Who am I? I am everything and I am nothing at all. A passing image in the wind and a flicker in a shadow. I dance in the rain and sword fight with old wrapping-paper tubes. I am the spirit of adventure and a noticer of the small things (that capture the mind if only given but a chance). A student of the world, a daughter, a sister, a friend. I am like Peter Pan, I refuse to lose my childlike sense of wonder.
I may sound silly, but that's okay! After all, I hold silliness in the highest regard.
My name is Michelle (though I change my name often) and I hail from the land of lawn flamingos and voting catastrophes where I love to spend my days trying new things that I would never have thought to have tried before and simply being with those I love. My brother, Ben, and I make up games and make fun of each other (and our mum :)) all the time, I truly feel I can talk to him about anything. Be it on a huge canvas/stage or on the back of a test paper, I love to draw, paint, act and express myself through the arts. The outdoors intrigue me... Climbing trees and anything else that is there to climb, swimming and exploring, and simply lying on the grass beneath a blanket of stars all spark my fancy. Oh yes, and whenever possible I like to speak with a (albeit poor) British accent or to sing my words, or whisper. Sometimes all three.
I am a flutter in time, time doesn't hold me to one place for even as I write this I am
changing and becoming something else. My perspectives grow as I learn more, and as the world creates itself around me, I too create myself. Soon, thanks to my Mother, my Brother, Rotary, and all my family and friends who have supported me, I will be in Thailand, the land of the free, becoming myself, fluttering through time in ways I never even imagined.
Michelle's District Conference Speech
On April 27, 2007, at the Rotary District 6970 Conference in Gainesville, Michelle Gershon had the opportunity to open the Youth Exchange Plenary Session, as the spokesperson for the 2007-08 outbound class, as they look ahead to their exchange experiences. Here is the text of the speech she presented.
Ah-gat-dee-na! That means "Oh, what a beautiful day," in Thai. And it is indeed a beautiful day because I am here and alive and I have the opportunity to speak to you fine people. And the reason I stand before you speaking Thai you may ask? Because I am going to be an exchange student; I'm now the "before" in a global social experiment. (Einstein Voice) Take one subject...er... student, equip them with a little language and a stylish blazer and throw them into another country and 'poof' one year later you have a changed student. (End Einstein voice) All right, so, it isn't that easy, there's a lot of hard work that goes into preparing the students, both on the part of Rotary and the students themselves. And sometimes the full effects of the exchange are not obvious right away. But I think they're there just the same.
The Chaos Theory says that everything we do causes something else, which in turn causes something else which causes something else, which causes millions of other things to happen, more than we will perhaps ever know... Our collaborative efforts, all our random acts and words and ideas that have been spawned come together and react and affect each other to become something more. People ask me all the time why I want to be an exchange student, and I thought about it for a while, for a really long time and I couldn't really find an answer that could explain this incredulous feeling inside me when the idea of going on exchange pops up, and I don't think perhaps it is best explained in words, but felt beyond explanation. But for now I think I've found something that I can say: "If a butterfly flaps it's wings in Florida will it cause a disaster in Thailand?" What I mean by that is: How does what I do affect other people? How does what other people do affect me? And how do we figure in to the big picture that we will perhaps never be able to see? I want to become a person of the world, and I want the world to become a part of me, and I want to change, as scary as change is, I know I have to run into it full force. And leap into it.
It's funny, but before I've even left I've been affected already by the exchange program. I think I'm a pretty nice person, and I get along with people pretty well.... unless there's some underground conspiracy that is at this very moment plotting against me, but that's for another speech - come to the Sci-Fi convention next door if you want to hear about that.... anyway, I'm a nice person, but I've never made good, close friends very easily, the sort of people who I feel I can have a random conversation with about xylophones, but at the same time people with whom I feel I can share the deepest feelings that dwell within me. And, for the short time that I have known my fellow outbounds, I feel I have made some of the closest friends that I have ever had... I know, I know you can just see the sappy feelings spilling out of that statement, but it's true, and I think just through our ideas about what will come, our hopes, our expectations (the one's that we aren't supposed to have) and our fears, we have all become open to one another, and if I can become open to all these strangers, and have them become some of my closest friends in less than a couple of meetings, than what will come of spending a year with strangers?
Perhaps a butterfly flapping her wings in Florida will cause a disaster in Thailand and there's no choice in the matter, but perhaps that butterfly and all the other metaphorical butterflies that effect the world could see the big picture, and could alter the flap of their wings in such a way to change something, then perhaps that will change everything. Thank you.
August 31 Journal
"I am not a raindrop."
As I begin to spill my thoughts onto this page, I find myself sitting on a balcony in Thailand with puppets drawn on my hands and a view of tropical trees dripping with dew in the morning sun. Why am I here? How did I get here? Perhaps I should start from the beginning? But then, of course, I would be faced with such a long journal to explain the existence of all that is; and quite frankly, though I do love a good debate, I'll save my thoughts on that for later so that everyone with differing views on creation and evolution doesn't attack me just yet, after all, I've only been here about.... a week? Maybe a little bit more... (Time seems non-existent....) and I'd like it to be a little longer before I am put into a hospital by an angry mob, save that for the second week...
I remember my last look at Florida being that of rain drops, still rain drops floating in the air as if they were in suspended animation high above the Florida sky, floating individually to be awakened in a year's time perhaps, maybe. Unlike the water droplets stuck in space, floating there without wake, time moves forward. Or at least my plane did, forward Southeast (on Northwest Airlines) chasing the sun, which gave the feeling of not moving at all, but just hanging, waiting, the only beings alive and moving, while the world around us lay silent. When I stepped off the plane in Tokyo (and subsequently nearly left my passport at the gift shop) and later in Bangkok, I felt as though I had not really left the country at all, but just taken a long drive down the road from my home. That's the strange thing about this exchange, everything is so different, yet that which is most important still remains the same. I expected there to be magical gnomes, or a purple sky or something overtly different, but no matter where I am in the world, it is just that, and it is for me to make of it what I see.
Once in Bangkok I looked through the mobs of people (and people dressed as bunny rabbits- to honor the King) to find my host family. We would be staying in Bangkok for 4 days until going to Ubon Ratchathani. On the way to Ba Sue's house (My host Aunt, whom we were staying with), I looked out in amazement at the wonder of the city as I took it all in. I oooh-ed and aww-ed at the billboards-in Thai, and the signs-in Thai and the street signs- in English... and Thai... and sometimes Chinese too.... I sniffed the air which smelled of something I cannot explain and I laughed with glee at the driver (my cousin Pee Kang) as he drove on a different side of the road than I am accustomed too. As I took it all in I tried (and failed miserably) to have a conversation in Thai. Of course there are no failures, just mistakes, which I told my host family I was okay with and even excited to make.
And oh boy, did I ever makes mistakes! Let's see, I didn't use the toilet correctly, I moved something with my foot (luckily no elders were around to see that little catastrophe), I put the fork in my mouth (this I rectified quickly and apologized), I was attacked by a subway turn-style because I did not move quickly enough... and many, many other faux pas, but that's okay, it's good to make mistakes and laugh at myself, what fun would it be if I did everything correctly? I think my extreme blunders in language and in manner gave my host family confidence to make English mistakes and not worry, because their English is worlds better than my Thai. And so, my first week was filled with half Thai and half English conversations that only those involved in could understand. I was getting used to listening to Thai and figuring out what was being said. This is an especially easy task in a Thai market, when while browsing past pigs heads, strawberry smoothies and underwear all under huge umbrellas with tons of people and aromas and sounds someone points and shouts "farrang" (what? who me?) and everyone (those who do not shy away) ask, not me, but the people I am with "Where does she come from?" and "Can she speak Thai?"... Though the questions are not addressed to me, I take great pleasure in understanding these questions and answering them in my mind. Ameriga. Nit Noy.
For most of my time in Bangkok, I spent time with my host family's extended family in their home or at the nearby, aforementioned market. But, on the last day before Kwang left for Florida and before my host Mom, Dad, and I left for Ubon, we did what I had been longing to do-- EXPLORE BANGKOK!! Bangkok is the strangest combination of Urban and Rural. Large farm houses and rice fields blowing in the wind share the same city block with sky scrapers. There are subways and there are rickshaws, tuk tuks, taxi cabs, dogs, people of all sorts, even monks roaming the streets. There was a man on a motorcycle carrying a fully open ladder (which my host mum assures me is very common) and I often see elephants trotting down the road. All these opposing forces coming together and living in (relative) harmony in this... this.. Wonderland that is Thailand, that is Bangkok. It's a treasure trove of culture.
After being attacked by the subway, riding the sky train, a car ride, a taxi cab ride and a short hop on a van we arrived at a huge Buddhist Wat (temple)/ palace that was beautiful and adorned with gold and gleamed with gem stones. We removed our shoes and went inside. We took pictures. We saw statues that were that were monumental and had been around for centuries. But despite all the beauty around me, I found the cornucopia of people around me infinitely more fascinating. People from Thailand, people from England, Germany, Spain, Japan... The many voices of the world came together like a box of exchange student O's (fortified with calcium, so I hear), but they were not exchange students, just anyone who wished to get up early and walk amongst the crowds and run across the street narrowly avoiding parallel... 10 seconds for 50+ people to get across the street before the vehicles start moving and your time starts now...
I miss Bangkok.
My Bangkok home had many, many people. And I became very close with all of them in a very short period of time, as hard as being stuck in suspended animation is, moving through time at lightening speed is even more difficult, because before you know it, it's over.
I'll miss Bangkok and all the experiences and adventures I've had (and all the people I've met there), but I look forward to those I will surely have in Ubon, hold dear those I've had already had.
Today, I am on the balcony of another exchange student's home. She said to me, this other exchange student, that she is happy that she has the whole year here, because she doesn't have to sight see or do anything special, just live life. And I agree with her on one thing, we should just live life, but life, no one's life is ever ordinary, no matter where you are or what you do. I laughed, because to me, we don't have a WHOLE year here, we ONLY have a year here. We only have one year here, we only have one life, for certain, to live.
Yesterday I climbed to the roof of a four story building (my host mum and dad's university) with my legs dangling free over the side. There was I, looking over Thailand and what my year would hold, scared to death, excited palms sweaty, camera at the ready (as seems to be the case with me now) but nothing could capture how I truly felt, how I truly feel.
My Thai name is "Nam Phone" it means "Rain" or more accurately "Rain Drop" and though my name might indicate differently, I am not a rain drop suspended in time, it's all moving quickly, I've done so much already, too much to write it all and yet I have so many metaphorical mountains to climb and when I reach the summit, hands sweaty, scared to death, I will release a breath, because there my legs will be, hanging free.
October 8 Journal
"Lost and Found"
Songtell. The strange little contraption that was born a truck, but wished upon a star with all its might to be a bus and was magically transformed into something even better. Everyday to and from school I ride this gloriously mutilated machine. And when I say ride, I quite literally mean ride. You see, the songtell has places to sit and stand on the inside, and they have little windows to view the world as it goes by, which is fairly pleasant, but I much prefer to stand on the outside. To stand on the outside you have to hold on for dear life to metal structural poles- that or you always have option of falling off, if you'd like. I however, like to hold on and it's amazing, because when I do this, every morning and every evening, I become a parachute. The best way to ride a songtell is not to simply hold on to the poles, but to grip two of them in your hands, rest your feet at angles on the edge of the standing platform and let the wind and surrounding atmosphere fill your sense as you race down the road. It's fairly like water skiing on asphalt. Bending with the curves, smiling at the staring crowds, dancing in the blowing wind. In this way, I am able to not only have quite a fun ride, but to become a part of the city that has passed and the city that is rushing towards me. It's quite a sight to behold, no; it's quite a thing to become. Girls are expected to sit and be comfortable, but I think I would much rather live like this and become the scenery of the songtell, than to simply sit or stand inside and watch it all go by.
Alright, so, yes, the songtell is quite wonderful, but as with all good things, the ride ends (my hands usually fairly sore at this point from holding on for dear life, and all) and it's time to get off and enter the circus that is my school, Nari Nukun. Before I first entered school here, I didn't realize that I was a stripped gorilla wearing a tea cozy on my head singing "Oh, My Darling Clementine", all four of the Beatles, Harry Potter, a Ms. Universe judge, and an assortment of other oddities, but in those first few weeks, that is what I became. Everywhere I went people cheered for me or giggled and ran away from me, they told me how beautiful I am and how good I am at Thai and they all wanted to know if I thought they were beautiful and they never seemed to have a negative thing to say to me. At first, I just smiled and waved to people or tried to strike up conversations in Thai, but then I realized how much I felt as though I were trapped in a glass box marked "For display only", because I didn't feel good having people telling me what they thought I wanted to hear, and afraid that I would get upset if they weren't complimenting me every moment; that is when I decided to take action.
I decided to take a huge cultural risk (not knowing how it would turn out) and I just pretended to whack my "class buddy" (who helped me out in those first days) over the head and I jokingly called him a Buffalo and then told everyone that I'm not pretty and my Thai isn't really as great as people say and that I'm actually quite silly. I stood on my desk, I poked my friends in the back (and pretended it wasn't I who poked them), I shared my lunch with my friends, I danced in the rain, I went up to every group of people I could find and I spoke to them, older kids, younger kids, kids in the band, kids playing volleyball, kids taking a sword fighting class, I was nosey and curious and I asked to join in where I was not invited, I did everything that made me happy and that I wanted to do, and very quickly my friends came to the realization that it's okay to joke around with me, it's okay to tell me to back off or to correct my Thai, it's all okay. I can live as I want to and they can live as they want to, without fear of offending the other. We can disagree and still respect each other, and in this way, I became much closer with my friends and with the school....
Oh, and with this new found closeness, my friends weren't afraid to ask me to help them with their English homework. I was very happy to help them, of course. What would it be? Adjectives? Vocabulary? Grammar? Oh no. It was "Oh, My Darling Clementine." (They must have seen me in my stripped gorilla days singing it.) The teacher assigned us the task of filling in the missing words from the song and then, in turn, singing it to the teacher for a grade. Now, apparently everyone in the school had this assignment, because wherever I went people were asking me to sing "Oh, My Darling Clementine" so that they could hear the tune and how the words are said... I'm fairly certain that this song will now haunt me forever, just as Clementine haunted the singer in the song...
