Wednesday, December 30, 2009

fun with new camera!

Hi everyone, I'm not dead, just in the midst of grad school applications. I promise I'll return to the world of the communicative as of Jan 20th or so.

This morning Erika insisted I get some exercise and I took the excuse to play with my new Christmas present from her, a waterproof camera. Taking pictures under water is much harder than you'd think! Below are our attempts at using some of the different settings, etc., with varying success. You can look forward to increasing aptitude at underwater photography in the future.

Christmas in Thailand: Palatial celebrations

Christmas was, unsurprisingly, not very Christmassy here in Thailand, with 90 degree weather and golden sun and flowers blooming everywhere. We tried, though: fake tree, holiday party at our house, paper snowflakes, presents, carols on the ipod, eggnog in the fridge (which took some doing, let me tell you!), Christmas eve with friends, Christmas dinner with the neighbors.

Christmas day itself dawned hot and smoggy. Petra and I enjoyed pancakes while tearing into our small stash of loot, and then took an intermission to let our bodies void said pancakes (turns out the milk was bad). This sadly made us miss the visiting hours at the detention center where my students are being held, so their presents remain undelivered. Instead, once we were back on our feet, we decided to visit the Grand Palace of Thailand, since we had shockingly not made it over there yet.

The Grand Palace is right in the middle of the older part of Bangkok, on the other side of the city, about an hour total of walking, boat trip, and taxi. We hadn't been before because there's a steep ($10) entrance fee, and they require very conservative clothing to enter. But with the mindset for a Christmas treat, and with pre-planned wardrobes, we were good to go.

It was rather big, very sparkley, very crammed with buildings, lots of which had pointy bits on top. There were hundreds of other visitors, but there was enough space that it never felt overcrowded. Orange-robed monks wandered through regularly. Petra especially enjoyed the murals that covered the inside of all of the outer walls. I especially enjoyed the frogs in the decorative ponds.

Not your average Christmas, but it'll do.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Happy Holidays!

Hi all,

Happy Holidays from Thailand!

Petra and I are well, though rather hotter than we're accustomed to being this time of year. Thinking of you all often, and looking forward to seeing you next year. Hope you're well!

All the blessings of the season,
Erika and Petra

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

imprisoned students

I can’t really go into the details or context or much of anything here, but suffice it to say that many (100+) of my students (who, you’ll remember, are refugees) have been imprisoned the last few months for purely political reasons through no fault of their own. It’s bad, really really bad: kids without their parents, little little kids locked up, open cell blocks with more than a hundred per room, real lawbreakers in there with them, really horrid unsanitary conditions, not enough and bad food and water, and a lot more I can’t say.

When I got the news about their abduction (from their beds before dawn, I refuse to even sanctify it with the term ‘arrest’) I was still in the US, and I have never, ever, ever been angrier and more scared in my whole life. I shook for hours. They took my kids and my friends. Not ok. Made me really challenge my pacifist morals.

I got to visit them in the jail today. It’s right in the middle of the city, surrounded by charming apartments and tea shops and clothing stores. It takes standing in three different lines for more than an hour, filling out various forms, surrendering your passport, etc., to get into the courtyard of the prison. There are two chain-link fences dividing the courtyard in half, three feet apart from each other. Detainees stand on one side, then the three foot gap which the guards patrol, and then visitors. We shout back and forth to one another across the gap, and hand items to the guards to pass over, if they deign to do so. The good part was that all the detainees who had visitors get to mill around on their gated side of the courtyard together, so we planned it so a bunch of us visited various members of the same family at the same time, so they all got to see each other. They were so happy to see one another, though sometimes so sad to look around the gathered crowd and not find the faces they were seeking.

The bad part was… well, everything else. Seeing these people who I’ve taught and come to love, little kids, teenagers, and adults alike, being treated like criminals, when they’re just being used as a (cutting myself off so I don’t get thrown in there with them). The smell, which if you’ve never smelled diseased rotted human faeces there’s no point in explaining. The humiliation of all involved except those who should be humiliated (i.e. those responsible): us on the outside for being made to go through ridiculous powertripping steps with four levels of guards and paperwork, for not being able to do enough, for not ever bringing enough, for being able to summon these people from their cells at our whim, for not knowing what to say (what can you say?): them for being so oppressed, for being summoned, for being on display and having their reunions observed, for being less clean than they would like for their dignity (though I was impressed at how well they were keeping themselves, they have such self-respect, it’s inspiring), for not being able to speak English well enough (though lord knows I don’t care, they are my English students, so they sortof think I’m always judging their language skills), for not knowing what to say (what can they say?). The boy I was visiting, a 16-yr-old Sri Lankan, just cried the whole time, though he was clearly really glad to see me.

I brought two big bags of necessities for them, focusing on water, protein and calories (peanut butter, crackers, dried fish, etc.), soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, etc. Everything I could carry. Petra and I are going back on Christmas day, so they get to breathe some comparatively fresh air and see their family members on Christmas (though only some of them are Christian, it’s a special day for many). I’m trying to think of things I can bring them as presents that they can use to pass the time, since they’re so so bored. Books are out, since most can’t read well enough. Cards and other games you can bet on aren’t allowed. All other logical prison rules apply. I’m thinking maybe a harmonica? Markers and paper? Any ideas?

Friday, December 11, 2009

koh samet: thailand's not so bad after all

To ease my transition back to Thailand, Petra wisely wisked me away the morning after I arrived for a three-day holiday on Koh Samet, an island in the Gulf of Thailand accessible by a 3-hour bus ride and short ferry trip. The island was warm and sunny and gorgeous, with white sand beaches and bath-warm water and delicious food. We stayed in a tree house that hung out over the water. Well, really, just look at the pictures. :) Yeah, I guess this country isn't so bad...

Thursday, December 3, 2009

erika back in Bangkok

After 24 hours on planes and another handful in airports, I’ve arrived safely back in this mess of an adopted city, Krung Thep, a.k.a. Bangkok. Petra met me at the airport even though it was midnight, and is was wonderful to see her. I love my wife. :)

As I stepped out of the airport, I was struck by the smell of the city, to which I had become so accustomed while living here that I hadn't smelled it in ages. My first thought was, "Smells like the third world." My attempt at specifying that smell will be necessarily inadequate, but it has components of: smoke (burning paper, rubber, wet things like leaves, meat, charcoal), wet rotting things, heat, sewage, curry, diesel exhaust, wet dog, green plants, banannas, sweat. And the funny thing? It smelled really good to me, brought a smile to my face. I've become quite at home here in the developing world. Who would have thought?

erika in the USA: thanksgiving and reunions

My last week in the US this trip found me at my Mother’s house for Thanksgiving. My sister Lisa flew out from Chicago to join us, and as we all had colds we were quite contented to have a mellow celebration with just the three of us. My mom and I cooked the meal (turkey, stuffing, cranberry relish, creamed spinach, mashed potatoes, gravy, homemade bread, fresh pumpkin pie) while Lisa worked on a school report, and we shared our gratitude for being able to be with family, for the bounty of good food, for our health, and for all the other blessings we have. I was personally especially grateful for the creamed spinach.

The day after Thanksgiving, Lisa and I went to our 10-year high school reunion. The women were much the same as the girls they had been, same personalities and cliques, but with better haircuts. The men were remarkable improvements upon their younger selves: they were taller, more handsome, more friendly and articulate, better dressed, better dancers, and more worldly. There were of course exceptions to these pleasantries, but it was on the whole a much more enjoyable evening than I would have expected, chatting with guys most of whom I had never really spoken to before in my life. Remarkable from a school as small as mine (graduating class of 150, of whom about 100 were at the reunion). Almost all are still locals. One guy is a professional boxer, another is shockingly getting his PhD in environmental studies, lots of them have or soon will marry some of the prettier girls in our class. I got the prize (a glass jar engraved with the names of everyone in our class) for coming the furthest, though few people believed I actually live in Thailand.

The rest of the weekend was spent with my mom, sister, and I further catching up with other high school friends (hi Josh!), playing Cranium with our mom (she creamed us), helping cousins of ours choose and cart away things from our grandfather’s estate, taking naps, running errands, and generally being a normal family. I can’t tell you how nice that was.

erika in the USA: Northampton

The second-to-last stop on my American adventure was out to my birthplace and the stomping-grounds of my old alma mater, the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts. It is such an exceptionally lovely part of the world, with some of everything good: trees, fields, wooden houses, rivers and streams and lakes, small mountains, small roads, public transportation, an expectation of intelligence and progressive thought, interesting children, quality restaurants, a profusion of live music and indie film, and good friends. I have to wonder how much of my appreciation is based on early imprinting and the later glow of college, how much it really as wonderful as I think it is, and how much my expectations are merely shaped by comparison to it.

