Wednesday, June 30, 2010

In Which I Take Another Step Towards Nibbana

(That's Nirvana, for you Westerners)

I bought two puppets while I was in Bangkok a few weeks ago for the transition between programs - a cool-looking shadow puppet of Hanumam (the Monkey King) and a marionette of a white elephant.

I then left both puppets in the back of the van we took to the wat.

I asked poor Phra Bart about it often. He called the driver, but the driver usually wasn't answering his cell phone. With my upcoming shopping trip to Bangkok coming up, I asked Phra Bart about the puppets with more urgency this week, since I wanted to know if I needed to look for new ones.

At the end of my meditation class yesterday, he tried again and this time managed to get the driver on the phone. He talked for a minute or two to him (in Thai), then told me that the driver hadn't seen anything and that the puppets were gone.

I was sad (especially since the shadow puppet was a bit of a financial splurge for me), but I decided it was a good time to put some of what I've been learning about here to practice. So, I reminded myself that because all objects/matter is impermanent, attachment to objects will only lead to suffering. I took the Thai "mai been rai" philosophy, told myself that it doesn't really matter, and I let go of the puppets.

And it worked - I really wasn't that upset about it. I'd find new ones this weekend. Or not. Whatever.

Then, this morning, Sanjoy came to class with two familiar-looking bags. He set them down on the table in front of me, saying "From Phra Bart." My puppets!

It must be because I'm so advanced on my path to Enlightenment, right?

(Then again, the fact that I was so happy to see them defeats everything I learned in the process of losing them. Bad Buddhist!)

In Which I Describe My Classes

As I mentioned in the post about my daily schedule here, I teach two classes a day. Let me tell you about them.

The first class, from 8:45-10:45 (supposedly), is Intermediate English/Buddhist English. Eunice is the main teacher for a couple of reasons - she's been here longer (four weeks) and will be here for another week beyond me, so it makes for less transitions; she's a practicing Buddhist, so she does a much better job providing the backbone and the vocabulary for the second part of the class; and she's an ESL teacher back in Sacramento (and has been for 22 years!), and she's fantastic at it. I am technically a co-teacher, but my participation manifests in working 1:1 with students, helping to demonstrate or provide examples, and playing the role of the ignorant Westerner (not too difficult, that last one).

The class begins and ends with a Pali chant that pays homage to the Buddha. Eunice and I stand at the back of the room, behind the monks, while the monks stand at their desks, facing the Buddha statue at the front of the room. I need to record the chant, actually, because I really like the sound of it.

We almost always start by reviewing dates/days - "What day is today? Today is Thursday. Thursday. What day was yesterday? Wednesday. Tomorrow will be...? Friday. Yes, Friday. Let's say the days together: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday... and so on"). Then some D.O.L.s, emphasizing the mistakes of capital letters at the beginning of the sentences and periods at the end. Then vocabulary or grammar work, a break, and then the Buddhist English.

Almost all of the monks are taking the class because they want to be able to teach Westerners about their religion and/or how to meditate. The Buddhist English part of the class is the most fascinating for me, since I get to learn about Buddhism as they discuss their beliefs and practices. This week we've been talking about meditation - why they do it, how to do it, etc. I'm always impressed by how well they can explain such complicated doctrine in a language they're just now learning.

The class varies in size. Some days we have 8 monks, usually we have 5, this week we've had one or two. I'm learning to adjust to Thai time here - the class is supposed to start at 8:45. We usually have one student there at that time; the others trickle in between 9:00 and 9:30. There's no bells, no expectation of being on time, and schedules change constantly. Good thing we know of the impermanent nature of things, right? (Hey, I just cracked my first Buddhist joke!)

The monks can be classified into two groups - the traveling monks (those who travel to the wat just for classes) and the home monks (those who live at this wat). Some of the traveling monks drive 3-5 hours each way just to attend class. The traveling monks only come on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, so we usually have a much smaller group at the end of the week. The conference here this week has thrown off the classes, too.

The students range in age (Phras Bas and Sanjoy are in their early 20s, Phra Bishan is 79 and became a monk when he retired) and ability levels (Phra Den and Sanjoy are excellent at English, they just need refinement in some grammar issues and some more precise vocabulary. Others struggle to follow along with medium-level sentences.). They are all enthusiastic, funny, and polite, though. They are also very respectful of teachers - these men are all quite intelligent and many are well-respected masters of meditation, yet they give plentiful respect to Eunice and I. Every day when they finish their chant, they all turn to us at the back and say, "Good morning, teacher!"

And the jokes! They're always cracking jokes and poking gentle fun. Today, for example, Eunice asked me to review with the class how to ask and answer questions that start with "Do you like..." or "Would you like to..." (the answers are supposed to be along the lines of "Yes, I would like to do that," or "Maybe. What time would we meet?")

The ESL textbook for the class suggested questions like "Would you like to go to the football game with me?" or "Would you like to go to the movies this weekend?" I dutifully followed it, and called on a student:

Me: Phra Bishan?
Phra Bishan: (startled, putting down the huge magnifying glass he uses to read the workbook) Yes?
Me: Would you like to go to the movies this weekend?
Phra Bishan: No, I'm a monk.

Very cute, and definitely not one of the responses in the book.

The evening class is totally different. Paul and I co-teach the community kids' class (although Paul's leaving this weekend, so hopefully the new person who's arriving Sunday will take on the group with me). This one was organized as kind of an after-school program for some of the poorer kids in the community around the wat, although there is a family of a mom and two or three little girls that come as well who seem to be better off. The kids arrive in the back of a pick-up truck sometime between 5:45 and 6:15 (Thai time again). It's like a clown car seeing how many kids come pouring out of the back. There's usually around 20 of them each night, plus a leader of some kind. They range in age from 3 or 4 through late teens, although most of them are probably 8-12.

I love this group. They're noisy, crazy, fun, and full of energy. They come running up the stairs to the classroom when they get here, and are so eager to please us. The reward they get for doing a good job writing down what we ask them to each day (usually practice sentences) is a smiley face drawn by one of the teachers. They're so proud of the smiley faces we draw on their notebooks, but I got a little bored of those last night and started making them with more details. Whoops. In minutes, all of the kids were asking me to draw pictures for them in their books. I drew as many different animals and weird faces as I could think of so each kid had an individual one before breaking it off with the promise to do more drawings tomorrow.

Our instructions for the class was to teach them some basic English, but mostly the class is meant to be fun for them. Paul and I usually teach them some new vocabulary, then play games that are hopefully related to the vocabulary. It's tricky, since the games need to not only be good for practicing basic English, but also have instructions that are easy to learn without verbal explanations.

For example, we went over animals and basic plurals (one cat, two cats). Then we had them draw papers that had the name of an animal written on them. The object was for them to find their match by acting/sounding like that animal. When two of them found each other, I would cry out, "One dog. One dog. Two dogs!" and Paul would write "Dogs" on the board to keep track of which animals had found their partners.

When everyone had found their matches, we did a roll-call of the animals with them answering in sounds. Then we played Pictionary with the animal words again.

Problem is, I'm running out of games that are easy enough to teach without words and that don't require any supplies. We taught them Uno last night, Pictioary's popular, we do Bingo to review numbers, and I'm planning on doing a modified version of "Zip, Zoom, Bang" to teach "left, right, and across".

I want to do clothing words (shirt, shoes, socks, etc.) next week, so if any of you creative people have ideas for activities that require no supplies (although each student usually brings a small notebook and a pencil) and that is very, very easy to learn, do tell!

In Which I Forgot the Pig

Dude. I forgot to tell you about Ood.

See? That's what happens when I don't blog every day on trips like this - I forget so many of the details I had stored up in my mind to tell you all about.

For example, I totally forgot to tell you about the butterfly waterfall. As a part of the long day trip Phra Den took us on on Friday, we stopped off at a waterfall in the area. At the entrance to the trail, there was a little wooden rest area with benches and a roof. And the entire place was covered with black-and-blue butterflies. We walked up to them, naturally, and they took flight, hovering over the benches and under the roof in this fluttering cloud.

Then we walked down the path and came upon this gorgeous waterfall. We spent some time there - the driver showed Oscar and Jessica how to climb up the rocks using a rope and the vines, and we all spent some time sitting near the water, dipping our feet in the deliciously cool current.

Or there's the breakfast I forgot to mention. Saturday morning, the kitchen staff at the wat told us they had prepared a special treat for us - "real American breakfast!" They had proudly set out bowls of fried eggs, white toast, cold hot dogs, and three jars of jam and one jar of ketchup they had obviously bought just for the occasion. It was so sweet of them!

And then there's Ood. While we were walking along the beach the first night, Phra Den was pointing out the sights. "Oh!" he said, "And there is Ood." He gestured with an open hand back towards the wat. There, snuffling around the bushes in front of the main building, was the largest pig I've ever seen in my life. Tall enough to reach my chest level and weighing between 300-800 pounds (according to Oscar and Sean, who argued about it later that weekend), he was huge! Eunice and I quasi-joked about the terror of running into Ood in the middle of the night on the way to the latrine.

Saturday night, Sean, Paul, and I were sitting around the table in the canteen talking when we suddenly here that snuffling sound. Ood had come out, and was eating his way through the bushes on the outside of the canteen's half-wall. I got up to take a picture of him, and Sean jokingly started making fun of the pig. That's when Ood, with all kinds of grunting, charged the wall of the canteen. Sean would not apologize to the pig, but he did watch his tongue the rest of the night, especially since Ood flopped down for a nap right next to the wall, grunting in his sleep whenever Sean tried to sneak past him on the way to the restroom.

P.S. The other volunteers claimed the pig's name is closer to "Oot," but given a) the similarity between d and t in Thai pronunciation and b) my fondness for Dr. Who, I assured them that it had to be "Ood". And "Ood" it is.

In Which I Like Stuff

When Rachel and I used to fight when we were little, our mother would make us say five nice things about each other as punishment. (Oddly, I can only recall being the one forced to say them. I have no recollection of what things Rachel ever listed about me. I can only assume it's because my little kid anger at her blotted them out, not because of a gross you're-older-so-you-should-know-better imbalance in the punishment doling-out.) I'm guessing that's what prompted me yesterday to start to feel bad about complaining about Thailand's strangeness, and then to resolve to make up for it by making a list of things I like about it.

Things I Like About Thailand:

- I love the rain. I always have, and here I get to experience it much more often than in Denver or Salt Lake. There could actually be more of it, in fact, and I hope that the rainy season will kick into gear within the next ten days.

