Mary "Masha" Opie
2006-07 Outbound to Thailand

Hometown: Jacksonville, FL
School: Douglas Anderson School of the Arts
Sponsor: Ponte Vedra Beach Rotary Club
Host: Surat Thani Rotary Club
District 3330, Thailand


Masha's Bio

Hello! My name is Masha. I am 18 years old and a senior at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. This being my last year of high school , in America, I am so busy trying to figure out what to do with myself.

I have two passions in life that I would like to pursue: recording and anthropology. Music is my life, I love everything about it, all the way back to its roots. There is not a day that goes by where I do not listen to music or practice my singing. I also love to be exposed to music of other cultures and genres than what I am used to. Music and sound in general amazes me and I would love interact with talented musicians and work in a recording studio where I have the ability to do nothing but produce a good quality sound all day. Every time I listen to a song or make a mix CD, I fix the recording in my head and think about the best way to make the artist's message come to life.

I love Interacting with people in general, the human mind and body is so incredible to me. I cannot get over what has been accomplished over the years all over the world. This is why I want to go into anthropology. I would love to see what makes a certain group of people in another part of the world live the way they do. Interacting with people is so important to me but sometimes I enjoy just sitting back and making observations. I have always been curious of other cultures, how they were first developed, how long they have been around, and how far they have come.

I am so very thankful for this opportunity that Rotary has given me to spend a year abroad in Thailand. I know I will become better acquainted with myself and with people I have been waiting to meet my whole life. This trip will not only give me time to figure out which of my passions will be my calling, but will help with every day of my life thereafter.


July 24 Journal

 So, stepping off the plane in Bangkok I could not really get my first impression of Thailand. The flight was very long and I was way too exhausted to focus on my surroundings but, as soon as I took my first steps in the Surat Thani Airport I knew I was in Thailand. I was surrounded by Rotarians and students from my school (I did not know any of them at the time). They all were speaking and taking many photos of me and with me. Then all of the sudden I hear English!!! Yes! I can know what's going on. The current inbound exchange student from Canada was there to help me. He was very helpful and I do mean very.

After photo time everyone took me to my first Thai restaurant. When we arrived I realized my bladder was about to burst and asked "Hong Namm Yoo tee nai?" (where is the bathroom) - they all laughed and pointed in the direction to go. So I walk in this dark room to see a toilet bowl built in the floor with a bucket and a faucet next to it. Okay so this was the beginning of culture shock. I did my best, then went back to my seat. Neal, the current inbound, laughed and said," I bet that was wicked fun." About ten minutes later I was eating only god knows what with noodles but it was delicious and very spicy.

After our meal the students from my school took many more photos and left. Then, the Rotarians that came to lunch took me to my first host family, it was then that I realized my host father was one of them. My house was beautiful and huge. (I got super lucky!!!) We all took off our shoes and I met Khun Mae(mom), Khun Na (her sister), Khun Yai (grandma), Pi Yang (the maid), and Pi pa Nom (the cook). Their house is on the river and has the most breathtaking view. I thought I had it made in Jacksonville with the sunrise but nothing beats the warm glow of the sun reflecting onto to the lotus flowers in my backyard!!!!!

Okay so enough about my first day. In my first week I did many things: I went to the supermarket (so many many things to buy) and I visited some of the nearby Wats which are Buddhist Temples. I have yet to see the most beautiful ones in Surat but I'm sure I will soon. I went to the night market, you can only describe by a rush of smells. Fish, fresh fruits, candy, ice cream, pork, chicken , pad thai noodle all being pushed in your face as you walk down a street. I loved the night market. Thailand is very busy for shopping and many farang (foreigners) love it for this reason.

After my first week my luck ran out and I got severe food poisoning at a Rotary Banquet from an oyster. I was in the hospital a total of 6 days. At first I was scared and all I could do was cry, but I did not want to seem like a bad exchange student, so I cried in private until a nurse came in and saw me. She was very kind she brought me candy and kept speaking to me in Thai. I did not understand her but her body language was very sympathetic. She came to check on me every ten minutes, but after the first time I was never alone again. All of the Rotarians who I met at the airport came to visit me and spend time every chance they got. My next host family (maybe) came and Khun Mae treated me as her own even though I had only met her one day. They kept asking "are you okay? we will take care of you." I did not doubt them for two seconds. These people are my family and I have become very close and attached to all of them, even the ones that I can't remember their names. My Khun Mae and Khun Pha (mom and dad) were in Bangkok when I was sent to the hospital and they came home as soon as they heard. I wish I could have been closer to the inbounds that we hosted in past so that they can feel as loved and cared for as I do now.

