Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Day 23 // A Forever Moment

Today Rachel and I had to scramble our things together after our last class and get our pictures taken in downtown Chiang Rai for our work permits that we learned (hours before) were due today. Perfect example of practicing patience in a culture where deadlines and time frames are not stressed. I repressed a groan of inconvenience when I was told this.

A science teacher drove us downtown and thankfully guided us through the process of getting official photos taken. Students packed the place and we waited in line. Serious photos of military professionals and the occasional glamour shot of a white man with his Thai wife (a very common sight in Thailand I've noticed) covered the walls. As we waited, the teacher grabbed some food for us, friend bananas and sweet potatoes. Yes, they were so good it almost made me emotional.

I quickly learned smiling in pictures is not a Thai thing to do, even though Thailand is called the Land of Smiles. Confusing. Of course I learn this after my photos were taken, where I gave them my best sorority girl smile I tried to perfect over the years of composite pictures (remember that time I was in a sorority??). I was told it's not polite to smile in pictures (wtf is polite and isn't?!). Oops.

After getting our pictures taken downtown, Rachel suggested we get dropped off to do our laundry. As much fun as doing laundry by hand is, I really don't enjoy dripping sweat and cleaning my clothes in our scary shower with the ants, mosquitos and visibly brown water. We meet a lady at a small shop and pay a little over $1 each to do a big load each, one at a time, in the one washer she had. She said it would take 3 hours, so Rachel and I walked to a restaurant down the road. We took our time eating, and I noticed the different attention I received because I was wearing my backpack (to put all my laundry in). I looked like such a good tourist roaming around my village in Chiang Rai. People were hollering and saying hello in English and waving. At the market, all the ladies came up to me and put their arm up to mine comparing their skin color to mine. They pointed at me and said "rice" (or white, I couldn't quite understand) and then pointed to themselves and said "black" and would giggle and squeeze my arm even harder. A swarm of other ladies came up to me talking in Thai and grabbing my arms some more, and the most I could understand was that they were calling my pale skin suay (beautiful). Only took 24 years, but I was finally getting positive attention for my pasty freckly skin. Score.

We made a trip to pick up Rachel's laundry and walked back to school to wait until mine is done. A monsoon was threatening in the black clouds above us and I smiled every time I heard thunder crack through the sky. We biked back to the small shop in the sprinkle of rain and waited the 15 minutes for my load to finish. I ask the lady what her name is (in my best Thai) and she replied, "Aoy." Her English was very impressive, and she helped us learn some new words in Thai. A man joined us and looked around the shop. He asked Rachel and I if we like beer. We said yes, but that we didn't want any. He grabbed 3 cans of Chang beer and bought them for us anyway.

The 4 of us spend the next hour drinking beer and learning new Thai phrases in the cool evening monsoon air. Rachel and I struggled to understand the 5 different ways to say maa. Because in one tone it's dog, another it's horse, and another it's come here. And they say English is hard...

We all smiled when we tried to imitate the correct words and failed miserably. I stood out in the rain occasionally, cherishing the sweet damp air reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest. The four of us laughed and learned from each other, and simply enjoyed the presence of one another and the sincerity of the moment. 

I talked with my boyfriend, Eric, about the amazing time I just had doing laundry at a simple shop in Chiang Rai and truly experiencing the culture as a local. I stated it was such a great Thai moment. Then he corrected me, it will be a forever moment.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Day 22 // Emma and Laila

I had the overwhelming pleasure of spending nearly 4 days with my bestest friend in the world, Emma Terry, and meeting her gypsy travel buddy Laila. These two women continued to surprise me over the short time we spent together with their generosity, radiant energy, and sheer joy they brought to every moment.

