Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Alone, never!

I haven’t written a blog for quite some time because there hasn’t been a whole lot to tell. Most of my days are either spent in the SAO office learning Thai or in the car driving between my village and the office. Wedged in between are meetings where I get to sit around and not understand more than five or six words every ten minutes, but I suppose that is the nature of learning a language. In fact, I know! I always catch myself reflecting back on my language learning experience in Guatemala and in some respects it provides solace and in others anguish. It has calmed my nerves about the rate of language acquisition but has brought on slight depression knowing how long it will take before having a somewhat intellectually stimulating conversation is not like trying to figure out a calculus equation....but life goes on!

I recently got selected to be the representative from Group 119 to be on the Project Advisory Committee (PAC) for the Community-Based Organizational Development (CBOD) program. I will be working with the Thai government, Peace Corps directors, and receiving input from current volunteers in order to evaluate the current CBOD program and formulate future project frameworks. I think it is an excellent opportunity and will put to use some of the very expensive skills that I acquired in graduate school. My first meeting will be next week and I am eager to see how it goes.

Last week I had a little business outing with the SAO staff. The SAO bought hundreds of frogs, thousands of fish, and several pigs for the villagers in the tambon to raise. I went with No to the fish farm and picked up nearly a hundred bags of fingerling catfish that were packed into the bed of the pickup for the four hour journey to the tambon. I was a little skeptical that the fish would survive the journey in the brutal Thai heat, but soon we were on our way. We met Boy and Eood a short while later and found out that the acquisition of the frogs was pretty poorly planned. They had bought plastic clothes baskets to transport the frogs but had only cardboard to cover them with. With frogs being a fairly wet species it isn’t hard to imagine the outcome of this action. The cardboard soon became thoroughly soaked and frogs were having a hoe-down in the back of Eood’s pickup. We stopped near a market, in the hot sun, and proceeded to buy more baskets to place over the other basket. Frogs were jumping everywhere and I was running around chasing them try not to get run over by the cars speeding by on the road not three feet from where we parked. All the while the fish are in the back of the other truck sitting in water that had to be at about boiling point. It was funny how slow my Thai friends worked to get those frogs back into the baskets. I don’t think there was much thought about the state of the fish. When we finally arrived in the tambon there were at least 20 frogs dead and what seemed to be half of the fish, although I haven’t heard official numbers (as if there would be any). Even though the operation was not a total success it makes me happy to see that my SAO is actually supporting community projects because many of my friends who are in the CBOD program find their SAO to be office oriented and unwilling to venture out into the communities they represent.

This trip was the first visit I had made to my village since the beginning of the rainy season. I thought it was gorgeous up there before and now it simply seems like paradise. The formerly nude forest is abound with leaves and greenery and the rice patties have new rice shoots creating a carpet of green. The temperature was in the mid 80s (cool by Thailand standards) and the sun was shining brightly. I visited my future house which is still under construction and I couldn’t be happier with it. There is a rather funny/frustrating story to go with my house visit.

I found out a few weeks ago that the SAO is getting moved up to my village. It appears now that the women will stay at the current office and the men will move up to the village. This is great because I have become good friends with everyone that works here and I will have easier access to the resources of the SAO. But there is a little hitch. Like I have stated before, there are very few houses that are vacant in my village given that most of the residents are poor farmers. Due to this fact, my SAO assumed that two of the SAO staff would stay with me in my house. I have been debating whether it is because they don’t have a place to live, that they feel like it is a good opportunity to get a free place to live because the Peace Corps is paying for my house, or that they just have the overwhelming Thai thought that no one should ever be alone for more than 20 minutes. My house has three bedrooms and I felt guilty telling them that I wanted to live alone, especially since housing is so hard to come by. I rationalized my decision in this manner: although I am good friends with the guys in my SAO, I just need some private space. I know if they were to live with me my house would quickly become the community gathering spot and I would have no privacy whatsoever. I also figured it is not my responsibility to bear the burden of yet another poorly planned Thai endeavor. Before they decided to move all these people up there they should have secured proper housing, and proper does not mean my house!

What it all comes down to is that Thais don’t understand how individualistic Americans are. I can spend time by myself and be arguably happier than with a big group of people. This is something that Thais just can’t comprehend. Plus, Thais are deathly afraid of Thai ghosts (I am not kidding) and being alone would leave a person vulnerable to them. I guess I will just have to tell them that I will use some of the devices that Americans have invented in order to eliminate all the ghosts from my country. I think it is time to unveil the Ghostbusters series!

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

"Gin Dai!"

So I have found out that Thais will eat pretty much everything. When I say pretty much anything I mean not only any animate object but also every part of that animate object. It never ceases to amaze me the things that are bought to eat and even more so the random animals or insects that are caught with an enthusiastic “gin dai” or “it’s edible.” Last night is a case in point. We were returning late from Chiang Mai where we had just finished getting quotes on catfish and frogs that the SAO is purchasing for the villagers to raise. The road to the town of the SAO zigzags through a heavily forested and mountainous national park. It was nearing midnight and I was half asleep. All the sudden I felt the car lurch forward and thud underneath the wheels. Before I knew it the truck was in reverse heading towards the unfortunate animal that had crossed our path. Before the car was stationary Boi jumped out and I was close behind him. In my grogginess the only words that could come out of my mouth was “what is it, what is it?” Both Boi and No had no idea what it was, but as they hurriedly threw it into the back of the pickup they assured me that “gin dai.”