- The flowers. The flowers here are so unfamiliar and tropical-looking - bright, bold, and thriving. I've never seen orchids growing from the sides of the trees, but they do here at the wat.

- Wearing white. It makes things so much easier when it comes to deciding what to wear. Plus, it still has this aura of specialness to it, wearing all white.

- My long white skirt. My dad spotted it in a store and suggested it to me before I left. I absolutely love it. I love long, full skirts anyway, and this one's nicely billowy and long enough that I get to pick it up to go up stairs or pick my way through the mud.

- The pretty bugs. On my way to the library just now, I saw a butterfly that was all black and gold and flecked with gray and bigger than my hand. Also?

- The dragonflies. I've loved dragonflies simply because the word for a group of them is a "dazzle of dragonflies". And they're big enough here to really watch.

- Going barefoot in the library. We go barefoot inside all of the buildings, but I still get that little tingle of "I'm barefoot in a library!" when I come here.

- Everybody's shoes. There's great piles of them at the top of the stairs to the buildings each day. And I like how I can check the piles now to see if Jessica (white flip-flops with tiny Brazil flags on them), Eunice (small black flip-flops), Oscar (brown fabric flip-flops), Sean (brown plastic flip-flops), or Paul (gray fabric shoes with the heels crushed down from him wearing them like clogs) have gotten there before me.

- The comforts of the Trina House. I'm so glad I decided to stay there - I love taking a shower in a shower stall instead of in a cubical stall with a toilet, the big open windows in my bedroom, the clotheslines all over the balcony for laundry, and the refrigerator where I can make bottles of water cold.

- The people. They really are friendly here. The ones who know English are so eager to try it, greeting me with "Hello!" or "Good morning!", even if we've never met before.

- The kids on the buses. They're all piled in to the brightly painted, open bus/trucks in the mornings, all dressed alike in school uniforms and packed in so tight that a few are inevitably hanging off the back by the rails. They always wave when they drive by, and they beam with delight when I wave back.

- The monks in my class. They are so gracious, kind, and intelligent. As I came out of meditation class just now, I passed Sanjoy on his way in. He responded to my "Hello!" by saying, "Here, please," and handing me one of the boxed yogurt drinks he was carrying. This morning, two of the monks brought a bunch of desserts from a street vendor to us, "For you, Teachers." My favorite was the coconut gelatin that was wrapped in banana leaves and boiled. Inside of the gelatin was a ball of shredded coconut and sweetened-condensed milk that had caramelized.

- The Community class. I need to tell you more about the classes, and I will, so I'll just leave it at that.

- The other volunteers. I do like the kind of people who sign up for this kind of travel. I like their company, and Eunice in particular is a joy to teach with and walk and talk with.

- Chili sauce.

- The way the lightning here is yellow instead of white. Strange.

- The way you can feel safer at the wat. Not physically safer, but emotionally. Everyone's kind and there's no malicious talk or gossip. It's bewildering, but it's also nice.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

In Which I Describe a Typical Day

The craziness of the conference this week aside, I have managed to create a schedule for myself here. It helps keep me feeling secure, you know?

Here's a typical day at the wat for me:

6:00 AM - Wake up, shower, dress all in white.
6:45 AM - Leave the Trina House to walk to the wat, taking the shortcut through the coconut plantation (unless it rained a lot the night before, in which case I stick to the roads to avoid the mud)
7:00 AM - Breakfast
7:30 - 8:30 - Meditation Class
8:45 - 10:45 - Intermediate English, co-teaching with Eunice (usually with grammar/vocabulary for the first half, then Buddhist English the second half)
11:00 - Lunch, then drop off leftovers at the fridge in the women's dorm for dinner
12:30 - 1:30 - Meditation Class
1:30 - 3:30 - Internet, plus a snack from the mini-mart (cold water and a popsicle, usually)
3:30-4:30 - Meditation Class
4:30-5:45 - Varies. Sometimes more internet, sometimes wandering around the wat, sometimes finding a place to sit and read
6:00-7:00 - English Class with the Community Kids (Paul and I co-teach this one, although he's leaving this weekend, so I might be on my own next week)
7:15 - Walk back to the Trina House
7:45 - Shower
8:00 - Reheat lunch leftovers for dinner
8:45 - Laundry
9:30 - Read in bed for a while before going to sleep.

It's not a bad schedule, but it's certainly filled with a lot more free time than I'm used to. And a lot less air-conditioned/fan-circulating places than I like, too.

I also try to give myself things to look forward to. The internet is certainly a daily highlight. Monday we took a tuk-tuk into town to go to the grocery store (exciting! I got Oreos, a little bottle of soy sauce, some Cup-o-Noodles for when there's no food for dinner, and a 6-liter jug of water that was a lot of fun to carry back to the Trina House last night). This Saturday Eunice, Sean, Oscar, and I are going to take the bus to Bangkok for a day-trip. Eunice and I both want to do some serious souvenir shopping, since there haven't been that many chances for it so far. Also, one of these days I'm going to stick around the wat for evening chant (7:30-8:30). I'm usually pretty tired and hungry by the time I get out of class at 7:00, so I haven't done it yet. Sometime.

P.S. This is my 800th blog post!

In Which I Wai A Lot

This week has been turned a little topsy-turvey. Seems the wat is hosting some big-to-do conference. Yesterday the place was all a-flutter as directional signs, information tables, sleeping mats, and big, window-tinted vans appeared everywhere. Our classes have been much smaller than usual, since most of the monks are attending or working at the conference. There are supposed to be over 500 monks coming to this, not to mention all of the drivers, nuns, workers, and assistants. Crazy!

In Which I Dream of Mattresses

Sorry for the cliffhanger there. Because I know you've been on the edge of your seats for the last 24 hours. Will Amanda survive the weekend? Did she bring her snake umbrella for protection from other wildlife? And, what could possibly be making high-pitched squeaking in a bat cave?

Yeah, so you're not idiots. But I'm going to tell you the answers to those questions in great detail.

So, humming the theme song, I and the others followed Phra Den to the mouth of tunnel that the squeaking was coming from. As Phra Den stopped to hold up a chunk of bat guano, the main source of income for the wat (5 baht/kilo), I put up my umbrella. He laughed gently at me, saying "Very smart, Amanda."

Smart indeed. Ahead of us, we could now see the bats. Hundreds and hundreds of them hanging, swooping, only somewhat visible in the twilight of the back cave. I got as close as I felt comfortable (i.e.: not at all close), and we all listened to the squeaks of so many freakin' bats.

Which is when Sean looked up and said, "Whoa." I looked up. Hundreds and hundreds of bats were hanging from the ceiling directly above our heads. Ew, ew, ew!

Phra Den picked that moment to beckon us further - "Come, I will show you where I stayed the first time I slept here."

And he walked into the hoard of bats.

And the others followed.

And I stayed oh so very much behind. As did Sean. "Claustrophobic?" he asked.

I shook my head. "Not really. I'm pushing myself a lot by being here this weekend, so I'm being very careful of my limits."

"Ah," he said. He didn't get it.

When the others emerged from the back room ("Which only had a few bats in it, not like the entrance," Paul said to try to get me to go inside. Yeah, no.), Phra Den took us to another cave to the left of the bat cave. This one had a brick wall and a door set up on the outside. It was actually Phra Den's cooti (hut - the little rooms the monks sleep in). He welcomed us in, shut the door, and had us spend a few minutes contemplating the silence. He then invited us to use the cave as we wished that weekend to meditate. Like I said, a very generous man.

To our delight, he then took us to dinner at a place that served hamburgers! Hamburgers! J.J.'s is apparently owned by a guy who married a Thai woman and moved to the beach here. It wasn't quite American, but it sure felt nice to get close to it.

When we got back that night, the workers at the temple were busy hauling driftwood to a pile on the beach near a bunch of tents. They were making a bonfire for the night, which just made Jessica's heart break more when Phra Den said that the ladies were going to sleep in the chapel.

As far as we could figure, it was about propriety. Phras Bart, Den, and Sanjoy were all sleeping on the beach along with Paul, Sean, and Oscar. Because of that, I don't think we women could stay out there. I was not the least bit disappointed.

Phra Den showed us to the chapel. The building consists only of a large room. At the front of it was a platform extending the length of the wall with dozens of different Buddha images set up on it. All around the room the walls were painted with brightly colored scenes from the Buddha's life while the columns in the room had characters from the Ramakien painted on them. Along the left wall, the workers had laid out mats, a pillow, and a thin blanket underneath blue or pink lace mosquito nets that look like rectangular food-cover domes when opened and close up like beach umbrellas. All around the room, they had set up fans aimed at the bedding.

The men bade us goodnight, shut the doors to the chapel, and left. I looked around at all of the pictures - it was like sleeping in the middle of a book of fairy tale illustrations! Jessica and Eunice were dismayed, though. This was a sacred space to them, and they did not feel at all right about sleeping there. They tried to assuage their discomfort by kneeling and praying to the Buddha images at the front. While they did that, I knelt facing to a different angle, said my own prayers, and then tried to think about whether I would feel similar discomfort if I had been invited to sleep in one of my church's buildings. I don't think I would, not if an authority figure had made the suggestion. Interesting.

I didn't sleep that well. The floor was concrete and linoleum tiles, and the mat was no thicker than a typical blanket. It was also hot, despite the fans, so I shifted from back to side to side in a puddle of sweat most of the night.

We got up at 3:45 to do morning meditation as the sun rose. Watching the sun rise is not all that special to me, since I see it every morning over the mountains and forests on my drive to MTHS. We slept in our clothes, so we just took our straw mats and towels out to the beach and set them up facing the water near the dying embers of the boys' bonfire. Eunice and Jessica went straight into half-lotus positions for meditation. I sat there for a moment, but then gave in to the stars. I laid down on my mat on my back at watched all of the stars above me. The constellations were in different places here, and as I started to doze in and out of sleep, I would open my eyes and find that they had shifted a little bit.

When the orange glow of the sunrise started over the water, I sat up and assumed the cross-legged position. Which is when the sandflies and mosquitoes really started going to town. I shook out my towel and pulled it over my head, wrapping it around my face like a burka. Even still, anytime I shifted, a cloud of bugs rose up from all over me. Ew, ew, ew! Doesn't make for very good meditation.

