Thursday, September 10, 2009

the end of one chapter, the beginning of another

Four months. Four months I've been home yet the memories of Thailand still linger vivid in my mind. I'm sure things will fade slowly with time, like all memories have a habit of doing but there's a lot about Thailand I don't think I'm ever going to be able to forget.

Speaking of forgetting things, I have yet to meet a single Thai person here in Toronto which might be partly my fault for not looking hard enough. They're here, I know they are. I find myself always listening to conversations in other languages on the bus seeing if I can pick up anything familiar or recognizable but thus far my evesdropping has been fruitless. As a result of my lack of practise, I'm sure my Thai language fluency has gone out the window, kind of like my Spanish...and my French.

School has just started, today was my first day of classes, and what with UTSC being constantly lauded as the most multicultural campus in Canada I'm sure there are Thai students as well. I'm going to keep my eyes peeled.

I'm really excited for this year, my courses look really interesting and I've got this thesis to do as well. I've been working like a madman transcribing the recordings of the research interviews I did while in Thailand but it's probably one of the most tedious processes I've ever undertaken. To write down a transcription for a 6 minute section of interview takes about an hour if I'm "in the zone" and there aren't any distractions. I've managed to finish two over the summer (my goal was to finish all eight but in my defence these were the two longest ones). My thesis supervisor is really supportive though and I think (/hope) I'm in good hands. This is going to be a good year. I'm also going to have to give some though as to what I want to do afterwards (Grad school? Work? Travel? Buy some land and start a farm? The possibilities are endless, which doesn't make narrowing them down any easy task)

On a scale from 1 to awesome I would say this summer was pretty flippin' sweet..

Working at Sheridan's was pretty much as lousy as I'd expected it to be which was made worse by the fact that I wasn't able to make as much as I was hoping to because they keep raising the minimum wage with means places feel like they don't need to give their employees raises. I mean I know this is generally a good thing for the majority but I still feel justified in being just a little bit miffed when I'm still making the same wages as the 16 year old loading cars at the front of the store my third summer on the job. Not planning on going back there.

Obviously my working environment did nothing to increase the quality of my summer, but this was more than made up for by the fact that all my friends were in town for the summer. As a result of my choosing the LONGEST DEGREE PROGRAM EVER, all my friends have now graduated, and were back in Toronto for a lot of the summer. Summers past, many people who go to school out of town opt to get a job there, especially if they're already having to pay for a room over the summer. This means it's sometimes kind of hit and miss with summers, you never know who's going to be around, but not this summer. Everyone was back, and it was phenomenal. On top of fun times being silly with friends, I was also co-coaching a frisbee team with two guys I've known since high school. That was also a stellar time, playing lots of frisbee, hanging out with the team, staying fit all the while.

As I expected would probably happen I've fallen out of touch with most of the people I was close with in Thailand. This is one of the unfortunate realities of traveling, you meet so many amazing people and share great times with them, but the relationships often lack the permanence you might expect at home. I'm painting in pretty broad strokes here but this has been my experience generally. I'm still in touch with Ying who is burried in work starting her Master's in English and working full time. Various others are spread out across the US, Europe, Africa and Australia all doing their thing in one form or another. Thing is, I know if I ever visit the city they're living in, I know I'll always have a bed waiting for me, and vice versa.

I was going to try to sum up my time in Thailand in a few words but I think that anything I could come up with would hardly do justice to the times I've had over the past year. Sure it was hard, but aren't the experiences that really matter supposed to be? I laughed, I cried, I learned, I grew and I changed. Who could ever ask for more than that?

So many adventures, and to those who shared them, I salute you.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Things that bug me about Canada

1. People spend so much time griping, complaining and worrying about things that are (I searched long and hard for an adjective that captured the volume I was going for) monumentally trivial. Worrying about whether or not there will be food on the table? Okay. Worrying about whether or not you should purchase a second iPhone or a Blackberry? Not.

2. You can't buy food on the street here. I took it for granted there, and I admit that I sometimes grumbled about having to leave the house to eat things, but there's something about the experience of having to go OUTSIDE to eat that turns it into something of a ritual. There were many days when that was the only reason I would leave my apartment, to go outside and get food, but here I've spent many a day without going outside at all. The thing was, when I WOULD go out to get things, I would often start a conversation with the restaurateur or the food stall owner as they were making my food, or run into someone I knew on the street (because everyone else has to go out to get their food at mealtimes as well), and I'd end up coming home feeling far better than I did when I left. That doesn't happen here. I live in the burbs. You go outside and the streets are empty.

3. The way things have changed. This one's hard to pinpoint or capture in words, because it's hard to figure out how much of it is the fact that people HERE have changed while I was gone, and how much of it is the fact that I'VE changed while I was gone so I'm not viewing things from exactly the same angle. Either way, it's unsettling and kind of makes you wish you had something more solid to stand on sometimes.

4. The general lack of knowledge about southeast Asia in general. I'll mention Aung San Suu Kyi in a conversation, or the riots in Thailand over the past year and receive a chorus of blank stares in response. And then I have to explain. It's hypocritical that this bothers me at all, because before going on this trip, I was definitely just as Southeast Asia illiterate as everyone else. This is something I just need to be more tolerant of. It also means I get to educate people because after receiving a blank stare I will (usually) try to explain who the person was or what I'm talking about.

5. The pace of life here. In comparison, everything in Thailand seems to move so much slower. Meetings don't start on time, buses are ALWAYS late, if you show up somewhere less than 10 minutes late, you're early, things like that. Some would say people were wasting loads of time doing nothing in particular. It would be difficult to argue. Where I would lodge my argument is that somehow, for all this "wasted" time, people are no less productive in the long term. What they ARE is a whole lot less stressed out over everything. I think we could definitely take some pointers, myself included.

It's good to be home?

(Written May 19, 2009)

I'm writing this from my cottage in Muskoka where I've been spending the Victoria Day weekend with my family and grandparents. I've only been home about four days now but it feels like longer because of how busy I've been. Everyone seems quite happy to have me back, and it's been really nice to see all the people I've spent the last year missing while I've been away. That being said, it certainly hasn't all been rosy for me on the inside.

My first thoughts upon touching down after the ludicrously long plane ride were "Whoa, okay, I take it back, I'm not ready to go home. Stop the ride and let me off." I was struck by how little green there was to be seen.

I returned home to find that an apple orchard near my house where I remember picking apples as a child was last year razed to build a massive Wal Mart. This happened in conjunction with the destruction of a fairly large tract of farmland surrounding the orchard which has been "developed" into a shopping area to support a new housing development. Hooray for "progress". I've seen a number of friends that I really have been genuinely missing and it was kind of nice to find that being away for a year hasn't changed our interactions much. It was kind of like slipping on an old familiar glove, it still fit, it was still comfy. For the most part. Living in Thailand (far away from Bangkok) I'd grown unacustomed to the intense brand of capitalism practised by the North American 18-25 youth demographic. It certainly doesn't help that I live in one of the more affluent neighborhoods in the country (I read this, I'm not just being pompous here). Sitting and listening to conversations about the merits of iPhones versus Blackberries, or the mention of relegating one's Blackberry to "Secondary Phone" status to justify the purchase of an iPhone kind of caught me off guard. I don't have a phone at the moment. In Thailand, I had the cheapest phone money could buy, a very popular though thoroughly outdated type made popular by it's affordability.

Right, I've just erased a whole bunch of writing because I realized I was turning this post into a rant against capitalism and North American society in general, which isn't my intention. I just want to get my thoughts down.

I had an argument while doing the dishes about how Wal Mart was selling scooters now for under a thousand dollars.
I said "I'd question how they were able to get their prices so low"
"Well they were probably made in China or somewhere like that." Was the response
"That's one of the many huge problems I have with Wal Mart as a corporation because by setting their prices so low and undercutting all of the competition, they force manufactures hoping to secure one of Wal Mart's huge lucrative contracts to cut their production costs which often takes the form of long hours and or lower wages for workers and inattention to safety standards. This in turn forces competing store chains to lower THEIR prices to compete, turning the whole thing into a positive feedback loop where the consumer "wins" by seeing lower prices but those whose hands actually make the goods get stomped on harder and harder." (I have to admit I wasn't nearly this eloquent at the time, but I made the points. I really hate the way anger can render one inarticulate)

To which I was told
"Isn't that the way capitalism works? The lowest price gets the contract. If the workers really don't like it then they should go do something else"
"Like what?"
"There's always something else."

