Wherever one travels, they are there. People who live on the streets exist in all parts of the world. Some are there by choice, others through misfortune. Whichever it is, they all have a story to tell, if we take the time to hear it.
Monday, December 28, 2009
Wherever one travels, they are there. People who live on the streets exist in all parts of the world. Some are there by choice, others through misfortune. Whichever it is, they all have a story to tell, if we take the time to hear it.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Friday, December 11, 2009
Monday, November 30, 2009
Instead of attempting to describe the emotional roller coaster ridden when in the unpredictable Bangkok taxi, I am listing a number of texts sent by Kat and me to each other at various times in the past several months. I think you'll get an idea of what it's like:
- "Taxi hasn't moved in 25 mins. Driver keeps opening his door to huck lugies into the street--it ain't pretty."
- "Fell asleep...Oh no! Wrong turn!"
- "Can I get a 'Sitting on my Ass in a Taxi' award?"
- "Driver going wrong way and he won't listen to me!"
- "Grid f***ing lock!"
- "Can't find a taxi. What the hell?"
- "Oh no! They're fixing the bridge, traffic galore, pouring rain, I'll never get home! Wah!"
- "Just got kicked out of the taxi. Guy decided it was going to take too long and he had other plans."
- "Wow, Sammakee is flooded, worst I've ever seen. I may have to walk. Sh*t!"
- "Traffic crawling...trapped like a rat!"
- "Got kicked out at Soi 72--I guess he picked up the wrong fare."
- "This driver is 200 years old and babbling."
- "Still babbling."
- "Have beer ready."
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Lately, I was thinking about sense of "place" and recalled a moment last summer during a trip to Iowa. As I relaxed on a friend's porch at sunrise, the cool night air still resisting the impending heat of the new day, I thought of how beautiful and serene the setting was and realized at that moment, it seemed perfect. Cares melted away as I watched a woodpecker going about its energetic business in the woods and ducks paddling on the glassy pond. I then pondered the question, "If I feel this good here, why did I ever leave?"
Perhaps we all spend most of our lives striving for that perfect place, our retreat, the sanctuary, a paradise. For some, it is a cottage nestled lakeside in the rolling Iowa hills, for others it is a cabin in the Cascades, a townhouse in Boston, or simply a home in the neighborhood of one's youth in a small town.
For me--and happily, for Kat too--it is the Maine coast woods. It is the only place where I have felt completely nurtured by nature's rhythms. But that is me. It is futile to extol the virtues of one's Nirvana in hopes of convincing others to love it, too. We probably do it for selfish reasons: We want those we care about to move closer to us. I think it is better to celebrate a sense of place and be grateful for the opportunity to live in our designated retreats.
The world is full of beautiful and fascinating places. How wonderful it is to have so many friends living in their chosen sanctuaries, and to have the chance to visit each other, sharing in the pleasure of friendship and enjoyment of each other's special place.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Friday, November 6, 2009
As we entered the grounds, an air of peacefulness greeted us. Met by the head abbot, Guru Tshewang, we walked through the grassy courtyard where novice monks of all sizes flashed warm smiles and waved. Sitting in the reception room, we chatted for an hour or so with Guru Tshewang, getting a brief history of the monastery and learning about the school. Very personable, Tshewang paused often to ask us for the correct English phrase to use. Although Dzonga is the official Bhutanese language, few people like to use it, and all learn English from an early age. It is the language of instruction in Bhutan schools.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
A few days ago as Kat lifted the toilet lid, a rather large frog was found splashing about the bowl. The ensuing shriek (it was not from the desperate amphibian) drew the dog in for a look, and together she and Kat watched the creature in fascination before it was scooped out and released into the comparatively safer environs of our fish pond.
Having a frog in one's toilet begs the question: What else is down there? I've never been completely sure of which outgoing pipe is actually connected to the sewer, and perhaps it's because I don't really want to know. With the knowledge that rather large cat-eating monitor lizards inhabit the lake a block away and have been seen crawling out of the sewers, I now take a precautionary second look before being seated. I've read too many Stephen King stories.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
- This planet is incredible. Experiencing the awesome wonders of nature is a spiritual journey for me. One doesn't have to travel to exotic locations to appreciate the exquisite interactions of the variety of organisms; just take a look around!
