Tuesday, April 16, 2013

until next time...

I blinked. I shouldn't have, but as I've never been good at staring contests, it was inevitable. So it happened. My eyes closed for one last time in the land of smiles, and when I opened them I had no idea where I was, but I knew it wasn't home.

I've waited a long time to write to you, my Fabulous Five. I've been home for about a month now, but I just haven't quite been able to process it yet. I still wake up some mornings and wonder where I am. I still have mini anxiety attacks at random times while driving, panicking that I'm on the wrong side of the road. I still accidentally speak in the tone that is specially reserved for my sweet Thai babies, forgetting that people here can comprehend my English. I still have so many stories to tell, but I realize that I could never convey the memories as perfectly as they deserve to be told.

At the very mention of my Thai babies, I am taken back to my final moments with them. I'm not a crier, but I can't help but be brought to tears by the thought of our last week together. I didn't want to tell them I was leaving until the last possible moment because I knew I couldn't keep my composure. The same went for our family and friends in our community. We made it a point to continue on as normal until it was unavoidable. We went out to eat and danced and laughed and celebrated our togetherness, but were careful not to mention what was to come.

I stole every last possible moment I could. I was that crazy lady who holds on too long during a hug. I held their little faces in my hands while telling them how much I love them. I braided hair until I thought my fingers would fall off. I rocked them in my arms while singing old jazz songs. I rode my bicycle around school with four kiddos on the back and one in the basket. They were so confused when each of these silly little bits brought tears to my eyes. They could never comprehend the magnitude of my love for them or my sadness for leaving.

The morning of our departure, I rode my bicycle to school like always, but for the last time. I actively practiced meditation so as not to burst into tears at the thought of the coming moments. Never having a gift for meditation, I erupted almost immediately at first sight of the school. My favorite M1 students met me at the gate to give me a little teddy bear and handwritten note (both of which never leave my side) before I made my way up to the front of the morning assembly to say my official goodbye. None of my words were even the slightest bit recognizable (nor would they have been to even the most avid of English speakers) because of the onslaught of tears and emotion that overcame me. It was embarrassing for me to show so much emotion in public, but at the same time, I wanted them to understand just how much they had affected me, my life, my very purpose of living. I all but ran away from the scene, wanting to get out of there before just deciding to set up camp and stay forever, right there in the middle of that sweet little school with all my kiddos surrounding me. But I walked away because I had a bus to catch. I hugged my fellow teachers and continued on.

Then, I heard the little voices of "Teacha Cowsee!" behind me, and I turned around to the most beautiful scene of my life: all my babies running towards me. It was like something out of a movie. I cried a river as I hugged the necks of each and every one of those angels while they begged me to stay. The hardest thing I've ever had to do was to keep walking. We waved to each other until we vanished from sight, a scene that I carry in my mind every moment.

I got back to our place to load up the past year of our lives into Off's tiny little car. We crammed in with absolutely no room left and headed for the bus station, and got a few important last lessons in Thai on the way. As we were unloading his car, I looked up to see my five favorite fellow teachers coming to greet me one last time. "It was not enough," they said, in regards to our earlier goodbyes. We got our final tear filled hugs in before beginning our long journey home.

The next few days that followed are simply a blur in my mind now. I remember feeling every possible emotion to the highest degree. Flights were full, bags were heavy, stress was off the charts. Our journey took us to Singapore, which ended up being a blessing because it gave us the day to explore yet another beautiful new country. However, never have I been so miserably ready to be home. At certain points, I thought the moment would never come. It was so sweet when it finally did.

I can't tell you how it felt to step foot in America. I can't even tell you how it feels to be here now. After a month, I still have yet to process it. I think it's a part of my brain that I have blocked off to deal with at another time. I so often get asked "How was Thailand?" or "How does it feel to be back?" and my automated response is "I'm so sad to have left, but so happy to be home." However, if I can tell you the truth, I don't think I'm home yet.

I can now be found in north Alabama (more specifically at a perfect little coffee shop I've already sought out for paper grading and my last blog entry to you tonight). I've just taken a job at a middle school for the next 6 weeks (remainder of the school year) teaching English and journalism to 8th graders with whom I've already fallen in love after my two short days of being here. You'd be hard pressed to find nicer, more welcoming folks anywhere. It was a quick decision to take the job and move here, but it was undoubtedly the right one. It's weird to be in this place alone. Even in Thailand, I had Meredith by my side every step of the way. But I think these next six weeks are meant for me.

Some people have asked me why I didn't stay in Thailand since I loved it so much. The truth is I could've stayed forever, and that was the problem. I want to be scared. I want to keep pushing the boundaries. I want to keep discovering, learning, playing, changing, LOVING! And it's not to say that there wasn't more of that to be done in Thailand, but I have to keep moving. I've got so much more ground to cover.

Sometimes cliffs present themselves, and looking over to see what's beyond can be the most intimidating thing of all especially if the landing isn't within sight. Somehow, even though we know such a leap will land us safely into our next climb, a journey we welcome, it's still hard to let go. There's something really special about taking a risk and moving on though. My favorite moments are the ones after I've taken the risk. Secret little reasons of why I was supposed to take it revealed to me in their own time--minutes, days, months, years after I've jumped. It's the most exquisite thing in life, I think. 

This is my farewell post to the most FABULOUS of Fives. I couldn't have asked for a better journey, and I'm beyond lucky to have gotten to share it with all of you--whomever you may be. I have no idea where my next adventure will take me, but I promise it won't be boring. I look forward to sharing more stories with you again someday, if you'll have me. Until next time, lovelies!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

barrel of monkeys

The past weekend was one for the books. Due to our dwindling number of weekends left, we've tried to make them as eventful as possible, and this one did not disappoint. Luckily, we had three days off thanks to a Buddhist holiday, so we used 24 hours for adventure and the next 48 to recover.

