the situation. Do I walk the bike the entire mile in this heat? Do I lock the bike up and flag a taxi, then return for the bike later? Not wishing to give in to flagrant western whining about inconveniences, and with a bit of stubbornness, I decide to use a bungee cord to strap the board to the handlebar edgewise so it is more or less balanced, grasp the board under my right arm, and, with a bit of anxiety, wobble off toward home, keenly aware of traffic behind me, but the drivers seem aware of my predicament and give me a wide berth as they pass.

Once home, I fumble with the board as I try to dismount. A gardener notices my quandary and hurries to help me so I am able to get the bike and ironing board through the gate. Dripping wet, I put the board into the laundry room and set it up. It is then I realize that the legs are not even…the board wobbles erratically. With a heavy sigh, I contemplate what anyone would do in America: Return to the store and demand a replacement. But as I stand there in the heat, sweat running into my eyes, and a thunderstorm fast approaching, I think of what that would mean in terms of effort. I shrug, fold a piece of paper four times and shove it under the short leg and say to myself, “What the hell…it’s Thailand,” and go inside for my third—and not to be last--shower of the day.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Unrest in Bangkok

After several days of impasse, police fired on demonstrators around government offices in Bangkok, killing at least one. The Prime Minister, whom the protesters want out of office, has declared a state of emergency. Rumor has it that the military has taken control of the situation.

Kat's school closed today, as did about 400 other schools in the city. Ours is still open (9:29 AM Bangkok time). We are in no immediate danger, as we are many miles away from the situation. Bangkok is a huge city, covering over 2,000 square miles, larger than Rhode Island, and we are far out near the city limits. None of this is affecting us.

We are fine, and expect to stay that way. This happens every so often in Thailand, with generally little harm to anyone. It is unfortunate that there was violence--this is unusual here. Let's hope that's the end of it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

School Lunch

Thais love to eat. They eat at all hours of the day and into the night. When not eating a main meal, they snack, and they love a bit of sweet treat now and then. The traditional food is flavorful and well known universally for its spiciness. Everywhere one goes in Thailand, there is food available, from small mobile carts on street corners to open air cafes, to large markets, to fine dining in elegant hotels. We are still sampling menus of restaurants within a ten minute walk of our home and are not near to having tried them all: Of course, we return often to those whose fare we have found to be particularly delicious, or whose environment is inviting, or best of all, both.

The school’s three canteens (Elementary, Middle School and High School) reflect the country’s penchant for food. The cafeterias are open air, and next to one another, stretching for nearly the length of a city block. Not really three separate cafeterias, but at slightly different levels to designate where each age group is to eat—but it isn’t required that they do. I counted no less than twenty food stalls, not counting the large beverage stall that sits strategically in the middle directly across the room from the food offerings. No carbonated drinks are sold, but students have whispered that if you ask the right people, they will discretely pour some into a cup for you.

In order for the students to be able to follow their stomachs in the Thai tradition, there is a 20-minute mid-morning “milk break.” Originally for elementary children, it is now a full-fledged gastronomic smorgasbord opportunity for all students K-12.

I spend too much of my 40 minute lunch break trying to decide what to eat. Sometimes I have a craving for one dish or another and head directly there, but usually I simply wander along, unable to make up my mind, as the cholces are simply overwhelming. I was stunned to find that the school menu is several pages long. Not only are there many stalls, but within each are several options. There is a Japanese food stall offering sushi, salmon, pork or beef steak, and sashimi; A vendor selling Korean food; Several stalls of Thai dishes: Noodle soups, fried noodle and shrimp or chicken (pad thai), vegetarian dishes, fried rice dishes, grilled chicken, sweet curried chicken or pork; or one might wish to have western fare such as hot dogs or burgers and fries, or move on to the stall with quick snacks or the one with a variety of sandwiches. Not only is the food delicious, it is also inexpensive: I generally eat for less than $1.50, which will easily buy a good-sized dish and a bottle of water (cold bottled water goes for the equivalent of 21 cents). Occasionally I will treat myself to fresh fruit or a chocolate dessert, or as I did yesterday, to an iced cappuccino. I have not heard anyone complain about the cafeteria food; in fact it is just the opposite. This is by far the finest school cafeteria menu I have had the pleasure to sample. The secret? Rent out the stall spaces to independent vendors. Happily, there is not one fast food icon to be seen amongst them.