- We work too hard. In light of my first observation, we spend far too much of our waking hours unable to appreciate life in the fullest. Whoever decided that people must spend so much time at work must have been the recipient of the fruits of working people's labor. I've thought about it quite a lot. We definitely need more time to enjoy life, our friends and family, the wonders of Earth, and to rest; to do what makes us happy. And although my career has been fulfilling in many ways, it has not allowed me (or my students, come to think of it) enough time to just have fun.
- Teaching is not only an honorable profession, it is not easy. Not everyone can do it, and in some cases, there are some teachers who can't do it very well. But bless 'em for trying. Most professionals that deal with people do it one person at a time, and they wouldn't last long in a classroom full of teenagers. Would I do it again if I had to do it all over again? Absolutely not! But it was the culmination of choices I made, and I am continually learning, usually from my students.
- There are an awful lot of hypocrites in the world. Always have been, probably always will be. I blame a lot of it on religion. It amazes me how many people I've met who are so self-righteous and who say one thing but do another.
- Science doesn't have all the answers, but what it does have should be paid attention to. If scientists have built up evidence for something over years of painstaking empirical research, then we have to accept it. For anyone who has any doubt about the truth of such overwhelming evidence for things like climate change or evolution, they either aren't willing to take a good look, or they have simply decided to ignore it if it clashes with their personal belief systems. You can't have it both ways: If you accept medical advice built on research, then accept the rest of scientific findings. And, by the way, a scientific theory is not a guess, as in our everyday use of the word. It is an explanation for a phenomenon that has solid evidence to back it up, and has not yet been proven wrong.
- There are too many people in the world. Not only are there not enough resources to go around, we aren't using them wisely. People need to stop having so many babies. It isn't necessary. Adopt! There are lots of kids who need a home. My experience is that an adopted child is every bit as loved as a biological one.
- The two most damaging ideas we hold are: 1. That we need so much "stuff." We don't. Simplifying one's life brings greater harmony to each of us and to the planet; and 2. That we can't do without credit. Credit cards are big business's way of keeping us beholden to them. Get rid of them if you can, and return to a simpler way of life.
- I love Kat's aspiration, written during her high school years when most of her peers were writing about making a lot of money. She said, "I want to be able to tell a story, and have someone to tell it to." Those are words that a 60 year old should say, and I wish I had, but I don't mind borrowing, because it is a great message. So, let's build those stories, and share them!
Monday, September 28, 2009
Wandering through the maze of tiny lanes is the best way to get to know a people, their customs, their cuisine, and their social network. Nowhere else can one learn first hand and intimately the fabric that holds the Thai society together. It is the markets, not the town halls, that are the center of Thai--and as far as I can tell by my limited travels--Asian life in general. In the U.S., outside of major cities, the fresh markets sadly have disappeared, displaced by the air conditioned supermarkets where fresh means having just been flown in from South America. The farmer's markets are a bright spot, but lack the spontaneity, chaos, and delightful organic essence of Asian markets.
Forays to our local weekend market are always eagerly anticipated. Besides the vast arrays of fresh fruits and vegetables, we treat ourselves to special snacks and sample new food items that may ultimately be added to our shopping list, or in some cases, politely declined (some things just seem more suited to slithering through a natural area than ending up on my plate)!
One of the most satisfying aspects of shopping at the market is the familiarity that evolves between vendor and patron. We are often teased about buying fruit at another stall, or waved over so that we can be shown the pick of the lot, the juiciest or freshest, a vendor remembering our special tastes. In addition, there is the non-food section in which treasures await our serendipitous passing by: New designs from the jeweler, a new carving, or that special T shirt with the amazing artwork. We never fail to be surprised by some unique or amusing find.
People often ask, have I ever been sick? The answer is quite truthfully, not once in my five years of eating market food here have I ever caught a "bug." Food doesn't have to be wrapped in layers of plastic or sent through waves of radiation to be safe. Fresh from the gardens around Bangkok, food is the connection between people and serves as a social conduit. I love that part of being here.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
"Actually, my mom feeds me while I'm working."
"What do you mean?"