Since I've been out of the hospital I have been taking things easy and just sitting at home. I got a guitar though and I'm teaching myself, it's harder than it looks. I also had my first day of school. I have to wear a uniform; it is a blue skirt past the knee with a light blue button up shirt. As I walked up with the president of my Rotary Club students stared at me and giggled as I passed. We walked to a podium and there was a huge presentation for my welcoming. They spoke about my time in the hospital and gave me flowers. Then I gave my Thai Introduction (prepared in the Rotary orientation, edited in Thailand) . Everyone screamed and clapped when I finished. It was a very warm welcoming. After the principal said his last words we walked to a room to figure out my schedule and now I am taking all art classes, no math, no science (YES!). Anjan Gao, who is my guidance counselor, took me to meet all of my teachers and some fellow students, who took me to have lunch in the cafeteria. Everyone surrounded me and asked me some pretty ridiculous questions but it was so cute. I love the school and I made so many friends. It's going to be a good year (knock on wood).


August 18 Journal

 Okay, let's pretend we're all an exchange student in Thailand named Masha. If you're Masha, then right now to your left, there are four roosters being chased by a dog and to your right, your host family laughing as Khun Na Roy (Uncle Roy) tries to get a coconut from one of the dozens of trees surrounding you.

So you're Masha writing your second journal, but it's really hard to concentrate when directly in front you the most brilliant shades of green make their way towards your feet. Here they come splashing in rhythm with Khun Maes Koh Samui song and the shades of green fade to white to blend with the sand. So I bet your wondering where you are. You're in Paradise which in Thai is "Koh Samui". That's really just the name of the island but it feels like paradise. Koh Samui is unbelievable - it is exactly the kind of place movies make paradise out to be. Many tan people laughing, having a good time. It's hotter than any day in Florida but everyone is sabai (feelin' good) because the wind is blowing into the coconut trees that shade you.

Yep, they are swaying in perfect time with that Koh Samui song. So paradise Hollywood style, that's where I am but I almost forgot to mention the one big detail that makes it totally Hollywood: all of us tan laughing people are drinking milk from a coconut through a straw. I never thought I would see the day when I am drinking coconut milk out of the actual coconut through a straw and, I made it myself. This is RIGHTEOUS! So okay I'm sorry but I'm taking this journal out of paradise and into the past month.

Since my last journal my Thai has improved ten fold. I CAN READ!!! well... I mean I can read small things like signs and soda cans, but still I can read and that is so cool to me. When I first started school I could not stop hearing about the exchange student before me and how fast he learned Thai. "do you know Neals, he's Thai is mmmm very goood very much, yes" that was the usual thing teachers said to me in my first week at Surat Thani Song (song means 2). Hearing that made me really nervous about speaking Thai. Then as the days went on and turned to weeks the phrase changed to "Masha! Gian Mak Mak, Pood Thai dai laew!" Which means "Masha very good you speak Thai well already." Then all my fears about the language vanished and it's becoming easier and easier to communicate each day.

School is so fun, it's unreal how popular I am. The second I'm alone there are people surrounding me again. You would think the popularity would do nothing but build my confidence up even higher but the truth is I think I never really had that confidence I bragged about in my interview to begin with. Since I've been here so many people have asked me to sing songs or help them with English. I try to say yes, but I get this weird after a rollercoaster feeling in my stomach, and my cheeks turn red and then I hear myself saying, "mai ow Mai ow, ka tor ka, poonie dai mai ka?" (I don't want to, sorry. Is tomorrow okay?) I'M SHY! Well, I'm not as shy anymore but in my first couple weeks here I could not stop saying "Maybe next time, sorry." Until one day at school I remembered my juggling skills, which were not that good before I left but I've had a lot of free time here for brushing them up. So I brought my trusty juggling balls to school that Friday and saved myself from singing until the following Monday at least. I've actually seen myself acting a lot different since I arrived. I say I've seen myself instead of I've felt myself because it is not until after said, did, or thought something that I realized it happened. I look at some ants or a spider and think "awww that's beautiful" instead of "it's going to kill me". I love it too, I love watching myself slowly change. I don't really feel it at all. Every adjustment made to my personality so far just feels normal. Then again it's only been one month and a half but I know I've changed a lot more than getting over my fear of insects.