It was the first time in a very long time I was speechless with rage. I finished the dishes and left the house. I'm unashamed to say I cried that night, in the forest by myself. It was all too much. This is the life I've been missing all this time? This is the glove that used to fit? This was me? It sometimes feels like no matter how hard I push to break the cycle, or how hard I try to break out of the mold, I'll always be part of the the "machine", part of the problem I'm trying to solve, perpetuating this global imbalance. Nothing feels worse than realizing you're part of the problem you're so bothered by. It was a critically low point for me.

I felt a lot better afterward. Nothing had been solved, I still have my complex, but nobody can argue against the merits of a good hard cry on occasion. After a while I came back inside and I showed my family pictures about my trip. As I going through them I could tell I wasn't making my time there seem very interesting. It was great, what more can I say? I didn't care.

I am going to Michigan next week, a trip I'd planned to make shortly after my return. I'm ashamed to say I'm somewhat happy to be getting away for awhile even though it is so soon after I've returned. I think I've had about enough of "my life" as I can handle and could use the vacation. This has been far more intense than I thought it would be. None of this really happened when I went to Thailand, I'm supposed to be Mr. Untouchable, culture shock aint got nothin' on me. Right? Wrong.

4AM Citrus Ponderings

(Written May 13, 2009 in a notebook at the Suvarnabhumi Airport while waiting for my check-in time at 4 in the morning ...which probably explains a lot)

For some reason I've got limes on the brain. Completely inappropriate at a time like this, about to leave Thailand for what could be the last time ever, I know, but it is what it is.

Joey told me on Thursday afternoon that the dry season lime crop in Thailand was a very poor one this year. The comment didn't register as anything profound at the time but it must have stuck, hidden under the corner of a birthday reminder or an email address in the back of my mind.

Friday night that same week, I was at dinner with Ying and asked for lemon-something-or-other but was promptly told that I'd have to choose again as that menu item wasn't available. I didn't make the connection to Joey's comment but instead quickly chose again and ordered something else from the menu.

Saturday night we hit the bars. Money was tight so I decided on that place on Soi 17 with the really cheap tequila shots before hitting the Nimman strip. We sat down, we ordered. The drinks came arranged on a platter with a mound of salt in the middle. Sitting in a circle around the salt were seven of the thinnest, saddest looking lime wedgest ever sliced. We grumbled at this aparent travesty but had our drinks and went on our way.

Sunday came as it often does, lazy and a little hung over from Saturday's tequila. 2PM found me shuffling in the door of Ran Lao bookstore in anticipation of a late afternoon spent curled in a corner with a cold drink and a book. I asked for an ice lemon tea, just the thing to chase the cobwebs from my brain and counter the heat and humidity of a Sunday afternoon during the hot season in Chiang Mai. The response came in Thai: No can do, you'l have to get something else. An ice coffee would do just as well, I supposed.

I was halfway to my corner before I finally made the connections and when I did I had to stop in wonder for a few minutes, my book lying unnoticed on the table in front of me.

How could something so seemingly mundane and personally inconsequential be having such far reaching effects on my daily life? A failed crop of lemons isn't the first connection one would seek between eating, partying and reading but there it was, plain as day. I wonder what other butterflies in my life are getting away with causing tornadoes undetected?

The sign above the bookshelves says "Ran Lao" in Thai. It's a witty name for a bookstore, because Ran Lao literally translates to "house of alcohol, or bar".

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Packing Reminiscences

It’s Sunday night and I’ve begun packing for my trip home which starts Tuesday, and ends sometime Wednesday afternoon (PLUS the 11 hours I’ll be living twice as I switch my clock back). As far as the “departure process” goes, I think this is a pretty important step so I wanted to take a few minutes to put my brain-pen to e-paper and sort out what’s going through my head.

Firstly, I’m really excited. It’s been building slowly for the past few weeks, but now I can’t wait to come home. This is quite different from the way I was feeling when I finished work and began the “research phase” of my placement at the end of March, then I wanted nothing more than to stay on at NEED and keep teaching those amazing, inspirational students.

The thing that kind of takes the fun out of the feelings of excitement, is that I have the feeling it will be pretty short lived after I get home. I doubt it will take too long for the novelty of convenient public transport and daily weather changes to wear off and for me to begin missing Thailand HARD. Fortunately I’ve got a few things lined up to help buffer the transition process and make things easier for myself.

I’m co-coaching a Frisbee team with two very good long time friends this summer and that’s something I’m really looking forward to. I think I may have actually played MORE Frisbee in Chiang Mai over the course of the year than I did at home, at least in terms of consistency. Twice a week will keep your game sharp, provided you’re playing with the right people and I feel like I haven’t slipped too far from the level I was playing in Toronto. Unfortunately, I haven’t actually played WITH anyone from Toronto in a year, so maybe it’s all in my head and I’m actually terrible now. Here’s hoping I don’t get blown out of the water.

I’ve really missed my longboard while in Thailand. This probably doesn’t seem like a big deal to anyone who’s never ridden a longboard before, and I can forgive all of you for that. Seriously though, I think about it a disturbing amount and going for a sidewalk cruise is going to be pretty high on the list of things to do as soon as I get home.

Seeing friends and family is probably number one for me in terms of things to be excited about. I’ve heard stories from other people who’ve returned from placement about how disheartened they were after getting back because they’d just gone through this huge experience and it kind of seemed like nobody back home really cared to hear about it. This is definitely a possibility, and I’m not sure how I’m going to deal with it but simply being aware of the fact that this might be the case I think puts me in a better position to deal with it if it does happen.

What if everyone back home has changed and I don’t fit into anyone’s plans anymore? Or what if I’ve changed to the point that we don’t get along anymore? I’m definitely going to be analyzing the differences between Thais and North American’s for awhile after getting back. For example, while North American youth right now are doing the Stanky Legg, the kids in Thailand are getting down on the dance floor to Thaitanium. Actually, I guess there’s not that huge a difference between lame hip hop and lame Thai hip hop. I am planning to bring back a fair amount of Thai music though, there’s a surprisingly large indie music scene here and a lot of it is good stuff.

As I was packing, I stumbled across a packing list I’d written before I left home in preparation for coming here. It made me stop for a second because it sort of brought home how “full circle” this experience has been for me. I remember clearly sitting at my desk in Markham writing the list, and here I am, almost a year to the day later packing again for the reverse experience. How am I different today than I was then? More mature? Maybe…more organized? Yeah, right. More open to new experiences? I feel like I was a pretty open person to begin with, but I’d say yes. This sort of self-reflection is going to play a big part of my transition home and you’re welcome to come along for the ride. I can’t promise it will be pretty but it may make for some interesting reading.

Tomorrow I’ve got a “lunch meeting” (because I think “lunch date” sounds weird) to go for Som Tam (spicy green mango salad with fish sauce, peanuts, dried shrimp, chilis and tomato all crushed together in a giant mortar…the production is a sight to behold) with a Thai guy I met at the vegetarian restaurant down the street from where I’m living now. He doesn’t speak English. I think he’s basically a testament to how far I’ve come language wise in a year. From not knowing a single word of the language to being able to carry a (though semi-coherent at times) conversation with a stranger, and having them be engaged enough to want to hang out again is HUGE for me. There were definitely some dark and very discouraging nights for me on my road to learning Thai but the payoff has been worth the struggle a thousand times over. And before any of you go getting silly ideas, there’s nothing romantic about two guys going for som tam on a Monday afternoon.

All right, it’s time to make some more hard decisions…to bring or not to bring….this bag isn’t going to stuff itself with my junk.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Triumphant Return (to Thailand)

Cambodia was fantastic overall. The trip had it's ups and downs but looking back I'm really glad I went through with it. Returning to Thailand was kind of a shock to me after 10 days out of the country though, because it felt a lot like 'coming home'. A familiar bed, the ability to talk to people on the street (especially when asking directions), and familiar food make a world of difference in terms of comfort level. I guess while traveling I'd been keeping my guard up so to speak because so many things were unfamiliar and I was trying to be careful, and letting some of that extra stress slip away felt like a weight had been lifted. I returned to Chiang Mai this morning in very high spirits.

