The Mountains Were Calling

A lot has changed in the past three weeks. I swore-in as a Peace Corps Volunteer and am no longer a Peace Corps Trainee. Some Returned Peace Corps Volunteers say Pre-Service Training is the hardest part of your 27 months. It was a challenge, indeed, however, I have nothing to compare it to. Although PST was tough, learning a completely foreign language for 4 hours in the morning and then having teacher training in the 95 degree heat all afternoon, it prepared me to be a successful volunteer at my site (I can speak Thai at the intermediate level and have the foundations to be an effective English Teacher). I am now ready for the “toughest job you’ll ever love”.

Leaving Sing Buri wasn’t easy. I said goodbye to my Thai family, whom I hold dearly in my heart. They introduced me to Thailand first-hand and accepted me as one of their own. I am indebted to them for their welcoming hearts and patience with me, a foreigner in their household. I also said goodbye to my Peace Corps family. We all formed an instant bond when we delved into this new chapter of our lives. That bond only got stronger throughout PST. We spent nearly every wakening hour together, biking during sunrise and sunset. Going from seeing my closet friends everyday to instantly not seeing them has been a challenge. Two families made in two months.

The mountains were calling, as they always are. I moved from the flatlands of Central Thailand to the mountains of Northern Thailand. I’m in a village of 1,400 people in the middle of a national park in Phetchabun province. We are 35km away from the nearest post-office, coffee shop, and, more importantly, 7/11 (where you can satisfy all your snack needs and buy your basic necessities in Thailand). My new host family, Weera (father),  Tuk (mother) , and Bat (son), have also accepted me into their home, and I am excited to say that I will be living with them for the next two years (I call my host parents older brother and sister because they are too young to be my parents)! Weera’s parents live a stone throw away and run one of the only stores in the village— I consider their store the unofficial center of the community. We eat all our meals there, and I enjoy hanging out at the store, talking with different people who stop by.

The first two weeks at my site have been filled with unexpected adventures:

Day 1— Crashing my school’s graduation, though, it was also a welcoming ceremony for me where I gave an impromptu speech and community members wrapped white string around my wrist to bring my soul into the community; and that evening, I also gave an impromptu speech and danced at the community health center where there was a going-away party for the doctor.

Day 2— Waking up at 3:30am to go on a school field trip to Thailand’s first capital, Sukhothai, a few provinces west of us.

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Day 3— Prepping for a wedding by grinding coconuts (and getting injured in the process) and peeling ginger. It seemed like the whole community was involved in the preparation.

Day 4— Getting woken up at 4:45am from the wedding’s Thai dubstep and subsequently arriving fashionably late at 8:15am, with a beer in hand by 8:16am (not pictured).

Day 5— Assuming I was going to just an end-of-the-year celebratory dinner with all the teachers, but it’s another welcoming ceremony for you. The mayor of our town and other government officials were there. Like my family in Sing Buri, my community has embraced me as one of their own. I have never felt so welcomed before coming to Thailand. And, of course, I gave another impromptu speech.

Day 5-8— “Working”. For a week after students get out for summer break the teachers wrap-up the school year. This consisted of paperwork, cooking and eating (for an extended amount of time), and then singing karaoke in the afternoon, expect there was no paperwork for me.

Day 9-14— Being sabai sabai (relaxed) and going on beautiful bpai tiaos (fun trips) around Phetchabun with my family and coworkers.

I am looking forward to what these next two years have in-store me. Thanks for following!

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Krung Tep for a Sec

In the past, I’ve heard people either love or hate Krung Tep, also known as Bangkok to most farangs (“foreigners”). I was in the former group, until two weekends ago. Two years ago I had a quick stint of food poisoning while we were stopping by for only a night on our way to Thailand’s southern islands. My “crazy night” in Bangkok was over the toilet… The second time was a hospital visit two weeks ago (All is fine now, a little infection can’t hurt me too much). To me, Krung Tep was associated with illness. I’ve always wanted to “love” The City of Angels (Krung Tep’s direct translation), but I never had the opportunity to truly experience it. My hate turned to love as I was finally there for more than 24 hours.

I couldn’t tell you were Bangkok starts; the sprawl of developed buildings, apartment buildings, and multi-national stores started an hour outside the city. There was an excitement, as we started to approach Bangkok, on the bus we all took from Sing Buri. After being in the same community for two months, we were starting to a little get stir-crazy. We only had “official business” on Saturday morning, where we took a tour of the Peace Corps Thailand compound. The rest of the weekend was ours to enjoy.

Highlights of the weekend include food, food, more food and some dancing.