Phra Den took us to a rubber tree plantation, where I had the song my dad used to sing to us when we were little stuck in my head the entire time ("Have you seen that silly old ant/thinks he can move a rubber tree plant?/ Everyone knows and ant can't move a rubber tree plant/But he's got high hopes/he's got high hopes/he's got high-in-the-sky-apple-pie hopes..."). They made lunch for us there, which we ate around a big wooden table outside under a durian tree (talk about putting your life at risk!) with a stray cat weaving between our legs, meowing for the fish we were served.

We stopped by a market next, did a little shopping, then drove to this massive wat on a hill. The wat was much more for show, but they had this giant (GIANT) Buddha statue facing the ocean, and the actual temple building was quite lovely. Phra Den told me it took 10 years to build. They had some ceremonies going on inside because it was the day of the full moon (which is also when the monks shave their heads, so I was startled by the change in the Phras appearances when they appeared with no stubble and no eyebrows!). We could walk around the balcony that runs along the perimeter, though. I did so, reaching the doorway at the same time that a group of a hundred or so school kids started filing out from the main hall. I was standing in the corner, hidden partially by a wall, and got a big kick out of the girls. Over and over again one would suddenly see me, this big Western white woman in all white, standing quietly in the corner watching them. She would start, giggle, then poke her friends in front and behind her to point me out. I would wave or wink at them, and they would all giggle and wai to me. Every so often one would be brave enough to whisper "Hello how are you?"

That evening I went to chanting for the first time. I had heard it the night before, but I had not experienced it firsthand, even at my "home wat" yet. We laypeople entered into the temple through the back doors and sat on the plastic chairs they had set up for us at the back. The room was simple - white walls, a large gold Buddha at the front in the typical pose (half-lotus with the left hand resting palm-up on his lap and the right hand draped over the leg with the fingers pointing down). All over the walls were little gold frames/altars. About 2/3 of them had little Buddhas on them - donations, perhaps? The 15 or so monks were all kneeling on blue mats on the platform that took up the first half of the room, all facing the Buddha. The one nun at the complex knelt to our right on her own mat.

And the chanting began. It was higher-pitched and much faster than usual and they used more call-and-response effects. It was amazing; the sounds just rolled over you from all sides and I just closed my eyes and let it carry me like a river current. Think of the Gregorian chants, speed them up, and imagine being in a small room with the monks while they sang and you'll get some idea of it. I filmed about 45 seconds worth, which I'll post when I can.

Being a sweaty, stinky mess by that point (Jessica had apologized to us for her smell when we sat down to dinner. I told her it was like eating garlic - as long as everyone's doing it, no need for apologies. We'll just all stink together), I decided to brave the "showers".

Although the wat had Western-style toilets, you still flushed them the Thai way - by scooping up a bowlful of water from the bucket next to the toilet and pouring it in. The showers were similar - there was a big bucket, a little bucket, and a faucet. You fill the big bucket with water and use the little one to pour water over yourself. I washed myself as best I could, then headed off to an early bed.

I must have fallen asleep reading, since the next thing I knew Jessica was looking down at me through my blue mosquito netting, repeating my name. "We have to move," she said when she saw me open my eyes, "someone's died and they're bringing the body here."

Which is probably the strangest thing I've ever heard upon waking.

We quickly gathered up our stuff and the workers swooped in to carry the bedding to Phra Den's office. We found him in the back storage room, sweeping the floor for ants. We set up again, this time amid boxes and monk buckets and incense sticks, and I went back to sleep. I dreamed alternately of mattresses and that the blanket flapping on the box above me was the dead person's shroud.

The next morning, we heard a few more details while we watched people set up for the funeral. It seems the person who died was the village leader. Throughout the day we watched them put up a reception tent-cover in front of the chapel, set up a sound system, and decorate the coffin. The Thai sure do like their bling - the coffin was decorated with the silvery holograms I remember from my sticker collection in the 80s and bright fake flowers.

The second day was much quieter - we did spend part of the morning picking up trash along the beach. Oscar came up with the idea as a thank-you gift to Phra Den, since the beach was covered with all kinds of washed-up trash. We did that for about an hour (a sweaty, sweaty hour), then went for a group meditation in the cave. I was not too fond of it - too stuffy, quiet, and hot. After lunch, a smaller group of us went into town to visit a street market and pick up some food for dinner.

We left after lunch the third day (where the kitchen people had very sweetly prepared a special treat for us - fresh crabs! I stuck to the rice and veggies, since, as you know, I don't do too well when my food is looking at me).

I was oh-so-glad to be back at the Trina House. I took a nice, long cold shower, counted up my mosquito/flea bites (three on my left index finger alone! Including two in the little space between the knuckle and the cuticle. Stupid bugs) and went to bed grateful for the thin little mattress on the bed there.

P.S. I forgot to mention the animals at the beach wat. Aside from the bugs, there were several dogs. Poor things, they were all mangy and flea-bitten and ragged looking, but they were faithful! A few adopted us, including one little guy who was skinny enough to sneak through the gate into the cafeteria, who curled up on the chair outside the women's restroom to wait for me when I went in at night, and who's face looked like a little old Chinese man.

There were also several roosters, for whom dawn could come anywhere from 3:00 AM - 11:00 AM.

And two water buffalo who enjoyed their own personal campfire every night in the jungle. We'd see them as we drive in from town, standing, looking at their fire, chewing their cuds, with not another soul in sight.

Monday, June 28, 2010

In Which We Visit Phra Den's Wat

I'm back!

Back at the home wat, that is. Not back in the states. But that's coming soon - less than two weeks now until I'm back in the land of drinkable tap water, air conditioning, dry desert air, readable signs, Chipotle and Jimmy John's.... Okay, I better stop. I still have two weeks, after all.

So, as you can read, I survived the beach. Barely. It was quite the full weekend, and I may have to tell it in installments, since I have a meditation session in about 30 minutes.

We left after lunch on Friday - five teachers, two monks, one meditation student, and the driver. Phra Bart was, of course, one of the monks. The other is Phra Sanjoy. He's this tall, gangly early-20s monk from Bangladesh, speaks English quite well, and has this happy-go-lucky way about him that makes him very personable. He's the type of person who starts chatting with someone at a big banquet, then gets invited by the person to sit next to him, then discovers that the person is actually the king and is now his friend.

The rest of us are the North Americans - Jessica, Paul, Eunice, Oscar, and I, plus Sean, a 22-year-old engineer from Arizona who is here through a different program just to study meditation, not to teach.

We piled into the huge van with air conditioning (AIR CONDITIONING!) and drove about 4 hours south of our home wat, stopping once for a bathroom break where I successfully used a non-Western-style toilet for the first time this trip (not that I haven't encountered them - I just hadn't been desperate enough prior to that point to not wait). Because I'm sure you wanted to know that.

With a little bit of getting lost, and a little bit of the driver stopping for directions, we found an incomprehensible (to me) sign with two words in English, "Bat Cave" and a painting of a friendly-looking cartoon bat next to a yellow arrow pointing the way down a bumpy dirt road. Down the road about a mile, we pulled up in front of Phra Den's wat.

I should explain how this trip came to be. Phra Den, the abbot of this wat, is friends with Phra Bart. Phra Den is in my and Eunice's English class (so, level two) along with Phra Sanjoy. He is this delightful, gracious, kind, and intelligent older man. Although you would never guess it from his humilty, he is also an abbot. Phra Den just recently had his wat approved as a branch of this wat, and he wanted very much to show it to Phra Bart and his "English teachers". And so he invited us down to show us his wat and to give us a chance to go to the beach.

(Side note: A good example of what Phra Den is like: Today in English class, we were going over the basic words for introducing meditation. As a review, Eunice asked, "Phra Den, if you had a Westerner come to your temple to study meditation and they had never done meditation before, what would you say to them?"

He smiled and said, "I would say, 'Welcome to my temple, my friend. I am so glad you came to visit me.'" Such courtesy!)

The first part of the wat you notice is the large white temple building. It has the traditional pointy Thai-style roof with reflective silver mosaic tiles outlining the levels of the roof and cement statues of griffen-ish creatures flanking the door, painted in bright gold and red. To the right of that building is the abbot's office, a building that looks more like a one-room house, and the monk's quarters, a series of brownish-red wooden huts. To the left of the temple is a chapel (more about that later), the eating area, and the latrines. Behind the temple is the beach. Sand, palm trees, and just flat, blue ocean as far as you can see.

Phra Den met our van as we crunched across the gravel. "Oh, my friends! I am so glad you are here! Please, please come and sit." He welcomed us to the covered porch outside his office and invited us to sit at the table there. He pulled bottled water from the cooler on the porch for each of us (which they must have purchased just for us) and told us that he wanted very much to show us the wat, to show us the area, and to let us enjoy nature and learn to meditate in nature.

He took us on a tour of the area, leading us first through a field to the beach where we all kicked off our shoes and walked in the water. It was so warm!

Next, we walked to the mountain on the other side of the chapel. Phra Den led us up a concrete and wooden staircase to a cave. To the left, at the back of the first "room" was a large statue of Buddha on a wooden platform surrounded by burnt incense. To the right was an opening that led in deeper into darkness. From the darkness, you could hear a lot of high-pitched squeaking.

Oop, gotta get to meditation class! Hopefully, I'll have time to continue the tale after class.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

In Which I Drop You a Quick Note

Dearest Readers -

Just a quick heads up - I'm leaving for the beach shortly and I'm betting there won't be internet there. So, you'll just have to wait until I get back Sunday night or Monday afternoon (my time, that is) for more Thai stories.

Until then, have a lovely weekend!

In Which Nature and I Meet Again

I have just found out that our accommodations at the beach wat are tents.


As in camping.

I know so many of you who would absolutely leap at the chance to sleep in a tent on a beach. And I'll give it a chance and I know that I'll talk about it in the future, playing up the idealism of the phrase "I camped for three nights on a private beach in Thailand."

But I also know it'll be like the phrase "I slept under the stars on the deck of a ferry boat across the Mediterranean Sea" - it sounds a heck of a lot better than the actual experience.

In Which I Could Be Offended

I'm getting used to being cautious.

My tailbone and back still smart from my fall yesterday, so between the muddy unpaved paths and the marble tiled paths, I'm being terribly careful with each step I take. Eunice joked yesterday about how that's simply the mindfulness Buddha taught - focus on on thing at a time, only on the present moment, step by careful step.

Then there's the monks everywhere. Have I told you about the rules?

