Tag Archives: Thailand

My first week in Chiang Mai

After about 36 hours of travel, I touched down in Chiang Mai. After months of preparation, it was incredibly surreal to actually be in the city. I was definitely a bit nervous when I arrived, but after a weekend of adventuring around the city, catching up on sleep, and getting to know the other volunteers, I began to feel right at home. I began on Monday with an orientation with Wad, the executive director of Cultural Canvas Thailand (CCT), and a few other new volunteers. We went to a cute coffee shop and drank Thai tea while he welcomed us to the country and discussed the program and our accommodations. He also talked about the incredible things to do in Chiang Mai and Thailand, which got me very excited for all the exploring ahead!

My placement with Urban Light begins today (or tomorrow, depending on where in the world you’re reading this), so in the meantime, I’ve been volunteering with CCT’s organization, Art Relief International (ARI). CCT/ARI partners with organizations and schools all around Chiang Mai to provide art workshops and activities. The purpose of each workshop depends on the needs of the recipient. CCT/ARI truly covers a huge spectrum, doing everything from creative English lessons with young temple school students to music/art therapy projects with adults with disabilities. You can read more about their programs on their blog.

After a brief orientation on Tuesday, the new ARI volunteers and myself jumped right into assisting the other volunteers with their workshops. On Wednesday, we made paper plate jellyfish at Hope Home, an orphanage for children with disabilities. I paired up with a boy who has cerebral palsy who generally only has motor control over his feet. He was very sweet and had a great sense of humor. We had a lot of fun as he painted his jellyfish (and occasionally some of the other children!) with his toes. On Thursday, we went to a temple school, Baan King Kaew, where the students made popsicle stick puppets with us until their parents picked them up. Each student chose from a list of ten jobs (doctor, dancer, police officer, etc.) to base their puppet on, and then had to write the English word for it on the stick. They seemed to enjoy the activity, but the language barrier definitely made it challenging to communicate. On Friday, we went to another temple school, Wat Pa Pao, and had the students create an island scene using English vocabulary. In the afternoon, we did an art project at Healing Families, an organization that provides a space for adults with disabilities to learn, grow, and have fun. They’re also a social enterprise, weaving clothing to sell to support the organization! For our art project, we each painted a piece of a larger portrait to put together at the end for a full picture. The people were very kind and affectionate, and had a lot of fun designing their own piece of the puzzle.

Volunteering with ARI for the week was a great introduction to Chiang Mai and the wonderful work taking place here. Some other interesting lessons of the past week included:

  • The language. I knew Thai was a tonal language, but didn’t know exactly what that meant until my first Thai lesson. Essentially, the inflection you use when pronouncing a word (medium, high, low, rising, or falling) changes the meaning of the word completely and IT IS SO HARD. There was about two seconds at the beginning of the lesson, when our teacher had us sing “doh re mi” to find the medium tone, that I thought “oh! Tonal is like singing! I can sing! I’m gonna be fine.” NOPE. I was terrible. It is so hard to hear the pitches. Literally, you can say the same word, but the different tones change the meaning entirely. For example, the Thai word glai with a medium tone means far, and glai with a falling tone means near. One tonal mistake could lead to a substantial miscommunication!
  • The wai. This is how Thais respectfully greet or thank each other in Thailand. To wai, put your hands together in a sort of “prayer” position, and bow your head. The angle that you bow and the placement of your hands (forehead, nose, chin, or chest) varies depending on who you are greeting. The highest level of respect is shown to the Buddhist monks.
  • Which side of the road? In Thailand, they drive on the left side of the road, which has been quite an adjustment for me!
  • Pricing. The US dollar is strong in Thailand, so compared to American prices, things are really cheap. However, I’ve already started “thinking like a Thai person” and bargained for lower prices or decided against purchasing something because it cost 100 baht (the equivalent of about $3).

All in all, it’s been an amazing first week in Chiang Mai. I am so excited to spend the next six months here, absorbing the Thai culture. In addition to all the learning, I’ve gotten a Thai massage (it was actually rather painful... they do not hold back!), pet a tiger, ziplined through the jungle, shopped at the night bazaar, got sick from eating raw vegetables, got sick from riding in a car up the winding mountain, got sick from riding in a van through the winding city streets, talked with a Buddhist monk, finally saw Wonder Woman in the cinema (with Thai subtitles), went to church on the back of my friend’s motorbike, visited some amazing temples (including Wat Phra That, the temple at the peak of Doi Suthep mountain. My Thai teacher said if you haven’t visited Wat Phra That, you haven’t been to Chiang Mai! We went at sunrise, and it was absolutely stunning.), bought a Thai cell phone, made friends from all over the world, ate several kinds of incredible Thai food that I’m still learning to call by the correct name, used the “hot water machine” in our volunteer house to shower, and lived without air conditioning in a very hot and humid climate. I am loving it here and can’t wait to begin my work at Urban Light today. I’ll check back soon! Kawp koon ka (thank you) for reading!

