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Last stop, Thailand

It was time to return. I packed my bags with only the essentials: clothes, a minimalist assortment of toiletries, cameras, an array of iDevices for the 21st century traveler, and of course, stickers. Lots of them. After bouncing around East Asia on a few dreadful layovers, thanks to my stubbornness to book the cheapest flight available, I landed in Bangkok around 11:00pm last Thursday. The next day I caught a flight up to Nakhon Phanom. That was one leg of the journey I was okay throwing out any preoccupation with cost. I was ready to leave behind the ultra-tourism of Central Thailand for the laid-back Northwest as fast as I could. The pull I felt to return to the place I called home for a year was indescribable. At 8:00pm on Friday I landed in NKP and was received by Pi Med and Pi Ponchai, two of my closest contacts in Thailand, who brought me back to Pla Pak as their house guest.

The next five days that followed have been a whirlwind of joyful reunions, delicious food and valiant attempts at conversation. I plunged head-first, as I did three years ago, into this beautiful, hospitable, mesmerizing place I’ve held so close ever since leaving. I’ve surfaced, with a few mosquito bites, a renewed appreciation for shower heads and enough happiness to last another year or two until my next visit. There are no words to explain the emotions I felt seeing my students again and greeting the teachers with whom I grew closest.

The familiarity of this place is overwhelming, though much has changed: new schools have been built, roads paved and shops opened. There is no longer aerobic [read “Arabic”] dance in the village center and I do not recognize the students in the three youngest grades at Pla Pak Noi and Wang Yang schools. The main road through town seems busier than I remembered and Wi-Fi is now abundant. Perhaps the greatest change, however is the bathroom makeover in my old teacher housing. This year’s WorldTeach volunteers have the luxury of a Western toilet and a hot water heater for the shower! I’m not jealous, really. I think bucket showers and that squat toilet made me a better person. That’s what I’m telling myself.

I met the new WorldTeach volunteer who is now at Pla Pak Noi and it is reassuring to know that the students I once taught are in exceptional hands. I found remnants of some of my old teaching tools in her classroom, which made me smile. One of the most intriguing and rewarding parts of my trip thus far has been the reclamation of the Thai language (as I understood it). I would say I retained about 20% of my vocabulary, and after five days of submersion, I’ve landed myself back at month seven in my language development. The most amusing parts of this linguistic journey have been the moments when, in Thai conversation, I understand that I’m about to do something (eat dinner) with someone (teachers), though I inconveniently miss important words that tell me the when, where and how. In moments like these, out of sheer habit after playing this game for a year, I of course say yes to it all and just wait for life to take hold. Eventually I am sitting down to a delicious Korean barbecue with people I’ve come to love, laughing at bad jokes over beer with ice. During these moments, two polar opposite thoughts dance across my mind: How did I do this for an entire year? and Why did I ever leave?

My time in Pla Pak has come to an end. Tomorrow I leave for Mukdahan, where I will rendezvous with a good friend and travel to one of the last corners of Isaan we have yet to see, Ubon Ratchathani. I’ve fallen in love all over again with the Isaan region of Thailand. After seeing the slow but gratifying work of building community in Detroit through growing food, I am more deeply moved by this agrarian society than ever before. Life revolves around what can be grown at any time of the year and routine is married to the sun and season. It’s a wonderful reminder for what life could (should?) look like back home.

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Freezing and (f)unemployed

I’ve been back in the States for over a month now and many of the initial shocks and surprises of this “Western” environment have dissipated; I am getting much better at walking on the right side of aisles in stores and guiding right whenever I’m entering or exiting buildings, which allows for much better mobility than I was experiencing in Los Angeles. I took my time getting back to Wisconsin, spending several days in Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago with good friends. Much of my re-entry process those first few weeks was getting through the long,¬† drawn-out battle with jet-lag (the return to the U.S. was WAY worse than what I remembered about my arrival to Thailand last year), the re-introduction of foods, and the climate. I’ve long since set my internal clock back to Central Standard Time but those first few days of waking up wide-eyed at 3:00am were not fun. As for the foods, I’m satisfying my Thai cravings with lots of rice and vegetable stir-fries, though these dishes are just not the same as found in Isaan. The climate, however, is something I will need much more time to accept. I’ve never been a fan of winters in the Midwest but as a native, my frustrations with the sub-zero temperatures and arctic wind chills usually don’t set in until mid-February, when winter feels as if it may very well just never end. This season, however, temperatures that would have me exercising in a long-sleeve t-shirt and shorts a year ago are sending me to the depths of my closet for the warmest wool jacket and knitted accessories. And it hasn’t even hit freezing yet. This will quite possibly be the longest winter of my life.