Thailand has done wonders for my sleep schedule. In the past, I've always jam packed my schedule leaving just a few hours for sleep each night. Going to bed at 1am due to practice or homework of some sort, and then waking up at 4am to get ready to open Java Jolt--what I can remember from my sleep deprived haze of those years was fantastic! But living the simple life here has been enormously beneficial. Like I told you in my earlier posts, I've fallen into a bit of a routine (at least with my bedtime schedule). In bed by 10:30pm at the latest, wake up at 7am at the earliest. Of course there are nights we designate to dancing and night life (especially on our vacations!), but for the majority of our time here, I've stayed on schedule. A couple of the other farang teachers here and I have had this discussion a few times--we aren't mad about settling into our elderly ways! Ok, but on to the story...

We decided that Lop Buri would be our destination of choice for the weekend. However, after some research, we discovered that there was only really one attraction: the monkey-infested temple. This was enough to motivate me to ride the next 6 hour bus journey, but I hesitated because there were no good places to spend the night there. I always keep the phrase "go big or go home" in my mind, so we decided to apply it to our Saturday journey. We'd just get on the bus, drive 6 hours, explore the monkey temple for a while, and then meander back to Uttaradit on the night bus...which is precisely what we'd have done had we actually caught it. More on that later.

I won't give details on the bus ride there. But I will tell you this: there are some bus rides (and drivers) with which (whom) no amount of Dramamine can compete. No matter the country, I always find myself asking why I have to seek out the ones that make me all but reenact the dress shopping scene from the movie Bridesmaids. God help that bus had I not taken the motion sickness medicine. I have to practice meditation and constant concentration and composure in order to not share my lunch menu with the other riders. Should I continue? Did you...I can...no? You grasp the situation with which we're dealing? Ok great. Just let me know. I can come back to it.

After our arrival (around 3pm), I stumbled off the bus and took a few minutes to compose myself as Meredith checked about departure times. She came to discover that the only bus back to our home sweet home was at 10pm. I made peace with the fact that I wouldn't make it back before my 10:30 bed time (we're more lenient on weekends anyway--sometimes we're crazy enough to stay awake until...wait for it...11pm if you can believe it!), and we planned to return to the bus station before then to be there when our ride showed up, as we couldn't buy tickets in advance. We exited the station to look for a taxi, and were herded by a fragile looking older gentleman (who couldn't have been in his right mind) towards his one person bike-buggy. Held together by rubber bands, this little "carriage that could" had an unintentional sun roof due to what looked like centuries of wear and tear on the canvas roof. I asked repeatedly, "Are you sure?" while pointing to the size of our derrieres combined. Thankfully, he wasn't deterred, and the monkey temple was only a few kilometers away.

We made it to our destination, and a handsome young gentleman of no older than 8 years was waiting to greet us. "Bodyguard!" he offered repeatedly. We hired him and his bamboo stick, not knowing that we'd actually need them both. We pulled out a bag of cereal to show him what we'd brought to feed the monkeys, and he proceeded to chow down himself while waving his bamboo to traffic as we crossed the road to the temple. We hadn't even approached the gate before the monkeys swarmed around us, interested in nothing but food. Far from shy, they didn't hesitate for one second to jump on our legs, back, shoulders, or head, sometimes several at a time. It took a little getting used to (and by that I mean several panic attacks were had). We finally made our way into the temple, exploring the ancient ruins while watching several groups of monkeys picking bugs out of others' fur and whatnot. I had finally gotten used to the little jokers and started welcoming them onto my shoulder until one of them got too comfortable. Deciding that the cereal wasn't good enough, he went for my bling and stole one of my earrings right out of my dadgum ear. After pillaging through my backpack and any other belongings he could get his little fingers on, we decided to empty what was left of the cereal (which was not much due to "bodyguard") and move along.

The Monkey Temple

 Already feeling the monkey love before even entering the temple gates!

 No interest in me whatsoever. Food is the priority. I can't say I don't understand...

 Bodyguard going to town on our cereal

 This is a terrible yet hilarious picture of me with 4 monkeys chillin' on my back, and one doing a backflip off of me. I couldn't resist sharing it with you. 

"Show me the goods and we'll talk..."

We went to find lunch, and along the way found monkeys crawling all over the rest of the town (almost creepily). Since we didn't know the town very well and had trouble finding a decent place to eat, when we saw KFC, we settled for it. It just so happened that two kind-hearted Belgian gentleman (both professional orchestra musicians, and now also in law school) had the same plan, so they joined us for the meal. We exchanged travel stories, admired their French accent, and decided to make a day of it. We left the navigating to Bernard and Adrian, who led us to the wat ruins. We stopped there for a while to just enjoy the sunset and conversation. Surrounded by ancient pillars and the most intriguing company, we watched the moon take the sun's place.

The gentlemen bid us goodbye, and they departed on their train back to Bangkok. Little did we know the two of us would be back several hours later. The bike-buggy was nowhere in sight, so we decided to be frugal and walk despite our less than journey-appropriate shoes. We explored some of the night markets around the bus station in attempt to pass the time before our night bus arrived, but to no avail. We still ended up having nearly a couple of hours of bench-sitting at the station. We hadn't found a bathroom all day long, so it was imperative that we did so before our bus ride home. We ran to the 7-Eleven to beg for use of their loo, aaaaaaaaaaaaaaand I'm guessing that's when Thailand's first EVER bus to arrive early made its appearance. Yes. We missed it. We missed our one chance of getting home in even the slightest of comfortable ways. One more bus came afterwards, and they turned us down, not even letting us sit in the floor. At the height of our frustration, our guardian angel in the form of a sweet 18 year old boy named Nye approached us and asked, "Where you go?" Relieved to hear English, we quickly explained our problem. He made a quick call and discovered our option to get home was by train. We thanked him, but he insisted on giving us a ride. You'll think us crazy to have accepted such an offer, but we trusted our instincts. He and his father drove us (in style, I might add--he drove a 2013 BMW with flat screens in the back of the headrests) back to the train station where we'd left our Belgian gentleman friends earlier and bought us a ticket. By a stroke of luck, the train was pulling up just as we were handed our tickets. I had enough time to pull Nye into a giant hug of gratitude and be on my merry way.

The next 6 hours were filled with the most interesting of seat partners. Thankfully, there were a couple of gentlemen who offered their seats up to us. We graciously accepted, and then found the price to be their staring at us for the remainder of the ride. 47 stops, nostrils full of pollution (due to rickety old open windows) and many cases of whiplash later, we arrived in our sweet Uttaradit in the wee small hours of the morning, and proceeded to sleep for the next 12 hours. This threw us terribly off of our elderly sleep schedule. Wooooooorth it.

