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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sunday afternoon cookout

I was in the middle of a recently typical stay at home Sunday afternoon “nap and sweat” when I heard a distinct sound of snap, crackle and pop outside my window. Rousing myself from an URI medication-induced stupor, I joined Tuy and Aon on the front porch to watch this:

Thai people burn a lot of stuff.   The rice fields are set on fire after the harvest to clear out the debris and make way for the next planting.  Trash and piles of leaves are often incinerated in random piles.  It is not uncommon to be walking in town and see inch long pieces of burned up material floating gently down to earth.   On bus rides and road trips, I’ve seen more than one formerly grassy median aflame, likely from a flicked cigarette butt.   It’s the dry season and the ecosystem here in Thailand seems to be a tinderbox.

My neighbors in the shanty town across the dirt road have a trash pile nearby that’s burned pretty frequently, but apparently this one got out of control.   Tuy and Aon nonchalantly went to the market as I hung out watching the flames rip through the undergrowth.  Shortly after, the school secretary and janitor stopped by to check in.  I started filling up the 5 gallon buckets that were hanging around the front yard; a hose was nowhere to be found.  After they saw flashing lights of the fire truck in the distance, spraying the other end of the fire which was closer to a few other houses, they left. 

The Director pulled up on the secretary's  motorbike a few minutes later.   “I called them.” She said.  “I can’t believe no one else called the them.  How can you not worry?”   The fire truck arrived in front of the house a few moments later and the “hose guy” started getting ready.  He was wearing a red t-shirt.   The driver gets out of the water truck and he’s wearing flip flops.  The two of them heave the empty hose toward the biggest part of the fire closest to my house.   The water gets turned on and turned up with the driver revving the water truck’s engines.  Water is moving out of vehicle in more ways than the hose: the undercarriage is creating large puddles as well.  The slight young man in a t-shirt is working hard to move the water laden hose around.   The Director is telling him to be sure to spray the large trees that line the fence at the back of our house.


The firefighters then move onto the large open space behind the house along the road to school.  The hose guy fires up the master blaster from the roof of the truck and I see water pouring out of the cannon housing. The driver fires things up and the hose starts spraying silt-laden water over the fire.  It then becomes apparent that the water truck is running low.  The fire is patched out into smaller blazes at this point, but the hose guy borrows The Director’s cell phone and calls for another truck, which arrives shortly after.


As the sun sets, the fire seems to be mostly  extinquished. The stretch of grassland is laid bare, covered in ash and black  instead of greenery.  As I walk to school the next morning, I look back to the little blue roofed place I call home and feel a ping of grief for what was. However, despite the hotter temperatures ahead, the rains will follow shortly after and create a fertile climate for growth.   I can't wait to see what happens next.



Saturday, January 28, 2012

100 days in Thailand

In the “business school/ CEO  leadership training” perspective, the first 100 days are deemed to be critical in establishing a path to a legacy.  Franklin Roosevelt, according to Arthur Schlesinger’s biography, “sent 15 messages to Congress, guided 15 major laws to enactment, delivered ten speeches, sponsored a major international conference and conducted all affairs of state and never displayed fright or panic.”  Me, not so much… but  here are some of my accomplishments:
  1. I’ve taught about 120 classes to children between the ages of 4-9.  The student’s expectations are set. They know there will be a welcome song.  They know to hide the playing cards or stop showing off the new Barbie pencil set in my classroom.   They know “the look” that transcends language barriers.


2. Through the English word of the week announced every Monday morning, I’ve introduced the entire student body of 850 young people to ten new words to describe themselves in a positive way.  Regardless of the fact that this was a purely selfish idea to combat the repetitive articulation of “I’m fine”, the students love it.

3. I’ve created a habit to walk around campus when the adjournment bell rings and “press the flesh” with random members of the student body.  The practice of shaking hands is relatively new in Thai culture, so quite a novelty for the younger students.  All of them appreciate a high five when they make an effort to use the English word of the week in response to “how are you?”

4. Traveled to Northern (a week) and Southern Thailand (5 days), with a short weekend on the border with Burma.  Two of those trips were done as a solo traveler- a new way of moving through the world.   My travel budget seems nowhere near that of my younger colleagues, who seem to be flitting around Thailand by jet, train and epic bus rides engaging in all sorts of intoxicating adventures.

