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 d├ęcor 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”.