Monday, March 30, 2009

erika is employed

I have a job! I’ll be working at a local public/government primary/elementary school, teaching introductory English to cute kiddos. Should be fun – lots of games and acting and singing, and good teaching experience: if I can get metagrammar across to 5-year-olds with whom I share no language in common, teaching anything else will be easy. I’ve been contracted through a nearby language school, Fun Language International, which will not only handle all the administrative things like my paychecks, etc., but will also provide lesson plans and materials, teacher training support, transportation, etc. Pretty good setup for a new language teacher like me.

(added later: Erika teaching Thai kids)

I found the process of getting a job here to be bizarre and slightly bewildering. It was nice to be in high demand: there is such a desire to learn English here that native speakers of English who are certified to teach the language and who have teaching experience are like gold. I had schools fighting over interview times, and could easily have argued for much higher salaries. I didn’t feel right about demanding more money, though, since what they offered generally was about 6 times the rate for the Thai-citizen teachers at the same schools: there’s only so much privilege I’ll put up with, and what they’re paying me will be enough to live quite luxuriously here.

One of the toughest parts was conducting an interview when the people interviewing me spoke imperfect English with very heavy Thai accents. There’s only so many times you can ask, “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” without seeming either incompetent or rude. Added to that is that often I actually had heard them right, and just couldn’t believe that they were asking what they were asking. What the interviewers were mostly interested in were my life story and personal characteristics, from my opinion of my elementary school to my current religion and marital status. Some actual questions (not made up): Father’s/mother’s/spouse’s occupation? Family’s financial status? Who is the person you love most? How intelligent are you? What kind of diseases do you have? What are your opinions on this obscure Buddhist theological debate? Quite unlike any interviews I have conducted before. All my reading of Thai social anthropology texts before coming over seemed like overkill at the time, but every tidbit proved useful: I understand the reasons for most of their questions, and so could answer the questions behind the questions.

School doesn’t start until the first week of May, so I have a bunch of time free. No money, but time. So I’m off this evening on a month-long adventure exploring the natural environment of Thailand from southern tip to northern tip by mountain biking, swimming, hiking, rafting, on elephant back, and occasional cheating train bits. Stay tuned for lots of pictures!

venice of the east

Though their prominence has lessened in the last 100 years, it used to be impossible to discuss Bangkok without talk of its canals and rivers. Bangkok is where it is at all because of the massive Chao Phraya river, upon whose banks the city stretches, empties just south of here into the Gulf of Thailand, and there’s a convenient deep-water tight S-curve here. Originally located north of here and on the other side of the river (long story), the city has always made excellent use of the monopoly this estuary gives to the import and export of anything relating to the entire Mekong delta (i.e. northern Thailand, Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos). The river is still busy today with barges, taxis, tourist boats, and more. The commerce and culture visible from the water gives an excellent glimpse into the true nature of the city: inspiring temples, copious market goods, luxury hotels, and dangerously derelict hovels all line the banks.

The river is only the beginning of the watery nature of the city, though. European visitors of old dubbed Bangkok the “Venice of the East” for the hundreds of miles of liquid lanes that crisscrossed the metropolis, and for the ornate architecture that lined the waterways. Roads were only introduced in the late 1800s for the equestrian enjoyments of the foreign diplomats, and remained lesser avenues of transport through the early part of the 1900s. While some of the canals were filled in or paved over to create today’s roads, most still remain tucked between or beneath buildings and are girded with filthy cement as coping mechanisms for the 6-month monsoon season that threatens to drown this marshy, low-laying sprawl every year. Now, in the dry months, most of the canals are little more than fetid slime tracks that listlessly slosh the trash about and shock the nose, though some are still navigable and utilized pathways for the various water-busses that speed overcrowded with commuters along the old routes. I prefer getting around via canals, as it’s much quicker and cheaper than along the roads or by train.

From what I’ve been told, the city will show its true swampy self when the rainy season starts in about two months: all this extreme humidity and rivers and canals are nothing compared to wading through the streets up to your chest in the muck. I guess I’ll enjoy this relative dryness while I can.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

our new apartment

We love, love, love our apartment. After moving in a week ago and spending the last six days cleaning and outfitting the place, it finally feels like home.

