Saturday, January 30, 2010

Erika back in the USA for good!

I am finally, finally home for good! I traveled for 28 hrs, Bangkok to Tokyo, Tokyo to Detroit, Detroit to Boston. I'm currently staying at my mom's house in CT, and next week will be going up to the Boston area.

I've so far done remarkably well with the adjustment back to the US: was alert and pleasant upon debarkation, have palated American food with aplomb, awoke and slept at acceptably normal times yesterday, have been wearing a socially-acceptable number of layers of clothes despite the cold (it is currently 0 F/-18 C), and even weathered a trip to the mall without any resulting culture-shock.

My mind is in some ways still in Thai mode: My first assumption without surprise was that the hulking grey object in the field we drove by was an elephant, not a tractor. I think the streets look remarkably empty, the landscape bare and uncrowded, the buildings very spread-out. I have been continually tickled by the excellent English of everyone I've interacted with, and by their unobsequious manners. I am delighting in the digestibility and sweetness of the tap water, and have not yet begun to take that for granted.

While I'm sure the glow will soon wear off, I'm reveling in being in such a familiar environment, in such a place of beauty (bright full moon hanging in the branches of a silhouetted tall bare drooping elm with hundreds of winging grackles black-flitting across the sky in a gothic panorama -- white snow reflecting the blacklight indigo glow of the winter dawn -- forest-scape in high contrast with delicate snow outlining every branch -- snowglobe skies with vertiginous swirls), surrounded by Americans.

My plan for the next few months is to couch-surf in the Boston area (Have a spare couch or bed? Want me to visit for a few days? Let me know!) while temping, preparing for the GMAT, working on my applications for MBA programs in non-profit management, and waiting to hear the responses from Petra's grad school applications to see in which east-coast US city we will be living come September. Petra returns to the US mid-March. Should be a busy but fun next few months!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

ท่าอากาศยานสุวรรณภูมิ at 3 AM: Erika is off to Boston!

The first alarm went off at 2:30 AM. Shockingly, the sound actually managed to penetrate the depths of our slumber sufficiently for me to realize that A) something was beeping, and B) that meant something.

Alarms two and three went off at 2:33 and 2:35 respectively. At five of three I called the guard to let him know we were going out (he lets the guard dog roam the property in the latest hours), and by five past three we were off to the airport. The easy availability of taxis in Bangkok at three in the morning implies worrisome things to me about the health of its residents sleep cycles. We needed two taxis to transport ourselves along with Erika’s luggage (taxi 1: Erika, her bicycle, and carry-on luggage; taxi 2: me and her two suitcases). Within thirty seconds of stepping out of the gate, two taxis had pulled up and we were loading bags.

Speaking of luggage, I must say that the packing was remarkably smooth. As Erika put it when her bags weighed up perfectly on the first try, “isn’t it amazingly lucky how our lives fit into two suitcases each, with each suitcase weighing exactly 22 kilograms and measuring a total of 137 centimeters? Oh wait, that’s not luck, is it?” No, not luck. At this point, we’re quite good at packing for international flights.

Our taxi drivers raced each other to the airport. Mine spent the ride enthusiastically quizzing me about my life in Thailand (I’m from Surat Thani! Have you been there? How come you speak Thai so well?) and how it compared to life in America (you like Thailand, right? Thailand is better. More fun. You should stay and live in Thailand. Because you can speak Thai already!). Erika’s driver averaged 130 kph and made a good effort to teach her car words and phrases in Thai. Apparently his pantomime and demonstration were effective but a bit hair raising (this is “door ajar!” say “door ajar!” here is a “speed bump.” Say “speed bump!” Oh, this is how to say “flat tire!”).

3:30 AM is an interesting time to be at the Bangkok airport. It’s less crowded than usual, and most of the lines are short. People sleep peacefully on benches and chairs throughout the terminal. We saw a group of people who were almost definitely refugees flying out for resettlement in the US. They were about 25 people in number and mostly parents with children. All of them wore brand new clothes and shoes (new sneakers with soles a truly blinding white). Their luggage also looked new, and they had very little of it. Their excitement was palpable, as was their lack of familiarity with airport procedures. What really tipped me off, though, was that they were accompanied by a lady from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). She was handling all their interactions with the airline representatives and generally shepherding them through the process. After so many heartbreaking experiences with refugees in Thailand, it was really nice to see what appeared to be the start of a happy ending. I am a bit worried, though, as they seemed to be heading for a flight that goes through Tokyo to Detroit. If so I really really hope they’re only going to Detroit to transfer to another connecting flight. Surely no one in his or her right mind would resettle anyone in Detroit in this economic climate.

I stayed at Suvarnabhumi* airport to see her through security before heading home. I will be in Bangkok until the end of February. From 28 February to 15 March, I’ll be in Melbourne visiting friends and family (so excited!!). After that, I will follow Erika to Boston! The duration of our stay in Boston and our subsequent destination is dependent on the capricious whims of the graduate school admissions process.