"Well," she said, "If I'm working on my computer, my mom will feed me."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
"Let me get this straight," I said. "You are allowed to have the computer at the dinner table?"
"Well, yeah," she said as if I were daft. "If I have homework."
"And," I continued, "Your mother spoon feeds you?"
Nodding, she said, "My mom's awesome!"
I now have a new candidate for most spoiled teen, as well as most protective mother. It isn't unusual for Thais to feed their children until they are well into elementary school, often the maid acting as surrogate slave. But, I've never heard of anyone actually feeding their nearly adult child.
I think I've really made some strides by having these kids wash a beaker. But I'm not going to feed any of them.
Monday, September 7, 2009
Now, that's a pretty radical and--dare I say it--"socialist" thing to say. It must be, because obviously the president is here, compliments of a solid majority, to undermine the American way of life. There is something un-American about students staying in school! Why wasn't this speech thing a "big deal" when our cocaine snorting, convicted drunk driving ex-president made a speech to the youth of America on--get this--the dangers of drug use? Not a peep was heard from those who are making such a fuss now, and I think I know why.
First, let me say that I agree that parents should have a say in what their students hear in school. The things I've heard from educators in my nearly four decades of education would shrivel even the most hardy supporters of compulsory education, and parents are lethargic as hell. And yet, the fact that the president wants to make a simple speech has people in a panic defies logic.
The reason there are those who do not want their children to hear the president has nothing to do with his message. It has to do with who he is, and what he stands for. In other words, the people who oppose this address, do so because they oppose or fear something in the president's agenda, or quite simply, because of his genetics. The reason this wasn't a big deal when the former president, king of dishonesty, gave his address, is because typically, those who show such opposition to Obama are nearly, if not all, right wingers, and those on the left didn't make a stink about George II because they trust their children to take in information, analyze it, and make up their own minds. Conservatives generally want to tell their children what and how to think. They have no idea how resistant children are to this tactic, even though it may not seem obvious at the time.
So, how would I vote in this silly poll? If it counted at all, I would say that yes, parents have the right to have their children not hear the address: It is their right. But, I would add, that it would be a terrible disservice to their children, and undermine the confidence and respect that all citizens should have in the head of state, regardless of who it is.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Forbes recently announced that the "best" college in America is The U.S. Military Academy at West point. Emphasis on Military. For the uninformed, that's the University of Army.
The college rankings are based on five criteria: graduation rate (how good a college is at helping its students finish on time); the number of national and global awards won by students and faculty; students' satisfaction with their instructors; average debt upon graduation; and postgraduate vocational success as measured by a recent graduate's average salary and alumni achievement. (The ranking institute) "prize(s) the undergraduate experience and how well prepared students are for the real world rather than focusing on inputs such as acceptance rates and test scores." According to these criteria, the top five colleges are:
1. United States Military Academy; 2. Princeton University; 3. California Institute of Technology; 4. Williams College; 5. Harvard University.
Now, I'm not one to knock the military academies. Well, OK, not to their faces. I didn't serve in the armed forces; I worked in a classroom of behaviorally challenged misfits in a school for two years, making $148 a month as "alternative service" after being drafted. The closest I got to the military was competing against Air Force in college duel track meets. But, I was thinking, wouldn't it be nice if the U.S. government had a 6th college that was highly competitive in admitting bright young folks, required a U.S. senator's recommendation, and paid the applicants' tuition on the condition that upon graduation, they would have to serve for five years in VISTA or the Peace Corps, or some equivalent? Imagine what that would mean: Sending our best and brightest into the world to work for peace rather than prepare for war. Let's face it, as long as we are turning out military officers, we need to find them work, something our government has been very good at for the past five decades, whether it is in our country's best interest or not.
Peace Corps volunteers have been among my heroes for many years. They live under extremely impoverished conditions, often in dangerous situations, and establish positive long-term relationships with people in developing countries, all for no thanks, and no pension. I'd love to see a July 4th parade led by returned Peace Corps volunteers. They are every bit as patriotic as our service men and women. It's time we honored their service to the country as well. (Yes, I know about the pot smoking, but my ex-military service friends report that they certainly would give the Peace Corps crowd a run for their marijuana money.)