So other than than improving my Thai and becoming nature girl I've done a lot of things. Last Friday, 8/11 was Sport Day in my school and it's a pretty big "festiwal" - for two or more weeks before Sport Day, everyone gets out of class early to practice and prepare for the big day. In school there are six color teams. You know what team you're on by looking at the color dots on your uniform. I am See Dang (red).

So for two weeks everyone practices but the biggest attraction is not really the sports but the Parade before. You see on Sport Day at 8:00am there is a big parade put on by the students. It is about four kilometers long and marches to city hall/ stadium. In the Parade each color team is represented and it's like a typical parade. First comes the music, then the school's name, after that the person holding Paan for the King and Queen. Behind them I don't really know because I was the person holding Paan for the King and Queen. It was a huge honor and a really really reeeallly long walk. I had to wake up at 4:00 am that morning to get my hair, make up and dress put on. "Suoiy mak" (very beautiful) is what everyone was telling me as I looked in the mirror at the artists' finished work. The piece is titled "Farang wrapped in gold bricks" that's at least what I call it. That's also exactly what it felt like. The Thai girls made it look so easy to walk around wrapped in the heaviest gold beaded fabric on earth and were perfectly fine with it being plastered to skin. The dress had to be at least two sizes too tight and the whole four kilometers I was counting down to the moment when I would die of either a heat stroke or suffocate. Then at 5...4...3.. "Masha! Newoy mai?" (are you tired) it was over! I walked to the front with the Paan and placed it on the image of the King and Queen in honor of them and the Queen's birthday 8/12. After I finished, I unraveled the artists' gold bricks and the rest of the day I cheered for red team.

The next day I woke up early with Khun and Khun Pha and caught the first ferry to Koh Samui and here I am "Sabai". Thailand is incredible, for the first time in my short life I really feel at home. You know that feeling you get when you sleep in an unfamiliar bed? Home sick but it's more house sick or pillow sick? Well I've had the same pillow and blanket for almost two months and we've become pretty close but even when I'm away I still feel wrapped in the warmth of my blanket. I feel well, I guess I feel at home. Everywhere I go here is... home.


September 18 Journal

 It hit me at dinner... som taam (papaya salad), gai tot (fried chicken), kow neiuw (sticky rice) and a variety of other Thai foods from one of the nicest restaurants in North Eastern Thailand. One of Thailand’s great food establishments, that’s where it hit me. I can still hear thin slices of moo (pig) as they're slapped on the grill, the smell of charcoal is heavy and almost overwhelming. Here comes the catch of the day. I see a boat coming up stream The Kong River. Oooo. The Kong River running smoothly between Laos and Thailand, with mountains, mountains, mountains for miles, at least at this end.

Well... Like I said, it hit me at dinner. Ten maybe twelve tan laughing people eating dinner, watching the sunset into the mountains; you know, paradise Hollywood style. So there I am in the middle of telling my fifth or sixth story that evening but, who's counting anyway. Telling my fifth or sixth story, you know the one about that time mom and dad and I went to a place and something funny happened. Midway through the story I can see everyone’s faces crack into a huge, bulging smile that could burst at any second for the fifth or sixth time. I can hear myself making my way to the punch line of this funny tale but it's not funny anymore, at least to me. Everyone at the table was laughing, cackling, roaring and yahooing, but me. It hit me at dinner as midway through my fifth or sixth story I catch a glimpse of a foreigner at the next table. He’s tall, a little big in the mid-section, brown short hair with hints of grey, a beard, and was wearing a suit and tie. I was homesick and really homesick for the first time in two months. After the cackles and yahooing died down one of my cousins looked at me and said "Masha, ben arai, kid-tung baan mai?" (Masha, what's wrong, are you homesick?) I thought before I responded and replied "mai chai, nyuong non" (no I’m just sleepy). If I had been at home when it hit me I might have responded differently but I knew I would be traveling North Eastern Thailand for at least five more days and would be very busy. Homesick, is a very strange thing.