From past experience I know that my last week here is going to pass by more quickly than I'd like it to so making the most of things is going to take some planning. I've already scheduled one more thesis research interview for Friday morning and I've emailed 3 other organizations about potentially sitting down with me as well. I'll have frisbee Wednesday and Saturday and a farewell BBQ at Sam's house on Friday night.

I'm also trying to work in time to pack each day so I don't end up packing the night I leave (which seems to happen EVERY SINGLE TIME I GO ANYWHERE, though I wouldn't be able to tell you why exactly...though if I were to guess I'd say my uncontrollable penchant for procrastination may have something to do with it).

I suppose I should say a little bit more about Cambodia while it's all still fresh in my mind.

Phnom Penh, the capital city and my first destination was an interesting experience. I arrived in the dark the first night (after that hair-raising moto taxi ride) and began looking for a guesthouse. This is one of the downsides of sponteneity in terms of trip planning. It was raining by the time I found a place with a free room for 5 dollars a night. Fortunately I asked to see the room before paying anything because there was a huge leak in the ceiling and the bed mattress and the floor of the room were both soaking wet. The man offered to turn the mattress over (as we stood there watching the water drip-drip-dripping from the ceiling onto the bed) to which I queried whether or not turning the mattress would stop the roof from leaking on me all night. In the end I ventured back into the rain to find a drier room. After asking a few people on the street if they knew of anywhere with free rooms, I was taken to a dimly lit wooden guesthouse that extended out over the lake in the middle of the city. It wasn't the cleanest place but I figured I could spend one night anywhere as long as it was dry and could move the next day. After dropping my bags, I went out to find somewhere to satisfy my appetite. During dinner I bought a Lonely Planet Cambodia Guidebook from a boy selling them out of a box he'd hung around his neck with string. I managed to bargain him down to 5 dollars for it and was feeling quite proud of myself for having done so until I saw the same book in a shop for 2.50 a few days later. The money situation in Cambodia is interesting because you can interchangeably use Cambodian riel, or US dollars. The first time someone handed me a wad of change that was a mixture of US and cambodian currency I was shocked, but you soon learn to convert from one to the other (4000 riel=1USD). I also found myself converting prices to baht in my head. Before getting ready for bed I killed two cockroaches in the bathroom using the roach spray I'd fortunately packed with me.

The second morning dawned hot and still. Having gone to bed early I was refreshed and ready to go by 8, and I set out to follow a walking tour of the city outlined in my guidebook. What followed was an incredibly hot and dusty walk through downtown Phnom Penh. I enjoyed it immensely. The hustle and bustle of covered outdoor markets crushed up against the outside walls of shopping centres, the dirt and grime of garbage-filled alleys and side streets side by side with post colonial french style architechture. And bread! Because Cambodia used to be a french colony you can get loads of baguettes, croissants, danishes and all sorts of assorted pastries. It was truly a city of contrast. I spent about 8 hours walking around that day and saw most of the city on foot, checking into another guesthouse for the evening as I went.

That evening I had dinner at a restaurant run by an NGO which runs programs for street children in Phnom Penh (there are lots of them) which is why I could look past their somewhat steeper prices.

I have to say that eating on your own is one of the downsides of travelling by yourself. I don't really like it. If I'm at home in my room, fine, no problem, but I don't like going OUT by myself. All the tables at restaurants have two chairs which makes it especially depressing. I had plans to meet some other backpackers I'd met the previous evening somewhere in town later but basically wandered the streets by the river until the time came to go and meet them. Once I actually met up with them the night turned around and ended up being a really fun time. People you meet travelling are fantastic 97% of the time. You could question whether that is true of people generally, or whether it's because the people who choose to go travel tend to think the same way and thus get along well, but I'm not here to argue the details. Either way, the trick is to put yourself out there and be able to start up a conversation which is something that I'm working on. This trip definitely helped me practise.

The next day as I already mentioned involved a visit to the S-21 Detention Centre used by the Khmer Rouge as an interrogation centre during their time in power, and to the Killing Fields, very powerful stuff. I read up on the reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia a little bit before going but I certainly wasn't prepared to see the evidence in living color. Intense doesn't begin to capture it. I wasn't alive when the events took place and would really like to sit down with someone who was after I get home or something just to get their take on the situation and what they remember of the global response (or lack thereof) at the time.

My next morning saw me on a bus on the way south to the beach at Sihanoukville, the small town on the very southern tip of Cambodia on the Gulf of Thailand. It was time for some sun and some sand. I notice in my last post I said I was going to meet with my friend Janeen on the beach, but in a hilarious turn of events she headed to Phnom Penh the same day I went to Sihanoukville. Our busses may have passed each other on the road. Regardless, an excellent time was had there, I realized the second night that the guesthouse I was staying at was patronized mainly by american sex tourists, but they stayed out of my way and I stayed out of theirs and the room was cheap, clean and had cable TV so I didn't see a problem with staying. Met quite a few people on the beach which was nice, all the backpackers in town seemed to congregate their after the sun went down for barbecues and beach parties.

The second morning at the beach I woke up at sunrise to go for a run on the beach. I was the only one out at that hour, and the only sounds to be heard were my bare feet on the wet sand and the sound of the waves. I hadn't jogged in a long time. Frisbee keeps you in shape, but you get to rest occasionally, and the beach was longer than I'd expected but I was determined to run all the way to the end. I finally made it sweaty and exhausted to the point where the beach ended at a rocky slope with a wide stream running along the bottom of it into the sea. As I stood there catching my breath and trying to get rid of the stitch in my side I caught sight of an incredibly short old woman who was picking her way down the rocky slope toward me. She was moving with what I thought was surprising speed down such a precarious slope, especially for someone of her age. When she made it the bottom, she was on the opposite side of the stream and without hesitation she waded in among the rocks protruding from the surface of the stream and sat down in the middle of it in front of a rock so that the water covered her stomach. She then proceeded to use a sharp piece of metal to pry the mussels off of the rock dropping them into a plastic water bottle. I watched in silence for some time. It was silently magical. For me at least...for her it was probably more like "What's this guy staring at me for...this is why I hate tourists." I wondered how mornings before she'd descended the same slope (quite a few judging from how easily she was able to navigate her way down), and what she did with them when she went home. Did she sell them, or eat them herself? Anyway, after I felt I'd stared this lady down long enough, I headed back up the beach and then home for a much needed shower/rest.

That same day I decided to get out of the backpacker area of town and see some more of the area which was FANTASTIC. I got some great pictures, and ate the first real 'Cambodian food' from a stall by the side of the road. It was meat and vegetables and rice and three cups of sugar cane juice all for 1.25 american. Tasty tasty tasty. I've always felt kind of conflicted about taking pictures in some of the places I go. If I see something really interesting like a house on stilts with someone sitting underneath weaving a fishing net (yes I saw it, no I didn't take a picture) around underneath it, part of me is all "Awesome, grab your camera!" while another part is saying "Whoa, he's just doing his thing, living his life. Why would you have to walk up to him and start snapping pictures like this was some sort of National Geographic special? Leave the man in peace." In my mind it would equate to you doing something completely mundane like washing your car in your driveway and then having someone walk up onto your lawn and start snapping pictures of you, then walking away. This conflict has meant I haven't taken pictures of a few of the really neat things I've seen not just in Cambodia but in Thailand as well, but I think that respecting your subjects is more important than getting that perfect shot a lot of the time.

My third day on the beach saw me lazing around like it was my job. I read a lot and ate a lot and generally was a waste of space, breathing all the good air that should've gone to the deserving, productive people of the world...scientists and the like.

