Friday, April 13, 2007

Photo Journal

An outing hotspot for local Thais. This is a spring that flows out of the mountain into the very elegantly built sandbag pools. Notice that Thais swim in all their clothes. Thailand is such a country of contradictions. Bangkok is know as sex tourism country yet in most areas the people are very conservative and won't even show a bare piece of skin. This also is due to the fact that Thais believe that white skin is very attractive and wouldn't want to expose themselves to the sun for fears that they may get darker!

This is a wat that is outside of my current home which is purported to have received the Buddha on one of his trips to Thailand. There is a natural spring where the Buddha was said to have washed his face and now is considered to be holy water.
This is my first cockfighting match I have attended. Cockfighting has been part of Thai society for centuries and it is still very popular now. In fact, my counterpart is a cockfighting enthusiast. He raises many roosters and recently he won 20,000 baht in a match. For me the matches were pretty lackluster and dull and I probably won't be attending any more. One note: the roosters don't actually die in the fighting. There is a winner when the other rooster shies away from the fight.This is a picture of the beginning of Song Kran festival (Thai new year). The wet pavement is a telltale sign that you are in for some trouble!

This is a view of my site from one of the mountains overlooking the town. This is a typical little structure that is used as a place of refuge for the farmers as they labor away in 100 degree heat.

The road to nowhere. Just how I like it! I'm truly and forever connected to the mountains. I couldn't think of a much better site placement. As I sat on this hill I could hear the birds singing, something I hadn't heard for quite some time. It reminded me of a summer afternoon in Wyoming.Although this hill does not look impressive because of the lack of perspective, it was. It took all I had to bike up this hill. In fact, each peddle I took as I reach the middle of the hill my front tire would lift every so slightly off the pavement. Going up was a chore, but it was all worth it for the views and ultimately having the time of my life going down!
It really seems like paradise! This is the Mae Chaem River with Doi Intonon (Thailand's tallest peak) in the background.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Dancing Shrimp and Rice Whiskey

This past Sunday I actually got to relax a little bit and take some time on my own. The the whole idea of alone time is very contrary to Thai society. I am staying at No’s house in the extra room at his rental house. His family lives near Chiang Mai so most weekends he stays there, but Saturday night was the first night I was going to be alone. All of my friends were very worried that I might be scared of Thai ghosts and were doubtful that I could stay alone. The doubt was sufficient that No made Boi (my friend and one of the SAO staff members) come stay at the house. I told them not to worry about it and that I had lived on my own for the past seven years, but my persuasion obviously wasn’t very effective. Thailand has a very communal society and outside of the cities there are very few people who live on their own. It is actually a lot like Latin American society, you live with your family until you get married and whenever you do something you are always accompanied by another person. It is quite a sharp contrast with the extreme individualism in the States.

On Sunday I gave Elenor (the other volunteer in the town of my SAO) a call to see how things had been for her and to see if she wanted to hop on our bikes and do some exploring of the town. We met up to have some lunch and then went to the market to search for a few needed items. At the market I experienced my first Song Kran soaking. Song Kran is a Thai festival that is coming up that is basically a giant drinking fest and water fight. Apparently people just hang out, drink, and douse every unsuspecting person with water. It was suggested that during that week we wear no good clothes and make sure to leave our cell phone home or keep it in a plastic bag. It doesn’t officially start until April 12, but here in my town they like to get things started early. A girl in the market saw the big tall farang as an irresistible target and got me pretty good with her squirt gun. Unfortunately for her I was looking at squirt guns that her father was selling and he got the gun from her in order to demonstrate it for me. Before he got finished with it I had convinced him to let me try it out. His daughter was then sprayed, by me, repeatedly with her own gun! It was pretty funny. The second time, I was riding my bike home on Monday and was thoroughly doused by some kids. Today I had to keep a constant look out for wet spots on the streets because I knew that there would be kids lurking in the shadow just itching to get the farang, but all my caution didn’t work and one boy jumped out of the bushes and tail end of his splash got me directly in the chest.