The neighbourhood is focused on the main arterial road, colloquially called Ekkamai, officially called Sukhumvit 63. If you want our proper address or new phone #s, let us know. It’s a very mixed area, with everything from abject poverty to extreme wealth (I’m talking diseased homelessness and Ferraris here). These contrasts, combined with the astounding traffic, bustle, and fumes make it rather overwhelming. It’s got a lot going for it, though, notably being right where I work (I have a five minute walking commute), as well as having accessible affordable food and household goods stores, and access to the main city public transportation.

The layout of our place is reminiscent of an American motor-inn, with walled and gated grounds, parking on the ground floor of the building, balconies facing in to the central pool (!!) and courtyard, and four different shared stairwells. It’s an older building, maybe from around the 1940s or so, but we could be wildly wrong in that guess.

Our apartment is way bigger than we need, with two bedrooms, a huge dining/living room, a study, a kitchen, two bathrooms, six to eight closets depending on how you count, and a balcony. Our money, little though it is by our standards, goes an awfully long way here. And this place is quite a find, even given our price range. Quite a change from last year’s shoebox: Erika and I are having to adjust to being in different rooms from one another. And what rooms! There are dark, polished hardwood floors throughout, with dark woodwork framing and built-in cabinets, all around thick white plaster walls. Each room has copious large, nicely-proportioned wood-framed windows with views of the gardens next door and/or sliding doors to the balcony. At first glance the overall effect reminded me of Japanese minimalist architecture, but since being here I can see how it’s actually very Thai. Something in the proportions: like those great Thai wardrobes, they’re just proportioned in a very Thai way.

Our apartment is on the top floor and on the corner farthest from the street, so it’s quiet and gets a fresh breeze. Our neighbours are a mix of Thai and American/British people, heavier on the Thai than the white. It’s very much a family place, quiet and safe, with a few kids playing outside at almost all times. The kids largely favour the pool – did I mention we have a POOL?! A perfect pool?! It’s right at the bottom of our stairs, surrounded by a lovely lawn, with shading trees and decorative shrubbery and lounge chairs and sweet little tables and convenient umbrellas all around. Some of the shrubberies lend a romantic air to the pool by casting their pink petals down to float across the water in light breezes. The water itself is delightfully clean and not too salty or chlorinated, and is the perfect temperature without being heated (yes, it’s that hot here). It’s a great size for both playing in and swimming laps – not too big and not too small. The deep end is quite deep, allowing for a diving board and general jumping-in fun. There’s no closing or opening times, so we’ve availed ourselves of quite a few midnight swims, as well as swimming in the rain, during the midafternoon, and really at any and all available times. There is nothing quite so wonderful as swimming when you’re really hot and sweaty. Like right now, for example, or any other time that we are not a) in an air conditioned space, b) showering, or c) in the pool.

I love our apartment. But it is so nice that I feel embarrassed because it is more than we need and is so luxurious, even though it’s the same price per person as what my colleagues have. On the other hand, if I have to have a problem with my housing, it might as well be that it’s embarrassingly nice. Here’s to miraculously good real estate agents and dual incomes (see Erika’s forthcoming post about her new job)!

Photos both of our neighbourhood and our apartment:

View Larger Map

bangkok jungle

Yesterday I went to a neighbourhood in Bangkok that totally and completely redeems the entire rest of the overcrowded smelly urban city. It’s known as Bang Kra Jao by the locals, but you’ll not find it on any maps. On my most excellent and detailed of maps (link to Nancy Chandler’s map of Bangkok) it’s represented merely as a large greenish smudge, with text saying that only the most adventurous should venture here. Well, of course I went the first free day I had. How could I pass up the cartographic unknown?

As it turns out, there are two very good reasons why it doesn’t appear on maps. The first is that it would be nearly impossible to map, as it is an astoundingly complex maze of mud pathways and stilt houses built above a swamp that drastically floods and alters the landscape every year. There are a very few roads passable by cars, but most of what must be hundreds of miles of passageways are narrower than one of my arms is long, some notably so, and are usually built on stilts about 10 feet above the ground/water, and are shared by two-way bike, foot, peddler-cart, and dog traffic. It made for some hairy, though thrilling, biking. See the video which is hopefully embedded below for a good glimpse.

