Thursday, April 2, 2015

Endings and beginnings

My time in rural Thailand has come to an end after 27 months of service as a Peace Corps volunteer.  It’s been an experience that’s impossible to sum up in one sentence, one paragraph or one blog post.  I could talk for days about the last 2 years of my life and still have plenty more to say.  I'm heading back to America and the familiar mix of excitement and trepidation are constantly bombarding me with expectations and questions. I’ve explained my role as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand many, many times, both in complicated English and simple Thai.  My answer varies depending on the audience (and the language).  My general, vague answer is that I’m a youth development volunteer and I teach life skills to kids at schools in a rural Thai community.  It sounds meaningful and productive and usually satisfies the requirements of the depth of many conversations.  While that explanation is perfectly true and a big part of what I came here to do, my real life, day to day experience has been everything but that.  The ‘Youth Development’ program in Thailand started with my group and no one – volunteers, PC staff, Thai communities – knew what to expect (or what we were doing, really).  I’d like to be able to say that, two years in, we’ve figured it out and accomplished a lot along the way.  We've certainly accomplished things, but we're still figuring things out, and I'm still explaining to everyone along the way that I'm not here to teach English.  I’ve spent a lot of time convincing people why I have absolutely no business teaching English here (or anywhere).  My community is still not convinced, and I think they still wonder why I wouldn’t just sit in the classroom and teach English to every grade, every day of the week (I did that once and it was beyond exhausting).  My time here as been spent, in large part, hanging out in my community, having conversations with anyone willing to struggle through my language blunders, watching things happen and participating when I can.  I’ve spent my evenings at the local market with my host mom, selling fruit and listening to the local gossip and goings-on in the community, taking in what I could understand of the local dialect.  I’ve spent days at a school waiting to do afternoon activities with a group of kids that only sometimes happened.  I’ve exchanged American culture with Thai kids and vice versa.  I’ve fumbled through games with a group of kids who laugh at my accent and tease me in the local dialect.  I’ve had simple but meaningful conversations with someone who stopped me walking down the street to ask where I was going.  I’ve shared meals with too many people to count.  I’ve cooked brownies in a rice cooker and shared them with teachers who mixed them in with their rice and veggies because they were 'too sweet'.  I’ve struggled through conversations that were nothing but confusing and went absolutely nowhere.  I’ve taken pictures with countless Thai people around the country, both those I know well and a lot of total strangers.  I've spent time reveling in the simplicity of life here and enjoying my laid back, very flexible schedule.  I've experienced the entire spectrum of human emotion, sometimes on a daily basis.

The short version of why I joined PC is because I wanted to help people, travel and experience life in another culture, and my view of PC was that it provided these opportunities in the form of a very unique experience.  I came to provide help to people who wanted it, and to use the skills and experiences that I have to bring something special to a community of people who were open to what I had to offer.

Peace Corps is often an exercise in managing expectations, particularly when it comes to the ones we have about our service compared to the reality of what service really is all about.  We’re told to come into this experience with no expectations, but in reality we all have ideas and preconceived notions about at least some part of our service – what our community will be like, what we’re going to do, how people will view us, how we’ll respond in certain situations, what we will and won’t do (or eat), how we’ll grow and change, what we’ll do in our free time, and what we’ll accomplish.  The expectations we have, especially about what we’ll accomplish during our service, change many times throughout two years.  My expectations about my accomplishments at my site have fluctuated with almost the same frequency as my emotions throughout this experience, but so have my definitions of what I consider an accomplishment.

As I finished up my 2 years of service in this rural Thai community, I couldn't help but wonder if I’d really done anything.  The lofty goals I created when I first arrived at sight were still mostly unaccomplished when I left.  I don’t have much to present when it comes to tangible successes or results to show the effect of my work here, and without that it’s hard to tell people about what I’ve done without simply using the ambiguous, general description I provided earlier.  While the broad, overarching goal was to teach ‘life skills’ to kids in my community, the schedule of my daily life here has looked sparse and sometimes chaotic, without any real 'projects'. 