Back to the "best" college thing. I'm hoping that some senator or congress(wo)man will get to work on introduction of a bill to establish the first United States Peace University. If it passes, I will be first in line to contribute to their endowment fund. We need some balance in perspective as to our role in the world. Instead of sending young people to die for our financial interests, let's send people forth beyond even what the Peace Corps and VISTA volunteers do, and establish long-term, high-level political ties for what the people of the world are more than ready for: A lasting peace.
Monday, August 3, 2009
First, it was possible to read every sign in Malaysia. Granted, we couldn't understand most of them, but Malay uses the same alphabet as we do in English. In fact, many English words have been adopted by Malay, probably due to British colonial influence. However, the Malaysians have converted them phonetically: teksi, immigresen, diskoun, ekspres, sentral. While we often struggle painfully to sound out each letter at a time in Thai script (provided we recognize one of their 44 letters), Malay is quite easy to pronounce.
In contrast to Bangkok's chaotic sprawl, KL is relatively compact. We easily walked throughout most of the city, which would be an impossibility in the Thai capital. Of course, Bangkok is about six times as large, but as big cities go (1.2 million), Kuala Lumpur was quite accessible by foot, monorail or bus. And, despite being closer to the equator, it is not as hot as Bangkok. Vehicular traffic was creampuff--one can actually cross the street there without fear of falling prey to waves of unpredictable traffic.
It is interesting that two countries that share a border can be so different; religion plays a huge part in determining cultural norms. While Thais always smile and avoid prolonged eye contact, Malays stare; Thai men jokingly flirt, Malay men leer; Thais greet with hands pressed together in a "wai"; Malays shake hands or simply nod; As Buddhists, Thais have no designated worship time or weekly holy days, Malays, as Muslims, follow a rigid prayer schedule; Kuala Lumpur has one major business area where skyscrapers reign, Bangkok's highrises are spread out indiscriminately across the cityscape; Thai food is much more flavorful and spicy than Malay cuisine.
While we appreciated the differences, we also enjoyed the similarities: Wandering through bustling street markets, riding the elevated trains, chatting with friendly shopkeepers, trying new dishes, and being greeted as we walked through residential areas. But then something wholly unexpected happened as we meandered through the delightful bazaars of Little India and Chinatown. As we perused the handicrafts and silks, I noticed a burning sensation in my eyes that gradually increased until the stinging elicited streams of tears. I noticed people walking hastily away with scarves and bandannas held over their mouths and noses. It didn't take long to know that we had encountered a rogue cloud of teargas. Teargas? In a market? We overheard people talking about a demonstration, but it wasn't to take place for another three hours. When we later happened upon the planned demonstration site, there were policemen everywhere, but no demonstrators. I asked about the teargas. One policeman grinned sheepishly and remarked that they had "tested" it earlier. "Well, it works!" I said to bursts of laughter.
Later, as we had lunch on a balcony overlooking one of the main mosques, 50 or so demonstrators grouped calmly beneath us with TV cameramen and news photographers recording the remarks of the leaders. It was a bizarre scene: Eating Chinese noodles, a Charlie Chaplin movie on the big screen, chanting demonstrators gathering outside, police helicopters circling overhead, interested bystanders--us included--watching, beers in hand. And then, the stinging sensation returned, sending everyone scurrying inside. It seemed to me to be an exaggerated overreaction to a rather benign gathering of people who didn't like something the government had recently done. But then, I was only a visitor. Relating the experience to colleagues who have lived in Malaysia, I learned that this was a typical response by the Malaysian authorities.
After a brief excursion in the opposite direction to check out Chinatown, we found ourselves too weary to walk back to the hotel, so we hailed a taxi (teksi). As we disembarked, we were once again met with what had become an all too familiar irritant. Weeping, we ran into the hotel and called it a day.
So, if you are ever up for an adventure to an interesting city, Kuala Lumpur just might be your kind of town. It may even bring tears to your eyes.