I just wanted to share this with you, Fab Five, because I realized I usually share the big picture rather than the little adventures in between. And the little adventures always seem to make for the best memories. Excuse me while I go make as many more as possible before I leave (and also leave time to mourn over my stolen earring--it was such a good one!). I don't have much time left here, and I can't even go into detail about it now because I will surely break down in tears. For now, I'm going to do my best to try not to blink...

Monday, January 21, 2013

all the little details

I've taken so many pictures here, and though they're worth a thousand words, I still don't think it'd be enough to truly convey life in this world away from home. People watching is one of my absolute favorite activities (the hours and days of layovers in airports my whole life have been well spent), and being able to observe this new culture for a year has been one of the greatest highlights of my life. It's like the epitome of people watching. But beyond just watching, I've done my best to try some Thai shoes on for size and walk in them a while. Experiencing has been a far better treat than observing. I've collected several little details for you (as they come to me) that I think you'll find interesting. Excuse the disorganization that is my brain.

it's perfectly normal to see 4 people on one motorbike.
it's also perfectly normal for 2 of those people to be under the age of 4 months old.
it's also perfectly normal for the driver to be under 13 years old.
it's also perfectly normal for dogs to be balancing on the motorbike as well.
look, just go ahead and picture a circus act on two wheels. that's perfectly normal.

health codes? what are those? if you come to this country expecting cleanliness and health ratings posted on the walls of each establishment (if you're posh enough to be eating in a restaurant with walls), you won't eat.

dogs are everywhere. some are nice, some will attack you, all are dirty. (i have the scars to prove the aggressive ones)

it's impolite to cross your legs (and as i type this, i'm reminded to uncross my legs--still haven't been able to commit that rule to memory).

i never know what's going on. there's never a point in the day that i'm absolutely sure that what i'm doing is what i'm supposed to be doing, or where i am is where i'm supposed to be, or if i'm being "rip roi"--polite.

however, this doesn't seem to be an issue because i don't think i'm the only one. people live a go-with-the-flow lifestyle here. "mai pen rai" was the first phrase i learned, and it means "no worries." that sums  it all up completely.

nothing is private. people come knock on our door all the time with no warning. one morning, a teacher friend needed her daughter's medical school research paper proofread. this was at 7am. in another instance, we were taking an afternoon snooze when our friend knocked on our door. "were you sleeping?" he asked. "well, yes," we answered. "well, wake up! we're going to find some fun," he replied. (i'm glad we woke up. it was a beautiful day)

shoes are expected to be taken off before entry to any and all shops. feet are considered to be the lowliest body part.

i've never fully witnessed respect until seeing the way Thai people respect their King. these people love their King and their country. every day, the national anthem is played at 8am and 6pm. during those times, people stand up and have a moment of silence. the King's song is played before each movie shown in theaters. i've only been to a couple of movies, and i've cried both times because it's that touching.

at markets, or really anywhere, there are boiling vats of oil (they deep fry EVERYTHING here) barely balanced on an open flame or gas tank. every time i pass them, my anxiety skyrockets, as i'm sure i'll bump one and have it burn straight through to my bones.

they're not too keen on public displays of affection between couples. no hand holding, and definitely no kissing. however, between friends or family, it's always shown. i've never crossed the street with a Thai without my hand being held.

people decorate like crazy. for what? the hundreds of festivals always going on to celebrate one thing or another. they do it up big (and then take it down surprisingly fast, i assume to start decorating for the next celebration). however, once you've seen one, you've seen them all. the same vendors attend each festival and sell the same things they always do...but the people never tire of it!

"delicious" snack food here (according to Thais) consists of sheets of dried fish, dried seaweed, milk flavored tablet candy, dried (or sometimes not) fermented thin sheets of rice paste (tastes much like shower curtain--not that i've ever snacked on one before), any thing in jelly form, foreign objects wrapped in banana leaves, shredded pork (think of cotton candy consistency, though), octopus on a stick, and a wide variety of bugs ranging in size, taste, and crunchiness. i'm not ashamed to say i've tried everything i've just mentioned (most of it for the first and last time). hey, YOL(in Thailand)O, right?!

also, as mentioned before, they love a good deep fried dish. let's take fish, for instance. while most of us would filet it real nice like, Thais don't waste time. they stick the whole dad gum thing down in the frier. eyeballs, fins, bones, and all. don't like fish? we can do you up a nice chicken. why yes, the beak is included!

they love the slapstick comedy. all of their shows come with sound effects of the "BOIOIOIOING!" "WHOOOOP!" and the sad, but always popular "whah-whah-whah" varieties.

ice cream comes in a piece of bread instead of a cone. you can add a number of toppings, such as sticky rice (my favorite), pumpkin, black beans, corn, or different flavors of jelled things.

beverages are served in little plastic bags.

straws come with everything.

students have class ALL day. after school, they have extra lessons. on the weekends, they have extra lessons. they are always always always in school. in addition, everyone wears uniforms. even the college students.

dogs wander into classrooms. mai pen rai.

all buildings are open air. this is because of rainy season when it rains at least once a day.

hot dogs are sold everywhere. all kinds, all shapes, all sizes. off the side of a motorbike, off the side of a bicycle, in shops, or anywhere else you can manage to sell them.

if you can read Thai, then you will be golden. if not, you will rely on pictures. when shopping for doctors (there's a whole street full of doctors offices--picture an open garage with a doctor in it), we go by pictures or customers. after passing by an office full of children, expectant mothers, and one with toothpaste, we finally found our general practitioner.

no issue is taboo. i hear "what the f$*#" from my elementary school kids (although they have no idea what they're saying), i get "shot" by little boys playing with their invisible guns, and students of all ages tell me i don't have a boyfriend because i'm fat.

your personal information is not your personal information. it is everyone's information. how much you have in your bank account, how much you spent on your motorbike, how much your raise was (if only people had a reason to ask me this!), how much you weigh, where you're going, how old you are, or any other personal question (i imagine they'd be much more in depth to me if people spoke more English) never divulged in America.

