Thursday, May 2, 2013

Goodbye Tan, Hello U. S. of A.

13 countries and 4 continents later I'm finally back in NYC!... at least until September. It feels so good to drink tap water again, be reunited with the majority of my clothes and belonging, not live out of a backpack, as well as have consistent plumbing.  Things are rather odd being back home, but for the most part, I'm very zen right now. I feel very happy, and I feel in a way complete after having achieved something that's been a life goal of mine for 5 years or more.  I've picked up bits of 2 new languages, adopted an Argentine accent to my Spanish, and I've made countless new friends that I hope to be in touch with, if not also visit, for a very long time to come!

Being home shouldn't feel weird, but of course it does. I get plopped back into my old life, after just experiencing some incredible things. Most of all what's difficult is that I'm in such a tranquil place right now, yet I'm surrounded by tense people living tense lives. I feel that now I have a good global perspective on things. When you go away, and you're surrounded by new people, fellow travelers, and foreigners, you tend to sort of help each other, and take care of each other. Part of this is out of necessity, part of this is because you try to show people the best of you since you'll only be with them for a short period of time. There's no time to fight, or to worry what other people are thinking, there's only time to enjoy the present company and enjoy the moment. Why, I ask, can't it be like this at home? Yes, it's difficult with technology, with 12 different people speaking at you at a time through your phone and internet.. but I have made it a point to try to continue this good will, this happy mood if you may so call it, into my time here in NYC, and hopefully beyond. I realize that I've been passing the time being just polite to people, just nice enough to not be considered rude, but why not be actively nice.  Why shouldn't I hold the open button for someone on the elevator? Yes, it's nicer to be alone, but shoot, who cares? It doesn't take much for me to help someone get to their floor faster. This may be a trivial example, but there's loads of ways to just be a little nicer to people, and it feels good.  It's not easy, but I've been working at it since I've been back.  One thing that will help me is something my friend Sheena introduced me to.  It's called Karri Hour.  It's a random act of kindness towards a stranger, preferably for an hour, in honor of one of her close friends who died far before his time. Check out the website . It keeps me looking for ways to be nice to people, and not in a way that benefits myself even, but in honor of Karri.

On a lighter note, some things that I'll miss and perhaps not miss --- Obviously my tan, which is fading way too quickly! I'm glad some of my friends got to see it.  I'll miss traveling in general, and constantly seeing new things, meeting new people, and trying new foods. I'll miss the excuse, sorry I'm not from here. I'll miss talking about people quickly in English so they don't understand me, or cursing at them under my breath when they heckle me, something that I will on the other hand definitely not miss.  I also won't really miss having to seek out a 7/11 for AC refuge, or a hotel for refuge from the somewhat dirty and authentic lifestyle I was in. I'm very happy I don't have to haggle and bargain any more. It was fun at first but I'm ready for the standard price, even if it's overpriced.  I'll certainly miss the Thai police suits, which were by the way voted sexiest police uniforms in the world. They are skin tight, in the hopes that it will prevent them from gaining weight and becoming less active, attentive, and capable in their work.  It was cool that people didn't steal my flip flops, but I'm happy I don't have to leave my shoes outside every time I enter a building. I'll miss speaking with an Argentine accent, the wine there, Toby our Ethiopian dog, the strong Southeast Asian sunshine, and I'll really miss all my friends that I've made everywhere I went.

I can't really say which place was my favorite. They were all special- all incredible experiences. I do have a better idea now what I want to focus on and specialize in in grad school and that is what the goal was anyway. For more info about this you'll just have to come find me and talk to me :)

Now for some important news, related to grad school. While I was in Addis I heard back from grad schools in early February.  I got into all the ones I applied to except for one.. I did get into my first choice however, and in September, it looks like I'll be starting a 2 year MPA (Masters in Public Administration) degree at the London School of Economics!! That is assuming I pass the mandatory calculus class this summer!  I hate to spread it around so publicly, and jinx myself, but I thought it would be good to tell everyone (if anyone reads this anymore), so no one needs ask me...what's next?