After a day of laziness, I was ready to hit the road again and hopped a bus up to Siem Reap, a dusty town in the North of the country, home of the UNESCO Heritage Site that is Angkor Wat. Dusty was somewhat of an understatement. To be honest, everywhere I went in Cambodia was pretty dusty, but if there was a contest, though the competition would be stiff, I think Siem Riap would emerge as the dust king of the country. The odd thing is that all the roads are paved so there's no real excuse for having clouds of dust hanging in the air all the time, that just seems to be the way it is. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on the circumstance) all of Cambodia is way further south than Chiang Mai, which means the rainy season comes earlier and it was definitely in full swing, with daily or bi-daily showers by the time I took my vacation (whereas in Chiang Mai, it only rains once a week or so). This was good because it helped control the dust, but bad because it turned the streets into a muddy quagmire.

Another thing about cambodia is that you get harassed CONSTANTLY by people. Now, I've never been to India (which I'm told is the harassment capital of the universe) so I had nothing to measure this by other than Thailand really, but it did get pretty intense at times. On the beach when all you wanted to do was sit on the beach in the sun and enjoy your book, people (always women) were constantly coming up to you with platters of fruit or lobster balanced on their heads asking you if you wanted to buy some. The children were also in on the game. They walked up and down the beach, some with fruit, some with string and other assorted arts and crafts materials asking people if they wanted to buy a bracelet. The interesting thing about these kids was that their english was impeccable. I didn't end up buying anything from anyone on the beach, beacuse I feel like as soon as I buy something, I give up my right to complain about getting harassed all day. The reason people sell things on the beach is because it's profitable and allows them to earn a living. If nobody bought anything, begging would cease to be profitable and they'd be forced to find something else to do. Herein lies the dilemma for me, because the next question is always, well what else could they be doing and I don't have an answer. Work long hours in horrible conditions for low pay in a garment factory making shoes or clothes for Wal Mart or The Gap perhaps? I'm not making the call on whether or not that's a viable alternative.
On the one hand you could argue that you were supporting these people and helping to put bread on their tables which is likely valid, but I would counterargue that at least as far as the children are concerned, the amount of profit they recieve personally is likely far less than what you're paying for whatever you buy from them. These kids aren't going to the market to buy their string, etc. It's far more likely that they get it from someone else, who in turn takes their share of the profit from whatever these kids earn by selling the bracelets (this isn't all speculation, I asked where a boy of about 7 got his string from and he said "The Man buys the string and give to me so I can sell bracelets and pay him back for the string"). Those of you familiar with the concept of cycles of poverty, or poverty traps will notice a familiar ring to what the boy was saying. In economic terms, he needs the string to make bracelets, he pays for the string by selling the bracelets, but he's not likely to make enough to collect enough profit to do purchase the capital to embark on another (more profitable) business venture.

In the temples at Siem Riap it was the same deal, kids selling things from flutes to guidebooks to cold drinks and water. The thing about these kids was that they often spoke 5 or 6 languages. When my motorcycle driver told me this I was astounded and tried to stump the next kid that came up to me. He flowed effortlessly from english to french to spanish to thai and likely could have kept going (german, japanese, korean and vietnamese and of course Cambodian) but I don't know any more languages. None of them receive any language training, it's all picked up 'on the job', and while it's likely that their linguistic talent doesn't exctend far past what's required to ask people to buy things, I still think it's impressive considering how young some of these kids were.

The temples themselves were AMAZING for the most part, but to go through each day blow by blow would take too long so I will just only about the best one.

I ended up getting swindled HARD on the last day (100 US out the door...) but I don't really want to dwell on it as it was a depressing experience, probably the worst I've had since I got here. Long story short, I found a motorcycle driver taht spoke Thai and a little bit of English, and using a mixture of the two we were able to communicate pretty well. We agreed on a price, 12 dollars a day for each of the days he took me around the temple complex and on the last day (my second) I expressed interest in going to a temple I saw in my guidebook that he hadn't been planning on going to. He said that temple was extra far away, and would take a long time to get to and he'd have to charge me extra, 100 dollars or something. I was like whoa, okay, if it's far and 100 dollars, that's a no go, forget it we'll just go to the short ones. Or so I thought, I didn't really press the issue afterwards but obviously I should've made sure he understood, because this whole conversation was in Thai. I don't know if it was purposeful deception or genuine misunderstanding but in the end it didn't really matter because I didn't know where we were supposed to be going and he ended up taking me to this really far temple and then demanded the money for it when we got home, saying that I'd agreed on the price beforehand. He ended up taking me to an ATM where I took out and forked over the cash, because it's hard to argue with someone when you remember the conversation, and the mention of 100 dollars, and he's already taken you to the temples you had asked for. I don't know, I was really really bummed out about it that evening but I've since tried to put it in perspective. Yes, I'd lost a hundred bucks, but it wasn't like it had fallen out of my pocket and was lying in a ditch slowly decomposing. I'd put it into someone else's pocket. Maybe this was karma's way of telling me I should've been more generous with those kids on the beach or something, I don't know. Over the course of our two day conversation, the driver told me about his life, the 8 years spent as a chef in Thailand, his wife at home, his dreams of children and his worries about being able to support them on the meagre wages of a motorcycle taxi driver. He also spoke of his plans to save enough money driving people around to open his own restaurant in Siem Riap, making enough money to be able to afford the children him and his wife dream of having one day. Hopefully my cash (seriously though, in Cambodian terms 100 US is a huge sum of money) will put him that much closer to being able to buy a building and open his restaurant. I also pointed out to myself that this was probably the worst experience I've had in the year that I've been living here and all things considered I think that means I've come out WAY ahead of the pack. So hopefully one day when this man opens his restaurant he'll think of me and my hundred dollars. Or maybe he went straight to the bar and drank it all, his wife at home never seeing a penny. I know that's sometimes the cruel reality but even though I'll never be able to be sure, I know which story I'm sticking to in my head.

The last temple, Beng Malea was probably one of the most insane experiences I've ever had. Better than watching the sun rise at 5:30 in the morning over the three huge towers of Angkor Wat, better than the 214 staring faces of the temple of Bayon, better even than Ta Phrom, that temple where a scene from Tomb Raider was filmed. We arrived at Beng Malea about 5PM, just before sunset and since this temple was so far away, as I was going in, the last few straggling visitors were leaving for the day. I was the only person there. The temple itself was MASSIVE. About 200m by 200m, and unlike all of the other temples I'd seen previously, this one had been left virtually untouched and unreconstructed since it was built. Aside from a few wooden supports holding up crumbling archways and things, it was completely left to it's own devices. There isn't really a path through the temple, and in many of the corridors and passageways you're clamboring over huge and precariously balanced pieces of the temple itself that have been left where they've fallen as the temple slowly collapses. The other thing is that it's been taken over by the jungle. Ta Phrom is another temple that's advertised to have been "taken over by the jungle" but it's obvious that there's been considerable effort taken to make sure to manage said 'take-over', there are a few trees left inside in strategic places to make the temple look wild, but Beng Malea definitely shows more accurately what a jungle takeover is supposed to look like. If my internet wasn't being a jerk at the moment I'd post some of the pictures but it is, so you'll have to use your imagination. Ask me when I get back and I'd be happy to have a sit-down. The pictures from this temple specifically weren't the greatest because the light was fading and for some reason digital cameras go nuts the second the light dims slightly and the flash just didn't cut it in this massive place. Anyway, I spent about an hour exploring the crumbling ruins of the massive temple structure, and marvelling at how huge and regal the temple must have been in it's hayday.

The artsier fartsier side of me also kind of liked the way the temple, like the beach during my morning run in Sihanoukville could be thought of as an art piece, forever unique in that it was constantly changing. Every wave carries sand up the beach, as it comes in, and drags some away as it goes out, changing the space gradually over time. Every stone that tumbles from the wall of the temple, and every tendril and vine that snakes it's way up the side of an archway simultaneously alters it and becomes a part of the piece itself. Silently beautiful.

My trip around the temples (especially Beng Malea) was also very humbling. These things have been here for A THOUSAND YEARS. Yes, they were "lost in the jungle" (I use the quotes because it's speculated that 'lost in the jungle' meant that the people who knew they were there weren't European and thus didn't count, at least as far as the history books are concerned) for hundreds of years, but here they are, still doing their thing. I'm 21 years old, but a thousand years from now (unless my plans for world domination take off in a big way, in which case I'd still probably end up being remembered as little more than a blip on the radar millenia from now) then I'm going to be forgotten in ways I can't even begin to contemplate. Kind of makes you think twice about rolling out of bed in the morning doesn't it, but on the other hand it's kind of hard to squeeze juice out of every day if you spend too much time being depressed about your insignificance from the comfort of a warm bed.