One thing is for certain, though: Northampton has changed. It’s posher, more mature, with fewer literally dirty people and culturally appropriated painfully mystic establishments, and instead more actually worldly and sophisticated vibes, all while remaining accessibly inexpensive. It is as if Northampton has grown up alongside me. I wasn’t expecting to still like it as much as I used to, but I do!

Oldies: chocolate covered gummy bears from Sweeties, hot cocoa from that place in Thornes, the sale racks at the clothes boutiques, charming and quirky home décor and gifts from all the shops on Main St, smoothies from the Haymarket, the bizarre temptations from Acme Surplus, deals and steals from Deals and Steals, and of course people-watching all the hotties and yuppies.

Newbies: a great independent food-coop that can easily rival Whole Foods, a new dinner menu and fancy dining setup in the basement of the Haymarket, less awful fashion, a fancy cooking supply store, Urban Outfitters (I know!), and, delightfully and surprisingly, some people of color! :)

My enjoyment of the valley was of course greatly accentuated by the good company of my friends there. I stayed with college pals Toby and Cmoore and their happy menagerie in their new house outside of town. I immediately wanted to till up their garden bed for the spring, build them stairs down to the creek, help them choose shrubbery, etc., but had to resist as I was only there briefly. I do so love housework, though…

My dervish of a visit also included stopping in to see some of my former professors: a truly delightful afternoon with Lindsay, a friend of Petra’s from high school; we visited the Eric Carle Musuem of picturebook art (yes, the art of illustrated children’s books), and participated in their crafts room, in which I created an undersea masterpiece of watercolour and collage. Also on the schedule was dinner and a star-gazing walk with my high school friend Lauren and her boyfriend Thomas who was visiting from France (yes, he’s dreamy); a great relaxing night at friends-of--friends’ Maggie and Pete’s house, where we baked homemade pizzas in their wood stove, sampled Pete’s homemade hard cider, played with endearing toddlers, and played board games; and taking in a play at Hartford Stage, “Mistakes Were Made”.

Friday, November 20, 2009

อาณาจักรอยุธยา Ayutthaya

*retroactive post: Petra is catching up*
My one and only trip to Ayutthaya (pronounced: eye-YOU-tee-yah) perfectly illustrates the unfortunate truth that significant sightseeing destinations are less likely to be visited by locals – even temporary ones – than by tourists breezing through a country in one or two weeks. Given its proximity to Bangkok I should have been able to explore it much more thoroughly than ended up being the case.

Located only three hours from Bangkok by train, Ayutthaya is the old capital city of what is now Thailand. During its long period of prominence it fought many of wars, held numerous vassal states and maintained economic relationships with Indian, Persian, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Portuguese traders. Ayutthaya was the central political power in the region from the mid 1300’s through the middle of the eighteenth century, at which point the Burmese seized and sacked the city and drove the centre of government south to its present location in Bangkok.

I went to Ayutthaya one Saturday in November 2009 with my good friend Maria, a fellow Australian Youth Ambassador who worked in Bangkok with Disabled Peoples International. We boarded one of the many vans making regular runs between Victory Monument (one of Bangkok’s main transportation hubs) and downtown Ayutthaya. Our fellow passengers – all working in Bangkok and returning to their hometowns for the weekend – were friendly and quiet, and most were asleep in fairly short order. The three hours we subsequently spent crawling North along the expressway in bumper-to-bumper traffic gave Maria and I a fantastic opportunity to catch up. We had a great time.

We arrived at the perfect time to grab a lunch of Ayutthaya’s most famous dish. This signature soup of meat, vegtables, and a particular type of noodle is traditionally prepared and served from small canoe-like boats (think floating market) on the river or moat. It is and therefore named, appropriately enough, Boat Noodles. Ayutthaya is also famous for the street snack Roti, a sweet and sticky fried pancake served with banana, egg, and condensed milk and bearing almost no resemblance to the savoury Indian bread for which it’s named.

After lunch we approached a group of tuk-tuk drivers. After some truly heroic haggling from both of us (lots of smiling, wheedling, teasing, and implacable refusals to consider overpriced offers), we managed to secure both a driver and vehicle at quite a reasonable price for the remainder of the afternoon. In the end, I think we only got such a good price because it was a pretty slow afternoon and because the divers thought our Thai was so cute.

We spent the afternoon touring picturesque ruins of temples, monasteries, tombs, and other monuments. They rest amongst well-tended lawns, spongy marshes, groves of deciduous trees I can’t identify but which are graced with the occasional Bodhi tree. On the day we visited, the majority of other tourists were Thai, followed by people from South Korea, Japan, and China. We also encountered a few people from Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Britain, and Germany. While the sites are definitely well visited and we had to wait our turn to take pictures of the most famous spots, they were quiet enough that Maria and I often had the more out-of-the-way corners entirely to ourselves.

At the entrance and parking lot of every site (in the shade of the afore-described trees) is a collection of small shops and vendors selling refreshments like iced tea, ice cream, fruit, sticky rice with beans or coconut in bamboo stalks, soda, and of course the ever-present dishes of rice, noodles, or noodle soup. You can also buy all manner of tourist memorobelia mass produced in one of the many factories in the region (Thailand itself of course, but also China, Cambodia, and occasionally Vietnam). Local crafts are sometimes available too. At temples and the tombs of important religious and historical figures you can also buy incense, flower garlands, swaths of brightly-coloured fabric (usually yellow and orange, sometimes pink, blue, green, or white) to leave as offerings. Upon arriving at each new site, our driver would make his way to a shady spot to take a nap or gossip with the vendors and other drivers, while we strolled off with the other sightseers.

Ayutthaya is one of Thailand’s two most popular and historically significant World Heritage sites. The other site, the old capital of Sukothai, is reportedly even more extensive and beautiful. While I’m very sad that I didn’t make it to Sukothai during my year in Thailand, I suppose it is good to have left something so special unseen so that I can look forward to visiting it in the future.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

erika in the USA: NYC's not so bad

The last few days found me in New York City, that famed mecca of American ideals. I’ve never had much of a fondness for the city, what with it being huge and concrete and with rude people and stinkiness everywhere. But as I arched over the river on a tall green metal bridge and saw the classic glittering nighttime skyline stretched out before me, I realized afresh how beautiful New York can be.

I was in the city to visit my beloved cousin Corban and his charming girlfriend Adrienne, who were very gracious hosts in their sweet little Brooklyn apartment, and to check out a grad school program at NYU. Being in Brooklyn with such nice people and being able to see their comfortable lives made me realize that it’s not such an impossible thing to live in New York: I wouldn’t want to stay forever, but maybe I could do it for a while. This is a shocking consideration for me, as I have gone my entire life determinedly stating that I would never ever want to live in NYC. Thanks to Bangkok, though, I’ve become slightly immune to the rigors of big cities: at least in New York I can read the signs, ask passersby questions, know the laws, know the history, and pretty much know the system. I’m also to the point where the benefits available in the city, like the profusion of world-class institutions and opportunities and the conveniences of organized urban life, may outweigh my distaste for built environments and pee smell. I’m surprised to find that I’ve also changed enough that I now appreciate the fashion, food, and other cultural opportunities more than before. It’s like I’m growing up / becoming classier: who knew?!

NYU was hilarious. I’d been in their part of the city before, both as a gay tourist (it’s in the middle of Greenwich Village, the gayest neighbourhood in an already gay city, and just blocks from the Stonewall Inn, the site of a pivotal gay riot) and as a performer back in college. I’d never really slowed down and observed the student population, though: oh oh so trendy, fast-talking intelligent yet naive rhetoric, posturing and prancing and pretentions, gay boys, bourgeois angst, but delightfully energetic, alive, engaged, and very well-connected. Kindof an embodiment of the stereotypes of the city. I was impressed by the program I was checking out, and am looking forward to applying.

On my way out of town I had the chance to meet up with a friend and former colleague, Marissa, with whom I crammed about three years of catching up into an hour’s lunch break. She’s an inspiring woman, and it was refreshing to soak up some of her enthusiasm for international social justice work.

No photos, since (as you’ve probably gathered by now) I didn’t bring any cameras with me on this trip. Instead let me part with lingering images from the city: the Statue of Liberty as seen through the piers of the Brooklyn Bridge. The joyful smiles of five old black homeless men singing perfect barbershop do-wop quintet. Two baggy-pants’d bucket-drummer teen boys huddled with their buckets over their heads in a doorway trying to stay dry in a cold cloudburst. A dignified old white silver-haired man striding ramrod-straight with the skirts of his black woollen trench coat billowing out behind him. The canyons of a long straight skyscraper-lined street fading into mist miles away.

erika in the USA: beloved boston

This past weekend I enjoyed a two-part sojourn in the urban burbs of my former home city of Boston. First up were my dear dear dear dear friends Nathaniel and Sarah who I know from when I was tiny, and who I love more than food and water combined, and with whom I did and can always enjoy a return to my heart and myself. We cooked and ate and hugged and pig-piled and read and talked and watched documentaries and shared stupid websites and drank tea and coco and wine and played nerdy board games and generally basked in the excellent company.