I'd never been too sure of my post-Peace Corps plans, and I assumed when I left 2 years ago that when I was finished with my 27 months of service I would return to Chicago and pick up where I left off.  A lot has changed since then - my perspective, my goals, my relationships, my whole life - and I've spent a lot of time thinking about what comes next.  Despite all the frustrations I've experienced in the last two years, I've gained and grown a lot from this service.  I speak a new language and am intimately familiar with a culture that is in every way foreign to everything I've ever known.  In an effort to use what I've learned and build on everything I've done in Thailand so far, I'm extending my service in Thailand for one more year.  I've moved to southern Thailand to do youth development projects at a youth detention center and a small school in a Muslim community.  I have two years of Thailand under my belt that includes language skills and an understanding of the culture that only comes with time.  I'm looking forward to using what I've gained in the last two years to work toward a productive and meaningful third year project.  

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Thanksgiving in Myanmar

Serving as a PCV in Thailand has many benefits, one of which is the opportunity for incredible vacations, both in country and in the surrounding region of Southeast Asia.  A few months ago, on little more than a whim, I found myself booking cheap airfare online for a trip to Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma that borders a great portion of Thailand’s western border.  I didn’t know much about the country other than the fact that it was politically unstable, used to be closed to the world and had some amazing places to visit.  I started doing a lot of reading on the country, the history, and all the amazing travel possibilities.  This trip is explained mostly through pictures...they can say much more than I could through words.  I took a lot (well over 1000) and tried to pick out some that are representative of the places I went.

Silk weaving
Temples in Bagan
Ancient pagodas. I'm in there somewhere too.
On a boat, Inle Lake
The waiting squat; waiting for the train
Boys on a bike wearing longgyi's, a garment that the majority of men in Myanmar wear instead of pants.  Even in places like Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, men wore these with their dress shirts to work.  After seeing them for a couple weeks, I really started to appreciate their simplicity and versatility, maybe just as much as men appreciate their comfort.
I started my trip with a couple days in and around Mandalay, continued to Bagan for a few days of biking through valleys of old temples, went to Inle Lake for a boat trip around a community on the water, saw some of the sights of Yangon and finished with a train ride to one of the most revered Buddhist sites in Myanmar, a 'golden rock' that is balanced on a mountain.  Myanmar is an interesting country in the midst of a democratic transition.  The people are curious and friendly, although seem to be somewhat jaded by tourism in the areas overrun by backpackers and package tour buses.  One man I met told me I must be poor because I had an iPhone 4.  If I come from the USA, the land of Apple, why did I have to settle for an out of date iPhone 4?  Obviously I was poor - a logical conclusion I suppose.  He had a good laugh at this, as did I.  Another man told me of his desire to save up enough money to move to Thailand to be a teacher.  My answers to the question of “where do you come from?” were met with enthusiastic responses like, “Obama!” or “America! Great country”.  My trip occurred shortly after Obama's visit to the country, so I’m not sure how much of this was common reaction and how much people had been stirred by his recent visit.

Horse buggy ride through the ancient city of Ava
Sunset on the U-Bein bridge, Amarapura
Looking out from the top of the Mandalay hill
Mandalay Marionettes 
Kids dressed up at the temple
Mahamuni Temple in Mandalay: a major Buddhist pilgrimage site.  Only men are allowed to enter and place gold flakes on the Buddha , women must sit outside and watch through doorways (seen above) or on video screens that are placed at various areas around the temple.  
Silk weaving
Handmade art for sale outside a temple
On top of a temple in Bagan
Sunset on a temple with too many other tourists, Bagan
Sunset over a field of temples in Bagan. Absolutely received a round of applause from all spectators
Sunrise in Bagan.  Just as incredible as the sunsets, if not more so
After enjoying the sunrise, complete with hot air balloons
Hot air balloons, sunrise in Bagan
Making/smoking local cigars
Selling art on top of a temple in Bagan
Fisherman at Inle Lake
Local market on Inle Lake
Rolling local cigarettes
Traveling around Inle Lake via boat
Burmese sweet tea and local snacks
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
Around Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset, Yangon
On the train outside of Yangon
Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, one of the most famous Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Myanmar.  The rock is said to be balanced on a hair from the Buddha that was given to a hermit and then enshrined in this boulder that was shaped like the hermit's head.  The name of the Pagoda (Kyaiktiyo) means 'pagoda upon a hermit's head'.
Looking up, wondering how that rock is still attached (ok maybe not, but that's sort of what I was doing)
Another view; you can see how little of the rock is actually touching the base
Making Buddha images
Old temple ruins in Ava

Friday, February 13, 2015

Meditation, mountains and elephants

It's been awhile since I've posted anything, and this is my effort to catch up.  The last few months have been full of travels and figuring out what comes next in my life, so here's some of that in a nutshell.

