Monday, January 29, 2007

Amazing Fruit Race?

Saturday turned out to be quite an eventful day with Thai culture abounding. We had decided on Friday that our language class would meet at the hub in order to attend a going away celebration for Anton’s host brother. Anton’s host brother who was going to be entering the Sangha (Buddhist monastic order) for a period of one month and the celebration was set to last at least five days.

When we arrived at the hub site Ajan Danai had misunderstood the starting time of the celebration which was thought to be starting at 8:00 am but in reality didn’t start until 11:00 am. In order to fill the time we were assigned to partake in an “Amazing Fruit Race.” The Amazing Fruit Race consisted of splitting up into two teams and racing to the market to find the names of six fruits, their price per kilo and per unit, and to figure out the classifier which accompanies all description of fruit. He also explicitly said that the winner would be based on how quickly they got done, but also by the completeness and degree of detail of the information. The teams ended up being Tony and me versus Quilen and Mike. We were given 45 minutes and set to the task. Tony and I divided up the fruits and headed to different parts of the market to get our information. We came up with some pretty imaginative ways to figure out the unit price, give that some fruit are not sold by the unit (bananas, grapes, etc), and the fruit classifier given that English does not have classifiers. Tony and I got all the information and rushed back to the hotel sensing victory. After about 20 minutes of waiting, Quilen and Mike showed up with sacks full of various items from the market, but not what was specified under the official rules of the Amazing Fruit Race.
Well it appears that Quilen and Mike have the attention spans of two year olds and listening skills that are quite possibly worse. They had taken their merry time buying flip-flops and Dance Hits 2006, a CD vital to Quilen so he could teach the local kids how to bust a move. They tried to claim that they were done at a certain time and should be credited with the time they finished, not the time they showed up at the hotel. Tony and I had a detailed report including all the required info plus the colors and tastes of the fruit. Quilen and Mike, needless to say, did not figure out the classifier, they did come up with the word for fruit?, and had no descriptions. They tried to claim that the judging was flawed, but the more astute team clearly won!

Afterwards we headed to Anton’s host family’s house for the celebration. Of course as soon as we showed up we were given the celebrity treatment. We were immediately sat down and given enough food and beer to feed an army while everyone else basically stared in wonderment at the farang that had suddenly appeared at their party. We ate and drank and then we ushered to the side of the house for the head shaving ceremony. Of course a head shaving ceremony would not be complete without a whole rock band playing out of the back of a small Toyota pickup truck. Keep in mind that this was rock music, not traditional Thai music that you may expect to be present at this type of ceremony. The local monk was present to make the first cut and almost before the family could get a snip we were ushered in to take a wack at it. It is so great that we are allowed to participate in all these events. I guess a parallel would be pouring water on a baby’s head at a baptism in the States. Quilen, the most un-bashful person I have met, was hesitant to step in and clip a piece of hair. Well after he was at it there was no holding back. He grabbed the biggest piece of hair he could find and went at it with a pair of dull scissors. After a few minutes of yanking and hacking a courtesy Thai lady showed him that cutting just a small piece with sharp scissors was far easier. Quilen never fails to just crack me up.

Several men had by this time gotten fairly drunk and it was hilarious to see how the women handled them. The women and men were separated by tables but when a drunken man’s good intentions turned into what the women saw as an annoyance they were rather bluntly yanked away by the arm. Thai society seems like an interesting syncretism portrayed as patriarchal society outwardly but clearly matriarchal within. The women seem to be relegated to traditional feminine roles, but there is no hesitancy for them to assert their authority! Soon after the drunk man was escorted to another area of the party we were greeted by several women telling us that one of our own had just showed up to the party. Well it turned out to be an American military man in his late 50’s. He had come to Thailand in August for his vacation R&R from Iraq where he was a bookkeeper and had met a lady at one of the popular tourist hang outs. Well they had been in touch since then and he had come back and married her three days earlier. He spoke three words of Thai and she spoke no English. Yet another interesting look into Thai culture.
After Anton’s host brother had been thoroughly shaven, even his eyebrows, he was loaded up into the back of a pickup and paraded through the neighborhood to the local wat. The lead truck was that which carried the rock band and the falang, along with the rest of the celebration participants, danced in-between the rock band and the truck carrying the soon-to-be monk. When we arrived at the wat we were given special access to the ritual of initiation and were asked to return the next day to participate again. Unfortunately I couldn’t, but I had thankfully caught not just a glimpse of Thai life but rather an extended private session. Once again, an experience that would probably never happened if we wouldn’t have been part of the Peace Corps and been honored house guests of the local families. What a way to get to know the culture!

Sunday, January 28, 2007

What Am I Really Doing?

