Author Archives: jmr519

My Thailand

My Thailand is a tiny room resting

between rice fields and quiet roads, a friendly

face smiling as it rides by on a rusty bike, moving

slow, as the Thais tend to do. It’s a walk

through the village, the rising sun poking through

palm trees, a warm breeze that never leaves.

 

My Thailand is a ‘Good morning, teacher’,

rows of dark faces, my arm against theirs.

‘Same, same,’ I say, but not in their mind.

It’s a slight bow and a wai, hands together

at the heart, fingers pointed to the sky.

It’s respect in their speech and looks,

a face forever calm, words forever kind.

 

My Thailand is a golden Buddha within

a gilded temple, quiet except for chimes

that chink in the wind. It’s a line

of monks in saffron robes, solemn and slow,

walking the streets at sunrise.

It’s a Pali chant, a string tied

around our heads. It’s good karma,

a wooden temple, only me as I stay

under the golden Buddha’s gaze, bowing

three times, forehead to the floor, glancing

sideways at the sleeping monk

as he lays wrapped in his robe.

 

My Thailand is a street market,

meat-scented smoke

spiraling through the carts

as the sun goes mute. It’s a fruit

with scarlet spikes, coconut water in a bag,

sweet desserts so cheap they could

give them away. It’s a plastic table

above a plastic stool, the Thais and me

sitting along the highway as we eat.

 

My Thailand is an ancient moat, shamrock water,

fountains that send droplets to the skin of walkers

and riders. It’s a brick wall, sagging

under the weight of seven centuries,

built by a long-ago king. It’s yellow flowers

budding in a tree, trunk wrapped

in a sacred sash, a life-saving ring.

 

My Thailand is a coolness

that slips in slowly

behind the rain, two seasons

each day. It’s my students

wrapped in blankets, the coldest winter

in 50 years, they say. It’s a lantern

that goes to greet the stars, and more

that follow as we light small fires

in their center, pushing them up,

hoping the good wishes

come back down to help us thrive

as we move forward in life.

 

My Thailand is the acrid air of April

sitting in the valley. It’s smoke that stings

the eyes, throats, and lungs, fires

that clear old fields away.

It’s watching the mountains disappear

behind smoke and smog, praying for rain

so we can see again. It’s riding

motorbikes as we weave through cars,

breathing through masks to help us

if we have to go far.

 

My Thailand is a monsoon rain

when it can’t get any hotter, biting

heavy on metal roofs, greeting

the new season with a festival of water.

It’s clear air, peaks

we can see again, a night

on a rooftop where we watch

the moon gather herself full

in the sky above Chiang Mai.

 

My Thailand is a mountain,

city sentry,

offering shade

as the cloudless sky fades.

It’s the sun, seeing me,

waving a final farewell

as the land moves up

and carries me into another day,

another home,

half a world away.

 

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The End of an Adventure

On December 6th, my time in Thailand ended. I left the people who had so freely given me their love anddsc_1675 support over the past fourteen months. I left the smiles of the Thai people. I left my students, who had taught me so much. I left Mimi the motorbike. I left, and I started the phase that follows the greatest adventure my short life has seen. It’s inevitable that this new phase would be a little lackluster, coming on the heels of something so grand. And I knew it’d be difficult to leave the independent life I’d made for myself, to trade it in for one much less exciting, much more dependent. But certainly, the transition back to the US would be easier than the transition I made to Thailand, right? I grew up in America. I understood the culture. I had family there. I had friends there. I liked the food. But it wasn’t easier. Hardly. When I left for Thailand, I knew that everything would change, and I welcomed that. I knew I’d meet new people, experience incredible things, learn and grow in ways I couldn’t imagine. I was excited, and I was ready. In Thailand I grew used to change. I reveled in it. I expected it when I returned, and I prepared for the move and all the shifts that would come with it. I wasn’t prepared for what I got.

I wasn’t prepared for the fact that nothing had changed, that everything and everyone had, essentially, remained where they had been fourteen months ago. There was nothing to suggest that so many months had gone by since I had left them. I had just spent more than a year of my life traveling, teaching, expanding my personality, learning about other cultures, and becoming, in short, a new version of myself. When I got back to Illinois, I looked around and saw nothing new. All the same buildings were img_1351there. All the same people were there. All the same personalities were there. Within a day, it felt like Thailand was years behind me. My memories of riding Mimi down the congested streets, eating Thai food at the little street markets, talking with my friends…all of it seemed so far away. It was as if I was floating on the surface of the ocean and looking at my memories on the ocean floor. I could see them, and, theoretically, I could get to them, but there was something in my way that obscured them. That barrier felt dangerous, impenetrable. I had to focus to keep looking at that ocean floor, reminding myself that I had been there and done all those amazing things, that I was different from the person who left, that it wasn’t all a dream. I had to constantly remind myself of the ways I had changed in Thailand as my personality attempted to shift back to its former state to find comfort in its new setting. When my family and friends wanted to take me out to eat, I had to fight the desire to be alone. They couldn’t relate to my experience, and I couldn’t expect them to.

But then, how much are any of us ever really able to relate to each other? We’ve only seen the world through our own eyes. Compassion and empathy can do great things for human connection and understanding, but they have their limits. I knew I’d be alone in that way, being the only permw14son who could really understand what I was thinking and feeling. Luckily, Thailand taught me how to get along with myself a little better. It taught me how to let my emotions have their place in my heart and mind. It taught me to let myself feel the way I need to feel, to be gentle and kind to myself. It gave me a greater understanding of my spiritual place in the universe and my body’s role in allowing me access to that. It taught me how to sit with my thoughts without judgment, how to feel pain without forcing it away, and how to experience happiness even in the hardest moments. It taught me how to be my own best friend. So, when I got back to the US and could find no one to relate to in the way I needed, I looked inward. I spoke with my own spirit, analyzed my thoughts, and sat with myself, letting us remember what we had just left and acknowledging that this new phase would be challenging, just as the last fourteen months had been.

I miss my friends in Thailand dearly. I miss Li’s strength and open honesty, Sarah’s incredible capacity for love, and Toni’s warmth and positive energy. They were my people. They were the best part of my experience, and I couldn’t have asked for a better support system to love me and be with me through the good and bad times mt3in Thailand. They helped me move closer to the best version of myself, and missing them is the hardest part. I have my people in America, certainly. I have my friends and my family, and they all support me and love me in the best way they know how. But it’s harder when their love is tempered with expectation. They knew me before I left for Thailand, and they expect me to be a certain kind of person because of that (understandably). My family is a unit, and they expect me to conform to certain unspoken standards that the unit has set. This is not true for only my family, and I don’t look at it in a negative way. I believe this is true for all families, and, to some extent, that’s why families are able to act as one entity. So, while I attempt to integrate myself once again into my various groups here, I have to take care to set certain boundaries in order to remain true to my own standards and lifestyle. I became a person I was proud to be in Thailand, and I’m not willing to sacrifice that in order to regain my former status, whatever that may have been, with my friends or family. But as of now, my relationships are moving in the directions they need to move. I have work to do with certain people who don’t yet understand how my personality has changed, but it’s work I’m happy to do. It’s work that I knew would have to take place and is just another facet of the challenge that I am now immersed in.

Being back in the US is hard. I want to see rice fields instead of corn fields, feel heat instead odsc_2890f cold, drive a motorbike instead of a car, spend $1 on food instead of $10. I miss the life I had created in Thailand. I miss seeing new, exotic things. I miss the beauty of the mountains. I miss the positive energy of the people. I miss the simplicity and ease of daily life. But life in Illinois has its sources of light as well, and I’m working to discover and create more of them each day. I started from scratch in Thailand and created something beautiful, and, while I’m starting with different, pre-ordered materials here in the US, I believe I can create something beautiful once again.

I will be here for four months before I start my next adventure. I know some of you may be curious, so I’ll let you in on the secret. I will be traveling to Chile to participate in a volunteer teaching program at the beginning of April. I’ll be there for about eight months, teaching English to secondary school students. As I have said before, Thailand was only the beginning. My adventures are not over. I plan to make my life one long string of adventures, a serious of experiences and experiments that will help me continue to grow, learn, and transform. I will not waste my time with complacency or boredom. Thailand helped me build my wings, and now I will use them to fly. And my next stop will be Chile.