I was delighted to meet their new-to-me housemate Lindsay, who is such good company that she held her own in my esteem even beside two of my favourite people in the whole wide world. And as if my visit wasn’t grand enough already, we upped the ante of awesomeness with an evening at the home of Sarah’s brother Jeff and his wife Vivian, and a host of their musical theatre friends, and a piano, and much singing of songs. Despite being too cold-ridden to sing much myself, I almost keeled over from the joy of music and intelligent kind likeminded people.

After such overstimulation, it was a blessing to be able to retreat to the soporific aquarium and later to Wakefield where my lovely college friend Sylvia and her wife Jane live in a cosy warren of a house. Because of said cold and being exhausted from too many travels I wasn’t particularly good company, but it was still nice to be able to nest and zone out with such kind and unjudgemental people, around whom I can totally relax and just sleep and blow my nose. Highlights of my stay included a nice walk in the woods, and another nice walk on the beach.

Photos are from Nathaniel’s phone.

erika in the USA: the lovely inlaws and burbs and apples

Last week found me in Concord MA, where Petra’s parents Dean and Vivienne live. I’ve seen them more recently than most of those I’m visiting, since they came to visit us in Australia last year, so in a way it felt like I’d never left. It’s always a treat to see them, and to stay in their gracious home and eat Vivienne’s deeeeeeelicious food. :)

Their home is also the resting place of the pile of Petra and my worldly possessions, so opening the closet and apprehensively staring at the basement pile was like Christmas: ooh, just the sweatshirt I'd been wishing for! What a perfect sweater! (Shouldn't have been a surprise, as they were mine from 3 years ago.) Shocking, though, the extent of our possessions: we are so lucky to have so much.

On another note: I was surprised to be reminded of the loveliness of the ancient suburbs, with their hunched creaking white houses and grey leafless trees and dry grasses and muddy brooks and cold stone walls. Is this a vista that only a daughter could love, though, grey, grey, grim, dim, tight, delicate, wet, rotting, or would others think it as beautiful as I do?

Our wander through the burbs was presaged by a search for multitudes of apples, which as it turned out were no longer on the trees (early season!) but were solicitously and nose-temptingly piled into baskets for our immediate gratification. The smell of the apple barn (old wood, sweet musky apple skins, tangy spoiled apple juices, dry dirt, lingering old hay) inspired pangs of New England patriotism and hubris and sheer love that almost collapsed me. I decided on the spot to be an apple farmer for all time. (I later rationally decided there were better uses for my skills.) The variety of apple types new and heirloom that were unfamiliar to me was exciting as well, as it means I have a lot of apple tasting to do when I get back.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

erika in the USA: doppelgangers in Maine

Next on my itinerary was visiting in Limestone Maine, where my brother, his wife, and their twin 18-month-old boys Matthew and Thomas live. Since I’ve been away so long, I hadn’t yet met the bosy, so it was very exciting for me to meet these first members of the next generation of our immediate family. Matthew and Thomas are, of course, the sweetest, smartest, most handsome and charming children ever to exist (says she who is not biased at all).

And saying so, it’s of course not at all narcissistic to say that the two of them are remarkably similar to me and my twin sister when we were their age. :) Truly, though, the resemblances between Matthew and I, and Thomas and Lisa, are astounding: not just physical resemblance, but also similar personalities and preferences. Unsurprisingly, Matthew and I got on famously. Top activities: Legos (construction and destruction), dropping things and picking them up, throwing things, hiding, climbing up and down the mountain of soft things, and dancing. See photos for dance sequence: the little guy’s got moves! :)

It was of course also great to see my wonderful big brother Reed and his wife Sue, who are settling back into life in northern Maine after a many-years hiatus in North Carolina. Reed’s teaching criminal justice and doing police work both part time, and Sue’s kept her accounting job from North Carolina, working online. They’re both of course tired by new-parenting, but are doing well.

Reed and I got to have a day off from kid-watching and took the opportunity to ride some ATVs (four-wheelers) around in the woods and trails along the Maine/Canadian border (less than a mile from their house). I’d forgotten they’re SUCH fun, like really fast mountain biking with vroom-vroom motors. :) Of course my visit was too short, but I look forward to going back in the spring when we move back to the States for real.

erika in the USA: sister!

The second stop on my American adventure was to Chicago to visit my twin sister Lisa.

Chicago is a very new city, grid crazy. It’s cold and windy. The architecture is not all it’s cracked up to be. People wear fedoras and trenchcoats for real, and art school hipsters are like hipsterdom squared. I visited many museums: my favourite was the Chicago History Musuem. We drove to Wisconsin, which (who knew?) is very close to Chicago, and visited the Mars Cheese Castle. On the way back to the city, we stopped by the rural shore of Lake Michigan, which was even more ocean-like than its city shore.

The second-best thing about my visit to Chicago was getting to hang out with my sister’s friends from her college days at Mt. Holyoke. I hadn’t seen many of them since we graduated, and it was a delight to spend time with such intelligent and silly women. I had missed that kind of low-brow high-quality company. :)

The first best thing about my visit was of course seeing my sister, who I adore and who should never ever live so far away (says the pot calling the kettle black). Watching stupid movies, eating really good food (deep dish pizza! fresh tamales! pumpkin pie!), wandering around the city, helping with her art projects, all were infinitely more fun with her than such activities can ever be without the best of company.

Random thoughts while in Chicago: Being in America having been away helps me see how strangely messed up aspects of our culture are: nothing new, but strange reminders nonetheless. Fatness, for instance: one of my first thoughts off the plane was how fat Americans are. Really, inexcusably overweight. The food with so many chemicals, so much falseness, so many calories, sad to be thinking about limiting caloric intake when at my school we worry about the kids having enough calories… And people have so many possessions! It’s ridiculous! And the fanatical conservatives: so sadly brainwashed, so frustratingly ignorant, so blatantly untruthful! I’d pity them if they weren’t so frightening. Also, bad smells: why do American public bathrooms smell so bad? I can authoritatively say that many third-world infested sewage ditches and truck-stop piss canals smell better; similarly, reeking pee in doorways and streetcorners, and the smell of homeless people: so gross, so unnecessary! Come on, America, we can do better.

erika in the USA: home at last

At long last, I am visiting at home in the great old US of A. It’s strange to be a visitor in my own country: to be here temporarily, to not be able to have one house, city, state, have more of a pull on me than another, to not be able to accumulate anything since all I have for space is my suitcase, to act as a tourist, to have no place of my own to retreat.

But oh, oh, oh, is it good to be home. I LOVE this country. It is glorious and tremblingly lovely and HUGE and full of such spirit and creativity. It (generally) smells good: I practically hyperventilated sniffing at the wooded parking lot on Rt 6 on the way from Boston to CT as the smells of the fallen leaves and adjacent brook and snow in the air and wet dirt filled my hungry soul-belly.

Of course the best thing about this country is that it’s full of people I love. Firstly, my mother, who picked me up at the airport and brought me to the house in Connecticut which has been my home since I was 12. It was so good to be with her again: she’s so practical, so loving, so appreciative of the joys in life, one of my best friends.

After a day of recovering from my 50 hour trip from Bangkok and gorging myself on the delights in her fridge (chevre! cranberries! cider! bitty toasting bread!) we were joined by two of my other favourite people: two of my mother’s siblings, my aunt Pippy and uncle Ross, come in from Berlin and Ohio respectively. Together we spent the next week sorting through the possessions of my grandfather, who passed away last Christmas. We made great progress, and the family talking and stories and pictures and bad jokes and reminiscences and support and shared grief and loving not just for my grandfather but also my long-deceased grandmother and other ancestors was a real blessing. I wish we could have all stayed longer, since we are so rarely together, and so rarely step beyond the barriers of holiday rituals and entertainment and niceties to talk about these precious things and really lean back on the family bonds. I’m not being eloquent enough to do the days justice…

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Loy Krathong ลอยกระทง

This past Monday was Loy Krathong, which is – I’d heard – one of the most beautiful and photogenic holidays in the Thai calendar. Loy Krathong – the Thai festival of lights – is held every year at the first full moon in November. People release beautiful lanterns into the air and onto the water where, in floating away, they carry away bad luck, bad experiences, and other attachments of which their releasers wish to be free.*

These lanterns dot the sky and drift in luminous processions down rivers and canals throughout the country and even (in Bangkok) across apartment swimming pools. The floating lanterns – called krathong – are beautifully made to evoke lotus flowers and, inexplicably, turtles (possibly in reference to a popular incarnation of Vishnu, possibly a modern innovation - possibly just another example of the inexhaustible popularity of all things cute). They are all brightly-coloured and circular, and come in a variety of sizes and degrees of embellishment: some are the size of your fist, others enormous and as elaborately tiered as a classic western wedding cake. They carry candles, fresh flowers, and sticks of incense. Krathong are traditionally made of banana leaves or a special kind of bread. In today’s ecologically conscious climate, they are often made of styrofoam (sigh).