In my wanderings and exploration around the school, I found a dance group practicing (and doing Karaoke!) and I asked if I could join in with them. I thought this group was just a small class of students who were learning dance moves and who happened to like to sing, I didn't realize that they were practicing for a competition that would be held in front of the entire school. I wasn't nervous about dancing in public, but when I learned that it was a contest, I knew that I could not dance with them, because though I love to dance, I have the rhythm of squashed bean in Bangkok, and I did not want to hurt their chances of winning. I was perfectly happy to just practice with them. But they insisted, and so, I agreed. We stayed after school for a week and practiced, and one day we made our costumes. We used old white plastic bags for the skirt (so that they flared out like a tutu) and then made little paper flowers out of old magazines. For the shirts we fixed the same flowers to tube tops and added long sparkly ribbon. Now, I told them, that I would wear whatever they wanted me to wear, however, I advised that it would be a huge lapse in judgment to put me in a tube top, so they let me wear a t-shirt instead, with two huge paper flowers on either side and long streams of ribbon all the way down. And the fun really began when they placed a pair of dealy-boppers on my head. Dealy-boppers are those headbands with two springs coming out of them and with something big and sparkly bouncing around on top.
On the big day of the competition they did my make-up. I don't like to wear make-up, but having done theatre, I've become used to it for such occasions, and yet they had a field day. The make-up was so thick, I thought I would need a power sander to remove it. At the end of it all I looked at myself in the mirror and realized that, apart from the make-up, this was about the silliness level that my everyday outfits usually reach anyway. I was satisfied and really just happy to be there. The dancing was fun, the bright lights, the cheering, the exhilaration of it all. It was a great day. We ended up winning and yet still, that doesn't seem important. I think, in the end, that I won something much better than a contest.
Almost everyday, Katoi (boys on the outside, but girls on the inside) ask me, usually in English, "Can I be sexy?" This surprised me because I thought that Thai culture was relatively conservative when it came to sexuality, but I soon found that they are in some ways, but in others they are quite open. Anyway, when they ask me this, I usually laugh and tell them, in Thai, "You can be whatever you want to be" or simply, "Yes, sure, why not?" So I became used to being asked this question, but then one day I was pulled inside the school shop by a group of female teachers and they asked me several questions, first the more common questions: "Where do you come from?" "Do you like Thailand?" "Who are your hosts?" "Can you eat Thai food?" etc... But then the questions started to get a little more uncomfortable: "Which of us teachers do you think is the most beautiful?" "Do you have a boyfriend?" And then, I'll never forget, one of the teachers got up, danced around and said "Do you think I'm sexy?" I was dumbfounded. I just stared for a moment, and then I couldn't help it, I just put my head into my arm and laughed and laughed, and laughed some more, I laughed so much that I literally fell onto the floor. I think it was then that it occurred to me that although the Thai language has the word "sexy," that it means something slightly different to Thai people than it does to me. This was later confirmed by my English teacher. It's funny to think that although the word literally means the same thing in both languages, it is viewed differently in both cultures. It's all about perspective.
I still have a teacher who calls me "Daughter-in-law," this seems to be a cultural thing as well, however I am usually reluctant to accept rides from this teacher (even though she is my neighbor), lest a shotgun wedding await me...
School is always an adventure, but one of my most exciting adventures came on one day after school.
I was riding the songtell for the first time by myself, having the time of my life, and yet, it suddenly occurred to me, that I had no idea where the songtell was or when my street would turn up. When we reached a shop that nipped my memory, I pressed the little buzzer that tells the driver to stop, paid my 5 baht (the special student price), and found myself... well... I knew that I was in the right city and country at least.... I was certain that if I walked about a mile or so in either direction from the stopping point that I would find my host's house. No such luck. To be honest, it was still light out, and though it was not on purpose, I was hoping to be lost at some point. I love being lost, there's something about not really knowing where you're going and having to explore new avenues, see new things, try things you wouldn't otherwise try, test your wits, doing all strange and unfamiliar things to find a familiar path, that is exciting to me. I was calm and was enjoying my journey around the city. I knew the street name, so eventually I knew I would have ask someone where the street was, and people would either shake their head or point in the direction that led me to where I began, but what most people did was take me around to all their neighbors and tell them that they had a lost farrang and that they needed to know where the street was... strangely no one seemed to know exactly, so I bid them adieu, and walked on. I was even offered a ride one time, but I wasn't so keen to take a ride in a car with a stranger if I could help it, so I tried to be polite as I declined. But then it started to get dark, one group of rowdy men tried to stop me and ask me questions and made a jump at me, so I ran to the other side of the road and knew that I would either need to find home or catch another songtell back to school to use the phone or to stay with a friend for the night.
It was then that I found a lady with two children who was helping to move a large wooden couch to her parent's home down the road. My instincts (or something within me, maybe it was just exhaustion) told me that this would be a good person to ask for help. She didn't know where it was. I was let down, however she told me that I could go with her to parent's home and maybe they would know. So, lost in a city at night, in a foreign land, with a different language, I stopped to move furniture. Alas, with a sigh and a sad shake of the head, she told me that her parents did not know where my street was, however she offered to take me on the back of her motorcycle to find it. At this point, I felt I at least knew this family a little bit, and knew that it would be better to take a ride with a stranger than to walk around at night in a foreign country with large groups of men threatening to jump me. And besides it was a motorcycle, and I had really want to ride one. (Don't worry, I didn't drive it, I just rode on the back.)
So this lovely person who agreed to help me on my quest for home, with her youngest son sitting in front of her, and me in the back, set off down the road. Her older son followed on his motorcycle behind us. We looked for a while, and then eventually we came to a whole group of motorcyclists (many people drive them here) who the lady knew, all who didn't know the road, but all of whom offered me a place to stay if I ever get lost and who agreed to accompany me on my trip. There I was, on the back of a motorcycle, in Thailand, with a whole motorcycle brigade whom I just met, leaving their homes to help me find mine. As we dashed down the roads, shifting past the cars, under the light of a million sparkling stars (more beautiful than all the dance costumes in the world), though I was lost, and should be sad or more concerned, I couldn't help but feel wonderfully content and happy. We eventually found my host's house, I said goodbye and thank you to all those people who had helped me, wishing there was more I could offer than my thanks. I smiled and opened the gate. My host mother hugged me and my host father joked that tomorrow I could try again. And I would, and though the next day I did not get lost, I knew that if I did, there would be would be a whole country of people there to help me find my way.
I went to Korat and saw many gardens.
I jumped into a pool with all my clothes on.
I ate Dark Blue Sticky Rice.
I went to get ice cream with friends.
I climbed a rock.
I ruined my shoes.
I joked about a breakfast cereal called "Milo" and what it could mean, when they say "More Milo taste," Soylent Green came to mind...
I wasn't invited to a Rotary pizza party held for exchange students.
I got a letter from a friend.
I went to a national park that sits right near the border of Cambodia. There, we walked through the forest. Now, I thought this would be a fairly touristy walk... paths all laid out. We had a tour guide and a camera man, and I thought perhaps, maybe, we'd have a little bit of a walk uphill, but not much....
Well, it's not first time I've been wrong. This was not a tourist walk, I was happy to find that this was a true walk through nature. We climbed through thick branches, over and under fallen tree trunks. We even walked over a dam, at one point. We climbed up hills and swam against rapid waters. I love this sort of thing, and though I was tired, I think I wouldn't let myself realize this until I was ready to stop. I lost my shoe in the rapids and a friend helped me go and get it. We reached a halfway point, the true tourist spot that you could have driven to, it was filled with little waterfalls to play in. There was a spot where us kids went to slide down a mossy rock... It wasn't really quite a slide, but you were pushed and the algae was slippery, so you had no choice but to move with the water pushing you. I would come back here the next day, when there were no tourists, and I followed the river as far as I could go. I felt like an adventurer, exploring the depths of the river and the surrounding forest all alone, and even though everything was so wild and exciting, I felt at peace. But with the group, after our little stop, we went on through the wild to the main attraction - a huge waterfall. After we were tired, we were already soaking wet, and had eaten very little and just walked about 10 km through thick forest, you would think at this point we would want to rest, but no, we decided to run, screaming and singing, into the water at the bottom of the waterfall.
It felt like a magical place that I could go to always. It became a strange part of me.
I went to a Wat, and I saw people dancing around in nondescript ways, swirling, punching air, swaying, rolling on the floor. It all seemed a whirlwind, it didn't seem to make sense. So, of course, I asked to join in. I learned that it was a meditation room, but not meditating by sitting still and clearing the mind, a meditation room where anything you wanted to do was okay. You could do anything, except hurt other people, and not have to fear what people would think. The point was to just let go of all inhibitions, and in that way you could be truly free. I loved the idea of this room, it was open and you could see the forest all around and everything and everyone could look in on you, but it wouldn't matter, because you would just be concentrating on climbing up the structural supports and sitting, feeling as though you were flying to the ceiling... that's how I felt, I loved to climb up the beams and stay up there, trusting myself, unafraid that I would fall and then jumped down and rolled on the floor and danced, and did whatever else I did, I just did what I felt. I just did what made me feel good and what made me happy, and that, was my only concern. And I felt truly free. I dubbed this place "The It's Okay Room."
One night, at a party, I escaped to be on my own and sit under the full moon and stars, and I just sat and thought. I thought, about songtells, and of forests, and waterfalls, of pizza parties, and Katois. I thought about many things and reflected about what I had done, the random events of my life, how it is all just a patchwork quilt of events, but my quilt, no other one the same. And I thought, It's okay to be random. And it's okay to be lost, it's okay to cry, it's okay to play in waterfalls, and to ask questions, it's okay to make a fool of yourself, it's all okay.
And you don't need an "It's Okay Room," for it all to be okay. You can see it in a waterfall, you can taste in pizza or hear in the joke of a friend. You can feel it in the wind of the songtell. It's all around us, even now. Wherever you are in the world. Just listen....
November 22 Journal
In my room here there is a digital clock that lights up when you touch it. The longer you touch it, the longer it stays lit and the more colors it changes. It's quite a sight to see. At night I like to turn off all the lights and watch it glow its many colors. Red to Green to Blue to Purple illuminating everything. Though opaque when left alone, when touched, it dances with life there in the darkness of my room. My full attention is drawn to the clock, in that moment everything is clear, the clock transcends time. And soon I don't always know when (though I know it will happen) the colors fade and that one bright light in the room becomes less and less, and suddenly, it is gone and there is nothing.
During bit term (a short holiday break from school), I volunteered at an Animal hospital called “Warin sat ta wa pa.” I saw many wonderful and strange and terrible things, I saw surgeries (which were interesting) and a mother dog who was about to give birth to her puppies, dogs hit by cars, rabbits who seemed to multiply every time I turned my head, miraculous recoveries, dogs and cats staying in the animal hotel while their owners were away on a trip. I love animals and didn’t even mind having to clean up their kee (I’ll let you use your imagination to discover what “kee” is…), and though I’m a top notch kee cleaner, I think my main duties involved just being there for the animals. What hurt me the most I think was not seeing blood and guts (for we all have those) or the excretion of kee (again, something we all do). What retched at my heart was seeing an animal sick and dying, alone in a cage. When something is dying, it’s like seeing the most beautiful light in the world, dancing in front of your eyes, you cannot stop looking, it’s all that’s there, it’s like all the life from the dying being is escaping from time itself and all the while fading until it’s gone and you find yourself alone in darkness.
My first day there, there was a puppy with a very dangerous virus. She was hooked up to an IV to give her medicine and fluids. It was my first impulse to take the puppy out of her cage and just hold her. So I did. The vets thought it strange the way I held the puppy close to me (something that I think they still find strange), but regardless of what they thought or think, I realized that my most important job was to make sure that the animals always had hope, maybe that would make all the difference that they’ll soon go home, maybe if they play for a little while or have someone hold them or walk them around or sing to them or let them know they’re loved. To be free of their cages, if only for a little while. I think that’s what everyone wants, I’m not proficient in dog, but somehow even though I don’t know the language I could understand that.
And even now, after bit term, I still go back there as often as I can.
Everyday I went to Warin sat ta wa pa, but I did other things too. I would simply walk around the city or take a random songtell to the middle of nowhere and find my way back, I went into random shops and made friends with strangers. One day I found myself in an internet café when I received a telephone call from another exchange student who asked me to sing the national anthem of the United States, so I therefore found myself signing the star spangled banner in Thailand in the middle of a crowded internet café (I’m a bit of a ham, so it didn’t bother me…I rather enjoyed it, actually). I rode with my friend from Warin sat ta wa pa on her motorcycle and I helped another to sell drinks at a race track, I played with her niece and nephew in the dark under the moon, running around and playing with the balloons, pretending we were mythical beings. I went to an Endorphin (a Thai band) concert. I had many adventures during bit term, and towards the end of it all, a visiting Rotarian meant three days of waking up early and random (action-packed) tours around the city.
Day 1- After introductions and all that, we packed up 2 Rotarians, 4 exchange students, a host mum, a driver, and a Rotex member into a van and we were off! On this day we went to Teung see Meung, which is a park I love to go to, and showed the Rotarian around. We looked at the various trees and such, and oh yea, the giant golden candle in the middle. We then went to eat pizza and I was criticized by the visiting Rotarian for being a vegetarian in Thailand, I explained that I think that one can adapt without having to give up something important to them or changing their beliefs. I think adapting is not about conforming to others or asking them to conform to you, but working together to create understanding. Anyway, he called the head of Rotary here a pansy for letting me stay a vegetarian and therein begins what I like to think of as a little silent, passive feud between them. The Cold War II, it was a war that had no actual fighting; just the feeling that something was…erm… on the edge of blowing up? Maybe they both took it as a joke, I’m not really sure, but I like to imagine the secret war going on between them. It’s all about perspective. Well, as the feud rumbled on, we went to feed birds on Moon River. Though moon has a lovely meaning in English, in Thai it means garbage, so we went to garbage river and to a little floating raft with pigeons who would flock to us, because we had the power of bread, it’s their oil, you know. It fuels them so that they can live another day. So we controlled the oil of the birds and they came to us and we chased them away and they came again because they needed that oil, that fuel, or at least they wanted it very badly.
Day 2- I looked for more signs of the feud, I think it mostly existed inside my head, but what exists inside our heads is just as real to us as that chair over there, and because we make the world what it is, does not that which exists in our heads make up the world?
Or maybe chairs just don’t exist too, it’s really up to you. I’m in a really rambling mood tonight, so I’m just letting my thoughts free of their cage, letting them spill out of my head and onto the page.