I want to take one last moment to thank all of you out there who supported me throughout my time in Thailand. My gratitude is endless. Sending love and light to you all.

 

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Volunteering in Indonesia

The small town of Klaten, Indonesia is unheard of in tourist circles. Its larger neighbor Yogyakarta is friceamous only because it’s home to the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Klaten, untouched by tourism, has retained its traditional Javanese culture, and during my two weeks in the town, I was able to experience that culture in so many ways.

I went to Klaten for a Workaway experience. One of my friends had highly recommended it, and, having been wanting to go to Indonesia since my arrival in Thailand, I decided to try it. It seemed like a good way to travel as well as to use my teaching experience since the Workaway involved teaching English at a small English institute called E-FUN. The owner of the school—and the man whose house I lived in while in Klaten—is named Ovick. Ovick is a small, lanky man with dark skin and kind eyes. And he’s one of the most amazing human beings I’ve met during my travels. He started E-FUN about five years ago, when he was around 22 years old. He now has a wife sambisari1and an adorable two-year-old daughter, Jouly (pronounced like Jolly), who calls all the female volunteers tia (aunt in Spanish).  I’ve met few people in my life who use the hours in their day as productively as Ovick. He takes care of his family, runs and teaches at E-FUN, helps to organize several community projects, volunteers at a local school for blind students, takes the volunteers to see local sights, and works on plans for future projects. He is an incredibly driven man who anyone would have difficulty keeping up with. During my two weeks at his home, he and his wife and daughter became like family to me. On the first evening I arrived, they took me and the other volunteers, Gina and Erin, to a local restaurant where we ordered fried veggies and rice. The seating consisted of weaved mats laid out on a sidewalk in front of some closed shops. The mats were already mostly taken by local families who stared at the three foreigners who looked around awkwardly, wondering which bare spot of ground to grab. Ovick made the decision for us, and we continued to be an object worthy of stares throughout the remainder of the meal (that would continue to be true during the entire two weeks I was there). There were no utensils. We ate with our fingers, dipping them in small bowls of water to clean them off when they got a little too sticky from the rice we were using as a quasi-utensil. In that moment, I realized I had made the right decision in coming to Klaten. I could’ve gone to Bali for those two weeks. I could’ve laid on a beach, biked through rice fields, taken a surfing lesson. But it wouldn’t have been real. It would’ve been an Indonesia altered for tourists. What I got was an Indonesia in it’s pure form, and that’s exactly what I wanted. Even the traditional Islam prayers blaring through the loudspeakers at 4 am—a facet of the experience that annoyed most people—only added to the charm of the little town I found myself in.

E-FUN Institute, Ovick’s English school, is a yellow and lime green building sitting on a busy efuncorner. All the teachers are locals, and they are some of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and I say that after having lived in Thailand for over a year. Indonesia has a majority Muslim population, and all the female teachers wore the traditional hijab, hiding their skin to save it for their husbands. In America, people are conditioned to fear Islam and all the symbols associated with it, and arriving in Indonesia showed me that I had unconsciously succumbed to some of that conditioning. I found myself uncomfortable around the women in the head scarves when I first arrived at the school, and became very aware of my own exposed skin. But after spending a little time at the school, I overcame the conditioning and found myself completely at ease with those same women and in that community. They didn’t judge me because I didn’t conform to their faith. They didn’t insult me when I wore pants that exposed my knees. They didn’t try to avoid me out of discomfort. They gave me nothing but kindness and acceptance. They welcomed me into their lives without a second thought and treated me like their sister. Living in that community helped me to unravel some of the stereotypes that have so often been forced on me by my culture regarding Muslims and their faith. teaching5Islam is, like every religion, beautiful in certain ways and restricting in others. To some, its rules may seem outdated. But then I invite you to look at the limits Christianity imposes on the LGBT community and tell me that isn’t also outdated. Whenever I left the school, each of the female teachers would grab my upper arms and pull me to them, kissing me on each cheek. It was an act of intimacy I never expected because theirs was a culture I never understood. There was a day when we went to a local school to teach English, and the volunteers were asked to wear a modest clothing and a head scarf. I could’ve said no. I could’ve refused to go to the school, refused to conform to their cultural norms, citing my own beliefs. But I didn’t, because that wasn’t the important part of that day. The important part was that we had an opportunity to teach some eager students English. We had an opportunity to share our culture and learn from theirs. We had an opportunity to make a difference. That’s what was important, and that’s why I wore a head scarf that day. People in today’s world seem to think compromise is a weakness. In that moment, I learned that it’s not. It’s an opportunity that can create other opportunities.

blindschoolOne of the best projects I got to participate in was Ovick’s volunteer work at a local school for blind students. We went there both Fridays I was there, and it was one of the most inspiring things I’ve done. The students are all visually impaired, so while they may not be completely blind, they all have at least some difficultly seeing. Because of that, they rely much more on their other senses, including touch. They responded calmly to our handshakes, bringing our hands to their cheek or forehead in the traditional respectful greeting. They all had their friends, and they clung to each other as if they were afraid they’d be lost if they let go. They sat side by side, their knees leaning into each other’s laps, their hands pretzeled together to form a knot that they held between them, their white, often disfigured eyes wandering around the room. When we taught them how to sing ‘This Little Light of Mine’ and ‘You Are My Sunshine’, they moved with the sound of the guitar by rocking back and forth or waving their hands in the air to match the rhythm of the songs. They learned quickly, relying on their listening skills to help them. Their energy was beautiful. They didn’t act disabled. They acted like the children they were. They misbehaved when they got bored, clapped when they got excited, and thanked us when we left. When I left them, I tried to look at the world as if there’d be a day when I’d no longer be able to see it.