There really wasn't much to do in Siem Reap other than the temples, although I did end up meeting, among others, two Scottish guys: Frasier and Scott (or, Scott the Scott, as I called him in my head) who were also travelling together. We were supposed to meet for dinner on the last night I was there but I got back from Beng Malea far later than I'd expected and I wasn't able to find them. So, on the offchance one of you two are reading this give me a shout because I'd love to stay in contact.

The morning of my last day saw me once again boarding the now familiar 'bus out of town' on my way to the Thai border. Long story short, it took 22 straight hours of travelling to get to Chiang Mai, but it's good to be back. I remember posting a "one week and counting down" post before leaving for Thailand but that seems like it was only a few months ago, yet here we are in the same situation but the destination is Canada. Funny how life works, no?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Cambodia Day 2: Khmer Rouge Remberance

I'm going to have to sum up quite a profound second day in criminally few words because I'm out of time at the net cafe.

This morning woke up early and went to visit S-21, which was a high-school turned torture and detainment facility during the rule of the Khmer Rouge in the late 70s. It was a thoroughly disturbing yet very moving experience that shook me to my core. Afterwards, though I didn't feel like it much, I felt I should go to see the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh where 200,000 innocent Cambodians lost their lives in the mass execution. Not exactly a light fun morning but I am glad to have seen the two and I would highly recommend them to anyone visiting Phnom Penh.

So much more has happened today but I just don't have the time to talk about it. Tomorrow I head down to the beach hopefully, to meet Janeen a friend in the same university program as I am who's travelling here at the end of her placement as well.


Saturday, April 25, 2009

CAM...wait for it...BODIA

Lets jump right in, no introduction needed because this internet cafe is as hot as...the inside of an internet cafe in cambodia at noon in the hot season. It's also packed with kids who I assume are on their lunch break.

Bussed to Bangkok overnight, where I ended up chatting for hours with this really sweet older woman who said I reminded her of her son. When we got off the bus, she told me not to take the skytrain, but that I could save money by taking the public bus into the city. She then took me around the bus station until we found the right bus number and told the driver where I needed to go and to let me know when we got there. Needless to say I was touched. After bussing into the city and walking to the VSO/CUSO office in Bangkok, I met with Thomas my CUSO country supervisor for a debrief session and then took the public bus to the airport. He asked me if I would be willing to come back. I said yes. We'll see where that goes. He also seemed very interested in my research and wants a copy when I finish writing up my findings. Great guy, couldn't have asked for a better country supervisor.

Anyway, from the office, I bussed to the Airport (I'm leaving out a lot here, just assume it was hot and uncomfortable the whole way on account of my carrying all my bags while it's 39 degrees in the shade).

Plane trip only took about an hour and a half, I got stopped at the carry-on baggage check because they FOUND A KNIFE IN MY BAG.
The check lady put the bag through, and then called me over to some side table and asked if there anything in my bag that I wanted to tell her about. I said no. She said "pocket nai?" I had no idea what she was saying, because I couldn't tell if she was speaking english, or Thai ('nai' means 'where' in thai) so i said I didn't understand, and she repeated it 3 or 4 times. FInally she reached into my bag and pulled out my swiss army knife. Being the genius I am, I was packing right at the last minute (an hour before i had to leave for the bus station) and so I completely forgot that my swiss army knife ended up in my bag. I had intended to switch it from my carry on to my checked luggage but that never happened.

Okay, I've got about 1o more minutes on my hour of time at this cafe so lets speed through the rest:
Got to Phnom Penh at about 4:30, it was raining, ignored the taxi drivers at the airport and walked out to the street to save 5 dollars on the trip into town. Ended up agreeing on 2, and hopped on the back of a motorbike. I spent a good deal of the next 2 weaving in and out of traffic going the wrong way up one way streets, driving over grassy medians, weaving around padestrians and other vehicles, running red lights and generally watching my driver prove that he either had no concept of "the rules of the road" or that he felt he was above having to follow them. I remember having this conversation with myself in my head:

"Wow, this guy is driving like a MANIAC...and having lived in thailand the last 11 months that's saying something. Oh...this is a one way street...we seem to be traveling against the flow of traffic. Isn't that something. Uh oh..traffic jam. The street's packed. Wait, did he just eye the sidewalk? He better not be thinking about doing what I...WE'RE ON THE SIDEWALK! WATCH OUT! PADESTRIANS! WHAT'S GOING ON?"

I won't bore you with the details but it continues along the same lines for quite some time. The 30 minute trip into town took 2 hours because the street was PACKED with cars. there'd been a major rain storm just before our plane touched down and many of the streets were flooded. I had to lift up my legs many a time so as not to soak my feet in the raw sewage which was overflowing from the open gutters. Everyone else seemed to be in a great mood though.

Spent the night in a cramped roach-y guesthouse (good thing i brought my roach spray) and am planning to switch to a new one today. Right now I'm in the middle of a walking tour of the city thanks to my handy-dandy Lonely Planet which I picked up for a few dollars from a kid outside the guesthouse last night. My hour here is up so I should probably pay my 37 cents and be on my way.

oh, before i go, Cambodia used to be a french colony so there's french architecture and french pastries everywhere. i paid 25 cents for a HUGE baguette for breakfast. it's great. Time to hit the streets for some more exploring.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Cambodia Ho!

I leave tonight!

The itinerary has been on my mind all week, but it only really came together yesterday afternoon. I've been interviewing like a crazy person running around Chiang Mai all week but I'm proud of the amount I've been able to get accomplished in...wait for it...1 week of research. I'm also really surprised how much I LIKE it. I love the feeling of sitting down with someone who's in many cases founded an amazing organization and finding out first hand what they do, and why they do it. I've never really done anything like it and it's fantastic.

I have two more interviews to get through today before I leave this evening (the first of which I need to leave for in 5 minutes and I haven't had breakfast yet). Here is prospective itinerary:

April 24 - Arrive by air in Phnom Penh at 4PM and get a guesthouse in the city
April 28 - Head to the beach! ->3 nights in Sihanoukville on the southern coast of the country
May 1 - Leave the coast and head up through Phnom Penh to the rarely visited Kampong Chnang, smack in the middle of the country and right on the shores of the Mekon River for 2 nights
May 3 - Head to Siem Riep for 2 nights before laving for Bangkok on May 5th by bus
May 5 - Arrive in Chiang Mai that morning after a ridiculously long series of bus rides

When I get back I'm hoping to get through some more interviews before I go. I've got at least one scheduled for sure.

And no, haven't bought a Lonely Planet guide to Cambodia. This is going to be exciting.

I am going to be SO late for this interview.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

9 Days and counting down. It's begun. My time left in Chiang Mai has reached hitherto unheard of lows and it worries me.

I've been researching as hard as I can for my thesis, but none of it first hand as I've been sitting on my hands waiting for ethics review board approval. It came yesterday, but they only approved half the research I wanted to do. How can I compare two sets of data if they'll only let me collect one? I feel like that would make it kind of hard to assemble any sort of sound argument. I'm a little bit bitter.

In other research related developments I've managed to track down a potential research supervisor. I'm planning on talking with him tomorrow to try and figure out what I should do because I'm kind of at a loss at the moment.

I'm not actually coming HOME in 9 days by the way, I'm just going backpacking. Where you might ask? Cambodia. I'm flying into Phnom Penh on the 24th, and am returning to Thailand at some point before the 10th of May to pick up my stuff and actually hop on a plane back to Toronto, but between the 24th and the 10th, I haven't done much planning. I want to keep my schedule open so as to give me the flexibility to really do what I want, when I want. Isn't that what vacations are supposed to be all about? I may end up at a hill station in the mountains, or in a lounge chair on the beach (yes, Cambodia has beaches too!) I'd love to hit up Saigon as well because It's so close, but I don't know if I'll have the time (or the money for a visa).

