language arts 100: tackling Thai tones

Sà-wàt-dii-khráb!

We’re learning Thai! It’s fun, but also demanding. With all the language learning in my background, I’ve found that I’m able to fairly easily navigate through this 44 consonant, 28 vowel, 5 tone language. But Jessie frequently looks as if she’s ready to bash her head against the wall. Poor girl!

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Part of the problem is we just don’t have enough time to study. Our course meets Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons, three hours each day. During those lessons we get a huge vat of vocabulary, grammar and idioms dumped upon us, desperately hoping that some of the words and nuances will seep into us while the great bulk of the deluge runs off our backs, down our pant legs and pools somewhere in the next room in a cacaphonous heap of accent markers. Then we go home, open our homework books along with our overflowing class notebooks and search for the necessary words and phrases to complete the lessons. We know the words are there; we remember writing them at some point during one of our classes, but somehow they manage to jump around and never land on the first or second or third page we scour.

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I think the tones are the most infuriating part of the language. I don’t mean making the tones; that’s come easy enough. No, the problem is that one word can mean so many different things depending on how you say it. Take the word mai, which “usually” sounds like the English word my. Here are it’s meanings:

  • mai [neutral tone] – silk
  • mài [low tone] – new
  • mǎi [rising tone] – burn
  • mái [high tone] – used to make a statement into a question; also, it means wood
  • mâi [falling tone] – no, not (used together with a verb)

So imagine my confusion when I go to the mall to buy a new (mài) shirt and twenty minutes later walk out looking like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (mai). Okay, I’m joking. But it really does make the language 50% harder to speak. The tones also make it hard to take the language seriously. No, honestly. Try speaking a few sentences in English but raise and lower your vocal tone every other word. See what I mean?

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Okay, I’m nit-picking. Actually we’re really enjoying Thai when we get the chance to use it! I love the fact that when the landlady calls me over to talk to me at a rate of 200 words-per-minute I can now at least get the general subject and a ‘feeling’ of what she may be talking about. One of the easier things about Thai is that you don’t have to change any verbs to create past tense; instead they just have a few words that indicate the tense has switched. For example, we say “I eat rice” [phǒm gìn khâaw] but to make it a past action “I ate rice” you just add the word already to the end [phǒm gìn khâaw lέεw]. (Are you taking notes? There will be a quiz on this later!)

Also, we have a good teacher who goes by the mysterious name ‘A’ (pronounced like it’s a question…A?). He always talks about his friend Anna from Canada and how he continually makes her angry by accidentally saying the wrong things in English, like asking her “Are you boring?” instead of “Are you bored?” Every time I ask him in Thai how he’s doing, which is every class because that was the second thing we ever learned to say, he replies, “My heart is broken.” This is inevitably followed by some story of how yesterday he was walking down the street and saw someone he used to go out with and she was walking with another man. Yes. Every time. And he swears up and down that he never watches Thai dramas! I’m not convinced.

So we keep plugging away and unconfidently look ahead to days when we can hold our own in a Thai conversation. But until then, you have my permission to think about me sitting in a restaurant and sounding as awkward as a Russian trying to order quesadillas.

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home economics 101: domesticating Bangkok

I’m staring at one of my passport visa pages. It’s been over a month since we moved to Bangkok.

We’ve been busy. Literally 14 hours after our plane touched down at Suvarnabhumi Airport we signed a one-year lease and put money down on a townhouse in the area of the city where Jessie will be working. The house came with no furnishings. And in Thailand ‘no furnishings’ means exactly what it says.

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We started with walls, floors, sinks, toilets and a water pump. You can rent furnished apartments here, but they’re generally 2~3 times the cost so we thought we might as well just buy our own stuff. For weeks I sat on cold tile, writing code for my new website pictureperker.com. I’ve put in many 12-hour, no-time-to-stop-to-eat days. I’m pretty sure I’ve done long term damage to my already ridiculously poor posture.