On monday evening they met me at my school with a "surprise" for me. They lugged heavy backpacks and bags onto my bed and revealed two gallons of "Arizona Desert" paint, brushes, and rollers. Knowing how dreary and sad my room is with it's pale blue serial killer walls covered with sticker remnants and dirt, they came to paint my room and give me a sacred space to live in. My whole soul just swelled with happiness and gratitude at this. How unbelievable kind and thoughtful these women are.

Before (::cue horror movie music::)

After. Radiant and filled with light!

I came home Tuesday afternoon to a clean room with warm colored walls greeting me and my two smiling sisters, showered and relaxing from a 2+ hour painting/decorating spree. I now have a shrine in the northeast corner of my room complete with rocks spray painted gold and my two elephant idols from my dear father and my good friend Emily Strichartz. 

I've never been one to think of the importance of having a "shrine," but being uprooted and moving so quickly to a new country really challenges your notions of feeling grounded and stable. A shrine of beautiful things, meaningful trinkets, or just a clean space that is important to you can provide an abundance of comfort. 

Amazing branch Laila suspended in the corner of my room to house all my jewelry.

Goddesses. Sending Love and Light to you two always. 

I tried to put into words how thankful I was for this gesture of love and kindness Emma and Laila did for me, but found myself being almost overbearing with how much I wanted to tell them "Thank you, thank you, thank you..."

The best way I can thank them is to pay it forward and practice this generous way of thinking. Harmony between people is radiant and bursting with life and love when we are genuinely kind and giving to each other. So thank you again, sisters. You two have given me a real home and a brand new set of intentions.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Day 21 // Holding Every Moment Sacred

This weekend in Chiang Rai marked a glorious reunion with two of my college friends, Max Honch and Emma Terry, and it could not have come at a better time.

Max Honch graduated alongside myself and has called Thailand home for the past two years teaching English in Chaing Mai. As he was planning the trip, I remember how envious I was of him when we would carpool together to our internship for a local newspaper in Tacoma. He left shortly after we graduated in May and this weekend was the first time I have seen him since. He wound up staying for an extra year to continue teaching before he moves to Bainbridge Island this August to pursue a Masters in Teaching.

Emma Terry, also known as my better half/sister/goddess/partner-in-crime/bestest friend in the world, left for India last August to become a real life gypsy and blow where the wind takes her. She landed in Auroville, India to learn organic farming, then fluttered off to Goa for a Tantric Yoga retreat, and now she stopped by Thailand to learn Thai Massage, finding many other magical places along the way.

Max arrived with his delightful girlfriend Sarah, and they both kept me laughing all night at dinner with their hilarious stories of teaching Thai students the past two years. Apparently I haven't seen a crazy group of kids until they try lighting the classroom on fire, seriously. Max, you have my utmost respect for handling that situation.

Max and Sarah both can speak, read, and write basic Thai. It's amazing what two years immersed in a new culture and some basic classes can get you, and apparently the language isn't as intimidating as I thought. I was overwhelmed by their skill and even more impressed when they ordered food for us that I have yet to try: Peanut curry, spicy mango salad, and stir fried morning glory. Oh my word, the food here can make any bad day into a good one.

Emma's arrival brought tears of joy to my eyes and I had a hard time believing I was embracing my closest sister in Thailand. 7,500 miles away from where we said goodbye 9 months ago. She arrived with her gypsy, wanderlust travel companion Laila, who's sea-foam green eyes and bejeweled auburn hair absolutely entranced me when I first met her. To call her stunning wouldn't do enough justice.

The 5 of us embarked on a whirlwind weekend, including my first motorbike riding experience, a successful search for a waterfall, the most delicious food I've yet to eat, and late nights enjoying the coup's curfew drinking beer on a kitschy rasta themed hostel deck.

Lunch on at Chiang Rai Beach

Max's tattoo: "Sticky Rice" in Thai ... with some sticky rice

Chiang Rai Beach Huts

Chiang Rai Beach Huts

Chiang Rai Beach Huts

The "Beach"

The trek to the waterfall 

Swimming with the local village kids

Reunited with my sister!!