if you know basic greetings in English, i imagine you could be offered a job anywhere in the more rural areas of the country.

being an air hostess (flight attendant) is the most glamorous job in the world.

people here eat all the livelong day. they have meals, but they have snacks that come before meals, and meals that come after regular meals and snacks that come after that. and then they have dessert and coffee drinks. how they all weigh less than 100 pounds is beyond me. in fact, a greeting equivalent to "how are you?" is "have you eaten?" i get asked this most.

they dance all on, around, and betwixt the gender lines leaving us unsure of how to address most anyone.

karaoke is HUGE. and you don't have to be good at it. there are actually karaoke buses that thump their way down the road if you're up for a more entertaining 8 hour ride to Bangkok.

you can't buy moisturizer here without a "whitening" agent in it. as much as Americans long to be tan and sun kissed, Thais long to be pale. they go to any lengths to prevent the sun from touching their skin. a fellow teacher and i ran an errand, and before we hopped on her motorbike, she put on a sweater, jacket, and gloves before topping the ensemble off with her helmet. all in 95 degree weather, mind you. i asked her if she was cold, and she replied "i don't want the sun to hurt me!"

people take naps anywhere, anytime.

it's ok not to match. at all.

picture taking is a constant. everywhere we go, everywhere we do, it's documented in pictures. never in my life have i posed with so many people for so many different combinations of pictures. the worst is at yoga classes--i'm far from my loveliest in the most unflattering positions imaginable, and there next to me is someone playing photographer. i'm delighted to smile for the camera 99% of the time. yoga is not included in that percentage.

as mentioned before, people are always eating. but they are also always offering. this shows a fraction of their loving spirits. if they're eating and i'm not, they invite me to sit down and share their meal whether they know me or not. it's so beautiful to me.

people are always staring at me. i have learned to live while constantly being watched. at first, it made me self-conscious. now, i don't even notice it. and in fact, when i see a farang i've never seen before or go to a big city and see some, i stare just the same.

driving is hilarious. first of all, of course it's on the other side of the road. i thought i'd never get used to it, but now i'm afraid to drive when i come home. when i watch a movie set in america, i wonder why they drive on the right side (and then remember i'll have to relearn that). second, there are no rules except one: do what you gotta do. i've had little to no road rage here on the motorbike because that bad boy can weave nicely in and out of traffic. i've never stopped at a stop sign. stop lights are mostly just a suggestion. the only must is wearing a helmet, but that's only when the sun is out. after dark, the police go home and the stop lights go off, and it's a free for all--don't worry, mothers. we wear our helmets anyway.

it's not rude for people to talk while another person is speaking. this drives me insane!

my youngest prathom students (age 5-6) have a routine of putting baby powder on their face every day after lunch to prevent heat rash. i then have 55 ghost-looking babies, and it's about the cutest looking thing you've ever seen.

air conditioning and hot water are luxuries.

squatty-potties. thailand's gift to the bathroom world and also the most miserable form of a toilet ever created. i didn't understand them, i don't understand them, and i never will understand squatty potties.

the bathrooms here are created to where the shower head is over the toilet (very small and compact like--think of a camper maybe?) and the entire bathroom floor is one big shower with a drain.

There are so many more details that I've forgotten (but am sure to remember as soon as I post this), but you get the point. Some of these may sound like complaints, but I promise I love this country all the more for each one. The most important one of all is that even though the shoes in which I've been walking in are so very different, they're beautiful just the same. Before I left, a person ignorantly cautioned me that I would hate it because it wasn't going to just be "an easy life full of grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup" (among a few other rude comments conveying his heavy disapproval). I didn't come here to live an easy life. I didn't come here hoping it would be anything like America. I came here to explore another culture, and ended up falling in love with it. Although I can't say I won't be found sipping queso dip from a straw when I get home (Thailand's not much for cheese), it was the smallest, no actually, it wasn't even a price to pay for the life I've gotten to live here. I certainly hope you, my Fabulous Five, never let the absence of a grilled cheese sandwich and an excess of ignorance stop you from doing something that brings you as much joy, happiness, and love that Thailand has brought me.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

sawatdee be mai

SAWATDEE BE MAI! (Happy New Year!) The year 2012 really set the bar high for the rest of my years to come. I've never had a year that I was happy to see go, but I've always welcomed the next and willed it to be better. 2013 has a lot of work to do.

Here's what's been happening in my neck of the jungle...

 English teachers in our "Santies" the Friday before Christmas during our morning assembly
 elf and reindeer
all my happy kiddos

When the holidays rolled around here in Thailand, I knew challenges would arise. I've done the whole solo Thanksgiving before, and having so much to be thankful for almost completely stifled the longing to be home with my family (not that I didn't think about you guys all day!). I was hoping to get at least Christmas day off, but when I made my request, I was denied with a simple shrug, wince, and an "Ummmmm...I don't think so." At first, I was upset. Not so much that I couldn't have Christmas off (I had already prepared myself for this before I came to Buddhist country), but that my religious holiday couldn't be acknowledged even a little when we've had at least 8 Buddhist holidays so far this school year. You guys can't slide me one little teensy itsy bitsy day? No? Nothing?

I found out later the reason I wasn't able to be granted a holiday: Several prathom (elementary) students and teachers were traveling to Chiang Mai for sports competitions. It just so happened that every teacher from my office was going except me. That's cool. I didn't want to go to Chiang Mai anyway. Oh, and also I was expected to teach all of the English classes for the 3 days they were gone. Why sure, I'd love to have the workload of 5 teachers combined on the week of Christmas!

I arrived to school on Christmas Eve morning, having dragged my feet the whole way there. I was in no mood to be dealing with children by myself (don't get me wrong, I love these children whole-heartedly. But when you have 55 students-yes, that many in every single classroom-from ages 5 to 11 yelling questions in a seemingly impossible language and treating you like a human jungle gym, it takes a bit to psych yourself up to face the day). For some reason, it was eerily quiet as I turned the corner into the main assembly area. By that time, I would already have been ambushed by the masses and screams of "TEACHA COW-SEE!" But alas, all was quiet. As I continued on to sign in, I saw my mathayom (high school) students playing soccer in the courtyard, but not a single prathom student was in sight. A few minutes later I was informed that the prathom grades had no school for the next 3 days, and all I was responsible for were the mathayoms. This is a perfect example of Thai life for a foreign teacher. I NEVER KNOW WHAT'S GOING ON. Ever. Sometimes this works out in my favor, sometimes it doesn't. Thankfully this time was the former!