I realized I haven’t really explained exactly what I am doing or what I will be doing for the next eight weeks and for that matter the next two years. I will start with the next eight weeks.

After nearly two weeks of group activities we have finally split up into groups of four which were chosen based on our job assignment and our location. There are two different job assignments in our group. I am doing Community Based Organizational Development (CBOD) and there are also those who are doing TCCO (forgot what it stands for, but basically English teaching). There are three other guys who are doing CBOD and that live in my tambon. We work at the local Sub-district Administration Organization (SAO) building. The SAO is the tambon manifestation of the central Thai government. Our day now consists of taking five hours of Thai classes in the morning and in the afternoon for these first three days we are designing lesson plans to teach English to the workers of the SAO for 1.5 hours. During the remainder of the eight weeks we will be continuing our Thai lessons in the morning and during the afternoon we will be identifying community groups who have potential small projects that we could help implement. Every Monday we will be returning to the hub site to participate in group training exercises. On March 30 we will be officially sworn in as Peace Corps volunteers and will move to our sites which will be determined a short time before.

All CBOD volunteers are going to get site placements in either the far north or the south of Thailand. For the first year we are expected to mainly make relationships within our communities in order to identify projects that we can work on in conjunction with the local SAO the following year. We will be based out of our local SAO with the elected CEO being our supervisor and the Chief Administrative Officer being our counterpart. During the first year we will also be expected to teach business and/or administrative English to the SAO staff. Given that we will spend a lot of our time interacting with the local community members and groups our Thai is expected to be at a higher level than that of the volunteers doing the TCCO program. What a task I have in front of me. Like I have said, it is coming along slowly but surely. That is about the extent of what I know about the next 2.5 years of my life.

For some ambiguity creates fear, for me it evokes excitement. I love the unknown. Unfortunately up to this point we have been hand fed just about everything. There are those that do not leave a group session without asking every possible question imaginable. It is a bit frustrating, but everybody reacts to given circumstances in a different manner. A difficult thing for me is that we are so closely observed and guided by the bureaucratic structure of the Peace Corps. Most of the rules are for our own safety, but I am so used to being free to do whatever I please while I am abroad that these new rules seems very restricting. That’s life and I will be able to work through it!

Friday, January 26, 2007


I just thought I would send out my address if anyone has the inkling to send me something. I wasn't going to put up my address until I got to my site, but random mail is always fun!

242 Rajvithi Rd
Amphur Dusit
Bangkok 10300

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Getting to Know the Culture

The last two days have probably been the most interesting in my short Thai experience. Saturday we had an assignment, something the Peace Corps requires that is getting rather tiresome, to “map” our community. I’m still not 100 percent sure exactly what the actual map is for because I think by this time the four of us who were mapping are fairly able to find our own house as well as the others. Nevertheless, we had to mount our bikes and go on a mapping expedition. Ajan Danai (our teacher) came to my house first and we rode to Mike, Quilen, and Tony’s community. The point of the exercise may be just a tad bit clearer after this next sentence. Apparently Ajan Danai had drawn himself a map so we could get to the other guys’ houses. Well the map turned out to be as much use as a drawing in the sand during a storm. We couldn’t find the houses, but like in most countries every person was more than eager to help, even if they had no clue what the true directions were. After getting directions from some men that were glaringly wrong, we ran into some ladies that all knew, or at least I think although they were for some reason speaking a language I don’t understand, where the other guys’ houses were at. We followed one lady on a motor scooter and after only one failed attempt and a few more stops for directions we arrived at the right house. From there the adventure began.
We were truly celebrities as we biked around the community identifying “wats” (Buddhist temples), phone booths, clinics, water towers, and any other landmark that would supposedly be useful in order to locate our houses in the circumstance of total confusion (most likely drunkenness). We got no more than four blocks in to our journey when we came across a funeral party which apparently lasts seven days. Well, once we stopped there was no saying no to the over-eager group of men and women who by the time we stepped foot of our bikes had already erected a table, located chairs, and filled with several dishes of Thai food. Ajan Danai said we should try to stay just five minutes, but I don’t think anyone would realistically believe a time cap of five minutes would work in such a situation. At least ten million photos were taken, eight liters of Pepsi drank, and unknown quantities of food of unknown substance eaten in the next 45 minutes. We only made it out 40 minutes late. Not too bad I suppose. After leaving we finished jotting down all the irrelevant sights within the community and headed to my house. The rest of the activity was really irrelevant so I will just leave it at that.
After the community mapping activity, “Da Boys” as we are referred to now because of our being the sole all male group, decided a beer was in order. We found a roadside restaurant that appeared to serve beer and we were assured they did. Well they served beer, but only after it had been transported from the store across the highway by a daring young lady. I don’t think the five bhat markup was really worth her risking her life, but we are in Thailand. This all happened yesterday.
Today is Sunday, our day off. I talked to a few of the other volunteers and we decided to meet up in the big hub city. It was quite a decision given that most of us are not under 10 km from the hub. We arrived, used very fast internet which cost 60 cents an hour, used our Thai language skills to order “kow kap gai kap pak” (rice and chicken and fish: very complicated sentence structure). In between the internet and the display of language ability I took a little ride around town to get a feel for everything. We had planned on having a few beers after having lunch, so I kept an eye out for the perfect place. Well I found it. Near the train station was a small store that had one table out front. After eating lunch three of us headed there and before long at least 20 PC volunteers had congregated at this small establishment. In front there were myriad bikes, in fact if you didn’t know better you may have thought we were the human powered Hells Angles. The lady of the store must have been just about as happy as she had ever been because I’m sure we bought more beer in those three hours than had been bought in the last month. In fact, her husband kept on stealing chairs from their house to accommodate all of us. The owner had a three year old child who looked to be nothing less than a karate master. As all of us were drinking and carrying on he was practicing his moves on the dirt next to us. I have a video, but I’m not sure if I can upload it. If I can I will for sure let you know. As we were getting ready to leave the owner made sure she got evidence that she had an invasion of “farang” at her small store. We took several pictures and said goodbye. She may not know it, but she is going to be seeing a lot of us in the future given that we came to a consensus that her store would be the official Peace Corps watering hole during training. I hope she’s ready! That’s all I have for now!