This is in all likelihood my last blog, so thank you everyone who read this and kept up with me! You've saved me a lot of talking for when I see you next! :)

Monday, April 22, 2013

Packing Up the Mozzie Net

Today's my last day at the Isara Foundation, and my last day of working during this volunteer adventure.  I cannot believe how quickly it's gone by, while at the same time cannot believe all the incredible things I've seen and amazing people it's brought me to. I never thought I'd be sad to have to pack up a mosquito net!

The last week/ weekend has been really great! I did some last minute things here in Nong Khai.. went to the Aquarium which was pretty funny, and got to see the sand art 'exhibit' they have on the beach here.  I've also had a chance to meet and hang out with some old volunteers who came back to NK for Songkran... They were so great and I'm lucky to have even more friends from this Isara family.

The next few days look to be pretty insane... I have 3 over night trains in the next 4 days. I take an overnight to Bangkok, meet up with Sheena, her sister, and Tiffany.. and then overnight to the full moon party on Ko Phangan.  Then stay there, but overnight train it the following night to hopefully arrive at the airport on time for my flight later that evening!

I'm of course excited to be coming home, yet sad at the same time.. I really hope I stay in touch with everyone I met on the road!  The little kiddies were a bit sad to see me go.. but I know I'm leaving them in good hands!

Food wise it's been challenging to decide what I should be having as my last meal... Pad thai? Fried Rice? Papaya salad? Either way.. I'm sure I'll be back! The days here have gotten a bit colder and cloudier and I feel as though it's preparing me for NYC weather.. I hope it stays a bit cold there by the time I get back!! I realized as well that I haven't really been sleeping well here due to the heat and no A/C.. .but with the temperature dropping all that's changing.. I hope I don't turn into a zombie or sleep for three days once I'm back home!

Will write my final blog after I'm back on Sunday... that is if I survive the tides of the full moon as well as all my train rides!!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Songkran Water Festival in Chiang Mai

Well, after a 12 hour car ride back from Chiang Mai, (and I say car not bus because I was actually in a mini-van) I am more or less recovered from the weekend that was Songkran.

Songkran is the Thai new year, and it is usually celebrated around the 13-15th or so of April, although this year, as is with most years, they start early and end late, adding on a day or two of festivities just for giggles. Sometimes the country side makes it last even longer!  For the new year, people flock to the streets dumping buckets and buckets of water on each other, using all manner of weaponry.  Sometimes it's a water gun, sometimes a water bottle, sometimes a water cannon.. anything you can think of to chuck water on some one else- it's there.  I imagine that traditionally this was meant as an act of cleansing, in preparation for the new year.. but as has happened with all holidays, it has become one gigantic block party water fight that gets the entire city from grannies to babies involved.

This past weekend, James and I met up with Sheena in Chiang Mai, the now undisputed Songkran capital of the world. We arrived super early to find our hostel to be a bit outside the old town, where all the action was happening, but to also be a small oasis paradise, with an insanely big pool, and free breakfast and wifi.  For only 9 bucks a night, I'd call that a catch for sure. That day we got right into it, and the water fighting and festivities didn't stop until three or so days later.

The main airline, AirAsia, had a booth near the main gate to the old city called Taipae Gate.  They had water cannons, foam parties, and a DJ, and everyone sprayed each other and cars which were passing through.  The water fighting was incredibly fun, and a great way to stay cool in the 100+ degree weather. However, the cold water that some people threw, that had literally just melted from a piece of ice was the one thing that was really not welcome.. I mean.. really.. have a little compassion people!  Luckily thanks to the one plastic bag I had with me, my camera and valuables were safe, and I was even able to snag some awesome photos and videos. Some people even put their phones in condoms, which actually worked really well! My camera wouldn't fit unfortunately...

Chiang Mai itself is a super cool city. The old part is surrounded by a well sized moat, and parts of a castle wall, which I assume to be the originals.  People were even swimming in this during the festival, but by the time the festival was more or less over, it had returned to its initial purpose. The food was great, and diverse -- I even got to have some amazing Mexican food!!  The people during that weekend were a mix of foreign and domestic which was a nice change and good introduction to the next Thai event I'll be going to, in addition to my upcoming home coming!