I still had to work on Christmas Eve and Day, but I got to spend some quality time with my older students who sometimes get the shaft because I'm busy giving piggy-back rides 4 students at a time. My Crow Mother sent me a box full of Christmas things for the kids, and since I teach over 1,500 students, there wouldn't have been enough candy canes for everyone. BUT there were enough for every single one of the mathayom students, and I was so loved that day.

My gratefulness for Skype will be never-ending. I was able to talk with my family on their Christmas Eve and Day, and it almost almost felt like I was there. Meredith's sweet grandmother sent us a box full of wrapped gifts and a little tree back in November, and we were able to open the gifts while listening to Christmas carols and watching the fire crackle (compliments of the really neat DVD that Crow Mom sent which simulates a cozy fireplace). Plus, I had just gotten packages from both Big Lynn and my bestie Ashley Bass, both of which contents were so perfectly "me" you'd think I'd hand selected each item myself. I'm not ashamed to say I jumped up and down like a child. That afternoon, we joined our other farang friends for a very festive celebration. On Christmas night, our favorite Thai, Off, took us out to eat and around town. We stumbled upon a Christmas tree of lights, and everyone was gathered around taking pictures. We parked and began to do the same, and since I was in my super festive "Santy" (as my teachers call it) outfit, we stayed for the next hour having my photo taken with what seemed like every little boy and girl in town. I was elated.

 visiting our friends in the local shops
can you believe this little angel? his name is Archie!

Thankfully, we were rewarded with two days off for New Year's Eve and Day. We caught the next bus to Chiang Mai, our go-to town for long weekends. We frequented The Olive Tree, the tastiest Greek restaurant in Thailand (because I crave variety the most living here), Starbucks, and I even got an egg and cheese bagel for breakfast one morning. CHEESE! It's always the little things.

 a coffee shop we found near home

As for our New Year's Eve celebration, there's nowhere I'd rather have been. We met up with some of our Thai friends and proceeded to dance the night away. It was wonderful to be around a few people we love and tons we'd never met but love anyway. My favorite moments were counting down to the new year in Thai, and also watching thousands of lanterns being released in the sky. It's those moments that I stop and smile to myself. We live in a beautiful world!

before we went out dancing under the lantern-lit sky. neither one of us wanted to be responsible for the camera, so this is the only photo taken on nye.

I hope that you all made peace with 2012, and were able to welcome 2013 with open arms. Today I'll be teaching my students about new year's resolutions, however I don't plan on making any of my own. For now, I'm just focused on soaking up every possible thing Thailand has to offer me because guess what? I'll be home soon! Only a few short months to go. I can't wait to see you lovelies!

Monday, November 26, 2012

kap khun ka

Thanksgiving. How super unique and original of me to write a post about the people and things for whom and which I am endlessly thankful, right? I thought about trying to avoid the topic altogether seeing as how it's all anyone is posting about these days. But to allow my people to go un-thanked? It's unthinkable. So I'm taking this entry to revel in my cliche-ness because DARN IT! There's just too much to be grateful for this go-around.

I'm thankful for revelations. 
Every moment that goes by reveals another reason to count my lucky stars. It's my home 8,000 miles away from home. My home where my words are rarely understood, but my heart has never been perceived more clearly. I see, witness, give, and feel love every day whether it's from my fellow English teachers, my students, my Thai friends, shopkeepers, trainers, or even people I've never met. I'm so happy to have discovered that my love of teaching does, in fact, extend beyond only the secondary grades. Where I've found the most love, as always, has been from God. I had no idea His plans for me would be revealed in a predominantly Buddhist country (of all places), but it's been beautiful.

I'm thankful for being single.
Despite all my serious ongoing relationships with Travel, Adventure, Routine, and Teaching, life has its lonely moments. Nearly all of my best friends are in relationships, and I'm just over here as single as I've ever been. Sometimes I can't stand it. Sometimes I'd sooner ask Too, the man who sells me fruit everyday, to be my husband than go it one more minute alone, but those are only the days when I see that somebody has posted engagement pictures (coughCainycough) or become "facebook official"(coughTaylorcough). But when I get out of those few minutes of funk, I realize that my polygamous relationships with Travel, Adventure, Routine, and Teaching are far more rewarding. I am ultimately more happy living the lifestyle I do. Like my friends, my relationship status allows me to do the things that I love, live in the places that I can make a difference, and explore all the corners of this earth.

I'm thankful for the Pony Express (and I'm thankful those ponies swim).
I'm an Appreciater. I make it a point to appreciate everyone and everything that happens to me. So when someone takes the time and makes the effort to write some words on a page that will make it all the way to Thailand, I appreciate the heck out of it. Few things make me happier than a little hand-written love. It's as if Christmas comes every time we check the mail and have a package or letter waiting on us. I will never ever ever ever ever get tired of getting hand-written notes or boxes full of fun. My students also enjoy it because they think American candy is the coolest. 

I am thankful for roommates.
When it comes to terrible roommate stories, I can never partake in the tellings. This is because I have had the world's best luck when it comes to them. From my awesome college dorm-roommate to my first apartment with the sweetest girl in the world, I have had incredible experiences. But none would compare to my living situation here. I was prepared for changes in my living arrangements, but I didn't quite expect for us to be living in one little room. While this might have been disastrous for some friendships, it has only strengthened mine and Meredith's! It's a huge accomplishment for me to have lived in such close quarters with anyone for this long without having chased them away yet, but she's stuck by my side like a champ. I didn't just get a roommate; I got a counselor, a spiritual guide, a motivator, a morning oatmeal chef, a nurse, a comedian, a sister, a teacher, and a friend. She is officially the most patient and loving person I know. She tolerates my mood swings, anxiety, sarcasm, dancing, singing, complaining, and crazy with grace, calmness, and understanding. Once again, I've hit the roommate jackpot.