School Environment

Every school has its own personality, a type of energy that helps define it and its environment. Last week was the first complete week of the school year. Despite my anxiety about the ability to sustain enough momentum to last a full week, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I felt great when 2:35 rolled around on Friday afternoon.

Friday was an unusual day in many ways, but I think it was the dichotomy that inspired in me a deepening respect for the school. The day began on a somber note: The entire community of more than 2,000 students, teachers and administrators gathered in the gymnasium for a memorial service that honored the memory of an elementary teacher who died the previous Sunday. She was the third teacher who has died of cancer in the past year and a half. Despite not knowing the teacher personally, I was moved by the simple beauty of the service and love that was expressed by the school community. I left, anticipating a rather slow-moving day.

When lunchtime arrived, the high school was energized in a way that was--at least to me--unexpected. As students streamed from their classes and funneled their way to the canteen, they were presented with an array of booths from 15 organizations whose information was creatively displayed around individual tables. These student-led clubs had officers on hand to answer questions about their organization and sign up students who were interested in becoming active members. In the background, a live rock band, composed of students, blared forth its rather unique brand of music, and students milled around the tables, clogging the passageway. Initially skeptical, I watched in amazement as hordes of students jammed the tables in order to sign up for such clubs as Amnesty International, Rotary International, Model United Nations, Global Issues Network, Environmental Service Club, Health Club, Robotics, Kendo Martial Arts Club, Digital Photography, DJ Club, and Forensics. I had become a bit hardened by the often less than enthusiastic response of American high school students in becoming involved in service-type organizations (although there are a remarkable core of dedicated students at every school), so I was a bit taken aback by this enthusiasm, and on a Friday no less. I have volunteered to be an assistant sponsor for two of the clubs, and am looking forward to working with these kids as they take on leadership and service roles.

This experience lifted my spirits and the rest of the day sailed by.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Thai Spirit Houses

One of the most common sights one sees in Thailand is the “spirit house.” Although most Thais are Buddhist, they are also “animists.” On nearly every house and company site sits a small temple-like structure on a pedestal. The tradition began centuries ago in the Tai tribes of northern Vietnam and spread to all parts of Southeast Asia.

In Thailand, spirit worship exists alongside Buddhism, even with spirit houses on the grounds of temples. Thais erect these structures in order to appe
ase the spirits of beings who have left this world, but who often live amongst us. Offerings of flower garlands, water, food, and incense are placed on the structure.

Spirit houses are often erected to honor the spirits of ancestors. They may be quite simple, or very elaborate. They are so common that one eventually no longer stops to linger in appreciation of these often beautiful houses.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

First Day at School!

After a week of orientation and learning the ways of my new school in Bangkok, it is time to meet the students. The faculty members here are a diverse and talented group from around the world. The conversations overheard as we approached the start of school were rich in English dialects: Welsh, English, Canadian, Scottish, American Midwest, Texan, Bostonian, Australian, New Zealander, East Indian, and the lovely brogue of Newfoundland mingle in a lively expression of this widespread tongue. Throw in those with Swedish, Thai, Philippine, Japanese, and Latin American accents, and it is truly an international atmosphere in the faculty room.