In other news, I've finished work (tearfull goodbyes were enjoyed by all...I miss the students already), drove to Laos and back in a day (6.5 hours one way...that was a LONG day) and visited Kampang Phet, a province between Chiang Mai and Bangkok for a rip roaring good time of a weekend where I ate THESE THINGS

Need a closer look?

That's right, ant larvae.

This week was also Songkran, which is the Thai Buddhist New Year celebration. It's celebrated in a few ways: visiting family, visiting the temple and making offerings to monks to name a few. Oh, and also by GOING BUCK WILD IN THE STREETS WITH BUCKETS OF WATER ND SUPER SOAKERS FOR THREE DAYS STRAIGHT. The city grinds to a halt, literally. Most businesses close for the holiday, and it's a good thing too because it's difficult to get to work when the streets are jammed with people. One of the days my friend Ekk volunteered his pick up truck for the festivities and we took to the streets. I honestly don't think I can describe what it was like, but you can check here and here for pictures (there was no WAY I was taking my camera out during Songkran. Pure and utter mayhem. I had purchased a super soaker water gun for the occasion and put it to good use. People walk up and down the street with massive blocks of ice (maybe 15 kilos each) meant to be placed in garbage cans filled with water so you could not only soak people, but shock them half to death in the process.. It took us 5 hours to travel 2 kilometres and we were all exhausted and SOAKING wet by the time we got home.

I've been purging like mad but I've still got a disturbing amount of stuff to get rid of before leaving. I don't know how I've amassed this number of books (althogh I'll hopefully be able to get some cash for them at used book stores by selling them).

Bleh...home. I'm not ready. Not even almost. I think it's going to be a messy landing. I'm planning to keep updating the blog after I return home both to document all the miserable details and as a way of dealing with the reverse culture shock situation. We'll see how it goes.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

quality control redux

See if you can spot the difference.

May 24, 2008

March 12, 2009

quality control

I just got back from a breathtaking game of frisbee. It wasn't breathtaking because it was so intense, it was breathtaking because you literally couldn't breath most of the time because of the terrible air quality.

Air quality in Chiang Mai is TERRIBLE right now. The huge mountain JUST outside of town that can be seen from just about anywhere in the city and surrounding area is completely obscured by haze.

I did some research and found that the air gets like this every year. I will try to take a picture of it because it's actually crazy.

In the US it is considered a serious pollution episode if the PM-10 level (the number of tiny airborne particles per unity of air) exceeds 50.

Today in Chiang Mai the PM-10 rating was 166.1. Yesterday, 181.4. According to the data the PM-10 levels haven't been below 50 since February 10th. On March 2, they reached a record high of 191. I'm staying indoors as much as possible but I don't know how much good it's doing. I have my balcony door open most of the time because I won't use the AC.

If things aren't better by Saturday I may consider skipping frisbee. Maybe.

Monday, March 9, 2009

life is a musical

Holy moly am I ever busy. I mean, I know I've been saying I'm busy since I got here, but now I really mean it folks. What have I been up to recently? Lets run down the list.

1. Bangkok Hat Ultimate Frisbee Tournament
SUPERCRAZYFUN weekend in Bangkok playing frisbee with amazing players that came out for the weekend from Korea, Canada, Malaysia, China, Japan, Indonesia, the US, and of course all over Thailand (when we found out how far some other people had travelled, we didn't feel so bad about the 12 hour train rude we had to sit through to get there.
Two weeks before the tournament I suffered an ankle injury (and then proceeded to be a FOOL and continue playing on the ankle twice a week, which didn't exactly expedite the healing process). Also, there was an all-out costume party the first night of the tournament, which was fun, although we dubbed the MC "DJ Play What I Want" because despite numerous requests to spin some hip hop he refused outright and continued with his lame set.

We rolled as a unit

Pre-party warm up, Practicing our moves at the hostel. Nobody wants to be the one to pull a muscle 'cause they didn't stretch enough.

Of course we had to ride the Bangkok Skytrain in uniform. Lets just say we turned some heads on the street, but I think we pulled it off well.

Once we got there we felt right at home. 10 points to Gryffindor if you can figure out the costume of the gentleman in the box.

Considering that would be my only complaint from the weekend, I'd write it off as a resounding success.

2. My birthday! Celebrated 'kon dio' (by myself) in bed on the train back from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. The overnight train pulled into the station in Chiang Mai at 8 in the morning (only an hour late, I was impressed...the train is notoriously tardy) and I was due at work at 9:15.

Always the penny-pincher, I walked straight through the crowd of pushy taxi drivers that always swarm the entrance to the train station trying to charge naive 'fresh off the train' tourists exorbitant prices to take them wherever they need to go. I've lived in Chiang Mai long enough to know when I'm getting my pants pulled down over a price and I just wasn't in the mood to deal with it this early in the morning. I crossed the street, planning to head out to the main road and try to catch a ride home from there. I was walking quickly down the street (looking like quite the tourist profile with my huge backpack of frisbee paraphernalia) when I was stopped by an upper middle aged Thai gentleman in jeans and a red flannel shirt.

"Bai nai krap (Where are you going)?" He asked pleasantly. I wasn't overly surprised. It really isn't that uncommon for me to be stopped on the street, and everyone always asks where people are going. It's like a saluation. Another common one is "Have you eaten yet?" Until I figured out that these were polite greetings and not nosy inquisitons, I was really confused as to why strangers took such an interest in my daily itinerary and eating habits. I figured he was just a concerned citizen trying to steer a confused tourist in the right direction.

"Grap baan krap (going home)" was my response. Everything routine so far.

"Baan yu tee nai krap? (where do you live?)" Said the man.

"Tee tannun Huay Kaew, taew taew Kad Suan Kaew krap (On Huay Kaew road near the mall)" I answered.

"See-sib baht krap (40 baht)." He offered. I was caught off-guard by this because up to this point in the conversation I hadn't realized I was being sold anything.

"Poot eek tee dai mai krap (Uhh...what?)" I sputtered. Obviously he took it as a bargaining technique, and countered with an exhasperated

"Daai, daai, sam-sib baht, took maak (Okay, Okay, 30 baht. Special price just for you)"

At this point I had to weigh my options, and as usual I began with the cons.
1. I don't know this guy and he's not wearing any identifiable uniform
2. I'm in a hurry so if he attempts a kidnapping I'll likely be late for work.

Then there were the pros:
1. This mysterious stranger's prices were bargain basement low. I'd been expecting to pay 50-60 baht minimum for a ride home (more like 150 or 160 if I'd taken one of the guys at the door of the train station).
2. He was a good foot shorter than I am
3. I probably had 60 pounds on the guy
4. Based on Pros 2 and 3, I could probably outmatch the guy in a scuffle if it came to that (unless he was some sort muay thai master, in which case my goose would be cooked. I suppose I should've added "Potential Muay Thai master" to the cons).
5. I was in a hurry, going with him would mean I'd probably get to work on time if I didn't waste time at home
6. It was 8:00 in the morning.
7. I can run really fast.

I weighed my options and decided to accept his offer, PROVIDED that I didn't have to get into any sort of closed vehicle.

"Okay, krap" I said, and he motioned me to get on the back of a beat up looking motorocycle. I figured that if I got wind that this was some sort of bizarre kidnapping attempt, I could hop off of the back of the bike, or at least cause us to have an accident without too much difficulty.

As it turns out my hesitations were completely unfounded. He turned out to be a really cheerful, friendly guy. It turns out he's worked as a motorcycle taxi driver for almost 20 years now, ever since he moved to Chiang Mai from Bangkok. He also drove really really slowly, which meant that I did end up late for work, but I suppose that's the price you pay for adventure.