After walking for an hour from the Peace Corps office to our hostel, eating some gai yanng (“Grilled chicken”) along the way, we stopped for lunch at a small bar with micro-beers and western food. For the past two months we have all been eating rice at least twice a day, so when the Mac-n-cheese, cheeseburgers, and chicken wings hit the table, our jaws dropped and eyes opened wide. The buttery and salty cheese melted in our mouths. We were eating like children with strands falling off our faces. There were tears of happiness, well almost, as we all had our first farang meal. Still content even after the price of our one meal was equivalent to around 6 meals in Sing Buri.

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On the walk from the PC office to the hostel

In the late afternoon, Anna (a friend and fellow trainee), her friends, who were surprisingly in Bangkok for the weekend on a trip of SEA, and I went to chinatown on a tuk tuk (a crazy three-wheeled motorbike taxi). Some drivers were impressed we could bargain the price down, others were not enthused we were not regular farangs, who they could ripoff. In Chinatown, there was one main road packed with Thais and farangs. Red and yellow fluorescent lights with Chinese characters were hanging from almost every building, it reminded me of going out to eat soup dumplings in NYC’s Chinatown with good friends. As the sun set, street food stalls kept popping up and lines started to form around famous seafood and shark-fin soup restaurants.  We ate a Chinese noodle dish with thick noodles with crab inside them, pork, eggs, wontons, and bean sprouts, topped off with fermented tofu paste, which created a sweet taste to the meal (Sadly, not pictured) on a side street. At night a bunch of aa-sa-sa-maaks (volunteers) went to Havana Social, a hidden Cuban bar in Nana, the center of Bangkok’s nightlife. Live latin music was playing, people were dancing. Inside, it seemed like we were transported to Cuba. Being in Thailand seemed like a distant memory as we were all dancing to the horns, drums, and Spanish lyrics. On Sunday morning, I had my favorite “farang” meal: Bagels & lox. A nostalgic meal, indeed. Throughout the meal I was reminiscing of eating breakfast with my American family.

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Bagels & lox

Before we had to catch the bus home in order to make it home by 6:00 (on the dot) for our sunset curfew, a few friends and I explored Chatuchak “JJ” market and Or To Koh Market in northern Bangkok. JJ Market is the world’s largest weekend market, consisting on 8,000 stalls. We were there for 2 hours, walking around in circles past the leather, pet and shirt sections. Getting lost was too easy in the humid and hot, small alleyways, packed with stalls. Or To Koh Market is a food lovers dream. Stalls of fresh vegetables, fruits, fish, and meat were inside the well lit warehouse. If you don’t feel like cooking all the fresh food you just bought, there is a food court in the back. Stalls were frying up hoy tod (fried eggs with mussels), crushing som tum (green papaya salad), preparing bowls of guai dtio (noodle soup), grilling gai yaang, and serving an assortment of gaang (curry) over khao (rice). Unknown by most tourist, Or To Koh was my favorite part of Krung Tep since it’s a market that centers on aa-haan (food).

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The weekend in Krung Tep was everything I wanted and needed. After disliking Krung Tep initially I can now say that I love it. Bangkok, like New York, has an energy to it— it is a city that never sleeps. Once you get past the heat, traffic, and masses of people, Bangkok is a diverse city filled with many different communities. You can be in China, Cuba, New York, and most importantly Thailand all in 24 hours. Bangkok is now the city of my choice, at least for the next two years (Sorry, New York).

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Home

While I was biking along the river as the sunset and the palm trees reflected on the glassy water, I was glad to be back at my temporary home. I’ve loved my two months in Tha Chang, and am looking forward to getting settled at my site, where ever it may be. Taking a western shower with a constant stream of water and sleeping with A/C everyday can wait.

Sunday Mornings

Sometimes I think I’m living in a dream. While I was biking to Yous’s baan (“house”) two Sundays ago with my yoga mat in hand there was not a ripple on the river, with the morning fog rising from the water. The mist from the morning sun was peeling off the banana trees. There was a nip in the incessantly warm thai air— I could feel the cold air bouncing off my face. It made the smells of breakfasts cooking outside even stronger: egg with soy sauce and garlic.
Only the occasional bark of a dog, chirp of a bird, or rumble of a motorbike broke the silence.
I was biking on a cloud, and I still am, everyday.

On The Other Side

Usually, I am on the other side of the stall “window shopping”, bargaining, or buying something. This time was different.

To me, the market is where businesses compete with one another, trying to attract the same customer base. Competition is the first word that pops into my mind when I think of the market;  businesses come and go based on their success or not.

Yes, this is part of the formal definition, but not what I experienced when I sold shoes with my family at the Sing Buri Sunday market. The market definition and the market are different, one a theory and the other a place, however my conceptions of the theory carried over to how the market functions in Sing Buri.