After a few days of being in Klaten, Erin, Gina, and I decided to attempt to hike up Mt. Merapi, the most active volcano in Indonesia, conveniently located about an hour from Klaten. Ovick found us an informal guide, a friend who worked with another friend at a recently opened café near Ovick’s house. The night we were supposed to head to the volcano, it was raining, and Ovick suggested we cancel and try another night, but after Ovick left, we asked the guide if he would be able to go another night. He said no. He had already rented his equipment and wouldn’t be able to afford it again. When it stopped raining around 10 pm, we made the decision to go. Gina backed out, not willing to try it if it meant hiking in the rain. But the night was clearing up, and it was something I felt I needed to do. Eggy, our giggly, chain-smoking guide, called a friend with a flatbed truck to get us to the volcano. Eggy, Erin, me, and Eggy’s friend Dian all piled into the back and settled in for the ride. It was already a chilly night, and I was already feeling sleepy. But I knew hiking would wake me up. Mt. Merapi is generally done as a night hike because daytime is often too hot, and most people like to get to the summit for the amazing sunrise. We were determined to make it. merapi8Erin wanted the sunrise, and I simply wanted to say I had hiked to the top of the most active volcano in Indonesia. We started hiking around 1 am after several small delays and were immediately exhausted. Our bodies had no idea what was going on. Eggy’s pack was loaded with a tent and general gear, and he made it heavier with six beers they planned to drink when they reached the summit. He clearly hadn’t prepared for the hike. The path was steep and rocky and we were constantly having to fumble over tree roots. Eggy and Dian stopped every few minutes to catch their breath, often collapsing onto the path, causing the beer bottles to jingle in the pack. Erin and I hiked ahead and stopped to wait for the men who were supposed to be guiding us. It became frustrating, but we countered the frustration by letting the fullness of the night be there with us. When the clouds parted for a few minutes, we watched the stars. The only sounds were our feet as we shifted from hip to hip and the few bugs making their nightly noises. We could see very little, but it was beautiful in a new way. My body was completely confused, but it was awake and more aware than it had been in a long time. We reached a trail marker about two and half hours into the hike, discovering that we had only made it about halfway. Our legs were tired, our mental strength was being stretched, and the intensity of the midnight workout made me feel like vomiting. On top of all that, it had started to drizzle. Eggy and Dian, with the very little English they had, tried to convince us to stop and put up the tent. But we didn’t want to. Erin and I were determined to make it to the top. We ate some bread to soak up some of the juices rumbling around in our stomachs, and we kept walking. About thirty minutes later, we entered a thick fog that made it nearly impossible for us to see more than a few feet in front of us. And Eggy and Dian were ‘sick’. I suppose they meant they were physically and mentally exhausted but had no words to describe that in English. We had to stop. It was 4 am, and we weren’t going to make it for sunrise. It was starting to rain harder, and although we had two tents, there was only enough space and energy for one. So the four of us climbed into the two person tent, sat there awkwardly for a few minutes, trying to figure out how we were going to attempt to sleep, and eventually just laid down side by side, me scrunched between Eggy and Erin. We opened one of the sleeping bags and threw it across all four of our shivering bodies, hoping it would warm us enough to allow us to slip into a light sleep. We were laying on the floor of the tent with only a thin layer of fabric separating us from the rocks beneath us. We were constantly shifting and fighting for more of the sleeping bag. Ultimately, I got no sleep in the hour we were in the tent. Around 5 am, as the sun was rising on the other side of the volcano, Erin got up and insisted we all do the same. We had to move. Eggy and Dian were still ‘sick’, but Erin and I were done. We wanted to continue going up or head back down. We didn’t necessarily care which at that point. We packed up our things and decided to head back down. We had missed sunrise. We were already sore from the hike up. And the hike down would now be twice as difficult with the path being wet. Eggy and Dian decided to join us, and we all headed down. As hard as the hike up was, it wasn’t nearly as frustrating as the hike down. My knees and ankles were already weak, but the wet mud that covered the path demanded that they be completely engaged. I had to take tiny steps to keep the bottom of my muddy shoes from slipping on the frictionless earth, and each placement of my foot had to be strategic. If my foot was turned at a merapi1certain angle, or if I stepped on a part of the path that was too steep, or if my weight shifted incorrectly when putting my foot down, I would inevitably slip. And I did indeed slip. I fell at least five times, each time gathering more mud on my legs and back. The only things that kept my spirits up were the amazing view of the mountain opposite Merapi and the fields and towns at its base that began to unfold as the fog finally lifted, and Erin, who helped me laugh through all of it. While it may have been frustrating in the moment, I knew I would look back on it and think of it as an experience worth having. And it was. When we finally made it to the bottom of the path, we were greeted by locals working on each side of the street. They were perhaps digging a drain or planting something along the edge of the road, but whatever caused them to be there, there were a lot of them, and we attracted everyone’s attention. Certainly, they had seen foreigners before. Mt. Merapi is an incredibly popular hike for tourists. But they still found us fascinating. Erin and I were like the main attraction of a two-person parade. We waved, said hello, and even shook hands with some of the bolder men and women. Once, when we were waiting for a truck to finish backing up, a man grabbed me kindly by the arm and escorted me safely around the back of the truck, allowing me to continue on my way with a smile. Eggy and Dian took their time. We waited at a local hotel for them, unsure of how we were going to get back. When we discovered that a local driver wanted 300,000 rupiah to drive us back to Klaten (about $23, which doesn’t sound like much, but it was exorbitant compared to average prices), we decided to take our chances with other forms of transportation. Eggy andmerapi Dian originally tried to flag down passing trucks which we could use to hitchhike back home, but that didn’t work. The only one that stopped was a truck that had just transported a load of manure—we weren’t about to sit in there for an hour, even if it was free. We sat on the side of the road for a while until we were eventually able to get on a public bus that ended up being packed with about twenty people when it should’ve held about ten. It was what I’ve heard described as a ‘chicken bus’ because you’ll often find things such as live chickens in cages on them. It wasn’t quite that bad, but there was a crying baby and several baskets of vegetables. And it was getting hot and sticky, being close to noon at this point. The four of us were in and out of sleep, and I was only mildly bothered by the stares we attracted. We had to switch buses after what seemed like hours on the first bus, and endured another hour on the second, less crowded bus. By the time we parted from Eggy and Dian, I had been awake for about 30 hours. As long as I can help it, that personal record will remain on the books until I die. We didn’t make it to the top of Mt. Merapi, but we tried. And we gained an experience and a story in the process. It was worth it for me, and I’ll always be grateful I made it halfway.

Another highlight of my time in Klaten was Halloween. On the weekend before Halloween, Ovick had planned a Halloween themed trash pick-up at the local Sunday walking street. His school hosts the Klaten English Community, halloween2a group also started by Ovick that offers projects in and for the community. Being interested in the American version of Halloween, Ovick decided to incorporate it into that weekend’s project. On Saturday, the community met to make masks and signs to carry at the walking street the next day. We bought materials, gathered in the courtyard, and prepared until the sun went down. The next day, we donned the masks, made up Ovick and Agid, another teacher at the school, to look like the Joker, and brought our signs and trash cans to the walking street. Of course, the whole group attracted a lot of attention, and Erin, Gina, and I were often being pulled aside to take pictures, the light skin of our arms and legs giving away that we were foreigners. Most of it was good attention thoughalloween8h. People saw that we were there to help do what they should have been doing. We were setting a good example, and some people even stopped to pick up a few pieces of trash around them to help us. Many people thanked us. We held up our signs telling people not to litter, to protect the earth. Even if only one person heard us and took us seriously, it was worth it. We did something good for the world that day, and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to celebrate Halloween.

It was also in Indonesia that I learned who would be the next president of my home country. It was pouring rain that day. When we arrived at the school, which sat a foot or so below the level of the road, we found that it was flooded with about six inches of water. We were drenched and wading through the murky rainwater when I turned on my WiFi and saw that Trump had won the US presidency. I had been watching the map all day. I had seen Florida turn red. Then most of the Midwest and east coast. I knew how it’d probably turn out, but I had held out hope. Until the moment when the bar slid with finality to Trump’s side. I was devastated. And that night, after we had removed the water and cleaned up the school, I sat outside and cried. I was angry. I was sad. My country had fallen to the side of hate. The prospect of a country under Trump scared me. But honestly, more than anything else, I was overcome with guilt. I felt guilty for being a citizen of the country that had just elected a man who would likely cause immense suffering in the lives of so many people around the world. Before that day, I was living in a country where women’s rights, LGBT rights, and environmental protections were finally flourishing. Things were getting better. Things were progressing. And then I realized how much of it would be undone in the coming four years, how much we would have to redo, and how much pain all of it would cause. It was three days before I could think of it rationally. And then I thought of all the good I had seen on my travels. I’d met kind, compassionate people. I’d seen places so beautiful they could cause me to forget to breath. I’d been surrounding by intense, uninhibited love. And those things helped me pull myself out of the depression caused by the election. The world I’d seen was capable of fighting the hatred, racism, and misogyny that Trump would inevitably try to spread. The people I’d met would not succumb to his attempts to divide and destroy. The love I’d experienced would be the thing to bring Americans together when they finally decided to compromise. There was hope…there is hope. And that’s what I’m holding on to.

It still amazes me when I think of everything we did during the two weeks I was in Klaten. We visited a local springspring where you could swim in the cold, clear, natural water with hundreds of fish. We took a tour of a tofu and tempe factory. We saw four different temples, including Borobudur, where we also did finally get to a see a spectacular sunrise. We saw a local puppet show, volunteered with several community projects, took a Batik (traditional Javanese clothing style) class, and shopped at Malioboro Street in Jogja. But, as with borobudur5any place I’ve traveled to, it’s the people that will stick in my memories the most. It’s Ovick with his kind heart, and his family who welcomed me into their home and laughed with me over dinner. It’s Peter, Ovick’s friend who sells clothing he has designed to raise money for a school he is building on an impoverished island south of Bali. It’s Agid, List, and the other teachers at E-FUN who gave me a new outlook on Islam.  It’s the blind students who taught me how to look at the world a little differently. It’s Erin, Gina, and Elle, the other volunteers who taught me that deep, meaningful friendships can be made in only a matter of days. It was everyone there who once again proved to me that traveling is about the connections we make, both with ourselves and with the humans around us.