The rest of the day was spent riding around and exploring. Elenor had been brought to a resort that sold Western food so we decided to bike up there so I could check it out and have something to drink. The owner is a Finish man and his Thai wife with his adopted daughter who really is running the place. She speaks perfect English and showed us around the place. I got the OK to go swimming there as long as we ate something while we were there. I think that is on my agenda tomorrow given that it is a holiday and it has been getting progressively hotter as the hot season has stretched on. Sunday night I met up with the guys from the SAO to celebrate one of their birthdays. It was a great time eating drinking and talking in both Thai and English. It is great to have those guys around because they speak a little English and are very eager to help me with my Thai as well as get a little help with their English. In Thailand, when you are at any social gathering your glass will never, ever, ever be empty. No matter what you are drinking, as soon as it gets less than half full someone will be filling it up. This turned out to make things a little out of control for this little birthday party get together. The conversation continued and the food and beer did too. Eighteen liter bottles of beer later I will just say I was not sober. I rode my bike home, which luckily was not very far, but I’m sure that the line I rode was about as straight as the mountain roads going to my village. It was a fun experience.

Monday morning I went to work and was luckily saved by No when he let me know that that afternoon we would be leaving for my village once again. The idea of not having to suffer through a hung over day of sitting at the SAO elated me. Of course going to my village involved a night layover in Chiang Mai city because it is too far to drive all the way to the village in one afternoon. The most interesting part of my Chiang Mai excursion was our dinner that night. No let me know that we would be eating “gon den” or “dancing shrimp.” We all got a kick out of the name, but I wasn’t quite sure what dancing shrimp consisted of. I figured that anything with shrimp in it would be pretty tasty and I didn’t have to worry. For once I was right. When the order was brought to our table is consisted of a whole fish deep fried, a plate of bamboo meal worms, the famous “pat gra-pow,” and of course the dancing shrimp. The dancing shrimp were in a small bowl with a lid on it. Boi and Chet were pretty anxious to show me the meal and opened up the bowl just enough to peek in. They then proceeded to shake the bowl and open it with exclamations of “goon den!” They stuck a spoon in and little live shrimp about an inch and a half long came jumping out. They were jumping off the table, into our laps, and into the other food. I was laughing so hard that I forgot we were supposed to be eating them. They quickly replaced the lid and then it was a game to eat the dancing shrimp before they could dance away. If I could have only had a movie of it! It will be obligatory for anyone who comes to visit me to eat “dancing shrimp!” I guess I should mention that I ate the bamboo meal worms, which basically tasted like French fries. On the way to my village they also picked up several bags of insects and I tried some kind of larva. It actually had a taste that wasn’t horrible, but I sure wasn’t going to eat them like popcorn as were doing the rest of my Thai friends.

I found out off handedly that the purpose of our trip to the village was to bring an engineer to check out some of the construction projects that were going on the some of the villages. We first went and saw a well and a pump that had been constructed in order to provide water for a few houses in the proximity of where I will be living. We then took off to the one Lisu village that is in the Sub-district. There was a festival going on and everyone in the community had gathered in a family compound and were cooking mass amounts of food and of course drinking a fair bit of alcohol. We were quickly sat down in the house where all the men resided while the women continued cooking and eating outside. Most of the villagers were chewing a sort of nut which when combined with a type of mud and a leaf produced a bright red paste that was eaten. Well this past also made their mouth and teeth a deep red. It reminded me of the Quechua in Peru and Bolivia who chewed the coca leaves in the same manner and had mouths and teeth that were stained green. The similarities between the indigenous areas of Latin America and my new home in Thailand are pretty astounding.

Not long after sitting down we were handed blue plastic coffee mugs that were promptly filled with their local alcoholic specialty, rice whiskey. Now I have had some strong alcohol in my day, but this concoction would take the paint off a car. In most similar situations it has been said that as long as you don’t drink the whole thing then the host will most likely not fill it up and will be content with you sitting there holding the drink. Well this was not true in our little outing. Ever four or five minutes one of the men would go around cheers-ing the table. I tried to take little sips, but it was useless. One good thing was that the alcohol was good at covering up the taste of the slab of pig liver that was cut directly off the whole liver sitting in the middle of the table. I have seen Thais, in particular the SAO staff, eat some pretty funky stuff, but it was soon apparent that pig liver wasn’t included in that extensive menu of tastes. A couple choked it down and everyone at least made an effort to take one bite. We thought we were saved when one of the men set up another table as the food started to arrive. Five of us moved down there with two of the Lisu men. As soon as we sat down the remaining pieces of liver were set on the table in a discreet manner.