3. My Thesis Proposal!
That's right kids, with about 1.5 months to go, I've finally recieved approval. So basically I'm running around trying to gather as much information as I possibly can before I leave so that I'll have something to work with when I get home. Hoping to send in my ethics review by tomorrow night (fingers crossed). I'm kind of at the point where work is crunching, and thesis is crunching, and a lot of my friends are leaving since they're teachers and the school year is ending so the rest of life is crunching as well. Today I taught from 9-5 (turned the compost and then a lecture on soil texture in the morning, followed by soil properties and a lecture on soil organic matter in the afternoon). I began this post at lunch, got home an hour ago and continued, and plan to spend a good deal of the rest of the night working on my ethics review so it can be done by tomorrow night. Have you ever tried to develop a survey of NGO effectiveness indicators? It's not exactly a walk in the park.
Hard at work (on the thesis proposal) in a coffee shop at 11:54PM on a Friday night. Strangely, this coffee shop, like many shady establishments in Chiang Mai doesn't seem to have to adhere to the rules about closing times observed by most other shops. I stayed until about 2 in the morning, (although the sign advertises that it closes at midnight). I've seen them smoking (not cigarettes) inside, the barista's usually way past drunk if you show up after 7PM, and when I left that night they'd just lit a BBQ INSIDE THE SHOP and were grilling meat and squid. The owner's friends seem to hang out there a lot.
All work and no play make Leslie a dull boy.

4. I stopped going to Thai Lessons!

I found I was really sad to stop going to Thai lessons when the time finally came. I decided that I'd gone far enough in February. A passing photographer happened upon my Thai teacher (Ajan Lah) and I in the middle of a lesson and snapped this candid shot. That's a lie, Ajan lah wanted to put a picture of me on her website so we coerced this lady in the lobby of my apartment to take a picture of us. After 4 tries the lady still hadn't got it right, and she seemed pretty indignant at Ajan Lah's insistence that the picture not be blurry, so in the end we said thank you, and asked the receptionist to take a picture instead. It was kind of awkward, because the first lady is actually sitting at one of the chairs you can see in through the glass windows behind us, WATCHING us get someone else to take the picture. Whenever I share the elevator with her she glares at me now.
Ajan Lah was a fantastic teacher though, I definitely have her to thank for the bulk of my Thai skills. It's a shame I'm not staying longer, I feel like I'm at the point where my skills are really starting to take off, because I can understand enough to put more of the pieces together myself.

5. Still working. A lot.
Yep, still doing that whole farming thing. Now that the new facility on the farm is complete, that's where we're teaching. I'm teaching on my own at this point, which is great because it really makes me feel like I've managed to figure out where I fit into NEED as an organization. It really is a fantastic feeling.

Adding water hyacinth to the stagnant cesspool behind the new kitchen in an effort to clear up the water a little bit. Water hyacinth is supposed to have some water purification properties, and be good at removing toxins. A few months later, the hyacinth is growing like crazy, but the water doesn't look any cleaner. This may be because more grossness is constantly being added to the system via the wash-water.
The new students are FANTASTIC. I really wish I wasn't leaving so soon. They're so keen to learn and soak up everything we teach them as fast as we can get it out. They ask questions and are always eager to get dirty (the girls just as much as the boys). I'm really really impressed with them so far, and hope that they continue to shine even after I've left.

The outside of the training facility

There was a flower festival in Chiang Mai. The Bonsai exhibit was pretty awesome.

The old kitchen (And our director's wife/one half of the cooking staff). She's great.

I think that just about covers it for me, life-wise...

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

summer fun cont'd

After much deliberation, loss of sleep, gnashing of teeth, etc. I've decided to stay in Markham for the summer. Alaska looks fantastic, it really does but I think I've just got too much on my plate to orchestrate that kind of a transition at this point.

These are a bunch of the cons that tipped the scale
  • I'd need to pay for a visa ($585 CAN for the summer, plus a $180US SEVIS fee...whatever that is) because I guess it's harder to work illegally in the US than it is in Thailand ("What? Who said that! *looks around*)
  • None of the jobs will pay for me to get to anchorage, which means I get to shoulder the plane ticket on top of my visa (some of the companies were generous enough to offer to take the cost of your plane ticket out of your wages over time so you didn't have to pay it up front, but that was the best they offered)
  • Minimum wage in Alaska is $US7.15/hour, which is what I'd likely be getting as a first year worker at an entry level position. This means on a 40 hour work week, working ALL summer I would gross $4195 CAD. Then we subtract taxes, plane and visa costs, potentially food and rent as well and I'm left with like 85 cents. Thanks Alaska.
  • If I'm somewhere remote, food isn't always provided with all of the jobs (and if my experiences last summer working in remote Northern Ontario were any indication, that's going to mean some hefty food bills)
  • Housing in Anchorage is expensive
  • A lot of the jobs require you to be a US citizen to apply
  • A lot of the ones that don't are already filled
  • I will be able to get there at the beginning of June at the earliest (and that's still with less than 2 weeks turn-around time) and would have to be back at the beginning of September to get back to things school-wise which would mean I didn't qualify for any of the "End of Season Bonuses" many of the jobs offer to reward people for staying for the full season.
I've concluded that this is something I should look into in the future, but I think I'm too crunched this summer to get it together.

  • SUMMER IN THE CITY (back of my neck gettin' dirty and gritty)
In other news: the passionfruit vine I transplanted from the farm to a planter box my balcony has begun growing again after a few months of dormancy and is looking rather lovely, if i do say so myself.

Now I've got to go eat a sandwich and study Thai before my Thai teacher gets here in an hour (her new apartment doesn't allow any foreigners (racism much?) so she's begun making house calls)

Monday, February 9, 2009

the great white north indeed

I've been looking at summer jobs in Alaska. Fishing lodges, adventure tours, summer camps and National Parks are all on my list to look into.

  • I would get to spend the summer in Alaska
  • The money is really good. I guess they figure they've got to do something to attract workers from out of state because I feel like the domestic labor pool would be pretty sparse
  • I'd be gaining valuable...skills...or so the websites tell me
  • Alaska is awesome
  • The cost of living is pretty high so I might not end up banking as much as I hope what with rent (most of the jobs don't cover it), fun and food.
  • I'd have maybe 2 weeks to deal with the reverse culture shock of returning home (I expect to be a mess. You've been warned) before flying out again (and potentially dealing a whole new breed of culture shock)
  • I'm pretty sure a number of people who were expecting me to be home for the summer will want to kill me.
  • I don't really have any related work experience for any of the jobs I'm looking at, save the summer camps
  • I would likely arrive back home at the end of the summer in a really messed up place...leaving friends/a life in Thailand, home for a few days, Alaska over the summer, back to Toronto at the end of August saying goodbye to all the awesome Alaskans I would've befriended by that point, just in time to recommence the downward spiral of insanity that is university life.

I'd appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Christmas etc.

February already??? HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? End of placement preparations are beginning, I've now officially purchased an airplane ticket which should mean I arrive home on May 13th.

I'm anticipating a dark first few weeks. I'm told 'reverse culture shock' is quite the ride. But lets wait to cross that bridge when we reach it.

I'm still quite busy with everything but I suppose I'd be complaining far louder if I was sitting around twiddling my thumbs.

Now, to go over my Christmas break in a bit more detail.

About ten days before my family arrived, I went down south to the island of Koh Wai with Ying. In Thailand it's not actually considered to be a 'southern' island because it's slightly south, and a fair distance east of Bangkok, right by the border between Thailand and Cambodia. Ying suggested it because neither of us really felt like battling crowds of tourists in the heart of the high season, we were both really just looking for someplace to go and relax. And that's exactly what we got.

The island is really really small, just off the much larger and more touristy island of Koh Chang. It's about 3 kilometres long and 1.5km wide. There are 4 guesthouses on the entire island, no roads, and the electricity only runs between 6pm and 11pm. It was awesome. We had a tiny one room bungalow on a small cove with a rocky beach. We'd wake up every night as the tide came in and washed against the steps of our house. I spent many a lazy afternoon reading on the porch dangling my feet off the edge over the water. It was amazing. Ying didn't know how to swim, but I was told there was really good snorkeling on the island so the first two days in the sea she spent a lot of time learning. All those years of swimming lessons and instructor courses finally came in handy in some capacity (I never actually worked as a swimming instructor or lifeguard).
Anyway, on the third day, we rented snorkels and flippers (and a life jacket for Ying to be on the safe side) and headed out. There was a reef about 50 metres from the beach on one side of the island that basically went from one end of the island to the other, and it was really really fun. Lots of tropical fish, sea cucumbers and coral. One morning looking out our window we also saw a green sea turtle swimming past our bedroom through the foamy surf.