I'm thankful for hard decisions.
Some people leave home to escape life, or to make a new one. Some people never look back, and might not even have had anything on which to look back. My case couldn't be any more extremely opposite. I had EVERYTHING (I had to bolden, italicize, and underline this word to even vaguely get my emotions to you through this word) to leave. The most caring, selfless, wild, loving, and hilarious friends I could have ever hoped to gather up in 24 years. The most supportive family in existence (all my adopted parents included, and especially my lovely friend and role model who afforded me the opportunity to not only get to Thailand, but to return to the states as well with her generous buddy passes!). My dream job as an English teacher to over 100 7th graders who just plain stole my heart. I was able to have trial runs with certain best-friendships before I left that were indicators that everything would remain as it always had been. My childhood friends and I haven't skipped a beat--we've stood the test of high school, college, and now beyond without hesitation. The same goes for my college sweethearts. Steven happens to be one of the most attentive and present people in my life, and I've seen him maybe 4 times since 2010. I've just excitedly (understatement) accepted Cain Anne's proposal to be a bridesmaid in her wedding (and not because she's desperate for friends--I made her promise!), and we've only been in each other's (physical) presence a handful of times in the past couple of years. My very best friend Ashley has lived in Germany for the majority of our bestie-relationship. Like we'd ever let a little water separate us. As emotional as it was to even think of being away from these people (ones I have seen lately and ones I haven't), it is because of them that I am able to be over here doing what I love. I didn't have to think for a second about what would happen if I left. I didn't have to fear that friendships would fizzle or that my parents would choose a new favorite child (kidding...maybe). I don't have to worry about returning to awkwardness, seeing that places I may have held in people's lives may have been filled. Nothing would change. And since I've been gone, aside from the physical difference, nothing has changed. Turns out my parents haven't forgotten about me, my friends still make me laugh (every day), and my students are still learning. If it weren't for hard decisions, I wouldn't have nearly as much to be thankful for.

I'm thankful that my students had never heard of Thanksgiving.
I am such a holiday person. I'm a complete sucker for pumpkins, fall leaves, cornucopias, pecan pies, and all the other symbols that kick off the start of the holiday season. I'm ending the examples there because Christmas talk will send me into a frenzy. So when I first mentioned Thanksgiving here to blank faces, I was thrilled. This meant that I could brag on America and its beautiful tradition, and my words would fall on fresh ears. I emphasized the thankfulness and downplayed the binge eating (while still explaining the importance of turkey), and the kids were hanging on my every word. They couldn't exclaim all of their reasons to be thankful fast enough. It was the greatest gift last week having the power to get children to stop and count their blessings, realizing how often we don't.

I'm thankful you're reading this. 
I love to write, but it's even more of a blessing knowing that my Faithful Five are out there taking the time to click on this link and read what's new in Thailand. I've got nothing but love for every single one of you. So, as I'm constantly saying here in Thailand, kap khun ka!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Hold on to your Holidays!

It was a Sunday evening in the spring of 2007 when Shannon Bridges (my college sweetheart of a best friend, and the person I’m most proud of) busted in my room to catch up from the weekend we’d been apart. That’s how it worked in our dorm life; one big house with its tenants flitting from room to room. Privacy? Overrated. Everything was everyone’s business. On that particular evening, if my memory serves me correctly (which it should because this is such a special one) I was drying my hair as she was telling me the latest news. All the sudden, she’d made me erupt with laughter, as was the norm (she’s got a real talent for that). As we got lost in it, the eruption turned to tears. All the sudden I was sobbing uncontrollably. For some reason, just like the laughter, she had fallen suit. We were both sitting in the middle of my half of the terribly cluttered dorm room as Shannon managed to choke out, “Why are we crying?!” I somehow responded, though how she was able to interpret my words, I’ll have no idea but to assume she already knew the answer: “Because it’ll all be over soon.” The best time of our lives, as every adult I’d encountered had told me college would be. The first year of it was coming to a close, and I was searching for the invisible breaks to stop it as ferociously as a mother in the passenger’s seat while teaching her teenager to drive. Sure, we were only freshman. We had all the time in the world. But it hit us both simultaneously. If the first year had gone this fast, the rest would only follow while picking up even more speed. In the words of Mr. Mayer, stop this train!

I’m reminded of this memory only because I find myself with the same feelings lately. We’ve been on our much-needed mid-year break this month, and it’s been the adventure of a lifetime. It hit me while a 4-month-old, 200 kilo elephant stepped on my foot, and again when I was surrounded by 4 full grown tigers (with the trainers telling me they were hungry, but not to worry): this isn’t going to last forever. In the middle of those deep rooted belly laughs when you find yourself at your happiest, reality sneaks in to remind you that sometime soon, maybe not at the exact moment but still inevitable, times will change. The happiness will not elude you if you make the effort to ensure its place in your life, but the settings, from a college dorm to the Jungle Book, will always be different. 

I’ve waited for this holiday from school pretty much since I arrived here. Routine and I have been very happy together. However, to keep a relationship exciting and new, you must not stifle each other. Space is key. Adventure came to sweep me off my feet, ya know, before Routine and I got tired of each other. After spending nearly a month with Adventure, I’m sure Routine will be waiting for me at the bus station with open arms to finish what we started. I’ll be happy to see my sweet kiddos again. I’ll be ready to wrap my hands for boxing again. I’ll be excited to get my daily helpings of fruit from my sweet Joy and Too again. But I’ll also have mixed emotions because going back to Uttaradit means that October is over. And if we’ve made it to and through October this fast, here to the end of my contract is going to fly. 

I have a nasty personality trait that I’ve long since accepted isn’t going to change. I always will days in my life to go faster. I want to know what’s next. Who’s next. Where’s next. How amazing can I make it? It keeps getting better, but it doesn’t change the fact that I desperately long for the days of laughter turned to tears with Shannon in my dorm room. I know I will never get those days back, but I am at least comforted by the fact that we were aware how wonderful they were when we were living them. We didn’t take them for granted as they passed, at least most of the time. I’m trying to live in the same way here. I can’t help wanting to know what’s coming next for me because I’ve chosen to live in such a way that it’s always uncertain, but I know whatever is in store will not keep me from looking back and missing the time I’ve spent with Adventure this month. 