5. I got an International Driver’s Permit from AAA in Florida. I have a plan for a trip to explore some parks nearby.

6. As a result of extensive internet research, I purchased some hard to find medical supplies in Bangkok with minimal fuss.   This was a big relief and set the stage for the upcoming visit to the dental hygienist in the next couple months.

7.  Recovered from injuries from six different accidents, including a severely subbed pinkie toe from a flip-flop footed encounter with the wheel of an errant rolling metal white board and small laceration from a miscalculation with the shears as I cut the flashcards.  Concurrent on this item, I’ve also lived with a wheezy, sinus clogging form of URI for the past 75 days, despite medications, plenty of water, sleep and oranges.  (See #3)

8. Figured out how to use a squat toilet at school without getting my rhinestone-studded purple plastic work shoes splattered with urine. (Knees together!)

9. Learned at least 150 vocabulary words in Thai.  Have put some words together to form sentences and communicate with a range of people.

10. Dropped at least 15 pounds so far.  Using a combination of “Western food is expensive and generally unattractive” and “It’s so hot I have no appetite” with a liberal dose of “It’s so spicy I can’t eat much” tactics and the plentiful fruits and vegetables, I finally drew the attention of a bus driver who was the first Thai man to ask for my phone number.

Ten goals for the next eight months:
  1. Go to Tanzania to see my lifelong friend Carrie Evans and experience Africa. This is scheduled for the semester break in April, when I happen to turn 50.
  2. Stay focused on gaining confidence in speaking Thai by doing at least 20 minutes a day of listening, practicing and using the online course I enrolled in on January.
  3. Exercise in some form at least 4 days a week.  Fortunately there are lots of options- biking around the Ancient Forest Temple Across the Street, power-walking along the Ping River, Thai aerobic dance classes in Sirijit Park.  The morning assembly disco dance “exercise routines” with the kindergartners don’t count but are great for the spirit.
  4. Focus on meeting people and developing friendships- especially with folks outside of school.   While I’ve discovered that the Saturday morning shopping trip at the Big C supercenter is the time to see the old and generally unhappy looking white men shopping with their female Thai partners, it would be great to find some other expats or Thai people with some English fluency in the community.  This is only accomplished by hanging out in public places.
  5. Flesh out the outline/chapters/important stories of my memoir.  Keep reading lots of good books to expand on the 28  I’ve read so far.   
  6. Do my best to expand on the teaching practice with my students.  They are  low-level English learners, characterized by a lack of context for the language and compounded by a cultural reticence for speaking English. However, they are happy to chatter endlessly in Thai in my classroom.
  7. Uncover the next step for life past September 30, 2012 when my contract ends.  (Implementation scheduled once #1 is completed.)
  8. Keep up the networks back home and work on not taking it personally when the emails are not responded to.  It’s the internet and I’m sending from a Thai server after all.  Who knows what happens to these messages?   If you have gotten this far on the list, please send a note to say hi.  I’d appreciate it.
  9. Meditate with a bit more concentration and focus, knowing that every effort to clear the mind and reach that divine place of acceptance, clarity and peace will have an impact.
  10. Keep smiling.  Responding with a genuine expression of welcome acknowledgement is my secret weapon for dealing with the frequent stares I receive anytime I am out in the community. Almost always, people smile back.  Some take a minute to ask me (in Thai) about where I come from, what I do, how long I have been here.  I have to think this has some impact on the world as a whole.

For me, the next eight months will be a test of how to balance between the “be here now” and the “think about the future.”   The past week has created the worst in my series of sinus infections, resulting In a Doctor’s visit and another course of meds that are causing nausea, dizziness and more fatigue and a self-imposed 4 days of bedrest.  In the dark moments of illness, loneliness and longing for a lean turkey/swiss sandwich with artisan whole grain bread, I fear that this boot camp of self-reliance has grave implications for my capacity to form relationships in the future.  I worry about my previous career as a management consultant for mission driven organizations and what this new step will represent to future employers.  I wonder what will happen in September when my VISA and work permit expire here in Thailand.

