Thursday, March 8, 2007

Poot Paasa Thai Dai Mai

Learning a language is such a fascinating process. Learning Spanish was a new and novel experience for me and I had not the slightest idea if what I was experiencing during the learning process was unique to my situation and learning style or similar to other people’s. Two months after arriving in at the Bangkok airport I think I am a lot closer to answering that question. My experiences with both Spanish and Thai have been very similar and I believe that most people go through a similar process. The latter declaration is where the doubt arises and why my statement lacks absolute affirmation of knowing the answer. My experience has been similar in learning both languages, but that is comparing apples and apples. Although an analysis of my own language learning patterns does not definitively answer the question, through speaking with many people, both in my PC group and other friends who have learned a foreign language, I can confidently say that through the entirety of the process many parallels exist, even among diverse language backgrounds and learning styles.

Studying a foreign language is a rollercoaster ride complete with drops, rises, loops, and spins. The rises and falls can occur in any given interval: hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, and even yearly. A breakthrough occurs and you are on top of the world, but the ecstasy of finally understanding a simple sentence can be rapidly transformed into the agony of defeat over a simple use of poor pronunciation. I remember my first night spent in Guatemala like it was just yesterday and the reason, more than a dramatically different culture, was the sudden understanding of the enormity of the task of learning this new language. It is easy to avoid any substantial conversation your first few hours of living with a new host family, but inevitably you must eat. Dinner is truly the time of reckoning. No amount of delay or distraction can free you from the inevitable first “true” conversation. It is a frightening experience, but the astounding ingenuity of the human mind truly comes to the fore to pull you through. It is remarkable how an understanding can be achieved with no more than ten mutually comprehensible words available among the two parties involved. Gestures, grunts, and facial expressions rule the roost during these trying times. Inevitably you leave the table simultaneously experiencing exhilaration and despair. The memories of these first encounters will stay with me as long as I live and the chance to experience it two times has suddenly become one of the most fascinating events in my 25 years of being.

It has been claimed that after you learn one foreign language it is much easier to learn subsequent ones. Like my earlier solo debate, this concept necessitates my analysis and ensuing conclusion. The principal point of consternation is the definition of the word “easy”. Does this mean that grammar is easier, that words make more sense, that the brain functions in a different manner, or that one magically acquires the ability to learn through “osmosis”? I can not say with certainty that “easy” can be defined by any one of the aforementioned definitions, but I can provide my own personal opinion. I think learning Thai has been easier than learning Spanish for the simple reason that I have hindsight. Given this fact, I am more easily able to cope with the language acquisition process. Hindsight has been invaluable in allowing me to reflect on my first language learning experience and apply my shortcomings and success to the current process. One of the most prevalent examples is the fact that the scary rollercoaster with drops, rises, loops, and twists has become a ride on the lazy river at the adjacent water park. When I start to feel anxiety about the pace of my language acquisition I can step back and tell myself that it is a long process and I have a concrete personal example to assure my mind that this really is the truth. When a word continually slips my mind, I have tried and true methods to fall back on that assuage the frustration. I know that this subject seems rather random, but every good solo debate has a story behind it.

Tonight I had one of those language experiences that shoots you to the peak of that rollercoaster. I was eating dinner with my host family and like most other dinners it doubled as a language lesson. I am now to a point where I am beginning to be able to speak and understand Thai sufficiently to feel comfortable at the dinner table. I had my trusty flash cards and my host dad was helping me read some of the more difficult words I had written in Thai on the front of the cards. I’m not quite sure when it happened, but we started talking about the phone calls I receive from the US. My host dad has found it quite amusing to tell me that I need to start answering my calls from the US in Thai. Although I have my own room, the walls in my house do not reach the roof and therefore my family can hear all of my conversations. Granted, they can’t understand them, but they sure can hear them...but I digress. After discussing this for a short time we started discussing how I answer the phone in English. I told them that all I say is “hello”. Well, this was a moment of enlightenment for my host mom. In Thai they answer the phone by saying, “hello, sawat dii khrap.” I have seen “sawat dii” translated as several things but most often it is translated as “hello”. When I told my family that “hello” was an English word and that “sawat dii” meant “hello” they couldn’t believe it. Although I didn’t completely understand everything my host mom was saying, the gist of it was that it was very absurd that Thais are actually saying “sawat dii, sawat dii” or “hello, hello”. The enormity of the experience did not lie in the fact that we realized that Thais say “hello, hello” when they answer the phone, but rather in the fact that at that moment I realized that I understood the whole conversation, and it was more than a simple exchange of greetings. Now maybe it is more apparent why some people love studying languages. What seem as the most inconsequential daily events can actually carry so much meaning and bring so much joy.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