*Can someone who understands transliteration please explain to me how in the world ท่าอากาศยานสุวรรณภูมิ (pronounced “Su-Wanna-Poom”) comes to acquire the English spelling “Suvarnabuhmi?”

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

last night on the town in bangkok for erika

In case you missed the news, I (Erika) am leaving Bangkok soon (Thursday!) to go back to the US. For my send-off I had a few of my closest friends from here in Bangkok over to our favorite lounge in the city, Tuba Bar, which is conveniently right across the street from our apartment. It's a funky place with retro American decor, many semi-tasteful pictures of historic scantily clad ladies (like WWII era pinups), cheesy English-language music, delicious Italian food with lots of cheese, truly artful cocktails, and a plethora of well-appointed couches and easy chairs. Expensive by Bangkok standards, but a real treat for those nights we have wanted an oasis. Our dear friends Maria, Milena, and Kwang, as well as Kwang's sweet boyfriend, spent a really great evening with us in a cluster of said couches, feeding on cheese and sipping at cocktails, discussing theology and art and ghosts, and laughing. I'll truly miss these lovely ladies, and feel blessed to have been able to meet each of them. While we've gotten very good at goodbyes, it doesn't make leaving behind good friends any easier.

last visit to the refugee center

I stopped by the Bangkok Refugee Center (where I have worked this past year) for the last time today, to say goodbye to my friends there and to finish up the mural we had started months ago. It was great to see some of my students again (those who are not imprisoned), and I got the great news that a good friend of mine there will be relocated to the US, probably Indiana, by next week! Lots of new faces at the center, too, as more refugees continue to pour in, especially from Pakistan. Everyone was very touchingly sad to see me go, and had many kind words that I'll remember for a long time. Altogether a fun but heart-wrenching day.

Monday, January 25, 2010

under the sea again

Trying to fulfill my promises to myself before leaving Thailand, I finally went scuba diving again (you might recall I learned in April) , again on Koh Tao, taking an underwater photography class and fulfilling my Advanced Open Water certifications to boot. My instructor, a Brit my age named Liz, was absolutely fantastic in every way, and having her smiling, competent presence made me able to relax and enjoy the diving much more than last time.

I took six dives and did hours of bookwork and quizzes preparing for them: a deep dive (to 100 ft below the surface, where we all started acting a bit harmlessly loopy from nitrogen narcosis), an underwater naturalist dive (like birding but with fish), an underwater navigation dive (I was the only one in my class who could successfully simultaneously swim, read a compass, and follow a map: thank you, parents!), two night dives (spooky and with nocturnal sea-life and phosphorescence), and the glorious underwater photography dive. What was great is that I was able to learn photo-relevant skills on all the other dives, too, and carry the camera on two of them.

As it turns out, underwater photography is a very athletically challenging endeavor: you try to line up to take a shot, and like in space you drift away or float upside-down, or a swell sloshes you up onto the spiny urchin you're trying to depict, or you go deeper/shallower than you should in trying to get a good angle, or a shark comes along... (Yes, we saw four big sharks, black tipped reef sharks, three during our deep dive and one frighteningly coming out of the darkness on a night dive. They ignored us, as they usually do.) These photo difficulties were compounded by the fact that the camera I rented wasn't very good, and as usual I was distracted by the newness of the whole underwater vista and the physicality of diving. Hopefully I'll get to try again in the future, and will be better able to capture the riot of color, movement, strangely evolved creatures, and the fun of it all. As it is, you can enjoy these greenish grainy shots for the sincere attempt that they are.

P.S. I'll soon be adding new photos the island from this trip to the original folder here.

grad school applications

I'm hoping to go to grad school this fall (Sept 2010) so I can advance in this work I've been doing. What the programs call this work varies by the school: International Development, International Relations, Humanitarian and Development Policy, etc. All the schools I've applied to are on the East coast of the US, so hopefully we won't be too far from home.

For months, I've been researching programs, filling out forms, requesting letters of recommendation, writing myriad essays, and preparing for and taking the GRE. Erika has been a sainted help the whole time, making me do this work when I just want to curl up on the couch with my book, helping me weigh the merits and faults of each program, helping me navigate the complicated online application systems, double-checking my forms, giving me regular astoundingly effective pep talks and invariably helpful advice, helping me bounce around ideas and focus my topics for the slightly-different essays required by each school, drilling vocab and math skills for days, and generally keeping me kind, motivated, and effective. All but one of the applications were submitted on Jan. 15 (the one is due in Feb), and I took the GRE last week. While I conceivably could have done it without her, I wouldn't have been nearly as sane a person in the process. Deities bless good partners!

While we now have to wait months to hear back from the schools to see where I get in, I had the gratification of getting my GRE scores instantaneously, and I did very very well, much better than I expected, shockingly with a slightly better math score than verbal! Maybe this crazy grad school dream will work out after all. Keep your fingers crossed for me!