Saturday, July 25, 2009
But no more. About a year and a half ago, on a flight from Iowa to Asia, I ran across an article in the on board magazine that summarized recent research into jet lag. According to scientists who conducted the research, it is not change in sleep patterns--usually suggested by "experts" that one take herbal supplements along with increased adjustments to bedtime before the trip--that upsets our internal clock. Instead, it has to do with eating patterns. The researchers suggested that before traveling, if one were to fast for 18 hours before departing, the effects of jet lag would be minimized. I figured I had little to lose, since normally I was so incapacitated by jet lag that I was disoriented for at least two days after my arrival. Fortunately, the first time I tried it, my flight was at noon, so it was rather easy to fast for 18 hours, having a hearty meal the evening before.
The result was nothing less that miraculous (in my view). I have since flown between the U.S. and Thailand six times, and six times I fasted before leaving, regardless of which way I was traveling. Each time I was able to transition into the destination time zone with no ill effects of jet lag. No kidding, none. I arrived fully able to function immediately without awakening at 2 AM wondering where the hell I was. I am living proof that this system works. I have been slightly bemused by friends who decide that they cannot possibly go without solid food for 18 hours and are willing to wrestle with jet lag for two days (each way).
If you plan to travel across time zones, or know someone who is, my suggestion is to try the fasting method. If it works for you the way it did for me, you will be pleased with the days you save not stumbling around in a fog.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
For several months I attempted to correspond with Verizon due to their decision to stop allowing me to pay a bill online. The decision was never explained, so I reverted to sending a check after receiving the bill each month. I noticed that when the bill arrived, it was always after the due date, which of course incurred a late fee tacked onto the next invoice. To correct the error-laden address that they were using, including the omission of the name of the destination country, I sent the correct information, accompanied by personal letters along with the monthly payments. The address was never changed, and yet the invoices miraculously arrived at my house in “Bakgnonk” (Remember, no country) about three weeks after being posted. I credit the delivery to clever postal employees in both countries who are likely as intelligent as the Verizon representatives are dim. After several months of dealing with the pride of Verizon, I sent a cancellation payment with an explanation. To date, I still receive invoices, sent to the apparently unchangeable address that they have chosen to enter permanently into their database.
The experience with Bank of America is similar, but these geniuses have chosen the “Let me transfer you” method of dealing with a customer’s problem, which they have not been properly trained to solve. Last night, as we tried to explain why the address in their database needed to be changed, we were transferred no less than nine times, and this was after the new information had been entered. Apparently, the standard three-line address space was insufficient for entering overseas information. What they absolutely could not understand how to do was look up the information associated with an overseas resident American citizen holding a U.S. credit card, and connect it to their rewards program. All we wanted was information about how to use the rewards! After a full half hour of being put on hold and transferred between representatives, there was the sudden and aggravating click of a disconnected line: The ultimate problem-solving pass-the-buck technique, exhibited so well by B of A. I could imagine the representatives at corporate headquarters staring dumbly at their screens, unable to process the information, before sending the hapless customer on to another zombie.
It is little wonder that huge corporations cannot solve the small problems. The front lines are manned by bottom-line fodder who are good at clicking on established links, but have little or no problem-solving skills. It is after experiences like these that one better understands why so many corporations fail. What is amazing is that they can exist at all.
Friday, June 12, 2009
Trying to describe the mile-long market is rather like trying to paint a picture of a sunset; so difficult, as it is the shifting of hues that makes the experience memorable. Click on the video below, and walk with us for a few minutes through this incredible market. Better yet, come see it for yourself!
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
So, what have I learned this past year? Well, the thought that comes immediately to mind is how fabulous the students here are. They are cheerful, bright, creative, and for the most part, mature. They work hard to complete assignments, and think nothing of giving up weekends to study for tests, despite my pleas to enjoy themselves. I now know that I never have to worry about students being prepared for our discussions or presentations; with few exceptions, they are often better prepared than I am. The faculty is, as in most international schools, a delightfully diverse group of talented educators. I am continuously impressed with the quality of education that students receive here. Oh, sure, there are those who are here for other reasons, but that is true everywhere. I enjoy the banter and intellectual discussions, as well as the ongoing clever practical jokes that they play on one another. More intimately, the science department is wonderful. A mix of educators from four countries (five next year), my colleagues are collaborative and supportive. It is by far the most colleagial group of teachers I've had the pleasure to work with, much like my recent consulting job. My biggest regret is that in an international school, each year a fairly large proportion move on to other places around the globe. Of course, that means that an interesting batch of "newbies" arrives, all with a unique story to tell.