On day two of our journey we went to Pa Tem, which is a large cliff that overlooks Laos, separated by two rivers. Pa Tem is not only cliff, but a home to ancient rock formations and ancient cave paintings. We climbed the ancient rock formations and I saw a huge rock and told the Rotex (Ian?) that I was going to go climb it. So I climbed up a steep rock face using every nook and cranny and branch to hoist myself up, I jumped over large crevices in the rock and found my reward in a cliff over looking the forest …. And then my group was calling to me and I was trying to figure out the best way to get down before they left me, when Diana from Taiwan told me that there was a path if I just went farther to my right… So I climbed up the steep rock when there was little path leading up to the top all along… oh well… climbing was much more fun. When I got down, I was chastised by the Rotex member for climbing; he told me he thought I wasn’t being serious. It’s a fair assertion. We then went to the largest cliff over looking Laos and took the customary 20 million photographs. I hung my feet over the edge and was scolded. It was truly breathtaking, the view, I can understand why people take so many pictures. I felt like I was on the edge of the world. When our photo lusts were fulfilled we went to look at the underside of the cliff, which had ancient cave paintings. It makes one wonder what will be left of you in a few thousand years. Maybe we’ll just be bird fuel, maybe we’ll be something more, but I think that isn’t so important as what we do now, while we’re still alive.
Day 3- This day was the last day in our epic journey. We went to a school and gave food and blankets to the kids there. Mostly we were there as dolls, figure heads for Rotary. We gave someone a bag of food, an ice cream cone or a blanket, and then we smiled and went on to the next person. I’m not really content to do that, so I broke free from the group and went to go talk to the kids, because I’m a kid and they’re kids and I speak Thai fairly well and they’re learning English, so I thought it a shame to just stand there and hand them things, when we have all these linguistic powers at our disposal. So I sat with them while they ate, they were really kind; they offered me some of their food. They were shy at first, but by the end they were reciting to me all the parts of the body and various animals in English, they were quite good. They taught me a few Thai/ Lao (here people speak Thai and Lao, the language of Laos) words too.
We went to a zoo called “Tiger Zoo,” and it lived up to its name. It had tigers. Many animals actually. All in small, cramped cages. Cages that were grossly too small for the animals that inhabited them. I wish there were a law against this. The birds didn’t have room to fly, a monkey was on a leash and was therefore kept within a very small radius of said leash. A bear was all alone and did little but pace back and forth, back and forth. I wanted to set them free from their cages. At this point, I would like to say “so I did” and have it be as such, but I didn’t. That’s mostly because of Michelle’s Law of Freedom, which says this: every animal has a right to be free, but Hungry Tiger + Delicious Meaty tourists = Maybe there’s a better way to go about setting things fee.
We went to the house of the Rotary Mum at the end of the day trips, her son is in America now. She lives in the countryside, near the rice fields that dimple Thailand’s smile. We were told we could all live there for a few months if we want to, I really hope so. I would love that.
That night was a going away party for the visiting Rotarian. We rode to the party in the back of a pick-up-truck. Like cowboys, all Americans are cowboys. Except me, though I’m not American because I’m short and have brown hair, I’m Bulgarian. America’s so diverse that it didn’t occur to me that people might think that "true" Americans look a certain way. I think of the United States as not having a dominant race or religion or anything, but a mixing pot of all different races and cultures and religions. I have to explain often WHY I’m American. So I’ve decided that I have no nationality, I’m a person of the world, now that’s difficult to explain, but fairly worth it, I think. I'm just me, I have no boundaries to hold me in.
My rants are making this journal long, but it will all come together in the end I think, there’s always a common thread, that’s me, I’m the thread, I sew all the random events of my life together by the sheer coincidence that they all happened to happen to me.
Because all this took place during the Jay (Vegetarian) Festival, there was plenty for me to eat at the party, there was actually a whole table of temporary vegetarians. (Fun Fact: Though my Thai phrasebook says otherwise, Jay is usually used to refer to a vegan, vegetarians have another longer word Mat-sat-weet-lot, but sometimes it’s just easier to say “Jay”). There was a Karaoke Bar, and I, being the aforementioned ham, ran up there to sing “Hero,” “Hotel California,” “My heart will go on,” and “Zombie” and a few of my other favorite Karaoke songs. I was later joined by the other exchange students, after much prodding and poking. We sang Bohemian Rhapsody. I thought the Rotarians and Rotex that joined us alike would enjoy the fun nature of the song and they wouldn’t pay attention to the words really. I was mistaken. I’m pretty sure they understood someone getting shot in the head. And they at least laughed at the Beelzebub part and they liked our air guitar, I think. But at the end, one of the Rotarians said “That song is really noisy.” Oh well, it was fun at least.
I think that’s the theme of these trips. “Oh well, it was fun at least.”
So bit term was over and I returned, once again, to Narinukun school. And it was almost Halloween. Way back in September, I promised my friends I would bring them Halloween. And that I did. That day I dressed as Harry Potter- with wings. I was pondering for a while what I would dress as. I was thinking dead school girl, but the ketchup on my uniform would be difficult to get out. I thought fairy maybe, or Harry Potter… A ghost? My imagination glided over the inklings and swam in all the ideas. I finally decided on the day of Halloween to be Harry Potter – with wings. You see, I happened to bring my wizard hat, Harry Potter glasses, fairy wings, Harry Potter shirt and lightning bolt shaped scar- you know, just in case. I bought two large bags of candy to give to my friends and brought the America swag that Rotary gave us exchange students to give to people in our various countries. I gave everyone candy and taught them American games and handed out American prizes. They have Halloween in Thailand, but it isn’t the same as in America, where people go trick or treating and such, it’s more just acknowledged that it’s a scary holiday where people dress up (usually not at school, but I asked permission beforehand).
Phujongnioy. I didn’t mention it before, but Phujongnioy is the name of the nature preserve with the waterfalls that I mentioned in my last journal. This time we stayed in a tent… well we set up the tent, we were going to sleep in it, but it rained, so we had to go inside. We played in the small rapid waterfalls and we took a bamboo raft down the river. I felt like Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer. Though the best part of this trip came when I asked the driver of the songtell, after our long hike up the mountain, if I could ride on TOP of the songtell instead of IN the songtell, or outside the songtell. Some songtells have little luggage racks on top and sometimes someone will sit there to keep the luggage from falling off, though these are special songtells for long journeys. To my surprise the driver said yes, with a laugh, and so I climbed up to the top, followed by Diana, who also wanted to ride on top (we discussed this earlier, Diana and I speak Thai together, I really like that!) we were then followed by several young boys. It was really exciting to ride down the bumpy road at high speeds with our feet hanging off and singing to the wind, only words we ourselves could hear.
After we stopped at the bottom to gather our things, Diana and I were ready to climb to the top again for the two hour ride back to school… but we were stopped by a chaperone mother. We explained that we wanted to ride on top and she was outraged. She couldn’t believe we wanted to do that, she called it unsafe and told us to be good and go inside the bus. I explained to her that she shouldn’t worry, because we did it before and it’s just as safe as riding inside, but more fun. That just made matters worse. She was really upset that we had done it before. I pointed to the boys who were still sitting at the top and said, if they can do it, so can we. We’re older and just as capable, if it’s not dangerous for them, than why is it dangerous for us? Her response was “because you’re foreign, if something happens to you” and I said “their safety is just as important as ours” and she stood firm and said no, I asked why, I wanted to shout and to say that it’s not because we’re foreign, it’s because we’re girls, so you think we cannot do it, but the bus was about to leave without me. Maybe I should have just stayed and let the bus leave without me. I got on the bus, but I wasn't really there, I was lost in thought, not bound to Earth. It wasn't so much the not being allowed to ride on top that bothered me, it was the inequality. Every time someone treats me like a doll or treats a boy like they shouldn't cry or every time someone says "you aren't able" I want to shout and fight (and I'm a pacifist)... I just know I have to fight by showing that I am able, we're all able.
In India there was something called a “caste system” everyone was a part of a social level, you couldn’t transcend levels, you stayed in the one you were born into. And at the bottom were people called “the untouchables” these were the people that no one wanted to associate with.
Here in Thailand, there is not a caste system, and as far as I am aware, there never was. However it’s interesting to see how older or more “important” people are regarded with more respect and dignity. You don’t wai (the traditional Thai greeting) a waitress, but you do a teacher. I notice if someone considers themselves more important than someone else, they will push past them, they are actually irritated that that person happened to be standing where they wanted to be standing. How dare they! I don’t follow this, I let anyone go before me if they were first and I say “kor-toh-ka” (excuse me) if I’m in a hurry and make sure the person knows I mean not to be impolite. I wai everyone, I wai teachers and parents and waiters and waitresses and babies and dogs. America has a sort of caste system too, the rich are often given more privilege than the poor, people seen as “unpopular” are cast aside as unimportant.
These casts are the cages society places on us, but unlike the animals at the zoo, we can choose to do away with them.
I've decided to cast away the castes that bind me. The castes that keep my thoughts bound, I shouldn't think, I shouldn't feel that. I can't do that. These are the cages worst of all, the ones we place on ourselves! The tigers in the zoo would kill (literally) to be free of their cages and here we are building them around ourselves! We keep these castes alive by silently agreeing to take part in them. If we let our cages fade away, then we won't be left in darkness, but in light. We won't be left with nothing, we'll have the whole world before us, we'll have everything.
January 20 Journal
"The Story" - Part One
Hello all you out there in listening land and welcome to another one of my journal entries. I call it listening land, not only because that is the common lingo of a radio disk jockey, but because I think when reading anything, you have to do a fair amount of listening to get meaning out of anything. The world has turned like a doorknob, flipped like a pancake, changed like your Aunt Martha in the proverbial dressing room of life and so many other colorful ways of expressing the action of stepping back, looking at the world and saying- "Wow, would you look at that (imagine a question mark here, the keyboard seems not to want me to use mine- oh, Thai Internet cafes...)" The world is really quite different than I remember it being just a short while ago.
I think we'll have to take a short jaunt in my time machine WAY back to 2007 [remember that year (question mark)]..... close your eyes for effect.... why aren't you closing your eyes (question mark)... oh, yes, yes, I suppose reading with your eyes closed is something only the cat in the hat can do, and even he didn't recommend it. Okay, so use your imagination. Hey, look at that, you did it! We're back in 2007, in November, and it's a few days before my Birthday. Look, there I am! I'm the farrang sitting in class reading and wondering where everyone is... and who should burst through the door at that very moment, but most of my class carrying a birthday cake and singing "Happy Birthday." I have to admit, that this wasn't a complete surprise, because an English teacher asked me when my birthday was and what my favorite flavor of cake is, but I acted surprised, and I was very touched none-the-less. If we fast forward a little, we'll see all traces of the cake magically disappear and in its place a large pink picture frame with pictures of my friends and painted on the glass a poem in English about me, that I have to say, made me blush profusely. That whole day, I had a permanent smile on my face.... I can now say I understand why Thailand is the land of smiles... and it has nothing to do with military force, as I once thought.
Sport Day. Sport Day, is the Olympics of Thai schools. Everyone, depending on their class, is assigned a color (I'm red- se dang) and so we compete in various sporting events and root for the people who happen to have the same colour t-shirt as us. I decided to cheer for everyone. Having the same color t-shirt isn't incentive enough for me to want one person to win over another. But if we rewind a little bit (time machines can do that, you know) to one am in the morning, we will find me going to school to dawn traditional Thai dress. I was really excited to get the opportunity to wear a Thai traditional costume. Even at one in the morn, I was singing and running around... and then I was waiting for an hour to get my hair done, I was next in line, and they told me that I couldn't get my hair done until I got my make-up done. So I went to go wait in the line to have my make-up done. I was fairly tired of waiting at this point and I recall, erm, behaving in a manner befitting of Grumpy from Snow White and the seven dwarves. A nail went through my foot as I was walking to try on my costume. Well, it resembled a nail anyway. In reality, it was a table post. You see, in Thailand (as in many Asian countries) traditionally tables are low to the ground and people sit on the ground instead of chairs. So in this class room where we were preparing about 70 people to wear a costume for the parade later in the day, they removed the table tops, leaving the posts which were welded to the floor and would therefore be quite difficult to remove. So yes, I was impaled by one these little beauties. It hurt, but I was kind of in a bad mood already, so I just scowled and fell to the floor summoning all the manner and grace that I could muster (which wasn't much).
In the end the parade was really exciting. We piled into a van, very carefully, considering we were wearing head pieces larger than our actual heads and drove to a Wat. From the Wat, all the various colors would be represented as we paraded down the main street back to school. I love Geelasea (Sport Day), I loved dressing up in traditional Thai dress, despite all my whining, I look back at this and laugh at myself, I was pretty ridiculous, after all. Sport day is a culmination of all Fridays. On Fridays we wear our various sport day t-shirts and school looks as though a bag of skittles has exploded. It somehow brings us all together and the world seems much more interesting than when we are simply walking around in our everyday uniforms. When I get back to the United States, I think I'll remember the school as being the sight of a miraculous natural phenomenon, a flood of skittle-people coming together.
Since school finished early on this day, I went to see a Thai film with my friends. It was in Thai (of course) and had no sub-titles, so I had to listen really attentively to understand. Thai people don't react to films. They get emotionally involved in films. What I mean by this, is that they don't just laugh or cry, they scream or grab their friends or point, they make the film really more exciting to watch... I admit it made my concentration drop, but it certainly added to the experience of the film. In the end, I got really into it too, and I was crying (not exactly a novelty, I admit) but I understood the film so well that I was able to get into it, just like my friends, and cry unashamedly.
Before my big birthday trip, climbing up a mountain, was the moon festival. To celebrate, one floats a decorated piece of wood, with a candle in the center, in a body of water and makes a wish. But the really fun part are the flying trash bags. As I recall, we were driving to my host parent's University where we would be celebrating and I saw a most curious sight. At first I thought they must be a string of lights... but they were floating upwards and there were way too many to be aircrafts tragically set on fire, not to mention the fact that they weren't plummeting to the ground. They were a bit big to be stars (isn't it funny that we grow-up thinking stars are smaller than us, when really they are bigger than the entire Earth) and too stationary to be Meteorites falling to Earth. And then I saw it. Someone with a giant lantern illuminating the night sky by creating a rocket out of a trash bag. I stood in awe of this phenomenon, it was truly amazing. To me it looked as though little ghosts or stars were being born each moment. There was a beauty contest and a dance show, carnival games and food stands.... but I couldn't take my eyes off of the sky... that is... until one of the garbage bags got caught in a tree. I thought the tree was going to burn down and spread to the dancers beneath it, but everyone else just continued doing what they were doing. It's sort of a strange thing, to see someone facing impending doom and just continuing to dance. When I asked my host father if the tree was going to burn down, and if the people were going to get hurt, he just smiled and said "we'll see." Everyone seemed to have the attitude of "Mai Pen Rai" (Don't worry) in the extreme. In the end, the wind the loosened the garbage bag and it was free, and no one was hurt. Mai pen rai.
