First, my apologies for not sending an update from Thailand in a few weeks. Should I start with the good stuff or the bad stuff? Maybe I will rotate between good and bad (alternate hot and cool, Arrested Development, anyone? Anyone?)
Yes, I actually was able to celebrate Thanksgiving. Peace Corps held a very nice, and kind of elegant celebration for all volunteers. It was held at this very posh condo right next door to the Peace Corps office in Bangkok.
Our administrative officer lives there so he arranged the whole dinner. It was catered of course as there were over 100 people in attendance. There was turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, salad, sweet potatoes, and pecan and pumpkin pies. There was also Thai food, salad and a few other random selections. The food was good, but it didn't taste the same... there was something very Thai about it all, but it filled the void. It was nice to be around all the staff and volunteers during the holiday.
Our Thanksgiving celebration was held in Bangkok this past weekend. I am sure most of you have heard of all the craziness with the demonstrators. The airports are still closed. The prime minister of Thailand declared a State of Emergency in order to reopen the airports. The Thai Army was suppose to go in and clear the airport of the protesters, but because the Thai Army sympathizes with the PAD protesters, the protesters at the airport, they didn't clear them from the airport, but brought them water. So the international airport in BKK is still closed. Apparently there was a bomb that went off in an airport terminal yesterday. Ugh, My parents are suppose to arrive on December 19 so I hope this all gets cleared up before then!
October I held my first youth camp her at site. It was a success. The youth here all know about HIV/AIDS and how to correctly use a condom. We also did an immune system dance for them. It's complicated to explain, but the highlight of the dance was when my friend Cameron had to dance with a shower cap on pretending it was a condom. The kids had so much fun watching us dance to Flo'rida's Apple Bottom Jeans song. We turned it into a dance party after we were finished. Also, we taught all the kids how to do the wave. Now if that's not a cultural exchange, I don't know what is!
In Thailand, boys are kept separated from girls. At least this is what I thought upon first visiting the schools. Each classroom is divided into half: boys are on one side and girls on the other…
Every classroom in every school in all of Thailand, this is the standard. That’s just the way it’s done here apparently.
It’s not just in the classrooms either. It’s also at lunch, on the playground, after school, in their free time, everywhere! The girls and boys don’t mix.
Determined to figure out why the students were divided like this, I asked a couple of the teachers. I was told this was the way it’s always been done. In Thailand, it’s not appropriate for boys and girls to sit together.
After hearing this, I realized, come to think of it, I haven’t seen men and women sitting together either.
All the parties I have been to, all the meetings and even the funerals, men and women are always separate from each other. I also noticed that men don’t really spend much time with their wives.
An interesting side effect of this division of the sexes is that boys and girls are much more friendly with the same sex.
It is not uncommon to see boys holding hands with boys, girls laying in other girls’ laps, men putting their hands on other men’s legs, women rubbing each other. This doesn’t mean that they are homosexuals. It just means that they are friends.
Whenever I sit next to a Thai man, he typically puts his hand in my lap. Normally, I would be quite uncomfortable. Wait… I am still uncomfortable with this. However, a man’s hand in my lap apparently means that he is my friend and nothing else. Who cares if his hand might be on my upper inner thigh, we’re friends!
Community members often ask me why I am able to speak Thai so well. Hearing a foreigner speak Thai is very unfamiliar to their dark brown eyes. Usually, I just inform them that I studied the language here in Thailand. What I don’t usually tell them is just what kind of studying Peace Corps put us through to get there.
Our language training consisted of four hours a day, six days a week, with a Peace Corps trained Language Integrator and Facilitator (LIF) who taught in Thai to only four of us volunteers. Extremely concentrated! Also, we lived with Thai families who only spoke Thai. We had no choice but to use the language and it eventually clicked into place, somewhat.
This was the Navy Seals boot camp of language training. At on point, my brain went to overload, my eyes rolled into the back of my head and steam came out my ears. But eventually, our lessons made more sense. We busted our asses to speak this language and it has paid off.
In my previous blog entry, I mentioned that everyone in my community wants to learn English. This is totally understandable from their point of view. Again, however, I am not here to teach English. I was brought here for community development. There are plenty of other organizations that are in this country for that sole purpose. I don’t of course have a problem with the villagers wanting to learn the language, but often they aren’t willing to put forth the effort to learn English. It’s really frustrating to think that they expect me to be able to teach them an extremely challenging language an hour a day, one day per week and to not do any outside practice. That’s not how learning works.