The staff are incredible. Anything that needs doing they lend a hand, and with a smile. Always a smile. I am not surprised, as I have come to embrace the Thais as some of the friendliest people on the planet. I am often amazed at how a person working in another building will greet me by name. I feel fortunate to be working here, despite the relatively traditional approach to education. Although concerned about falling behind ongoing research into best practice, I am supported by the high school administration to implement those practices that support student learning effectively. One can stand in a boat without rocking it, if care is taken.
Finally, I have to say that I love not spending half the year trying to keep warm. I don't mind the snowy climes one bit, but I'd rather take them in smaller chunks. Although many people here complain about the heat and humidity (frequently the young Thais), when I consider the alternative, sweat isn't all that bad.
So now I ease into the mindset of rest, of reflection and preparation for next semester. It is sometimes difficult not feeling guilty on a weekday, or feel that I just have to DO something instead of read a book or take a walk. I know that I need to decompress and refresh. I don't mind having a job that pays me for only ten months out of the year. It is unfortunate that others do not have that option. Of course, I couldn't just let it go. I have to stop now: My summer school class begins in a few minutes.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Saturday, May 23, 2009
1. The variety of people in America is stunning. Immediately upon arrival in San Francisco, I was struck by the many shapes and sizes (especially the large sizes) of people in The U.S.! After living pretty much as a giant among a whole lot of short dark-haired people, I blended in right away. No one had a clue that I lived 10,000 miles away in a land where spoken English is an ongoing struggle, even more than it is for many Americans, where shorts are the norm, and shoes an option. I just stood in the airport concourse and stared at everyone, a goofy smile of wonder on my face.
2. Driving isn't scary at all. It was just plain fun driving around streets on which only vehicles travel. No dogs sleeping in the passing lanes, no handcarts to avoid, and no motorcycles weaving through stalled traffic. It was a pleasure humming along the roads in an over-priced rental. I didn't care! It was great!
3. I actually ENJOYED going to a mall. Prior to my return to Bangkok, I avoided them at all costs. But compared to the crazy cacophony of Thai malls, they are convenient and quiet! I could read with no distractions, and get a meal with no rice. Admittedly, I did crave Thai food toward the end of the visit, but it was nice to have western food in something other than a fast food restaurant. In Bangkok, it is difficult to carry on a conversation at a mall due to the madhouse atmosphere of computer games, shouting salespeople, and high-pitched girls in miniskirts sending a sales pitch out into the aisles with the aid of a huge sound system; at a mall in St. Louis, I can shout from one end of the cavernous enclosure to the other and be heard.
4. How nice to sit in the sun and have a drink without dripping sweat down my chest into my waistband. The weather was absolutely perfect, with temperatures lower than Bangkok ever sees. We sat at a corner sidewalk cafe, sipping Long Island Ice Teas and petting a parade of well-behaved pooches who were out walking their owners. Here, I carry a stick the better to keep my ankles free of dog teeth marks. When walking our dogs, Thais smile in an amused sort of way. I know what they're thinking: "What is that strap you have attached to your dog?"
5. I felt like I was eavesdropping all the time. In Thailand, my limited knowledge of the language allows a certain kind of audio veil to envelope me. I hear people talking, but it's just background noise, and I am not distracted. Last week, I couldn't NOT listen to conversations all around me, even though I tried. It was impossible to tune them out because I understood every word. There were times, though, when I wanted to turn to people who were blathering on about inane things and say, "Do you mind? Your moronic discussion is driving me crazy!" The Thais may be saying the same things, but I don't know they are.
6. I could read books in bookstores, and not just look at pictures. That was enjoyable!
Even though I am an American, I still sometimes feel like a stranger when I return. It is kind of nice, though, to be able to be inconspicuous, even though I often feel out of place, because I'm the only one who knows.
Sunday, May 3, 2009
Today is a school holiday; a great day to get done those things I have to do. I have a number of tests to correct, some labs to go through, and planning for the rest of the semester. Normally, I would do that at home, but with two bored dogs and the cleaning lady around, concentration is not guaranteed. No problem, I think. Just go to the cafe, enjoy the air conditioning, have some coffee, plug in the ol' iPod, and cruise on through the day. In addition, I'll stop by the bank and apply for a new ATM card to replace the one eaten by a machine on Friday, which was a national holiday.