October in Thailand means a school break, and for PCV’s that often means vacation time.  I spent a couple weeks in northern Thailand for a meditation retreat, a day with an elephant, and a few days of hiking, caving, and relaxing in the mountains.

Thailand has no shortage of opportunities for the exploration of meditation practice and I, despite having no real experience with meditation, thought I’d take advantage of one of them.  Chiang Mai, the northern city where I started my trip, is surrounded by mountainous national parks, one of them located just a few kilometers outside of the tourist-filled city center.  On top of the closest mountain is a temple that receives a surprising number of visitors every day, both Thai and foreign. 
The long staircase leading to the temple at the top

This temple is also home to a meditation center which provides opportunities for the exploration of meditation for a period of anywhere from 4 to 30 days.  They provide basic lodging and food for people coming to practice meditation, with the fees being donation-based – you can provide a donation of an amount of your choosing at the end of your time there.  I chose the 4 day option, thinking that was a fair amount of time for an introduction to meditation and not so long that I wouldn’t be able to handle it.  Each day consisted of waking up for a Dhamma talk (teachings of the Buddha from a local monk) at 5:30, breakfast at 7, meditation from 8-11:30 until lunch, afternoon meditation from 12:30 until 6 with a brief individual check-in with the resident monk/teacher in the afternoon, evening chanting at 6pm followed by individual meditation until bedtime.  The experience was interesting and challenging.  I learned the basics of sitting and walking meditation and received some interesting advice and insights from the monk leading the daily teachings. 

After my brief introduction to meditation I was able to do something I've been waiting to do ever since I arrived in Thailand; spend time with elephants.  I spent a day at Patara Elephant Farm, which provides visitors with the opportunity to learn about and take care of an elephant for a day.  They have an amazing program of rescue, recovery and recuperation for elephants and people visiting their farm help take care of all the elephants.  I learned everything from how to approach them, how to tell if they’re in a good mood, how they sweat, how to feed them, and more about their poop than I’d ever wanted to know.  I spent the day with Boonpak, a big male elephant that was fantastic.  I fed him, brushed him, bathed him, and then went on a trek through the jungle on his head.  It was a fantastic day and one of the coolest things I’ve done. 
Feeding time
Checking for sweat on their toes
Scrubbing tusks

The last of my northern travels took me to Mae Hong Son, a beautifully mountainous province that runs along the western border of the north of Thailand.  I spent a few days hiking, kayaking, and being a spectator to a crazy 100km trail run that by chance was happening one of the days I was there in the surrounding area.

Mountains in Mae Hong Son
Mountain top sunrise on a sea of fog

Kayaking through a giant cave
The start/finish of the Ultramarathon happening while I was here

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Bridge on the River Kwai and my second half marathon

I recently made a trip to Kanchanaburi, a province in central Thailand that shares a western border with Myanmar, for some historical sightseeing and another half marathon.  Kanchanaburi is filled with historically significant places and sights from World War II - most notably the River Kwai Bridge and the Death Railway, along with Hellfire Pass, several museums, and a few war cemeteries. I was interested in seeing as much as I could in a short amount of time and looking forward to learning a few things.  I set out from Bangkok, along with two friends and fellow PCV's, and we took a train along 'Death Railway' well into Kanchanaburi.  This line was commissioned by the Japanese during WWII to create a land connection between Bangkok and Rangoon, Burma (Myanmar).  Using POW's for labor they were able to construct a complicated railway through the mountainous jungle that existed on their proposed path.  It earned the name 'Death Railway' from the significant number of POW's and local laborers that died while building it under extremely inhumane conditions (very little food, working through sickness and overall mistreatment while malnourished).  The line ran through Kanchanaburi into Burma (Myanmar) and was used briefly during the war until it was eventually destroyed and torn up in large segments.  The remaining track was eventually taken over by the Thai Railway Authority and this is the section that's still in use today, used by a few locals and many, many tourists.
Headed out from Bangkok
Crossing the infamous River Kwai Bridge
Scenery from the train: can you spot the Buddha head?
Just before the river Kwai bridge the previously near-empty train got pretty crowded, with people feeling more than free to roam about wherever they pleased
A train stop no longer in use; it actually leads to a small, but often visited, waterfall 
During my time in Kanchanaburi I was also able to visit several historical sites and museums dedicated to WWII.  My first stop was the Hellfire Pass Memorial, located just down the road from the site of the impending half marathon.  It's a very moving and informative memorial that includes an audio-guided tour along part of the Death Railway that's no longer in use, with commentary from some of the POW's that lived through the experience.  Hellfire pass is a particular location along the Death Railway where POW's had to dig through a mountain by hand to create a route for the railway.  During the latter part of the railway construction they were forced to work through the night, and the scene, in the middle of the night, was said to look like hell.  It was an interesting experience to walk along the old railway, see remnants of the construction and World War II and hear personal accounts of experiences at that time.
Hellfire Pass
Another view: all of this used to be solid rock and was cleared by hand by POW's during the war
From the top: looking down on the path cut through the rock
Remnants of the railway
View from the railway, looking out toward locations of old POW camps
Relative size: can you find me?
Further along the track: several kilometers of the old railway track are open to walk as part of the museum/memorial
I was also able to visit several other historical sites and landmarks related to World War II and the events that occurred in this area during that time, including the infamous 'River Kwai Bridge', still functioning as part of the railway and also open for people to walk across.