The second reason it remains undepicted is that the locals like their area the way it is, thank you very much, and don’t want developers and tourists “discovering” (i.e. ruining) their remarkably anachronistic neighbourhood. This is a refreshing sentiment in a country that, in its heartbeat city at least, seems happy to sell its grandmother to the highest bidder. Sometimes literally. (See forthcoming post on Petra’s work here.) And its commitment to steadfast ways of life goes back a long time, making this peninsular knob in the S-turn of the Chao Praya river a snapshot of what Bangkok must have been like hundreds of years ago, with tiny gilded temples and stilted homesteads with palmfrond roofs nestled in amongst dense but delicately cultivated jungle, complete with hooting parroty things, wild kimodo dragons and Siamese cats, and a traditional floating market, not a speck of it for show. All this just 2 miles from the arching skyscrapers of modern finance and the throngs of urban slums and jet-setting fashion malls.

It took about a half hour to bike/boat there from my house, and you can bet I’ll be going back often, hating cities as I do and relishing un-human surroundings. I have plans for a certain shack that serves drinks in the middle of the jungle, with only cicadas and sloshing water to hear, and its hammock in the shade… Maybe even tomorrow. :)

Where the jungle is and how to get there from our apartment:

View Larger Map

Saturday, March 21, 2009

thai food

Real Thai food is tasty, though it takes some getting used to. It’s a distant but recognizable cousin to the food you’d get at a good Thai restaurant in the US or Australia. The most similar-to-their-foreign-counterpart dishes are the red curry and spring rolls, though here they are served spicy and lukewarm.

Foods in general here are cooked, served, and eaten at roadside carts. This adds the dubious spice and taste of diesel fumes and street grime, together with the trashy uriney smells of the sidewalks and gutters, to the meals. This becomes ignorable surprisingly quickly. Most people eat about 7 little mini-meals a day (which I like a lot), and very little differentiation is made between times of day and what you eat: a curry is just as fair game for breakfast as for dinner, as are sweet rice-gluten cubes or spicy fried chicken. Breakfasts usually include some mixture of the following: creamy corn chowder, very spicy ground pork, stir-fried cabbage, fried rice, cold corn kernels, fresh fruit, an omelettey scramble, etc.

Many of the foods are very, very spicy. And I mean spicy. It’s generally a diced fresh and/or powdered dried red chilli pepper spice, plus fresh ground black pepper, and various mysterious insidious other spicinesses. The heat is cumulative, though you can usually tell by the second bite whether or not the dish is beyond your abilities. A fried rice meal we had last night, which the cook made super-mild for us whiteys, was still too much for my palate, though we’re both getting much better at eating the hotness.

Other than throat-imploding spiciness, things which we have not eaten and are not inclined to try but which are readily available include deep-fried cicadas, fried shrimp pancakes (made from whole shrimps, with eyes and legs and antennae still in), fried pig-head skin, fried chicken feet, fried internal organs of questionable origin (if you’re getting the impression that they will fry and eat anything, you’re not far wrong), various dried salted whole fish, and this gloppy brown stew that smells like rottenness and has bones floating in it but which the folks in our neighbourhood line up to eat. Other than that, so far we’ve been willing to eat and have enjoyed almost anything safe-seeming that passes our way.

Some of the delights we have most enjoyed so far include: A bagful of golden-brown deep fried bananas, dough-balls, and sesame-covered dough-balls filled with crushed peanuts: fresh dragon fruit with exceptionally pale flesh: a mango possessed of a markedly paisley and oblong shape, splotched and golden skin, and a smooth and non-fibrous texture, whose flavour was especially sweet and reminded us of wild raspberries: a fruit that looks like an lumpy apple with skin like a green pear, the texture of jhimika and a light, mild flavour reminiscent of unripe watermelon and honey: green curry with liver (which we ate around) and little round green vegetables that look like tiny watermelons on the outside and cucumbers on the inside and taste like pumpkin: silver dollar pancakes that are custardy in the middle and are made with coconut milk and either corn kernels or scallions: layered balls of marinated dried coconut, rice paste, and more coconut: little corn muffins with fresh flaked coconut: red curry with bamboo shoots: spicy ground mystery meat with diced mystery vegetables and chillies: green mango/papaya salad with shredded carrots, cabbage, dried roasted garlic, and chillies: stir-fried tofu and mushrooms: lots of thai iced tea (a red tea with milk poured over ice and then with sweetened condensed milk poured over it): chilled lemongrass juice: crispy deep-fried chilli-flavoured broad beans with skins: roasted fingerling sweet potatoes with a very nutty and starchy taste: simple fried chicken done so, so well: a variety of gloppy Chineseish veggie-and-brown-sauce dishes, and more.