Our orientation timeline was what one might expect at any school, except that also thrown in were details for visas, Thai culture introduction, as well as information about the recent accreditation process. It certainly helped that we were feted each day with massive amounts of food for breakfast and lunch: a smorgasbord of Thai and western buffet food. That always helps! The result of all the information loading was lack of classroom preparation time, so most of us “newbies” have been scrambling for the past few days. Only yesterday was I able to collect my wits enough to put together a syllabus for my advanced biology class. No matter: in all my years of teaching, it never fails to amaze me how it all falls together on Day 1. This year was no exception.

Even before the taxi unloaded my two colleagues and me at “Gate 6” near the faculty parking lot, it was obvious that today would be different. Traffic flow was markedly slowed, as buses and parents’ cars streamed into the campus. Uniformed, dark-haired students swarmed over the grounds like ants on a doughnut. I heard few conversations that I could understand as students greeted each other in any number of languages. I rushed to find the principal to sign my printing order so I could get the syllabus taken to the print shop. Amazingly, it was ready for pickup only an hour later.

Of the three classes I had today (double blocks), there were exactly two students from the States, and one of those was Thai. Despite the fact that I was unprepared, the first day went well. What a wonderful bunch of students! Students with unpronounceable names (Bhanupriya, Ponthakorn, Veerawin, Prairwa, Jetnipat, Maythita, Hsue-un) fortunately all have nick names (Bank, Earth, Pear, Willy, May, Nicky, Peace, Ice) that are used in school. We spent our time getting to know one another, laughing, reducing the anxiety of the start of a new year.

It’s great being back in the classroom, but what a high energy level! Another new teacher commented on the incredibly fast pace of the school before he nodded off during his break. It’s tiring, but energizing as well.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Living in a Thai Neighborhood

A walk through the "moobahn" gives one an idea of what it is like to live in a middle (and a few in the upper middle) class Thai neighborhood. Most of the inhabitants are Thai, with a sprinkling of westerners, Indians, and other Asians. Each house is unique, not only architecturally, but in the landscaping, which is a major part of the overall appearance. All have gates behind which are a genetic potpourri of dogs, some blustery in their warnings, others dead serious. It is fairly easy to discern which is which. Some owners leave the gates ajar so the canines can wander the street and play with other dogs. Those few that show aggression are easily dispelled with a strong "shooing" motion of the arms, despite one's initial doubts.

Two blocks from our street, there is one major traffic artery that cuts through the middle of the villlage, along which are a variety of shops and restaurants. I find it difficult to understand how each can stay viable with so many competitors. There are massage parlors, noodle stands, pet stores, Thai restaurants (several in a row along the lakeside offering basically the same menu), a kebab stand, dentist, TV and microwave repair, espresso
 cafe, bakery, dermatological clinic, cuckoo clock shop (I guess there are homesick Germans living nearby), bicycle repair shop, potted plant shop, more permanent open air noodle cafes, a sidewalk water dispenser (15 cents for a gallon of filtered drinking water). Along the way it is not unusual to see mobile vendors selling such things as homemade brooms. Behind this valley of commercialism are the quiet neighborhoods.

For the last half-mile or so, the development's original commercial strip is packed with convenience stores, markets, internet cafe, small restaurants, a few western eating establishments, travel agents, hardware shops, and yet more noodle stands. Most of one's day-to-day needs can be met along this mile long stretch of road. At the entrance is a battery of motorcycle taxis, ready to whisk the adventurous (and those too cheap to pay a dollar for a taxi ride) to any destination within the village for the equivalent of about 45 cents or less.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Going to School Thai Style

There is a Thai public school nearby. I haven't seen it, but evidence abounds. Each morning at about 8:00, the loud stern voice of a headmistress is carried via loudspeaker through the area. Apparently, it is not enough to give the announcements of the day and lecture the children about how to be good citizens, but the entire neighborhood in a half mile radius may as well benefit from the messages.

From 7:00-7:30, the main road through the moobahn is clogged with a stream of traffic carrying the young learners to their destination: Motorcycles, bicycles, taxis, private cars, pedestrians, and open trucks packed with blue and white clad children. A unit of police is on hand to attempt to conduct traffic at intersections, all the while blowing on whistles. The spectacle is reversed at 3 PM.