The last word that I could think of after working at the market was competition.

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My alarm rang at 4:00am. Mæ, Paw and I left the house at 4:30am in order to get to the market at 5:00am to set up for a 7:00am opening.

We arrived at a main road in the middle of Sing Buri. Traffic was nonexistent, except for market trucks pulling into their areas (While we were at the Golden Dragon, crossing this road on the way to town was always a dangerous task, especially in a large group). Both market stalls adjacent to us had their tents already set up with some loose ends flapping in the wind, and were starting to assemble tables.

We started to unload the tarps, large bamboo polls, and table-parts from our truck. I soon realized that we needed to use our neighbors’ polls and trucks to fill out each tarp, and they needed ours, as well. When our tent was up and the loose ends were tied to adjacent stalls, telephone poles, or other trucks, each individual tent looked like one larger tent together, similar to a permanent market. After setting up the tables by attaching steel rods together and placing bamboo mats on top, we unloaded the shoes from the truck onto the tables. And then right before officially ‘opening’ we gin khao chao (ate breakfast) with some of their market friends.

Thailand is a communal society, where there is no “I”, only “we”, even at the market. Each tarp was like a single sail thrashing in the wind on a large ketch, but when pulled in and joined together, the market looked like one boat flying above the water.

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When the market opened my primary job was to bag the shoes, but after while and many perplex looks people started to ask me tao rai (“How much?”). I only knew the prices of one row of shoes, so I would quickly ask my parents the prices and try to relay the message back to the customer. Bargaining was sparse, which surprised me since I frequently bargain, or at least try to, at markets, and each entire exchange was quick. On time, I mistakenly said “Die” (“Yes”to a lower price. My Paw quickly intervened and we all laughed it off, to the customer’s disappointment. Customers came and went, some just looking, others buying 10+ pairs of shoes.

Like people, markets come and go each day. My parents, who work different markets four times a week,  entrusted me to help them with their business and introduced me to their work community. After being on the other side, I now have a greater appreciation of all the work that goes into each market, and see markets as communal entities instead of individual stalls.

When the market was closing at 2:00pm, I wanted to buy a pair of shoes from my parents. After thirty seconds of miscommunication, I finally understood my Mæ, who said “I can’t let you buy them because you are my son.”

It’s hard not to smile here.

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Gin Khao?

Initially, I was just going to post a photo album with food, however, that does not do justice to Thai food and its importance in Thai society. Like in any other country, food is an essential part of the culture, but food’s piece of the culture pie here is larger than most other countries.

People ask “Gin khao arai?” (“Have you eaten yet?”), instead of the common “How are you?” The difference in this simple greeting says tenfold about Thai culture. Every Thai person, regardless of if they know you or not, cares about you on the most basic level, asking you about a fundamental human need: nourishment. Once you’ve eaten, and only then, they ask “How are you?”. At dinner a few nights ago, my Maa told me to stop talking and “gin khao” (eat). Maybe she was sick of listening to my broken Thai, but after dinner and some laughs we continued the conversation.

Thai food is a complex cuisine. Each dish tastes unique and has its own intricacies, incorporating salty, sweet, spicy, bitter, and sour flavors into the dish. I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of Thai food and Thai’s food culture, so more to come. But for now, here is an album of some thai food from the hotel we stayed at for the first ten days, the markets, food stalls, restaurants, and my house.

Here is to never being hungry (expect for today— I skipped lunch, by accident).

 

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Home Away From Home

During the last two weeks, my host family has become my family. As I turn into the driveway, biking back from a long, arduous day of learning Thai and technical training, I can’t help but smile. I usually ride past, my grandpa, 76, working on our small animal farm filled with cows, pigs, chickens and goats. He tends to the animals everyday, and occasionally fishes in the river during the early mornings or evenings. We exchange wais (salutations), and then he says Gin-khao (go eat. direct translation- eat rice) and points to the kitchen.

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Grandpa going fishing

When they aren’t home, my paw, maa, and sister are off selling shoes at regional markets. My brothers, 5 and 8, and sister, 14 months, are outside playing around the house or on the street by the river. And the Grandma is usually relaxing on a bench by the river after selling items at the local market every day. I eat a quick snack, play with the kids or talk with the neighbors and then, at their request, take a shower (Thais shower 2-3 a day because it’s so hot).

Then we eat.
Every night, regardless if they left at 2am to sell shoes, Maa cooks a meal like no other– ranging from a whole fried fish to bitter greens with eggs or chicken sauté to pork noodle soup. Oh yes, there is always rice. In Thailand, one cannot take a bite of food without a little rice. Every meal is better than the next. And I am slowly making my way into the kitchen, helping her out by grinding up naam peck (chili paste) in a mortal and pestle or cracking hard boiled eggs.