So much happiness!

Obviously we needed to do cobra pose. 

Needless to say these people are incredibly inspiring and have brought me the pieces of home I was missing so dearly. Seeing the two of them and their counterparts helped ground me in so many ways, and reminded me how good travel and change are for your soul. If those depressing and soul crushing lows didn't happen, everyone would be out doing things like this with no second thought. But you get up again the next morning and look back on the person you were a couple days ago and see how much you've grown.

In one week I already feel like a completely different person from that girl sobbing into her pillow curled up in bed thinking I made a huge mistake because everything was so "uncomfortable." It's almost comical to look back on how badly I was freaking out my first night here. Now I'm training my brain to be filled with encouraging positive thoughts and remembering to live in the present space. I've made it my mission to do one thing every day for me to nourish my mind and my spirit. From yoga to meditation or just an extra long shower, I will spend time engaging in an activity and fully experiencing it. I will honor the present moment instead of obsessing on how many days I have left. Because when this experiences is all over, I can never get it back again.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Day 16 // Surviving the first Days of School

Living in Thailand is rapidly growing on me.

Maybe it's the fact I've learned to order "not spicy" food in Thai (mai phet), maybe it's because I can afford everything, maybe it's the sweet monsoons that have cooled down the oppressive weather, or maybe it's the children.

I've found a cafe of my dreams.

Thai Iced Tea at Chivit Thamma Da

Pastry counter at Chivit Thamma Da

Fireplace at Chivit Tamma Da

My school is beautiful, and has a perfect view of the sunset every night. 

Princess Chulabhorn's College at Chiang Rai

The market half a mile away from school has some amazing tea, coffee, and fresh foods. 

The walk home is littered with beautiful greenery and adorable homes.

 And did I mention how beautiful the school is?

Small temple by the front of school.

Front of school.

Students shoes, they have to take them off every time they go inside. It's the most precious sight to see a couple hundred shoes lying everywhere!

All I can say is the every day is showing me something new about my time here in Thailand, especially about who I am as a person.

I am stubborn, I like routine, I am cranky, I am imbalanced, I hate the heat, I hate language barriers, I don't like spicy food, and I don't like change. 

But it's amazing what happens when you are thrown into a world where all of the things that make you comfortable are taken away because you wanted them to be. The change becomes your new comfort. I have become less of all the things listed above, although slowly (it's only been two weeks). But I already see a change, and it is reflected in the new developing love I have for myself.

A lesson on adapting is good for everyone. Two weeks in and I can live in 100+ degree humid as hell weather, teach a bunch of Thai children with absolutely no qualifications to do so. While I may have cried for almost 3 days at the beginning thinking I can't, I got back up. And because of that, I think I can do pretty much anything.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Day 14 // Going with the Flow

Right before my first class on Monday I anxiously sat at my desk and peered at the clock. 11:45am. My first class was at noon. "Should I head to class now?" I asked Monique. She giggled and shook her head.

Apparently the appropriate time to leave for your class is after the bell rings.

So...after class starts. Which may or may not ring on time anyway. Or may not ring at all. Monique explained time is really no concept in Thailand. You just go at a comfortable pace and show up when you are meant to. I made my way to the 4th floor (no A/C in the room = kill me now) and took a moment to catch my breath. My heart wasn't going to slow down because this was the first time I am entering a classroom as a teacher. Holy crap. Amy Skinner, a teacher. Doesn't look right to me. But all be damned if it is.

Now I definitely understand the concept of the first class being guinea test out all your material and timing on them. Much to my dismay my totally perfect 50 minute lesson plan was more like a 25 minute block of me talking to a group of wide eyed and terrified 7th graders. Uhhhh now what? ....Hangman deserves it's own award in the world of beginning teachers. Talk about a life saver.