As a community entry tool, I taught a few English lessons to some individuals that requested me to teach. When it came down to actually learning, I found the locals didn't take it seriously and they really just wanted to hang out with me. If they wanted to hang out with me, I would have loved to have just gone to their house and eaten fruit. But I had prepared lessons based on what they wanted to learn and I even made teaching materials. It was so disappointing when my students showed up 10 minutes late and then told me that English was too hard. But I learned a great lesson. If someone here wants to learn the language, I let him or her come to me and ask me questions before I spend further time preparing lessons. Sometimes I really feel if the villagers are under the impression that the volunteers here can work miracles... (click 'continue reading' for two more photos from Stoney)
When I was invited to Peace Corps Thailand, I was assigned to a relatively new project called Community Based Organizational Development (CBOD).
About 1/3 of the volunteers in my group are CBOD volunteers and the other 2/3 is Teacher Collaboration and Community Outreach (TCCO). The CBOD project is a very neat project because it gives the volunteers the freedom to work with whatever aspects of the community they choose to work with. We have the freedom to work with youth, adults, women’s groups, men’s groups, agriculture, businesses, health, etc.
Right now, after about 6 months at site and 3 months of training, I am getting to know my community and understanding just what exactly takes place here and how I can contribute.
A typical day for me consists of me going to the Sub-district Administrative Organization (SAO) office to check email and do various admin things. Then, I go out in to the community and visit with different women’s groups, the health station, farmers, etc.
But because I am a foreigner living here, people in the community assume that I am here to teach English. However, that’s the last thing I want to do. Actually trying to explain the concept that my presence here is for community development and not to teach English, is quite a challenge. My conversations usually go something like this: (continues)
Welcome to mushroom season! Mushrooms have flooded my local market and all street corners. The past weeks of non-stop rain combined with record setting heat indexes has caused the local forests here in SE Asia to mold over - but with delicious varieties of mold. These mushrooms look like some wacky oversized mushroom in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory. They might not taste like candy, but they definitely melt in your mouth. I never knew mushrooms could taste so good.
I have yet to figure out what types of mushrooms are literally popping out of the ground all over my community, but there are two main types. The other day I was invited to go out on a mushroom hunt. One would think the act of mushroom hunting would be easy, turns out… it is.
However, I was given a 60-minute lesson in how to pick mushrooms (snooze alert). I’ll save everyone 45 minutes of their life and not fill you in the details on the technicalities and specifics of mushroom hunting. It’s exactly what you would picture, but with bunches and bunches of Thai men and women running around a forest with plastic bags collecting mushrooms like Easter eggs.
I was kind of afraid that someone might slide tackle me for dibbs on a particular mushroom cluster. At one point, I felt some dirty looks shot my way. Mushroom season is quite the event around here. These mushrooms can’t be harvested like other mushrooms. They can only be grown in the wild. 100% organic… organic in the real sense of the word and the taste proves it. A half a kilogram bag of these mushrooms will set you back 400 baht, or $11.7, £6.5 or €8.1. For Thai produce, this is very expensive. I can buy a kilogram of tomatoes or onions or cucumbers for 20 baht. Now you see why Thai people are more excited about a mushroom hunt than children on an Easter Sunday.
Ok, it wasn't 50 feet, or 15.24 meters in Thai measurement, but it was huge! It might as well have been that big from the reaction that it generated from me.
Saturdays and Sundays are my free time in the Peace Corps so I generally go for a long bike ride, exploring the area around my village. The rainy season is here and it's not like a monsoon, which I was under the impression it was. The rains are usually sporadic throughout the whole day. Sometimes it storms and some times it just sprinkles. The majority of the time it just threatens to look like a nasty rainfall, but in fact, nothing happens at all.
This past Saturday, it rained all morning. I wasn't in any rush to get out for my bike ride because I was sleeping in for once and it was quite perfect. Once the rain finally did stop, I got on my bike and headed out.
While I was riding through the forest, I saw a couple of small green snakes kind of slithering about. I acted as if they weren’t there at all for fear they might attack me or slither on to my leg and constrict the circulation from the rest of my body and then, I would have to amputate my leg. So, I just kept on biking.
I am not necessarily afraid of snakes, I just don’t want to be attacked by one in the middle of a forest while in the middle of Thailand, in the middle of nowhere. I don’t want to go out like that, ok? (continues)
Did you ever see the movie Romancing the Stone with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas? It’s this great 1984 classic treasure hunt movie set in the rainforest of Colombia. There is a scene in the movie where Joan Wilder, played by Turner, get’s on a bus to travel to collect her sister. However - she gets on the wrong bus and ends up deep in the rainforest. The bus I rode the other day, was exactly like the bus from the movie!
Normally, the buses I ride are rather comfortable and air-conditioned, but not this time. This bus crawled out from the bus graveyard for one last hoorah around Thailand. Let me go back a little bit...