I was very excited for this festival. I even remembered to take a tripod with me when I went out, to be as prepared as possible for breathtaking nighttime photo opportunities. In vain.

Sadly, Loy Krathong was a bit of a bust for me: I went to the wrong neighborhood. I went out with friends, and it was absolutely lovely to see them, and we ate absolutely delicious vegetarian food. The gathering along on the banks of the Chao Phraya River in Banglampoo, however, was noisy, tacky, and basically boring. To top it all off, I forgot to bring that one little essential screw that attaches the camera to the tripod, so I couldn’t even use it.

It was fun to see the krathong, and even more interesting to see the amazing cottage industries that spring up around them: hundreds of street stalls selling them of course, but also whole families sitting on the street surrounded by piles of banana leaves, Styrofoam plates, flowers, and incense – making krathong as fast as they can sell them. Industrious entrepreneurs also provided a variety services to assist people in releasing their krathong. From the sculpted avenues at the top of the park, your krathong can be gently lowered into the waves with a pulley or a specially designed long-handled basket. For the budget option, you can go around the corner and one of the street kids will hop in an inner tub and paddle your krathong through the stagnant inlet out to the main river.**

It was also fun to be in the midst of throngs of people all enjoying the night out: adoring parents taking hundreds of pictures of their little angel floating his/her very first lantern, teenagers chasing each other with sparklers . . . and crowds of stolid looking firemen and emergency response people keeping an eye on everyone. At one point a boat went down the river by carrying an enormous float modeled after an unfolding lotus blossom. The flower alone was the size of a small house, brilliantly lit up and glowing an eye-blinding shade of hot pink. I took some pictures despite my lack of tripod, and here they are, but if you’re really interested in Loy Krathon I’m sure you’re better off with a Google Image search. Better luck next festival, hey?

*“Loy” is “float,” and “krathong” is what the lanterns are called: hence the name of the holiday.
** yeah, I know – kids swimming in the Chao Pharay river in Bangkok.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

petra at work part two: challenges and rewards

My work is very challenging, of course, and the challenges tend to fall into one of several categories. The first is ordinary work-related stresses that everyone is a familiar with – tight deadlines, lots of projects, way too many emails, etc. Next come the challenges of working in a culture and language to which I am not native. World Vision Thailand has about one thousand staff in all, three of which are white foreigners. I intimidate most people. The office politics are intense and my unfamiliarity with Thai culture makes it harder for me to recognise what would otherwise be familiar drama, and harder to respond appropriately. It took me five months to figure out the scan-to-share-drive function on the office photocopier because I kept forgetting to ask my English-speaking colleagues when they were around, and I didn’t know how to ask the question in Thai (or understand the answer, for that matter). I don’t have a personal translator, nor would it be reasonable to want one, and while my colleagues can usually translate for me in meetings etc, sometimes it’s just not convenient. That can be lonely and frustrating. Management practices are unfamiliar. In taking care to avoid a cultural misstep in the workplace, I get into a habit of uncertainty that is difficult to break. I sometimes struggle to feel confident and sure of myself even when I do know exactly what to do next and how to do it. Working through these dynamics is a continuing struggle. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to be an unending one. It has gotten easier since I arrived.

There are also challenges of working in a developing country. I actually have better workplace resources and conveniences than I anticipated (a laptop, photocopier, wireless most places, most of the supplies I want), especially when compared to the majority of humanitarian workers in the world. For example, I have yet to be without electricity at work when I needed it. That said, most power outlets are frankly scary – always buzzing and sparking – and power strips are universally sub-par. This is a big deal when you work on the road with a laptop, and often need to power LCD projectors (but note, too – I have regular access to an LCD projector.)

I also develop exciting and novel health problems here. I struggled to participate effectively in a week-long conference not long ago, because I had Giardia from a bad fish dish and had to keep dashing to the bathroom to puke or to go through the equivalent process on the other end of the digestive track. It’s too hot outside, and too cold inside because the air conditioning everywhere is perpetually set to 18 degrees.

People are in general shockingly, infuriatingly ignorant of good environmental – even sanitary – practices.* Toxic paint, sewage, batteries, bleach, it all goes right down the storm drains and into the canals where poor kids swim and people fish for food, and from there into the ocean and into the groundwater, poisoning the planet. Over-consumption of cheap plastic crap is endemic even among NGO's. Giving gifts is an essential part of hospitality here. Combine that with the easy availability of every kind of stuff you can imagine(there are a TON of factories in Thailand). You get the picture. Everything has a ton of plastic packaging, which ends up in the street, in the poor neighbourhoods, and probably in the ocean as well. My colleagues are all conscientious about turning off lights and air conditioning in the office, but in some places (especially large businesses) it's standard practice to leave doors and windows open with air-conditioning on. Workplace recycling is existent but minimal - and in a country famous for illegal logging in protected forests! Meanwhile everyone – NGO’s, businesses, socialites, hipsters - pays lip service and less to environmentalism, because slogans like “love earth save earth” and “green earth” etc. are trendy and Western. Such waste is hard to see, and harder to change. The infrastructure for good environmental practices is weak to non-existent and the bad habits are well ingrained.

Another challenge is, honestly, boredom. It can be really boring to sit all day in the back of a room listening to a meeting conducted in Thai that I can’t understand but that isn’t crucial or related directly-enough to my work for it to be worth asking someone to translate. And I know that the networking meetings, especially the government events – are very important and effective in our long-term advocacy strategy, but the pace of such meetings can feel frustratingly slow. My Bangkok colleagues and I get very bored of each other at times. I had one trip that lasted two weeks. I spent a full two weeks – most meals, all meetings, 54 hours in the van all told, even sleeping because we share hotel rooms to cut costs – with the same five co-workers. I laugh about it now, and it was a great experience overall, but at the time we were so sick of each other!

Beyond all that are the emotional challenges of my work. The fact that I anticipated seeing difficult things when I started this role has not made seeing them appreciably easier. Nothing really prepares you for the reality of seeing malnourished naked children wading barefoot through raw sewage (by which I mean a shiny, mucky mixture of parasite-infected human and animal excrement, plus kerosene, stagnant rain water, rotting food, rotting . . . other things, engine oil, blood, you name it. The smell is indescribable), or visiting a market where people sit in stinky mud for twelve hours a day pulling the wings off of grasshoppers, for which they can earn up to the princely salary of 60 THB a day. For context, 60 THB is $1.76 US, and one regular serving of basic street noodles costs about 30 THB. More difficult still is realizing that, as hard as these people have it, there are people all over the region – all over the world – in even more desperate situations.

There are challenges because the stuff of my work – poverty, exploitation – is painful in itself, and sometimes further challenges simply working in this part of the world. Not long ago I spent a week in Cambodia, attending a regional training in anti-human trafficking advocacy. Participants came from five of the countries in the Mekong region. As we compared the advocacy climate and policy formation processes in our different countries, the diversity of context engendered some memorable exchanges. For example,

Lead Trainer: “Let's talk about community mobilisation. If you were planning to organise a march, rally or a protest in your town - in your country, what would you do first?”

Delegate from large communist country to the north (chuckling): “Reconsider.”

Or later,

Lead Trainer: “I’m now handing out flow-chart diagrams of the legislative process in each of your various countries, so you can analyse them...well, almost all of your countries... You folks, I'm so sorry, I looked all over the internet and couldn't find anything outlining the structure of your government...”

Delegates from totalitarian military state (laughing heartily): “Don't worry, there isn’t one! It's so simple we don't need a diagram. Our law is whatever the Senior General decides is a good idea.”

At moments like these we all laughed, because it was funny and because really, what else can you do? Here is some more development-speak for you: “Advocacy in Restricted Contexts.” That my colleagues in these neighbouring countries face extreme difficulties goes without saying, and the pain beneath the humour is heartbreaking.

So it goes without saying that my work here is difficult, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. I’m so happy to have the opportunity to be doing what I’m doing. I know that what I’m doing is worthwhile and is changing people’s lives. In fact since my main professional focus is program monitoring and evaluation – designing and implementing ways to measure and communicate the impact of our projects – I can say that with greater surety than many development workers: It’s actually a big part of my job to figure out whether what we’re doing is working and, if it isn’t, how it can be fixed. So far, the evidence seems to say that we’re doing a good job.