The trucks are a Thai version of a school bus. Obviously, safety standards are not at the same level as in western countries, but the mode is efficient, and drivers have no problems from unruly students: The young scholars are either packed tightly inside, or must cling to whatever handle is available while riding the rear bumper.
Thai schools are in session most of the year. Their longest break is during the hot season, generally all of April. Other week-long breaks and official holidays afford the students (and teachers) numerous breaks throughout the academic year, which begins in May.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Thai Super Store Experience

After a day of moving Kat's belongings and the pets courtesy of a colleague and her husband, I felt able to explore a bit and get my bearings. I have now been in Bangkok five days and am beginning to feel comfortable in the "moobahn." I was taken to the school where I completed more paperwork for the Thai Ministry of Education and received my reimbursement for the flight and relocation allowance. A finance officer helped me to open a bank account and apply for a debit card. What a relief: In just a few days I will be back to worrying about overdrafts, but in another country.

Later (on Day 3) I struck out to buy household goods and headed to "Carre Four," a French version of K Mart. There are also versions of Wal-Mart (Tesco Lotus) and Target (Big C), but Carre Four was closest to home. Although I had been to Carre Four many times in previous years, I had forgotten just how unique it is. I don't think one can be adequately prepared for the experience. You just have to go and have a shopping adventure.

Nearly all of the shopping area is on the second floor, accessed by long slowly moving ramps. Immediately upon reaching the second floor, the customer is confronted by a cacophony of noises and an array of unexpected sights. Along one wall are batteries of ATMs, a UPS store and several travel agents, as well as kiosks of cell phones and gold jewelry. Entering the main sale floor, I was surprised to see several shiny new cars for sale, lined up not far from the checkout counters. I couldn't help but wonder how they got them up to the second floor, let alone how one might drive them away. (Does a clerk scan the auto's code strip with a wand as one drives through?) Electronics was the noisiest of the sections: For some reason Thais consider advertising to be best when it is loud and mind-numbingly repetitive. Placing three or four grating commercial messages next to one another further enhances the moment. It is one of the most annoying affronts to the senses I have ever experienced.

I had no time schedule, as I knew that I would be wandering the aisles for some time to find all that I had on my list. Indeed, I found myself criss-crossing the store in search of mops, brooms, trash cans, drying racks (no dryers in Thailand, of course: It would take longer than hanging clothes in the sun), batteries, soaps, shampoos, shoe racks, extension cords, plug adapters, food storage containers, laundry detergent, toilet paper, all the essentials. I would have taken longer, but I didn't need groceries, patio furniture, beds, appliances, TVs, or monk gifts--there is an entire section devoted to gift boxes, candles, rice bowls and incense one can give to a favorite Buddhist monk. I did buy Campbell's tomato juice, however, and noted on the label that I can get a 5-cent deposit for it in Maine and Hawaii. I found it next to the Jiffy Pop in the organic and western food section. I by-passed the bulk food aisles where relatively small people were easily hefting huge boxes of rice, canned food and bottled water, to name a few. The 12 pack of Thai beer I handed to the checkout clerk was promptly confiscated by a manager ("Sorry Sir, no alcohol sold before five o'clock."). I had a W.C. Fields flash: "We had to survive on water."