Being a woman here at the wat means I have a lot more rules to follow than the male volunteers. Some are the same - let a monk cross or pass by first; move out of the way if one is walking near you; if you are walking together, stay a few steps behind him; if you cross by a monk, duck your head to be lower than him (that's one I'm struggling with, since I'm taller than all of the monks here); when you see a monk, wai deeply to him; and so on.

As a woman, though, I'm not allowed to have any contact with the monks or anything the monk is touching. If I need to hand something to a monk, I'm supposed to hold the object with both hands, set it down (ideally on a piece of cloth, but those aren't always available at a moment's notice). and then the monk will pick it up. If he hands something to me, I cup my hands and he drops the object into my hands.

I'm not supposed to sit next to a monk, which makes it tricky when I go to use th one row of computers here at the library. I try to snag one on the end with an empty seat between me and the other monks who are on line, but with only five computers available, that hardly ever works out evenly. Usually I wind up with a monk on at least one side, and I cower over as far away as I can, pulling the mouse and the keyboard close to try to show that I'm trying to give him space.

I'm not even supposed to touch an object like a textbook if the monk is touching it as well. I'm very aware of this when I'm teaching, since I discovered this rule when I pointed to something in one monk's workbook while he was holding it. After being corrected on it, I try to indicate things by gesturing from a distance. Not too easy, when you're trying to point out nuances like periods or particular letters in words. I usually try and fail a few times, then ask the monk to please set down the book on the table (mostly through pantomime) and then point out what I'm trying to indicate once he lets go of the book.

I catch myself overdoing it sometimes - I feel awkward when I look a monk in the eyes for too long or converse with him without other people joining in. Those are both fine to do (as long as we're not alone together), but I'm a little trigger-shy. Monk-shy? Something like that.

I'm walking slower, breathing slower, I move around things and reposition things with much more precision as I try not to make noises. None of that is necessary, they're just byproducts of being constantly cautious and trying not to offend.

And so I'm constantly surprised by the humanness of the monks. They crack jokes; laugh loudly with each other and with us, their teachers; and talk about their families, homes, and feelings with such sincerity.

There's this one monk here who, every time he sees me, shouts, "Hey, fat lady!" with this big, brown-and-missing-teeth grin. I was totally shocked the first time I heard it, since, well, you just don't say things like that. I thought I might not be understanding what he's saying exactly, but the first time he said that he went on to elaborate in a mixture of simple English, a lot of Thai, and some large gestures. He's the image of the laughing Buddha himself (the Chinese one, not the Thai one), so I think it's a compliment? He at least has added an addendum to his greeting - now when he sees me he shouts, "Hey, fat lady! You so beautiful!"

Oddly, I'm not offended by it. I have just been wondering how much of it is the language barrier, how much is a cultural difference, and how much is just this one particular monk. Another gentleman here, a meditation student from Vietnam, looked at my wet hair when I got to breakfast yesterday and said, "Oh, it must be hot - you sweating a lot, a lot!" I tried to explain that it was actually from my shower that morning, but I don't think he got it. I gave up.

As part of the whole "learn to let go" philosophy I'm trying to do here, I'm working on not caring about how I look. It actually started about the moment I arrived in Thailand, those sweaty, sweaty first days you might recall. As one of the other volunteers back in Singburi put it, "I'm destined to be ugly in Thailand." No makeup, my hair clumped and askew from sunscreen and air-drying it, sweat dripping down my face and neck, my white clothes rumpled and picking up dust and rust that I can't wash out, my feet constantly dyed orange from my shoes... and I'm going with it. I don't like it, but that's how it needs to be right now, so I'm doing it.

And so I'm a little bit proud of myself that even while I'm feeling very much not nice-looking, I can hear someone call me "Hey, fat lady!" and someone else comment on my apparent sweatiness without taking offense.

I did, however, start washing my hair at night.

P.S. Thank you to those of you who have commented/emailed me to say you're enjoying these travel entries! I'm really glad to know they're not too boring, what with my tendency to ramble a bit with no pictures to break things up. Plus, I really like getting those touches of friendship while I'm out here among strangers for so long.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

In Which I Recall and Unwillingly Disregard What My Parents Told Me Every Time I Went Bike-Riding

Oh, last night turned out to be an adventure!

With all of my optimism for things working out, naturally I had to be thrown off balance again, right? Hubris and all?

First of all, I lost my dinner. Not in a metaphorical sense - literally. You see, since the monks don't eat after noon, to have dinner the kitchen packs a bento box for those who are still eating it. Yesterday, one of the American students here (Shaun) offered to take the bento box back to the men's dormitory, since there is a refrigerator there. He said, "Let's meet at 5:00" as the plan for getting it back.

Except we didn't say where. I looked all over the wat, but couldn't find him. It turns out that he fell asleep and didn't wake up until 7:00. Without having any idea where my dinner went and with the evening class approaching, I figured I would deal with the situation later.

The class went well. I participated a little bit, mostly acting as an example for the teacher's instructions. Only a few of the community kids came, for some reason, so we combined with the novice class. Eunice lead them through math and English - teaching them about subtraction and the beginning of that/this/these/those. She had the boys all line up on the platform at the front and had us practice math problems like "Eight monks take away three monks is?" while the boys demonstrated. Certainly a new word problem to me!

I was supposed to walk home with Oscar, but I lost him along with my dinner. He disappeared sometime after lunch. After class, I walked with Eunice, Paul, and Jessica back to the cafeteria for an Ovaltine (I abstained, since it was made with local ice). Still no sign of Oscar, the sun had well set by now, and there was a good rainstorm threatening to burst. Jessica offered to walk me to the guard's station to try to get a ride home.

Except the guard station was empty. The best plan of action we came up with was to look quite lost in the hopes that a passing monk would stop to help. One did, and Jessica slipped away to get to the evening chanting.

I showed the monk the note Phra Quan had written for me ("Please give me a ride to Phra Bart's house"). We looked around and found the guard, but after speaking with him a little the monk explained to me that the guard was new and did not know what to do.

The monk read the note over again, then seemed to come up with a plan. He said, "Come, come," so I followed. He led me down a few paths until we came to a little hut which I realized was Phra Bart's house... here at the wat. To my growing mortification, he interrupted the meditation session Phra Bart was in the middle of to pull him out to talk to me. I apologized, and explained the situation. He was very nice about it, fetched a flashlight, and led me back to the guard station. There, he explained in Thai what I needed and told me to sit on a nearby bench to wait while the guard went to get the motorcycle.

And so I sat in the dark, listening to the jungle sounds around me and watching the occasional lightening flash. It had just started to rain and I had just decided that I might be okay with sleeping on that bench if I had to when I saw a yellow light approaching. A different guard pulled up next to me on a motorcycle and kicked out the exhaust pipes so I had a place for my feet.

I hitched up my foot-length long white skirt above my knees, slung my purse across my back, climbed on, and held on to the guard's sides as he took off.

I think he could tell how nervous I was about the ride, because he was very good and slow about taking the turns. I've only ridden a motorcycle once before, and it was years and years ago when my uncle Jeff showed it off on one of our trips to Grandma's house. Here, as we zipped across the highway and then along the road past the coconut grove, all I could think was "Never ride without a helmet. Never ride without a helmet. Never ride without a helmet." I don't know how the Thais do it so casually - I developed a whole new level for respect for the school girls I see riding side-saddle behind their fathers, texting with such blase.

With my waving-hand-signals for directions and his responses of "okay, okay," we pulled up to the Trina house (which is the volunteer's nickname for it for reasons I have yet to discover). I repeated "Thank you" in Thai many, many times while wai-ing to the poor guard who was so nice to me. He waited until I figured out how to unlatch the gate and then took off back down the road.

I got inside to find Oscar. He had also succumbed to jetlag and had slept through the entire afternoon.

We raided the kitchen and found some Thai-version of Ramen noodles in one of the cupboards. After eating one for dinner, I proceeded to boil a few kettle-fulls of water to put in the refrigerator for the future. By the time I finished that, it was 10:00 and well past bed-time.

I was a little sick to my stomach this morning - maybe the water, maybe the food, I don't know. But things have been improving as the day goes on - breakfast this morning was a familiar noodle dish, lunch had some noodles as well instead of just the mysterious-bones-and-seaweed-soup things of yesterday. Jessica and Eunice discovered that Oscar and I didn't know about the secret way through the first gate (without either of them realizing the irony of exclaiming, "Oh, you didn't know about the secret entrance?"). Jessica showed me the trick after lunch, and it'll cut the walk from wat to house in half. Much more doable! Plus, I took charge of the bento box today, so I can make sure my dinner doesn't get lost again.

I did have my first meditation class just now. On the way there, it had rained just enough to form some puddles. The path I was on was technically part of the one of the buildings, so I was walking barefoot across the tiled marble, shoes in one hand and bento box in the other. Naturally, I completely lost my footing and slammed into the ground. And so my first meditation session was not so good - I was distracted by the amount of water my skirt had managed to soak up from the puddle; the throbbing pain in my hip, back, and shoulder from where I hit the marble; and the stupid fly that was very insistent about landing on my fingers and neck. Phra Bart told me afterwards that I was trying too hard to concentrate, that my eyebrows were all muddled and drawn the whole time. I had braced myself for this, knowing how very much I don't like being not good at something and knowing that I probably wouldn't be perfect the first time I tried meditation. There's another meditation session at 3:30, so I'll go back and try again.

Monday, June 21, 2010

In Which I Get Some Information

Since you are all sleeping away (except, perhaps, Rachel and Ben) as I write this, I almost wish I could publish these entries in reverse. You really should go back to the start of today's writing to understand where I'm at at the moment. I shall carry on, though, with the assumption you already know of my woes and such.

So. We had the meeting. A lot of it was a repeat of the same information we keep receiving (I've seen/been told the "Wat Dos and Don'ts" at least five times by now). However, I did gather the following:
1. The other teachers consist of
A. Jessica - from Canada; a tall, thin mid-30s woman with strawberry-blonde hair who really likes organization and yet isn't assertive enough to actually get people to be organized; is here for at least a year to act as the coordinator of the program
B. Eunice - from Sacramento; a petite woman in her 30s who is very quiet and kind. She's a middle-school teacher back in the states, has been here for at least three weeks from what I can gather, and will be here for some time more.
C. Paul - from Minnesota (I think). Tall, blond guy I first met this morning when he was sneaking off the wat grounds for a cigarette. He's been here about two weeks and leaves next week.
D. Oscar - from California. About my height, althetic, I think his family's from Mexico. He's going to be a sophomore at MIT this fall. He is talking a little bit more, but everyone has to ask him to repeat what he says because he's so quiet.
and me.