So I thought maybe I could be super exchange student and the next day I would forget all about this strange new emotion. I was wrong. From Mukdahan, which was the third stop in my travel up north last week, we headed to Bangkok to visit my host mother’s younger sister. My host mom was very busy so I decided to go shopping in Siam Paragon. Siam Paragon is one of Thailand’s greatest attractions for foreigners. There are so many things to see and do.

Walking through Siam, Star Bucks, KFC, Tommy Hilfiger, MAC make-up, Polo, Dairy Queen, and BAAM it hit me again. Homesick, it is a bad idea when you’re homesick to go to the most westernized place in the country you’re staying in. I was walking drinking my freshly brewed Starbucks Café Americano and it hit me. So I left. I left and I told my aunt that I was homesick and I needed to do something about it. So, we did. The next day we all headed to Ayyudaiya, where a lot of Thailand’s earliest history took place. Yeah, it felt good to be around people that love and have the whole ancient Thailand experience but I still felt half full. I felt half full until we made it to a gift shop where I saw some freshly made silver medallions. They were breath-taking and had a certain smell that let you know they were fresh and glancing over the shiny round trinkets what do I find? I find one with “Steal Your Face” on it (the Grateful Dead Symbol)!!! I could not believe it!!! The woman behind the counter could see the excitement in my eyes and though the tag read 350bht she gave it to me for 100bht and all I could say was “IIIYAH” (oh my god!) Seeing a freshly made “steal your face” medallion made all of my homesickness vanish. It made me realize I don’t have to completely let go of who I was before I got here and that some Thai people have good taste in music. So it hit me and it passed (I’m sure it will be back again, hopefully not soon) but now I’m going to talk about what happened before it hit me. This past month is hard to put in words because the only word I can use to describe it is Thai, “IIYAH.”

So… this is what I did in short: Paint for the minister of Thailand, go to a University in Bangkok to paint with some students from school, Travel to Prachuip, more painting for school officials in Surat, travel for a week in North Eastern Thailand and next month I’m going to a Buddhist meditation camp for two weeks. It’s hard to believe I’ve already been here two months and it’s even harder to believe that in two months I’ve traveled to the farthest North Eastern part to The Farthest South and half of the places in between.


September 23 Journal

 11 something pm, September 19th… The sun has been in bed for hours, my stomach is settling and my mind if finally drifting from today’s adventures to the possibilities of tomorrows. I find myself however unable to peacefully rest and, make the transition between the day's ever rapid movement of here, there, doing, listening, learning, wanting, going to the next place and the still… yet bizarre, surreal, Thailish (English mixed with Thai) dream state that I have been experiencing the past couple of weeks. Instead somewhere buried towards the back of mind is anxiety; my body acknowledges its presence first and like a child throwing a temper-tantrum for attention, it kicks, and squirms in restless discomfort. My mind the bickering parents of the attention deprived child are distracted from their quarrel by a peculiar ringing … my cell phone. It’s my dad calling from 12 something pm September 19th in the USA. “Are you okay? I heard about what’s going on in Bangkok and was worried.” At that moment anxiety got all the attention it had been craving. “What are you talking about, what’s going on in Bangkok?” “There is a coup with like ten tanks, are you okay?” “Well, yeah I’m fine but…”

KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK

“Dad, I gotta go my mom is calling me to the living room I’ll call you in a bit.” I pressed the button reading “end” on my cell phone and walked to the door. Opening the door I see my host mom and the whole family Pi pa nom, Pi Yaang, Khun Poah, Khun Yai… Staring deeply into the TV, Senses fully opened. “Masha, du TV, du anee pasa angrit” (Masha watch TV, this channel has English). Looking at the TV I fully comprehend what is happening but it seems all too familiar. The constant updates, every channel a man, a woman, yellow shirt and their tone of voice concerned; the red, white and blue banner with thick black font scrolling at a rapid pace across the TV screen… Looking around the room… the faces… the face of uncertainty, I had it too.

You see at about seven or eight pm the same day I found myself glancing over Ellen’s 9/11 journal and realized I had completely let that day pass me as if any other day. It was the first year since the tragic event, though there have not been many, I did not hear, or see anyone talking about it. I had forgotten … forgotten all about it and reading Ellen’s journal I remembered. I remembered that I should have said a prayer, or cried, or called my parents or something that I would have normally done on that day and I felt … well, I felt... selfish I suppose.