The Journey

Where to begin? This past week and a half was bursting with new sights, sounds, and experiences. I suppose the simple and most logical place to begin would be....well the beginning. Last Friday we left for Bangkok early in the morning and arrived at about 10:00 am. We went directly to our hotel and of course attended informational sessions. Luckily, these sessions were very pertinent to our service and discussed safety in Bangkok as well as other issues and opportunities there are in the Peace Corps. I think the degree of interest and relevance that these sessions had was due to the fact that most of them were hosted by current PCVs. This is not all that interesting, but what was really interesting to us was the fact that we got a pizza lunch that day. A pizza lunch probably doesn’t sound like that big of a deal to the average Joe, but to an American, especially me, who hasn’t seen a pizza in two months the thought was just exhilarating. Well the lunch left a lot to be desired, partly because the pizza was cold but mostly because there was no ranch dressing to accompany it! Off all vices to have, how did mine end up being ranch dressing? Who knows, but I can think of a lot worse things. Then again, I could think a lot of better things, but I digress.

As the afternoon sessions slowly passed by our first Bangkok experience was moving ever closer to becoming a reality. The sessions ended and many ideas were tossed around concerning the perfect place to visit our first night in Bangkok. Some emphasized the many magnificent wats that abound within the city limits, while others suggested night markets, and others even jazz, but what won nearly everyone’s vote? Khao San Road! Khao San Road is like nothing I have seen before. It stretches no more than five blocks and is jam packed with every tourist that has stepped foot in Bangkok. That many tourists means only one thing.....that many Thais trying to sell everything from hookers to hand wash. When I say tourist, you have to keep in mind that what I really mean is backpacker. The backpacking culture is very unique in that it involves mainly young people in their twenties living out of a backpack for months on end and on only a few dollars a day. I have traveled many places where I thought there were a lot of backpackers, but Khao San Road trumps them all. I think it is the simple fact that nearly every dirt cheap hostel in the whole of Bangkok is located on this one small street. Along with dirt cheap hostels there must be dirt cheap watering holes. Put the two together and you have something out of this world. If you got off the plane and took a taxi directly to Khao San Road you would probably assume that you maybe shouldn’t have drank so much on the plane because instead of getting off at your final destination of Bangkok you opted for exiting the plane in your layover in Europe. There are far more farangs, and an interesting bunch at that, running around than Thais. Well we made a night out of it and that is about all I need to say. One funny side note. Bangkok is known for their “tuk-tuks” or three-wheeled motorcycle taxis. As soon as we met up with Guy at Khao San he had to tell the story about his out of control tuk-tuk ride he had just taken. Apparently the tuk-tuk driver took them for quite a ride, popping wheelies, racing other tuk-tuks, and driving on the sidewalk. Note to self, get a sober tuk-tuk driver.

The following day I had to wait until 11:00 pm to take a bus to go visit a current PCV, so I hit the town with two of my Thai teachers and one of their friends. Bangkok is a very modern city complete with a sky train, subway, super shopping malls, and just about anything else you could imagine. In fact, more! We went and ate Dim Sum at a Chinese place in a mall, went to a book store to pick up some Thai grammar books, went and watched a Thai movie, and got a pretty good tour of the whole city. It’s great having friends that are from the place you are visiting. In fact, they knew it so well we got a little side tracked and I almost missed my bus.
The Peace Corps was pretty adamant that they buy our bus tickets for us in advance because that weekend was the start of the Chinese New Year. Well they booked us a ticket leaving Bangkok at 11:30 pm for a 5.5 hour bus ride to our host PCV’s site. That means we arrived at her site at a little after 5:00 am. Great timing! We could have left at noon and been there at 5:00 pm, but that would have been too easy. Amazingly enough, Quilen and I got assigned to visit the same volunteer. I swear I can’t get away from that guy! Anyway, we had to get on a pickup truck/taxi and ride about 1 km for the outrageous price of 50 baht a piece. We got to her site and went directly to bed. To sum things up, the PCV site visit was pretty much a waste of time. We really just hung out and BS’ed. We stayed one night and I was on my way to Chiang Mai.