But the more I think about it, the more I’m coming to see that the house sort of fits us. What I mean is that Jessie and I have been living a minimal, nomadic lifestyle for the past six years. We’ve lived happily (for the most part) on what we could fit into our backpacks and what we could scrounge together of castoffs on the street or from friends. We’ve enjoyed reusing this stuff and not feeling attached to it. We’ve loved the mental ease of having “ownership” for a brief time and then passing it on freely to the next person. We want to own and have around us only what is necessary and what gives us bliss. Part of living minimally is using our things for multiple purposes. I found that the most versatile things we owned for the first month were our sarongs. They quadrupled as shower towels, beach towels, bed sheets and curtains. I’m really starting to think that the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy could be a legitimate travel companion based on this experience alone. (If you didn’t understand the last sentence click here.)

Settling into Bangkok has been different. We’re intending to live here for awhile, and renting this barren townhouse has been a new experience. We’ve had some things graciously given or lent to us, but the simple fact is that dumpster diving in Bangkok is just not the same as in Seoul. Any couch you find on the street in Bangkok is most definitely not something you want to have in your home. Thus, the atmosphere in our place was, well, downright depressing. And then I bought a chair. Everyone, meet my new best friend: “Easy Chair Nice Orange.”

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Easy Chair was the first step in making this house feel human. I could sit with my feet up. I could put my laptop where it’s meant to go: on my lap. Together with the aid of an 80-cent pillow from the flea market down the road, Easy began to dissipate my routine neck stiffness. Both psychologically and physically, Easy Chair repaired me.

I’ve realized that I had some huge misconceptions about Bangkok, though, especially in the notion that everything is cheap here. It’s not. You have to figure out what is and what isn’t. Still, I’m continually dumbfounded by the range of costs. Why is it that we can take a taxi from one side of the city to the other  for $6, about a 45-minute drive in normal traffic conditions (which by the way only happens from about 1 until 4 in the morning), but to buy a fan that looks like it might even have a chance of holding up a year it runs at least $30? Why can we jump onto a songthaew (a truck with benches and an overhead cover added onto the bed) and take it to the mall or the supermarket 15 minutes away for 20 cents, but if we were to buy the most basic, flimsy, tacky drapes and window curtains to cover three windows and a sliding door it would cost us over $90? Why can we walk 50 paces to the market directly behind our house, choose several handfuls from the mounds of fresh vegetables that line the tables, and walk away with a giant bag full of produce for under $2, but a tiny refrigerator puts us out $150? We bought a queen-size mattress for only $70 but a 1/2-inch thick, no-frills mattress pad costs $65. We can sit at any restaurant around our house and get full for $1, but a cheap little plastic unit where we can store a couple articles of clothing would run us $30. I just find the disparity in pricing weird!

After several meltdowns (on both of our accounts), we found ourselves waist deep in the sickie, clean cut ornaments of cheap-Swedish renown. That’s right; Bangkok has an IKEA. We felt Tyler Durden‘s disdain as we followed the winding path through the labyrinth of office, bedroom, kitchen, dining room, bathroom, patio, electrical, wall covering and storage furnishings. Jessie kept musing over why so many people seem to revel in a stroll around IKEA while for us we were filled with anxiety. Still, after a month of living like squatters we weren’t leaving without some creature comforts. We aren’t crazy about having a home full of particle-board-manufactured-to-look-pretty chairs, but the reality is that $250 has really started to make this place into a home.

So if you’re wondering how I’m doing these days, let me tell you: I’m content as a Swede with a tube of caviar as I sit here on my ‘SOLSTA Ransta dark grey two-person sofa that readily converts into a bed’ with my feet propped up on our ‘LACK white 90x55cm easy to assemble light weight coffee table’ looking out the window past the ‘POÄNG rocking-chair frame birch effect veneer with Alme black armchair cushion’ and ‘Easy Chair Nice Orange.’