So through dinner, and during my evening shower and while trying to fall asleep, tossing, turning, kicking, squirming, I could not stop thinking about it, about how if I did not take the time to read that journal I would have let an entire year go by and not have felt one bit of remorse for the lost souls on 9/11. I mean … I was stuck on it! Stuck, in the back of my mind at least. Like three year old taffy on crème colored carpet. Then at 11 something pm all the feelings I let pass on 9/11 this year came rushing back through me. Is Elle okay? Are people hurt? How does this effect the country? What do I feel? How does the King feel about it? How does my Dad know, before I do?

All these questions racing through my brain.

11 something pm watching TV… the first coup in Thailand in fifteen years. Holding my hand and pushing my hair out of my face my host mom says “mai don gruah, mai me arai” ( don’t be scared, it’s nothing really) I look in her eyes and I see a hint of fear but looking in everyone’s eyes, Khun Phoh, Khun Yai, Pi Pa Nom, Pi Yang… hidden behind the uncertainty I see unity, the same unity you saw in eyes of every American on September 11, 2001. The situation in Thailand is nowhere near the same as 9/11 and no one has been hurt. In fact after the first day I think 80% of Thai people are happy. Anyway, I just thought I’d let you know I was safe and “Mai don grua, mai me aria ka.”


October 29 Journal 

 “Everybody is just doing their thing and wailing with it.” -Ken Kesey - As Quoted by Tom Wolff

Last month I finished reading a book by Tom Wolff titled The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It is a non-fiction essay on Ken Kesey, the merry pranksters and the whole acid head hippie movement. This book has absolutely nothing to do with Thailand, Rotary, or being an exchange student but, for some reason everyday I see random quotes from the book scrolling through my mind…

Last month on the 24 or 25th I don’t quite remember when, school let out for a month, “bid-term” (holiday break). Since my host mom was busy with work and everything she decided maybe it would be a good idea if the other exchange student from Japan and I went to my aunt’s house in paradise (koh Samui) for a few weeks. That way we could have some one on one time and I could teach her Thai. So, you know I told her I’d think about it… and at 8:00 am the next morning Haruka and I were on the first ferry headed to Samui. An hour and a half later we were welcomed by a cool ocean breeze, the music of an old islander playing the kiim in the middle of a crowd of farang (forgieners) and my aunt and uncle. Haruka had never been to Samui and her Thai was minimal but I knew exactly how she felt and what she wanted to say as we drove down the coast to my family’s bungalow resort. When we arrived they showed us to our private bungalow on the beach and told us what time lunch was and so on. After we were settled in our bungalow Haruka and I walked down the beach not saying a word but marveling at the natural beauty that surrounded us. It was everywhere from the sketches in the sand made by twigs and shells, the sway of the palms, the mountains painted in a green tropical bliss to a neighbor bathing his yak in the refreshingly warm green ocean waves… I had been here before and had the exact same reaction. There is just too much beauty not to be overwhelmed…

So we spent two weeks in that luxurious bungalow with cable TV, air conditioning, hot water and so forth but, I rarely set foot in it. Each day I would wake up at 6:00am and sweep the sand with the maid, run to the local fresh market and buy the ingredients for breakfast which, everyday was Koaw Tom Plah (rice soup with fish). And on my way back stop at Khun Tuwat's (great grandmas) and knock down a couple of coconuts to save for later. Then P’Yin (the maid and cook) and I would make breakfast then after we ate everybody would help clean up. At 9:00 were yoga and meditation classes then, at 10:00 guitar, 10:30 op namn (take a shower) and at 11:00 head down the beach for art lessons. Each day was fully loaded, I became so involved with Island living that I had completely forgot the reason why I even came to Samui… Then one night after cleaning dishes with P’Yin and Haruka I realized Haruka had not really opened up at all since she got there. She hated coconuts and all fruits for that matter, didn’t talk much and spent more than half the day sitting in the bungalow. So, we went for a stroll down the beach… Haruka came to Thailand about two and a half weeks after I did and her Thai was not making much progress but her English was conversational. Walking down the beach she told me that she wanted to go home because she misses her mother too much and Thailand is nothing like Japan. As she went on talking about home, mom, dad and the dog one of those quotes popped in my head.