The universe of the unknown feels so much different at (nearly) 50 than it did on one night in the wide open desert of West Texas in 1990.  As that evening turned into night, I pulled into an arroyo off the highway and watched lightning 100 miles away on the night before my first entry into Big Bend National Park.  A woman that I’d met in Key West while I was driving cabs, pedaling a rickshaw and sharing an apartment with Marrying Sam told me, on the night she rowed me out to her floating shack in the harbor, that I would like it there.   The tourist season was beginning in the spring and there was work to be done.     In the  small town of Lajitas about 50 miles west of the park entrance,  I found a community where I fell in love with a river, the desert, the culture, a man and a seasonal guiding lifestyle.  That place brought me to Alaska.

Now, I’ve been lead to this town where I am able to ride in the Ancient Forest Temple Across the Street, have a daily opportunity to pray to the Buddha, gesture along with the students to a song about spreading love over the world and receive the unending adoration of a legion of kindergartners.  This is a gift of experience and I know the challenges will create benefits I have yet to realize.   In  last week's evening Facebook chat with an old friend from SUNY Fredonia and the ensuring years in Boston, she encouraged me to have patience.

Over the next eight months, I need to relish the moments of health, vigor and wonder that fuel my spirit.  Understand that the cycles of doubt are a natural part of a challenging cross cultural acclimation.  Take every measure to help my body adjust to the new climate so I can take the deep breaths needed to gain ground and reach out.   One has to trust that the world will unfold the next step when the time is right.  Onward!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Honk to pay homage to the city shrine

On the long curve of the main road that goes from school to town, the gold pillar city shrine sits within a glass and stone walled structure on the edge of the ancient walls of Kamphaeng Phet.  It is customary to honk as you go by, with some car drivers performing a quick wai as they pass.   Who could resist the opportunity to push the horn button for a little beep beep as another opportunity to build favor with the powers?  When Tuy gives me a ride to the market for dinner after school is over, she usually does.  
Driver's seat on the minibus between Trat and Bangkok. Note the 9 buddha statues, gold flower garland, red and gold wrapping on steering column and wheel. There were also several pieces of gold leaf on the van roof above the windshield.
Driver's seat on the minibus between
Trat and Bangkok. Note the 9 buddha statues,
 gold flower garland, red and gold wrapping
on steering column and wheel.
There were also several pieces of
gold leaf on the van roof above the windshield.

Driving a motorbike is a routine mode of transportation here in Thailand; very few people have cars.   With the ubiquitous presence of this machine as the primary way of getting from point A to point B,   I've seen various iterations of passage.    A man carrying a CPU on the way to a repair store, an old woman with a well-worn duct taped seat, a child slumped over the front dashboard napping on her way to school, a family of five piled on with children sandwiched between adults, dogs in the front basket, dogs standing on the foot rests at the owner’s feet, dogs balanced on the back seat and a particularly memorable obese  pug sitting on his owner’s lap with the paws on the handlebars.  There’s a man holding an infant in one arm, young women talking on the phone while driving and one sighting of someone texting.

 It is not uncommon to see the driver wearing a helmet and all the passengers riding bareheaded.  Teenagers go too fast.   Old people drive very slowly.  My fellow teachers cruise in with large purses slung over the handlebars and long sleeve jackets to protect their arms from the sun.  As school starts and I’m poised by the front gate for morning greeting duty, students of all ages jump off the bikes, wai to their caregivers and greet me with a good morning.  Some of the older kids drive their siblings in, taking care to cut the engines and walk the bike onto school grounds.

The road in Thailand has three facets:  the personal responsibility, the cultural norms and the Thai’s approach to life and death.   From what I’ve observed there are a few norms that set the context in this provincial capital.  One way street signs and “drive on the left” are optionally observed, especially for short distances.  Right of way is generally negotiable, especially if you are pulling out into the same lane of ongoing traffic.  If you are going slowly, you will be passed regardless of anyone coming in the opposite direction. Street Vendors rarely have taillights and often drive in the dark.  Once I saw a “meat on sticks” barbeque in progress with smoke billowing from the back of the motorbike sidecar, the wife of the team turning the cutlets as they headed to market.
Tuy (in polo) and her friend Aon at the market.
Tuy (in polo) and her
friend Aon at the market.



The true beauty of Thailand’s  motorbike culture is manifested in the roundabout, where the grace and synergy of how traffic moves through the circle demonstrates the power of group dynamics and the legendary Thai tolerance.   One has to have some gumption to push their way into the circle but once your in- it’s golden.  Of course, cars and trucks have more power, unless there are a few motorbikes that gang up together in the same direction. 