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home economics 201: acquiring new skills at Bamboo School

Well, another week at Bamboo School has come and gone and just like that we’ve left Thailand. It was hard saying goodbye to the children. Truly we know that it isn’t ideal to have people constantly going in and out of their lives like a convenience store. But we knew that we’d be coming back to stay for a long time in Thailand starting next year. It always makes goodbyes happier when there’s a plan to meet again.

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As always, it was an informative week. We joked with the director, MomoCat, about how every time we come to Bamboo School we learn several new skills! We talked about how we needed to make a list of all the skills we’ve acquired while living here. This week we learned three more: dentistry, taking care of a colicky baby, and surviving a Karen wedding (pronounced “Kah-ren”, a large Burmese hill tribe people group).

Jessie and I have been to Bamboo School enough times to know that the moment we arrive we’ll be pulled right into the busy atmosphere that 55 children create. The kids need to be driven to and picked up from school. Many things need to be repaired. There are volunteers and visitors coming and going on practically every day of the week. The little boys aren’t washing their clothes well enough so they need to be shown once again how to properly scrub. There are several work projects that are in full swing.

Fifteen minutes after we set our bags down in our bamboo hut, another set of volunteers, the Song family, arrived with a large case full of dental tools in order to do the children’s yearly check up. Jessie and I were recruited to digitize their past dental records and log the new ones from this year. I set up an Excel spreadsheet with all the children’s names and ages and teeth issues. Then, as each child was checked, we’d observe and write down any notes the dentists told us. Most of the kids had been treated last year so their teeth were in decent shape. But some of the kids who came from families with poor nutrition or not enough money to have their teeth checked while growing up had thick white layers of plaque that took twenty minutes to be completely scraped away from their gums.

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The kids took the cleaning bravely, especially Niti. Niti is 23 years old and had mouth pains for several years. Dr. Song took a quick look in his mouth and said, “Oh boy! All four wisdom teeth need to come out right now!” Five minutes later he was giving Niti numbing injections. Then we watched, somewhat horrified yet also mainly intrigued, as the doctor stuck surgical pliers into his mouth and twisted each tooth until it was loose enough to yank out. Niti had little pain, yet it was hard to watch because his legs and stomach flinched a few times, giving the illusion that he could feel it all. Later, he told us that he could feel the pulling but that it wasn’t painful; it was just the force of the tooth being ripped away that made him flinch.

Later on in the week MomoCat needed to go into Bangkok early in the morning, so she asked us to watch the new six week old baby girl, Soy Far, overnight so that she could get some rest before making that drive. We agreed to watch her and then nervously walked her up the dirt path to our hut. That night we learned a lot about how to make babies poo and how to soothe them when we have no clue why they’re crying. That night we got 4 hours of sleep. The next night we kept her overnight again. We felt more confident and we were determined that we had what it took to be baby whisperers. All I have to say is Jessie is a legend. I think since she helped her mom bring up four babies years ago something in her remembered how to swaddle like a pro. We still only got about 4 hours of sleep but this time Soy Far didn’t wake anybody. We’ve always had an appreciation for people who are taking care of babies, but this experience gave us a further taste of just how hard it can be.

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After two sleepless nights we were ready for a big rest, but a new opportunity presented itself. Several of the children had a relative that was getting married the next day and they needed somebody to drive them to the wedding. We quickly agreed, thinking it would be fun to see more of the countryside and experience this cultural event. The downside was that we would have to wake up at 2:30am in order to make it to the wedding, which was three hours away. Seriously, who schedules a wedding for 7am?!

So after another night of only a handful of hours of sleep, we jumped in the truck and headed down the road. The shortest and most direct route to the village required us to traverse a network of paved and dirt roads containing endless potholes and trenches formed from heavy monsoon rains carving paths across the road. Since it was pitch dark I couldn’t see any road issues until I was on top of them so after a few rough bumps I decided to take it slower. Most of the trip was done at a painstakingly slow 30km per hour. About 2/3 of the way through the journey the older Bamboo School student, Narget, told me to pull over. There were a couple guys on motorbikes that had been waiting for us to lead us to the wedding. Later we would learn that the guy who jumped in our truck was the groom! He had come an hour out of the way in the middle of the night before his wedding to show us the way.