The day before my birthday I woke up early to travel to Phukradung (a mountain) in a van with about 9 exchange students. I love long car (or in this case -van) rides, because I'm able to sit and contemplate for long periods of time while getting a good glimpse of the world all around me. In traditional Thai style, we stopped to eat about 5 times (not to mention the breakfast I had before I came). When we reached the bottom of the mountain we met up with all the other Rotary exchange students from the Isan district of Thailand and had dinner. We shoved 6 kids into two twin beds (and the floor) and I took my last shower for the next 4 days.
My Birthday. On my birthday, I would be climbing a mountain. So I strapped on my fairy-wings and was ready for an adventure. Khun Prapart (the head honcho here) told us there was a record for us to break- to make it up the mountain in less than 2 hours 15 minutes (this being the exchange student record, I think the fastest by anyone is 55 minutes.) Now, as tempting an offer as that is, I decided that I didn't want to be in the group to race up the mountain, because climbing the mountain is the fun part, and think of all the wonderful things I'd miss if I concentrated solely on speed. Another exchange student named Monica, who felt the same way, decided to take it nice and slow up the mountain with me. We made sure to stop and explore everything interesting. We took the harder rockier paths instead of the smooth worn-in paths. We sang Disney songs and stopped to take pictures with interesting looking trees, plants and animals. I remember we found a secret clubhouse in the trees. As we were climbing we came upon a sign that said "Be careful elephants" so of course we went into the wooded areas where the elephants might be. We climbed a rock high above the path, and then wondered how we would get down (we decided sliding would be the most interesting.) When we reached each checkpoint, we would sit with our legs hanging off the cliff looking at the beautiful scenery below, chatting with the Thai people and eating ice cream. It was exhausting having so much fun... and then we started to realize that it was getting late, REALLY late. At the last checkpoint, there was a person coming down the mountain who told us that Prapart was looking for us. So we got our now-traditional ice cream...I dropped my ice cream as we were climbing, so we went back to get another, and then we found that every couple of minutes we were being bombarded by people sent by Prapart to make sure we weren't dead. It became so frequent that every person coming down that we saw we would immediately say "Yes, we know, Khun Prapart is looking for us, thank you."
The last part of the climb was the most physically demanding, but we continued to keep our spirits up and eventually we made it to the top. We were racing the sun. The victory was incredibly sweet, we reached the summit as the sun was climbing slowly down. And of course, as always, disregarding the guard rail, I hung my feet off the edge.
Now we only had the 3 km trek to camp. Along the way, on top of this mountain in Thailand, it seemed as though we were in an African Savanna (which sparked us to sing "The Lion King"). We stopped at one point to sign our names in the mud and to have a mud fight, we almost got some Thai people involved, almost. It was perfect really. It started out as a joke and then I fell in the mud and then from there it was all out war. In the trenches of Thailand, probably dehydrated a little bit, after climbing a mountain, we stopped to have a mud fight.
So, by the time we actually got to the campsite it was about.... very late, and we were relishing the idea that we were the holders of the wooden spoon award- the slowest to climb up the mountain at about 7 hours 30 minutes! At the top were Kwang (deer, the animal, not the exchange student) just walking around and interacting with people. I don't think I've ever been that close to wild deer. I slowly made my way close to one and gently patted the deer's nose. When we went to dinner, everyone was really excited that we weren't dead.
The next day we woke up at the break of dawn to go see the sun rise. We then spent our day walking 20km around the mountain. I don't like using the word "spent" in terms of time, because then time becomes like money, something disposable, something to get rid, something to whittle away. Something we work really hard for, just to get rid of it again. If time were as simple as money than we wouldn't spend time, but greedily hold onto it like an old miser holds money. I think of time as being more like a river than any sort of currency, you can try and try to hold onto it, but eventually it will just flow through your fingers and wash you away. So we tried to hold the day grasped in our hands firmly, but it just pulled us along as we walked the entire perimeter of the mountain. We stopped at the all the spectacular cliffs, we climbed over a majestic waterfall. The top of that mountain turned from African Savanna, to Thai waterfalls to Indian jungle to a grand desert oasis to an American plain lands before our very eyes. All on top of a mountain. And at night it was so cold that even the Canadians... who claimed to have slept outside in snow up to their elbows with only a sleeping bag in the dead of winter... huddled together with us and our paper-thin blankets for warmth. It was as though we were walking around the Earth. Anyway, somehow Monica, Diana, and I were separated from everyone again, so we found ourselves making the journey alone. We made nature-headdresses. All was well. And again, we became so far behind that the day was slowly building its cocoon to metamorphose into night. We were invited by Thai people to join in their pictures and we tried to get a motorcyclist (who, you know, just happened to be driving around on the top of a mountain) to give us a ride back to camp. But, alas, he was going to the other side of the mountain. Drat. So we had to ask directions and found a group of people who would show us the way, but after all that, the whole time we had a canopy of stars to guide us home.
The following day all the exchange students sat on a giant mat and played games brought to us from all over the world. The German girls really missed soccer, so they organized an Extreme Soccer Tournament- Exchange Student Style. Everyone played a part, we had half-time show, a referee, and even Prapart took part as spectator, the rule was, that if you hit Prapart in the head with the soccer ball, you get sent home, that made the game extra challenging. Anyway after a few hours of extreme competition, my team won! I was really excited, because I've not really played soccer much, but I enjoyed myself and eventually got into the zone, so to speak. I think I'll have offers to turn pro soon, soon you'll be eating cereal with my mug staring at you... that's kind of creepy, actually. So maybe I won't turn pro, but I did win a t-shirt and bragging rights. And no one got sent home.
The last day we spent walking down the mountain. Walking down a mountain is considerably easier than walking up, at least we thought. Falling down a mountain, was more how I would describe my experience. Falling up a mountain is definitely not the same as falling down a mountain. So we fell down a few times. It hurt, but it was a quick way to make it down and now I can say, I rolled down a mountain and lived to tell the tale.
And when I look back at everything, I still think "And to think it all happened on a mountain in Thailand."
In this journal I wanted to recount all the events that lead up to now, for how can you understand the present if you don't understand the past? This is the first half of a story, not a complete story however, for it will never be complete. Everyone reading this, everyone not reading this (I'd say a much larger percent of the population), everyone who ever lived and who ever will live is a part of the story. And though we might not understand all the changes and all the people around us and how they could possibly have anything to do with us, somehow they do. The past and present and future, change, the known is all dependent on what could be, on the unknown things that live in stories. An entire magic skittle school coming to life every Friday, a ghost made of a trash bag who lights up the sky, a fairy who lives on top of a mountain in Thailand.
February 29 Journal
Patchwork Quilt or "What is that you are sticking up your nose?"
Here you will see all the stray pieces of scrap memory that I've been collecting in the hat box at the back of my mind and will now attempt to bring them together into an intricate quilt for your amusement until my next journal, this is the break, the transition, the opening act... it's rough and rugged, but when it comes together I think it will give you an interesting picture of Thailand....
A teacher of mine here suggested to me once to write down all my experiences in Thailand and write a book about it... He said just write down anything strange or interesting.... So, though I've been keeping journals in print and on the Rotary website, I started a special list of strange things long, long ago... Anyone who knows me well, knows that strange things hold a special place in my heart... And I decided to share some of the more interesting items on my list: Enjoy!
1. Testing for ripeness. People will often squeeze your arm as they talk to you, not just one squeeze and that's it, they will take your arm and squeeze at various points as if they are testing a piece of fruit to see if it is ripe.... This unwittingly brings visions of Hansel and Gretel to my mind at times, but I think it's just a way to connect with another human being.
2. Spoons are the stars of the show in Thailand. While in the United States we cruelly ignore the spoon, banish her to only to be used for soups. In Thailand the spoon gets the respect it deserves... One eats with the fork to push food onto the spoon (and then propel the food to their mouths by use of their arm and hand muscles which is prompted by a signal from the brain- you can rest easily knowing that this part is, at least, the same.) Though if you're not used to eating everything with a spoon, this can give way to some difficulty at first...
3. Everything comes in plastic bags... everything... Sometimes if you buy a drink, they will actually pour the drink into a plastic bag (with tons of ice) and give you a straw to drink the liquid directly from the bag... This can be quite troublesome if you ever intend to put your drink down, but they often attach a rubber band so that you can hang the drink from your belt loops... I'm not sure if that is the purpose of the rubber band, but that is how I use it...
4. While we're on the subject of drinks, if you drink directly from a bottle, it is considered very rude, so rude in fact, that in films they censure out the bottle touching the lips of the person drinking (as well as censuring out cigarettes and guns)... People drink everything with a straw, I once saw a man drinking from a beer bottle with a plastic bendy straw.
5. Elephants roam the streets. Not wild elephants, but it's quite amusing to be doing some sort of activity and then look up and half see something conspicuous out of the corner your eye and then it hits you... By golly, you have an elephant walking past your window! I don't believe the elephants like it very much, I think they'd prefer to be in the forest....but they get a lot of bananas this way (as payment...)
6. Students have to keep their hair short, and if it's not short then a teacher can just cut off their hair whenever they please. I asked my friend why the students have to keep their hair short, and he said that whoever made this rule is worried that if students have long hair they will find themselves too attractive and thus become prostitutes (either that or spend too much time on personal grooming and not on studying, I've heard both reasons given...).....
7. Once a teacher stated something, an opinion, and I said I disagree, he then polled all the students around him, who all said that they agreed with his opinion, and therefore, he concluded, it must be right and that I should now believe him. I told him that just because I disagree with him, does not mean that I don't believe him, I believe that he thinks what he thinks and that I think what I think and that neither of us is right or wrong, we just look at the matter differently and just because many people share his opinion, even if the whole world shared his opinion, that would not be a basis for me to change my mind... This seems to be a common idea here, that if many people believe something, it is right and should not be questioned. Students don't really seem to question the teachers at all, they believe because they are teachers they should just accept what they say, while I think teachers deserve respect, I think they should show respect for the individual opinions and minds of each their students.
8. Playful Hitting. People often make the gesture as though they're about to hit someone or go through with the action for various reasons...Often times for being a Smart Mouth...Which I can often be, so I get smacked often.... It's really quite funny actually.... People often times chase each other in reaction to being hit, it gives me the feeling of being in or watching a comical movie....Teachers can hit students, friends can hit friends, but younger people may never hit an elder, even in joking...
9. "What is that you are sticking up your nose?" This is the question most foreigners will ask upon coming to Thailand... especially during flu season. The answer is that it's a sort of homeopathic medicine that you can buy in many different forms to relieve the symptoms of a cold, but most people prefer a little stick that one holds to their nose and sniffs.
10. Though in some of my classes we have desks, often we take off our shoes and sit at low tables on the ground, some homes and restaurants have arrangements such as this as well.
11. The Traffic Ballet. Stop lights are more of a suggestion, Mopeds don't have to stay in a lane or really follow any rules at all (besides that its driver has to wear a helmet... not everyone on the moped, but just the driver...) few people wear seat belts, and pedestrians cross at anytime they want and yet at exactly the right time (crossing the street is an art you have to you here) ... despite all this I've seen surprisingly few traffic accidents, it's like watching a beautiful ballet... I sometimes see a cop directing traffic and think of him or her as a dancer being delicately controlling the movements of the tons of vicious metal staring them down with a flick of their wrist and a turn of their palm... delicately and carefully protecting the metal monsters from each other... Taming the streets....
12. Constant picture taking. Constant. In one year in Thailand you will have your picture taken more times than you've probably had collectively in your entire life. I sometimes feel like a Disney World character
13. Thai Soap Operas and Korean/Chinese Soap operas which are dubbed in Thai. Very amusing.
14. Price Gouging and discrimination based on race is not only legal- it's encouraged! At a national park, it had an English sign that said "Adults: 400 Baht" and "Children: 200 baht" and then in Thai: "Thai Adults: 40 baht" "Thai Children: 20 baht"... If you can read the Thai signs, sometimes they'll give you the lower price or barter with you, but often they are told by the government to charge higher rates to foreigners, such is the case for this national park I went to.
15. Everyone speaks to each other as if they know each other, even if they are strangers, it's really nice. It makes me feel that no one is a stranger.
16. Sharing. If someone buys food, they share it with anyone who asks or wants any, and they expect the same of everyone else.
I realize that I wasn't very objective in many of explanations and I don't wish to claim that anything I say is completely objective... We all look at the world differently and I suppose in reading my journals you get a glimpse into how I see the world in little patches... I suppose that is what the world is ultimately the patchwork quilt of all our thoughts and ideas, all the patches we keep in the hat boxes in the back of our heads or gallantly present for the world to see... a quilt clashing, torn at corners, held together by a single thread but, individual and unique and beautiful.
April 4 Journal
...As we last left off, I went back in a time machine to the past when I was on a mountain and I believe you were engaged in the primaries which are still going on and which Floridians votes won't count, if I am to understand correctly. Also a death of Bright Futures, no, no, that simply won't do. Heather (in Italy) and I once had the discussion that Florida will probably break off from the United States to become the next Atlantis when we get back and everyone will laugh at our astonishment that such a thing should occur. Something that has become so common place to you - would leave me awe struck. But when I reflect on myself, I've always been a puzzle piece that never fit, so I could just wander to the ends of the Earth and everywhere in between and I wouldn't quite ever fit, but it doesn't really bother me anymore and instead of damn myself for it, I embrace it wholly. Forever Foreign. Forever Foreigners are flying purple elephants, they feel that wherever they go they don't belong, they find that people are afraid of their differences or in awe of them, this is, of course, hilarious to the flying purple elephants of the world, who watch in amazement everything around them. Because though foreigners are flying purple elephants, so are the natives, the funny thing is that neither is aware of it. Rotary, before we left for our various countries, asked the outbounds to write their own personal definition of culture. These all included things that unite us as a group, a country...a world, but regardless of what I wrote then, I think that what unites us is exactly that which we think makes us different. Our individuality and our differences, our strangeness, that's where culture really lies, in that we're all different, that some dance down the halls, some people break dance in the middle of a traditional Thai dance circle, some people bite their nails, some people sing everything they say if they can help it, some really quiet inside themselves, some really loud for everyone to hear, some people won't leave the house unless their belt matches their shoes, some people drink from a bottle of beer with a plastic bendy straw, if we all realize that we're all strange and all the more wonderful for it...I'm a puzzle piece that never fit, in a world of puzzle pieces that pretend to fit together, but never really do and in that sense we create our picture, you just have to look and think to see it. If we could accept our own strangeness, then we could accept other people's strangeness -I wonder then what would become of the world... If someone were to ask me what the most important thing I did in Thailand was, I would tell them that I looked straight into the eyes of a flying purple elephant and saw a flying purple elephant being reflected back at me.