It was still only about 11:00 am and most of us were not all that hungry, but we ate nevertheless. One other thing that attracted little interest from the group was the raw minced pork mixed with spices. It is quite a tasty creation when cooked and is called “lap muu,” but the combination of being raw and that most meat hangs out in 100 degree temperature with no lack of flies to land on it made it a little unappealing to me. I ate the other items which were quite tasty and was the first to start to get low on rice. I really didn’t want any more rice, but as soon as the Lisu elder saw that I was getting low he offered me more. I tried to decline, but he was very insistent that I ate more and basically grunted and gestured for me to hand him my bowl. I figured that since I was a farang and had limited language skills that to accept the rice and eat it would be the best thing to do. I figured that my Thai friends would be more successful in avoiding having to eat more, but once again I was wrong (this is becoming a reoccurring theme). It was one of the funniest things I have seen. The village elder went around to each person and asked them if they would like more. Each person tried their best to decline more rice, but the grunts and the hand gestures got the best of them. By the time he got around to Boi who was sitting right next to me I was almost crying from laughing. I tried to hold it back, but I just couldn’t. The whole experience just was one of the funniest things I have ever seen. Mostly because of the reactions of the Thais whom I expected to be accustomed to these situations but were clearly disheveled. This highlights the fact that they were really as much a foreigner in this hill tribe village as I was. Not by physical appearance, but certainly by culture!

After eating we headed out to some more of the projects which consisted of a pretty significant water project in one of the communities. We went and inspected several water tanks that were being constructed and then headed to a dam that was being built up the in forest. The forest was amazing and was basically an upland rainforest. We hiked along a narrow path running high on the hillside above a small stream. We arrived at the construction site which consisted of about six men collecting various size rocks to distribute at the base of a slowly developing dam. They had already poured a small cement wall and were shoring up the bottom with the rocks. The dam was in a very small canyon that filled with large tropical trees. The damn would be no more than six feet tall, but would supply sufficient water to the storage tanks lower down in the community. When we got there we discovered that there was a small waterfall just a few hundred feet up the stream. It was pretty idyllic, but would soon be underwater after the dam was finished. We also found that the workers had caught a snapping turtle and it was just too irresistible of an opportunity to take photos with it. I heard one of my friends asking the workers if they would eat it. I didn’t really get the answer, but everything that moves is “gin dai” or edible to the Thais. The engineer checked out the progress and we were off to see another one of the water tanks.

Now when we arrived at the next site I could hear the laughter of children. I could see a large cement structure above some of the water tanks so it curiously crept towards it. As I inched up I saw that the local water supply had become a swimming pool for the local kids. I can’t think of anything more unsanitary, but it apparently didn’t bother the Thai adults that were hanging out at the house at the base. Hygiene is for the most part really good in Thailand, but it appears that there are certain things that you can disregard. I’ll just remember not to drink the water if I go to that village again!

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Token Farang

My first week at site has been quite a trip, literally. I arrived at the town of my SAO on Monday morning and spent the rest of the day just getting my things situated and talking with the staff. Tuesday morning we left early for my village for the official start of “sports week,” a very popular activity in Thailand.

The day before we left I had mentioned to the Balat (No) that some friends of mine had told me that there was a town called Pai close to my village that was very pretty. No said that we could go on a “bai-tiow” (a very popular Thai term that basically means to go visit a place), but never said when for sure. I found out quickly enough. On our way to my village we made a little detour and went to Pai. It is a town in the mountains of Chiang Mai Province that is a backpacker haven and has lots of small cafes, hostels, and restaurants. From all the praise that I got it really left something to be desired. The gist of this story is that No has went out of his way to accommodate me.