Every day it’s different. One day I really miss my favorite Thai dish and the next I’m so grateful for toasters, huge refrigerators and sandwiches. I’ve stopped turning the serving bowl into the community bowl and dipping my spoon into it at the dinner table (much to my mom’s relief) but I also really miss eating outside, in hot weather. I really miss working so hard to express one idea or opinion in Thai and actually be understood. I miss biking down the street and hearing neighbors inquire “Where are you going?” or “Have you eaten yet?” Yesterday I walked to our local library and not one person asked me anything, or even said hello. I’m pretty sure one woman with a stroller even crossed the street when she saw me and I’m not sure why. Well, I did have one lengthy conversation with an individual but ironically he’s not even a U.S. citizen; he’s from Zimbabwe. There is a definite lack of community here. And the silence is deafening. So I also miss the crickets.

That said, it is still good to be back. It was time to be back. However I am so very restless during this transitional period; I don’t yet have a job so there are certain things I should do to get one, like seek job postings and write those ever-so-stimulating cover letters. And then there’s this other part of me that wants to do all of these things I enjoy doing to fill up this time I’d like to refer to as funemployment. So I’m crocheting scarves, reorganizing my photographs and cooking new lentil soup recipes, during which a little part of my more responsible, pre-Thailand self, is tapping her foot and saying “This is all grand, but you really need to get a job.” Okay, as if I didn’t know that already, self. But maybe a little part of me doesn’t want to at all. I still have dreams about teaching in Thailand. I wake up remembering a few of my students’ faces and then go about my day. When I first came back to the States I would try and recall some of my students’ names in my head, as if me remembering them would cement my experience and ensure that it was in fact something concrete and not just a dream. But this is not a dream, it’s reality…and it’s time to get a job.


Touring Malaysia: Transitions down the peninsula

My fellow WorldTeach friend/travel companion Matt and I landed in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday. The next few days that followed consisted of roaming the very walkable streets and gazing up in admiration at the Petronas Towers, which seemed to be casting shadows on us everywhere we went. There were some delicious Indian, Chinese and Malay meals with pulled tea (an awesome pouring technique that seems rather dangerous to replicate at home) tossed into the mix, but I spent most of my time in KL in a post-rural Thailand daze. The air-con in restaurants made my food cold (eating indoors, what?). The pollution sent my allergies into a rage (traffic jams?). And I couldn’t for the life of me find fresh fruit (where are all the fruit carts?). Somewhere between leaving Nakhon Phanom on an overnight bus to Bangkok and flying down to KL, I also misplaced something. Bulky clothes? Toiletries? Souvenirs? I wish.

What I lost is much more valuable and difficult to replace than anything filling my overstuffed bags. For the past year teaching has been my life and now that I am completely removed from the environment I grew to love, I feel a loss of purpose and an emptiness where my students once were. Don’t read into this sentiment too much, though, because in many ways I was ready to go. The goodbyes had to come sooner or later. I am also very happy right now as I travel the beautiful country of Malaysia and am excited about returning home to my loved ones in a few short weeks.

We’re now in Melaka, a port city with Dutch, Portugese and English influences, in addition to the country-wide Malay, Indian and Chinese trio. The architecture is beautiful and the food is delicious. I’m really enjoying the chicken rice curry and pineapple tarts, as well as the Malaysian coffees and teas. Though my thoughts often drift to the students and teachers in Pla Pak, I am beginning to replace my nostalgic cap for a traveler’s hat, falling more into a comfortable backpacker routine by the day.

Tomorrow we depart for Penang, an island off the Western coast of the peninsula, about seven hours north of Melaka. Here is where we’ll spend the remainder of our time in Malaysia, before flying back to Bangkok and then to the States. I think it’s about time to check my laundry and assess my packing situation, as I have purchased a few more ¬†last-minute items that will prove to be a challenge fitting in my already over-stuffed backpack!


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