*I’m not talking here about abjectly poor people, refugees, etc who, generally speaking, have more immediate concerns. I’m talking about average, comparatively middle-class Bangkokians: my peers and colleagues.

petra at work part one: what I do

We’ve now been in Thailand for almost half of our planned stay, and I feel pretty well at home. Professionally I’m very happy indeed, as my work is engaging, challenging, full of variety, contributing to a more just world, and using my skills and abilities to an extent to which I can feel proud. It is, as we say in the Bay State, wicked.

My official title is Anti-Human Trafficking and Advocacy Program Officer – e.g. I am an Officer of the World Vision Foundation of Thailand Anti-Human Trafficking and Advocacy Program. On the local level, we work with communities to 1) raise awareness about human trafficking, labour exploitation, and how to protect oneself from both, and 2) fix other problems that make people vulnerable to human traffickers (in development-speak, this is “increasing community resilience” and “decreasing vulnerabilities”). We also advocate nationally and regionally for the adoption and effective implementation of policies, laws, Standard Operating Procedures, Memorandums of Understanding, etc. to combat human trafficking and assist trafficking victims.*

My work is a lively mixture of writing, reading, thinking, planning, travelling, talking, teaching, and organising. I spend about 35% of my time at my desk in a crowded Bangkok office. I plan trainings and develop curricula for them, write reports on recent trainings I’ve lead or trips I’ve taken, read periodic reports from our project locations, and write reports to send back to the World Vision offices that fund World Vision projects in Thailand (primarily the US, Australia, and Canada, but also Japan and Hong Kong). I develop presentations about the program to share with partner organizations, and write the content for communications materials like fact sheets, flyers, issue briefs, etc. I keep up-to-date with the latest research and information about human trafficking – especially materials published in English. Recently I’ve been working closely with one of my colleagues to develop and finalise our anti-human trafficking advocacy plan for the next six month.

I spend another 15% of my time elsewhere in Bangkok. Just about every international NGO that does any work in Asia has an office in Bangkok, and there are always events and meetings with government agencies, UN agencies, and NGOs to attend. Most are opportunities to network, promote World Vision and our work, establish contacts and credibility, and find out what everyone else is working on at the moment. We exchange information and research, and maintain the government connections that allow us to advocate effectively.

The rest of the time, I’m travelling around Thailand to visit our project locations. Most of these are in the border regions of Thailand, where Thailand touches Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and Cambodia.** Visiting project locations is called going to “the field.” Calling the poor communities where we run our programs “the field” actually bothers me (I mean, what we’re calling “the field” is somebody’s home, not just some strange “other” place where NGOs go to meet and study and run programs. If it weren’t somebody’s home we wouldn’t be there studying and working!). But, “the field” is the standard term throughout all the NGOs, and maintaining consistency is much more important than making sure the English term we use sounds PC to a native English speaker, especially since English is everyone else’s second or third language and most of the people who live in “the field” don’t speak English at all.

I usually go on these field trips in a group of three to five of my colleagues from the Bangkok office. I observe our projects being implemented and help to maintain World Vision’s local NGO and government network. On a typical trip I might visit a World Vision community centre to meet with local staff for an update, then go with them to the home of a local village leader to see World Vision volunteers run an information session about safe migration. I might accompany a World Vision youth group to their school to run an assembly on human trafficking and health, visit a few families that World Vision has helped to start helpful projects in the home (ex. raising frogs or mushrooms to eat and sell), and attend a cross-border meeting among local government and NGO representatives trying to coordinate their services to human trafficking victims. I will also train local staff in advocacy, human trafficking, and project monitoring, and especially in World Visions approach to these. I train through an interpreter, and it works like this:
1) I develop all training materials (powerpoints, handouts, etc) in English.
2) I send them to a translator, who creates Thai language versions.
3) On the day of the training, we project the Thai presentation for the participants. I present from a printout of my original English materials.
4) I speak in English and the interpreter translates for participants. The interpreter also translates comments and questions from participants so I can address them.

It’s a bit cumbersome, but it seems to work pretty well. My colleague’s work with migrant communities, after all, so they’re used to language differences and interpreters. Many are bilingual in Thai and the language of their next nearest country (Burmese, Lao, or Khmer), and most speak a least a little English as well (though they’re often too shy to use it much with me). We often bring guests – consultants or colleagues from partner organizations – to visit our projects. About a month ago I was travelling with a colleague from World Vision Australia to Ranong in Southern Thailand. She interviewed a migrant Burmese fisherman who comes regularly to the World Vision centre there. Every question and answer went through the following translation chain:
Question: Anna (English) → P’Ling (English >Thai) → P’Doh (Thai >Burmese)
Answer: K’Poi (Burmese) → P’Doh (Burmese>Thai) → P’Ling (Thai>English)

When we travel its usually by van or bus. The trips are usually long. Starting in Bangkok, it takes four hours to get to our closest project site. Our farthest are twelve and fourteen hours away depending on weather, traffic, and other factors. I have been to more roadside 7-11’s than I thought existed in Thailand. I have spent hours this year gazing at rice fields through the small filmy windows of mass-transport vehicles. Occasionally the scenery changes slightly, and I see rice fields from a different angle, or rice fields growing on mountains. It’s a good thing rice fields are generally quite lovely.

Upon returning to Bangkok, there are reports to write, emails that need a response, and issues from the trip to resolve or follow up. Then I start the next round of reading, writing, networking, research . . . and planning for the next trip out.

* And for all our much-beloved, super-progressive, sensitive, and linguistically-aware friends in the US, if you are concerned about my use of the word “victim” where you would probably have chosen “survivor,” let me assure you there’s a very good reason for this choice and I’m happy to chat with you about it any time.
** Thailand also touches Malaysia in the south, but we don’t go down there because we’d probably get blown up.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

fun weekend

We had a busy and excellent few days this past weekend. We greeted Saturday morning bright and early with the scrumptious treat of home-made pancakes, and then trundled off to the refugee center for a day of hard labor. Next weekend we're painting the classrooms, thanks to a donation from a local prep school. But before we can paint, there's a lot of mold-removal, scraping, sanding, roof-patching, window-fixing, bug-exterminating, and general cleaning that needs to happen. Hence Saturday found us attacking the classrooms with bleach solution and elbow grease, along with a handful of other young adults we managed to press-gang. It was satisfying work, especially for the desk-job crowd, who aren't used to immediate gratification from their labors. I had special fun ferreting out all the ant colonies (behind wainscotting, under floor, in ceiling tiles, behind air conditioner, in piano...) and forcefully encouraging them to relocate. An enterprising baby gecko gleefully stationed itself in the midst of one of the streams of fleeing ants and just sat there with its mouth open until it couldn't eat any more: truly hilarious to watch it waddle off. Tearing up the rotten floor of one classroom was also great fun. Not fun was realizing the astoundingly unhygienic and unsafe state that the classrooms had been in for years, and thinking what a toll that has probably taken on the health of the students.

After going home for a much-needed shower and nap, we went off to a young Australian's flat for the hip party of the month, celebrating Thai street fashion. The taxi ride over there was very eventful, as the city was deluged by a rainstorm severe even by monsoon standards. Many neighborhoods were flooded three feet deep or more. The taxi took a well-considered circuitous route to avoid most low-lying areas, but still often drove through water well over the doors' transoms, probably knee-deep or so. It was a testament to whatever modifications they do on those Corollas that the engine didn't so much as cough once, and our feet stayed dry despite feeling the impact of the waves on the floor and seeing the roof-high wake we were kicking up. The city barely slowed down: no mere water can flummox Bangkokians. (Oh, and the party was fun, too, despite the fact that Australians apparently think Thai street fashion is akin to clown costumes, and we were tired so left early.)

Sunday we, surprise surprise, went biking in the Bangkok jungle, Bang Kra Jao, again. This time we went with Australians Katie and Milena (who's also Columbian), both of whom really enjoyed the scenery and winding tiny 'roads'. We spotted a gorgeous bird like a bright blue kingfisher, as well as some kind of marsh hen thing, two giant monitor lizards, a neat roadrunner-ish lizard, some truely lovely butterflies, and a million cool plants. The community's weekly floating market was again hopping with ethnic Mon foods and... more food. I enjoyed my favorite fried tofu, corn, and taro fritters, while Petra delighted in her favorite rice noodles with soupy curry sauce. (Unfortunately, the later seems to have been off, since she spent the next two days violently puking, but is better now.) The highlight of the day was when, while hanging out at a forest temple after lunch, Petra started chatting in Thai with some local passers-by, and we were forthwith invited to her friends' nearby house, where we were led into their jungle backyard and fed delicious young coconuts straight from the tree by the delighted old ladies who lived there.