To keep things simple I’m going to skip irrelevant and boring description of events that aren’t all that interesting and focus on funny happenings. Sports week was exactly that; a week of sports. I spent the majority of my time watching the sports going on and meeting people in the community. From day one I played the role of “token white guy.” I was called out during the opening ceremonies to say a few things in my broken Thai and was given the celebrity treatment as I was placed in the couches on the school porch and served cold soda. I was introduced to all the important people in the community including principals, SAO council members, soldiers, village chiefs, and federal government workers. At the closing ceremonies I was called to hand out one of the trophies and get my picture taken in front of the sign commemorating “Sports Week 2550” (Buddhist calendar year). The other trophies were all handed out by the aforementioned important community members, which placed me in some pretty prestigious company. Most volunteers get this treatment and most of the current and former volunteers have assured me that after a while it wears off. They say at first it is welcomed because being constantly the center of attention can get tiresome, but after it is gone it is actually missed. I really will at some point in time have to get my own glass of water!

Since the SAO is in the other city and all the staff lives there, there is no permanent place for everyone to stay when they are in the villages. This was remedied through a home stay. We stayed with a local family who I imagine hosts the SAO staff quite frequently. Each night the staff and the family cooked an elaborate meal, usually including chicken soup with every part of the chicken included, bones, head, innards and all, which we promptly ate while sitting Indian style on the floor. No I am not a flexible individual to begin with and sitting Indian style does a number on my joints. I am constantly shifting around and when it is time to get up to leave it takes about five minutes before feeling returns to my legs. I better make stretching a daily activity because I don’t think meals on the floor are going to be all that uncommon in the next two years!

I had two fun experiences with the family we stayed with. First was catching frogs to eat. When it was getting dark I was asked if I wanted to go frog hunting. Of course I agreed, it would be like reliving my childhood in Wyoming hunting frogs in the marshes and swamps around Buffalo. Well as you can guess it wasn’t the same. We went out into the rice patties around the house with two lights. One was my headlamp strategically placed on my forehead and a lamp that was carried by the father of the family. I figured with my experience I would be fairly good at catching frogs, but as you could guess, I was wrong! The father started spotlighting the fields and soon afterwards he was rapidly heading in the direction of his prey. I didn’t see the first frog he caught until he was putting it into the bag I was holding, but I was sure it was just because I wasn’t paying attention. This time as he spotlighted I searched for myself with my little headlamp. Well, before long he was off again and I was left scrambling to keep up. I never did see one of the frogs before he pulled out of a crack and tossed in my bag. It is beyond me how he did it, but it was entertaining.

Secondly, we went on a fishing expedition with the whole SAO staff and the mother of the family. We drove for quite some time and then got out for a little hike. We hiked down to a gorgeous stream that provided a cool refuge from the heat of the day. Right now it is the middle of the hot season and although it is much cooler than it was in Sa Kaeo, it is still hot. The forest in this area is monsoonal and most of the leaves had fallen off the trees in order to conserve moisture. Near the stream there were green shrubs and plenty of bamboo. It seemed to me like Thai scenery right off a postcard.

Once we got to the stream it was down to business. We were equipped with a big fishing net and several small nets that were loops with netting covering it. Once again, I thought my mountain upbringing had prepared me for catching fish in these nets. The hours I spent in Clear Creek running through downtown Buffalo catching minnows and every other moving organism are innumerable, but in the end were insufficient to help me with my Thai fishing. I wet my net several times before it was confiscated by one of my co-workers in order to show me the right way to do it. In the end very few fish were caught, but several thousand tadpoles couldn’t evade the capture from my Thai friends. Everyone got into the act. Some people were in the water gathering loads of leaves from the bottom of the stream and depositing them on the bank. The others were sifting through the leaves looking for the fat little tadpoles. After a sufficient amount of the wiggling creatures found their way into the bottom of our plastic bag they were once again deposited on the shore for the next procedure. Apparently it is fine to eat tadpoles, but it is not alright to eat them whole, which is unusual in Thailand where they eat most every animal and insect whole. For those of you who love animals or who have a week stomach it is best if you skip the following section. I would say that tadpoles are made up of 50% guts and eating that was not acceptable and there was a very easy way around it. Grasping firmly, the tadpole can be squeezed until what looked to be intestines would just pop out of their mouth or another orifice. The whole group sat next to the bank for quite some time very content popping tadpoles and discussing life.