2. Phra Quan is the administrator of the English program here. He's pretty good with the language - good enough to crack puns that usually pass Jessica right by. He's a younger monk - somewhere between 25-40, practical, has worked here for "360 days", and is quietly proud of the fact that this wat is one of the few that offers courses in English for the monks, and probably the only one in Thailand with native speakers as the teachers. He said they're getting a reputation for that, and that there are some monks who have come from wats over 10 hours away to study English here.

3. There are four classes divided into two periods. In the morning from 8:45-10:45 is the "Introduction to Buddhist English" beginner and intermediate classes. Those will vary in size (3-15 people), since the monks who are traveling to be here will be gone on Thursdays and Fridays. From 6:00-7:00 in the evening, there are classes for younger kids (age 13-17, I believe). One class is for "community students" while the other is for novice monks.

4. This week, my main job seems to be to "observe," although I bet I'll be used to help with small groups or maybe some small lessons. I bet I'll be given more interaction with the evening classes.

5. This Thursday at 1:00 we are taking an excursion. They are opening up a wat 4 hours to the south of here, so Phra Bart is taking the teachers there to... see it? Test it out? I don't know what our purpose is. But it's on a private beach, so I'm not complaining. I like how the way I planned this trip is allowing me to see many different parts of this country.

6. I am running into some spiritual conflicts. I think I'll dedicate a separate post about that, though, since it's a longer topic.

7. There doesn't seem to be a schedule for the meditation instruction. I asked Jessica about it after the meeting, and she said it was "whenever. Just talk to Phra Bart." Hmm. I am not a fan of no structure and I don't like being direct when figuring out new things, so this might be a good test for me.

8. Best of all, after asking Jessica about the meditation, I also asked her about the walk to the house. I explained how I wanted to stay there, but was concerned after hearing some people say they didn't think it was a safe walk after dark. (Side note, I'm finding that the cause of danger is rather volatile and mysterious - is it other people? The cars on the highway? The mud in the coconut grove? The dragons and lizards? The total darkness? I don't know!)

Phra Quan overheard us discussing this and interjected, saying that if I asked the guard at the gate to drive me home, they would.

"Really?" I asked. "Every day?"

He nodded yes. Jessica had the great idea to have him write out the request in Thai, which he promptly did.

We'll see. I think Oscar's going back tonight, since his stuff is still there (unless he's there moving it as I type). Either way, if it works out where I walk to the wat in the morning and I can hitch a ride at night, that would be brilliant and a huge load off my mind.

Now if only I can figure out the food....

P.S. Oh! And? The restroom on the top floor of the University Building has a Western toilet! No toilet paper and no soap, but I've got my handy tissue packs and hand sanitizer! So, woot!

P.P.S. Food, bathrooms, and shelter. No wonder I'm panicking - all of my basic necessities are being threatened!

P.P.P.S. Speaking of basic necessities, did I mention that my Kindle broke? Like, two weeks ago? I've coped with it so far by reading the battered copy of "The Historian" someone had left at the EcoHouse and by reading the books I had downloaded to my iPhone. I'm almost done with those, though, so the panic over not having anything to read is rising again. Phra Bart gave me a book called "The Heart of Dhammakaya Meditation, Vol. 1" and I was overjoyed to be handed a book in English. Jessica asked each of us to share our biggest fear right now as part of our introductions. Mine was running out of water to drink and books to read. Both are dangling by a thread right now. No wonder I'm freaking out a little.

In Which I Force Some Optimism

I allowed myself the last post to vent some of the panic. Now I need to be good and tell you about the not-so-scary stuff.

This wat is so beautiful. It's really a shame that I don't like nature so much, because I know a lot of people who do and they would LOVE this place. It's remote, filled with trees and rivers and lakes and all you hear are birds and insects and people speaking softly in Thai.

It's actually freaking me out a little (in a good way, not like in my other entry). To be at a "temple", dressed all in white, with people who all speak softly and smile a lot. Seriously, very familiar and yet so-not-at-all like a Mormon temple. The nature, for one thing.

I observed two morning classes. The first was English for beginners. There were eight monks in there by the end, wearing their robes of various shades from brown to bright orange. They were all charming and very eager. One of the older ones in the room, perhaps in his 60's, upon seeing me sitting at the side of the room, waiting for it start, waved his hand in my direction. "Excuse me? Excuse me? What is you name, please?"

I told him, repeated it a few times ("Amanda" seems to be a tricky one for Thais), and he grinned at me with a gapy one-toothed grin. Then his cell phone started to ring, playing a Thai pop song. He held it up, saying, "Music! Music!" and laughed when I danced to it a little in my seat. Then he answered it, "Hello! Good morning!" before giggling (seriously, have you seen an old monk giggle? I have!) and babbling into the phone in Thai.

They did some sentence-mistake drills, working especially on capitalization, punctuation, and verb tenses since none of those things exist in the Thai language. Then then practiced it/this/that//they/these/those.

At the break, I walked next door to the intermediate class. There were only three monks in there today, since there's some sort of meeting going on. They were learning the vocabulary of families, so each monk was writing out and then presenting his family tree. It was really interesting, actually, to hear about that side of their background. The teacher then had me and Oscar talk to each monk in turn so they could practice their conversational skills with native speakers.

Oh, and the rooms! The rooms are so cool! Not in terms of technology or design or anything. I just mean that they have both fans and screened-in windows and air conditioning (AIR CONDITIONING!) units. Oh, I loved being in those rooms!

So that part was good.

The sight-seeing we did in Bangkok yesterday was good as well - we toured the Grand Palace, saw the emerald Buddha (which is actually made of jade - an old translation error led to the name!), and took a boat tour. I bought a shadow puppet and a marionette elephant, but left them both in the car we took to get to the wat. I'm going to ask Phra Bart if I can possibly get them back at this meeting I have shortly. Fingers crossed!

If you're in Bangkok, do go to the Grand Palace. It's, well, grand. Covered in real gold and colored glass tiles, it just sparkles in the sunlight. The architecture is a combination of Renaissance and "modern" Thai. The walls that wrap around the entire complex are covered with murals of the Ramakien. They continuously are repainting those, since the humidity does not do well for painted cement, but they are fascinating. I'll have to find a copy of the Ramakien somewhere. Oh, and the free tours are worth it. My favorite tidbit I learned on the tour is that the guards there stand on boxes because, as our Thai guide put it, "You Westerners are so tall, we have to make sure we can look down on you!"

Okay, gotta run to that meeting. I'll see you again tomorrow!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

In Which I Hit a Wall of Culture Shock Again

Internet! Oh, Internet! You're so familiar - I know you and I know how you work!

My friends, I have hit such a wall of culture shock. I'm coping with it to the best of my ability. Mostly that means keeping a very tight focus on the immediate and throwing up mental walls when I start to think about all the uncertainty and unfamiliar and the panic rises up again.

I'm at the wat. I'm so, so glad I did the other program first - otherwise, there would be a lot more panic over the newness of everything. As it is, the sight of monks and the buildings and the language and my complete illiteracy is not so frighteningly new.

Things I'm worried about now:
- The monks do not eat after noon. The other volunteers here just over the weekend decided to do the same. This makes me panic about not having dinner because, well, there's no dinner. It seems we're supposed to pack up the leftover food from lunch to eat later, but there's not really a system for this and also

- The food is scary. I try to be open-minded, I really do, but I'm just not a brave eater. Especially when it's seafood. If it looks like an animal, I find it really hard to stomach it (see the story of the fish in New York). At lunch yesterday in Bangkok, I ordered "Chinese noodles with chicken". It had noodles, it had chicken, and it had a couple of tentacles reaching out pleadingly from the pile of noodles.

I was good! I gamely ate the dish, avoiding the tentacles.

But breakfast and lunch today were just so not-at-all familiar. I tried the things I could recognize - an omlette-type thing with green leaves in it, some stewed beef, bean sprouts and, of course, rice. But there were so many soupy/mysterious dishes with bones or fish heads or things that I am just not up to eating.

I would just make dinner for myself at the house, but there's no food supply. There's the mini-mart at the wat, which is essentially the bare bones of a convenience store. That's how I got dinner last night - I had a Thai version of Cup-o-Noodles. But they don't have fruit or "real" food, and I can't subsist on potato chips and dried fish every day.

And so, I am worried about meals.

- Lodging is an issue, too. When they said the volunteers would be staying in a house "across the street," they neglected to mention the 30-minute walk through a coconut grove, fields, and across and down a highway.

I'm fine with it in the morning - we need to be at the wat at 7, so the heat's not so bad in the morning.

I'm worried about night, though. It gets pitch black here by 7 pm, and there's no street lights or porch lights or anything. I'll be at the wat until 7:30 for the evening class, and possibly until 9:30 if I stay for evening meditation.

This wouldn't be as much of an issue if there was a group walking to and fro. However (you sensed that was coming, didn't you?), the other volunteers all decided to stay at the dormitories on site. Even Oscar, the one other new person who was going to stay at the house, said at lunch that he plans on moving to the dormitories.

So there's my dilemma - the dormitories essentially equal camping. There's a low table to sleep on in a large shared room with screened-in windows. No closets, no place to store things, no pillows, and the bathrooms are like public rest stops about 100 yards away from the dormitory.

The house is really nice - there's a thin mattress on the bed that make it slightly more comfortable than sleeping on hard wood, a Western-style bathroom with a shower, electricity, a kitchen, and so on.

There's just that walk to worry about.

I don't know what to do at this point. I really want to stay at the house, but I don't feel good about doing that walk at night alone. Conversely, I know that the more comfortable (i.e. familiar surroundings/routines) I can be for at least part of the time, the happier I am all of the time.

And, of course, there's also the panic over the rest of the unknown - what classes will I teach, how do I teach them, will I offend every monk I see because I don't know the rules, what is meditation like, will I fail at doing that, and on and on and on.

And so I focus - I have internet. The library is open during the weekdays for a few hours, it's air conditioned (AIR CONDITIONED!), and the connection's not too bad. So there's that I can focus on right now, and look forward to tomorrow.

I know the schedule, roughly. Get up at 6, leave at 6:30, breakfast at 7, morning classes from 8:30-11:00, lunch at 11:00... and that's as far as I've gotten.