A beautiful thing about this culture is the acknowledgment of saving face. The students aren't going to judge you for a crappy lesson plan or FAR too many hangman games, or even stumbling on your words. It's not part of their culture to inflict shame or embarrassment on one another.

Most of my anxiety stems from threatening social situations where I could be perceived in a negative way or embarrassed, but I have yet to experience that here.

It's entirely fueled by my own insecurities when I am nervous about teaching. Granted I am holding myself to a certain standard on this job I took across the world, but the kids and the coordinators aren't going to make me feel like shit if I decided to show a movie all of class because I didn't prepare enough.

So here's to going with the flow and just calming down. It's not going to be the end of the world if I have a bad lesson or some kid behaves badly in class. Life just goes on.

Sunset over school

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Day 13 // Preparing for School

Anxiety is too real sometimes.
Saturday I had a unwanted experience with a panic/anxiety attack, and found myself hyperventilating in a taxi cab on the way home after overheating at the Walking Street. At the moment it was truly terrifying and upsetting, but a few days later (and a hospital visit - everything is just fine), I am feeling much better. I think my nerves got the best of me and my body couldn't handle it. Since word traveled fast in the English department, we are now keeping the Air Conditioning on all the time because they keep telling me they don't want me to get "heat sick" again! I'll take it.

Now I'm trying to soak it all in.
Rachael and I spent most of Sunday at an adorable cafe called Doi Chaang Coffee House. More resembling a tree house hidden in the city of Chiang Rai, this coffee shop was constructed with salvaged wood and long viney plants wrapped around everything they could latch to.

A couple hours there turned into a nap on the corner couch for me, then we wandered around the city. Our feet led us to Wat Jed Yod by the clock tower. Subtlety isn't found in these buddhist temples. They sparkle to all of your senses and leave you begging your eyes to take in more.

Thunder began booming and the rains came in heavy. I must have looked like the silliest "farang" with my arms spread out and my head back enjoying the water cooling off the hot earth. Tacoma trained me well for this weather.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Day 11 // A Lesson in Slowing Down

This new culture has already brought me a lot of self awareness, particularly shedding light on how uptight I really am. 

In Thailand, punctuality and efficiency are not stressed, nor really acknowledged. I find myself wanting to know everything regarding my schedule and my curriculum, but nobody will give it to me because they really don't know and they don't seem to worry about it. I quickly noticed I ask WAY too many questions, and it seems to come off as annoying and irrelevant.

I have to sit in my office from 8am to 4:30pm after scanning my fingerprint at the front of the school, then sit at my desk and "lesson plan" all day. The problem is, I have no idea what I'm doing, or how to teach, and I figure the best way to learn is to just jump in an do it. Since we don't start teaching until Monday, I have a lot of down time. So right now I have my week one lesson plan for all 16 of my classes taken care of, pretty much an introduction lesson about myself. So far my 8 hour "work day" is more of a time to play on the computer, and everyone else does it too. There are a couple women in the department who are the head English teachers and they work ALL day. The other teachers giggle and shake their heads saying they work too hard, "like Westerners." The rest of us are on Facebook, reading articles, playing games on our computers, and nobody really cares.

We took a "short" lunch today, an hour and a half. One of the English teachers took us to one of her favorite spots in town and drove us in her air-conditioned car (thank the gods). She ordered for us, making sure to get me something not too spicy (yes I am still a wimp give me more time) and some Thai coffee (recipe: cup of sugar with a splash of coffee and evaporated milk). For 6 bowls of noodles and 5 Thai coffees it cost us 250 baht, roughly 8$, and the food was better than any Thai food I've had in the states.

Lunch Time: Ramen noodles with Pork

We pile back into the car and drive past the plethora of rice paddies that make up green Chaing Rai and arrive back at school. Even the pace of walking is slower in Thailand. My short legs propelled me faster and further than all my peers, and I found myself looking back on how slow they were walking.

Then I thought, "What is my hurry?"