In addition to these street foods, there are also fruit and veggie and fish and meat markets, Thai-stocked grocery stores, international (i.e. American, British, Chinese, and Japanese) grocery stores, and restaurants ranging to mom-and-pop to fancy. Petra and I have now frequented examples of all of the above, and can happily report that the fancy restaurant across the street makes a better pasta alfredo than most Italians, and Thai-made baguettes and butter are sublime. As we’re on an insanely small budget, such very expensive luxuries as wheat and dairy products will be infrequently enjoyed. We feel very blessed, though, that what for us is a very small budget is relative wealth in this country, and that we have the opportunity to explore so much of what is available to eat here.

P.S. Yes, our bellies hurt. But we’ll get over it.

ADDED: the sights and sounds of our local pad thai stand!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

bangkok so far

An elephant just walked by. I love it. I’m sitting in a pleasant, air-conditioned, European-style coffee shop (hey, I’m in culture-shock, I need a little jazz and milk to soothe my soul) and I’m looking out over a garden hanging thick with vines and thick waxy-leafed trees and, yes, some lizards, all grown in amongst about two hundred tangled electric wires, then beyond that to a busy street with whizzing hot-pink and yellow luxury sedans and tiny pickup truck/ute busses and myriad motorcycles, beyond that to a tiny sidewalk chicken curry cart, and then to a highrise apartment building with clothing shops on the street front. It’s a fairly representative Bangkok scene: fairly modern, very busy, very full, with some slightly worrisome elements (the wires, the speed of the cars, the dubiousness of the un-refrigerated meats).

Bangkok is really a very liveable city, with excellent public transportation, a lot of activity on the streets, really friendly and helpful and patient people, excellent food, proliferate shopping, very affordable prices, beautiful temples, generally awesome wildlife, and more delights. We could easily have ended up in a worse place: spending time here for a year shouldn’t be too taxing.

The main two downsides that we’ve experienced so far are, most notably, the heat and the mosquitoes. It’s really hot here: it’s been in the upper 90s F (upper 30s C) and extremely humid every day, with hotter and more humid weather supposedly on the way. Sweat just pours off of all us farangs (foreigners), making our clothes and skin very uncomfortable. I’ve been taking about three showers a day. Were we able to walk around half-naked, it might not seem too bad, but the reasonably-conservative dress mores of Thai culture requires much more covering (long pants, often long shirts too, sandals discouraged) than I would choose in this climate. The fact that many stores and offices are aggressively air conditioned makes it very hard to adjust to the heat. And the mosquitoes – well, they’re what you’d expect, but they’re still frustrating. Petra currently has 86 bites on her legs alone. We’re looking forward to installing mosquito netting. We’ll try not to get malaria and Dengue fever, we promise.

But so far these discomforts have definitely been outweighed by the delights of the city itself, especially the tasty food. I suspect I will only come to like Bangkok more as we complete our settling-in tasks and have more time to be tourists and get massages and meditate in temples and bike along rice paddies and sit on beaches and learn to cook and ride on riverboats… the options for fun are almost endless. I already wish we had more time.

Note: these photos are a really bad mish-mash, I’ve been too overwhelmed to really do any photography so far, but at least here’s a glimpse at our surroundings.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


We’re really actually in Bangkok, Thailand. Erika is pleased to report that this city does, in fact, exist. That’s two mythical lands now whose existence she has definitively proved!

I arrived last week to get oriented by the folks running the program that’s funding my position (it’s a little complicated). The orientation has been really really helpful, covering everything from setting up bank accounts and cell phones to language classes,Thai massages, and cocktails.

While I was being pampered and overwhelmed, Erika was holed up in Melbourne at the home of my cousins Nick and Tina, where she began conducting an astoundingly thorough search for English teacher positions in Bangkok. She already has four interviews lined up for this week, and is excited about a number of the jobs. Here’s hoping!

Erika finally arrived in Bangkok Monday morning, since the main business of my orientation was over. She spent Monday feeling hot (it’s really hot here) and sleeping while I house-hunted. We spent Tuesday retrieving our bags from customs, which took 6.5 hours and a number of fees.