I know I have a meeting with the other volunteers in thirty minutes. I hope I can figure out a lot more of what's going on. Knowing things, knowing the routines and the structures and how it's going to be helps me in these kinds of situations, I know.

Oh, my friends. What have I gotten myself into?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

In Which I Spend One Night in Bangkok

And I'm back in the capital city!

I'm typing fast, since I only have a limited amount of time online and using the internet's WAY more expensive here than in SingBuri. Everything is more expensive here, actually. I'm surprised and pleased at how much I sense the difference between the two places and between the touristy stuff verses the "real" Thailand after only two weeks.

I packed up my stuff this morning (including my laundry bucket) and Paiwan took me to the bus station in Sing Buri. The bus ride back was kind of boring (no Kindle, no Nintendo :( ). I did read through my DK guide to Thailand, noticing how much of what we saw the first week is talked about in there. It made some of the pieces of information J.J. tried to explain to us make a little more sense. As we got closer to the city, I recognized more and more of the scenery we were passing.

Then came the adventuresome part - getting to the hotel all by myself. As soon as I stepped off the bus, I was accosted by men, "Taxi?" "You! You! Taxi? Airport? Taxi?"

Being the wizened traveler I am, I shook off the baiters and dragged my trusty suitcase across the station until I found the more official metered taxi stand. Thanks to my dad's training, I had picked up a copy of the hotel's business card when we stayed here two weeks ago. I presented it to the driver, and we were off!

I checked into my room at the hotel and was just wiping the grime off my face as the phone rang. Phra Barton had arrived with the other volunteer, Oscar. He invited me to come next door to "chat".

I liked Phra Barton instantly. He's a 74-year-old man who worked in a variety of international jobs before settling in Thailand eight years ago to live and teach as a monk. Aside from the shaved head and the orange robes, he would have fit in perfectly with the Quorum of the Seventy.

He seemed to like me, too. When I introduced myself (without touching him - as a woman, I'm not allowed to touch any of the monks), he said, "You're full of life and curiosity and energy, aren't you?" We started chatting immediately. He had read over my resume and told me that he had actually taught sociology at Utah State for five years in the seventies. Which means there's a good chance my grandmother either knows his lineage or her sister Bernice dated him.

Oscar, a sophomore at MIT from California, is a bit of a dud. He is courteous, but hardly says a word and never smiles. Could be jet lag, although he did say, "I don't sleep much, and I don't talk much," when I asked how he was feeling after such a long trip.

Fortunately, Phra Barton is entertainment enough. He offered to try to find me tickets to a traditional Thai dance/theater show for tonight, because of my "artistic interests." He tried very diligently on the hotel's computer and in talking to people at the front desk, but for some reason every show turned out to be closed. Very strange, we both thought.

After those fruitless attempts, we took a cab to Wat Pho, the oldest wat in Bangkok and the one with a giant (GIANT!) reclining Buddha.

Let me tell you, it's awesome having a monk as a tour guide. First of all, he's rather irreverent about the whole thing. He showed us his favorite statue of Buddha, the one with the Naga (7-headed serpent spirit). Leaning in close to us, he told us the story of how Buddha was meditating and the Naga came up from behind to shelter him from the rain. "It's a nice coming together of the spiritual and the earthly, I think," he said. Then, with a wink to me, "Of course, it's also a phallic symbol," and he chuckled and led us on to another part of the wat.

Oh, and here's something funny - I ran into Jenna there! She's in Bangkok for the weekend touring with a friend of hers. Phra Barton laughed at the coincidence and said, "See? It's the Times Square of Bangkok!"

The Thais are, for the most part, terribly respectful of Phra Barton. They wai to him, bow to him, and step out of the way as he passes, leading us two foreigners in tow. Twice, he got stopped by people who wanted to take their picture with him. He agreed cheerfully, joking with them in Thai. As I was waiting to the side for the second group to finish with him, laughing to myself about his celebrity status, the group turned from taking his picture to me, "Photo with you, too, please?"

I pointed to myself. "Me?"

"Yes! Yes!" The three men said, and handed their cameras to one of them while the other two took up positions on either side of me. One of them ran his hand over my arm and said, "So white!" After they took their pictures, I handed my camera to the fellow and said, "One for me?" They laughed. I'll have to share that photo with you soon.

Phra Barton declared it to be dinnertime for us after that (he doesn't eat after noon). He asked one of the wat guards for a restaurant recommendation, and returned to us chuckling. "He recommended my favorite restaurant - the place we're going to eat tomorrow! But it's the best restaurant in Bangkok, so why not?"

We crowded into a tuk-tuk with poor Oscar squished between us (to avoid the touching) and went to the Navy Officer's Club. We sat at at table outside, overlooking the river, and had a delicious dinner of Phra Barton's recommendations (prawn cakes, pad thai, and green curry with chicken) while he drank lemonade and told us about the history of Thailand and stories of his life. The breeze off the river was marvelously cool, and as it started to rain I realized how very, very happy I was.

I'm excited for this next part of the trip. I'm really looking forward to working with and learning from Phra Barton. I'm a bit nervous about teaching English, mostly since I don't know what to expect (I'm guessing I'll be making up my own lesson plans). But that lack of knowledge will be resolved soon, so all's good. In the meantime, we're going to see the Grand Palace tomorrow morning and the Emerald Buddha before going to the wat. Which is apparently in Rajburi province, about 2 hours southwest of Bangkok. Good to know!

Friday, June 18, 2010

In Which I Notice Things

Tonight marks the two-week anniversary of my arrival in Thailand. The heat and humidity are still awful, but a little more bearable. I have learned some basic phrases and how to count to ten. I have also made a number of observances about things that are just... different that I will now recount for you here:

1. There are pictures of the king everywhere - on banners outside of buildings, on the signs over the road to each province and town, on all of the calendars I've seen - everywhere.
2. They're never the same picture of him. In fact, some seem to be completely candid and not all are flattering.
3. The major intersections have lights that count down the times - red numbers count the seconds from 60 or 90 or 125 or whatever, then they go green and count down, then yellow to count down. I kind of like this idea.
4. Not having a roommate means I can sleep with less modesty. This has helped my heat rash.
5. So has the "cooling powder" I bought at Tesco. They have an entire wall dedicated to the different brands. I got curious and bought three kinds.
6. I also bought a bucket to make doing sink laundry easier.
7. I am ridiculously excited about my laundry bucket.
8. The bug bites appear in a variety of sizes, from smaller than an Altoid to bigger than a quarter. They can also be red or white with red surrounding it. If I get a blue one, I'll assume it's out of patriotism.
9. The bugts like my calves and ankles best.
10. All of the volunteers are identifiable by the numerous red welts on the backs of our legs.
11. The natives don't seem to have nearly as many bites, if any at all.
12. They are, however, just as bugged by the heat and complain about it, too.
13. Which surprises me, since they've never known any other type of weather. Is the human body innately tuned to 75-degrees?
14. The women carry around washcloths and rags in their purses to mop off the sweat.
15. Many of them also have long sleeves they pull on over their arms when they're in the sun to keep from getting darker.
16. There is a definite perception that white skin is beautiful here.
17. I've never been told so many times "You beautiful!" as this week. I have also never felt more awkward about it.
18. I kind of like the idea of teacher uniforms - it's nice sometimes to have at least one decision made for you.
19. Boys don't seem at all resistant to the color pink here.
20. The buses here are totally decked out in bright colors. Like, crazy professional-graffiti murals all over them with LED lights on the grills.
21. A lot of the trucks have lights on the front, too, purely for decoration.
22. Almost everyone gets around on motorcycles.
23. Sometimes the entire family is posed on the motorcycles, and it looks like the kid's driving, since she/he stands in front of the seat and holds the handbars, too.
24. You take your shoes off before entering any home, museum, wat, or classroom.
25. There are dogs everywhere. Not quite strays, not quite pets.
26. I feel safer at night because of the two dogs that sleep at the gate of the EcoHouse.
27. I have grown quite fond of the geckos in my room.
28. They are still absolutely terrified of me.

In Which I am Adored by Thai Children

Hello again, friends!

Sorry for the delay - some time Wednesday evening the internet quit working at the EcoHouse. Boo! Last night was filled with the excitement of the weekly trip to Tesco, but tonight I was able to walk down the street to the local internet cafe that is funded, I believe, exclusively through the foreign volunteers here in Sing Buri. As are many of the "taxi" drivers in town, too.

So, I am done with the orphanage! This afternoon, one of the other volunteers asked me if I was sad about leaving the kids. "Nope," I said. When she looked a little surprised at my lack of grief, I tried to explain how, after eight years of teaching, I'm used to saying good-bye to groups of kids. It's not entirely true, since I wasn't ever one to show that kind of emotion or make that kind of connection with students. Heck, it even inspired one of my pieces in "Making Waves"! Since she's one of the volunteers who have mingled tears with cigarettes at the thought of saying good-bye to the kids at the end of next week, I imagine she is as mystified by my cold-heartedness as I am by her overwhelming affection.

The kids are sweet, though. I've become popular thanks mostly to my supply of Uno cards, stickers, construction paper, and other such treats. Some of the girls gathered around me for a while today as I showed them photos on my iPhone - my cat, my parents in Egypt, Jason in Turkey, my speech kids, Rachel and Jack, and so on. They squealed over the picture of Jason and while I said firmly, "Friend. Friend," they looked at each other and said with that sliding, knowing, intonation, "Oooh, frrrriend...." That converation's exactly the same everywhere I go, apparently.

They were very excited by the colored construction paper packet - I had a mob of students around me asking for a page; I made them tell me the color of it in English before giving it to them. One girl drew a picture of a princess on her paper, then wrote "I love you," and presented it to me. I asked her to write her name on it, and she wrote "Atoo," followed her name in Thai. Another girl grabbed my left hand while I was teaching a group how to play jacks and tied a friendship bracelet onto my wrist. As we were pulling out of the school area, the kids mobbed the truck, grabbing our hands, calling good-byes, and making hearts with their hands. One little one pressed a stick of gum into my hand, then pressed up against the side of the truck, tilting her face as high as she could to whisper in my ear, "I love you."

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

In Which We Go Swimming

This morning I was prepared. When I got to the orphanage and found myself in a room of 2nd graders, I pulled out a deck of Uno cards and taught six of the kiddos how to play that. The others were busy playing a blend of tag/hide-and-seek/grab-my-purse-and-go-running-away with other volunteers.

The good news is that I'm seeing more misbehavior. It would have been too weird otherwise. Nothing unusual or too bad - just normal kid stuff.