As I carefully guided my overloaded cart toward the exit, its wheels locked upon hitting the corrugated steel ramp way. Apparently, the wheels have magnets built in to prevent runaway carts from careening out of control down the long moving ramps, their owners in horrified pursuit. I successfully fought the urge to buy an ice cream cone on the way out, then packed a taxi with my purchases for the ten minute ride to the house. While it is an interesting experience, it is also exhausting. I suspect that visiting a super store once a month will be more than enough for me.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Arrival in Thailand

Sitting in an outdoor Thai restaurant, looking out over the setting sun's rays shimmering on a small lake, I reflect on my first two full days in Bangkok. A breeze offers welcome relief from the sweltering Thai heat, as does the large cold beer that washes down a meal of noodles, peanuts, bean sprouts, egg and shrimp. My feet ache from the constant contact with hard teak and tile floors: They are not used to anything other than carpeting and thick shoe soles that cushion each step, but here in Thailand, one leaves shoes at the door. Tomorrow I plan to relieve the pain with a famous Thai one-hour foot massage near our home.

I've not met anyone who actually enjoys trans-Pacific flights. They are simply endured as best as one can. The airlines do their best, bless them, but free wine with meals and a long list of movies--I watched five between Atlanta and Seoul--is not enough to lull the traveler into believing that he is having fun. Of course, there are usually a number of intriguing people that share the ride and provide moments of entertainment: The American missionary who reads an ancient Bible and does yoga in the aisle (not at the same time--that would really be something to report), the Brazilian actor who repeatedly says in amazement how can any trip take so long, and the Pakistani who nervously glances at the sign in the exit row that says "Emergency seating" before asking to be reassigned. But the flight does eventually end, and fatigue gives way to excitement: People press their faces to the window as the lights of Bangkok pass by and loom closer underneath the plane, ornate temples dotting the landscape.

Emerging from the baggage claim and customs area, I spot a man holding a sign with my name printed on it. He immediately takes charge of my baggage and swiftly packs them into a car and we drive through the light rain to a service hotel where my suite awaits. A basket of bread, juice, peanut butter, jams and dehydrated soups are on the table next to a tourist guide and school brochure, neatly tied with a golden ribbon, and there is milk and water in the refrigerator, all compliments of the school. After a much-needed shower, I blissfully fall into a heavy sleep, my stomach happy with the arrival of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I awake to find that I had, surprisingly, slept for six hours. Normally, jet lag hits me hard, but this time I decided to try the 18 hour fast before the flight, and I must say that it is the first time that I have not felt the ragged wave of confusion and disrupted sleep patterns, something that has always happened before on each of my 13 or so previous flights between Bangkok and the U.S.

A rental agent picks me up, but not before I have had a complimentary (again, from the school) buffet breakfast, a swim, and a short jaunt to do some ATM banking. the agent, Sak (Thankfully, although Thais have quite long formal names that are unfamiliar to westerners, they all have one syllable nick names), drives me to the "moobahn" or village as it is called where we will be living. This "village" has 4,000 houses, more than 200 shops, and several lakes scattered throughout. We stop briefly where I am showed the place to buy vegetables, fresh seafood, fruit and other groceries, as well as the ubiquitous 7-11 convenience stores (there are two only 2 blocks apart). I note veterinarians, restaurants, hardware shops, noodle stands, a Chinese language school, a pre-school, post office and many massage parlors. I buy some ready-made Thai food (and later return via motorcycle to buy a wok--A side note: There were parts of chicken I had not seen as part of a meal before). Eventually we pull up to our house and I am given the grand tour, shown how to turn on the water and propane, and am given a handful of unmarked keys, a Thai version of a Chinese puzzle that will no doubt keep me frustrated for days. Every door in the house locks and has its own key.

To end the day, I take a taxi to Kat's apartment, a 20 minute ride, and surprise our very confused pets who apparently don't hold a grudge: They are very happy to see me. We fall asleep together on the bed, serenaded by choruses of frogs and crickets, and, as it is the monsoon season, a deluge complete with thunder, which sends a beautiful breeze that washes over us. The next day is moving day. I'm getting much too good at it.

Friday, July 18, 2008

In Transition

Sitting at a free internet lounge in Seoul (Free? A concept U.S. airports do not understand), awaiting my flight to Bangkok. I am between countries, seemingly suspended in time and space. The trip is a metaphor for this point in my life, half-way between two worlds. Leaving a familiar, comfortable and largely predictable life for one full of unknowns and great potential for challenges, professional and otherwise. 