I had another interesting experience with a “soldier Thailand.” His name is Hin and he is the local army officer. In this area there are quite a few soldiers. I think it is because it was traditionally a poppy growing region and drugs get funneled through some of the areas from Burma to Chiang Mai city. Anyway, he is a typical army man. He bought me a coke and sat me down to talk. He was decked out in his camouflaged get up that included a pistol, knife, and aviator glasses. He was a pretty nice guy, but had the soldier mentality. He explained in detail about his rank and the stripes he had on his soldier and how much higher up he was than another army guy who passed before us in a jeep. He very nonchalantly told me how he had to kill a few Lisu people the other week because they were involved in drugs and then asked me if I had ever shot a gun. I said I had and then he wanted to know if I had shot an AK47. Well I hadn’t and I found out the reason why he had asked me. Old Soldier Hin arrived at the closing ceremonies with his AK47 in hand. He proudly showed it off to me and after the speeches were given it was Soldier Hin who went out in the soccer and blasted a few rounds off into the sky to mark the end of the festivities.

After all this was over we had the long drive back to the town of the SAO. It is 100 km of roads only wide enough for one car and winding through the mountainous backcountry of the Chiang Mai Province. I was exhausted from hanging out in the sun all day, but my co-workers sure weren’t. At dinner before we left they decided to finish off the whiskey leftover from Chiang Mai and then continue to drink beer the rest of the way home while No and I sat sober in the front of the pickup. It was a barrage of drunken English questions for three hours when all I wanted to do was sit back and let my mind wander off into oblivion. It gets taxing spending every waking hour with people who are for all purposes are strangers with whom you can’t understand. Welcome, Garrett, to the Peace Corps!

Friday, April 6, 2007

Swearing In

As of Friday I am officially a Peace Corps Volunteer! Training is over and I can’t be happier. I’ve had enough of sitting around in conference rooms for eight hours a day having people talk to me. The last few weeks have been interesting and I think for the most part it is due to the fact that I have gotten some insight from current volunteers. Group 118 volunteers were amazed that our hub site in Sa Kaeo didn’t have air conditioning and that we actually had so few hub days. Apparently we endured one of the harshest training sites of the past few years. It has been rumored that Sa Kaeo was one of the last picks and that we only ended up there because several of the other sites had recently flooded and wouldn’t have been prepared for our arrival. To make things worse a lot of the residents of Sa Kaeo spoke Isan, which is the language they speak in northeastern Thailand and is pretty much unintelligible with Central Thai. I think many of us picked up some accents not congruent with the sites we will be working in. Oh well, it’s just another brick in the road.

We traveled to Bangkok last Sunday and spent the week doing some final training sessions and preparing for our momentous swearing in ceremony. Of course we took advantage of the week in Bangkok to explore the city. It is an enormous modern city planned in haste and consequently suffers from all the maladies of such. It is spread out across a large area and has horrible traffic. It is consistently in the high 90s and often in the 100s. It has ornate Buddhist temples, gleaming high rises, polluted rivers, steamy over-crowded markets, and did I mention the traffic. Everything costs about five times as much in Bangkok as in Sa Kaeo and a PCV’s salary surely isn’t sufficient. I suppose that is why no one is placed there. It is an Asian center for shopping and the malls are more extravagant and abundant than any other place I have ever visited. Gucci, Ferrari, and Rolex are mainstays in the malls while a few blocks away you can find the cheaply made similarly priced goods in the street markets. Pirating is ubiquitous. I could spend pages on what Bangkok is like and only scratch the surface, so I will let you fulfill your need to hear about it by purchasing one of the thousands of travel books written on this interesting locale.

Our main reason for being in Bangkok was our swearing in and working with our counterparts to come to a mutual understanding of the goals of the PC, ourselves, and our counterparts. I think that went very well in my situation. My SAO is very realistic and understands that it will be quite some time before I can actually begin to develop and implement projects within the community. My six month plan called for a lot of trips to the villages I will be working with, a lot of language study, and a lot of getting to know the culture and the people. When we finished figuring that out it was down to business. We had to get the protocol for meeting the Princess.

In case I haven’t mentioned it, the royal family is kind of a big deal in Thailand. In fact it is more than a big deal. I don’t think words can describe how reverent the Thai people are towards their king and his family. Before leaving Sa Kaeo we all received our bright yellow, shiny, shirts. A suit was what we were originally told to bring, but I think with a little persuasion from the Thai staff we were required to be uniform in order to pay respects to the Princess.