No wonder we are so tired this week!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

my new job: teaching refugees

Scene: a tiny room full to the brim with about 30 7ish-year-olds, in relative chaos. Teacher (‘T’, i.e. me): “English! Write your name in English!” S: “My father’s name, or my name?” T: “Your name, not your father’s name: your first name.” S: “What’s a first name?” T: “Your short name.” S: “But my short name is my number two name, my first name is my father’s name.” T: “Whatever name you want me to call you… Lor! Why do you have a knife?” Lor: “To sharpen my pencil.” T (pondering): “Ok.” S: “Teacher, I have no paper.” T: “Ok, write on the back of last week’s worksheet.” S: “Teacher, I’m hot. Can I go get water?” T: “If you’re hot, take off your sweater.” S: But it is my only shirt.” T: “Ok, then sit in front of the fan.” T: “Where is Jon? Why is his seat empty?” S: “Oh, he left.” T runs outside, calls for Jon, doesn’t find him, returns to the classroom before other students can disappear. (Jon appears inexplicably 30 min. later, soaking wet and grinning.) All that just today, just to get the students to write their name on their paper…

Last month I started my new job teaching at the Bangkok Refugee Center (BRC). The BRC is part of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) of Angelina Jolie fame. While most of the UNHCR’s work focuses on residential refugee camps in rural areas like those you see in the news, they have a few sites like the BRC that a) aren’t residential, i.e. the refugees don’t live at the Center but in housing throughout the community, and b) serve urban refugees, i.e. not ones relegated to a barren wasteland somewhere.

In addition to the school at which I teach, the Center has a medical clinic; a resource center for staples like food, clothing, etc.; social workers and psychological help; and vocational training (computer and business-environment skills, cooking and restaurant management, hair salon skills). The Center is located on a side-street in a fairly busy residential neighbourhood on the edge of the city’s densest area, and is comprised of a scattered hodge-podge of cement and corrugated tin buildings with tiny alleys and cement courtyards. Shockingly, all the main rooms are usually air conditioned, though many have serious mold problems. In general, resources are very very scarce, with occasional notable exceptions that occur through specific donations (i.e. pens and paper are short, but there’s a new Yamaha keyboard).

The refugees are of all ages and walks of life, from something like 40 different countries. Predominately represented are Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, China, Pakistan, Iraq, Somolia, and the D.R. Congo. Yup, that’s right: the ones from countries that the US and Australia don’t like get dumped here in Thailand, who’ll take anyone short-term. Thailand’s not a place where the Thai government or the UN will let refugees stay forever, though: they’re supposed to be placed permanently in a country that actually has the resources to take care of them, mainly the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the western European countries. The refugees’ ‘temporary’ stay in Thailand usually lasts 10 years, thanks to shocking red tape.

The refugees aren’t allowed to hold jobs, and most don’t speak Thai, so their options are limited. So they keep themselves busy, usually at the BRC. Any day will find the Center teaming with life: not only do you find the refugees and asylum seekers who are there to utilize the resources, but usually also their entire families. They come to meet up with friends, let their kids run around in a safe place, speak in their native languages, eat the cheap and delicious food cooked by the restaurant students, pick up some extra language skills and knowledge from the other visitors, and generally feel welcomed and at home. I love that it’s such a wonderful place that people just want to be there for no reason. And they don’t want to leave: it’s hard to enforce the evening closing time, as they want to stay reading in the library, chatting in the courtyard, playing on the playground.

I teach English and Music to a total of about 125 students. Most of my students are adults, with the memorable exception of two classes of 6-14 year-olds. In addition to my English and Music classes, the kids get a second English class, as well as Math, Thai, French, and Art (sometimes). The adults just take English, Computers, and some vocational classes.

There is such a range of ages in the kids’ classes because they are graded not by age but by ability. As many of the refugees have never been formally schooled before, they have to start at the very beginning. So, until I had them join my adult classes, there were 19-year-olds sitting in class with the 6-year-olds, all learning something like a first grade curricula. The differences between the 6-year-olds and the 14-year-olds are obviously drastic, though not as bad as you’d think. They’re amazingly energetic (considering most of them are malnourished), and extremely boisterous (not letting their lack of shared common languages stop them). A disproportionate number of them are very bright. They are also all, to a one, very mischievous.

The adults are another handful all together. Though less chaotic, their desperate eagerness to learn English and make good use of their time with me makes them VERY demanding. They are also understandably very keen to show their intelligence, to be understood as people worthy of respect rather than “Refugees”, making class discussions rather catty at times: imagine an entire class of teachers’ pets. An additional challenge is that though some of them have considerable schooling (i.e. Masters degrees), others have no schooling, and all have been out of school for a long time: they don’t really remember how to be students, and certainly have no precedence for how to be an adult student with a teacher in most cases younger than they are. It is hard to politely correct them, point out their mistakes, remind them that learning starts when you acknowledge what you don’t yet know, and encourage non-competitive and non-judgemental class discussion practices with these dynamics.

The kids and the adults alike are, of course, very stressed: most have undergone horrific events before reaching the relative safety of Thailand, almost all have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), all are seriously financially strapped and malnourished, most live in very inadequate housing, all travel long distances on the most awful forms of transportation to get to the Center every day. This, of course, adds to the level of insanity in the classroom.

There is no curricula, so I make up each class entirely out of thin air. It takes a shockingly long time to plan a lesson to accommodate the significant range of ages and abilities, hold the attention of the wigged-out students, be do-able with absolutely no resources, as well as be understandable with minimum lecturing. Of course, I also try to make the content culturally and biographically appropriate, which is hard when juggling 40-odd cultures at once. And then I invariably have to change the lesson in some way at least five times an hour due to split-second feedback and observation of its reception.

Despite the above challenges, the classes have been going very well. I’m just finishing up my fourth week of teaching, and I’m seeing remarkable improvement in the students, especially the adults’ writing and the kids’ singing. The adults are starting to relax a bit, and I have high hopes for the rest of the semester.

I’ve been especially enjoying writing the music curricula, as well as teaching reading music and basic music theory to the music teacher, Kwang, and to the computer teacher, James, who has considerable musical talent and is happy to learn how to teach another subject. Some of my favourite hours at the BRC have been spent belting out Carpenters or Peter Paul and Mary hits with Kwang at the keyboard and me on guitar, teaching chord progressions and pop song formats, or both of us on hand drums for note-reading rhythm lessons. Capacity-building has never been so much fun. :)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

unfortunately aquainted with local fauna

Sorry for being so slow with posting. I have a great but exhausting new job (more on that soon) and Petra's been traveling nearly constantly for work.

On top of that, I've made a rather unfortunate recent acquaintance with the delightful local fauna 'giardia lamblia', which had me wracked for almost two weeks with such horrid fevers and ...other violent disturbances of the body that the hospital was, in succession, convinced I had 1) swine flu, 2) dengue fever, 3) malaria, and then when tests showed I had none of these, 4) a mysterious virus from which they wished me the best in recovering from on my own and sent me home. Of course, it was not a virus, but was eventually accurately diagnosed by Dr. Petra as good old giardia, which I could have just as easily got in my backyard in Connecticut, and was swiftly cured with a blitz of giardia-intended antibiotics. I'm now trying to build up my strength again and recover from the antibiotics. Ironic, really, that the doctors got it so wrong, since the usual modus operandi at hospitals here is to just give everyone massive does of antibiotics regardless, assuming it will help with something even if not your main complaint. The one time they don't do that is the one time it would have really helped. Petra has been an absolutely angelic nurse, waking me up every three hours (nighttime included) to make sure I drink enough water and have something in my belly, and has read me more than 1000 pages of 17th century British philosophical and political intrigues.

Perhaps not particularly exciting to recount, here, but from the point of view of my poor body it's been a quite dramatic few weeks.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

planting trees

As you might recall from my previous post, there’s a whole big section of Bangkok not far from where we live that’s all green and jungley still. I enjoy bike riding there, and trading the noise and tumult of big bad city-living for the sensory cacophony of birdsongs, green and textured plants, winding pathways, eddying waters, and fresh breezes.

I’m not the only one to notice the green plants and fresh breezes part: the area acts as a lung and liver for the poisons of the city, filtering out at least some of the pollution in the air and water. In order to further this cleansing, a young Thai woman (who’s also a student at Phillip Exeter Academy in NH) has founded The Giving Greens, an organization that buys green lands in order to protect them from development, runs nurseries to provide native plants to further propagate the greenness, and educates and encourages local residents to plant more trees.