The birth of December brought an event most anticipated by Thai people- The Birthday of the King. The 5th of December 2550/2007 was the 80th Birthday of the King of Thailand. This might be a fairly interesting piece of information to you, but I think it would be quite difficult for me to explain to you how revered the royal family is here, especially the King. People have bumper stickers all over their cars and everything they can stick it on that say "I love the King", they have pictures of the royal family, not only every prominent public places (parks, almost on every street, official buildings, schools) but in their private homes as well, I have not seen a calendar that doesn't have the king on it in Thailand. In Movie theatres, we stand for a salute to the king and the royal family... and you can choose not to stand, but I wouldn't try it.... People all over wear these yellow shirts that represent the king, because he was born on Monday (and yellow is the color of Monday), literally it's different style variations on the same shirt...Every Evening there is a special newscast about what the royal family is doing. There is a special language that is uber polite that you have to use if you want to speak to people in the Royal family... a whole language that is separate from Thai....It is illegal to show films which in any way portray a negative and/or fictional account of the royal family -"The King and I" would be illegal contraband.... The funny thing about this is that the royal family doesn't actually have any literal power, (okay, okay... he approves supreme court justices, but he's never not approved one) except that of influence, because the people of Thailand as a whole really admire all that the King has done for them, all the projects to help the country and the fact that he has refused to be a mere figure head, but someone who wants to help the people of his country. Even when the government has not been stable, everyone knows that they could rely on the royal family. So, upon waking up on this day, I thought that there would be huge parades, public parties everywhere, mass celebration... I imagined something similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Carnival in Brazil... a celebration to equal no other.... but I was quite surprised to find that most people celebrated this gargantuan occasion by spending time with their families. After all, The King's birthday is father's day (as the Queen's birthday was mother's day)...
To celebrate the day, I ran a race at my host family's university and then at night we listened to traditional Thai music while all holding a candle kept alive by a single flame passed from one person to the next in honor of His Majesty the King. Whenever the flame flickered out (which was often) we had to relight our candle with the help of the person standing next to us.
Shortly after the King's birthday I switched host families for the first time. It was bitter sweet, I really liked my first host family, but at the same time was excited to see what it would be like to live with a new host family. In my host family's home the roof opens and closes (I often imagine them having conversations with the statement "honey did you forget to close the roof AGAIN?" of course that's just my imagination...), my host brother has won about every math competition in the country and really likes Alicia Keys, my host sister is extraordinarily obedient, loves to play video games and has a really interesting (read: sarcastic) sense of humor for a 12-year-old... but she is distinctly different from most Thai people, I like her, but her opinion of me is pending on the edge of a plank, which I will more than likely fall off... my host mum always make sure I have enough to eat and dotes on me and my host father is always smiling and likes to joke around with me and have long conversations (which I enjoy). I also have an A-ma. Because my host family is of Chinese ancestry, we refer to her by the Chinese word "A-ma" instead of the Thai "Khun Yai." Also Pee Mam, Pee Na, and Pee Jong live with us on some days and take care of A-ma. It's much different to live in the middle of the city with so many people as opposed to living in Warin Chamrab in a suburb with Ma Lek and Pa Ken, Kwang's parents.
And, then shortly after the switch, I would move again... but quite literally move, because I would spend 10 days driving across Thailand in a double decker bus with all the other exchange students to Chaing Mai, Chaing Rai and the other northern provinces/cities of Thailand. I spent some time in hotels, but really the bus became my home.
Driving from Ubon to Korat and stopping in some cities in between to pick up a stray exchanger and straight on to the Northwest of Thailand from there 'till morning.
Instead of attempting to make this a chronological journey through the days, it will be one with many worm holes, skipping days and then going back to them and then catapulting to to another point in time momentarily. At the risk of being accused of lying on Oprah (like our dear friend James Fray with his book A Million Little Pieces ) I will tell you that this all happened. The following are the events as they happened to me, depending upon who you ask, there could be an infinite many versions of this story, but this is mine. You are just seeing the pieces float around in the stream of consciousness of my mind... Be aware that things do like to up and fling themselves at visitors. You've been fairly warned. And at that, onward we go with our journey...
I think I'll start with the Elephants. Thailand is home to the biggest Elephant hospital in the world. Elephants from all over the world are taken here for care. One famous elephant was airlifted from Burma (Myanmar) after having stepped on a land mine. She is one of the permanent residents, but I believe they are making her a prosthetic leg so that she will be able to walk with ease, now she seems to be healing quite well, she looks to be much healthier than a few years ago, but then again, she had just stepped on a land-mine. Near the Elephant hospital is an Elephant preserve. Here we saw an elephant show, elephants picked up logs and preformed tricks with them... but the most fascinating of all were the elephant artists. Elephants painted pictures... they were given a paint brush in their trunks, paint and an easel... and they painted. They reminded me of kindergartners painting, and I think, not coincidently, that is how most of their paintings looked - as if a kindergartner painted them. I think Kindergartners put a lot of love and thought into what they paint, you can always see more than just a picture when you look at what they've created.
After the show we fed the elephants bananas. The elephants REALLY liked those bananas, when I hadn't any more bananas, they were quite eager to grab whatever was in my hands with their trunks to try to get more.... I almost lost my wallet and my camera that way, but then again, I made the acquaintance of an elephant; How can I complain?
As I was thinking how exciting it was to see elephants painting and eating bananas from my hands, we were off - to go ride an elephant! Because there was such a large group of exchange students, a few of us had to wait for 20 minutes before we could have our turn to ride the elephants, but it was well worth the wait. When the elephants came back we were told to pair off, but to be careful not to have two heavy people on the same elephant, or the elephant would die. So to spare the elephant any sort of fatal accident, I paired up with nice light-weight Monica. Luck on our side, we happened to have an elephant driver and elephant who loved The Lion King, so as we gallivanted through the jungle on elephant back, songs of Disney (as well as others) could be heard... more than likely as far as towns long in the distance (we were pretty loud). And legend has it, that if you start to sing a Disney song in the jungles of Thailand, you will hear two foreign girls, an elephant trainer and, an elephant singing back to you. Of course that is just a legend that I made up, but where do legends start, but in the minds of people, and that is where they are kept alive... like the flames of a candle being passed from one person to the next. In that way, we as people are kept alive, long after death.
On my trip, I explored ancient ruins of what was once a flourishing Thai society, as I crawled through all the secret passages, cracks in walls, tombs, temples, courtyards... I could imagine the people that once lived there, these ruins were like a memorial built to those people... but one they build themselves.
One activity that I've dreamed of taking up is spelunking. That is: cave exploring! And on this trip, we had the opportunity to explore an above ground cave. I was at the back of the group (as usual) taking my time looking, climbing and taking photos of the cave. When we reached a point where there weren't any more tourists lights, Khun Prapart said we should turn around, and I was about to BUT, I happened to notice a few people in our group going forward in the depths of the cave. When I questioned Prapart about why they were allowed to go forward, he said that they had torches (flashlights) , lanterns and other various ways of seeing in the dark (more than likely mobile phones...) So as Prapart and the group with him turned around to go back, Michelle (who is starting to resemble more and more the Curious George from the stories her mother used to tell her..) decided to go forward in the cave - without a light source. I groped my way through the cave, climbed over things, fell a few times, got a few battle badges and eventually caught up with the others ahead of me who had lights. We made our way to the farthest-back point in the cave that we could physically reach and took a picture to commemorate our achievement. Then we decided to turn off all of our lights and stand quiet and still for just one moment at the back of the cave. It was beautiful and peaceful , and then we all erupted in giggles: as often happens when a group of people tries to keep quiet for an extended amount of time.
Diana and I were the last to exit the cave, but before we did so, we took part in a traditional Chinese/Thai fortune telling game. You shake a cup until the a stick falls out and then you find the numbered fortune that corresponds with that written on your stick. My fortune was quite good.
I banged a gong!
I dyed my hair purple. But had I not told you it would have remained a secret, like the many hidden secrets that one meets with the passing of each new person and each new day; you have to be looking properly to tell it's there at all.
All the exchange students were caught sleeping on the bus at one point or another and all, without our knowledge, had our photo taken. This all was done by Chase, because one person had played some practical jokes on him while he was sleeping.
We all have exchange student shirts that say "Thailand Okies" because "Okies" is Afrikaans for "Dude." Joelle and Karley, my roommates on this tour, made them for everyone.
Commercial break to congratulate all the future Outbounds, make your years extraordinary, you're the only one who has control over that! You're all welcome to find me and talk to me, I'd love it, that is, if I don't find you first!
One day we went to the highest mountain in Thailand... and instead of climbing it, like we did at Phukradung, we songtelled it up. Before we went, I asked if I could ride on the outside and got a resounding "NO." So I sat, rather solemnly, I must admit, inside the songtell until... until I looked at the songtell behind me and saw Diana and Megan riding on the outside. So I pointed this out to my chaperone and asked her if I could do it. She said yes, and I, rather before she even really answered me, ran out of the songtell and hung off the back. It was exhilarating to zoom up the road, moving to and fro on that dirt-made mountain path. And then... and then... Prapart saw me from another songtell and made us pull over to tell me that it was dangerous and that no one was allowed to do it (he had already told the others). He yelled at my chaperone too, which I felt guilty about, because I feel it was my responsibility not hers, and I told her so and I told her if she got in trouble I would go tell Prapart that it was all my fault, but she didn't get in trouble, he just told her so that no one else would do as I had done. So I sat the spent the rest of the ride inside the songtell-with my head sticking out of the window, like a dog's, to feel the breeze and see what is coming towards me.
On top of the mountain we went to see temples, the spectacular view, and a waterfall. At the waterfall we were only allowed to take pictures, but I wondered-off and found a path to the top of the waterfall, so if you were to look at the collective pictures of all the exchange students with the waterfall, I would be mysteriously absent. But there is at least one of me, it's conveniently located next to the Panda in my above group of photos.
Speaking of that Panda... One of our trips was to the Chaing Mai zoo. I saw quite a few animals that I hadn't seen before in my life...and then I saw a huge flock of flamingos and smiled. it's strange when and where you'll find memories of home. I was thinking that the monkeys would hold more memories of my friends and family than the flamingos...
The Pandas were housed in an air-conditioned room with security. We had to pass through security, who put black tape over the flash on our cameras, made us disinfect our shoes, and checked our special Panda ticket... That is after we made the trek up a hill to get to the Pandas in the first place and passed several signs pointing us in their direction. The Pandas were the royal family of the Chaing Mai zoo. When we went in to see the Pandas, I was surprised to see how human they were. There were two of them, a girl and a boy, kept separated until mating season. One of them sat on a wooden bench, upright and slightly slumped (as though he had the bad posture of a teenager) and ate eucalyptus leaves which she grabbed as though they were popcorn from a bowl. And the strangest part was that, though we were watching the Panda, she seemed to be watching us, as though we were a fairly interesting television show.
The Golden Triangle. This is point where Thailand, Laos and Burma/Myanmar meet. And I went to it. You see, we were supposed to stay on the Thai side of the golden triangle, but we "secretly" hired a boat to sneak us over to Laos and on the way passed Myanmar. The golden triangle itself is actually a strip of land shaped like a triangle in the middle of the water, and by being in the water we were in all three countries at once. I say that we "secretly" hired a boat to take us over to Laos, but it is quite difficult for 30+ exchange students to do anything secretly... We had a half an hour to spend in Laos, once there, mostly we look photos and bought souvenirs, I tried out some of the Laos language that I've been learning, it's very similar to Thai, so it wasn't that hard to communicate...
As much fun as it was to sneak over to Laos, the best part was the boat ride there, I kept leaning over the side of the boat, and we were going at a fantastically speedy pace, so add those two factors together and you get the result of me getting sprayed in the face- repeatedly. I even made the boat driver laugh. The cool air on my freshly sea-battered face, speeding along in three countries at once, was a thrill that I won't soon forget.
In Chaing Rai, directly adjacent to our hotel, was the border to Myanmar. All the exchange students were given most of the day to explore the city, and I decided to do it by going into Myanmar. I had easily found "The most northern point of Thailand" and I went beyond that, but I wanted to take a picture of one of my feet in Thailand and one of my feet in Myanmar. I decided to just go up to the guard and ask, but he said I had to go through immigration... I was going to give up then and there, because my host family had my passport in a safe place for me back in Ubon, but the guard told me that I could use my drivers license. So I went, and got past a few of the checkpoints by telling them that I was an exchange student and just wanted to take a picture of one of my feet in Thailand and one of my feet in Myanmar... I got so far as to the point of speaking to the Burmese guard, who told me that they would keep my driver's license until I got back... Which made me question how I would get back in to Thailand without my driver's license, and then he told me that I had to pay 500 baht, which I didn't have... I had spent the last of my money sneaking over to Laos and buying souvenirs... It's quite ironic that I was able to get through all the red tape and officials and the only thing stopping me was money... I find it even more ironic, looking back, that had I somehow found a way into Myanmar (I had also found a low gate later that night I could have easily climbed over... but the armed guards made me think twice about that little option...) I might not have been able to persuade my way back into Thailand and I would have had my license in the hands of Burmese officials.... I'm not sure if you know the political situation in Myanmar right now, but I'll put it to you this way... The oppression is so great to the point that Burmese monks had to come over to Thailand to protest their oppression, for fear of being persecuted. They couldn't even protest in their own country.