Although I am returning to a place that is not unfamiliar, I suspect that despite my openness toward Thailand, and anticipating the famous Thai hospitality, I will always be an outsider--a "farang"--who is taught innumerable lessons about living in a culture that is not of my upbringing. It is probably much like being adopted as an older child: Grateful for the acceptance, but never quite sure if I can fit in.

Yet, in a strange and inexplicable way I look forward to these upcoming challenges as exciting as they are unnerving. Once in a while we can use a good rocking of our comfy world. It gives a certain zest to life.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Solitude For Now

While I am excited about moving again to Bangkok and experiencing its culture, quirks, charm, and human-powered energy, I know that I must be able to find an inner calm at times when it can be overwhelming. Being on the Maine coast is a place that will help me learn to do just that. I calm my mind and spirit by spending time here, a place that is in harmony and invites synchronization with nature's rhythms. After only a few days, it is as if I am on a high: Gliding without regard to time, letting all aspects of civilization fall to the bottom of my priority list. As Kat puts it so well, "Nature is a drug; a good drug."

There is a park next to our land where it is impossible to not appreciate its aching beauty. Sitting on ancient granite, watching the gulls, eagles and ospreys glide into and out of view, smelling the salt air, and napping to the chugs of lobster boats is intoxicating. About an hour's drive away is Acadia National Park that draws millions of visitors, but here in similar surroundings, it is unusual to find more than five cars parked in the lot overlooking the rocky coast and outlying islands. Come to think of it, the lot won't hold more than five cars. One wanders through blueberry bushes and spruce woods to the rocks, where the biggest decision to make is how long to stay.

In a few days I will be headed to Thailand, a country with its own coastal beauty. These two places Kat and I hold dear, and we find ourselves returning again and again. Each person finds his or her own paradise in some part of the world. It is time for us to now spend extended time in our two very special places.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Look to the North

If you would like a pleasant alternative to the toll roads of I-80, veer off at Gary, Indiana and drive into Michigan. For years I’ve been traveling between the Midwest and New England by driving through Michigan and Ontario instead of going south along Interstate 80. It is almost exactly the same distance from Chicago to Niagara Falls or Buffalo regardless of which way one goes.

There is such an obvious list of positives that make it clear why I drive via Canada as opposed to staying south of the Great Lakes. The first difference is economic: There are no highway tolls to pay by going north. The two $4 bridge tolls going into and out of Canada are less than paying to drive through Indiana, Ohio, and southern New York. I also noticed the stark difference in the stress levels depending on which way one goes. Staying on I-80 invites rising blood pressure levels due to high speeds, heavy truck traffic, and extremely unattractive roadside scenery. By contrast, driving through Michigan is akin to a trip through a very long, tree-lined park, and Ontario offers a serene countryside with relatively light traffic that moves at a leisurely pace. It wasn’t until about 100 miles into Ontario that I was struck by the most revealing difference: I had seen no billboards. This was in such stark contrast to U.S. roadsides that are littered with huge glaring rectangles whose messages unceasingly assault the traveler. Ontario thus is such a pleasurable experience for drivers: No ugly distractions, just mile after mile of pastoral splendor. Once I had made this observation, it came rather as a shock when I actually came across a gigantic billboard. In 220 miles of driving in Ontario I counted exactly three, which one would expect to find per mile in the States. The last ten miles into Niagara Falls didn’t count, as apparently, the urge to advertise the scenic wonder is just too hard to resist, even in Canada. For the most part, in the U.S., roadsides shout at you; in Canada, they whisper.