This weekend, invited by an Australian in the know, we went to one of their tree-planting days. It was super-fun: we planted something like 1,000 trees, extending the green border just a little further into the city. The planting was muddy and very satisfying work, made easy by the pre-dug holes. The excellently-organized event also included charming dancing by the schoolkids resident in the green area, a feast of superb local food, free awesome t-shirts, and a great group bike-ride to the local floating market. Couldn’t really ask for more: I almost felt like I was getting away with something, not working hard enough and having too much fun.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

outings and aboutings in bangok

Petra and I have had a few unexpected free days recently, and made an attempt to see more of this city we’re living in. The first stop in our hometown tourism was the Golden Mount, a tall man-made hill on the edge of the old city topped by an ancient gleaming golden temple and stupa. Our guidebook promised panoramic views and peaceful quiet: the mount didn’t disappoint. While it’s theoretically the monsoon season, we’ve had a spate of some of the bluest skies I’ve ever seen, and the previous rains washed away much of the pollution, so the view from the hill showed off a gleaming, sunny cityscape hardly resembling my experience of Bangkok. Surrounded by a tight ring of trees and lifted as high as the skyscrapers, the comparatively fresh wind and lack of traffic noise was a welcome relief.

One of the most famous sights in Bangkok is Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn. Built in the Ayuthaya period (1600s), it’s one of the oldest buildings in the city, and has a noticeably different shape and decorative motif than any intact structure I’ve seen in Thailand. While in most photographs is appears monolithic and pinkish, it’s actually many separate structures, each distinct, and comprised of many bright colors: orange, green, grey, brown, you name it. The entire temple complex is ornately decorated: the older structures are obsessively carved, while the newer buildings are mosaiced to within an inch of their arguable lives. I hadn’t looked forward to visiting the temple, instead considering it an obligatory visit as a Bangkok resident, but found myself thoroughly enjoying the temple itself, the quiet neighbourhood surrounding, and the view across the river to the palace area.

We reached both mount and wat by boat: the mount via the klong (canal) that runs near our apartment, and the wat via the central Chao Phraya river. The waters are high and filthy, thanks to the accumulated runoff of the entire Mekong Peninsula. Even with the displeasures of stench and overactive minds imagining dunkings and virulent infection, it’s still a superior form of travel within the city: it’s fast, there’s no traffic, there are more trees and fewer obnoxious foreigners, and it allows a glimpse into otherwise inaccessible neighbourhoods. And on these trips, there were bonus cool clouds and rainbows. Plus traveling on painted long boats somehow adds romance and adventure to otherwise mundane commuting. :) And who would turn down romance and adventure?

After visiting the wat, Petra and I retired to a very posh but hidden restaurant called The Deck that is right on the bank of the Chao Phraya, directly across from Wat Arun. We sipped tasty cocktails while watching the sun set over the temple, then watched the barges push their way against the current to reach northern Thailand. Ma, I sang the obligatory ‘Barges’ song for you. Couldn’t ask for a nicer evening.

Monday, July 6, 2009

religion in thailand

Unlike everywhere else I have lived, Thailand’s dominant culture and populace are not Christian. 95% of people in Thailand are Buddhist. The remaining 5% are mainly Muslim and Chinese Traditional Religion (Confucian/Taoist/Animist), with only a small fraction identifying as Christians.

In the 500s AD, Buddhism was brought evangelically to the area that eventually became Thailand. The region’s Buddhist leanings were further strengthened when it was conquered by the Buddhist Thai culture in the 1200s. We don’t know much of the region’s history between then and 1767*, but from its results we can see a great commingling of religious and cultural ideas from the various great land trading routes across Southeast Asia.

The type of Buddhism practiced in Thailand is Theravada, the same kind as is practiced in modern Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Sri Lanka (where Theravada originated). However, there are noticeable touches of Mahayanism in their worship, such as the belief that the king is a bodhisattva, and the growing popularity of the Chinese Kuan Yin (a persona of Avelokitesvara, another bodhisattva). For those of you who aren’t up on your Buddhist theology, very roughly think of the Theravadens as Protestants, and the Mahayanists as Catholics, and the bodhisattvas as saints. Think of how surprising it would be to find a statue of a saint in a Congregationalist church.

In addition to this sect-mingling, there are also a surprising number of Hindu deities appearing in Thai Buddhism. It’s not uncommon to see Ganesha sitting at the foot of the Buddha, or to find a many-armed statue of Brahma as the presiding figure at a major Buddhist shrine. Thais see no discrepancy in the two religions, taking a rather Indian approach of “more gods = more bases covered”. When asked about their beliefs, though, Buddhist cosmology spews forth, very little Hindu thought included.

Rather than the visually evident Hinduism, what slants the mental framework of Thai Buddhists away from the philosophy of the texts is animism and ‘superstition’. Thai animism is the pre-Buddhist traditional religion of the region, and is closely related to Chinese animism. It largely consists of considering and respecting both the spirits of local physical and natural places, and respecting ancestor spirits. Local place-spirits are thought to reside in anything from trees to rocks to streams, and respect to them can be seen in the garlands, paint, and offerings given to these locations. When a site has been cleared of its natural features (i.e. a building site), a tiny, beautiful and ornate house is built in which the displaced spirits will hopefully reside, so that they do not become angered by the destruction of their homes and cause trouble for the new residents. Identical spirit houses are also built and tended for the spirits of the humans who were attached to the place, traditionally the ancestors of the current occupants. Offerings of flowers, food, beverages, and trinkets are given to both types of spirit houses daily by the residents and other people connected with the shrines, with the hope that the spirits will stay appeased and will possibly assist the offerers. If the spirits are left unfed or otherwise become unhappy, the fear is that they will haunt and cause great trouble. Thais fear these ghosts more than almost anything else.

The other practices that Thais add to traditional Buddhism are what we would usually class as ‘superstitions’, though the term is considered offensive because of its assumption of inefficacy. The main practices are what Heine and Prebish call “the cult of relics, images, icons, and amulets”.** The protective amulets are most evident, worn on thick necklaces or placed on dashboards and handlebars. Upon closer inspection, protective and power-channeling talismans present themselves painted on the ceilings of taxis or even tattooed on the skin of believers. In addition to the physical lucky artifacts, horoscopes and day-associations take on great meaning and are consulted for any significant event, and the popular lotteries become a numerological wonderland of consideration and speculation.

These derivations from traditional Buddhism are completely ubiquitous among young and old, rich and poor Thais, but are not officially sanctioned by the Buddhist authorities of the country. Those authorities are, notably, the Sangha (community of monks) and the King. The King was, for a time, a monk himself, and is looked to in all matters concerning the country, from theology to taxes to technology. A thoroughly modern and well-educated man, he is able to advise on all these matters, and his word holds great sway, as does that of rest of the community of monks. Given this, it is surprising that these ‘superstitions’ continue so pervasively: the inertia of millennia of cultural practices is hard to resist.

Old practices still also dominate mainstream Buddhist rituals and worship. To walk into a temple here is not to enter a stark place of silent contemplation, but is to join a mingling crowd of stray animals, peddlers, orange-robed monks, gaudy mosaiced and gold-leafed statuary, tourists, motivational plaques, advertisements, strange odours, and discordant noises. It’s a real ‘bells and smells’ type of worship, with flower garlands, incense, candles, and food offerings stealing the show. Like Latin in pre-Vatican-2 Catholicism, Pali is the language of religion (scriptures, liturgy, etc.), so most practitioners don’t know what the words mean, making the endless mumble of the chanting equally surrealistic for all involved.

Humorously, this worship style is not limited to within temples and shrines. Buddhism is very much alive and well in Thailand, fully integrated into modern life. Statues, shrines, and other places of worship are incorporated into every street corner, mall, and skyscraper, allowing businessmen and shoppers to stop, bow, light some incense, and pay their respects throughout the day. You’re more likely to see worship being done by makeup-ed women in Prada than by monks.

This giving of respect and offerings is almost the entirety of most lay Thai’s Buddhism. As Tuchrello notes, most Thais “place little emphasis on the achievement of nirvana.” Instead of striving in meditation for the ultimate goal in this lifetime, Thais are generally content to leave that work to the next lifetime, and just look to have an easier life next time around, in which they’ll hopefully do a better job at the whole nirvana thing. They therefore generally limit themselves to accruing merit (good karma), mainly by supporting and revering the Sangha and giving material offerings to auspicious shrines or spirits. To me, this seems remarkably close to the unsavoury and lazy practice of buying indulgences, but it is considered to be quite honourable here.

While Buddhism sits strong in this country, it is not without its problems. The main challenge to the strength and continuation of Thai Buddhism has been brought by the establishment of government schools from the 1960s through today. While previously the temples were the sole sources of community education, with monks teaching the times tables along with the concept of interdependent origination, now the role of the monk is much more limited. Without the knowledge immediately applicable in this life to draw them, and with the obligations of western-style schools or work to take their time, very few students seek out the teaching of the monks these days. Not surprisingly, there are many fewer monks now than there used to be. Western-style media reporting of the inevitable monk scandals is also eroding the trust and respect of the Thai people for the remaining Sangha, and inter-sect competitions are preventing the Buddhist groups in the country from presenting a positive and clear message about the benefits of Thai Buddhism to its people.