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Moving Out and Moving On

It was a Friday when I moved out of the apartment that’d been my home for the past year. I left the rock-hard-yet-somehow-still-comfortable bed I’d slept on, sat and read on, ate dinner on. I left the outdoor sink where I brushed my teeth while watching the moon pull up over the roofline. I left my tiny little safe haven, the place that was always there for me to laugh in, cry in, and simply be in. I left my place. It only took me a day to get what little belongings I have packed up into a suitcase, a duffle bag, and a backpack. It kept me busy all day, and when I was done I sat down in my chair and cried. I had left my school two weeks earlier, I had finished tutoring the day before, and leaving my apartment put me over the line where my mind could resist a meltdown. So I gave myself a few minutes to let my brain have its shower, loaded my stuff up into my friend Toni’s car, and left the light pink, two story building behind.
I was only at Toni’s for a couple days img20161021144728before I left Chiang Mai to start a month of traveling. My first stop was an island in the south of Thailand called Koh Yao Yai. My cousin Shirley invited me to join her at a resort she had booked, and I certainly wasn’t going to turn down a week on a tropical island. Unfortunately, the first couple days were completely waterlogged. The rain would only stop for minutes at a time, and I didn’t even step on the beach until a couple days after we arrived. But nothing could stop it from being lovely. Our room img20161021112755was on a hill with an uninterrupted, sweeping view of the Andaman Sea. We didn’t get to take in the full glory of it until around day 3 when the sun finally dominated the sky, turning the water into a sparkling turquoise and illuminating the surrounding islands in the distance. We spent most of our days taking yoga classes, tasting different dishes at the restaurants, relaxing in or beside the pools, and taking in the views on our balcony and the beach. It was mostly uneventful (the tour we booked to another nearby island was cancelled due to the rain) but incredibly relaxing. While I was sincerely grateful for the chance to stay at such a beautiful place, I can’t say I’d do it again. Everything was unnecessarily extravagant—as resorts tend to be—and it simply felt wrong to be throwing six to ten times more money into meals than I normally would while impoverished villages sat just beyond the entrance to the resort. I’ve gotten into the habit of booking small guesthouses or homestays during my travels to try to ensure my money goes to local families, and my experience at the resort reaffirmed that that’s the better choice for me. I don’t require much to be happy. Just last night I stayed at a small, local hostel in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. My room was tiny, there was no air conditioning, the bathrooms had no hot water, yet I felt more at home there than I ever did at the resort. I was able to connect with the owner there. I knew her name, I played with her daughter, I walked through the rooms as if it were my own home. I only knew the names of the workers at the resort because they wore name tags. Some people prefer luxury, and I’m not one to say that’s wrong. It’s just not how I want to live my life.
After a week at the resort, I flew to img20161022113035Bangkok to visit my friend Tong. Tong is one of my best friends in Thailand and recently moved from Chiang Mai to Bangkok to join Teach for Thailand (the Thai equivalent of Teach for America). I’ve missed him dearly, and seeing him was wonderful. I was able to stay with him in his dorm at img20161022130927Chulalongkorn University, the first university established in Thailand. I remember my college years very fondly, and I always enjoy returning to college campuses. There’s something about the atmosphere that’s strangely relaxing considering the huge amounts of stress and anxiety that most college students experience. Perhaps it’s simply the fact that it’s a place where people seek out knowledge that makes them so appealing to me. Whatever it is, I loved walking around the university where Tong was doing his training. He wasn’t free much, his time being consumed by teaching preparations, but we did a bit of sightseeing. We went to a huge shopping center that consisted of five malls all strung together by walkways (the main one is called Siam Paragon), an adorable, small, white library tucked along a main street that felt somehow remote, and img20161025105110Lumpini Park where we got to relax, walk around, and watch the huge lizards that call the lake home swim along the surface. One day when Tong was busy I walked to the Jim Thompson House, a large house built in the Thai style by an American businessman who helped rebuild the Thai silk industry. Bangkok is quite an interesting city, but not the place I’d choose to visit in other circumstances. I prefer smaller towns where you can really get a feel for the culture, and Bangkok is too large and modernized for the culture to be easily accessible. But my time in Bangkok was certainly enjoyable, and I appreciated the chance to experience it a bit more.

While in Bangkok, I was able to take a two day trip to Kanchanaburi, a small province about two hours from Bangkok near the border of Myanmar. The town is famous for the Bridge On the River Kwai, a bridge originally built by prisoners of war who were in Japanese prison camps during World War II. The bridge is part of the Death Railway, so named because of all the men who lost their lives building it. I rode the train to get back to Bangkok, but never saw the Bridge because the train headed in the opposite direction. While in Kanchanaburi I img20161024093935 visited a the war cemetery where many of the POW’s are buried. The cemetery was in the middle of the city, but it was quiet, heavy like only a cemetery can be. I walked along the rows of simple headstones and paused, crying, when I came to the grave of a man who was my age when he died. It made me more aware of just how good the sun felt on my damp skin and how awake I felt with the blue sky over me. Kanchanaburi is also home to Erawan Waterfall, a magnificent, seven level img20161023142656waterfall tucked away in a forest. It was indeed amazing, but I happened to be there on a holiday, and the crowds were nearly unbearable. I made it to the fifth level before turning around and making my way back to the bus, which was so crowded that I had to stand for the entire hour and a half ride. But, like many adventures, while everything didn’t work out as planned, my trip to Bangkok and Kanchanaburi offered me memories that I won’t soon let go of.
I’m now staying in a small town in Indonesia on the island of Java and absolutely loving it. I will write a post after I finish my two weeks here, so stay tuned.

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A Short Stay in Luang Prabang

dsc_3429Luang Prabang, Laos rivals every other city I’ve been to in Southeast Asia when it comes to its relaxing atmosphere. There’s something about it that emanates tranquility the moment you arrive. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that it’s still low season and there weren’t swarms of tourists bustling through the streets, but I get the feeling that this town is always able to retain some sense of peace, no matter the time of year. It’s a pretty small town and you can ride a bike around the perimeter of the main area in about 30 minutes. Everything is a lush green, and the city is flanked on two sides by rivers and on the other two sides by mountains, making it feel somewhat isolated in the most perfect way. Every direction you look, you find beauty. My cousin Shirley and I discovered this when we hiked to the top of Phousi Hill, which stands in the middle of the city and gives you a 360 degree view of the surrounding city, mountains, and rivers. The landscape dsc_3393on every side was stunning. Any place your eyes lingered, there was something to attract them. There were low red roofs, tree-covered mountains, muddy rivers flowing heavy from the summer rains, and the tops of gilded temples standing out with their elegance. It was the middle of the day when we hiked to the top of the hill, and we had to fight the heat to make it to the top, but it was completely worth it.

After exploring the city for several hours, we sought out a popular restaurant near the river called Utopia. This place has laid claim to one of the best bits of land in the city, sitting a bit above the river, overlooking the water, mountains, and the palm trees that line the opposite bank. It’s kind of a hipster place, with people going there to mostly just hang oudsc_3454t on the cushions scattering the floor, eat some good food, do yoga, listen to good music, watch some random youtube videos on a projector, and have a couple drinks. We stayed there late into the evening and returned on our final night in the city to enjoy the view and the sunset over the river once again. And yes, the food and drinks were also incredible.

We spent most of the next day on the Mekong River doing a boat tour that eventually took us to Kuang Si Waterfall, the biggest in Luang Prabang. We stopped at a few temples on the bank opposite Luang Prabang where we started the day with a nice workout as we climbed quite a few steps and dsc_3476hiked a bit through the forest to reach the temples. We also had the opportunity to tour a nearby cave with a very kind monk as our guide. The rocks were slippery and I was wearing flip flops, so the journey into the darkness wasn’t entirely pleasant, but seeing the many rock formations and Buddhas that had been placed there by the monks was worth the effort of keeping my footing. Floating down the Mekong was certainly one of the highlights of the trip. It was an hour and a half of uninterrupted views of the stunning mountains surrounding Luang Prabang. I’ve seen many mountain landscapes in Thailand, but the mountains of Laos were unique, perhaps a bit more rugged, and provided a new kind of mountain landscape to gaze upon in awe. When we made it to the local village where we would meet a truck to take us to the waterfall, we were greeted by a group of young children who sat around a tree on thedsc_3497 bank on the river, waving and yelling Hello. They couldn’t have been happier to see the two foreigners who arrived at their village that afternoon—another experience that showed the beautiful friendliness and openness that is so often found in Southeast Asia. After walking down a rocky road and trudging through a knee-high creek, we jumped into the back of a flatbed pickup truck and enjoyed the 20 minute ride through the rice fields and mountains before arriving at the entrance to the waterfall.  The entrance to the waterfall passes through a bear sanctuary, so we got to glimpse some of the bears being rehabilitated before arriving at the main attraction. The waterfall has three tiers that lead up to the dsc_3525main drop of the waterfall. There are usually pools of bright blue water where people enjoy swimming, but when we arrived at the waterfall we discovered that there would be no swimming that day. Being at the end of the rainy season, the heavy rains of the past few months had dropped an enormous amount of water into the falls. The rushing water was magnificent, but it meant that the water was so deep and flowing so quickly that it was far too dangerous to try to swim. Still, we were able to see an incredible construction of nature, and I even managed to hike the steep and often slippery path to get to the top of the waterfall. Coming down proved to be a bit harder and I got a couple scrapes and bruises when my feet failed to grip the dirt, but I was happy to accept the challenge.