As soon as we were once again headed down the mountain, both Boi and No got a kick out of telling me that we would be eating this animal for breakfast. Before we arrived back in town several friends had been called and there was a little congregation when we finally arrived at the house. By this time it was nearly 1:00 am, but that didn’t persuade my Thai friends from starting up a bond fire and going about the business of skinning and gutting this animal. I went to bed but woke up periodically to boisterous banter near the fire outside of my room. When I woke up this morning, the animal, which looked like a cross between a pig and a badger with a very pungent odor, was carried around like a trophy. We arrived at the SAO and sure enough they began preparing it for our late breakfast. In case I haven’t mentioned this yet, Thais do not distinguish between breakfast, lunch, and dinner food. In fact, in American terms everything in Thailand is dinner. When the animal was finally in its final meal form it was the traditional spicy Thai curry/soup, but unfortunately even the aromatic Thai spices couldn’t cover up the odor of the meat of this animal. There were huge chunks of fatty skin, bones, and some meat. My friends ate it as if it were the best food they had had in ages. No kept joking with me that if you eat this that you would be big and strong. Either that or die from some tropical animal borne jungle disease! Well I had a few bites and took my leave. Just another day in my life as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand!

Oh, Song Kran

Once again I have gotten behind on my blogs so it is now time to try to rehash what has happened in the last three weeks. The reason I haven’t been able to write is that I have been here, there, and everywhere in between. Oh, and there’s that little thing called Song Kran. I guess that would be the most logical place to start.

I know I have written about Song Kran before, but now I have actually lived through the festival. Like I stated earlier, it is the Thai New Year which consists primarily of heavy drinking and water fights. That pretty much sums up my Song Kran experience, but with a few minor exceptions. By the time the actual holiday rolled around I was sick and tired of getting splashed with water. It would have been so much more fun if everyone hadn't been soaking me for the three weeks prior to the festival. Oh well, that's life! One of the rituals is to go and get sand out of the river and place a small amount at each wat in the village. Of course, even this is an interesting experience given that there are usually big processions going to each wat, 99 percent of the people are drunk and partying in the wat, and all of the monks are running around throwing water on the festival participants. It was something I could have ever imagined I would be doing in Thailand. I always had the impression of the wat as a haven of tranquility and monks as a reserved and reverent group of people. Man was I wrong! I also went with Dio to the local swimming hole where I ate my first crickets. Not too bad to tell you the truth!

It wasn't as bad as it looked!

On one of the last days of Song Kran Eleanor and I went to Chiang Mai with the staff from her SAO. We were going to participate in the main parade that files its way through Chiang Mai’s narrow streets. Representatives from each village and SAO represented our tambon along with my tall farang self and Eleanor. Hundreds of Thais and farangs lined the streets with water in hand. Everyone in the parade was a target, but being the only farang walking in it made me an irresistible mark. At one point in time I heard someone in the crowd say, “that tambon has a farang!” and they proceeded to douse me with ice water. Eleanor is of Asian descent so most Thais just think she is another Thai, therefore she was not targeted like I was. I decided that I needed to take things in my own hands and went and got a bucket from one of the spectators and got her good. Along the way I was continuously fed "lao khao" or Thai rice wine but the funniest little guy. He is from the town of my SAO and he thought it was just about the funniest thing that the farang was drinking "lao khao" and that he would be getting really drunk pretty soon. Well I think in his inebriated state he thought I was more drunk than I was, but it was still pretty funny.

He really did like feeding me that Thai whiskey!

It was back to work on Wednesday and by Friday I was already leaving again. I had a doctor’s appointment in Bangkok on Saturday so I had to leave in the early afternoon to Chiang Mai so I could supposedly catch an overnight train to Bangkok. When I arrived in Chiang Mai I soon found out that the train was full so I decided to just relax and head to the train station later that evening. The plan was to catch one of the many buses that go to Bangkok each night, but plans don't always turn out like one would wish. I had a Mexican dinner with my Thai teacher who lives in Chiang Mai and afterwards went to the bus station. There were an unusually large number of people at the station and I headed towards the first ticket booth with a little bit of trepidation. Sure enough, their bus was all sold out. On to the next one: sold out. It continued this way until I finally came to a booth with a group of people eagerly trying to buy tickets. I squeezed my way through and managed to get a ticket, much to my relief. Well this bus turned out not to be one of the luxurious overnight buses that I was used to. It was a normal bus with seats that barely reclined and no toilet. This was for a 10 hour trip! To further complicate things the attendants would not give me a receipt which I needed in order to be reimbursed by Peace Corps, the bus would not go to the normal bus station, and the Mexican food I ate was doing a number on my stomach. I suffered through the night but finally arrived in Bangkok and made a mad dash for my hotel!

The nearly completed dam.

I spent the weekend enjoying the Western luxuries in Bangkok and then headed back to Chiang Mai. I had wisely gone to the train station early and got myself a ticket on the overnight train. When I arrived in Chiang Mai the SAO staff was supposed to pick me up at 7:30 am, but of course they work on Thai time and arrived at 8:45. We spent the rest of the week up at my village where we once again inspected the water projects, went to a meeting with the SAO council members, and played lots of coin games. We headed back to Chiang Mai on Friday and I stayed for the one month reunion of all the PC volunteers in northern Thailand.

When I finally returned to the office on Monday I had been out for nearly two weeks straight. It has really combated the monotony that many of my friends have faced at their SAOs. With limited Thai skills there is not a whole lot to do in the office for the duration of an eight hour day. Luckily every time I return it seems like I am way behind on studying, journaling, IRBing, and reading my Newsweek magazines. I actually enjoy coming back. I am now officially one month away from moving to my permanent house in my village and I am getting excited. It will be a whole new period in my PC experience!