At lunch, one of the veteran volunteers was complaining about how bad her kids were today - "One of them came to class with no books and no pencils. I told him to go get them, and he said, 'I don't want to!'" Her friends clucked in appropriate dismay. "They're like the worst kids ever!" she continued.

I snorted.

I'm sorry, I know it was rude, but I just couldn't help it. I snorted, they all looked at me, and I just continued to focus on my small noodles with chicken. I didn't want to do the whole "Lady, you have no clue," high-status thing, so I figured it was best to ignore it. Which they did as well.

I did introduce them to the concept of time-out today, though. We took the 4th graders swimming at the pool downtown - seven boys and one girl. Some of the kids were too wound-up by the whole thing and kept jumping off the side of the pool in the shallow end. The pool owner told them, "No jumping!" We told them, "No jumping!" Then one boy did it again, quite deliberately. The other volunteers did their usual thing - looked at them with big frowny faces and shook their fingers and said, "No jumping!" and then went back to big grins and hugs and kisses and such.

I thought, "Give me a break." I swam over to the kid, picked him up and sat him on the side of the pool. I looked him in the eye, firmly said, "Mai. Mai." ("No. No." Or perhaps "Dog. Dog.") and said, "Time out. Two minutes," pointing to the ground where he sat, to the clock on the wall, and held up the number two.

The other volunteers looked on aghast. "He's been told four times not to do that," I shrugged.

The kid knew exactly what was going on. He sat there sulking (as you have to do in time-out), then when the time was up he looked at me, I said, "Okay," and he got back in the water very nicely.

The veteran volunteers are very good at loving the kids - they hug them and kiss them and shower them with all kinds of affection that I'm sure the kids need. Still, I think sometimes they're reluctant to actually discipline the kids because of the whole "poor orphans!" thing. I'm not. I'm not good at the showering of affection, but I'm also not at all afraid to make sure the kids know they did something wrong. It makes me wonder if teaching's made me too thick-skinned (and I wasn't too much of a molly-coddler to begin with). Then again, it's also why I'm better at teaching middle and high school than I am with young kids.

Oh, speaking of thick skin, we discovered this deep cut in one of the boy's chins. He hadn't said a word about it - one of his buddies pointed it out. The kid was tough - it was a pretty deep cut, but it wasn't bleeding much. The kid held totally still while I cleaned out the wound with some iodine-looking stuff from a Thai first aid kit and bandaged him up. One of the other volunteers was set on getting him to a hospital for stitches. I pointed out that it was hardly bleeding. It was deep, but I put a normal bandage on it, and it didn't even bleed through that. I think they're afraid of infection, especially since the kids don't get good medical care at the orphanage from what we can see. I'll check in on the kid tomorrow to see how the gash is looking.

In any case, it was fun to swim with little kids today. We had the pool to ourselves, and we got them some ice cream.

After dinner tonight we went to a night market in town. Many of the stands were packing up when we got there, but it was open enough for me to get a new pair of sunglasses for $1.50 to replace my pair that had snapped in half yesterday. You should have seen the food for sale, though! It was too dark for me to take pictures, so you'll just have to imagine the tiny whole roasted birds tied together in pairs at the leg bones, the whole fish battered and fried and packed into wooden dim-sum-style baskets with eyes intact, giant (like, size of your forearm) boiled asparagus stalks, and the whole-squid-on-a-stick. I was certainly not hungry after that.

Oh, also? I may have eaten ant eggs and a fried snake head. That's what someone said was in the dinner today, and I didn't pick up on any cues of joking/sarcasm. I need to do a little more research on that one to see if they trump the sheep testicles from Paris that are currently at the top of my "weird-foods-I've-eaten" list.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

In Which My Skills are Put to the Test


You arrive at the orphanage for the second day. Paiwan shows you the week's schedule again and gestures at the upper levels of the building. You walk up to the second floor and along the hallway, peeking into the doorless classrooms as you go. You suddenly here your "name" ("You you you!") coming from the class of 12-year-olds you had just passed. You go back to the door that is at the front of the room. The teacher sees you, stops mid-sentence, bows to you, gestures towards his chair, and then walks out of the room, leaving you alone in a room of 30 students with whom you have no shared language.

What would you do?

(For the record, I sang songs with them, read the story of the tortoise and the hare from the English workbook one kid pulled out, and played Blink. It was the hardest 90 minutes of teaching in my life and I did a rather crappy job by my standards. Even trying to come up with songs led to me staring blankly into space, keenly aware of how rapidly I was losing them. If you can think of songs with very simple, repetitive lyrics, please put them in the comments for future teaching emergencies! We did "Old McDonald" the Hokey Pokey, "Head Shoulders Knees and Toes" and I tried "Once there was a Snowman," but ran into problems while trying to explain what a snowman was. They did like the "Baby Jaws" song, though.)

Monday, June 14, 2010

In Which I Bond with the People I Know Best

I'll have to be quick with today's entry, since the internet has been flaky today, and I'm not sure it'll last much longer.

I began my week at the orphanage this morning. I headed out to breakfast (french toast with chocolate syrup and fruit) at the canteen at 8:00. Shortly after that, 7 other volunteers and I boarded one of the Greenway trucks and headed off.

The orphanage was about a 20 minute drive away, not counting the stop we made for paint supplies. As we pulled through the white cement walls, kids came to the doors of the three-story open-walled school building and waved madly at us. Once we parked, the four volunteers who have been working at the orphanage for a while scattered to their favorite classrooms. Paiwan, the driver, took the rest of us on a quick tour of the school.

There's about 230 kids there, from age 4-17. They sleep on the floors of a big, open two-room building behind the school building. Jasmine, Lola, and Katy (the veterans of the group) spent the night with the kids last week and told us their week-day schedule. The kids get up at 5:00 to clean the dormitory and school rooms, then shower and have breakfast before starting classes at 8:00. They finish their school day at 4:00, play for an hour, have dinner, and then go to bed at 6:00.

Paiwan explained that there are three projects right now: painting one of the classrooms, laying down tile in one of the bathrooms, or "teaching". Two of the new girls wanted to paint; Declan, to token male of the group, volunteered to tile; and I, of course, took on teaching.

Paiwan pointed out the primary school classes (grades 1-4 on the first level of the building), told me "go see, go teach!" and then disappeared.

I found Katy in one of the rooms, grade 4 I believe, and she offered to let me help her. The 8 kids in the class were all coloring in the coloring books she had bought for them at Tesco. I pulled up a chair next to one set of 4 desks and... watched the kids color. I had no idea what else to do to be useful.

After a while, Katy went over the days of the week with the kids in English. She had them all write them down in their well-worn lecture books, and I sprang into action at that point, seeing something I could do. I helped a few of them with the spelling of the tricky words like "Wednesday" and went over the pronunciation of them a few times with independent kids. As they finished that, though, my helpfulness faded again.

So, I went looking for another classroom. I found one next door with some kids in it, but no teacher and no volunteers. The kids didn't seem to mind my pulling a chair up next to them, so I did that again and watched them work. They were doing some kind of writing in workbooks, spelling or science or something like that. One of the boys next to me was rather distracted - he wasn't doing much writing. So, I pulled out my notebook and a pen and started to copy the words he was writing. Since it was it Thai, I had no idea what I was writing down, but once he saw what I was doing, he was glued to my paper. When I reached the end of where he had gotten no, I pointed to the blank spot on his paper and said, "Next?" He got the hint, and, watching my hand carefully, he started to work again. He beamed when he saw me continue to copy whatever it was he was writing. Soon, I had a crowd of the kids around me, pointing at my writing and jabbering to each other.

That quickly turned into an English-Thai lesson as we took turns pointing to the pictures in their workbooks. I would say the word in English, they would all repeat it, then they'd say it in Thai, and I would repeat that. When we ran out of words on the page, I started drawing pictures in my notebook of various animals for them to identify.

They started to get a little bored, and one of the boys next to me tore off a corner of paper and wadded it up. He grabbed my hands and pulled my arms straight, palms up. He then walked me through a little magic trick - putting the paper in my palm, then in the crook of my elbow, then in my left palm, then in my other elbow crook, and then "Magic!" it's disappeared!

I, of course, had to respond with my dad's good ol' rubbing a coin into your elbow trick, except with a piece of paper instead. They loved the trick and begged me to repeat it over and over "One more! One more!" Fortunately, it was lunch time by then, and I had to leave.

We left the school grounds for lunch at a restaurant down the road ("restaurant" meaning a roof over some stone tables ... kind of like an outdoor truck stop).

When we returned, Paiwan pointed me in the direction of the upper grades. I went up the stairs to find that the students were all still on break. I sat on the benches along the wall and watched them. I loved it, these middle-school-aged kids. They're the same everywhere. The boys roughhousing and teasing each other, some walking with very low status, some with a swagger you can tell they're imitating from someone older. The girls were teasing the boys right back. Some of the bolder ones came right up to me and asked, "What your name?" I'd tell them, and they'd run giggling back to their groups to chatter about... me, I'd guess.

A bell rang, the students drifted off to the different rooms, and I walked down the hall under I found what had to be the library - a sad collection of books. I thought of the boxes and boxes of young adult books I have in my garage at home and wished I had a way to get them there for those kids.

One of the teachers poked her head in when she saw me there and invited me to go to her room. I did, and a girl grabbed my hand and pulled me to a desk next to hers at the front while all of the other kids stared. From what I could tell, they were writing essays about computers. The girl quickly stopped working, though, to get down to the important questions:
"What is your name?"
"Amanda." (Much repeating of this one - it must be strange-sounding to them!)
"Where are you from?"
"Do you have baby (she pantomimes being pregnant, drawing an invisible bulge on her belly)?"
(Laughing) "No."
"Do you have boyfriend in America?"
(Still laughing) "No."
"Do you have boyfriend in Thailand?"
"No, no boyfriend."
"You can have boyfriend here!" she said, waving her hand around, indicating the boys who were sitting at the back of the room, watching this interchange.

After declining her generous offer, I asked her if she had a boyfriend. "No!" she said, while her friend behind us started giggling. "I am only 13. At 13, only study. At 14, study. 15, 16, 17 you have boyfriends."

Kitty (her nickname, she explained. She called her friends Sati, Liti, Fiti. Man, I love 13-year-olds!) went on to teach me all kinds of interesting things. With the help of an "English for Kids" dictionary, she taught me how to say "I love you," "I am beautiful," and the days of the week in Thai. She repeatedly told me I was beautiful ("You don't look 40! You very beautiful!") and put her arm next to mine for comparison. "White skin, you are beautiful! I am Africa!" and she'd wrinkle her nose in disgust. I tried to tell her the opposite, but she was having none of that.