“You’re either on the bus or off the bus.” - Ken Kesey as quoted by Tom Wolff.

Haruka was off the bus … The next day I followed the same routine I had been doing everyday only this time I woke Haruka up to do it with me and I refused to speak English . It wasn't until after the market that she even said a word but it was the words she said that let me know she was back on the bus. She said “tomorrow pbai gop p’masha again okay mai?” (Is it okay if I go with you again tomorrow?) And, I’m happy to say she is still on the bus. Not only was she on the bus but everybody, Na Tim, Na ray, Nong Ploy, Haruka , the whole gang got on as we headed to Chaiya for two weeks at the Buddhist mediation camp… The Rules: No Talking. Two meals a day No Smoking, cell phones, internet, candy, primping accessories etc, No connection to the outside world

What to bring: A Book. A Towel. Undergarments. Two all-white outfits.

Accommodations: A mat to sleep on. An outhouse. Candles for light, A hot natural spring to bathe in.

The Meditation camp was a big change from our four star luxury bungalow on the beach. Men and women were separated so, the front desk was that place we saw Na Ray for a few days not that that mattered anyway. NO TALKING!!! So, after we checked in, Na Tim, Non Ploy (my cousin), Haruka, and I headed to our room which we shared with 6 other women. After dinner at 4:00 pm we had our first meditation session and two hours later it was finished, hmmm and we headed to bed at 6:00pm.

I could not understand why we went to bed so early until the next morning at 4:00 am when I everybody was getting up and I heard the roosters crowing outside. I just got up and followed everybody else. At 4:00am the stars are still the brightest thing in the sky so I had no idea where we were going but when I ran into the girl in front of me I took that as a clue that we had reached our destination… Still stuck in a cloudy dreamlike haze I settled into Indian position to prepare for our first mediation session of the day. Yep 4:00 am in the middle of the forest is the perfect time and place to achieve mindfulness. In….and…out In…and ….out. Concentrating on the fullness of my breath…. In…. and…out…. In…and…out… Then …a voice, chanting in Thai comes out of speakers hidden the woods, followed by a light… fire, three of them surrounding a golden Buddha statue and, the chant gets louder as more voices join in. I can barely hear it though because, I have become so completely focused on my breath and, my mind that it just kind of fades away… Then two hours later the chant stops and I’m back …

And, that is how it went on for about four days until I realized my nose ring was throbbing in pain and a Mae Chi (Buddhist nun) told me it was red and pussing. So, we left the next day after we traveled Koh Sok (the national park in Surat). Everybody at the camp went to pay respect to Pra Putata, a highly respected monk that died about 6 years ago. Everybody, all visitors , Pra’s (Buddhist monks) and Mae Chi’s climbed 6 kilometers up a mountain in the rain and 6 kilometers back down soaked from the rain, covered in dirt, and leeches. I however, am sad to say that I and the rest of my party only made it less than a quarter of the way before turning around because of the rain and the condition of my nose. So, we left and I went to the doctor, he yanked out my nose ring and gave me some antibiotics.

For what was left of my holiday break I stayed in Surat going to art school everyday and hanging out with friends. It was good to be home and I got to see a 15 member pop band in concert. Next week I go back to school and I’m marching in sport day again. I’m also changing hosts. I’m going to miss family a lot but, it is about that time.

Some time next month I’m going back to the camp at Chaiya but, I can tell you for only being there four or five days I got a lot out of it, including this.

There is too much beauty in the world to worry about the stuff that ticks us off. It’s everywhere - it’s the sunset in my backyard becoming more magical each day. It’s the way my grandmother sings as she walks. It’s the stray dogs chasing tuk-tuks down the street. It’s the old woman in the night market who knows all of the locals’ names and exactly what they want. It’s the monks 12 kilometers later covered in leeches. It’s the way the water ripples in Surat’s Tapi River. It’s even the complexity of a simple blade of grass. It’s everything, including the things that tick us off, it’s Life just doing its thing and wailing with it.

 And so this is Christmas

And so yesterday was Christmas at least for me and other Old Calendar Orthodox Christians and there was no scent of pine in my house or stockings on the wall. There was no mistletoe hung or eggnog in my glass and, even two weeks ago when it was Christmas for the rest of world, I was not wrapping presents with a jolly, merry Christmas gingerbread smile.