A couple of weekends ago I wanted to go to a neighboring province to see my friend. It’s about a 3-hour trip on a normal highway. When I got to the bus station, my home-stay mother helped me buy my ticket because she decided that I couldn’t do it myself. I could have objected and done it myself, but every now and again, it’s nice to have someone familiar help me out. So I let her arrange my ticket purchase and I handed her 87 baht, which at the time I thought was especially cheap, but I didn’t think too much about it.
We waited for the bus to arrive. Typical of Thai schedules, it arrived 20 minutes late. In the interim, my home-stay mother and I discussed the weather and my plans for the weekend. That’s about as far as my Thai could take me, but there wasn't time to get awkward waiting in silence because my bus pulled up. When I found out that the bus that just entered the station was the bus that I would be riding for the next three hours, my mouth dropped...(continues)
Dogs in Thailand are anything but nice. I might even classify them as wild animals if it weren’t for the shelter and care that some Thai people invest in them. When I left the States to move here for 27 months, I left behind one of my most favorite things, my Border Collie, Kate. Peace Corps told us that numerous volunteers adopt pets while serving in Thailand. And upon discovering this, I immediately knew, for my sanity’s sake, I would have to adopt a dog. Luckily for me, the house that I rent came with a dog. His name is Naam Choke.
Naam Choke isn’t anything out of the ordinary by American standards, but by Thai standards, he is freaking Lassie. He is actually socialized and friendly. He isn’t aggressive or dominate like most other dogs that roam this community. The dogs and cats in Thailand are all intact and Buddhists don’t believe in euthanizing stray animals, therefore, animals rule the streets.
There are few times that I can ride by bike without being threatened by an overly aggressive, territorial dog. I have in fact come up with a couple tactics to scare the dogs away. These tactics include screaming at the top of my lungs, riding my bike at lightening speeds, flailing my arms and legs like I am going mad or finding a 90 year old woman to give them a dirty look. (Note: the latter tactic works the best.)
Naam Choke is an amazing dog. I started taking Naam Choke with me on my runs as protection from the other dogs. In the beginning, it was a smart idea because he warded off the stray dogs. The first time we went running together, Naam Choke killed a snake that crossed our path. He was so brave and he instinctively protected me from the snake. I was so impressed and happy, that I decided to bring him on all my runs. (story continues)
The Thai culture might in fact be the polar opposite to American culture, or possibly even to all Western cultures. But since I am American, I can only speak from what I have seen. Direct communication, multi-tasking, paying attention to time… these are all daily functions that I run my life by, however, when in Thailand, none of these functions exist.
The other day, I looked at my watch while working in the office and my Thai counterpart told me that I was being too serious. “Stoney” he said, “you’re too serious. Just relax”. Excuse me? How does looking at my watch mean that I am being serious? It was a just a curious glance, but apparently, this was an insult and I am too serious.
However, when its getting close to lunch time it’s perfectly acceptable to glance at one's watch because as with most Asian cultures, the day is run by meal times. Turn on the rice cooker - if it wasn’t already started at 5:30 am or you have possibly eaten all the rice from breakfast - warm up the veggie oil and finish all your morning work, because it’s time for an hour and half to two hour lunch break. You can be late for work, but late for lunch is just unheard of. So I have learned to just go with it. (Stoney's story continues at the link...)
Stoney Schaffer is spending the next two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in South East Asia. These are extracts from his letters back home that he's been kind enough to share here with 2DO.
Here are some interesting facts that I must share.
Crazy things I have eaten here: Rat (super spicy and horrible) Pig head (chewy) Pig feet (Why am I eating this?) Pig intestine (Did I really eat that?) Pig Liver (Liver is disgusting!) Pig colon (Thai people love pork) Chicken feet (I though it was just fried pieces 'til I found a toe) Rotten fish (How did this ever get in my mouth?) Fried and raw ant eggs (Its a big sack of small eggs. Fried...ok, raw...never again)
New fruits: Durian (smells and tastes like poo and onions, not lying) Jack Fruit (giant tumors on trees) Guava (Thai word for this also means foreigner, so I get called guava a lot) Mangosteen (New favorite...cross between a plum and a grape) Passion Fruit (amazing) Logan (tough skin) Pomelo (giant orange that is like a sweet grapefruit, it's really big) Rambutan (looks like a sea creature) Rose Apple (can leave them in Thailand)
Ailments/injuries: Chronic diarrhea 2x (one time I had to give a sample, horrible experience) 60 mosquito/flea bites on one foot (there will be scars) dog bite (Had a shot for it) mosquito stuck in my eye lid (2 hours to get out) food poisoning (36 hours)