Getting ready to go!

Let’s do this thing!

สวัสดี ค่ะ! <— That, pronounced Sa-wat-dee ka, means hello (and goodbye!) in Thai. Sa-wat-dee is the actual greeting, and ka is the suffix attached to indicate gender. Females use ka whereas males use krab. Additionally, Thai, as one of the oldest Easter Asian languages, is monosyllabic and tonal. The entire meaning of a word is different based on which tone – high, mid, low, rising, or falling – you use. And all of this comes into play when just giving a greeting! It’s clear just from scratching the surface that the Thai language is unique, complex, and is going to be a challenge to use, but I’m looking forward to learning.

Saying hello is just one of the many things I’ve learned as I’ve prepared for my journey abroad. Other tidbits: you can contract very scary-sounding diseases like chikungunya and Japanese encephalitis from contact with mosquitos; you have to mail your actual passport across the country to apply for a visa; and I can, in fact, squeeze all of my possessions into a four-door sedan (I recently made the drive from Nashville to Albuquerque).

To catch you all up to speed, I depart on Wednesday, June 28th (in just 8 days!) to Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I will be working with Urban Light, an organization that provides life-changing services to young male victims of human trafficking and exploitation in the region. I will be serving as the full-time Education, Advocacy, and Social Marketing intern. As such, I will be assisting the organization with services and advocacy by teaching English and conducting life skills workshops, managing and maintaining UL’s social media accounts, fundraising, and helping case managers.

The last six months have been filled with tons of general life transition. In December, shortly after I received the Lumos Award, I graduated from Belmont University with a BA in Social Entrepreneurship. In January, I began working full-time in communications at Social Enterprise Alliance, an organization that seeks to equip and empower social enterprises across the United States. And last week, my life in Nashville came to a close (for now!) as I said goodbye to my home, my dear friends, my church, my beloved Chagos, and my team of girl bosses. My dad and I packed up my car and drove across the country to my hometown of Albuquerque, NM, where I’ll be until I leave.

On the preparation front, I’ve booked my flights, downloaded Memrise’s Thai course, volunteered in an ESL classroom, bought way too much travel gear on Amazon (like, do I need six packets of oral rehydration salts? Stay tuned to find out, I guess!), and started reading books like “Working at the Bar: Sex Work and Health Communication in Thailand.” I’ve gotten all the necessary vaccinations, navigated the process for my volunteer visa, ordered foreign currency (the Thai baht) and photos of friends and family, learned how to avoid mosquitos, and stocked up on contact lenses. In short, I am ready to do this thing!

2017 has been completely crazy so far, and it’s about to get even wilder! But through all the uncertainty and insecurity that comes with transitioning into “the real world,” thinking about this journey has always made me feel more like myself than I’ve felt in awhile. I’m sure I’ll have moments of fear and thoughts of what the heck made me think I could do this, but at this point, I feel nothing but excitement and joy. I cannot wait to learn and grow, make new friends, haul my camera and ukulele across the world, serve an amazing cause and organization, focus on my life’s purpose, and learn what it means to truly depend on my faith. I’m even looking forward to the hard stuff: fumbling my way through conversations in Thai, times of loneliness and solitude, and dealing with situations that put my strength to the test.

I can hardly believe it. I’ve been working towards this adventure my entire life, and now I’m actually here, standing on the edge of the unknown, about to dive in.

Stay tuned!

How To Say Goodbye…

I have learned so much in the process of being here in Thailand in ways that I still cannot count.

I have thought of how to say a nice, wrapped-in-a-bow version of goodbye to this place, but I do not think I can do it. This week at school, it was extremely hard to say goodbye to my students. They all gave me cards with sweet “I love you” and other versions of adoration and praise. In many ways, that is enough to return home with and feel accomplished. My coordinator gave me a sweet certificate that listed creativity and enthusiasm as reasons for why I was appreciated at the school. Okay, so maybe the alphabet and telling time is not rocket science or the arguments about abstraction that I am more accustomed to, but these were the building blocks that I had long forgotten.

In addition, I have gained so many new friends in so many cultures and from so many different traditions. My closest friends at the center range from England, France, Thailand, Germany, and the Netherlands. I have grown a much deeper appreciation for simple language because that is the language that we use to communicate. Before I left home, I leaned much more to sophistication only because that was the main part of my environment.