Another day we went out in the kayak and spent about 3 hours paddling around the whole island, which was nice because there is a lot of it that you can't really get to overland very easily, and neither of us had brought hiking boots. All in all, a fantastic little vacation (also, the room: 300b per night, which is the equivalent of about 10 dollars, spit between the two of us.

Sunsets were phenomenal, but they were on the opposite side of the island to where we were staying so we had to hike to see them. So worth it.

Just off screen was my book, and a bag of sesame snacks. Set for the afternoon. (also notice the snorkel mask)

Taken during an afternoon exploring the island. I never quite got over the color of the water...Kool Aid anyone?

There was a sea turtle hatchery on the island as well, I assume that's where the turtle we saw in the ocean came from, but you can't be sure.

Our room was the one on the right. Unfortunately at this time of year the tide is in during the day so there weren't many white sandy beaches, but walks on the beach at night aren't the most terrible things in the world either.
A little before sunset, note the tide going out. That's our room again on the right. If you compare this picture with the previous on you can kind of see that the rocky beach we were on was pretty isolated. There were random Russian and German tourists from the larger islands nearby who came during the day on snorkeling trips, but none of them ever really did much more than pass by our beach, likely because of all the rocks. It really made for a quiet stay though, which was nice.

I really like the gaudy paint jobs on the fishing boats. They would go out every night and come back every morning laden with fish and seafood for the two guesthouse restaurants on the island. Fresh seafood anyone?

Anyway, we stayed there 6 nights after which time we went back to Bangkok three days before I was to meet my family who would be flying in on the 21st. It was my first time back in BKK since I arrived and all I have to say is whoa! It's huge, bustling, and kind of overwhelming. I guess I'm especially lucky to live where I do. You can get all the same things you can in the city (sushi, indian food, live music, bars, clubs, galleries, cafes, etc) but the inner city is maybe 4 square kilometres. I mean, there's a lot of sprawl so it extends much farther than that, but it's still relatively small and easy to get around. 20 minutes on a bicycle will get you anywhere in Chiang Mai.

After three days in the city I finally figured out the public transport system in Bangkok. The buses, skytrain and subway system, while incredibly confusing,are generally very cheap and efficient ways to get around.

Then came the family. Jennifer arrived a day before everyone else and there we the tearful hello at the airport arrival area. I feel like that would be a neat place to hang out, just because you're constantly seeing people who are seeing each other again for the firs time in a long time. Lots of tears, lots of hugs. My sister, Ying and I spent the day touring Bangkok. The next night, Ying left to go back to Chiang Mai and the rest of the family arrived. We spent the next morning looking around Bangkok, visited one of the big temples and then waited in the train station for a few hours because of a mix-up with the tickets. On arriving in Chiang Mai after the 13 hour train ride (the fact that we got beds for the night took the edge off), we headed to the hotel. The next 5 days were spent basically hanging out as a family and touring Northern Thailand. We went to an elephant camp, the night safari (which was a lot like African Lion Safari, but at night, and in Thailand) a big national park, visited some hot springs. It was really beautiful, Northern Thailand is really a side of thailand a lot of tourists who just go to the south miss. Mountains, valleys and rice paddies. Very rural.

Here's the proof:

This is a monument in downtown Bangkok commemorating bloody student clashes in the...80s? The date's not important, what IS important is that basically high school and university students ended up going head to head in bloody clashes with the military and the government because they felt that the government wasn't one that fairly represented the people. Students, fighting for democrating government. There were many many casualities. In an effort to suppress the student uprising, the military was authorized to fire upon the crowd and basically things escalated from there. There were 3 or 4 days when the street the monument was located on, and the area outside the government buildings was basically a war zone. What really drove it home for me was the fact that they had lots of pictures, and much of the conflict occurred on the street just outside where the monument was (it's one of the biggest streets in bangkok, maybe 8 lanes? Huge.) Anyway, in the picture, the road had been completely closed and was filled with thousands and thousands of students demonstrating. Why did I never learn about this in history class? It was really sobering to think about the sacrifices so many young people made in the name of democracy.

I'm not one of those who will try to tell you that democracy is the perfect form of government, in fact I think it's riddled with flaws. What gets me though, is the fact that people were ready and willing to fight and to die to work toward the system of government we in the West don't think twice about most of the time. Get out and vote kids. It's a privaledge. Anyway, that's my voting PSA. Moving on.

This was taken at Doi Inthanon National Park, the highest point in Thailand. My brother is obviously too cool for school.

Guess why they call this area "The Golden Triangle"?

Taking a river boat up the Mekong.

Early morning in Ta Thon

Yeah I drive ox-carts. Who doesnt?

Yes they're bugs, yes I've tried them. Next question.

We're all either coming or going when you think about it.

The skytrain sure beats sitting in traffic.

The white temple in Chiang Rai. The picture really doesn't do it justice.
Cool statues at a temple in Bankok

Oh! and Christmas, we can't forget about that. On Christmas morning, most people didn't really want to go to church so only I went with my mom and dad to a church we'd seen somewhat near my house. Unfortunately it was closed (which, as we were told later made a lot of sense since Christmas was a Wednesday and most of the congregation would likely have been at work), so we decided to walk to another one somewhat nearby and if that was closed to we'd give up and go home. After having to ask a few people how to find the place, we finally got there and to our surprise the door was open and the sound of Christmas carols could be heard wafting out the door. We went inside to find a group of maybe 20 young people, led by a pastor practicing Christmas carols (all of which were translated into Thai). They didn't mind us being there but explained why there were no services, and then proceeded to give us a private recital of all their Christmas carols. So there we were, my mother, my father and I sitting in three chairs being sung to in Thai on Christmas morning. It was surreal yet incredibly uplifting. They did 'We wish you a merry Chrismas' (Koh hai mii kwaam suk wan khrit maat), Oh Holy night, and two other ones I can't remember. After practicing they were all going to go to a seniors residence in Chiang Mai to sing for the seniors (because many of them don't get many visitors) but we politely declined as we had plans for the afternoon.

I was also lucky enough to get to watch all four of my grandparents use skype for the first time over the holidays. When you consider how much technology has changed over their lifetime I think they both deserve to be highly commended for how well they've kept up.

Unfortunately it couldn't last forever and the day before new years they had to pack up to go home in order to have a few days to sleep of the jet lag before school was back in session. Since then I've been doing more thesis research, writing my thesis proposal, finding for more resources to include in the curriculum manual, finishing up two pieces I've been working on which will be published in the NEED Journal 'Natural Light' and trying to keep my head on straight.

Last Saturday there was a one day ultimate tournament in Chiang Mai. Lots of fun was had by all, we had people come up from Bangkok, and one guy even flew in from Hong Kong. I've also signed up for a weekend long ultimate frisbee tournament in Bankok at the end of February, which is going to be MUCH begger, but I'm very very excited about it. I hear the team from Singapore is AMAZING.

Right, I think that just about covers it. I'm sorry again for taking so long with my response, I hope the length and detail make up for my tardiness.

I forgot to mention, January 10 was Children's Day in Thialand. All over the country there were activities set up for kids, like letting them ride in fire trucks, or fighter jet flying exhibitions, magic shows, etc. I know there's a children's day in Canada but it's not really a holiday and doesn't get mentioned much, but I thought it was neat that here it was such a big thing. And, everyone goes around wishing each other a happy children's day (suksan wan dek). The traffic was terrible though.

Lets see...what else have I been up to lately.

Oh! A while ago there was this...I suppose one would call it an 'event'. 11,000 monks gathered on this street near my house at 5 in the morning, and thousands of people came to say prayers and give offerings. It was SO surreal.

Work is also still going well, we've now officially finished the new training facility at the farm. I thought about it the other day and realized that I've been able to observe the ENTIRE process, from designing the building to applying for funding to construction (and associated difficulties). I suppose all that's left to do now is begin to use it. The new students have started to arrive and are moving in on the farm, training is set to begin with an orientation week Feb 16. Still working hard folks.

Although you'd never guess from the picture below. I took it at last week's staff meeting.

Oh, and I'm also starting to miss's taken long enough to set in, and it's not the best feeling. I suppose I'll be back soon enough.