If you wonder what it would be like to escape the crass commercialism along the freeways, take a cruise through Ontario sometime on your way between upstate New York and Chicago. Besides the easy-going drive (vehicles are about a half mile apart on the highways) there are interesting sites to explore, such as Canada’s “Tomato Capital,” the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Niagara Region wine country. If you are headed to northern New England, consider adding to the enjoyment by staying in Canada and traveling through Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City (Don't forget to take your passport or birth certificate). An added bonus: You just can’t beat the iced cappuccino at Tim Horton’s along the way.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Half Life Theory of Moving

One would think that since I have moved so many times that I would have it down by now. In February, I systematically detailed each month's list of things to do in order to be fully prepared to move this weekend. All seemed to be going well: Visa received in plenty of time, the pets safely moved to Bangkok two months ahead of time, furniture sold, things in storage (OK, that didn't work out so well), and with two weeks to go, the apartment looked emptier, but for some odd reason did not look like I was on the brink of completing the packing. Each time I performed a task that should have brought satisfaction of getting closer to my goal of an empty house, the place still had lots of STUFF everywhere.

After several days of frustration punctuated by long stretches of helplessness, it occurred to me that I was witnessing a rarely understood phenomenon, something I call the Half Life Theory of Moving. It is quite complicated with lots of mathematical equations that explain everything (Sure it is), but in short, the theory explains the strange lack of progress as one works faster to clear a home. It is similar to radioactive decay--The time it takes to complete half of the moving preparations is equal to clearing half of the remaining stuff. According to this theory, one should never completely finish clearing one's house for moving: There's always half left to do. That's why one always ends up either leaving stuff behind while speeding away to meet the deadline, or have someone else finish the job. In my case, it is my sister--bless her charitable heart--who unwittingly flew from Florida to help me and my daughter finish the task, and will also be the one who cleans out the refrigerator, sweeps the balcony, and turns the keys into the management after I leave.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Not the Best Way to Downsize

As the flood waters of the nearby Des Moines River tributary finally receded, I made my way to my storage unit, which, judging by the muddy water marks on the outside walls, had been under three feet of water. I hesitated as I pushed the key toward the lock, bracing myself for the scene within, yet holding out hope that somehow the invading waters had simply lifted the items inside as bobbing pingpong balls, then set everything down just as it had been neatly stacked. I was not prepared for what I saw when the door swung open and waterlogged boxes actually tumbled out. It was as though the building had been shaken by something monstrous and angry, with a liberal coating of brown slime applied for good measure. The disarray was complete, everything soggy and earth-colored. I sighed and began sorting through the mess, boxes crumbling in my hands and possessions landing on the muddy floor. A tailored Santa suit, favorite coat bought in the Himalayas, photos of our life stories, a seasoned, but prized jacket were but a few of the many possessions placed with sad reverence into the nearby dumpster.

Despite the impact, I know that it was nothing compared to so many who have been recently displaced from their homes, and who have lost everything. On the relatively positive side, I can now send what was salvaged to our storage unit in Maine (far from any potential flood source) by mail instead of by moving van. We can make new memories, the ones that really count, those that are not things.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Leaving is Bittersweet

Just under a week left of work at my current position. Despite my excitement about going to Thailand, I am going to miss the folks I work with here. They have been fantastic: Professional, knowledgeable, creative, and fun. As Kat and I often tell each other, it has been our best job (She also was a colleague here before taking a leave to go to Bangkok). My diet is shot: So many lunches and dinners to say goodbye. But I don't mind...the camaraderie is worth it. I'll need the final week just to go through all I've accumulated in the past four years. If nothing else, moving forces one to downsize. I've downsized so many times, it's a wonder I have anything left at all.

Monday, June 16, 2008

New Faculty

I will have more than 20 new colleagues from around the world who will also be arriving in Bangkok in late July. 
We have been communicating via email and wiki, getting to know each other as well as one can in an electronic mode, and asking questions about the unknowns of being expatriates in Thailand. Although it has been five years since I've been there for any length of time, I still remember much that has been helpful to relay to others who will be there for the first time: Tax information, cultural norms, language basics. The school--Human Resources, administrators and department heads--have been wonderfully helpful. There will be someone at the airport to meet us and take us to a hotel where new teachers may stay until they find a place to live. At least three of us, including myself, have found houses near the school already. The biology faculty members have been in communication, and have included me in the collaborative effort to revise the curriculum. What a great thing for a new faculty member to experience, even before arriving.