One really special thing I got to do was take a break towards the end of Songkran to go trek and sleep overnight in a longneck village.  They're the ones, as the name denotes who have the golden bands on their necks, similar to the african tribes who do the same. And yes, their necks are crazy long, sometimes scarily so. I was the only American in the group of about 20, and although I did get some slack at first for this, they soon realized I wasn't going to freak out or complain that no one was speaking enough english!  We trekked for about three hours the first day to a camp, and had a traditional dinner next to a fire.  Sleeping on a raised bamboo platform wasn't the most comfortable of situations but it was only for a night, and a pretty cool expereince, and I didn't get too many bug bites luckily! The next day we did everything you could possibly do in the mountains of Thailand pretty much. We rode and washed an elephant, we zip-lined, bamboo rafted, and even white water rafted, which was not so easy to do in the dry season when the river comes up to your shin in some places...

Returning to my hostel, and then eventually Nong Khai afterwards was a welcome rest from the eventful weekend.  I can't believe this is probably going to be one of my last posts!  At the same time I'm pretty much ready to go home at this point.. just the full moon party as a send off to go.  All the cultures have started to blend together.. I find myself saying falang and faringe interchangeably to describe my whiteness, everyones pointy hat with a pom pom on top is not unique to South America, Ethiopia, or Thailand, and I basically only just realized that Thailand drives on the opposite side of the road as the US... its been a long time since I've been home!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Helmet Parade and Holidays

It's just about time for me to get on a van, where I'll be for the next 12 hours, headed to Chiang Mai, but I quickly wanted to recap the week, and say hello and goodbye before I left.

Needless to say I was very sad to see Sheena and Tiffany go... our diversity level went down a few notches, not to mention that they were amazing awesome ladies, and I am now stuck with a bunch of dudes :) haha just kidding. I, and we all, have been managing well in their absence.  It has lead us to switch roles a bit, and I am focusing a bit more on going over reading with the kids, allowing James to take on more of a teaching role.

Teaching has become a bit easier for me and I really enjoy reading with the kids, as now I know them a bit better and know how they like to learn.  While there are some challenges, at the end of the day they're cute kids and since the program is totally free they're here because they really want to be, which is pretty cool.

In addition, this week has been very eventful and special for me. Yesterday I went campaigning all day for motorbike and scooter helmet safety. While the event in Nong Khai was a bit for show, we still got to meet and take photos with the governor here.  After this, I was lucky enough to have to opportunity to go with my bosses to Udon Thani, a larger town near by.  We knew the theme was helmet safety as well, but we didn't know really what to expect.  My role was initially to look pretty, and this was all I knew.  Mind you this is no small feat in 105 degree weather, sweating like a pig!

When we arrived in Udon, we were informed that we would be participating in a parade, and that we had to stand on a parade float shouting safety rules and recommendations to Thais and Falangs alike, especially because of the holiday weekend coming up. Although my boss Kirk was meant to be the only one on the float, me and my other boss Ming chased the parade down and hopped on as well.  Whenever we saw a white man in the street, I would get on the mic with Kirk and shout "Hey Falang! Wear your helmet this Songkran weekend! and remember don't drive drunk!"  Eventually I learned how to say it in Thai, and I got to scold a few Thai people we rode by who were not wearing helmets.

It was certainly a more memorable day that I've had this year, and a wonderful and lucky experience to have had.  It was nice to change it up, and to be working all day rather than just in the afternoon as we normally do for classes.

I think that is all for now... Songkran has started early this year, and I've already seen cars dripping with water and soaked with some power like substance.  I have packed basically all my stuff for Chiang Mai in a plastic bag, and I've just a few more helmets to hand out on the street before James and I head off to meet Sheena and Tiffany.  I don't really think I have to mention how amazing being drenched with water all weekend will feel in this heat... but more than that I hear there's plenty of cool things to do in Chiang Mai.. and I can't wait to share it all with you when I return. The bus company keeps pushing the return trip back, since this holiday has no real fixed dates, but I hope to be back in Nong Khai in about a week! Wish me luck in the van!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Beginning of the End and the Challenge

This month, April, is officially my last month of volunteering abroad.  I have just purchased my one way ticket home on the 27th!  It feels a little good, knowing that I have Chop't salad and Chipotle waiting for me in New York, but of course it also feels a little sad and surreal to actually have these months, this goal I've had for years, finally come to an end.