We drove on a muddy path through the jungle. I was convinced that we would get stuck at some points, but thankfully the truck pushed on through. Just as I was thinking that this drive would never end, we went down a steep hill and then up another bump and the road ended. The sun had started rising about a half hour earlier and when I put the truck in park there was nothing in front of us but a lush, green, unadulterated valley closed in on all sides by beautiful sloping hills. I was glad to finally be there but realized as I stepped out of the car that it was going to be a major pain to turn the car around to go back.

We were a bit early so we got pulled into the bride’s family’s hut and were seated in the main room. The mother brought us huge bowls piled full of fresh watermelon, rambutan, longan, and other fruits, as well as French toast and Fanta. As we munched on some of the fruit, out of nowhere Jessie started laughing. At this point we knew we were both a little slap happy from sleep deprivation, but she told me that I had to check out the guy in the red shirt. I turned around and saw a hilarious sight. The father of the bride was busy making preparations for the wedding and he was wearing this giant bright red shirt that proclaimed: “Sex Instructor: First Lesson Free.” I busted up! It wasn’t too surprising because after living in Asia for several years I’ve noticed that they like to wear shirts with English writing on them but often are quite oblivious to what the shirt means. Still, the irony of the father wearing this extremely inappropriate shirt just minutes before the wedding kept me smiling for hours. Wish I would’ve gotten a picture of it!

The wedding started and we followed the bridal party to the church. When we got to the doors we saw that the church was packed full, so we decided to watch with some of the others from outside. But since we were possibly the only white people to have ever visited that village it was decided that we should be placed in the wedding party. We were gently forced along the side of the church to a side door where two chairs awaited us, right next to the parents of the bride! Embarrassed, we started to sit down but realized that there weren’t enough chairs. The mother was going to have to squat on the stage during her daughter’s wedding. I wouldn’t go for that, so I motioned for her to take my seat while Jessie and I half-cheeked the last chair. I don’t know whom they had ousted from the platform in order to make room for us…an uncle? A grandparent? The parents of the groom? We felt terrible but knew that in these situations you just have to surrender to culture. We sat there for what seemed like an hour, our legs falling asleep and our backs cramping up. I almost fell asleep from exhaustion during an especially long prayer, but a decorative balloon got too close to a halogen bulb and burst, which was enough to keep me awake for the rest of the service.

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The wedding was different. At no point did the bride and groom ever touch each other or even look in each other’s eyes. There were no ring or vow exchanges, no unity candles representing the merging of families. I got the feeling that with how close these people are, living closely together in open huts day after day, they didn’t need any overt promises. They could see every action and knew each one’s character already.

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After the wedding finished we sat down to a great feast in which the pastor paraded before us every person he knew of who could speak more than three words in English. Then after the meal we wished the bride and groom a happy marriage and went back out to the road.

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We waited an hour for someone to return with the groom’s motorbike. Then the groom jumped on the motorbike and led us back out to the main road, 45 minutes away. I couldn’t believe how much time of his wedding day he spent on helping us find our way!

Overall, it was a very informative week. We were sad to leave Thailand so soon but knew that we have months of exciting travel to look forward to! India, here we come!

geography 100: train to Bamboo School

For our last portion of traveling in Thailand, we went back to the Bamboo School. The Bamboo School is a refugee home/orphanage close to the Thai-Myanmar border for about 55 children who’ve come over the border and have no one who is able to care for them. We first visited the school in 2010 on some friends’ recommendations, and have been back several times since then. Our last visit we lived there for six months over an 8 month period.

