Wednesday, January 29, 2014

BTF, Phu Kradung and the one year mark

January has somehow flown by as I’ve now passed the one year mark of arriving in Thailand.  This month has included one of the most memorable activities I’ve participated in so far during my Peace Corps service – a BTF camp.  BTF (Brighter Thailand Foundation) is a non-profit organization based out of the University of Missouri that supports leadership camps for youth in Thailand.  The six day camp includes local University students, global ambassadors (such as PC volunteers and in the case of this camp, a few University students from Korea), and local high school and primary school students.  They’ve done several camps throughout Thailand, and this one was held in Nong Khai, the northernmost province in northeast Thailand.  The first few days serve as a ‘train the trainer’ model of working with 15 high school students on various games and activities, preparing them to facilitate camp activities for the primary school students who arrive on the 4th day of the camp.  Each day includes activities, songs, and games that run all day and through the evening.  Evenings provided opportunities for many games of mafia and a few open question/answer sessions for the campers to get to know the University students and global ambassadors.  The students were great, each day was full of smiles and laughs and by the end of the week none of the kids wanted to leave (I didn’t really, either).  It was a great experience for all and I was really happy to be a part of it.

Group work: 5 most important things in life

Human knot 

Act it out: each person acts out a word for the next person with no words; the person at the end has to try to guess the original word - usually wound up in laughs 

Primary school campers arrive!

Blindfold obstacle course: practicing directions in English

Campfire night


Who can make the longest line?

Team Free Style 

Capture the flag

Jumping pictures: always a must 

Global Ambassadors and High School students 

Me with a few of the campers

Korean University students 

Last day goodbyes

Last weekend I took a couple buses a couple hours away to climb a mountain and go camping.  Four of us (a fellow PCV friend, his sister and her fiancĂ©e) hiked up the winding paths and after about 4 hours, reached the top where we walked almost another hour to the campsite.  After setting up my newly purchased mini-tent for myself we all set out for another 9k hike to see some cliffs and the sunset.  A long walk and a few short runs later, we made it to the sunset cliff just after sunset, but just in time to see the beautiful view against the evening glow.  After a brief rest, many pictures and a few snacks, we headed out for another 9k hike back to the campsite.  Being at the top of a mountain during cold season proved to be pretty cold, though I’m trying to appreciate the chill as I know the sweaty days of hot season are creeping closer.  The next day we packed up and headed back down the mountain and back to site. 

Phu Kradung Conqueror: at the top

Made it to the sunset cliff just after sunset

Sunset cliff 

View from the top


Thursday, January 9, 2014

Tisues in Thailand

It's hard to keep track of seasons and time of year when you live in a climate where the seasons are jokingly referred to as hot, hotter, and hottest.  When December and 'holiday season' rolled around, it was hard to think about Christmas time, baking cookies, shopping, trees, lights, and everything else that goes with the holiday season when I could still walk around in a t-shirt during the day and had no visual signs of Christmas anywhere.  Being primarily a Buddhist country, Thailand doesn't celebrate Christmas as a major holiday.  The only reminders of the holiday season were in Bangkok, where Christmas displays showed up in all the shopping areas and holiday music played strangely in the background (I found it strangely annoying for some reason - maybe because I wasn't home? because it just didn't belong? because most of those songs are just inherently annoying?).  I didn't mind being so separated from all the holiday stuff, surprisingly, and I was also looking forward to a visit from my family during Christmas time. 

After being in Thailand for almost a year, I forgot just how much I've learned, adjusted, and adapted to everything here.  My family arrived and I kept finding so many things to tell them about regarding culture, language, and every day nuances of my life here.  We spent their first day in Bangkok - visited a couple temples, ate some street food and my family tried to deal with the exhaustion that comes after flying for a full day and now being 13 hours ahead of the time zone they're used to.

All of us at Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok 

Like the locals: dabbling in the smelling oils for a mid-morning boost - a must-have for many Thais (I think I got these two hooked, as my sister subsequently bought several more for 'gifts' to take back home)

After a full night of rest we headed to my site.  I'd already told my family about the hospitality and generosity of Thai people and all the things they'd do for us/with us during their visit, although I think they had no idea what to really expect. Their first impression of my site was a visit to the local area sports competition between government organizations (such as my office, the local health stations, and other government offices in my area).  It was an hour full of food, soccer, drinking, dancers, and the overall over-stimulation that comes with so many things in Thailand - in general, a great first experience and introduction to my life and community.