My first stop is to a nearby educational book store where I can get online and check email, as my computer has decided to not link up at home, possibly because our new puppy chewed partway through the power cord causing a number of strange things to happen on the screen. No problem, I'll buy another cord--someday--when I can find my way into the city and visit the Apple store. Meanwhile, I'll use the computer at school, and at the internet cafes. As I pedal up to the book store, I find to my great dismay that it is closed. Upon closer scrutiny, I notice that it appears to be permanent. Oh, well, I'll go to my next favorite spot, which I discover opens at 11:00; in three hours.
Mai pen rai. No problem! The air is cool as I pedal along the busy thoroughfare, going the wrong way next to the curb rather than cross six lanes of traffic, only to have to do it again in less than a mile. I swing into the bank parking lot and casually stroll upstairs to speak to a customer service agent. Of course I can get a new card, she says smiling (always smiling, and they always mean it). May I have your passport and bank book? Uh... I say. Loosely translated into English, it means; "Uh..." They are both safe at school, securely locked away in the finance office. Will a copy be OK? I ask hopefully. Still smiling, she replies, "No." OK, I'll bring them tomorrow. "Oh, sorry sir, closed tomorrow--holiday." Of course; we are taking the day off today to lengthen the weekend. "But the branch at the mall will be open." I make a mental note to get the passport and bank book then travel to the mall tomorrow after school, and move on to my next destination.
Naturally, the little cafe where I can sit and do my work is not open on Mondays. Mai pen rai. No problem. Glancing across the street, I see something I have never witnessed since moving here last July: An empty seat at the internet shop. I hurry across the street and grab the last seat. As I settle in, the sounds in the tiny cramped shop begin to build, assaaulting my ears with loud, excited childish chatter and the clakking and bursting of soundtracks from 20 video war games. I check the time: only two hours until the ADULT internet cafe opens closer to home. I sigh and reach for my iPod, which I find to my increasing concern I have forgotten.
This is the ultimate test of Jai yen. I wonder if this is how monks test their mettle?
Thursday, April 30, 2009
This situation is not all that different among more conservative westerners, certainly in the United States, and was the norm just half a century ago. With the global connection through computers and movies well underway, as well as more frequent travel, I am sure that this trend will continue.
A Thai student of mine suggested that the Thai may make an assumption about the educational status of the people he is speaking with, based on his own situation, and apply it subconsciously to the conversation protocol. She went on to say that Thais still create in their minds a hierarchy based on social or educational status, but that it is definitely changing among the younger generation.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
April 13 is "Songkran;" New Year's Day in Thailand. Songkran is a time for Thais to mark the occasion through actions involving the pouring of scented water: Cleaning Buddha statues, rinsing the hands of elders, and the gentle pouring of water on heads and shoulders, all acts of respect and renewal. Another Songkran ritual is the dabbing of white powdery paste on cheeks to ward off evil. This tradition is still carried out over many days, but added to the gentler nature of Songkran is a revelry in which people carry the tradition to an extreme in a party atmosphere. It involves a LOT of water, the vessels of which range from bowls to garden hoses to super soakers to large ceramic jars carried in the beds of pickup trucks. To increase the merriment of the festival, large quantities of beer and loud music are added. All of this generally occurs in the streets and at all hours for several days, a happy way to cool off during Thailand's hottest month. Below are photos and a video from the Songkran party in Hua Hin.
Monday, April 13, 2009
Yesterday I took a taxi--or tried to--to the southern bus station to head down the coast for a beach holiday. Kat had gone with a friend two days before. What should have been a relatively uneventful trip turned into something else. The first indication that it wouldn't be so simple was when the taxi was turned back by red-shirted protesters as we approached one of the bridges that went over the river and out of town. As the taxi made its way toward another bridge, we found ourselves blocked yet again in the middle of the city and right in the center of the protests. Exiting the taxi, I decided to catch a minivan, but as I walked toward the van stands, I noticed crowds of people above me at the skytrain walkway looking down the street in the direction of my destination. A few blocks away, I saw a thick plume of smoke rising from a pile of debris near a blocked intersection and several abandoned city buses. When I asked a bystander what was going on, he indicated that there were skirmishes and I shouldn't go there. He also chuckled when I inquired about the minivans, and he shook his head. "Not running today!" Naturally, I took the cue and reversed my path. At that time, I saw no evidence of any demonstrations or police presence, but was to find out later that it was actually one of the isolated areas where clashes with the army had taken place.