Jessie and I love taking the train out. It leaves early in the morning from Bangkok and arrives about five hours later in a small town called Sai Yok. The train takes quite a bit longer than going by bus or minivan, but it gives us the pleasure of watching the scenery lazily morph from flatlands to mountains. Also, it only costs three dollars. The taxi drops us off at Thonburi Station at 7:20am, half an hour before departure. That gives me plenty of time to walk across the road to the market. I hunt around for the best looking fruit to eat on the train. Finally I arrive at a stand that has racquetball-sized mangosteens. The taut purple flesh conceals within it several small white wedges which are sweeter than cherries. I purchase a kilogram of the fruit for 20 baht, about 65 cents. Next, I find an ice coffee stand. Thais like their coffee so sweet you can barely tell there’s coffee in it at all. I tell the woman to use only a little sugar. She nods and then scoops a teaspoonful of sugar into the bottom of a glass, followed by two ounces of hot coffee and another two ounces of sweetened condensed milk. She mixes up this painfully sweet concoction and pours it over a full cup of ice. Before the lid goes on she grabs a can of sweetened evaporated milk and tops it off. I take a sip and have to strain to keep my eyes from popping out of my head. These drinks also cost 65 cents.

Back at the platform Jessie and I wait patiently for the train, which rarely shows up on time. We spend the 20 minutes of delay watching dogs mark their territory on the station’s support posts. When the train finally arrives, the conductors rush along the outside of the old cars turning around the wooden plaques that read Nam Tok – Thonburi to the flip side, Thonburi – Nam Tok. The train has so much character. It’s open seating, so we board the nearest car and find the most suitable seats. The best seats, we’ve learned, have four requirements: 1) the wooden benches must not be loose or they will fall off their hinges at some point during the trip when the tracks get too bumpy; 2) they must have a window that can be both easily pulled down, to let fresh air into the stiflingly hot carriage, and pushed up, to keep rain out in the case of heavy showers; 3) they must be under a ceiling fan that actually works; and 4) they must be on the left side of the car, because that’s where all the best views of the trip are.

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The train jerks into motion and we crawl across the flat sprawling city extending for many miles outward from Bangkok. After a few moments vEendors begin to walk up and down the center aisle selling ice cold drinks from large pails or rice dishes served in banana leaves or XL size t-shirts that say “I visited River Kwae.” We read books and peer out the window periodically to view the changing landscape.

Train to Sai YokGradually the city becomes country and rice paddies, tapioca and sugar cane claim space for the majority of the plain. Hours later, the train stops to pick up several handfuls of tourists who want to ride it on the famous bridge over the River Kwae in Kanchanaburi. During World War II, POWs from the Allied nations were forced to build these tracks while living in such horrible conditions that the trail is known to this day as The Death Railway. After Kanchanaburi the train begins to follow the wide river. I start to notice mountains in the distance, which grow bigger and more defined every time I look up from my book. We come upon a resort with houses built along both shores of the river. Several huts are actually built over the river and they rise and fall almost imperceptibly with the small ripples in the water.

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There’s a mountain that rises from the northern bank of the river here, so the raised train tracks were built along its side. The train winds its way around the curvature of the mountain as people stick their heads out the windows to look way down at the river below or wave to others several carriages ahead of theirs. The train stops and almost all of the tourists disembark. That’s how I know our stop is approaching.

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After five hours of shifting from cheek to cheek on the wooden benches, we’re very ready to jump out at our stop and walk across the tracks to a small “downtown” area. Nestled around a tiny central green are an outdoor rice and noodle place, an internet shop, two small convenience stores, two mini market shops, and a brand new steak restaurant (which seems very out of place). I poke around in the shops and buy packets of instant coffee while we wait half an hour for the red songthaew truck to come creeping down the road. I signal the driver to stop. I approach the window and the driver says “Bongti!” to which I nod. Then we climb up the back of the truck and sit on one of the long side benches, backpacks between our legs. The locals stare at us, wondering what these two white people are doing on a truck bound for the border of Burma. As we drive out of town and pass the elephant park, the mountains jut dramatically up out of the earth in seemingly random places as if some primordial god had stood under the surface and thrown a temper tantrum, punching upward spastically and aimlessly. Many parts are so steep that trees can’t grow on them, so the sheer cliff faces make bald patches amidst the sea of rich green jungle that clings to every other possible square inch of land. Though I haven’t traveled too extensively in Thailand, I’ve seen a fair bit of this stunning country and I think that surely this land has to be one of the most beautiful places.