In many countries children went bed on the 24th all dressed in their warmest pj’s to keep the chill of winter out and on the 25th woke up to the heat of a fire or heater in their home. Then some children may have walked to the window in their room and in a clockwise motion wiped the condensation away with their tiny hands. Some other children may have woke from their beds and without stretching or taking a breath ran as fast as they could to the tree decorated in ornaments, lights, dangly balls, kindergarten projects and strands of their favorite cereal and when they reached their destination excited and all out of breath they gazed starry-eyed at the lights, dangly balls and strands of cereal that cover the tree because it looked nothing the way it did the day before. Then they singled out which package shoved under that magical tree they fancied the most… That’s at least what they did in some countries.

In others such as Thailand, where the prime religion is Buddhism, children woke up on the 25th to the heat of their blankets and clothing, then without knowing what day it is they took a cool shower and prepared for school and as they were eating breakfast or brushing their teeth it may or may not have occurred to them what day it was. Or so I thought but to my surprise the spirit of Christmas was indeed there. As I walked into school on the 25th the first thing I saw was four girls wearing Santa hats and a boy in a Halloween costume holding a package.

I did not think too much of it until I saw almost all the Senior girls wearing red t-shirts with Merry Christmas written on the back and reindeer antlers on top of their pigtails. Then as I continued to head for first period a little puzzled by what I had seen I was stopped by one of the English teachers who asked if I could help her make a test for third period and without even waiting for an answer she grabbed my hand and dragged me to the meeting hall where just like a magical Christmas tree stuffed with presents was lit up in all colored lights, decorations and, music. My friends, being the presents, were dressed in all sorts of wild threads and they all came running up to me to wish me a “Mayree Keesmas” and there I was just like a little kid gazing starry-eyed at the tree that looked nothing the way it did before. It was fabulous and it lasted all the way until lunch. There is no better Christmas present then seeing four girls wearing long evening gowns and red afro wigs sing “we wish you a Merry Christmas…” in FRENCH!

On top of the big Christmas presentation surprise I got to see an even bigger presentation/party at my brothers M and Jay school which is the only Christian School in Surat. It was quite similar to the party earlier that day but, a lot more planned out and rehearsed with about 100 more students performing. Both parties were fantastic, but as I was sitting in the V.I.P. section at the Christian school party watching 7 year old girls dance to the latest Tata Young song (Thailand Brittney Spears), I found myself wondering if Thai people even knew what Christmas was about. Then just like a Christmas miracle I saw two of the seniors walk on stage to tell the story of the Nativity followed by a Mary and a Joseph. I think it may have been the first time I really watched the performance of the Nativity. It was beautiful; not just the performance but these Thai kids dressed in traditional Thai clothing tell the story of the Nativity in Thai…and I understood every word of it. It was THE ULTIMATE Christmas gift.

So, sorry for sounding cheesy and what not but THANK YOU ROTARY/ MOM and DAD…

But, that holiday has come passed and… it’s time to move even further back into the past two months. Since my last journal I’ve switched host families and now live with someone’s family you may know. She is a current inbound in Gainesville by the name of Cee and I’m not going to lie - at first the transition was little rough and the only sounds at the dinner table were made by our eating utensils. Then about one month into this new living situation I find tears jumping out of my eyeballs as I fall to floor in laughter and everyone else Mom, Dad, M, Jay are laughing too. So now here we are laughing, smiling and Sawadeeing everyday, and everything is working out just fine!

But before the big family click could happen, I had to go to Bangkok with the art students to an Art Gallery opening. The Art Gallery started at noon…It was about 1:00pm, the six of us had yet to eat rice that day and the Gallery had yet to open. Then while sitting in the third row, waiting, watching the big hand on the clock a voice comes over the intercom “ Sawadee garuna bid telrosap ka…” (Please turn off your cell phones.) And with somebody counting silently to three 1…2…3 everybody stood up from their chairs as Princess Patiep walked in the room. I was in shock I could not believe how lucky I was to be 6..7..maybe 8 rows away from the Princess. She was followed by a mob of yellow shirts and black pants. The room was silent as she stood at the podium before us and not saying a word she sat down in a very Royal looking seat. After awards were given and speeches were made two official looking gentlemen made their way to the royal seat and escorted Princess Paitep to a blank Canvas. Putting on her apron she stared deeply into the whiteness of the canvas and then without saying a word she went to work. All I could see from my point of view was a stroke of lime green, splats of purple and smudges of pink but ten minutes later when the piece was finished, it was apparent that she had painted two dinosaurs a pink one and purple one just chillin' in a hazy lime green jungle. It was brilliant and after seeing that I was not even a bit curious of what the other art would be like in the gallery because it could not even compare.