I have also lost many things as well. I have lost my fear of traveling alone. I have lost my guarded sensibilities about what composure means. I am happier with abstract notions of structure instead of the rigidity of my overanalyzed plans for the future. I can approach the world as it comes with a much happier, less stressed perspective.

I cannot say thank you enough. This trip was a gift and an a priceless opportunity. I am so grateful for every person that has helped me get to this point in my life. I am so grateful for every person that taught me a new piece to the puzzle of Thai culture. In terms of generosity, I have never seen so many totally random, different people come to the aid of a clueless foreigner more than what I have been a part of for the past 3 months. I will miss Thailand. I still do not think I know enough about the Thai culture, but I want to come back one day.

So long Thailand... I came here to make a difference in this world and walked away also being taught.

Muay Thai and more Friends…

This week in school was an interesting turning point. With the discovery that the children cannot read, Nikki, Gregg, and I revamped our teaching plan. We decided that we would start teaching them to read. We began incorporating vowels with new vocabulary and exercises this week. One of these new exercises was a alphabet decoding scavenger hunt at the end of the week with grade 3. Despite the fact that not all of them are grasping the concept, many are beginning to attempt sounding out words. I am happy that we have had a change of pace in the classrooms.

In grade 1, we began teaching the class with the help of the Tuk. Tuk is their usual teacher. She is quite a sweet lady. Tuk has been staying in the classroom to help us manage and translate. I absolutely appreciate everything that she is doing to help us. A few days ago, she had a chart on the board with body parts in Thai. Improvising our lesson plan for the day, Gregg and I switched to using the diagram to teach the children more specific parts of the body in English in addition to vowels.

This is a picture of Tuk and me from last night:

Although, we have made positive advances in the classroom teaching, it seems that my tutoring students are becoming less interested. Tuesday, both students fell asleep while I was trying to run phonetics flashcards that were more complex than what we are working on in class. Thursday, only one student stayed focused enough to try to complete reading the book. Today, all the pupils either forgot or were sick, thus no one came. I’m not discouraged though. I think that they might just need a moment to get into the swing of things. Then again, I literally have only 2 and a half more weeks in Koh Tao. In that short time, I hope to get a lot more accomplished.

Despite the fact that I was stood up, I still had the chance to hang out and teach a girl from my grade 2 class, Pen. It was her birthday yesterday.  After going over a few things and coloring, we went to get her a chocolate for her birthday. She was so excited to have someone want to read to her, spend the time drawing, and go out to get a birthday gift. I really enjoyed getting to spend time with her.

Other than teaching, I am really getting to know the people here very well. Grand Master Somsak, the massage therapist on the beach, sat down with me today and we looked at the reflexology terms he needs me to translate. I had lunch today with P’Jin and her daughters, Tara and Charlie. P’Jin commented that I eat like a monk because I mix my rice with the other dishes. I thought that was just an Indian thing to do!

Also, the English teachers and Thai teachers are trying to get together more now. Nikki’s boyfriend, Peter, Nikki, Gregg, Simon, Tuk, and I all went out to dinner last night. After dinner, Simon, Gregg, Tuk, and I went to a Muay Thai match off Sairee Beach. It was a really intense experience. Their rituals along with the fighting interest me the most. A few “farangs” (foreigners) fought in the match. A few of the fighters were as young as 8 or 9 years old. I felt odd watching them fight, but then again, this is their culture and this is an honor for them.

Tuk, Simon, and Gregg at Sairee Stadium

 A young man preparing for his match...

Two young men fighting...

From left to right: Gregg, Simon, Me, Peter, and Nikki

Adventures will never end for the adventuresome. 😀

Also, I am incredibly grateful to be granted the opportunity by Lumos to be the change I want to see in the world. (Gandhi)

First Impressions

Friends,

With almost a week behind me since I left home, there is so much to write about I don’t think I could cover it all.

When I arrived in Koh Tao, there were a number of expectations I had due to an agreement with the company I am volunteering with here. Many of these expectations were not fulfilled due to various situations. I am making the best of it. Fatima, another volunteer, has been the main reason that I have gotten some sense of an orientation with the town and school.

There are so many wonderful little things about Koh Tao that I have discovered. First off, the people here are incredibly kind, generous, and friendly. From the time that I arrived at the airport hotel, people were always curious about why I was traveling alone. I have answered honestly and told them I am going to work with the children of the Koh Tao School.