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The village isn’t very far from the town, but the journey takes over half an hour to traverse because deep potholes as wide as a doormat mar the road every couple hundred meters, forcing the truck to slow down and drop into lower gears. We don’t mind; it gives us more time to view the landscape and settle into the slower pace of country life. It’s gently raining, which creates misty clouds that cling to the mountains. At the same time, the rain causes the dust particles in the air to fall back to earth and magnifies the full range of the valley’s vibrant green. I couldn’t get a picture to look this great in Photoshop if I worked at it for days! We go up a hill and down, and shortly after we have to ring a bell and bang our hands on the side of the truck to let the driver know we want to get off. I walk up to the window and give the man 100 baht and say “Cope-uhn-crahp,” which means thank you. We walk the last half kilometer to the school wondering which children we will encounter first.

When we get there the children are still at school so we tour around the compound taking note of all the improvements that have been done since we were last here a year ago. There’s a carport and stone-lined driveway in place of the field in front of the school. The walkway from the medical clinic to the girls dormitory has been paved. A large chicken coop now flanks the classrooms at the bottom of the hill. Some guesthouses have concrete verandas and steps instead of bamboo. There is a dark room where edible mushrooms grow out the side of plastic tubes. A large hydroponic fish tank feeds fertilized water into pots of newly growing plants. A new toilet room is being constructed next to the girls dormitory. We joke to each other that we’ve arrived back at “Bamboo Resort” while fondly recalling the way things used to be before this new round of construction.

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We sit on MomoCat’s porch and catch up on everything that’s happened in the past year. Dokmai and Bekah are going to kindergarten now. Tui, a Thai woman who lived in New Zealand for several years, has been helping out for the past year. Several volunteers we’ve worked with in the past were just here a few months ago or will be arriving shortly after we leave. And there’s a new baby at the school who likes to “practice opera loudly” at 3 in the morning! The students arrive home and we rush to greet them. Some of the children run squealing into our arms. Some are bashful at first and look away as we sweep them up in our arms and repeat over and over “I miss you big big!” It’s okay. I know that within an hour I’ll be chasing them around the dormitories and tickling them as they shriek with joy. We notice that with the students there is also some change: some boys and girls we know from previous trips have left, for various reasons, to live with relatives in the surrounding area. Their beds have been filled by new smiling faces with names like Niti, Megatoo, Shanymoo, Ehlapaw, Ehdaku and Nanapoe. The toddlers have aged another year and are now little girls, and we marvel at how big they’ve gotten. I realize that when I see my nephew back in Michigan in a few months I’ll have the same shock over how much he’s grown. The children quickly change out of their school clothes, do their chores and take baths before the supper bell rings. As always, the days meld into each other and as soon as we know it our week will be finished and we’ll be back at Suvarnabhumi Airport, waiting on our plane to India. But first, we will have many adventures at Bamboo School. Time is such a strange and wonderful and awful thing.

seminar: Thailand days 5~6

I’m sitting in the last row of a bus bound for Bangkok. As I scarf down my coconut yogurt and “Mexican BBQ” flavored banana chips, I’m reflecting on the events of our quick trip up to Isaan to see our friends Cori and Jupp and the community they’ve established there. I guess ‘quick’ is a pretty relative term. Indeed, this bus ride, and the one we took just two nights ago, is six hours long.