After all was said and done by more officials we all rose from out seats as Princess Patiep without saying a word elegantly made her way out of the hall and the Art Gallery was officially opened. My friends and I enjoyed the gallery and about two more days in Bangkok and then headed bad to Surat .

When I got home I only had time to Sawadee and grab a change of clothes before I was back on the bus and headed to Chiang Mai/ Chiang Rai for a week with my first host family. Now if you don’t know anything about the geography of Thailand, Surat, the province I live in is like the Georgia of Thailand. Bangkok is New York and Chaing Mai/ Rai is…Canada…yeah Canada. So, on the bus headed to Canada (Chiang Mai)… I got my walkman in one hand and a snack in the other and about 398635906830945936 songs and two days later and a stop at Seven-Eleven SAWADEE JOW!! We were there and it was the first time since I’d been to Thailand I needed a sweater.

Getting off the bus… a rush of smells; roasted sweet potatoes, cashews, Kow neiow (sticky rice), and Gai tot (fried chicken). The hotel we stayed at was in the center of Chiang Mai’s biggest night market and though it was rather chilly I was kept warm by the heat of steam and burning charcoal. For six days shopping, sight seeing, mountains, mountains, many mountains and Temples. It was fantastic but unfortunately most of our time was consumed by shopping at every stop we made, so I did not really get to see too much northern Thailand cultural jazz but, I did get five new skirts.

By the time we made it back to Surat it was SAWADEE KA…back on the bus for more Chiang Mai/ Chiang Rai with the teachers at my school and this time it was around Thanksgiving so the chillness of Chiang Mai felt very appropriate. Our first few days it was mountains, mountains, a temple and a Ram Thai Dinner theater but about the third day and the second mountain I remembered it was Thanksgiving and was able to celebrate it perfectly. With a huge feast of gai yung (roasted chicken) Mang farang (sweet potatoes) and a variety of veggies I bought from a Chow Kow (a person who lives in the mountains). I was very thankful that there are people who live and sell food in the mountains.

The next day we headed to Thailand’s Disney Land… Pu Swon Loke (the Royal Flower Gardens) and was exactly like Disney Land aside from the rides. It was long lines, tour guides, cartoon flowers as mascots, garbage cans that sing and gardens representing every country. It was indeed a very magical floral place. So we spent about two more glorious evenings enjoying northern Thai dinning and cultural differences. I learned a lot more my second time around and even a little of the language.

Then it was back to Surat and SAWADEE goodnight! I got to rest for a good month or so and after the day after Christmas, it was back in the car with my new host family who I had barely been able to spend any time with and we were going to Phuket. Sadly I did not get to see much of Phuket while I was there because we were really there to visit my host dad’s work but I did however get to see some Phuket’s famous beaches which have been reconstructed quite beautifully since the tsunami.

So after three nights in Phuket and family bonding my host mom dropped me off in Hua Hen on her way to Bangkok so I could spend new years with some other family members of mine who all spoke English perfectly so it was a bit of a drag, but I still had a blast. I got be with my sister Elle and her family who had been an exchange student at my house two years back. And just like old times… two girls staying up all night telling stories, looking at pictures, giggling the hours away. Only this time it would be her parents we would be keeping up all night by our laughter and in-between jokes we would throw in some Thai. We spent New Years there in Hua Hen and then we headed for Bangkok and not one day did I feel like a guest in their home.

It was incredible because I can recall two years when Elle had told me “when you come to Thailand, you’re gonna love it and my family they’re gonna love you.” And two years ago when she said that I never thought twice about the possibility of me being in Thailand and now here I am and I love Thailand and her family I love them too. So this year my New Year’s resolution is go visit one of my other sisters who live in Brazil before I turn 21 because I’m pretty sure she said something similar to that.