This week I have been planning my final mini trips and holidays, and will be going to Chiang Mai for Songkran weekend.  This holiday is the Thai new year I believe when everyone gangs up with their friends to form teams and have a massive water fight with everyone.  I will probably be wearing my bathing suit and carry nothing with me the entire time.  Finally, the last hurrah will be the full moon party in Ko Phangan, where I will be meeting up with two other volunteers from Isara and one of their sisters.  I am suuuuper excited for both of these things, needless to say. From Ko Phangan I will be heading directly to the airport, a trip that should take a little under a day via ferry, bus, and train.

But enough of all of that future stuff.  This week, the volunteers at Isara, minus a few decided to go on the 150 baht challenge, where we spend only 150 baht a day for 10 days, today being the last day.  I'm not really sure why we decided to do this, there is no political meaning behind it.  I know I did it as a mini challenge for myself. An exercise in self control, and it certainly reminded me that I actually need very little. To be honest it's really not that hard to live off of about 5 bucks a day here... A delicious pad thai costs a mere 35 baht after all... Tonight we will be celebrating the end of our "ascetic lives" by going to Udon Thani, a larger town about an hour or two away.. where I hear there's things such as sushi! Something I haven't had in ages!... The Mekong probably isn't the greatest place to eat raw fish from...

Besides that the temperature has gone up what seems to be 10 fold if that's possible. I honestly don't think I could be sweating more if I were sitting in a sauna! Sleep is more or less out of the question, and although my one lone fan helps a little bit, I still can't help but wake up in a pool of sweat probably about 4 times a night.  I hear the temperature is about 110/50 degrees, but I am honestly trying to ignore the figures... I don't want to know.  The ants however, seem to thrive in it, and I am also trying to ignore the fact that I think I may have ants in my bed.  I may have killed most of them with this spray but who knows.. they are microscopic... maybe I should just put one of the hundred lizards and geckos in there are let him go to town... Couldn't hurt...

Finally, in regards to teaching, it's been getting better and better. I notice now that I'm really beginning to understand how each kid learns, what they do and don't like, and possibly even communicate with them better.  I am sometimes hard on them, but to be honest I am here to teach, not to be their friend. These volunteer opportunities of mine were meant to be jobs for me, not excuses for vacation, and this is why I act more seriously. Other volunteers feel differently, but that's great! I think a balance in that regard is really important.  In addition, I think I have successfully learned my students names... You would think remembering names like BMW, Boat, Pee, Dream, Fun and Phonelink would be easy.. but honestly it can get quite confusing!  Also something really great that I've come to accept and appreciate is that unlike in Slumdog Millionaire, your shoes will not be stolen when you take them off outside a store or house as is the custom in some places, including Isara.  I have finally stopped worrying about my flip flops disappearing, and have started to enjoy being barefooted with everyone :)

Sadly this week two volunteers who I have been living with will be leaving at the end of this week... Sheena and Tiffany you shall be sorely missed! and I'm not really sure how I'll teach my class without Sheena... She's the good cop, I'm the bad cop.. Still, I look forward to meeting up with you both in Chiang Mai and Ko Phangan, and hopefully when we are all back in North America too!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Winding Roads, Baguettes, and Waterfalls: A Lao Adventure

This weekend (Friday-Tuesday) we were lucky enough to get some coworkers to cover our classes while Sheena and I headed across the Mekong River into Vientiane, Laos.  Sheena rightly so, suggested that we just stay in Luang Prabang... a mere 10-12 hour bus ride to the north of Vientiane, located ultimately in the center of Laos, instead of doing a mini whirl-wind tour of Laos as I probably would have done..

Everything was planned pretty much last minute.. and I think I only told my parents I was leaving the night before.  Bus tickets would apparently have to be purchased on the run.  There are no online sites I'm aware of that allow you to purchase these bus tickets ahead of time... slightly nerve wracking but a good experience for someone who probably has minor travel OCD.