In the first week of my arrival, a motorbike was dropped off with an empty gas tank.  The bike is bigger and heavier than the standard 150 cc Honda Dream that other teachers drive, but fortunately it’s an automatic.    Moving through gears with traffic on a different side of the road would have pushed me over the edge of my driving confidence.  Someone had to come over and show me the gas tank (under the seat and popped open with the key) and drive me to the gas station for a fill-up.  When we returned, I was finally liberated and took the first test drive around the ancient forest temple across the street to get acclimated to the power, turning signals and other controls.   I then drove to town and stopped by the Siva shrine to make an offering before proceeding too much further.  The Siva shrine is the only one of its kind in Thailand, incidentally, and a german tourist cut off the head and hands in the late 1800’s but was caught at the border.  The cast a replica for the outdoor viewing but the actual statue is here in the local museum.


After the ritual offerings, I made my way through a few side streets, looked around and was finally ready to conclude my inaugural journey.  On the way back to the house, the bike felt wobbly.  With escalating anxiety  I couldn't tell if it was me  or something physically wrong with the bike itself.   I wondered about pulling over to check things out, calm myself down and get regrounded, but instead I counted  down the meters to get home.  I saw the school sign, the traffic was clear in both directions and I made the decision to turn across the highway, down the small hill with a quick right turn to the dirt road to my house.

Then, I was down in the gravel.  The entire right side of my body covered in red dust, my pants (thankfully) absorbing most of the impact.  I was shaken and bleeding, the bike was scratched up and dusty, wouldn't restart and had a flat tire.  I pushed it the last 200 meters home- embarrassed, resolute and frustrated.  I hobbled my way into the shower for a fully clothed hose down,  scrubbing the heck out of the 8 cm abrasion on my right elbow.   With the ample bandaging supplies from my fall in Pattaya (see note entitled Is there Cheese in Thailand) I was able to administer first aid.   I spent the rest of the on the couch.

 On Monday there was ample discussion and questions from the teachers and students about my bandage, to which I pantomime what happened. The students thought this was hilarious.  My school coordinator was chagrined I didn't call her.    When the tire got fixed the following  week,   I got back on the bike and kept my ventures to jaunts around town on the weekend, still a bit leery.
Rush hour in KP
Rush hour in KP

 After my long trip north in early December, my  wounds were all healed.  I had Alaskan friends of friends visitors who came to Kamphaeng Phet, which required a “drive home in the dark” ride after dinners.  The following week I navigated to the Big C Supercenter, a rather complicated journey with a speed hump/parking attendant experience at the end.  I’ve committed to getting out to the river park for aerobics at least twice a week, which involves driving home in the early evening dark.   As is the norm with my diabetic body, the road rash left a nasty scar on my right elbow.  I have also learned a few lessons.

The first and most important is to slow down.  I’m farang and dress like a Thai grandmother. No one expects me to be zipping around confidently on the bike.  There is plenty of time in the world and best to just saunter and smile your way through the world.   This is one of my great lessons of Thailand- it is always better to wait than it is to hurry.   It will all work out.  My experiences with the  students and teachers, the interactions with the folks around town and even my approach to Buddhism are all formed with time.  There is no rush.

I've also had to work hard to stay focused in the present moment. Thai Buddhists believe that it is important to make your present life your best, moving your way up the karma ladder toward enlightenment.   So why spend your life distracted with the hubbub of your internal mental machinations?  The dog that is lying on the street, the young man who zips up on your left, the student calling out from the sidewalk as you ride by- notice them and  stay attuned to the world around you at all times.

Lastly, be  confident (not cocky), cautious and relaxed.  During my time in Thailand, I've realized that by slowing down and staying in the present moment, you can actually gain a lot of confidence.   Driving the bike in this small town requires vigilance and tolerance, being prepared for the unexpected but also open to whatever comes up.    The anxiety created by constant mental discourse can be very destructive.  It’s  better to let those thoughts drift out away from you like a trailing silk scarf you might wear on a chilly evening after a long walk along the Mae Nam Ping at sunset, while you on the way home from the night market with a shopping bag of Chinese oranges, mixed steamed veggies and other dinner food and the half- drunk carrot smoothie in the beverage holder. Beep Beep!