In the week leading up to the swearing in ceremony we had more sessions about various PC things but we also had the opportunity to discuss with our counterparts our roles and expectations for the next two years. My counterparts are really great and I think they have just the right expectations for me for the next six months to a year. I am going to study Thai and get to know the communities that are represented by the SAO. I think any higher expectation wouldn’t reflect the reality of being a PC volunteer.

The swearing in ceremony was a pretty elaborate deal and it went really well. We were all dressed in our shiny yellow and actually looked not too bad. We went through all of the protocol and although it was supposed to be about our swearing in it was by far more about the pomp and circumstance. We got pictures with the Princess and I was about one foot away. It is hard for me being an American to be awed by a royal person because of our lack of having that institution and for the fact that to me a human is a human and a privileged birth should not change that status. It will be neat to have the picture anyway! After the ceremony was over I ran in to one of the volunteers from group 117 that I knew. He asked me if I wanted to be interviewed by a PC Washington staff about my training experience. During the interview the lady running the interview found out I was a Masters International student and told me that she was doing a video for that program. She asked me if she could film me on the streets of Bangkok for the film. It turned out to be a pretty funny thing. First of all, the last place you are going to find a PC volunteer in Thailand is Bangkok. Secondly I was wearing dress shoes and a bright yellow shirt and finally I was getting shot in front of a Gucci store. I can’t wait to see that on video! After we got done I pretty much said my goodbyes to everyone and went out to celebrate with some of the 117 and 118 volunteers because I was staying the night that night.

The following day I had a doctor’s appointment so I got to stay one more night in Bangkok while most everyone else left for their sites with their counterparts. I went to the hospital with one of my fellow volunteers who had been to the hospital previously. I didn’t think about looking at my directions and figured I was going to the same hospital everyone else was going to. Well that was a mistake. I arrived at the hospital a few minutes early, went to check in, and was politely told that this wasn’t the hospital I was supposed to be at. It had taken us 1.5 hours to get from our hotel to that hospital and I figured I would miss my appointment. I jumped into a taxi and made it just in time. The hospitals in Bangkok are amazing. More like shopping malls and luxury hotels than hospitals. It was very efficient and the doctor spoke perfect English and was very knowledgeable. They take your picture and issue you an ID on the spot. It was far nicer than any hospital I have ever been to in the States. Ah the joys of full government health coverage where we are provided top notch services and don’t have to pay a dime! I was in and out in less than an hour.

After the hospital I talked to a couple of my friends that were still in town and we decided to meet up for one last Western meal at the Siam Paragon. I was a lot closer and got there some time earlier. I was wandering around when I ran into two volunteers from group 118 that I had met early that week. Danai and Jay took a lot longer than expected (because of traffic) so I decided to have sushi with Prasad and Brian. I know sushi isn’t quite western, but it was pretty delicious. It was also great to sit there with those guys and get the low down on what it was really like being a volunteer in Thailand. They kept on stressing that I would have tons and tons of time to occupy. At one point we started talking about doing laundry and I told them that while I was in Sa Kaeo doing laundry was the low point of my week. They agreed with me that laundry wasn’t that fun, but they confessed that as the months went by they started looking forward to doing laundry because it took up time. They basically told me that any activity that could take up time was welcomed. If anyone wants to send me books I think that is a very good hint that I will be needing them even more than I had originally thought. When Danai and Jay finally showed up I met them at the Outback Steakhouse along with Areerat and had a delicious iced tea with them. We sat around quite some time, walked around several malls trying to set up some wireless internet to no avail, watched a concert, and then said our good-byes. I got Danai to take me to the train station and I took the over-night train to Chiang Mai (much more comfortable than the over-night bus).

Right now I am sitting at my counterpart’s (balat) house in a town outside of Chiang Mai. He came and picked me up at the train station early this morning and I have had pretty much a whole day to relax. It was exactly what I needed. I think I had been running off of no more than 2-3 hours of sleep every night for the past week. Tomorrow we are off to my site. It will be the unofficial start to my Peace Corps Service. More crazy experiences will be soon to come!

I hope everyone finds themselves well and enjoying life as much as I am!