Kitty also asked me about computers (since that was the essay topic and all). She asked if I had one at home. When I said I had two, she was shocked. She also asked if I had a piano (keyboards in common, perhaps?) and if I played the violin. When I asked her if she plays, she said she dances instead. Which led us to another very important topic of conversation - Lady Gaga. Luckily, I had a couple of her songs on my iPhone so we could sing along a little.

When that class got out, I observed a science class and helped the teacher for a little bit with an English class by listening to the kids read sentences to me "What is this? They are jump ropes. What is this? They are kites."

We left the orphanage at 3:00, stopping by downtown Singburi for snacks from the 7-11 (cold water and a strawberry popsicle! Yum!) (They have Magnums here, Em, but it's been way too hot to eat something that rich. Still, I think of you every time I see one!).

What I think about today:
1. I don't think I made a lick of real difference to the kids.
2. I'm going to wear rattier clothes tomorrow and see if I can spend part of the day painting or laying tile so I have more sense of accomplishment.
3. I think if I were here longer, I might bond with them better. As it is, I'm a passing character.
4. The other volunteers said they like the little kids better than the older ones. "At least with the little ones you can, you know, tickle them until they laugh. What do you do with older kids?"
5. What do you do? You talk about boys and music, of course!
6. I really miss hanging out with middle school kids.
7. How weird does that make me?
8. Monday = purple for the teacher's uniforms.
9. Everyone takes off their shoes before going into the room.
10. Despite distractions (like, say, me), I saw absolutely no behavior issues today. None. The teachers told the kids what to do and they did it. No interventions needed. And these kids are all way below the poverty levels of urban US kids, so take THAT STMS philosophy!

This week will be educational for me, I'm certain. It might also be slow and boring and kind of purpose-lacking. I'll do what I can, but without more structure, I'm not sure I can do all that much.

(So much for this being a brief entry, ay? Here's hoping the connections still around long enough for me to publish!)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

See How Much I Love You?

I love you more than the number of bug bites I received sitting out here in the canteen after dark listening to bad Thai karaoke coming from the bar across the street waiting for the video I made for you to upload to youtube so I can share it with you today instead of waiting for tomorrow like a reasonable person would when bugs are literally crawling on her skin and her computer screen.


Here's the video. Enjoy!

A Day of Rest

Today was a light day here at the Eco House.

slept in a little,
read for a while in bed,
had brunch at the canteen,
did some sink laundry,
took a "taxi" with 11 other volunteers to downtown Sing Buri,
had an ice cream treat at the "mall,"
looked (unsuccessfully) for a power cord for my DS that works abroad,
bought some Tiger Balm for my bug bites,
swam at the local pool,
took the taxi back to the Eco House just in time for dinner,
made a little video about my week here,
and did a little blogging (the promised post about yesterday's adventures is below).

Not bad at all!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

In Which I am Too Tired to Blog Properly

I am working on an entry about today's trip to the waterfalls, but I am too tired to finish it tonight. Sorry! I will tell you that while typing, a mid-sized bug landed on my keyboard and died. Not that I slapped it or anything - it just croaked. Since I am being eaten alive by his fellows out here, though, I'm heading to bed.

But first, some teasers for tomorrow's entry:

SEE me climb a mountain!

THRILL with me as I save a young Thai girl from a monkey!

SHIVER as I encounter flesh-eating fish!

REMINISCE with me as I walk across a bridge!

SLAP mosquitoes and flies with me as I head off to bed!

SWEAT with me while just sitting here typing!

(Okay, seriously. A cockroach just crawled across my shirt. I say good night!)

In Which I Recall that Nature = Dirt + Bugs

You know, living in Colorado gets to me every so often. There are so many people there who claim to love the outdoors, to enjoy hiking and going out and being around nature, that the drugged fumes from the Kool-Aid all around gets to me and I start thinking, "Hey! Nature's not so bad! I like walking and nature's awful pretty from this distance, so I bet I'd like combining the two!"

Readers, I would be wrong about that.

It was this same kind of thinking that led me to sign up for an optional day trip today. The other girls were going to go to a waterfall aways away from here. They had been talking about it all week and had politely invited me along as well. I declined, since I knew that it involved a 3-4 hour drive, and I could barely stomach 1 hour riding sideways in those open truck beds.

But they were so excited about it. And they were going to go swimming (which I do love to do). And what else did I have to do this Saturday? And then I found out they were going to stop to see the bridge over the River Kwai.

And then I found out that they were actually going in a van. With normal, forward-facing seats. And AIR CONDITIONING.

And so I signed up to go.

We left at 6:00, spending the first hour of the drive with each of us in that early-morning silent independent bubble. When we got back on the bus after a quick rest stop, the driver pushed a button to lower a tv screen from the ceiling as he pulled out of the parking lot. Without a word of explanation, he started up the pilot episode of "Prison Break". Three episodes later, we arrived at the bridge.

It is now, as you might expect, very touristy. There's gift shops and restaurants all around and a little dinky train that goes back and forth across it and that almost ran us over at a slow crawl. We took pictures, walked across it and back, and then browsed the souvenir stands for a bit before heading back onto the bus.

The road was getting twisty at this point, and I was pressing my motion-sickness watch into my wrist in an effort to feel better or at least get through the drive. So it was with relief that we pulled into another parking lot and J.J. declared us to be at our destination.

There were some food stands, a sparse visitor's center, and some restrooms. We all lined up to use the one Western toilet, waving the confused Thais past us to use the squat ones. I stepped into a stall to pull on my swim suit, then bought a "chicken burger" for lunch at one of the stands.

We set off down the road towards the first set of falls. The "Seven Steps Waterfall" is so named because it is actually a series of falls and pools going down the mountainside. At each one you are allowed to swim in the green and white pools at the base. The first one had a few little kids in it, under the watchful eyes of their moms and dads back in the shade of the trees on shore. Another couple hundred meters, and we found the second set, by far the most people-filled. The path to the third set was blocked by a ranger station that said that all food was prohibited from that point on.

I hadn't eaten yet, so I told the others to go on without me and settled on to one big square bamboo benches to eat my lunch/people-watch. When I finished, I deliberated a little - I could just hang out here, swim, and so on. The Dutch, I knew, were set on hiking all the way to the 7th level. Ultimately, the "when will you ever be here again?" argument won out, and I packed up my bag and headed up the trail.

At first, it was undeniably lovely. The bright, bright shades of green everywhere, the twisting and looping branches of the bamboo and teak forest, the sound of the birds and insects and water - just, lovely.

I passed the third level, crossed a rickety wooden bridge and mounted several dozen high-step stairs, and found the fourth set of falls. By this time, I felt both a sense of accomplishment and a sense that I was missing something. When I stopped at the fourth falls for a rest, I realized that what I felt was missing was some sort of congratulations. Not for the physical exertion, no. Between the various people I passed, making short conversations with; the spots of difficulty where I had to pause a moment to figure out how to get over the water or up the steep rocks; the white and yellow butterflies that would hover over the spots where it was best for me to step; and wooden signs with yellow lettering counting off each level - I was actually expecting congratulations because it felt an awful lot like I was living out an episode from the Legend of Zelda.

I passed all sorts of people on the way - families, couples, Thais, Brits, Germans, two drunk Thai guys in girl's wigs who stopped me to chat for a while about America. Everyone was friendly with that sort of "we're all sharing the same unique experience"-ness.

By the time I reached the 7th level at the end of the hour-long climb I was soaked with sweat. The top pool looked about the same as the others, but this time I recognized the people swimming in it. J.J., Jenna, and Leonie greeted me enthusiastically and invited me in, but cautioned me to watch out for the monkeys and the fish.

I pulled off my outer clothes, slapping at the flies and mosquitoes who took sudden interest in my exposed flesh, tucked my bag out of the sight of the monkey watching carefully from a nearby tree, and slipped down the moss into the water. It was warm, refreshing, and the slick rocks all over gave it a milky greenish-white hue. I slid over to where the girls were sitting and as I settled in next to them, I felt a little mouth nibbled at my heel. I squealed and flapped my foot around.

"That's the fish," Jenna explained. "They'll eat your skin if you stop moving."

"Holy nature crap," I thought. I said, "Thanks for the warning!" and started to paddle my feet. I watched in disbelief as the little 5-inch fish swam up to my feet and hands, darting in for a taste whenever I held still. I could see their little sucky mouths moving as they talked about the tenderness of this particular cut of meat.

I put up with the weirdness long enough to slid around on the rocks a bit more, stand underneath the downpour of the falls to soak my head, and swim about to some of the different areas of the pool. The sensation of little lips and teeth on my extremities was too much for me, though, and I got out of the water and shook myself off.

A group of Thai teenage girls had made it up by now, and they were very excited by the sight of the monkey, who was now perched on the sign announcing this as the "7th Levels". The monkey's posture looked casual,but he was watching everyone's bags very closely. Suddenly, he darted off the sign and made for one of the girls. The monkey grabbed her bag as she screamed and tugged back on the strap. He had a good grip on the bag itself, though, and was quite determined to hold on to it. As he reached up towards her arm with his free hand, I ran over to them brandishing the only weapon I had - my skirt. I flapped my skirt at him and shouted either "No! No!" or "Dog! Dog!" (I'm not quite clear on the pronunciation of those words in Thai yet).

The monkey got all wide-eyed at the onslaught of floral fabric and white pasty flesh, reached into the bag to grab a bag of chips, then released the purse to retreat into a tree. He swung onto a branch just over our heads and, holding the bag with his feet, ripped it open and started eating the chips with both hands.

The Thai girl was so shocked by the whole thing, she just turned to me with a dazed expression and bobbed her head in a half-wai of thanks before being surrounded by her friends who were all exclaiming over the incident.

Which is why, when we made it back down from the mountain to the comfort of the van with it's cool air and "Prison Break" dvds, I eyed the dirt all over myself, scratched at the new bites and red rash on my arms, and decided that although I had beaten the monkey boss at the end of the seventh level, I have no desire to "enjoy" nature again for a long, long time.


The Bridge

A Sun-Protected Me on the Bridge

One of the Staircases to the Top

Nature's Beauty and all that crap:

The Seventh Level

The Monkey and His Prize