Trials and Tribulations

Well I tried really hard with my last entry to be very descriptive and have some descent writing, but now I realize I just need to write everything down because there is so much to write. We spent about five days at a resort near a national park called Kao Yai. Apparently it is a world class national park that has tigers, Asian elephants and a host of other exotic animals, but of course we weren’t allowed to go outside of the resort. The resort had a pool, work-out room, and in general pretty much all the amenities of a resort in the US. Talk about Posh Corps! During our time there we had a bunch of sessions on various subjects pertaining to the Peace Corps....i.e. cross-cultural training, bike training, language training. We actually just had two short classes of language training before we took off for our host families and our new host community. We did a lot of activities to get to know each other, which depending on the time of the day were some-what amusing or very nerve racking. Everyone in our group seems very interesting and I haven’t really seen any conflict or too many cliques forming. Pretty amazing I suppose with a group of 56 from all over the US. While we were in Kao Yai I really couldn’t say that I knew anything about Thailand. We drove there in the middle of the night from the airport and apart from drinking some beers across the street at the little beer shack/general store I could have really been somewhere in the US.

Two days ago we arrived at our Pre-Service Training sight which I can only say on my blog is in South-Eastern Thailand for security reasons apparently. We went directly to the provincial government offices where we were greeted by the governor and group of dancing children and all while receiving lays made out of yellow marigolds. Yellow of course because it is the official color of the Thai royalty. The king is believed to be a semi-deity and is held in the utmost respect. A good majority of the government workers, and everyday people for that matter, wear yellow shirts with the king’s insignia on the chest. After being greeted by the governor, and greeting him in our broken Thai, we had a few activities pertaining to living with our host family. We learned how to use a squat toilet, how to “wai” people, which is a way of bowing that has a millions different ways of being done depending on the authority or amount of respect you show a person, how to wash laundry by hand, and how to set up our mattress and mosquito net. The Thai culture has some very interesting unique features. In Thai culture the feet are considered very bad and the head very good. You never touch a person on the head and you never point at someone with your feet. In fact, when it comes to feet you pretty much don’t do anything except walk. You never step over someone, you never cross your legs so the bottom of your foot is facing someone, and when you sleep you feet need to be pointed away from any Buddha figure. I’m sure there are a million more “no no’s” about feet but I suppose that is for me, the stupid “farang”, to figure out through my own pure ignorance.
Want to talk about squat toilets? I’m sure you did. So basically the main premise is that to use the bathroom you squat. Not too complicated. Well I can tell you I haven’t tried it because my host family has a Western style toilet, but the squatting isn’t the bad part. Thai’s apparently don’t believe in toilet paper....except for drying their hands off. In order to wipe, all the while squatting, you must dip water out of a basin, splash it on you know where with your hand, and then wipe it all off with that same hand. Pretty yummy! A Thai shower consists of dipping a bucket in a larger basin located next to the small basin for the bum and dumping it on your body. It is surprisingly not that bad given that Thailand doesn’t have the coolest climate.
My host family is great, like all others I have had. They cook great Thai food and have been great Thai language teachers. I live with just a host mom and dad, but in an area at an end of a road with about five or six houses all in a circle. There are always people running around, but I’m not sure of their exact relation to my host family....couldn’t be due to my extensive Thai skills! They live in a different “tambon” or community from where the hub site is. It is 13 km away from the hub site which is roughly 6 miles for those of you who failed to understand the metric system. It is quite a ride, but it has been made easy with the provision of our excellent transportation: Trek bicycles. I was kind of worried we would get a one gear granny bike, but was pleasantly surprised with our Treks with all the fixings. It is fun riding it down the highway with all the Thais giving me the third degree but inevitably putting on the big smile that Thais are known for.
Now let’s talk about the Thai language. It was pretty intimidating at first, but today I had one of those language epiphanies. When I first got here I could say (transliterated) “Phom chuu Garrett, nam sa kun Schiche khrap. Phom ma ja muang Buffalo, jaan wat Wyoming, pra tet America khrap” and not much more (My name is Garrett, last name Schiche. I’m from the city of Buffalo, state of Wyoming, country of America). Well that made for an interesting first night. A lot of talking, with little more than dumb stares on my behalf. I knew a little more than I just said, but I would be lying if I said much more. Well anyway, one day later, one language lesson later, and a whole lot of trying to pronounce words and learn from my family I am actually able to hold somewhat of a conversation. “Somewhat of a conversation” after roughly four days of Thai lessons and a week in Thailand I would say is pretty alright. It is coming along. I have a lot to learn, but also a lot of desire to do the same!
I’m sure I’m probably leaving out lots of stuff, but I’m sick of typing. Let me know if anyone has some specifics they would like know. I hope everyone is doing well back in the “Aa-mare-ee-ka”!