Our house is a nice 4-bedroom about a 20 minute commute to school for both of us--in
 opposite directions. The rent is less than half of what it would be in much of the States, and far less than in any major U.S. metropolitan area, and which my housing stipend will cover. It was somewhat serendipitous for Kat to find it while exploring potential housing. I will arrive in Thailand ten days before Kat, so I will move her things from her apartment, and get the animals acquainted with their new digs. They--and we--are going to love the shaded yard on a quiet street.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


So, here I am in June, trying to determine which things to take, which to store, which to throw away, and which to donate.
Nearly all of the furniture has been sold, and I am down to just a few boxes to sort through. The recent rains and subsequent floods here in Iowa have changed my plans a bit: Instead of storing things here, I now realize that flood threats are all too real, so I remove my stored boxes ahead of the rising floodwaters, but must leave some that I hope will be able to be dried and re-packed next week, and plan for shipment to Maine where we have land along the coast, site of our eventual home base in the States. The manager of the storage company near there says no worries—In that wonderful Downeast accent: “Theh’s always spots available heah. Just stop by.” So, moving companies are being contacted for estimates…what I have is far less than the minimum, but I have to move them out east. One more thing to worry about.

Meanwhile, my visa has arrived, I prepare the papers I need to take, and fret over the right amount of clothes and educational materials needed, which spill far over the two large bags I’m taking, or had planned to take. The dilemma: Send the extra by mail, or take a third bag and pay far less than postage for the excess? I decide on sending them, simply because I don’t want to struggle with the third bag. The good news: The school will reimburse me for most of the shipping. The bad news: Most of that allowance has been taken by sending our dog and cat ahead to Kat a month ago. They came through the ordeal fine, for which we are extremely grateful, and seem to be adjusting once again to living in a new place. This is their third trip overseas—amazingly resilient beings.

Friday, June 13, 2008

How to say Goodbye?

The most difficult thing I have to do is say goodbye to my kids. 
Although they are adults and becoming more independent, it nonetheless means I won't be able to see them as often, to visit their homes as frequently, to just be with them from time to time. This will be a growing experience for all of us, and at times painful, as we know from past moves. Between flights back to the States I will be depending a great deal on phones, email and live net conversations, more than ever before. Thank you, Skype! When is close just too close, and at what distance is far too far?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

An international educator

Down to a few weeks before heading to my next teaching position, this time in Thailand. Fortunately, I was in the right place (Bangkok) at the right time (late December), which provided me an opportunity to interview at several schools for a science teaching position.

The trip to Thailand in December was foremost a reunion with my wife, Kat, who had been in Thailand for five months teaching at an American school in the city. We were due for some decision-making: Does she return to the States after a year's leave, or do I, with both children now adults, join her in Thailand?

As soon as I arrived in Bangkok, I realized that my three previous years there had influenced me greatly: Everything seemed so familiar, from the wall of humidity that greeted me outside the terminal, to the jasmine garlands around the Buddha figurine on the taxi dashboard, to the dazzling sights and sounds of the city as we sped past the all-night markets.

It was exhilarating to be back. The aromas of spices and fried foods, lingering scents of flowers and incense, smiles from friendly people, the dizzying spectacle of traffic chaos, and the intense heat give the place an exotic flavor, and a continuously changing backdrop, one that delighted—and frustrated--me every day I was there. It was great to be in what Kat and I consider our second home. I knew before my visits to schools that I was going to return. If I needed any more convincing, the perfect lazy days spent at our favorite beach at Christmas sealed the deal.