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Dinner

Breakfast

We sometimes play uno after dinner or watch the Thai equivalent to The Voice.
They’ve shown me around Sing Buri and neighboring provinces. On the first night my sister took me on a bike ride to Wat Phi Kun Thong, on the second night my Paw took me on the bike ride through the rice fields and by the river. I’ve helped them sell shoes at the Sing Buri Sunday market, waking up at 4:00am to open at 7:00 (Individual blog post to come). And I attended a wedding with them, eating a 9 course meal in the process (I was so full from dinner, I couldn’t finish my breakfast the morning after. They all got a laugh out of that). My sister took me to the largest Chinese New Year festival in Thailand, where we saw a show with a 100 foot dragon, held up by 20 men, going all throughout town and up a 40 foot poll..

Paw biking with Wat Phi Kun Thong in the background

The view from Wat Phi Pun Thong

Post-Uno

At the market selling shoes

Chinese New Year (1)

Chinese New Year (2)


My host family has been more than hospitable. One would think I am like a long-lost cousin, rekindling my relationship with distant family members, who is instantly part of the family again. Even after two weeks, however, I feel more so like am an immediate family member– part of the everyday routine, all eating, laughing, and talking together.

We Are America

On Sunday morning I cried alone, on Monday morning our class cried together. We are America, fearing for what our government has accomplished in a mere 10 days and what it will do. We are women and men; white, black, Latino, Asian; Christians, Muslims; gay and straight. Diverse, but all alike, bound by our citizenship and our commitment to service.

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Class 129 at Staging in SanFrancisco

President Obama once said, “The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.”

We are struggling with being abroad during these tumultuous times, wishing we could “get up” and protest with our friends and family. The Peace Corps, however, has given us an outlet to show Thailand and other countries that our people aren’t hate-filled and close minded. We are here to learn about different cultures, create new and long-lasting relationships, and work with Thai people. It takes building one human connection at a time, but we are representing the American people.

Live Never Before

Three days ago I moved to my homestay from the Golden Dragon Resort in Sing Buri, where I had stayed with the 68 other volunteers for 10 days. The car ride from the hotel to my new home was the most exciting, yet terrifying 20 minute ride of my life. Sitting in the backseat of a small pick up truck with my host sister and uncle up front, and my luggage in the truck-bed, it finally hit me that I was in Thailand for the Peace Corps. With little to no Thai under my belt the ride was silent, but they looked back and smiled. After all we are in the land of smiles. I was looking forward to meeting the rest of my new (host) family, and seeing where I was going to live for the next three months during PST (Pre-Service Training).

The previous 10 days were a whirlwind. We arrived in Thailand after traveling for 30+ hours, leaving staging in San Francisco on January 6th and arriving in Bangkok on the 8th (via Hong Kong and Singapore). When I stepped outside the Bangkok airport, I was instantly transported back to my time in Vietnam and Thailand. The aromas of the sweet-humid air hit me. It felt like home.

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The truck that carried our luggage to the hotel

 We got right into training on Monday—overviews, logistics, medical, safety, how to use a squat-toilet and hand wash laundry etc… I soon realized that the 67 other volunteers we not just colleagues, but were my family as well. We all bonded instantly. The group is diverse, each person has their own past experiences and set of perspectives, yet we all share the commonality of joining Peace Corps Thailand, and wanting to work with the Thai people and to learn about their culture. Our class (129) couldn’t be a better group; we quickly began to support each other with the new and unexpected.

Sing Buri, known for it’s snakehead catfish (Yes, it’s fresh and fantastic), is located 2-3 hours north of Bangkok. At the hotel, we were fortunate to be situated 10 minutes away from the city centre. Walking to town for food was a challenge in itself, as the cars drive on the left side of the road.

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The Chao Phraya River– after walking to Sing Buri on our first day

I tried spot to out and eat at as many street vendors as possible— pictures (and possible descriptions) to come!On Wednesdays and Saturdays the city centre hosts a regional night market where you can buy anything from Pad (Pat— translated to Sauté or Stir-fry) Thai to Motorbike tire tubes.

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The Regional Night Market

I loved the city feeling in Sing Buri, but also being able to walk from one side to another in 15 minutes. After the 10 days, Sing Buri was becoming familiar— food vendors started to recognize me and I started a routine. And more importantly, Thailand began feeling like home. Everyone from our trainers and Ajaans (Language teachers) to random people on the street were and continue to be friendly, patient and most importantly, welcoming.

Thank you all for the unwavering support.

Coming up— my homestay experience.