That evening we made our second trip to the night market. While slightly smaller than the night markets in Chiang Mai, I was impressed by the variety and quality of goods they were selling. The best purchase I made at the market was a ring made of metal from bombs dropped on Laos during the ‘secret war’ raged by the US to fight the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. In order to reuse the metal, members of the local villages have collected the remains of the bombs, melted down the metal, and formed it into jewelry and other trinkets so that Americans and other foreigners have an opportunity to ‘buy back’ the bombs that the US dropped. It’s one of the most unique things I’ve seen on my travels, and I was more than happy to support the project. We’ll never be able to make up for all the lives we hurt with that war, but perhaps this is a way to show that not all Americans agree with the decisions of the past.

Shirley and I spent our last full day taking a weaving class in a local village. The women who hosted us had been weaving for many years and they were clearly very skilled. They let us pick the pattern and color we wanted for our dsc_3568scarf and then showed us how to prepare the cotton for weaving and even let us try out the hand-crank machine that separated the thread to make it usable. Then they demonstrated how to use the loom, and we were off. They watched us closely, making sure our feet and hands were moving with the bamboo pedals and weaving boat correctly. It takes a few minutes to get the hang of it. Your feet have to press a different bamboo pedal depending on which side the thread is on, and pushing the boat through the loom thread is a bit awkward at first until you figure out how and where to catch it on each side. To make the pattern on the scarf, our hosts guided us carefully and did some of the work of moving the threads in order to create the correct pattern, all while making us do most of the work so that we could learn. They were very patient when we made mistakes and tried to have conversations with us through the translator that was there. Once I fell into the rhythm of the weaving, it was very meditative. It’s a bit hard on your back and legs after sitting for several hours, but the movements of your hands and feet force your mind to focus and relax. It felt like a very authentic Laos experience, and at the end of the class, we had a beautiful, handmade product to take home with us. It’s a bit short to really serve as a scarf, but it will make a lovely table runner or wall hanging, and it’s dsc_3428something I can be proud of.

On the morning of our last day in Luang Prabang, before flying back to Chiang Mai, Shirley and I borrowed some bikes from our guesthouse and rode around the town. We followed the rivers most of the way and got to take in the beauty of the colonial and Asian-style houses and the surrounding landscape one last time. Those five days in Luang Prabang were certainly some of the most peaceful I’ve had during the past year, and I was happy to spend it with my cousin. It was the first time I’d seen her in about 5 or 6 years. She grew up with her mom in Germany and came to America when she was about 18. We had been pen pals as teenagers, but meeting in person is something totally different. But we found we got along well, and we kept in touch through e-mail when she moved to New York to go to acting school. Being able to meet her again in Laos after so long was a wonderful addition to my time in Thailand and reinforced my realization that experiences are always better when shared.

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A Year On the Other Side

One year ago I was disembarking in Chiang Mai with heavy eyes and swollen feet. Looking back at my first blog post from Thailand, it’s hard to mentally reconstruct the bridge that connects the person I am now to the person I was on September 25, 2015. That bridge is so convoluted, has so many twists, turns, ups, and downs, that it would be impossible not to get lost while trying to cross it. And, despite how unbelievable it may seem to me, it was built in dsc_1459only twelve months. On that first day in Thailand, I was afraid to leave my hotel room. Thailand was new to me, and I feared the unknown. But of course nothing remains new forever. I adjusted, I became independent, and I settled in. I made a life for myself here. I got a job, made some amazing friends, shifted the relationships with my family to fit my new situation, and explored all that was new to me. The life I had always known changed, and my mind had to change with it. So it did. It’s nearly impossible to put into words what this experience has been like for me. One of the most frustrating questions someone can ask me is ‘How’s Thailand?’ Ummm…it’s great? There’s just nothing I can say that will do my life here justice. There are no words to describe the many ways that I love my life here. There is simply no way to make someone understand the path I’ve been walking and the things I’ve seen along the way. That understanding belongs to me alone. It’s a difficult thing to recognize that no one will ever be able to grasp your journey in the same way you do, that they simply can’t understand the depth of every story you tell them, but it’s something that every traveler has to accept (and every person, in many ways). Despite that, I will try to try to scratch the surface of the ways I’ve changed since coming here.

  1. img_2489I’m more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Obviously, when you’re living in a foreign country you find yourself in uncomfortable or awkward positions fairly often. Whether it’s when I’m trying to explain something with the few Thai words I know, when I’m trying to judge what level of wai to offer someone, or when I’m trying to figure out which bus to get on to get to a certain city, I make a lot of mistakes, and I have to be ok with that. Before I came to Thailand, I was much more prone to embarrassment or anxiety in those kinds of situations. Now I’m usually able to laugh it off and move on. If I’m lost, I take a deep breath and keep trying to find my way. That’s just how it works when you’re traveling. You have to be ok with being uncomfortable. You have to take it as a sign that you’re learning something, that you’re in the middle of a new, difficult experience. You have to recognize that it’s all part of the journey and that you’ll come out on the other side one way or another.
  2. Life feels a little lighter. I’m a pretty serious person. I always took school seriously, work seriously, friendships seriously. And on a certain level, that’s a good thing. Life is complicated and should be taken mnd3seriously in many situations. Laughing everything off simply isn’t a good way to go about your daily life in my opinion. But there is a line where it becomes too serious, and I was entirely over that line before coming to Thailand. I took it seriously enough that I almost had to go on anxiety medications because the weight of everything I wasn’t letting go was weighing on me so heavily. But in Thailand, it’s impossible not to slow your life down, not to appreciate little things a little more, not to feel a little lighter with all the things you don’t let bother you anymore. I’ve had to replace my phone twice here in Thailand. In the US, that would’ve caused me anxiety for weeks. Here, it was a temporary inconvenience that got sorted out within hours, and I moved on. The money I had to spend didn’t linger in my thoughts, the time it took to go buy the phone didn’t bother me in the least, and the pictures and phone numbers I lost didn’t send me into a panic. It’s Thailand. Everything works out as it needs to. And I know that things will work out as they need to wherever I go in the world from this point forward. Life is complicated and messy and sometimes disheartening, but there are so many positive moments that we’re given in a day to help counter the wonderful mess that our lives are. And I’ve gotten better at grabbing those moments and letting those things take center stage in my mind.
  3. I appreciate people more. Of course living away from your family and friends for a year makes you value dsc_1734those people in ways you didn’t before. But what I’m really referring to is the positive impact that personal connections have on your life. Thailand is great in and of itself. It’s beautiful and offers so many wonderful experiences. But it wouldn’t have been the same if I didn’t have friends here to share the experience with (big shout out to Li, Toni, Tong, Sarah, and Molly!). Thailand hasn’t always been easy for me, and having people to go to that will sympathize with me over a glass of wine and some Mexican food has been invaluable to me. People back in the US often don’t understand the roller coaster of emotions that I feel on a weekly basis, but my friends here usually get it. They know the struggles that come with living abroad, and they also understand how important it is to simply have someone there to listen. Living abroad makes you recognize just how interconnected hdsc_1805umans are, how much we thrive when we allow ourselves to build meaningful connections with people, and how empty an experience can feel without someone to share it with.
  4. Emotions aren’t so bad. Coming from a family that struggles with depression and anxiety, and struggling with those same things myself, emotions were always viewed in a pretty negative light. Emotions were dangerous, and they needed to be controlled or gotten rid of. But since I got to Thailand, I’ve adjusted more to the idea that emotions, while often difficult to cope with, are indicators of experience. Feeling depressed? That means you cared enough to get hurt. Feeling heartbroken? That means you allowed yourself to experience the joy of love, if only for a moment. Feeling happy? That means you’ve been lucky enough to experience one of the many bright spots in the world. Feeling lonely? That means you have a chance to be with yourself for a bit–cherish it. Feeling excited? That means something wonderful will happen soon. Every emotion is worthwhile. Yeah, sometimes they hurt us, and sometimes they make us feel like there’s no reason to get out of bed in the morning, but there always is, because that day might offer us something betterdsc_1246 than the day before. You’ll never know if you don’t allow yourself to get out there and feel, to open yourself up to what the world wants to give you that day, to let everything in and know that the emotions are separate from you, that they can’t control you, that they’re simply there to guide you.
  5. I’ve settled into myself a little more. I’m not one of those people who walks around with an air of complete confidence. I’m not at the point in my life yet where I feel that I completely understand and accept every facet of my personality. But while I may still sometimes feel insecure or anxious or uncertain, I can say with no hesitation that I’m comfortable with the person I am and the person I’m becoming. Since coming to Thailand and jumping into the unknown, I’ve become more aware of who I am as a person and how my habits and ideas are shifting at this point in my life. I’ve had to spend a lot of time with my psyche here, and I feel that it has opened itself up to me and let me in on some of its secrets. Ultimately, I know myself better now; I know what I am and am not capable of, my beliefs, opinions, and priorities have become more clear to me, and I’m more aware of the kinds of people I want in my life. I’m proud of who I am, and I’m excited when I recognize  new pieces of my personality that Thailand has helped cultivate. I think of those pieces as little stems poking through cracks in concrete, the cracks made by Thailand and all of my adventures here.
  6.  I understand that actions often speak louder than words. I used to love to debate. I used to stick my two cents in every time I had an opportunity. I used to be convinced that my opinions needed to be shared in order to make people aware of mw3viewpoints that contrasted their own. Perhaps I saw my thoughts as more important than they really were. And that’s not to say that my ideas aren’t important. They are. But so are everyone else’s. Since being in Thailand, I’ve developed a greater appreciation for the plethora of ideas, lifestyles, and beliefs that are scattered around our world. And I’ve become  comfortable with the fact that my ideas are often no better or more correct than the person’s next to me. I have a greater awareness of how much our culture contributes to the way we think and perceive the world, and because of that I’m now much less willing to put forward my ideas with the intention of trying to ‘enlighten’ someone. I have always believed (and still believe) that sharing ideas is crucial in our society. That’s how we create connections with people, and ultimately how we learn.  But in the end, when it comes dsc_3365to beliefs and opinions, we’re all right and we’re all wrong because we’re all seeing the world in different lights, with different minds. I will always seek to make the world a better place, but I now believe that is done more effectively through actions than through words, and I think people learn more through their experiences than through what anyone tells them. Being in a country where I have trouble communicating with the locals on a daily basis, I’ve found that I can often communicate my intentions fairly effectively with actions and body language. And I’ve seen how much my day can turn around when a Thai actively tries to make eye contact with me just so they can give me a smile. They don’t say a word, but I feel better because they put in the effort to perform that completely selfless act. In a similar way, I’d rather spend my time performing actions that will help people in some way than sharing ideas that may or may not impact the way someone thinks or acts.