A little story about that: When I was in school, at Nari Nuken (long before this trip), I made a protest sign and hung it around my neck to show support for the monks and their cause. When one of my English teachers saw this she asked me what it was, and I told her "I want to support the Monks in their peaceful protest for freedom." Her response was "How can you support a peaceful cause when your country dropped an atomic bomb on Japan?" And she smiled, as if this were some great evidence to end all great pieces of evidence, that I am evil and a hypocrite. I just stared at her for a moment, I was completely gob smacked that she would bring up something that happened before I was born, nay, before my parents were born, something that I didn't ever even mention agreeing with or even mention at all. I just said "Just because my country does something, doesn't mean I agree with it." This has happened quite a few times, and every time a Thai person says it, they always have a smile on their faces, not the friendly smile which I have become so accustomed to, but a smile that makes me shiver. This shows me that there are still great divides between countries, great resentments still held in the air, like the scent of fish lingers in a market after everyone has gone.
I think it important to remember, that whatever mistakes the past has made, we should learn from them, make sure they never happen again, help people to make the situation better, but not feel guilty about them and feel we should have to carry their burden and shame ourselves, for we weren't the ones who made the past; we are the ones who will make the future.
That goes for everybody, from every country.
This is where we backtrack a little bit through one of those wormholes I mentioned, way back to Chaing Mai and the Night Market.
The most fantastic market that I have ever been to. Right smack-dab in the middle of Chaing Mai city shaming the malls and twenty story buildings that it consumes, filling every crack of land that isn't covered by building or a tourist is the Night Market. Everywhere you go, there is someone there to sell you something, usually an over-priced something. But, if you're fairly proficient in Thai, you can usually take place in bantering (quite fun, I highly recommend it) to get a more desirable price...
Before I go on, there are a few things you need to know: 1. At Pukradung we all drew names to play "Secret Santa" and I drew Maria. She's really bubbly and energetic, most of the exchange students know her as "Mom," the Secret Santa was pretty much all her idea, and so therefore I really wanted to get her something special. I was thinking a "West Side Story" DVD, because it has the song "Maria" in it, and she told me she had never seen the film and had wanted to. 2. Ever since I've come to Thailand, I have been craving, yearning for, dreaming of... eating a sub sandwich. I eat them often at home and I even went so far as to beg my friend who is studying at culinary school (among others) to send me a sandwich in the mail.
Alright, now that you know that, I can tell you about the Subway that was waiting right outside my hotel... beckoning me to it... I went on two separate occasions, on one I hit a road block, because I asked for a Vegetarian sandwich and they were about to close and I could tell I was not welcome and I wanted my sandwich eating to be a pleasant experience, so I decided I would come back at another time. The next time I came back with other friends, but I promised one of my friends that I would go with her, and Subway is expensive in Thailand, so I decided to wait to eat with her... She forgot. So I never got my Subway sandwich in Thailand... and so when I eat them again in the United States, I think I will appreciate them all the more... Perhaps that's why I couldn't bring myself to eat them, what if they aren't as good as at home? Perhaps I was building the anticipation and I just waited too long.... I think if you wait for something to come to you instead of going to it, it could be too late and you'll never get your subway sandwich in life.
After that tragic story of love and loss, I will bring you a more cheerful tale. Remember what I told you about Maria and Secret Santa. Well, I was on a quest to find the perfect gift for her! I quite enjoy quests. So I bartered with the markets men and women, I crawled through little holes between carts, I climbed stairs and went underground (the markets really are everywhere...) I stopped to use the bathroom (for 3 baht..) but that was just suspense building, I did all that, but that was my exploring AFTER I found the gift for Maria. I bought her The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and decided that I would draw her a picture and write her a special note to go along with it. It would have been hard to draw her picture without looking at her, and keeping that a secret would have been futile, so I decided to take her picture and use that as a reference for my picture.
Just a little quip, When Gina (South Africa) and I were looking around the Night Market we found a shirt with a little cartoon girl on the front eating rice, she had a gun to her head with the phrase "Eat more rice (expletive removed)." This is what it feels like to live in Thailand sometimes, for anyone who might have wondered. You feel as though you have a metaphorical gun to your head which says "I'll think you hate me and that I'm a terrible chef if you don't eat my food." and so you have to keep on eating... Though as exchange students, that isn't usually a problem.
I spent most of my free time on these trips doing two things: exploring whatever city we happened to be in and climbing on to the roof of whatever hotel we happened to be on.
The best hotel roof was 22 stories up, it was completely flat and the tallest building as far as the eye could see. I almost fell asleep up there watching the stars...
That's my new hobby, climbing on roofs. Have you noticed that in my journals?
But on one special night all the exchange students made a trip to the roof of our hotel. This night was 24 December. Maria and the others who were helping her to plan the Christmas Party were really considerate about what would be the best way to hold the party. The Swedish girls really wanted to celebrate on the 24th of December, as they did in Sweden. Many of the Americans and Canadians wanted to celebrate on the 25th, as is tradition in their respective countries. The party planners, I want to note, also took into consideration the feelings of us non-Christians about having a Christmas party. What were we do do about our dilemma of days? Why simple, of course. We had the party late on the 24th and spilling over onto the 25th, that way everybody got to celebrate on the day special to them. We had Santa-Chase, Elf-Dana, the two Yukis dressed as Dumbo and the Yukisaurus, The President and his two bodyguards, food and candy, games and the present exchange.
The present exchange worked like this, we all put our presents on the table, we each, in turn, walked up to Santa-Chase, would sit on his lap and be given our present by Elf-Dana. We then had to guess who our secret Santa was, turn around while the real secret Santa stood-up and run and give them a hug... the hug wasn't a part of the rule, but we all added that ourselves.
When I was called to sit on Santa-Chase's lap, I was given something wrapped in a Brazilian flag and tied with a Brazilian ribbon, with a Brazilian coin as an ornament. Inside were a pair of Brazilian flip-flops. Now, unlike many other districts, my district (at that time) only had one person from Brazil, so I didn't have to do much guessing to know that Oswaldo (from Brazil) was my secret Santa. I was so excited, I loved my very Brazilian gift.
There were a few rather hilarious gag gifts, much giving of Kit-kat bars and chocolate, some really thoughtful and personal gifts too. I awaited when Maria would sit on Santa-Chases lap and receive my gift. When she did, she read the note and looked at the picture, and started tearing-up, so I got up and ran and gave her a really big hug, I was chuffed indeed that she enjoyed my gift. I always try to emulate Elephants and Kindergartners alike and put a lot of thought into my gifts. There's always such a nice feeling around the Winter Holidays where everyone decides to decorate the world with lights, sing songs unashamedly and be really kind to one another.
The Long-Necked People. Up, high up in the hills, in the mountains, live the long-necked people of Thailand. At a certain age, really at the whim of the parent, a girl in the long-necked village will have golden coils placed around her neck to make her neck longer. What really happens is that the shoulders are pressed down to give the illusion of length, the neck itself is not actually elongated. To answer the question that I know is on your mind: Yes, they can remove the coils if they wish, we saw photos of the process, as well as real people, who had had it removed... the neck does not collapse, but I imagine it is something one has to get used to, after having it all ones life. I tried on one of the necklaces (it had the back missing, so it could be slipped on and off with ease). I asked one of the older women (before we were told otherwise) if one could ever remove the coils, she said "Yes" with a look of alarm on her face "But why would you ever want to." Asian countries seem to have a tradition of mutilating girls (and sometimes boys too) for beauty. I wish I could say different of Western Cultures, but if you look at the popularity of plastic surgery and the obsession with the need to be ultra-thin, I think anything I say to that effect is null and void.
The last place we visited that I will tell you about is quite special. If you are an exchange student in Thailand, you are taken to a great many Buddhist temples, some of them are big and beautiful and elaborate with dragon statues and emerald Buddhas, like the one I saw in Bangkok. Some of the temples are old and are historically fascinating, often housing Buddha's teeth or a bone of his, sometimes they hold within the law of Buddha written on papyrus so old and having survived so much time, some on stilts in the water.... But this one, it, to me was a message that no matter how much you might believe in your religion, your country, your political beliefs, you need to be able to step back and take it all with a sense of humor. This Wat was huge and white, everything was white, from far away that's fairly interesting... all right, an all white temple... but, But, when you get up close and see all the details, you'll realize how amazing this temple really is. It has two huge demons guarding the temple, they have huge clubs on fire and their bodies are the snakes that make up the railings, one of them is pointing down as though accusing every person who comes in of a terrible crime. On either side of the demons there are two huge tusks sticking out of the ground, there are two frog-like fairies with oddly over-distorted lips playing lutes with flowers in their hands and then.. inside is beautiful and painted and decorated like any other Wat. What makes this Wat so special, though, is that when you first walk in, on either side of you is a pit. Not just any pit, but a pit with thousands of clay hands reaching up at you. There are hands in every kind of position, some reaching up for help, one giving the I love you sign, one giving the middle finger, some with things written on them, one with a mouth sticking out it's tongue at you, one with an eye on the palm, a devil's claw, a foot, a robot's hand, and if you look really closely a terrified face at the bottom of the pit! When you go to Wat and see this, it's so unexpected, so bizarre, so amazing, and in one way or another, if you go there, you just have to smile...
So ends my tour to the great Thai North, and your tour through my memories, but before you step off the boat, I have something special I want to share with you all. For though my journal ends, my story as a human being will not end for a very long time.
Before I left for my Northern trip, I had been volunteering everyday after school at Warin Sat ta wa pa. I went everyday because there was a puppy who had spent so much time in a cage, that he couldn't walk very well, he had been brought in for shots- and then just never picked up again. So, everyday, I took him to play in the grassy area across from the clinic for about 3 hours, but then at the end, I would have to go home and put him back in his cage. I always made sure that rain or shine or any other obligation, I would find a way to come and play with him. I... I started to fall in love with Lucky, I decided that I would adopt him. I asked my Mom and in the states, and she said I could bring him home, just make sure that he has all his shots and that I have any other paper work or information ready when he is to come back with me. I then asked my host family about it, I told them the situation, but they said absolutely no pets. So, I continued to play with Lucky everyday, I contemplated sneaking him into my room and to school with me everyday, but what if someone found him? What would become of him then? I thought of asking another family to take care of him for the rest of the year, until he could go home with me. I started thinking about what would become of Lucky while I was gone for 10 days on my trip. I asked one of the veterinary assistants at the Warin Sa ta wa pa to play with Lucky everyday while I was gone. She said she would try to, so I asked all of them to play with him. I knew that he would probably be adopted while I was away, and decided that was better than him spending 10 days in a cage. I cried, I almost didn't go on the trips, so that I could stay with him, and after much thought, I decided that I had to let him be adopted and that it wasn't fair to leave him to spend so much time in his cage. So I went and saw him for what I thought would be one last time, and went on my trips... wondering if I had made the most terrible decision of my life...
When I returned, Lucky was still there and the vets told me that they had played with him. I was so excited to see him, but at the same time I felt a stabbing pain that he didn't yet have a home. That's when I decided that this meant that he would go home with me and I would come and play with him even longer... stretching the day.... We would be together forever and I would never have to fear losing him again. I bought him a little yellow, plastic, squeaky dinosaur to chew on (because he seemed to like to chew on me... haha...) I bought him chew bone... and finally I bought him a leash (he already had a purple collar)... I told myself that when I bought him a leash it would be because he could then walk well enough that he could outrun me and I had to be more careful of letting him wander the grassy areas. I was so proud of him. I remember that day, I gave him a bath and he smelled so nice, he ran around and when playing with me he tore my shirt and bit me so hard, that I bled. But I knew he didn't mean to hurt me and that he was just playing. I was the only person who he didn't growl at, he would jump into my lap when he saw me and often lick me. I was so happy. One man once asked me what Lucky's name was. When I told him, he said "Maybe his name is Lucky, because he is lucky to have you." My mother had said the same thing, but I think I was the lucky one.
The next day, I went to the clinic and as I was about to go upstairs, one of the veterinary assistants told me that Lucky had been adopted that morning, before I came. I was shocked, and smiled and told her how wonderful that was: how happy it made me. This was the one time, I had hoped that I misunderstood Thai. I hung onto that... maybe it was a mistake of words, she probably meant another dog, Lucky is a popular name for Thai dogs. I kept telling myself. No, it just couldn't be. I flung off my shoes and ran to Lucky's cage. It lay shut, with his squeaky toy dinosaur, his bone and his leash. And no Lucky. They didn't even take the stuff I bought for him with them when they adopted him. Now he'll think I abandoned him. Abandoned twice in one life time. Now he'll think I don't love him. Now he'll forget me. And I'll never forget him. I crawled into his cage and cried. I cried for a really long time. I just sat there, holding the things I'd bought for him in my arms. Whenever I think about it, I cry. As I write this now, I'm crying.
I really am happy that he has a home, it's better for him, I knew this would happen. I did. And I'll never forget him. It's this most terrible pain in my stomach, the most terrible pain, much more terrific than any physical pain. It's like having my biggest fear in front of me, and not a facing of the fear, a realization that it's something I can deal with and laugh at... it's a realization that it's worse than I could have ever imagined. I blamed myself for a long time for feeling guilty, for not doing something more to adopt him and make him mine. Now I search the city looking for who adopted him, because the clinic wouldn't tell me.
So I search the world, this Thai world, this city, for traces of Lucky. I go by the clinic to see if he has come back for a bath. I go into the private sector, whenever I hear a dog barking, I wonder, Is it him? I haven't given up my search, I want just one more chance, one more chance to say goodbye, I never got to say goodbye. one more chance for him to know that I haven't forgotten him, and that I will always love him.
And though I learned to look into the eyes of a flying purple elephant and see one reflected back, I think I lied to you above, that isn't the most important thing I've learned here. I've learned that all of our life stories are connected and important. All our stories overlap and blend together to create one story, to create history. And though history books tell of people like George Washington and Marie Curie, Buddha and Plato, that is just a mere snippet of the story! History is what we do each day. It's all of us, all of us are the main characters in our own story. In that way, we are all the most important person, everyone who inhabits the Earth. The same way that we are all flying purple elephants, that we are all strange, we are all important and all the authors of our own destiny. We all have the power to change the story, to alter the course of history, just by living everyday! You could change the whole world, and you could possibly be the only one who knows! Perhaps all you have to do is learn to love yourself. I think that's what I've done. Though this journal is about to end, my story hasn't yet ended, I like to uses ellipses (...) in my writing to show that the story is never really over, thought keeps on going, with you and me and the rest of the world! Right now my world is changing, right now I'm still looking for Lucky, I could still find him, this story is not yet done! You're watching me change the whole world. After all, what is just a puppy in story to you, is the universe and the stars and the whole world to me...