JEATH  (Japan, England, Australia/America, Thailand, Holland) War Museum

On the bridge

Sunset on the bridge
Along with several other PCVs, I went to participate in the River Kwai International Half Marathon, held next to a branch of the Kwai river on a road with enough curves and hills to keep it interesting.  It was an out and back course, more uphill on the way out with more downhill on the way back.  I felt great and finished more than 15 minutes faster than my first half marathon, 10 minutes under my goal time.

Very warm welcome: all runner to participate in a challenge
Post-race (and shower) with the ladies running the guest house I stayed at
One of the highly-visited, and also highly-controversial, sites in Kanchanaburi is the Tiger Temple.  Tourists can pay 600 Baht (about $20) to enter the temple and take photos with tigers - real ones.  The temple also offers several (more expensive) options for temple activities, such as feeding tiger cubs or watching morning and/or evening feedings and daily tiger routines.  The decision of whether or not to go was one that I considered quite a bit before this trip, for reasons that have to do with the fact that a bunch of tigers are being held at a temple to be used for tourist photo ops.  I'd done some looking online, reading a few stories about how the tigers are drugged or mistreated in order to get them to act docile enough for people to touch them and take photographs with them.  After reading many mixed reviews/opinions and a lot of my own consideration, I joined a few friends and decided to go to the temple to see for myself.  The first 20 minutes were sort of exciting (tigers!) but mostly depressing (they're all chained up on really short chains).  People walked around and took photos with the tiger of their choice, while temple staff watched closely (at least 2 people per tiger) and were quick to reprimand anyone acting in a way not appropriate for being around a bunch of tigers.  A short time later everyone was instructed to move to a sheltered area as they prepared for moving the tigers and, of course, another photo opportunity for us.  Before I knew it I was in a line of people, waiting my turn to get a picture of me leading a tiger with a monk on the other side.  Everyone got their turn as we waited in another area of the temple for all the tigers to be brought down to another area.  During this time we received a lot of information about the temple and how the tigers are treated just fine, including an explanation that they're basically just huge cats, and they're nocturnal, so in the middle of the day after they've just eaten, of course they're going to be docile.

Man and beast
Me, leading a tiger
Spoon feeding a giant cat
One of the many photos
And another
I've still got mixed reviews about this place after a visit - of course it was awesome to see a tiger so close, and to touch them, but the thought of them doing that day after day with a whole bunch of tourists who just want some really cool pictures?  It just makes me wonder how good this place really is, especially for the tigers.

Kanchanaburi is home to several National Parks and I had brought my tent along with the intention of visiting one or two while I was there.  I did just that, and I was able to see a lot of the province's beautifully mountainous scenery and enjoy some quality time outdoors.  The pictures below show this, along with a few other sights I visited:

Camping near a reservoir 
Giant Mon (a Thai hilltribe) bridge, currently under construction
Walking on a bunch of bamboo: the working bridge (you can see part of the other one off to the right)

Erawan waterfall: 1 of 7 levels
At the top: last level waterfall 
3 pagodas pass: at the border of Burma (Myanmar)
Relatively new Peace Temple at the border of Thailand/Burma.  You can see part of the old 'Death Railway' bottom left