I’ll no doubt long for spending a whole day among God’s most touching and personal creatures-the most surreal adventure of my life to date: being with the elephants. Meeting them, trusting them, feeding them, riding them bareback, swimming with them, bathing them, being picked up by their trunks, jumping into the water from their head, getting kisses from them. The day will be engrained in my memory forever!

My day spent with the tigers will no doubt have the same effect on me. I can tell you all day long how majestic and beautiful they are, but the only thing I could think of while being in their such near presence was how scared I was of my face being mauled off. 

Zip-lining, repelling, and hiking through the trees of Thailand’s jungles with Thailand’s gibbons will take your breath away. The guides were almost as great as the action itself because they gifted us with their senses of humor, throwing me to and from the trees while somehow making me feel safe. 

After our time in Chiang Mai that includes all these events (and several trips to Subway, I might add because yes, they had one, and yes, I spent enough money there to pay their bills for the month), we headed south to a quite rough part of the country. The surroundings of prostitution, slums, and threats of the mafia were all eye opening, but didn’t cloud the reason for which we came--the kiddos. I was fortunate enough to become the tiniest part of lives that are so hugely a part of my now greatest thoughts and memories. We worked with the babies of the local orphanage which Meredith sought out as a gift to me because she knows how to reach to my heart. We got to play, feed, wipe snotty noses, laugh, tickle, and lay with these babies until they fell asleep. Leaving....was rough. If I’d had a bag big enough, I’d have snuck each one out to take home with me. But maybe this will be a place I’ll be able to visit later on in life to do much more. 

Lastly, we parked it on Koh Samet, a beautiful tiny island situated in the gulf, for the rest of the break. Well, not so much “parked it” as “dropped off directly in the water by our boat taxi and walked to shore with our suitcase over our heads,” but I suppose that’s island life. It’s a nice quaint little place, ya know, if you’re into the whole white sand, blue water, quiet paradise with night time fire shows or beach side dancing type thing. We planned on the week being full of absolutely nothing but reading, writing, eating, and relaxing. Besides kayaking around the island during the day and spending hours on end dancing with who I’m convinced are the world’s most fun and brilliant travelers at night (I’ve learned it’s the quickest way to make friends with people who don’t speak the same language), we stuck fairly close to our plans. It was the perfect close to the break, and I feel like I’ve had enough time to charge up and get back to work. 

As this break has come full circle, I can’t help but be reminded of another circle that began in the summer of 2011 when the parting words of a person I love were spoken to me as I left for Europe: “Don’t rush.” I pass them on to you in hopes that they strike you as simply, yet remarkably, as they did me. Remember-these elusive, fleeting moments will slip through your fingers if you’re not careful. Grab ahold! 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Routine is the New Adventure

Wellwhaddayaknow? It’s been over three months since I hopped on that first class flight to the land of no poptarts, a few English speakers, several feet of rain, hundreds of spiders, a thousand smiles, millions of hugs, and a billion mosquitoes. It marks the longest I’ve ever been away from home, but also the most content I’ve ever felt (although the two marks have nothing to do with each other). 

I certainly do not live a life of glamour. Every second is not full of adventure and romance or dramatic instances. In fact, most days are even quite Routine. In the past, Routine made me want to avert eye contact with him, catch the next plane to Anywhere, or plan for a new adventure. I was convinced that Routine would make my life boring, a grind of some sort, or that as soon as I acknowledged him, a chair would be pushed behind me, knock me off my feet (not in the way I desire), and ropes would come from that chair to tie me down to that particular place in time. And there, I’d be stuck forever

I stood there one day, holding my hands behind my back, staring down at the ground as I idly traced an invisible line back and forth with the tip of my toes. And then I lifted my head, stopped avoiding the gaze I knew was pointed in my direction, and looked Routine straight in the eye. The eye contact equivalent to waving my white flag. It was there I decided that maybe he wouldn’t be so bad. Since then, I’ve let Routine sidle up next to me on the bench where I’m reading, catch a ride with me to Muay Thai sessions, or walk (hand-in-hand even!) to our fruit stand to see Joy and Too (the owners).

Why is it here that I allow Routine to sneak his way into my daily life? And even more, why is it that I allow him to stay? Maybe because part of Routine is being bombarded with hugs, hundreds of them, as soon as I step foot on campus, by the cutest little babies in the whole world. Or hearing, “Teacha Kelsey, I luhs yous!” (love you) as many times as my ears could possibly handle throughout the day. Or getting extra fruit stuffed in my bag free of charge from Joy and Too every day just because they care. Or visiting Klaus, our amazingly kind and charming new German friend who not only owns one of the tastiest restaurants in town, but also walks us to and from our motorbike when we arrive and leave. Or it could be the five dollar one hour Thai massages we get every Saturday. Or maybe teaching English to the sweet gentleman at the college each weekend. Or getting together with the other few “farang” each week--you wouldn’t believe how wonderful it is to hear and speak English beyond a kindergarden level and be fully understood--something I’ll never take for granted again. Or the stops on the side of the road to get some coconut ice cream with sticky rice for 10 baht (next to nothing in USD). Or taking a long ride on the motorbike past the rice fields through the winding mountain roads deeper into the lush, green jungle to go play with the locals at the beautiful many-tiered Mae Phun waterfall. Or being greeted with enthusiasm by everyone in town, everywhere we go. Or...Or...Or...

I often get asked if I’m homesick. The answer is no. I don’t believe I get homesick. I don’t know if I’ve ever been homesick. Now before you go judging and thinking me to be cold-hearted, hear (read) me out. I love where I grew up, I love where I lived before this, I love where I am now, and I already love wherever I’ll explore next. Of course I miss home, but I’ve never pined after it, wishing and hoping I could be there. I miss my people more than I could ever miss any place because that’s undoubtedly what home has always been to me. There are times, especially when I was packing up to leave, that I felt so incredibly selfish to even be doing this. To leave the people for whom I live. Instead of wanting to be at home with them though, what I’ve wanted more is for them to be here, experiencing this with me. I feel like any pictures or blog posts could never do justice to what I see and live every day. I talk about my people like they are here with me. As if I’m just running errands and I’ll be back as soon as I’ve picked up my weekly jar of Nutella from the store-ha! as if a jar could ever last me as long as a week. When we’re running our laps around the track watching the soccer game on the field in the middle of it, I’ll ask Meredith to remind me to tell my brother (the soccer star) something. When my students and I got to open my first care package together from my sweet and thoughtful Crow mother, and I explained why she sent the things she did because I know the way she thinks (plus she sent a detailed letter describing each thing and why, so that helped;)When I see a new outfit in the windows of our favorite stores, I think “Kayla and Stephanie would die if they saw this.” When I hear a funny joke, I make a mental note to tell Big Lynn (my mom’s nickname--another story for another time). I probably think of Big Lynn the most-I know that there is so much about being here that she would love, and it makes me miss her constantly. 