July 6 Journal
Three New Years
I noticed a little boy sitting on one of those helicopter machines that plays music and moves back and forth, but doesn't really go anywhere. He took the wheel and moved it as if his life depended on it and pressed the buttons, but no matter what he did, he just moved back and forth, back and forth.
I don't think it was important that he wasn't going anywhere, just that he believed he was and kept on fighting, and one day he'll drive a car and hold the steering wheel and his life will depend on it. And he'll go somewhere.
"I can survive 6 months (more than) in a country where I barely knew the language, where I swim against the stream and have yet to drown! I haven't changed the tides, for I am not the moon, but I'm still swimming baby!"
I was rereading my old hand-written journals and came across that little gem. I was most startled by it. It made me smile. It's been a while since I've written Rotary journals and I'm trying to play catch up... I want to write everything down, I want to remember everything that I've done and share the experience of what it's like to live in Thailand to all who happen to be passing by these here pages, but really what my journals should do, I hope, is encourage people to put on their own traveling boots and take the plunge into a whole new world. The traveling boots, I should mention, are completely weightless, because it's not wise to plunge into the great roaring sea with heavy boots on. Literally or figuratively speaking.
Books and Journals can feed your imagination, but they are nothing like getting out and living your own stories.
That being said, time to move on to New Years, all 3 of them...
The first New Years is the one that we are all accustomed to, count downs, fireworks, big ball dropping, confetti, 1 January, I shall deem it the Western New Years. On 31 December I was sitting on the big over-stuffed red chair, writing a letter, in front of the television watching the New Years countdown with the volume turned WAY down so as to not wake up A-ma. I silently counted with the Thai people on television who were in Bangkok... sahm, sorng, neung... SAWATDEE BEE MAI! I then received quite a fright because the fireworks on television were making quite a racket, even with the volume on low, A-ma yelled to me to turn down the TV, but those weren't television fireworks at all, but fireworks right outside my own house! So I ran to the gate, frantically tried to unlock it, and after a few failed attempts, ran outside. I was soon followed by my host brother, Tua, we stood outside in our pajamas watching a spectacular fireworks display in the park adjacent to my host house! We lived right in the centre of the city and it was fantastic to see the lights sprinkle the sky and rain down on the city. They gave the stars a run for their money. I remember just staring and being in awe, feeling my heart sink in amazement...
The next time that light would hold my attention so firmly in it's grasp was not as pleasant an experience, but just as awe inspiring.
I was sitting in my room, late one night reading Atlas Shrugged by Any Rand (Maybe it was Emma by Jane Austen...One of those books anyway...), arguing with it as I do most novels, when the lights cut off. Not such a strange occurrence, it happens, but I really couldn't continue reading in that state, but then, oh joy of joys my host mother brought me a flash light (one which I have yet to return to her actually...) so I could continue reading. But for some strange reason, I was pulled to the outdoor laundry area on the 4th level of the house. I often like to go there at night and watch the stars, but tonight it was different, and when I arrived there I realized how different it was. Smoke was billowing out of a building, it looked a little bit like the nightly food bazaar when the various chefs come together and barbeque and shishkabob their masterpieces to sell to the mass... but it usually didn't create THAT much smoke... and it most definitely seemed to be coming from a different place. It was probably a barbeque and I was probably over-reacting. It happens. I decided, though, to risk looking like a fool and ran downstairs to tell my host parents, in case there really was a fire. It turns out that tons of people were standing on a median, my host mother included, staring at tons of other people running to and fro from blazing fire down the road. I ran to the median to speak to my host mother. I asked her what happened, and she said that she wasn't quite sure. It was at that particular moment, that fire caught onto the electric wire above our heads and we all ran away from the median lickity split. My host mother told me that the fire was near an Indian restaurant that we liked to eat at called Ali's.
I liked Ali's because when I told the owner that I was a vegetarian, he told me that he is Muslim and follows a Hallal diet, and wants other people to respect his choices, so of course he will respect mine. This was a nice change from the strange look and shaking head that I often receive in Thailand when I tell people I'm a vegetarian. Oh, and also the food is delicious.
So when I heard that someone I knew and liked could possibly be hurt all other reservations left my mind and I started to run down the street into the unknown chaos. To be honest, had it been someone I didn't know, I think I still would have been equally as determined. I was stopped by my host mother, but my mind was so clear and I so stubborn, that I wasn't going to argue, I was just going to go. I just kept on going and my host mother sent my 16-year-old host brother as a sort of chaperone to make sure I didn't get hurt. I slightly resented this, but as I said, I was in no mood to argue. Here Tua and I were again, watching fantastic fire lighting up the city, but in an entirely different capacity.
We barreled down the street he had walked millions of times, and I hundreds. We darted past the people fleeing past us and wove in between those watching in interest and those standing stalk still in fear. Deeper and deeper into the depths of the known street into the unknown dangers. It's funny, because in silly instances such as a broken computer or a spilled jar of mayonnaise, I become flustered and am uncertain about what to do, but in really dangerous or vital situations, my mind is quite clear, I am unafraid and know exactly what I must do, even if I am uncertain, I don't let that stop me.
As we went past fire trucks, the blaring lights and announcements and crying in Thai, parents holding back children and neighbors discussing last nights football match, it was as though all the problems and all the joys of the city had congregated there, in that very spot, they hadn't ceased their goings on, they just moved to different spots. That spot of the city became a heart unable to pump out all the giggling and glaring blood moving into it and ready to burst.
At the very centre of the fire was a wooden building directly across from Ali's. I frantically asked questions to find out what had happened. No one seemed certain. And just then, one of the strangest sights I've ever seen in my entire life blossomed into being, right in front of my eyes. Fire fighters were carrying a motorbike on stretcher out of the burning building. They treated it like a baby's body gently and carefully, that is, until they threw it onto the street with a few other items in front of Ali's shop. It was at this point, that I realized that at least no other people were trapped in the building, either that or the firefighters of Thailand have very strange priorities. In fact, after questioning around I found out that no one had been in the building, as it was night and the building was only in use during the day. Very lucky, most Thai buildings double as shops and places of residence.
I stood watching the fire being put out by long streams of water jetting out the hoses. The fire just held me there, for some reason I couldn't move. Sometimes I did when the firefighters told us to move back, but I was transfixed in my spot. I don't know what it was, perhaps I was looking for a sense of ending, finality a sense of certainly that the fire was out and that everyone was okay, no one was hurt. Maybe I was waiting for when I would have to jump in and save a cat that no one else had seen. Perhaps I, like so many around me, was just drawn in by the mighty power of this force of nature, captured by human hands and gone awry. Whatever the case might be the columns fell and embers consumed both my full attention and what was once a wooden building that I had never gone into. I was drawn out of my trance by two Thai boys talking to me in English "Hello, What's your name? I love you. My name is." It surprised me that even in this situation they were going on like that, I was shocked, even more than by the fire and not sure what to say, so I just mumbled something, I'm not sure what and walked away to look for Tua. He was standing with a large crowd of people not too far away, I called to him and as the last of the fire died, we walked back home. I don't remember if we said anything to each other or not, I don't remember what I was thinking, but I do remember that feeling of walking away into the night.
And now, because I cannot really think of another appropriate transition after that, a tale of Thai Dancing and English Camp, how will these so seemingly different activities live together in harmony? I imagine it is something like Oscar and Felix from the Odd Couple trying to coexist, they try and the results create hilarious train wrecks for us all to laugh at and for me to point out to my mother and say "See Mom, at least I'm not THAT messy..." Which is kind of a lie. But anyway, no matter, on we go with the story...
Prapart, the head of the Rotary Youth Exchange in Thailand, was having some visiting Rotarians from Taiwan and somehow the thought came to him "Why don't I have the Inbounds and Outbounds from Ubon perform a Thai Dance, it will be great!" And thus I showed up for my first dance practice, I actually missed the first one because of a trip with my host family, which I'll tell you about later. So my first dance practice was just more confirmation of how uncoordinated I am. Thai people seem to have no reservation with telling me when I'm bad at something, I prefer "Artistically disinclined towards traditional dancing" but Thai people pointing and laughing at me works too. One thing you have to learn in Thailand is to laugh at yourself sometimes. But even I eventually got the dance and the time for our big, messy, be-what-it-will debut was sneaking up quickly.
One day, I was casually walking and singing down the pavement, past the park, on my way to my host family's shop, because it was almost time for dance practice and Pee Na was going to take me on her motorcycle to the place where it was being held. WHEN, I hear a most peculiar sound. "Hey Baby." It sounded like. What? I turn around to see that it's Joelle, another exchange student, calling to me from the back of my first host family's car. Before I know it, I'm being coerced (read: pulled) into the car. When one is kidnapped, one has to access every option. So I assessed the situation. In the car were: My host mother in the front seat wearing sunglasses, Joelle talking at me, and a random Australian girl introduced to me as Sam. Joelle told me that she wanted me to come to an English Camp with her that weekend and that there was a meeting that day and that I was invited. Scary stuff, but I played it cool, as always. I told her that I had to go to dance practice that day, she had forgotten and asked me to cover for her, I said I would and before I knew it I was back on the sidewalk again. Still on my way to dance practice, but now with a new adventure to add to my agenda: English Camp.
After my brush with kidnapping, I made my way to dance practice, where, apparently I was the only one who showed up. I sat writing in my journal waiting for the others to come. When the teacher asked me where they were, I told her that I wasn't sure, I know Joelle had another appointment to attend to, but that's it. What about the others? I don't know. When was the last time you saw them? Last practice. Do you have their numbers? No. What! You don't call them? No. Why don't you call your friends? I don't really like the telephone. WHY DON'T YOU KNOW WHERE THEY ARE? Because I don't. The teacher was getting pretty upset with me at this point, I asked her if she could just teach me and she said she couldn't just teach one student and that I should leave. So I did. I went to see a movie at the theatre across the street instead. All in all an interesting afternoon.
English camp: that weekend was fun! It was held at my first host parent's University in Warin Chamrab. We arrived and one of the things that we went over was that whenever anyone said "Are you ready?" we had to answer "Yes Baby!" And make a pelvic thrust motion. All in all it was very reminiscent of Austin Powers. And when asked "How are you?" we had to answer "I'm cool." and pretend to dust something off of our shoulders. Very important words and motions in contemporary English-Speaking culture.
On the first day we played a few get to know you games. I think I enjoyed that everything was in English, but still it was quite strange. I don't remember all the games, but there is one that I remember in particular, it was about greetings in countries from all over the world. First they would show us the greeting, then we would all repeat the greeting to make sure we were doing it right. After we made sure we had it down pat, the heads of the game would say start and we'd have to "pass" the greeting so to speak down the line as fast as possible and then sit down after we'd all had a go, whichever row was first to sit won a point. The trick was that if the judges said everyone in the row didn't do the greeting properly, the point went to the second fastest row and so on. We started off with the easy "Sa-wat-dee" and Wai-ing motion of Thailand. Then transitioned into a bow and "Konichiwa" of Japan. A Hand sliding motion brought to us by Malaysia. A hug and "privyet" from Russia. Ciao Bella/Bello of Italy followed by kisses on each cheek. My personal favorite: The traditional "Hey Man Wassup" and gang symbol of the United States. And finally what is know as an "Eskimo Kiss" where you rub your nose together with the other person. As you might imagine, some of these were rather uncomfortable for some people, as it is not Thai culture to rub your nose together with someone in public, but it was to get us all comfortable with each other and laughing and that it did.
After all the warm and fuzzy group together, we broke into groups.
My group was about the environment. So we taught everyone an English song about a millipede who lost a leg, accompanied by dancing. We gave everyone instructions in English to draw a picture and played a game of matching definitions to words. Words such as El Nino, Recycling, Global Warming, Green House Gases. Fun stuff like that.
The next day we played a CRAZY relay race. That's what it was called a "CRAZY" relay race. Did I tell you that this camp was called CRAZY English Camp? Well it was. And it is. So we ran, hoped, carried, ate, danced, changed clothes, and scuttled in the shape of a caterpillar all one or a few at a time until my team won! yay! Oh! We also played water balloon volleyball, two teams hold garbage bags and attempt to make the balloon pop on the other teams side. That was my favorite game, in the end, we just threw the remaining water balloons at each other.
A few nights later it was the debut of our dance. I was such a terrible dancer that I was placed in the back with the two boys Nun and Donut, we hung out, swapped manly stories and other man stuff. I cannot help but think this had something to do with my wanting to be greatly equally as a boy, but even if that was the motive, it was really fun! I even dressed as a boy. I have to say, I make a really pretty boy. In the end, we decided we were all Katoi, because we were wearing make-up and doing a traditionally female dance after all. Actually I decided that and told Nun and Donut. I think they found it amusing.
The 2nd New Year: The Chinese New Year. The Day before the Chinese New Year, I went to school as always, but when I stopped off at the 7-Eleven to grab a slurpee, I noticed a little Buddhist altar right next to the slurpee machine. I asked one of the clerks why it was there and she told me, because it was the day before Chinese New Year. That night when I got home, I spoke to my host family, and they told me I had gone to school too quickly and missed the tradition. My assumption was that if there was a tradition to take place it would take place on Chinese New years itself, not the day before, but I was mistaken and missed out on the ceremony, but I asked my host family to please tell me about it. So they explained that they had 7 chairs for 7 generations of ancestors to dine with them, they then would give little red envelopes filled with money, they then pulled one out for me and gave it to me. It was very kind of them. Along with it they gave me a little red-velvet bag to place on my blazer.