I will leave the description the city of Chiang Mai for a future blog entry because I’m pretty convinced all of the volunteers in the province as well as in the surrounding provinces will be having regular meetings there. I got up early on Tuesday and jumped on a bus. I had been in contact with my counterpart at my SAO, but both his and my limited knowledge of each other’s perplexing language made comprehensible communication a bit of a dream. I told him I was leaving and would call him when I got to the town of the SAO and after both of us rather unsuccessfully tried to figure out how to say good bye, we hung up. Now don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t headed out into the wild blue with no idea of how to reach it, I’ve got mind-boggling transportation vocabulary, but that tends to be a slight bit ineffective when most other words needed to effectively communicate have yet to be discovered. I trusted my limited language skills as well as my constant companion (Lonely Planet) and my ingenuity to get me to my desired location. I boarded the bus and it rumbled on its way. About 45 minutes into the trip my phone rang. Wisely, my counterpart had contacted members of his staff that spoke some English and we got a more concrete plan worked out. They told me to get off in the next town and they would come pick me up in their pick-up. The exchange went smoothly, and soon I was on my way through the mountains and forests of northern Thailand.

The highway to the town where my SAO is located runs directly through one of the first national parks in Thailand. The park is home to Thailand’s highest peak and a sight to be seen. The forests and landscapes were gorgeous and as the road wound its way up and down the mountains the vegetation constantly changed. It went from green jungle, to dry monsoon forest, to deciduous forests dispersed with pine trees. The road had enough curves to make even a Latin beauty jealous and was enough to make sick. For the first time in my life I got road sick and we had to stop alongside the road for me to take a precious few minutes. Soon after we stopped for my malady we arrived at the SAO. The decentralization of the government only began to take place after the new constitution of 1997 therefore nearly all Thai SAOs were constructed less than 10 years ago. The exception was mine. It is supposedly a temporary site to house the SAO until they have enough funds to relocate it in the sub-district that it represents. As I stated in my last blog, the location of my SAO is at least three hours by pickup truck from the actual location of the sub-district. The following day I would find out why. The current SAO is no more than what seems to be an oversized garage with several desks placed in side. Everything was spared for simplicity. I met the remaining staff who seemed to very genuine people, went to have a traditional Thai lunch with everyone spooning food onto their plates from common dishes with the utensils they have been eating with, and then study Thai for a few hours until closing time.

My counterpart, the “balat” or chief administrator, Kun No then took me to the bank to set up an account as well as to several other government offices. Thais love to comment of every physical aspect of a person and being overweight or not-so-good-looking, or for that matter any other undesirable physical attribute, will put you in a sometimes precarious position. They also love to show off their new “farang” employee. At every opportunity my balat was eager to point out how “law” (handsome) or “suung” (tall) I was. Every woman that I was introduced to was promptly followed by the question; “suai mai” (Is she beautiful?). Keep in mind the woman was nearly always standing right in front of me. The differences in cultural etiquette never cease to amaze me.

After many introductions we proceeded to a house where the SAO staff was preparing several chicken dishes. One was called what came to be translated as “underwater chicken.” It consisted of every part of a whole chicken put into a big pot, thoroughly mixed with seasonings, placed on a stove, covered with a bowl full of water, and left to cook. The purpose of the water in the bowl outside of the pot has continued to elude me, but “underwater chicken” it was. While that was cooking four of us hopped a fence to reach a dry rice patty where we dug a small hole where a cook-off would take place. A bottle of empty Thai whiskey was filled with water, a seasoned chicken was secured to the top, and an oversized tin can was placed over the top. We then placed copious amounts of rice straw on top and then proceeded to light it on fire and continue adding more for the next 15-20 minutes. It seemed like they quit putting straw on it rather prematurely, but the can was removed and I was immediately fed the first taste of the chicken. It was mighty tasty, but I am pretty convinced that my inability to properly chew it before I swallowed meant that there may have been a touch on the rare side. I ate it without protest. After the chickens were cooked we loaded up in the trucks in the direction of the river.