The last challenge faced by Thai Buddhism as it moves into the modern era is that it currently grants women very little status, though the rest of Thai society is generally quite respectful and supportive of women. Lay women “primarily participate in religious life either as lay participants in collective [i.e. not personally benefiting] merit-making rituals, or by doing domestic work around temples.” (Tuchrello) Additionally, women are encouraged to financially support the male Sangha. In order to get personal merit, women try to bear a male child so that their son might be willing to gain merit for them. This not only adds to more children than are needed, but degrades the status of women in society and diminishes Thai Buddhism, which could only be enriched by the intellectual and practical contributions of the many devoted and active Thai women. While men are being entreated to join the Sangha, women are demanding to be allowed to become nuns.

"If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it. The men better let them." -Sojourner Truth

(sorry, too many photos, I know. edited slideshow and captions soon.)

* 1767, the year in which the principal Thai city was completely sacked and burned by the Burmese, destroying all previous records and much religious iconography and architecture.
* *Buddhism in the modern world, by Steven Heine and Charles S. Prebish, pg 10
--William P. Tuchrello on the Library of Congress

Thursday, July 2, 2009


The town of Sanklaburi is one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited since coming to Thailand. It sits just north of a reservoir created about 30 years ago at the convergence of three rivers. During the rainy season the old temple – the only building left from the town that was flooded to create the reservoir – is almost entirely submerged. If the water is at just the right height and the temple only half covered, you can slip through the door in a long-tail boat and float out over the stairs. When I was there at the end of the dry season, we crossed the threshold on foot with the deserted shells of freshwater mussels crunching underfoot.

The first evening we ate dinner on bamboo platforms built out over a quickly-rushing mountain stream. The whole restaurant – platforms, kitchen, and all – has to be dismantled and moved every year before the wet season because the stream swells to fill its little ravine.

The stars are beautiful in these mountains. Electricity is not a given and the air is lovely and clear. The silence in the morning is profound, after the geckos have stopped singing and before the birds have begun. But with the first hint of sunlight, the fishermen head out on the lake in traditional boats suped-up with third class motors that sound like your grandfathers lawnmower after the cover has rusted away, and you gain a new appreciation for the noise-amplifying acoustic potential of large flat bodies of water ringed in mountains.

Spanning this large body of water is the pride of Sanklaburi, the Sappan Mon (Mon Bridge). It’s the longest wooden bridge in Thailand, stretching an impressive 400 meters from the mainland to the island village housing the local Mon community. The distinct cultural identity of the Mon people is evident throughout the area: in the art and architecture of the temples, the crafts for sale in the markets, and the food. I brought home an old Thai whisky bottle filled with honey. It comes from people in some of the most remote villages in the mountains; cloudy amber liquid, always fluid in the constant heat, frothy on top, almost too sweet but still sharp.

Many of the people in this area of Thailand are of the Mon or Karen ethnic groups, each of which have a well-organised militant faction engaged in more-or-less active warfare with the Thai army, the Myanmar government, and each other. Competition for control of major smuggling routes is fierce and bloody. Factor in small gangs of ordinary bandits, and you begin to see how complicated life can be in these mountains.

The mountains themselves are tall and jagged, with raw and rugged shapes that seem out-of-tune with their covering of foliage so green it’s almost deciduous, interspersed with pine. From Thailand we watched the sun set over Burma; high above the barred border gate, magnificent clouds drifted freely across the sky.

Note: My colleagues took some of these photos – you know who you are, I thank you!

Monday, June 15, 2009

do some good! (another library)

A request from my resourceful and impeccably trustworthy friend Nan, who has been working to develop this school for some time:

(Nan's in the back row with a green shirt, cheering)

We are going to renovate the school library at Ban Ko Chang School, Ranong, Thailand on 4-7 July 2009.

Within the island and surrounding areas many families live in inadequate accommodation. The community, mostly Moken Thai and ethnic Burmese fishermen, was badly affected by the tsunami. The Ban Ko Chang School is still inadequate, with only 2 classrooms and 4 teachers. All students, ages 3-12, have to share the classrooms and teachers together, and have few resources. So our group would like to help develop it as much as we can through our resources and our minds.

Our group is a small voluntary group, working together with the vision to help the children grow strong. We think that books are very important for them: without books, how can they be strong? I hope that our work and our books can help them be good people in the future.

If you are too far from me to come help in July, you can make a financial donation for support the renovation of the school library. Even $5 USD goes a very long way here. The money will go to buy paint, brushes, ground sheets, etc., as well as books. We have already raised $570 USD, and need $1000 USD more to be able to make this library come true.

For those who live in Thailand, we would love to see many people come and join in our work or donate some things that you don’t need like used books, clothes, shoes, and whatever else you want to donate for them.

Your donation can make a big difference in the lives of children in need. These kids can really change the world if they have the equipment they need to do it! We would be glad to see our project become the important beginning of the children’s future. We would love to see children’s smiles when they see their new library. It would be great if we can share their happiness together.

If you have any questions you can ask me.

Hope, Love, make the world beautiful …

You can also contact Nan directly to donate money or goods from within Thailand.

View Larger Map

Monday, June 8, 2009

chicken + boat + snake + soldier + chalice/tray spells “Bangkok”

Not long ago I set off for a two week work-trip to northern Thailand, to the towns of Mae Sot and Mae Sai. Most of the towns up there have names that start with Mae. Mae means “Mother,” and the towns are all named Mother Someone because the hill tribes that live in them are traditionally matrilineal and matrilocal. The city of Mae Sot was Mama Sot’s town. Mama Sai ran Mae Sai, and so on. The Thai word for river is mae nam, mother [of] water.

Thai is a beautifully poetic and filial language – everyone is older brother/sister, and since given names are all a minimum of three syllables everyone gets ‘short names’ (nicknames). My boss’s nickname is Older Sister Small-and-Beautiful-Object (Pi Ling), the woman who runs Child Protection is Honey (NamPeung – Water Sweet – and just Honey, not Older Sister Honey because she’s younger than me), the guy who runs the project in Mama Sot’s town is Older Brother Handsome-Young-Man, which from what I hear is accurate – my colleagues are incorrigibly teasing, especially when it comes affairs of the heart.

There is currently a low-grade dispute going on around work about how my name is best Thai-ified. Key contenders are:
Paat-Trrra – an actual Thai name meaning beautiful young woman (they tell me), but to the Thai ear the vowel sound in the first syllable is just different enough from the one in my English name to prohibit an automatic switch,
Pet-taa – “diamond eyes,” which is a good meaning and pretty close phonetically with the Thai-accent version of my name, but which they don’t like for me because diamonds in Thai are hard and masculine as opposed to sparkly and feminine,
Pet – pronounced differently from above, meaning “spicy,”
Bpt-aaa – meaningless but phonetically cute – they use this especially when teasing.

I started studying Thai with the intention to stop once I’d mastered the basics. Many of my colleagues are shy about speaking English to me (and not all of them speak English). I figured I should learn at least enough Thai to make amusing pronunciation mistakes so that my colleagues would relax around me. For example, accidentally asking someone to pass me the soap to season my dinner, or talking about root vegetables while trying to express appreciation for the magnificence of Angkor Wat. It turns out, however, that Thai is actually a really fun language to learn. It has all the good stuff about Mandarin (simple grammar, no verb tenses) without the demoralising character-based writing system of 5000 characters. The Thai alphabet may have 43 consonants and 15 vowels, but at least it is phonetic.

It’s also extremely pretty, with all these little loops circles and spirals. To give you an idea, here’s my work address in Thai script:
๕๘๒/๑๘-๒๒ ซอยเอกมัย สุขุมวิท ๖๓ เขตวัฒนา กรุงเทพฯ ๑๐๑๑๐
Of course, handwriting rarely actually looks like this unless it’s nice calligraphy. Whatever it may sound like when spoken, any written language will come out in a scrawl if the author is in a hurry.

Many of the letters in the Thai alphabet represent virtually identical sounds. To alleviate the resultant confusion, the Thai’s have given each letter a special name, like Turtle, Small Cymbals, or Novice Monk. Or Hermit, Monkey, and Traditional Headdress. This is so when attempting to spell a Thai word, one person can say to another, “No, the sound is K/kh, but it’s the letter for K/kh that is called Buffalo, not the one which is called Egg.” The five tones of Thai give the language a gentler sound, and there are all these playful diphthongs. All of this is positively delightful . . . if you happen, like me, to be a really, really big language geek.