Here begins the contradiction. The Koh Tao School is a part of the local culture which is a direct opposite of the Western tourists here on the island. While there are a limited number of transports to the island per day, there are almost an equal number of tourists to the local population. The locals live in very basic living conditions while the tourists live in luxury. For example, I arrived after a four day water shortage and electricity had been off for two days. The children of the Koh Tao School hardly have resources for themselves- i.e. pencils, notebooks, and socks with no holes. These children are still incredibly happy and curious about all that their Western volunteer teachers have to offer. Many times, some of the tourists will walk in to the school and ask to help teach. Nevertheless, one half of the island struggles to meet basic needs while the other goes out to party perpetually. Every night, one can see the difference between the living conditions of the locals in cottages, villas, and sometimes in their own stores. Home and store becomes one. Meanwhile, the tourists are out on the beach, at bars, drinking, dancing, and partying.

A cohesive curriculum for teaching English at the school is nonexistent. Because we are teaching primary school, years 1-3, keeping the students’ attention is of utmost importance. Each volunteer from the gap year companies makes his or her own lesson plans and tries to teach using games. Mainly because of the language barrier, we are unable to really command the classroom in a way that would allow for us to teach rigidly to a plan. Volunteer teachers come and go, thus many times lessons are repeated sheerly because they were successful last time and somehow never remembered.

Despite all the obstacles, there are bits of beauty and kindness everyday. Every night, the volunteers go out for dinner together and watch the fire dancers on the beach. Below, I have included several pictures because I’m not sure there is a way to capture the beauty of this sport.

 

Another beautiful aspect of the Thai culture as expressed in the Mother’s Day Festival today is respect. Sunday is Her Majesty Queen Sirikit’s birthday and it is also celebrated as Mother’s Day in Thailand. Since it is on a weekend, the school celebrated today. With everything from music, dancing, and ceremony, it was the expression of how seriously the Thai view respect for one’s elders and parents. At one point, children that have no mother came up to sing. It was quite moving as some of the teachers cried alongside those students.

These are a few of the younger students dressed in traditional Thai dancing costumes. A few of the grades presented dances. These little girls were among the cutest! I wondered how those heavy earrings stayed on their ears sometimes.


Following the festivities, each child takes his or her mother on the stage, gives them a chain made of jasmine, and then bows to them. This is a picture of one of the teachers, Eve, and her daughter, Nam King. Nam King is bowing to her mother in respect and love.

Also, the food is killer. For lunch, I had a healthy papaya hot and sour salad- shredded papaya with lime juice, carrots, and beans. Every fruit juice stand and pancake stand is fantastic too. The pancake stands make these delectable crepes. My favorite so far is banana and nutella. They spread the crepe, slice bananas, spread nutella over the filled crepe, and then drizzle sweetened condensed milk to top it. After being cut into bite size pieces, this is a sweet worth every calorie.

Overall, I’m excited to begin leading class soon. Because Friday was a holiday, I only got one day in class. Next week, the real fun begins!

You think you know…

Friends,

I have been preparing for this journey for a very long time. From the beginnings of the proposal to the negotiations of the logistics of the trip itself, I feel like I have known this is what I need to do with this part of my life. Teaching in some form has always been an essential piece of who I am and what I have become. For the first time, I will not be just learning from the daily tasks of teaching, but from the culture itself. In preparation for the trip, many items have been donated my way from friends, family, and significant other.

To begin, the rucksack I carry has the good juju of a good friend- Michelle. Michelle has become a dear friend because of our mutual interests and mutual life paths. It is with her good energy and spirit that I will move forward. As we joked- “always carrying her on my back.”

Then there’s the USB that will hold all the memories of the trip given to me by Kiah. This vital device was suggested to me by Kiah and then immediately given to me by her as a contribution. It will hold all the documents that will get me there and back along with the storage of pictures.

Another important piece of my life for the next three months is the camera given to me by my father. Formerly a part of my Japan experience, my point-and-shoot camera will capture the images relaying the experience to others. Despite the attempted certainty of what these memories might look like, I know that they will only be revealed in time.

Lastly, my sweet boyfriend and I have been driving all over Nashville today looking for friends to say goodbye to and a piece of jewelry to trade between the two of us. So far, we said goodbye to all of our friends from Belmont, my neighbors, my family, my favorite PM crowd, the lovely humans over at Bongo, and finally, Frisbee and Regine. Other friends said goodbye earlier via email, Facebook, phone, or at lunch earlier in the week. Between all the discombobulation of the week, it made it hard between work and preparing for the trip to look for our memorabilia. Ultimately, we ended up going to a superstore to buy initial beads, suede, a locked heart charm, and a key charm. Creating our own jewelry was the only way to encompass the mixed emotions we are both feeling as I prepare to leave.

With all the goodbyes and preparation through, here I lay waiting for morning to come. In that morning I will load my army duffel filled with a rucksack and my backpack for one of the greatest adventures of my life. Instead of looking at it as a separation from all the things that make my life comfortable, I look at it as the best living to my principles that I could and an opportunity for a spirit quest like no other. With much love.

RSI