But I can’t complain anymore because sitting in the last row has given me room to stretch out my legs. I’m also glad that I’m no longer sitting next to the middle-aged guy who was beside me for the first half of the voyage. He was nice and courteous of my space, but he was creeping me out the way he used his grotesquely long pinky nail to pick boogers from his nose and continually pick at scabs on his wrist and blemishes on his face and chest! Yuck!

After spending five days in the roaring, fast-paced, consumer-driven metropolis of Bangkok, it was quite refreshing to step off the bus and smell fresh air and hear nothing but the occasional motorbike wiz past. It’s always a shock to me how differently people live out in the country than in cities. The first bit of news our friends told us was about how a man in the next town over had recently let loose tigers because he didn’t want the police to confiscate them. Some reports said there were 19 tigers, others said 11. Whichever one was the case, I was pretty sure to lock our bedroom door that night!

Cori and Jupp were living in Bangkok a few years ago when we met them, working with an organization Jessie and I spent some time volunteering at. Through a series of events they were renting a large house in the eastern part of Bangkok where they lived in community and had welcomed two teenaged girls to live with them; teenagers who were considered to be from at risk households.  Since that time they have moved to the rural area where we visited them on this trip. Part of their motivation for moving was to initiate community development projects in the area and to provide a more stable living environment to their community which has now grown to include eleven teen girls!

As we waited for the girls to get home from school, Cori took us out to see their farming field. On the way we walked along narrow ridges that sectioned off large rice paddies with skinny green shoots popping up through the muddy stagnant ponds. She spoke about the satisfaction of working a long, hard day in the dirt and how the girls were learning about the benefits of having a good work ethic. I loved hearing her excitement about getting them involved. Their land was pushing up sugar cane that rivaled all the other plots around.

Back at the house the girls arrived and hurriedly showered before starting their chores. One of the girls I’d met from before was sitting at the table with her texts, ready to study, but instead of looking at her books she was staring out the window at the beautiful sunset filtering through the clouds and falling over the distant hills. I sat down across from her and started asking her questions about her day. Pretty soon I discovered that her favorite subject was English. So we looked together at a book that had both Thai and English vocabulary in it and taught each other the correct pronunciation of several pages of words. The other girls grew interested and soon I found myself surrounded by girls who were laughing at how hard it is for them to say “difficult” and how hard it is for me to say “ngeeng.”

At some point in the evening, as we sat on pillows in the living room and talked about the hardships and rewards of country living, a chicken scuttled past me with one of the girls in hot pursuit. And it reconfirmed for me that despite my love of the city, I really do enjoy country life, regardless of the chilling bucket showers and hordes of mosquitos that drive us to sleep under nets and all the other crazy things it involves.

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seminar: Thailand days 3~4

Jessie and I have been continually wavering for the past five days between a sense of calmness and majorly freaking out! As many of you know, we’re seriously considering moving to Thailand in 2014. So this two week stint in Thailand is primarily a fact-finding mission as well as a time to visit good friends. On Tuesday we stopped by one of the organizations we’ve previously volunteered with and hope to stay connected with next year. It was great to catch up with the director and hear some of the plans for the near future and ways we might be able to contribute.

We also had dinner with a friend who’s been living in Bangkok for the past three years. She had some really valuable information as far as cost-of-living goes here. Apartment costs seem to be encouragingly affordable although electricity costs can add up and as anyone who has spent time in Thailand year round will know, there are times when air conditioning is really, really nice to have! Luckily, transportation and food are very cheap here. Our friend has been juicing for a while and she told us about a nearby market where we can get baskets full of vegetables for about 30 cents. If we move to Bangkok we’re definitely going to bring a juicer and an espresso maker!

Yesterday I met with the associate dean of English education at Assumption University. After a year of teaching elementary students in Korea, I’ve realized how completely burned out on the young’uns I am. So I’m hoping to get a job as a university professor in the English Language department. From our conversation it sounds like he’s interested in bringing me on some time next year. The job sounds like it could be fun and is a decent salary for Thailand. Also, we have a friend who worked there in the past and recommended it to us. However, there is a big downside. The campus where I’d be teaching is quite far out of the city, which would give Jessie a long commute to the volunteer organization. If we live there we’d most likely have to buy a motorbike, and I’d be a nervous wreck knowing she was driving in Bangkok traffic twice a day.