Catching another taxi at Victory Monument, which was all but abandoned since being taken over by the "red shirts" a few days earlier, we successfully made our way onto the expressway, assisted by a helpful red shirt who removed a barricade at the expressway entrance. We sped over the bridge, and twenty minutes later I was dropped off at the bus station, which strangely, is inside a bustling department store. When I eventually found the ticket window, I was told that my bus was departing immedately. I rushed to the dock where the driver was busy splashing buckets of water on the overheated radiator. Not a good sign. But, we left on time anyway and I resigned myself to the possibility of not reaching the destination on time. At least the air con was working on what I later named the "Kidney Jam Express."
During the three hour drive, I watched the festive scene of the Thai New Year, or "Songkran" unfold (Thailand celebrates three new year's dates--Roman calendar, Chinese, and Thai). This day of celebration involves a carnival-like atmosphere during the hottest month where immense amounts of water are splashed, squirted, or dumped on passersby, many of whom drive around in pickup trucks with huge barrels of water, merrily dousing each other. The further south I went, the more festivals I saw. It was a very strange feeling to see people completely unaffected by the events in Bangkok. This important holiday went on as if nothing unusual was happening in the capital city. Perhaps they are used to periodic political unrest, or maybe it's simply that nothing was going to prevent them from having "sanuk" (fun) on New Year's Day.
When I was dropped off in the seaside resort city of Hua Hin, the energy level was high. Thais and foreigners alike walked or drove through the city, most completely soaked, enveloped by the festive atmosphere. A motorcycle taxi took me to the hotel, weaving in and out of the nearly stalled traffic, avoiding curbside water tossing as best he could. "Don't worry," I told him. "I expect to get wet today." Me and my big mouth. Upon arriving at the hotel, we were definbitely not dry.
I switched on the TV to watch the updates, and was amazed at how the situation had deteriorated. The red shirt (anti-government) demonstrators showed a great lack of control, quite in contrast to their political counterparts (Yellow shirt opposition to the ex-prime minister ousted two years ago) during their demonstrations in November when they took over the airport. Then, they left the airport virtually undamaged, and it was able to open soon after. This has been much different, as the international and Thai news agencies have reported. It is a great disappointment to see this unfold. One side note: I discovered that the most complete and balanced news agency to report the clashes was--not BBC or CNN, and Fox? Don't make me laugh)--Al Jazeera. If you want to see unbiased reporting and interviewing at its best, go to their channel or site.
We participated in the lively Songkran street festival last night, and returned to the hotel wet and caked in pasty powder. The revelry lasted well into the night, long after we had fallen asleep. Today, the Thai stations are showing contnuous coverage of what seems to be relative calm in the city. I hope it's the end of the storm. What lies in wait for Thailand's political future is anyone's guess. But for now, the Songkran holiday continues unabated. I will post some photos and videos of the celebration once we get back to Bangkok later in the week.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
Friday, April 10, 2009
The very large proportion of Chinese Thais here influences many aspects of Thai culture: Medicine, finance, festivals, and, of course, food. While traditional Chinese food is quite different than Thai food, there is some overlap, but for the most part, it is easy to distinguish the two. Yesterday, as I walked through a part of the city where I lived twenty years ago, I came across a tiny corner open-air restaurant that I used to pass each day on my way to and from work. Unobtrusive, yet located in one of the most upscale tourist areas in Bangkok, in the shadow of gleaming five star hotels and beneath the sleek elevated skyway, it seemed to be unchanged by time. Rickety chairs nestled under plain wooden tables, handmade shelves piled with various utensils and food tins, lighting provided mainly by the daylight, and an ancient, shuffling owner, scowling and mumbling as we ordered from the menu that I know had been unchanged through the intervening decades (On its frayed and faded pages it still lists a beer that no longer exists in Thailand).