Monday, January 11, 2010

cambodia for new years

Note: I know there are too many photos, sorry, I just don't have time to sort through them all. And as always, there are captions for each photo if you click on it.

As I needed a new visa anyways, and Petra was no fun working away on grad school applications, I took myself over to Siem Reap, Cambodia (famous for the Ankor Wat temple and for being where they filmed Tomb Raider) for New Years. I've actually been before, but haven't yet finished sorting through my photos from my previous trip, so you have that to look forward to. :)

This time I just took it easy. I flew, thanks to a super cheap flight, and despite the airport wait it made all the difference to arrive unhassled and awake.

I like the Siem Reap area. A lot. It's quiet, with lots of trees, great food that's not too spicy (incl. creamy ice cream and chocolate and bread and wine and all sorts of other things not available in Thailand), there are English-language bookstores (even though most of the books are photocopies), it's easy to get around (just hire a private driver!), it smells good (because of aforementioned trees), the people are kind and fun (lots less power tripping than here in Thailand), they use $USD for their currency so no conversions ever need enter my mind, and the passtimes are ones I enjoy. And it's very very beautiful.

I was there for four days, and spent about a third my time reading while cozy in my airy hotel room, another good bit of each day eating, and then about half the day on some small adventure. Since I visited most of the temples last time I was here, I got to see what else there was in the area. My favorite things was just driving around in my hired tuk-tuk (rickshaw, like a covered chariot with a seat pulled behind a motorcycle).

I took a hike up a mountain about an hour and a half's drive outside the city. The mountain is famed because the river that flows along its top had its bedrock carved with thousands of linga (stylized penises) and other religious figures more than a thousand years ago. The carvings are still there, and are still in remarkably lovely condition. The whole area, sadly, is still littered with land mines, but it's ok so long as you stick to the well-trodden paths. A bit unnerving, though.

Fittingly, I visited the Land Mine Museum on the way back that day. It's a very small museum, set up to educate visitors about Cambodia's rampant land mine and unexploded ordinance (undetonated bombs) problem. The (luckier) victims are in readily apparent evidence everywhere you go in the country: people are regularly missing limbs, ears, eyes, and have various shockingly disfiguring scars. Having seen some of the jungle and thick brush, I can understand how difficult the de-mining process is. And from the example minefield at the museum, I was surprised to learn how MANY mines are typically in such a field. They're, like, every 18 inches! I was also sad to learn that the US is still producing landmines, and that the majority of the mines in Cambodia are originally from the US. Boy, do we have a lot to answer for. I think the US government should not only stop making these horrible devices, but pay for the de-mining of all areas where our mines still rest.

On a somewhat lighter note, the next day I took a boat ride around part of the Tonle Sap lake which makes up a large part of central Cambodia. A distinct ethnic minority has arisen in Cambodia in the insular people who live their whole lives on the water: getting around in tiny boats, and living on houses canted up on 2-storey stilts. The journey of getting out to the lake was an adventure itself (rickshaw to motorcycle to dirtbike to fisherman's boat to dugout canoe, all driven by teenagers, accentuated by a lot of adrenaline and prayers...) but well worth it, as it is a culture I find fascinating and engaging. I just toodled around the village in various boats, watching the daily lives of the fishing and agriculture (they have floating farms with plants and animals), the kids at play and at school, the new decorations on the temple, took a jaunt through the flooded forest that is their backyard, and enjoyed a delicious meal of stir-fried ramen in, naturally, a floating restaurant. I was amazed, as always in Cambodia, at the complete lack of supervision of the children, and the incredible ability of the kids to do what I think of as difficult adult tasks (such as rowing a canoe and killing a chicken simultaneously -- 2 year olds can do this!).

And I visited the orphanage that was a short walk up the road from my hostel three times during my visit: the first time out of curiosity, the second time to teach them an English lesson (at their request), and the third time just to play with them some more. It was shockingly poorly run: It worried me to no end that I was allowed to just wander in and play with the kids unsupervised, no protection for them at all. And their facilities are sadly lacking. There were kids of all ages, from 5 to 17, more boys than girls. A number were landmine victims, and all had obviously faced trauma to end up at the orphanage. That said, they were a remarkably happy and comfortable group of kids, so at least their emotional needs are being met. Though they were blessedly wary of me at first, they warmed up pretty quickly, and by the end of my visit they were literally hanging all over me, not letting me go, looking up at me with big eyes, saying "I love you! You no go!". Very, very hard to not just take a few of them home. (Sadly, adoptions from Cambodia are not currently allowed because of the prevalence of child trafficking. If they were allowed, a certain fierce 6-year old girl and 1-legged boy would have a nice future ahead of them.)

If we ever have to move back to the Mekong region again, I sure hope it's to Cambodia.