We left mid-day on Friday for the Friendship bridge, which connects Thailand and Laos via Nong Khai and Vientiane.  I was expecting utter chaos, rudeness, and annoying summons from tuk-tuk drivers imploring us to take their ride for a mere 100 Baht.... Why would I spend 100 Baht, or about 3.5 dollars, when I could take a bus for a mere 20 Baht, about 75 cents.. Honestly.  (Yes I realize I'm going to have a shock and a struggle when I get back to the US and realize the actual price differences. Luckily I don't really remember how much things cost in America anymore...)  The cross over couldn't have been easier for me happily, although the currency exchanges for Sheena turned out to be pretty aggravating in terms of red tape.  Still we made it through in no time!

 The first thing that caught my attention was all the soviet flags hanging everywhere! Tons of them! I know you're communist but get your own party flag guys... After crossing over, we went straight to the bus station where we had about 4 hours to kill. We attempted to eat at the restaurant across the street... and managed to get some sort of soup.. mystery meat was determined to be chicken neck... Although Sheena rudely suggested that it was cat meat due to the very large number of cats wandering around the restaurant.  Ironically a chicken escaped from the kitchen as we were served our food and strutted around the restaurant for a bit while we began to eat his relative... I knew this trip was going to be an adventure already!

The bus, supposedly VIP (whatever that means here) turned out to be just a regular crappy bus, without a bathroom! We stopped every once in a while for passengers to relieve themselves.  We didn't realize why we had been stopping before Sheena asked about a bathroom.  Promptly the bus pulled over and let her get our, after which almost the entire bus got out and stood basically in a line next to the bus peeing in unison - Men, women, old ladies.. you name it. A sight to see let me tell you!

The bus ride, which was supposed to be one of the worst in the world wasn't that bad to me.  I even successfully ignored the sounds and smells of other people vomiting as the bus turned 90 -180 degree turns about every minute to 30 seconds for probably around 4 hours.  The bus ride back, on the actual VIP sleeper bus was pretty much the same deal in terms of the vomit, but the ride was a heck of a lot better. There were three rows of bunk beds on the bus, and a toilet on board as well! Needless to say we got a lot more sleep on the ride back!

Arriving Luang Prabang at 6am with 30 minutes of sleep between us was not the greatest of feelings but the Lao Sandwich I ate right away, a baguette with chicken, cucumber, tomato, lettuce, maybe an egg, and some other things I don't know was a lovely welcome to what turned out to be an incredible picturesque and charming town!

We napped for about four hours.. not gonna lie.. and walked around the entire town in pretty much 4 hours.  We checked out the museum, the temples, the river, as well as the yummy restaurants we planned to eat at.  Although it is supposedly best to travel there in rainy season, when the river and waterfalls are at their prime, we did get a chance to see and walk across the bamboo bridge that they take down when the river gets too high.  That night we checked out the night market, ate another baguette, and headed to a really cool place called Utopia (fitting with all the soviet flags) right on the water.  We enjoyed some wine, and caught a free movie across from our hotel/guesthouse.

The next day we had to get up super early in order to feed the monks! Yes this is what it sounds like. We got some rice and other things, and lined up with everyone as 200+ monks passed by, opening their special buckets for us to put food into.. I was wondering how they felt about everyone touching all their rice before they ate it, but how western of me! It was nice to see that the monks also took some of their food and gave it to orphans who were sitting on the side of the road as well.  Right after we hiked up mount Phousi (you may pronounce that however you want) and got a great view of the town and surrounding area.  The next day we went to some temple caves via a boat, stopping by a whiskey village, all the while enjoying French inspired food and failing to really see a difference between Lao and Thai food.

Our last and final day turned out to be one of my favorites so far this year.  We caught a tuk-tuk up to these waterfalls about 30 minutes outside of Luang Prabang.  They were beautiful, falling gently into cool milky blue ponds/lagoons that you could swim in.  There was a bear sanctuary as well, and we hiked up a 100 degree or so (it felt like) path in order to get a good view.  Swimming in the ponds felt fantastic in the heat, and we went back into town to pack and get dinner with a Malaysian film crew who had interviewed us at Isara.