Speaking of: this blog should be understood to be written with a certain sensitivity to my professional position here, and that we are… guided in what we discuss by Thai laws and customs, which are not analogous to, for instance, the first amendment. If you don’t know what we’re talking about here, ask someone else, we can’t tell you, as we fully intend to be law-abiding Thai residents.

Moving on – Yesterday we struck gold in the accommodation arena, securing a beautiful, huge apartment right next to my workplace. We move in on Sunday, and I start work Monday. We’ll tell you all about Bangkok and our new apartment and my job and hopefully Erika’s new job too, whatever it turns out to be.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

since we last talked...

Ok, we have been criminally negligent in updating this blog, but we have good excuses! :)

As Petra mentioned, we were over in New Zealand for Christmas and the wedding of her cousin Chris to the lovely Claire. We had a great time doing weddingy things and exploring the area around New Plymouth, with black sand beaches and very Shire-worthy green rolling pasture lands and the very conical and iconic Mt. Taranaki looming above it all. Are you sure Tolkein never visited here?

From New Years through near the end of January, my mom (Lilli) and twin sister (Lisa) visited! While Petra had to return to work, I had all the time in the world, so I stayed on in New Zealand and they met me there. We traveled by ferry from Wellington on the North Island across the Cook Straight and through the Marlborough Sounds to Picton on the South Island. The ferry ride was gorgeous, with albatrosses and cliffs and mountains and really strong wind to entertain us along the way. But the best part was the incomparable glow of being with my two most beloved people in the whole wide world again after a year's absence. We did a lot of hugging and grinning.

We stayed in a little tiny town called Marahau at the edge of the Abel Tasman National Park on the northern tip of the South Island, at a funny hostel in which we slept in tents pitched on the lawn. We hiked, kayaked, waded in the shallow of the funny tidal bay, drank Tui beer, and had a great time. It was gorgeous.

Then we made our way back to Melbourne (bumping into my lovely fellow Smithie Kate Carson at the Picton ferry terminal, randomly and delightfully), where I attempted to show Lisa and Ma all of the delights of the state of Victoria in less than two weeks. We did pretty well: a picnic with Petra's family, day markets and night markets of the city, the Port Phillip Bay waterfront, the campus of Melbourne Uni (where I had studied this past year), the rain forests in the Dandenongs (where there were myriad wild parrots and we spied the elusive lyrebird), the harsh dry rocky Grampians (where there were wild kangaroos right outside the hostel!), Great Ocean Road (with teal water, stunning cliffs, and wild koalas galore), and a whole lot more. As she was working, Petra could only join us in the evenings. It stayed generally cool for Australian standards, so Ma and Lisa didn't melt too badly. I was very, very, very sad to see them go. But I'm glad they came when they did, since some of those areas have since been obliterated by the bushfires.

The day they left, I started a training course in which I became certified to teach English as a second/foreign language. The course was SO MUCH fun, and I've become very excited about the possibilities for this line of work for me, even if only temporarily.

My plan was to then have a few weeks vacation to myself, see a bit more of Australia before we leave (notably, Sydney and the Red Center, neither of which I've seen yet), but instead I was struck down by the respiratory gods with a really awful pneumonia. In the dead of the dry, hot summer. Go figure. But that had me stuck in the hospital and then in strict bed rest with all of the medicines under the sun and daily doctor's visits for just over a month all told. So I didn't get to have much fun with my vacation. After being released from the hospital's care, I slowly worked on getting my energy back -- it's amazing how quickly muscles atrophy, and the bushfires that burned nearby filling the city with heavy smoke and the 115+ degree heat did not help in my recuperation -- but I can now happily go about my day again and run errands and the like with no problem. I'm cured! :)

Since then, hustled to pack up our apartment, said goodbye to all our dear new friends, and sent Petra off to Bangkok (where she is now) to case the place out and find us an apartment. I've put myself into my Bangkok job search full tilt, looking for work teaching English to little Thai kids, and have a few promising interviews lined up for two days after I arrive. There seem to be a profusion of good apartments and good jobs available, so we're psyched.

I leave for Bangkok in a few hours time, so from tomorrow to a year from now we'll be reporting from Bangkok! Pretty exciting!

Oh, and there was an earthquake here yesterday. 4.7 Richter scale. Just to keep things interesting. :) Occasionally, I wish I had a boring life.