We arrived at the banks of the river and I saw one of the coolest “restaurants” I have encountered in all my travels. A few inches over the placid waters of the river and lit up by lights and candles were at least seven individual bamboo platforms covered by palm roofs. A small table was placed in the center and each person took their place sitting in the traditional Thai cross-legged style. We also sat in gender segregated platforms, yet another manifestation of Thai culture. We ate and drank for hours. The underwater chicken was served and was pretty tasty if you could get past the whole head and feet mixed up in the jumble of other body parts. Khun Chet inconspicuously helped himself to the eyeballs of from the chicken head and then no so inconspicuously explained to me in detail how he loved to eat the chicken brains while he ate them. The experience was nearly perfect, the only flaw being the need for me to be constantly shifting my sitting position due to the fact that I am probably the most non-flexible person this side of the Pacific Ocean. Sitting cross-legged was never in my repertoire in the US and it has been a chore getting used to it here. We finished eating and went back to Khun No’s house to supposedly prepare for our departure for my village early the next morning. After having traveled for many hours the past few days I needed no pressuring to get me to retire to the comfort of my sleeping bag placed strategically on the tile floor. The rest of the staff apparently didn’t have the same attitude and stayed up until the wee hours of the morning watching soccer and drinking Thai whiskey.

This is going to be a long one....bare with me!

The following morning we woke up before the crack of dawn and set out for my village “on the hill” as my PC program director likes to refer to it. Turns out the “the hill” is a mountain 100 km away. We set out on a paved highway that soon became a very well worn dirt road. We stopped at about 7:00 am to have breakfast at one of the many roadside eateries that skirt every Thai road. Sticking with the traditional Thai breakfast we all had red curry with chicken and vegetables. I have gotten used to eating what is considered dinner food in the US and this experience only strengthened that custom. This red curry was some of the best I have ever had. I couldn’t get enough of it. My co-workers noticed. For the next three days everyone we met not only found out that I was tall and handsome but also that I loved eating red curry. Very observant people the Thai are. After breakfast we once again set out. We went up mountains, around hills, through forests, and by waterfalls. We passed through several hill tribe villages where we stopped only long enough to collect some overdue taxes and be on our way. About 2.5 hours in to the journey I started to become very confused. We were passing through villages that I had seen in the pictures the PC had taken of my site and I had assumed they were all from the same town. Well they weren’t. We kept passing through villages and I would say to myself, “so this is where I’m going to be living for the next two years.” As soon as the thought entered my mind we quickly exited that village and were on to yet another. The villages are very remote and in most areas the road is no more than one car length wide and covered in a fine red soil that covered the vegetation on the side of the road. The houses were made purely of wood and the bright dress of the indigenous ladies stood in stark contrast to the mundane reds and browns of the villages. Noon soon snuck up on us and I soon found out that we would share lunch with a Karen family in one of the villages.

Like most poor rural farmers I have met in my travels abroad the family that hosted our lunch was very humble and overly generous. It is amazing how people with nothing in developing countries will not hesitate to offer a guest every earthly possession he/she has. How a culture of consumption can so drastically change these values never ceases to amaze me. The lunch had yet to be started when we arrived so we climbed the wooden stairs to the raised “living room” which consisted of an area that was covered with bamboo poles and bamboo mats. The SAO staff talked for a while with the family and soon the pillows were pulled out. We all relaxed and soon most of us were taking a mid-afternoon nap. As most of you know, I can think of nothing better than a nice nap in the middle of the day. After quite some time an elaborate meal was set out on the table. I began to eat and noticed that I didn’t recognize some of the food. By that time I had come to the realization that I should never ask what the food consisted of. The simple fact of knowing can make something inedible. Now, the way I go about things is if I try the food and if I like it, I eat it. It’s very simple. After eating and saying our goodbyes we were once again on our way.