Thailand has been everything I needed it to be. And then more. It has made me a better, more independent person. It has opened my eyes to so many things, as traveling tends to do. It has forced me to challenge myself and to challenge my thinking. It has forced me to move past my comfort zone and fears and into a space where I can genuinely engage with life. I’m a happier person after coming to Thailand, partly because I simply have a greater understanding of what will ultimately make me happy in life. I feel that I’ve become a more genuine version of myself, and that’s one of the greatest gifts Thailand has given me.

kayak

 

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A Sweet Deal

 

Rent

Many of my friends and family members have shown an interest in how much I spend on bills each month here in Thailand. So here it is. These are the expenses associated with my apartment for the month of August.

The first line is the base rent for my apartment per month. 2000 baht= $58.

The second line is my water. 50 baht = $1.50

The third line is my electricity. 488 baht = $14

The fourth line is my internet (a set rate for each month). 200 baht = $6

I’m not sure what the fifth line is, so it’s good that I’m not being charged for it.

The sixth line is trash (again, a set monthly rate). 20 baht = $0.60

All of that brings the total to 2758 baht, which is about $80. Yeah, it’s a pretty sweet deal. I should note here that I only used my air conditioning one day in August. In the month of April, when I had it on whenever I was home, my electricity was about 1800 baht ($52). Since June, it has cooled down enough that air conditioning isn’t necessary, especially since I’m usually not home during the hottest hours of the day. Add to this the 2400 baht ($70) that I spend on my motorbike each month, and perhaps $100-$150 for food each month, and my main monthly living expenses only add up to $250 or $300. Compared to the US cost of living, this is a steal. But you have to keep in mind that my paycheck is only 25,000 baht each month ($720). I’m constantly having to remind myself that converting the cost of things to USD in my head is helpful but not necessarily a good representation of how expensive something is when thinking of it in relation to a Thai salary. I’ve been fortunate enough to take on 9 hours of tutoring each week, which really helps with any extra costs that arise and have allowed me to live more than comfortably while still saving some money. Another important thing to note here is that I live outside the city and, as a result, the living costs are significantly lower. My friends who rent apartments in the city spend three or four times more than I do each month. All in all, I consider myself very fortunate for my living situation and really couldn’t have asked for better for myself.

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Class Clown

When I first started teaching at my school in Hang Dong, I was stiff with inexperience and fear. I was placed in front of 40 students who couldn’t communicate with me, and I was supposed to be teaching them how to speak English. Seriously? So needless to say, the first semester was one big learning curve. I had to experiment with lessons and teaching styles, figure out what level my students were at, challenge myself to become a better teacher, and attempt ec33to connect with my Thai coworkers. It wasn’t easy, but I learned a lot, and I discovered that if I was going to have any chance with my students at all, my demeanor in the classrooms had to change.

Thai students don’t take education all that seriously, partly because education isn’t taken very seriously in Thailand in general. There are some students that are motivated by the prospect of a good job, but many of the students have resigned themselves to living a life that doesn’t require a high level of formal education, a life that is led by many Thais outside the larger cities. The students are naturally laid back, a trait they’ve picked up from their culture, and they rarely plan ahead or worry about completing work. I give tests every few weeks, and I’ve seldom had a student come in fully prepared. Most either don’t care enough to study outside of class, or they forget as soon as they leave my class that they will have a test the following week. I’ve learned to accept this because there’s simply nothing I can do about it. I can’t force them to study. I can only give them a bad grade when they fail, which also doesn’t faze them much since, according to the school rules, the students cannot fail a class. If they receive anything lower than a 50%, they are required to do extra work for the teacher and then the teacher is required to raise their grade above failing. This made me incredibly angry when I was first told about it, but I’ve had to assume an ‘It is what it is’ attitude toward it although it still makes my blood boil if I allow myself to consider it too long. The culture in Thailand has not reached a point where it places a lot of importance on education, and the students lack motivation because of this and because of the lack of consequences for poor performance. I do think the US places far too much pressure on students and the grades they get, but at least most citizens of the US seem to realize that they need an education and they inherently value it on some level.