All being said, we were let back in to Thailand, tired but having had a wonderful and yummy weekend! Today we finally got to help out the recycle center and it felt good to do some useful manual labor.  Must say it feels good to be "home," and I'm gearing up for another week of teaching!  My first class on my own is today...!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Nong Khai, What I Actually do Part III, and Ants All Around

I'm just about to finish up my second week at the Isara Foundation in Nong Khai, but it seems like I've been here a month!  I've been having a great time so far exploring the city, tasting awesome street food, and of course learning how to teach English.  My two closest friends here are a Canadian named Sheena, and an Aussie named James.  We often do a ton of things together, such as renting a motorbike  to go visit the sculpture park here (an amazing park where one man made about 50 huge Buddhist/Hindu statues).  We've enjoyed some great meals, gotten some nice Thai massages, and have gone down to the Mekong River for a swim with a couple of other people who live here permanently who James knows after being here himself already for a few months.  The other 3 volunteers with whom we work are great as well and it's always nice when they join us for pizza, korean BBQ, or a swim at one of the hotel pools in town.

Now for what I am doing... For those of you who know me well I've never been a huge fan of the concept that everyone in the world needs to learn English.  I always try to learn as much of the local language as possible, (something that is proving to be quite the challenge here!) and I am almost never surprised or angry if someone can't speak English, especially in a poorer country.  Still, I have found an exception to these rules of mine here at Isara.  The way they teach the children here is geared almost entirely towards reading.  The method/word on the street here is that if they cannot read/ read English then they really won't learn that much. This emphasis on reading in general is something that I really appreciate about the Isara Foundation.  In addition, after traveling thus far, I have realized that while by no means I believe everyone needs to speak English, I have a greater appreciation for the advancements learning English can have on the career of someone living in a third world country, or a place like Thailand, where tourism is probably a top commodity.  The tourism industry in many parts of the world is such a huge business that the individuals involved in it and related industries who really understand and speak English can in fact make a greater impact on their families income and therefore lifestyle.

Sheena and I have been teaching about a class a day, and we are helping with the reading in another couple of classes.  The classes are usually about an hour long and can be a ton of fun, unless the kids are being kids, or have not done their homework.... Then I have to turn into that rude teacher I always hated growing up! Although we teach children, we sometimes are called in to the police station or hospital here (as was the case yesterday) in order to do an English review, vocabulary/situation specific lesson.  The nurses were a lot of fun to work with, and I could tell that they would appreciate knowing the English we taught them when speaking with the tourists who often come in with various ailments.  In addition, Isara has a recent recycling center and a helmet/ motorbike safety campaign that I hope to check out in the coming weeks.  The people who work here take what they do very seriously, and strongly wish to give back to the community in any way that they can.  This is of course a lot different from other English teaching centers around the world.

All of us have been attempting to take some Thai lessons from the interns Isara has here.  It's going a bit slowly, as should be expected, but I'm pretty sure I have all the numbers down which is very exciting!!

The house we live in is quite nice, albeit a bit rustic, which is totally fine :)  The first floor is actually the school, equipped with an office, two class rooms, a small library, and a computer lab.  The second floor is our floor (there is four of us up there, the other 2 volunteers live off the grounds).  There is a kitchen, 3 bedrooms, a living room, and of course a bathroom with a shower.  No house dogs here like in Addis, but there are plenty of geckos, ants, and I hate to say cockroaches to go around!

Since leaving America there are some things I've gotten very good at ---
1) Dealing with and sometimes fixing dodgy plumbing
3) Taking cold showers / Living in a black out
4) Ignoring people talking to me and offering me things on the street
5) Killing mosquitoes and other insects
6) Arranging mosquito nets (or mozzie nets as James would say)
The latter two should by no means convince you that I am not getting bitten by mosquitos and other insects but I feel like I'm doing a pretty good job at keeping numbers of bites down to a minimum!

This weekend, and a bit into next week, Sheena and I are hoping to pop over to the other side of the Mekong to check out Laos, particularly Luang Prabang, although we will be seeing Vientiane for a little bit as well.  Hopefully it will work out well, and my next blog will be about that! Speak soon!