One of the first places the balat took me was to an eco-resort in which the SAO had partnered with a private firm out of Chiang Mai to make a reality. It is a beautifully constructed resort made out of local woods and is integrated into the mixed pine and deciduous forests that surround it. It is at the headwaters of the Mae Chaem River which runs through the property. There are six nice little cabins set around a central green area that is adjacent to the small river. As you walk down one of the paths you come to the camping area that is filled with trees and green grass that would make perfect tent sites. It also has a fire pit and very nice bathroom facilities. The most admirable attribute about the resort is that nearly all its staff is hired from the local hill tribe villages and in the main reception area the local weavings and handicrafts are on display for sale. The SAO really wants to focus on bring appropriate tourism to the area and one of my main objectives is to help make this a reality. It should prove to be a rewarding experience. We drove on through more simple but senic villages and soon we came to one of the schools that I will be working with.

As soon as we stepped out of the truck we were getting numerous very courteous “whys” from all the curious school children. We met the principal who was a short stubby man with a round face and a welcoming smile. He spoke broken English, but was very eager to use it with me. He expressed his pleasure to have me in the community and promptly ask me to address the children over the loud speaker. It was the end of the school day and the children were lined up in from of the school for the lowering of the flag and for daily announcements. All the students are Karen children and many come from very remote villages. Given this fact most of the children leave their village and stay in student dorms on the school’s campus in order to attend school. The principal ushered me up front and very enthusiastically told the students a few words about me. I was promptly given the microphone and I said pretty much all I could in Thai. After finishing the principal, with an excitement in his voice, gave a final address in English and then in Thai and the children were free to go. As we exited the school the children once again greeted us with wide smiles and deep “whys”. We then went to the secondary school were the principal seemed eager to have me in the village, but less for a cultural exchange or community development purposes and more because he believed that I could be persuaded to teach English in his school. I told him very politely that I’m not an English teacher but that I could periodically be persuaded to help clarify tough English grammar.

After visiting the schools were heading through town where I met the Nayok or elected CEO of the SAO. It was specifically stated that he was known for his excessive drinking habits, but first impressions portrayed a quite man that was very interested in my presence in his community. After a brief talk we drove out of the village and ended up in the “Hill Tribe Resource Center” which sits just outside of the village. I soon met Ajan Tete who is an Indian lady that speaks perfect English and who has been living in Thailand for more than twenty years. She is an evangelical Christian who is married to a Karen man and has been working with the hill tribe people to help them reduce their indices of poverty and increase their educational opportunity. Given my views on religion I was rather skeptical of her motivations and my ability to identify with her goals. I entered with an open mind and I was rewarded greatly. Ajan Tete is an amazing lady and was elated to have me working in the community because she viewed me as a partner who could help her in her community development efforts. She offered to allow me to stay at her center the whole time I would be a PCV and any other help I needed. We had dinner and as I ate I noticed the air getting steadily cooler. At that point I truly knew we were in the mountains. It reminded me of being in the Bighorns and as soon as the sun disappeared behind the peaks the temperature had went from summer to late fall in the matter of minutes. We retired to our rooms. When I woke up in the morning the degree to which the night had cooled off the area was astounding. The first breath that came out of my mouth was a steady puff of white steam. I felt like I was camping and had just woken up and was scampering for the fire as I ran to my backpack to find as many layers of clothing as possible. I’m not sure the exact temperature, but I’m sure it was not as cold as I thought it was, it was simple exacerbated by the fact that I had been living in god awful heat for the previous five weeks. I made a mental note to myself that I must not forget to purchase one of the famous Thai electric water heaters. Two years of comfort is far more valuable than the $150 it will cost to buy it!

We were called to breakfast and as soon as we had started eating the Nyoke once again showed up. We all sat down and had a great discussion (because of Ajan Tete’s translation capabilities) about what the SAOs as well as my own goals and expectations were. They are expecting a lot out of me and I hope that in the end I help them accomplish many of their goals. After our meeting we hit the road for Chiang Mai. Only 140 km stand between my site and Chiang Mai yet the drive takes more than 4 hours. It is dirt road for about the first 25 km and then it is surprisingly well maintained paved highways. The road twists and turns its way through the mountains passing once again from pine forests, to seemingly desolate leafless monsoon forests, to highland cloud forests, and once again to the agricultural valley of Chiang Mai. From this point on the fun and excitement was essentially over and I got to look forward to a 16 hour bus ride back to our hub site and the oh so pleasant heat!