Jessie met with another dean about the Master of Science in Counseling Psychology program. She is on the fence about pursuing a masters degree in counseling, but if she is to do it anywhere she wants to do it cheaply.

After our meetings we slumped into a large booth in the central hallway of the campus. The conversation that ensued was simultaneously full of hope and concern. Can we make this work? Will we be lonely living so close to the city yet still pretty far out? Is it going to make us miserable having to spend our days in completely different realms and being on completely different pages from each other? Should I work a normal, steady job where I know I’ll get a sufficient monthly paycheck or should I use this time to pursue several of the location independent, self-employed ideas I’ve been preparing this past year?

I can tell it’s going to take many long conversations until we arrive at a decision. Luckily, time is the one thing we have plenty of right at this moment.

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seminar: Thailand day 2

Yesterday we spent the day shopping and eating. Jessie’s been concerned for quite a while that we don’t have very appropriate clothes for traveling in India, especially since we’ll be in the fairly conservative northern half of the country. Luckily, we’re finding that unlike our first time in Thailand three years ago, many of the clothes merchants in the area we like to stay are now stocking larger sizes to accommodate taller and bigger foreigners. So we each picked up two pairs of slacks and a shirt. Our slacks have Thai elephants and patterns on them, which is a bit silly but I think we’ll be able to pull them off. At the very least they are made from super thin material so they’ll keep the hot Indian sun from burning us while allowing a great deal of air circulation!

As we shopped around we were so confident because we’ve learned how to dicker down the prices from past times. Pants that started at a price of 280 baht (about $9) were bagged and handed over to us for only 200 baht (a $3 savings). That’s one thing we’ve definitely learned about clothes shopping in Thailand: you can expect to pay about 1/3 less than the quoted price if you stick to your guns. We’ve also learned that if you walk a mere block outside of the foreign districts you can get a metered taxi instead of trying to agree on a price with the driver, which is never fun. For example, just today we hailed a taxi to take us clear across the city. He said “300 baht” so we started to walk away. “Okay, okay! Meter!” he called after us, so we got in. The half-hour ride ended up costing us only 140 baht.

However, some things you don’t dicker over, like restaurant prices and convenience store items. So when we walked into the pharmacy to pick up a few ORC packets (for electrolyte rehydration) and the lady told me they were 90 baht each, I quickly handed over 270 baht for three packets. The price seemed a bit steep to me: I thought that they’d been cheaper when we bought them before, but since we hadn’t been in Thailand for over a year I didn’t trust myself to be remembering that correctly. I was also confused. For some reason I was thinking that 90 baht was equal to $1 instead of $3. It’s hard keeping all these different exchange rates separate in my head sometimes!

After we stepped out of the pharmacy Jessie said that she thought the price was pretty high, but I explained it away. A few hours later we walked into a 7-11 to buy some water and they had the exact same packets at the checkout counter for 6 baht a piece. That’s right…six! Not only had the pharmacy woman overcharged me 84 baht, but she’d sold three packets to me. So basically I got ripped off for about $8.50 by a pharmacist. I never expected that!

This isn’t the first time I’ve been had, and with all the travel we do I’m sure it won’t be the last. The nice thing about being cheated in South East Asia is that the amount is always pretty miniscule. So I’ve decided not to get too upset over it (or let Jessie’s occasional teasing get to me, haha)! I’m treating it as an important reminder that I have to be on guard, especially in the places I’m most comfortable with, while on the road. But if at any time you find yourself strolling along Soi Rambuttri in Bangkok in the future, steer clear of Rama Pharmacy. They stink!

Photo Jul 24, 1 11 06 AM