First and Last Attempt at Being Creative

So the following blog post is my attempt at being creative, well it took far to long so the following posts are going to be pretty bone dry with just enough info to let you in on my life here in Thailand.
By the way, I now officially have a cell phone. The number is 0843462648. I'm not sure if you have to put the 0 before it, so if it doesn't work try it the other way. I'm not sure of the Thai country code, but that shouldn't be too hard to look up. Eastern time zone is exactly 12 hours difference, mountain 14. Give me a is free to recieve phone calls and I am living on a Peace Corps budget of a whoping $187 a month!
Wow.......this can just about sum it up. The unexpected has reigned in this Peace Corps experience, but then again what really can you be sure of when you’re off to a new world? Six days later and what have I encountered? Thai language: minimally, Thai culture: moderately, wanderlust Americans: to the extreme!
San Francisco was gracious enough to host us for our first two days as official Peace Corps Trainees. The staging event dealt with more getting to know each other than actually giving up the secrets of the next 27 months of our lives. As any good group affiliated with the Peace Corps and its contra-normal mission we sang, danced, and drew our way to an understanding of each other and our newly acquired lifestyle. Now is a good time to discuss the Peace Corps “lifestyle.” Confirming the popular belief among many of my dear family members, I have been living the high-life fulfilling my characterization as an international “playboy”. In San Fran we stayed right in Japan town in a hotel that I can say with confidence was not a Motel 6 (my Dad’s favorite). We were provided with a generous daily allowance for meals and transportation although I transported no where my feet didn’t take me and ate meals that most likely didn’t get the five-star stamp. Money in the pocket is never something I can complain about.
The 19 hour flight from San Fran to Bangkok, with a short layover in Tokyo, was not what I would choose to do on my birthday, but given it wasn’t my birthday it was bearable. I managed to sleep through much of it, as weird as that seems given that I very seldom take naps! We arrived at the Bangkok airport one day later at midnight to a boisterous welcome from the energetic members of Peace Corps groups 117 and 118. The state of their sobriety was questionable, but who doesn’t like a semi-drunken American high five immediately after stepping foot on foreign soil. Now when I imagined Thailand I envisioned hot sweaty days, nights, afternoons, mornings, nap times, lunch times, walks, hikes, strolls, and dances. My first 7 hours in Thailand sure proved me wrong. It seemed like it might have been warm outside, but that quickly fled my mind and we embarked on our bus trip to our very humble national park resort. I think there was meat being chilled underneath the bus because frost soon formed on my arms and a solitary ice sickle inched its way towards the seat from the end of my nose. I managed to sleep, but not without reoccurring nightmares of the artic tundra that I thought I had left behind in Denver. Don’t know why those came. Well by the time we arrived at the national park resort it had become painfully apparent that Thais love their air-conditioning, apparently my roomy Anton and I do too. Not wanting to feel any heat whatsoever we thought it wise to turn on the air-conditioning on full blast in our room. Needless to say I woke up at around 5:30 am, a good hour and a half after our arrival, with my same little ice sickle buddy at home once again on my partially crooked nose.