I told you before that I would tell you about why I didn't go to my first dance practice and the reason was because I was on a trip with my host family to Patem. I had gone to Patem once before with Rotary, to recall your memory, it was a cliff with ancient cave paintings, but my host family knew I had gone there already and so took me to another part. A waterfall flowing through a hole in a rock. But first they packed everyone up in the car and took us to a resort on the Maekong river, the river that separates Thailand and Laos. On the first day we were allowed to just explore on our own. I decided to find a way down to the rock formations and the river itself. I couldn't find a path from the hotel, so I wandered out of the hotel and found a gate made of wood which I could easily climb over and headed down to the river. I sat with my feet in the river, feeling the cool breeze, reading my book at the time, The Power of One, the character in the book had just gone to the crystal cave of Africa for the last time and I sat thinking that it could be the last time I touched this river. I rested in the sand and watch the clouds. A lady and little child came to bathe in the river. I was going to go in to the water, but decided not to. After the serene moment by the river, I decided to climb the rocks, explored around, on my way found some snakes skin and discarded M-150 bottles... actually many, many, discarded M-150 bottles, I figured somebody really liked that drink... I climbed to the highest rock and screamed words of triumph to the river and to Laos across the way. I the explorer, I the triumphant, the world was my oyster...I thought I heard someone calling to me, but it must have been the wind. Perhaps a voice telling me 'carpe diem.' As I was climbing back down the rocks and past the river, I decided "What the hell?" and jumped in, in all my clothing. I guess, before, it wasn't my last time in the river after all.
I came back to the resort soaking wet for dinner. Though it was absolutely breath-taking, it was a touristy sort of place, and therefore had sandwiches on the menu, not bad not bad. It was a really nice family meal looking out on the Maekong river, and surprise, surprise, there wasn't a litter bug with a particular hankering for M-150 at all, but they lit all the M-150 bottles and they created glorious candles shimmering amongst the rocks. Turns out there WAS a tourist path down to the rocks, just in the place I hadn't looked, so I went down with my host brother and sister this time and we explored the rocks rugged terrain. My hosts had tried to call to me from the Hotel... perhaps that was the voice I had heard earlier. Perhaps.
We went into the recreation room and played pool together. We spoke about the future and about the finer points of pool, or as Thai people call it "Snooker." I think that is what English or Australian people call it as well... I'd certainly not heard this word before Thailand though, but now that I know it, it seems to make a lot more sense to call it "Snooker" than pool, if I said "Meet me at the pool room." You wouldn't know if I meant a Swimming Pool or a Snooker Pool room, admit it, you wouldn't! Also Snooker is much more amusing to say. Snooker.
The next day we went to see the waterfall I told you about. One of the first things I did was dive into the water. I was the only one who swam in it, but everyone found it amusing. I felt like a mermaid. I bet that's why they hide, because it's not always so nice to have people watching you swim and taking pictures of you. Wearing my white skirt would have been an embarrassing mistake, but luckily I thought enough to wear Snoopy boxers underneath. I followed the cave behind the waterfall to the very end which came out to a place that resembled a rice field after all the rice has been picked away. Basically there are yellow stalks and trees occasionally. I followed the trees and the trampled over the broken yellow stalks to the top of a cliff, I galloped across the gorge and found that I had gone in a complete circle back to the steps leading to the waterfall again. Go ahead, explore, get lost. Life always leads you back to your waterfall.
My 2nd host family own a shop called "Punchard," and so I refer to them as the "Punchard" family. My host father explained to me that Punchard comes from the word 'Pun' meaning thousand and 'chard' meaning reincarnations. So the store names is A Thousand Reincarnations. They sell Thai handy-crafts. That is, Hand-made items to Thai people, but mostly tourists from Japan, Singapore and the United States. So I guess the name is lost to many of its customers. I'm glad that I know. It makes me think. I sometimes wonder if I would like to have a thousand reincarnations.
Right across the street from Punchard is a restaurant called "The Wrong Way Cafe." One day my family asked me what I wanted to eat, and I asked them if they had ever eaten there, they said yes, but well... let's just say it wasn't their cup of tea, but that if I wanted to try it, they would be happy to send me over to eat there. I traveled the treacherous journey across the street and sat down on the table with comfy cushioned chairs on the sidewalk in the midday sun. Taking my first look around the store, I took in my surroundings, the television, the snooker table, the library corner.... I decided to go look in the library at the books, and low and behold ENGLISH BOOKS and a few German ones too, but those didn't really excite me as much. That became, in my mind, my own personal library, I would often track events in my life by what book I happened to be reading at the time. The selection was fairly limited, but at least enough for me to read in half a year!
Around this time of the year Maëlle, a Swiss AFS volunteer/exchange student joined me and the 5 other exchange students at my school, she volunteers half-time at my school teaching French and half-time at the hospital. On her first day at school, I went up to her to introduce myself, as I had done when Diana joined our little Nari Nuken Family. She happened to mention to me that at the hospital there were doctors visiting from Yale University.
Valentine's day was that week as well, and on Valentine's day I came to school and the school looked as though a pink heart filled piñata had exploded above it, as though little love soldiers had come and bombed the place. Red balloons, roses, sparkly decorated banners, baked goods, drinks, lovey-dovey oozing out of every pore. I don't know why Valentine's day is so big in Thailand... My host father once told me that Thai people like any excuse to celebrate, hence all the New Years.... Each class set up a booth selling things, my class set up a baked-goods both, little jelly hearts. I, out of patriotism to my class bought two of the hearts, they were... erm...very beautiful... but um... better to look at than to eat, I would say. haha.
My classmates told me that we wouldn't be having class that day because of Valentine's day, just this little festival. So I walked around and enjoyed the festivities, thought about how in the United States we never get off for Valentine's day, had a group of teenaged boys run up to me and offer me free condoms, some people had them pinned to their shirts which said "I love sex education." It's good that protection is becoming less taboo in Thailand, there's a restaurant in Bangkok called "Cabbages and Condoms" with condom and cabbage sculptures, which aims to make condoms as easy to talk about as cabbages.
Anyway, after that humorous display (I wonder if the boys offered them to teachers...) I ran into my friend Maëlle who told me that she stopped by the school for Valentines day to see the festival, but was going to the hospital, and because there were no classes, I asked if I could tag along. And off we went...
When we arrived at the hospital, I thought it would be a lot more difficult for us to get clearance to go into the operating rooms, but it was pretty simple actually. Maëlle just told them she was a volunteer and that I was her friend and that was pretty much it. Simple. We suited up in scrubs, a face mask and a hair-net and we were super doctors, ready to operate. In fact, when we walked in the nurse told us that they had been looking for doctors to operate and that we were needed immediately. If I were a cartoon character, I would have said "sure" and had a completely successful operation, unfortunately I am not a cartoon character, so I said "No, No, I'm just a student!" She blushed and apologized and I said "Oh, no problem, I enjoy being mistaken for a Yale doctor." Maëlle and I passed a real doctor in the hallway, we explained who we were, and he invited us to come in and have a look... Some doctors would tell us to come closer and have a look, don't be afraid, how else would we learn, and others would tell us to stand against the wall and not to touch the sterilized material, or even breathe on it. Teenagers. Hmpt. Always getting in the way. We learned to avoid these Antipatique Doctors, as Maëlle called them, and stay in the rooms with the doctors who enjoyed having us there and teaching us about the procedures they were performing. One Thai doctor though, became so frustrated with us for breathing the wrong way that she said the doctors were complaining about us and sent us to the staff room for a break and told us we shouldn't go into the operating rooms again. It's very frustrating to be blamed for being trouble makers based on our age, that's not really something we can control. Often times children are used as the scapegoats in Thailand, because everyone will believe the adults and no one believes the kids. In the staff room, we learned about the types of procedures they were doing, cleft lips, extra digits, eyes that won't open all the way, things we might fix at birth in the US, anything really, on anybody who came and asked for help, for free. I asked how they got the word out and they relied entirely on word of mouth... We decided that we really wanted to learn and there was little point of us being there if we weren't doing anything, so we went to the recovery room and spoke to patients.
I decided to go to the head doctor, one of the sympatique doctors, I told him what the Thai doctor had said and asked if we had done anything to upset him, and he said "Of course not." and invited us to come join him for his next operation. The sympatique head doctor pulled us close to the operation table and told us to get up really close and see how they were making the incision in the leg. After he left, an antipatique told us to go over and stand by the wall, so we did. The head doctor then came back and exasperatedly asked us why we had moved away from the operating table, as we started to explain, he pushed us right up next to the table and went away again, the antipatique doctor then exasperatedly said "Girls? What did I just tell you?" So we moved back. That time the head doctor saw what happened and said very loudly, for all to hear "You are to stand right here and watch this operation, otherwise how are you going to learn anything?" So that was that and we got to watch the operation.
One boy had an extra thumb on each hand, when they removed the extra finger, one of the doctors joked that they should put them on string and make them into necklaces for us. I felt as though I was invading the patient's privacy somehow, but I suppose doctors get over that, because the patients put themselves in the doctors' hands. It's still scary though, to think about that.
I asked one of the medical students if operating rooms were usually like this and she said in Thailand the rules were a lot less strict. For instance, usually in the US you don't have people taking pictures in the operating room, but there was a lady going around taking pictures. And you cannot wear open-toed shoes in the US, and two kids wouldn't so easily just be allowed in to the view the operations. Drat, there go my plans.
On a whim, she and I decided to go swimming in the school's pool one day after school. I didn't happen to have my bathing suit with me, so I begged and they allowed me to go swimming in my school uniform.
We decided to have a most fierce competition. The United States of America vs. Switzerland. Our country's prides were at stake! We tried to strike fear into each other's hearts by freaking the other out. She said that the United States would probably ban me from its borders if I lost. I said that everyone is already against the United States, so one more blow wouldn't matter, but if Switzerland, a traditionally neutral nation lost in a battle with the US, she would never hear the end of it. Either way whomever lost would bring shame and humiliation to their country. We prepared for the competition, standing on the diving boards, preparing to see who would glide the farthest, or so I thought, she thought it was a who could glide the farthest, but then swim the farthest without taking a breath. We should have really squared away the rules in this most deadly of competitions instead of talking trash, but the talking of the trash is one of the most fun parts and is not to be eliminated over fairness or equality... as politics has taught us.
I brought shame and humiliation to the United States in the end. Oh well. Switzerland lost in the Euro Cup. Haha. We're Even. I think I need to rub that in her face a little more than I have. I'm just too nice a friend.
One night, when I heard music emanating form the park, I found out that I could open the window in my room, which I previously thought I could not and climbed out of it, there is a little ledge there and I can look out at the city and the stars. My own secret window.
Thai New Year. New Year Number 3. Song Kran. Song Kran is a gigantic, country-wide water-fight to celebrate the New Year. People line every street just waiting to throw water at you and rub powder in your face, but if you're like me, then you're ready! My armor included a water gun with a plastic elephant backpack to carry around water and shoot my innocent victims. I soon found out that the best way to go about it though is to carry around a plastic bowl and use the MANY giant buckets full of water to splash on people. It's really an amazing sight to be able to go anywhere in the city and be able to spray anybody with water. I loved riding on the back of the songtell and getting sprayed and splashed as we zoomed down the roads. Some people would even put ice in the water to make it extra cold. And it's considered good luck to splash someone with water, so when someone asks if they can pour water on you, you thank them! I met up with different friends at different points and made new friends. One of my friends and I flagged down a truck with a big garbage can full of water, we went in a truck and sat in the truck bed throwing water with the two little girls and their mother at the the people lining the streets. There were people dancing and eating and celebrating! It was extraordinary fun. THAT was the kind of festival that I expected for the King's birthday. One day I went to play with the Punchard family (I had switched by SongKran) and played with them, we even started a fun war with the people across the street. It was fun, but sometimes it was scary.
One time I was with a few people I had just met, and we were in the streets playing, when a drunk person came up to me carrying powder. I learned that if you ask people nicely, they will usually not rub the powder on your face. So I said, "No thank you," In Thai, so I knew he understood me. But he kept on coming towards me and I backed away and kept on screaming "No, No, No." At this point, whilst waving my hands in a "stop" motion, which means the same thing to Thai people. He kept on coming and I kept going farther way, I said "No, I don't want any powder, stop." and I was in the street, so I really couldn't go very far, or I'd be hit by a car, so I just kept screaming "No" and backing away as far as I could. He grabbed me by the shoulders, rubbed the powder in my face and before he could do anything else, I reared my fist back and punched him square in the chest. He doubled over a little, and had a surprised look on his face and backed away from me and went away. You see, sometimes drunk people on Song Kran think they are at liberty to touch anybody in anyway they please, and though I don't like violence, I feel I had the right to defend myself, and I did. The people I was with didn't really talk to me after that and asked me in a sort of snide way when I was planning on going back home...
One hard thing to deal with in Thai culture is that girls are sort of expected to be submissive and stay out of "danger" and if not then let people do as they want to me. You see, I think, in their minds, I ruined their fun and should have just gone along with it. Because he didn't actually do anything wrong, if I didn't want to be touched, I should have stayed home. I wasn't going to let anyone do anything to harm me, no one has that right, and even if no one else will stand up for me, I'll stand up for myself. It's really not nice to be treated as less than a human being, it's awful. I went away from the people I was with, crying. And though this was a rather extreme example, every single day I have to defend something I do or think, because I'm "acting like a boy," or doing something "dangerous." It's hard, but it's worth it. Sometimes something is wrong in the world and we pass it by because "it's not our place to say something" or "we have to respect their culture," or really "we're afraid," I respect the Thai culture, if Thai people do something that is strange to me I laugh and say "It's different," usually I'm happy to try it their way, but the second they step over the line and hurt me or someone else, it doesn't matter if "it's the culture," because hurting another person, treating them as less than a human being, in any capacity, is wrong. I think it's wrong, that's my opinion, yes, but that's all I have to go on, and I trust it.
In Thailand, I've had three New Years. Three chances at a new beginnings. New Beginnings are amongst my favorite things in the world. With New Beginnings come a clean slate, the feeling as though no matter what happened in the past, you now have a new chance. You cannot erase the past, but sometimes you have to forgive yourself and give yourself a new start. "The first day of school welcomes a chance at a blank slate, no matter how much you might have procrastinated the year before or cheated or failed, the beginning of this year is open for you to make of it whatever you want, the possibilities are endless... that's the wonderful thing about beginnings: possibilities. I feel the same way after it rains, as if despite everything, I still have all the possibilities in the world." That's something I wrote in an online journal, about smiling at people who frown at me. Smiles, are also new possibilities, they open you up to people and allow a new start, despite anything else that might have happened. I asked myself, if you will recall, if I'd want a thousand reincarnations and the answer is that I already have them, each day I awaken and have a new chance a fresh start, a new day! No matter how much in life we feel like we might be going back and forth, back and forth, and that there is nothing we can do to change anything, we always have an opportunity for change and for a fresh start, we just have to keep on fighting, not with our fists, if possible, but with the coming of a new year, a new month, a new day, rainfall, a smile. Keep on swimming and eventually the tides will change.