Lunch at the sports competition while the game goes on, largely unnoticed beside us

One of my favorite people in my community, my first host mom, had invited my family for breakfast on Christmas morning.  She came and picked us all up, took us back to her house and offered us a meal full of all my favorite things and then some.  When I asked if she was going to join us to eat, her response was that she was too happy and excited to sit and eat.  After breakfast we walked with her through the orchards in her backyard as she talked about how much she enjoys working (she's a retired government officer but sells fruit at the markets every evening) and gathered some rose apples and pomelo to send home with us.

Post-breakfast blessings 

Discussing fruits and labor with a walk through the orchards

The rest of the time at my site was full of meeting people, visiting schools, dabbling in some of the local sports and eating non-stop.  My supervisor and his family prepared an amazing Thai meal for us on Christmas Eve, determined to make our holidays away from home warm and enjoyable.  We enjoyed some local beer and a fantastic home-cooked Thai meal outside under the stars at his nephew's outdoor cafe.

Thai Christmas Eve Dinner

Christmas dinner was a mix of America and Thailand.  My current host family had been convinced that we should eat pizza and french fries and had invited us out to the local pizza place 30km away.  I explained my family's desire for Thai food and suggested neua yang (literally - grilled meat), a meal often reserved for special occasions and 2 hour lunches.  Determined to give us a taste of home, we had an appetizer of french fries before dinner.  My family had brought me a suitcase full of treats and things from America, one of which was ranch dressing mix.  Reminded of my love of ranch dressing with french fries (with most things, really), I mixed some up for everyone to try, and consequently got my host family hooked on it at first taste.  Of all the things I've made for them/introduced them to, this one received the best review by far.

Christmas Dinner: grilled meat and french fries 

Our visits to the schools were short but fun and included games, sports and some surprise songs by the kids that had been prepared for us in advance (one of my favorites: an original, mostly improvised despite being practiced several times, 'merry christmas' song by a class of 1st graders).

The message that came with the Christmas song

Petanque (like bocce ball) with the kids

It was great to finally show my family the community and people I've gotten to know during the past year.  I was able to appreciate how far I've come, despite my own critical views of my lack of perceived progress at site.  I realized just how much my Thai language skills have progressed as I translated everything from Thai to English and then back again, which was great but exhausting.  The experiences shared between my family and the people throughout my community were pretty amazing, and seeing them interact with each other was something for which I had a special appreciation. It's easy to doubt my success and question my impact on a daily basis when nothing really seems like it's happening; but with my family's visit I was able to see the connections made and slow but definitive progress made in more areas than just my designated project assignment.

After my site we headed south, at which time I greatly appreciated the pampering of a short airplane flight (all the free things!) as opposed to many long hours on a bus next to a stranger that will inevitably spend the better part of the ride asleep on me.  Phuket is Thailand's biggest island, and I'm not really sure it can be considered an 'island'.  We drove over an hour from the airport to our hotel, through a maze of busy Thai communities alongside many, many minivans and buses full of farangs.  We spent a day on the beach - the water was beautiful and the perfect temperature.  We also spent a day on a guided tour of a few neighboring islands via speed boat. The islands were beautiful, the snorkeling we did was absolutely incredible, and we ended the day at the island where "The Beach" was filmed, along with too many other tourists and their accompanying tour boats.  It really was beautiful and makes me anxious to explore the many islands in the south.  The 'speed boat' ride was no joke: my sister and I ended up sitting at the very back of the boat, the prime spot for getting mauled in the face with salt water every 10-15 seconds.  Luckily we were able to make good use of our snorkeling equipment and used it to block the non-stop barrages of water from our eyes.

Hazy view from the top of Phuket


Thai style: me and my siblings 

With my parents at Maya Bay

No filter - it really looks like this

It was great to be able to do so much with my family in a short amount of time, and I think we were all able to take some things away from the trip. It was amazing to me to see how my community made such an attempt to make Christmas special for me and my family in so many different ways.  Despite being a very non-traditional celebration, I think it was rather enjoyable for everyone involved and I was happy to be able to celebrate Christmas, in a very Thai way, with my family.