As you can imagine, with the students being mostly unconcerned with their own education, I have a pretty difficult ec06time motivating them to pay attention in class and do their work. When I first arrived, I took my position as a teacher very seriously, and when my students didn’t show much improvement in their English skills, and when many students failed my class, I was very hard on myself for not being an effective teacher. And part of it is me, certainly. I lack experience, I don’t speak Thai, and, with 22 periods each week, I see too many students (almost 500) to give them the individual attention they deserve. But some of it isn’t my fault. Some of it is the cultural norms that prevent the students from giving their education the attention it deserves. Some of it is the lack of focus placed on speaking skills. Some of it is pervasive disorganization in the Thai government school system. All of these things combined make being a teacher in a government school very challenging. But I’ve recently discovered that the challenge isn’t impossible to overcome. You simply have to be willing to be an entertainer as well as a teacher.

students 6-1I’m naturally shy. I don’t generally like being the center of attention. I easily sit on the introvert side of the introvert-extrovert scale. But, as a teacher in Thailand, you can’t afford to be reserved. If you enter a Thai classroom and start to lecture in a quiet, monotone voice, you may as well throw in the towel. You’re done. During my first semester, I wouldn’t say I was a boring teacher, but I was very serious. And the Thai students couldn’t connect with that. They needed someone to come down to their level in some ways, and in order to do that, I had to switch up my style. I started to become more relaxed with the rules (Want to use a cell phone while we’re doing a worksheet? Sure, go ahead.), started to laugh more with the students, and started to laugh more at myself. Showing embarrassment is a sure way to make the students feel uncomfortable, and even resentful in some cases. Because of that, I’ve learned to play up my mistakes instead of trying to hide them. If I write something incorrect on the board, I play up my shock with a dramatic, mocking ‘Oh no!’ and laugh with them when they laugh. I often find that, in an attempt to keep the students focused, I’m practically dancing around the room as I jump playfully from one end of the board to the other. When I have them practicing pronunciation, I allow my face to distort in all kinds of creative ways in order to show them how the sound is made. And when they can’t get a sound, we’ve learned to laugh at the temporary failure together.

Thai students will rarely point out a mistake made by a teacher. It’s considered disrespectful and out of line. But my students have learned that Teacher Jen doesn’t hold them to the same standards and that I’m ok with making mistakes. This has opened the door for them to participate more by questioning certain words, grammar points, etc. For example, last week I was teaching my Mattayom 4 students (15-16 years old) about kitchen utensil vocabulary. I always have one of my Thai coworkers write the vocabulary words in Thai for me to help the students relate the English words to the Thai words. But occasionally my Thai coworkers, still working on improving their English skills themselves, write the wrong words. In one of my classes, I was hanging up the utensil words, and a student came up behind me and said, ‘Teacher, excuse me, but that word not right. Means ‘fight,’ not ‘fork.’ I cocked my head, looked at it, and we laughed together. I took the word down and asked her to show me how to write ‘fork’ in Thai as students continued to filter in. She wrote it on the board, and then I took the pen from her and copied the Thai word into the space left empty by the 6-1 projpaper I had taken down. The students sitting behind me all watched quietly, and when I had finished successfully writing the word, they all erupted into applause. And we laughed.

Since I’ve started allowing myself to be more laid back and forgiving of both myself and my students in my classrooms, I’ve seen improvement in the students grades as well as in their behavior towards me. Whereas I was often viewed with aversion and weariness when I first arrived, I’m now constantly greeted with genuine smiles. Students will yell, ‘I miss you, teacher!’ as they run past me down the hall. Students will even remain after class in order to try to speak a few English sentences with me, something that never happened during the first semester. Some of it is time. I’ve been at the school long enough for the students to get to know me. But some of it is my willingness to establish an attitude that is more familiar to them. They’re comfortable with me, and that comfort translates to an improved, more relaxed atmosphere in the classroom. Instead of asking them only to respect and obey me (as many of the Thai teachers do), I’ve allowed the option of us respecting each other, and it has made all the difference.

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Aviophobia

My last flight had been from Krabi to Chiang Mai, a trip I had taken with my mom when she came to visit me in April. The return flight put us in the middle of some intense turbulence as we were approaching Chiang Mai, and it felt like the plane was dropping fifty feet at a time (I’m sure it felt much worse than it actually was). My mom actually said it was the worst she’s ever felt, and she flies two or three times a month for her job. A woman behind me was on the verge of hyperventilating and, feeding off that energy, I myself became incredibly anxious. Knowing that moving my hands tends to help me relax, I started to rub a cloth headband between my fingers, doing my best to breathe slowly as I closed my eyes. It was over within 20 minutes, we were safely on the ground, and I honestly had never been happier to be off a plane, even when I stepped off my 15 hour flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. This trip was likely the trigger for the phobia that has since developed and that I discovered during my trip to Cambodia last month.

I was fine getting on the plane. I was fine while we were on the runway. But the anxiety started as soon as we took off. I became ultra-aware of every movement the plane was making, every jolt, every dip, every sound the engine made. Every time something shifted, my anxiety grew. It eventually peaked when we hit some minor turbulence on the flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. I broke into a cold sweat, developed an intense headache, and had to bend over to try to reduce the nausea. With every bump, I was convinced the plane was going to crash. I don’t have a fear of dying. My fear is of a different sort. I fear the moments before the plane crashes, the moments when I have to think about the people who will miss me, the pain I might feel in the seconds before my mind goes dark forever, and all the things I’ll miss out on in life. It is completely illogical to fear this for many reasons. First, turbulence poses absolutely no danger to a plane, which I’ve become convinced of after watching numerous YouTube videos on how planes fly, how planes handle turbulence, and how autopilot works. I know those little bumps do nothing to harm the plane, and I know the last time a plane went down from turbulence was in the 1960’s when a pilot veered off course in Japan so the passengers could see Mount Fuji. I know that statistically, flying is very safe, and I know that the pilots flying whatever plane I’m on have experienced much worse turbulence than I’ll probably ever see. I know the planes are built to withstand 150 times more turbulence than has ever been seen in the history of flying. I know all this, and I know I’m safe on the plane, but my body and my mind haven’t got together on this. My body is reacting to a stimulus that I labeled as dangerous. It’s doing its job, in theory, as it pumps adrenaline into my system to prepare me for a ‘dangerous situation’. And so far I haven’t figured out how to turn it off.

At this point, simply seeing a plane in the sky or hearing one fly overhead begins the process of sending me into a state of stress. An invisible rope wraps around my chest and starts to tighten, little by little, until I force myself to take some deep breaths and calm down. Thinking about the 13 hour flight that I will have to make back to the US is, as you can imagine, extremely uncomfortable. But I’m not willing to admit defeat. I love traveling, and that’s not something I’m willing to give up for fear. Fear is useful when it’s present at the right time and in the right place, but this is a phobia, which entails that the fear is illogical. I’m afraid of a danger that doesn’t exist. And that’s frustrating for me. I won’t stop flying, and I won’t allow this phobia to restrict my life. I’ve been fighting it and I’ll continue to fight it until it no longer exists. I’ve considered self-medicating with anxiety pills or alcohol, but that also feels like defeat to me. I want to be able to fly sober with no problems. Most people do this naturally, but it’s now a goal I have to set and work toward. And so be it.

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Meeting Modern and Ancient History in Siem Reap, Cambodia

You don’t see many elderly people in Siem Reap. There simply aren’t many elderly alive in Cambodia. 70% of Cambodia’s population was born after 1980. If you know some of Cambodia’s recent history, you know where this is going. For those of you that don’t, let me fill you in a bit. In 1975, after the Vietnam War leaked into Cambodia, destabilizing the country and causing the citizens to seek new leadership, the Khmer Rouge took control. Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge sought to return the country to ‘year zero’ by creating a pure agrarian society. In order to accomplish this, all educated people were at risk of being killed because education leads to class distinctions, and class would not exist in the new society the Khmer Rouge were creating. Wearing glasses or carrying a book were viewed as indicators of education and often led the person to be killed immediately or sent to a prison camp to be tortured for information. Many ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese were also killed at this time. Many others were killed for no apparent reason. Countless children were left orphaned as their parents were taken to the killing fields and dumped into mass graves, sometimes while they were still breathing (children were not spared during this time either, and many died with their parents). During the rule of the Khmer Rouge, about a quarter of the country’s population was destroyed. The Khmer Rouge genocide killings most subsided in 1979 when the Vietnamese temporarily took control of the country, but they continued to fight for control over the next two decades.

Cambodia didn’t really stabilize until the late 1990’s when a coalition government was formed and almost all remaining Khmer Rouge forces surrendered.  Having had only about 20 years to rebuild their country and their lives, the Cambodian people still face immense challenges. Poverty is rampant across the country, and many people beg on the streets to survive. Because most of the educated people were killed during the war, the country has had trouble rebuilding its infrastructure without the human resources required to do so. The weight of the war is still very heavy in Cambodian lives, but this doesn’t stop them from maintaining a friendly nature. When I arrived in Siem Reap, Prasat Prei 4everyone I met greeted me with a smile (although often paired with offers to sell me something). But it’s not the Thai smile, the smile that comes out full blast with no reserve. It’s a different smile. It’s weighed down by recent history, and that weight makes laughter rare. Cambodians don’t seem to be a particularly happy people to me, but then again I only visited for five days.