There have been instances that have been harder than others, of course. When Cain Anne emailed me to tell me she was engaged, I cried. Out of happiness, of course, but also from the twinge of regret that I wasn’t there to receive the news on the phone and then join her in the celebrations in person. When my cousin/best friend Taylor started her second year in college, but moved into her first apartment, I had to see it for the first time via Skype instead of being there to hang her picture frames or decide in which cabinet her coffee cups should go. And speaking of coffee, I’m pretty sure the place I long for the most, you know, when you just have those longing moods, is Java Jolt, the place I called home probably more than any other location in the states. I truly miss stopping by morning, noon, and night for my 8th cup of coffee of the day. Sticking my head back in the kitchen to say hello to whoever of my best friends were working. Tying on an apron myself if it was my turn to work. Turning on the oven and the coffee maker on every Saturday morning at the start of my shift. Being tempted every time by each of the smells wafting their way around the shop. All the while, witty banter being exchanged among my Jolt family. My caring boss and Jolt owner, making it a place that none of us consider “work,” but instead “home.” Ok, I need to stop. It’s happening again. The longing. 

So I’ll have those little stolen moments for one thing or another, but then I’ll see an elephant walking down the street. Yes, simply and literally just walking down the street. And it’s not that it makes being without the people I love most in this world okay; it’s not that it makes me not miss them or think about them. But it sure does make it easier. It pulls me back to reality-the reality full of elephants--makes me thankful to be where I am, and reminds me to live in the moment. There’s never been a single moment where I’ve questioned if this is the place I’m supposed to be. 

As far as teaching experiences go, I can’t begin to compare. They are two different adventures entirely. Both have taken their toll on me, but have in turn doled out more than my fair share of rewards. I have poured my heart completely out to both jobs, so much so that I feel as if I must hang it up to recharge every night to have more to give the next day. In the states, I loved my job because I felt there might be some way that I could get through to the kids. Not just a love of proper grammar or literature, but of building good character or teaching them to love others. I could speak my first language of sarcasm with them, and they could (most of the time) understand and appreciate it. They could tell me about their drama, and I could play counselor. I developed such a connection with my OMS kiddos that when it came time to leave them, I cried so hard that I made myself sick. And while I could never classify the decision to leave them as the right one, I feel like ultimately, in the long run, it was the one that had to be made. And thankfully I did because it led me here to be in the lives of these kiddos, who couldn’t be more different. 

The schools, for one thing, are total opposites. I was being handed technology left and right in my classroom at OMS, and here I am cutting out pictures on cardboard to hold up and show the kids. While technology is a beautiful thing and can be such an excellent resource in the classroom, I sit in the office racking my brain for games to play and projects to assign that don’t require powerpoint presentations or things of the like. It’s undoubtedly broadened my teaching horizons and creative abilities to say the least. 

But in addition to broadening those aspects, this experience has also uncovered my true love for children. Thai children. I can’t get enough of them. Anyone who knows me pretty well could easily tell you that kids have never been on my “Things I’d Like to Have One Day” list. I’ve never cared for them, and the job of babysitting since I was 10 ultimately ended up being birth control for life. Don’t even get me started about screaming children in stores or restaurants. Or, heaven forbid, planes. I just can’t handle it. My degree is in Secondary Education for a reason. And while I still can’t stand those particular characteristics that come with kids, I have turned into someone I wouldn’t even recognize in my past life. If I see a small child here, I drop everything I’m doing and dote over it. And we see small children all the time. So naturally I’m constantly dropping things. For some reason, in fact, I specifically requested to teach the younger ages when I had my Skype interview with Dr. Nirund back in the Spring. I don’t know if it was an out of body moment or what, but my request has done me good because the moments I look forward to most during the school day are getting to work with the youngins. They run up to me countless times during the day, telling me God (or actually everyone but me) only knows what, and I smile and nod so much that I’m sure my face will slide right off. I’ve given up worrying about wrinkles--in fact, I’ll be proud to have the ones that have resulted from smiling and laughter. It’s one of the things I love most about my dad’s features--his laugh lines show that he’s found the humor and good in everything in life, and I strive to take after him in those (among so many other) aspects. I’ve never been a generally touchy-feely person either, but here I scoop up these babies left and right, hold hundreds of hands a day, and my lap is the place to be on the playground-and I wouldn’t have it any other way. This doesn’t change my mind about ever wanting to reproduce. I cherish my private, traveling, somewhat (ok, mostly) selfish life too much to make room for a child of my own. But the way I’ve grown attached to kids while teaching has taught me that it’s the only role I want to play, and I’ll set my mind to playing it to the best of my ability in whichever classroom I find myself in the world. 

One more thing that’s made it easier is looking at the scrapbook that my love Jessica (friends since we were, what, 6?) made me before I left. It’s full of pictures of us and a few of my other favorite people in the entire world. She made it travel sized so it fit perfectly in my carry-on, and it’s easily the most valuable thing I’ve got here with me. She knows I’m a lover of quotes, so she filled it with those too. The one that touched me the most was, no surprise to you all, from Harry Potter, added by request of the fabulous Lauren Riner, and proof that I have friends who truly understand me. The quote, even out of context, is the perfect explanation: 
“He must have known I'd want to leave you."
"No, he must have known you would always want to come back.” 

And come back, I will. Always. 

So that Routine guy? He ain’t so bad. And while every minute of every day of every month I spend here isn’t a complete walk in the park, I’ve managed to discover that Routine of this sort might be exactly for what I've been looking.