It felt strange to arrive in Cambodia, coming, as I do, from the country that is largely (and rightfully) blamed for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. If it weren’t for the bombs that the US dropped across Cambodia, seeking to kill the Vietnamese soldiers taking refuge there, it’s likely that the Khmer Rouge never would’ve been a problem for the Cambodian people. But I faced no discrimination during my time there. If Cambodians hold any resentment toward the American people, they don’t show it.

Despite the many sources of unhappiness and hardship in Cambodia, there is one source of unbroken beauty: Angkor Archaeological Park. The park is composed of several capitals of the ancient Khmer Empire. The many temples found there are between about 700 and 1200 years old. The crown jewel of the park is, of course, Angkor Angkor Wat 6Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. I got to experience the majesty of Angkor Wat when I woke up at 4:30 am to watch the sunrise there on my second day exploring the temples. Words can’t describe the beauty. Despite there being hundreds of people at the site that morning, there was still an air of peace. I sat on a ledge connected to a smaller temple in Angkor Wat’s front yard, along with about twenty other people scattered over the ancient stairs and ledges. And we waited. The sky began to turn dark blue, then pink, then light blue, welcoming the sun as it peeked over the three towering spires rising from the wat. The reflection of Angkor Wat’s silhouette sat quietly in the two small ponds in front of the entrance. As the sun rose, it was as if the temple was heaving its first deep breath, taking in the cool morning air.

The site of Angkor Wat is huge. It took me more than an hour to explore it, and I certainly could’ve spent more time doing so. It’s an amazing, expansive monument that truly deserves its reputation as an architectural and archaeological wonder. But despite all its beauty and grandeur, Angkor Wat was not my favorite temple. My favorite Bayon 8turned out to be Bayon, which I visited on my first day in Cambodia. The temple is only a fraction the size of Angkor Wat, but it is still incredibly popular among tourists because of the unique carvings around the structure. It’s a compact temple that juts into the sky with several towers, almost all of them decorated on each side by smiling stone faces. There is debate among historians as to who the faces are meant to depict: some say it is one of kings of the Khmer Empire, others says it’s one of the many gods of the Hindu religion that was dominant during the period. Whoever it is, the faces are incredible. They are all similar, but slight differences show varying degrees of happiness or mischief, making each face unique. They watch you as you follow the paths through the temple, silently laughing at (or with) you. The temple displays complexity in all of its carvings though, not just these faces. The amount of detail rivals that of Angkor Wat, which claims power in size and popularity, but not, in my opinion, in intricacy.

South Gate 5At one point while exploring the temples, I crossed over a river on a bridge lined on each side by stone men holding onto a long, horizontal pillar. Like at Bayon, the faces of the men (soldiers, they seemed) were all similar but subtly different. Many of the heads had clearly been replaced by new, restored versions. When I asked my driver why some had new heads he told me that some had been stolen and some had been destroyed during the war. No place was sacred when the bombs were flying in the 1970’s.

In total, I visited about 25 temples over three days. Many of them wereTa Nei 1 large and awe-inspiring. Most of them are in various states of restoration. Some of them are completely original, showing the disintegration that has occurred in the last millennium. My guide was kind enough to show me several that are rarely visited by tourists, including one that sits quiet and secluded down a small, pot-holed dirt path in the forest. This particular temple, Ta Nei, has received almost no restoration work and therefore remains in a completely natural state. It’s not the most beautiful of the temples due to its partial collapse, but it was the most peaceful one that I visited. I had been exploring the more popular temples that morning, including Angkor Wat, and by early afternoon I was ready for a break, both from the crowds and the heat. Ta Nei provided the perfect place to regroup. I sat in one of the moss-covered windows, leaned my head back, closed my eyes, and listened to the birds and insects in the surrounding forest. No one disturbed me. Some minutes later, a strong, cooling breeze blew through the motionless, crumbling temple, reminding me that I still had more to see that day. I left my spot in the window and returned to where my guide was waiting with the tuk-tuk.

Ta Prohm 19One of the most picturesque temples that I visited is Ta Prohm. This temple is particularly famous because it was where part of Tomb Raider was filmed. The temple has had quite a bit of restoration work done to it, but many parts of the temple have been untouched because of the large trees that have twisted their roots around the ancient stones. It’s fascinating to see the way the trees support themselves, seemingly strong and sturdy, on a structure that, left to its own devices, will eventually disintegrate. Transience and endurance mingle beautifully at this site.

During my first day, I asked my guide to drive to Bateay Srei, a temple that is located about 35 km (22 miles) from the main area of the park. It’s a hike, but it gave me the chance to get a few glimpses of the Cambodian countryside Country 4with its expansive rice fields ending at lines of swaying palm trees, cows grazing on the side of the road, small, green hills rising at the horizon, and local Khmer (another name for Cambodians) people performing daily duties around their stilt-supported homes. The Landmine Museum is also on the road to this temple. It is a very small museum created by a former Khmer Rouge soldier that defected to the Vietnamese Army. After the war ended, he dedicated his time to seeking out and disabling the many landmines that were scattered in the fields of Cambodia. These landmines were left by the US, Vietnam, or the Khmer Rouge and caused injuries to thousands of innocent people (the landmines are still a problem today as farmers or children step on them while in the fields). The man who created the museum has also built a small relief center for children injured by landmines. I was happy to visit the museum and offer support to this man’s work, but it was difficult to see as it forced me to come to an even deeper recognition of just how much my own country had harmed the people of Cambodia. This recognition grew more when I visited a small killing field area in the center of Siem Reap. The fieldsKilling Fields 2 themselves were located about 300 meters away, and I didn’t see them, but I did see the nearby buildings that had acted as a prison camp where people were held before being marched to the fields to die. The most striking part of this site is the large pillar filled with the skulls and bones of some of the people who died at the site. It was, naturally, disconcerting. I wanted to cry, but I was too distant from it. I didn’t know the people who had once filled the empty, white skulls in the pillar. I hadn’t watched them die, and I had no reference to begin to imagine the pain and emotional agony they had faced in their final hours. I could sympathize, but at a certain point my brain shut it down. Even imagining that kind of pain was beginning to cause some mental distress. It was incredibly difficult to see. But, as the old saying goes, we need to learn about history in order to keep from repeating it, and my discomfort was worth the awareness I received during my overall stay in Cambodia.

In the evening of my second day, I braved a rainstorm and went to the circus. But this is a very special circus, my friends. This is Phare, an NGO that takes in destitute children, pays for their education and their meals, and trains them in the circus arts. These children are trained for eight to ten years and are then able to perform in Siem Reap and in countries around the world. This circus gives them a chance to build a life for themselves, and seeing the incredibly positive energy of the performers showed me just how much things like this are needed in Cambodia. The show was amazing. It took place in a relatively small circus tent, and it was packed to the brim. The show was complex in its storytelling and displayed the amazing talents of each performer. Watching it brought me child-like joy, and I left with a huge smile. I would recommend it to every single person visiting Siem Reap.

Siem Reap is a city of contradictions. Extreme poverty exists alongside the money that flows toward one of the mostSras Srang 1 popular tourist attractions in the world. Five star hotels have been built next to the small shacks of the locals. An incredibly violent recent history is overshadowed by the thousands of tourists that swarm the city to see a piece of a brighter past. Siem Reap was not a major city until very recently when the country opened its doors and invited tourists to see this place that had been living in shadow for so many years. It was built for tourists and because of that, it’s not the best place to experience true Cambodian culture. But while I may have only gotten a small glimpse into the culture, seeing the many temples of Angkor Archaeological Park did allow me to experience an important part of the history, an opportunity that I’m incredibly grateful for.

The last temple I visited was situated on top of a small mountain and required a fifteen minute hike to get there. As I stood on top of the temple, overlooking the forests and fields that covered everything I could see, I wondered what the next twenty years would hold for Cambodia. If I were to come back in the future, would I find a happier people? Would I find a people that had come to terms with the violence that destroyed their lives for so long? Would I find a country that had moved past its grief and regret and entered a time of peace and acceptance? The innocent people of Cambodia did not deserve the suffering inflicted upon them, and I hope their future offers them space to heal and time to be happy.Phnom Bakheng 7

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