Maybe it's because it's a bagillion degrees and I wanted some sweet cool air from the English room, but then I realized there IS no hurry. No one was worried to make the lunch break in a certain time, they were simply enjoying each other's company on the slow walk back to the school. I then evaluated how I normally go about my day in the states: I was always in a hurry to get to my car, to park where I can find the best spot, to speed my walk up to a brisk pace as I walk into work and immediately start working. It's like my body is trying to prove how hard I am working by how fast I'm moving.

But here, there is no rush, there is no stress in the air. Everyone is enjoying each individual moment, and that's what us Westerners seem to miss quite often. 

In the States we seem to worry about what has happened or what will happen, never the sweet relief of the present moment. Because in this exact moment, nothing is wrong, everything just is. And stressing about what isn't or what will be or what has happened is just denying what is. And once you accept that, everything is already okay.

Here's hoping the pace of Thailand will slow me down and help me appreciate the beauty of the present. I'm definitely trying to accept this.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Day 9 // Traveling around Chiang Rai

I definitely had my doubts once I got to my house at school and saw where I will be living for the next 6 months. It’s hot, bugs are everywhere, geckos are climbing all over the walls, fire ants are littering the bathroom floor, I don’t know how to teach, it’s hot, and it’s hot. I sat in my room and was more lonely than I ever felt in my entire life. I have all these people around and willing to help me, but I feel so alone. I don’t have my significant other to lean on whenever I feel sad or uncomfortable, no one to hold me and tell me everything is okay and I can do this, I just have myself. And that is all part of the journey. I am my own superhero, I just need to find that inner strength when I’m feeling low. I won’t sugar coat it, I’ve already had a couple teary calls home questioning my loved ones if I truly have the courage to do this.


But give me a good 12 hour nights sleep, 6 liters of water and a day full of activities, and my mind takes a 180. I woke up slowly, forgetting where I was for a second, and then the empty dirty pale blue walls reminded me. My heart ached for a moment missing my loved ones, and I was able to call both my mother and my boyfriend. I felt stronger after some words of encouragement and support, and confided in my housemate as well (poor Monique is already well aware of how anxious/emotional/needy I am). She asked if I wanted to go to a hotel and use the pool and free wifi, then head to the super mall in town. Stoked on this idea we head out around 11am calling a cab to the Imperial Hotel where we are able to use their fitness center and pool for an entire day for 100 baht (roughly 3 USD). I used the wifi and felt more connected to my life back home than I have in a week. Posting a bagillion photos and sending emails to loved ones took up about 2 hours. After, I cooled my skin in the pristine pool cornered by four white elephant statues spouting water out of their trunks. It was a refreshing, “I am in THAILAND, I am really SO lucky” moment. We had the pleasure of meeting another Chiang Rai CIEE teacher, Rachel, who works at a nearby school and is good friends with my housemate Monique. She had a lot of good advice about getting over the initial shock of the first couple weeks/month being in Thailand and how that anxiousness fades and you become so much more comfortable.

Can I bring this pool with me everywhere?

After the hotel we walk in the roasting sun to a near by café, Chivit Thammada. This place is the cutest damn thing I have seen in Thailand yet. It looks almost out of place covered in lush green vines and filled with pastel tea cups and plates surrounded by books (in English!) of travel and photography. I felt transported to a London teashop. The delicious and crisp lychee-peach Iced tea I ordered came with a side of syrup (pretty sure it was just straight fructose) to add more sweetness, as if it wasn’t already sweet enough. I ordered a chicken Caesar salad and cherished every bite. It’s been hard finding salads not beginning with “spicy mango” in Thailand so far. It was seriously the most delicious salad I’ve ever had. Everyone in the café spoke impressively good English, and we had no problem communicating, they even called a taxi for us to go to the Central Plaza mall.

Peach-Lychee Iced Tea


Inside the cafe 

The mall gave us more air conditioned salvation and a plethora of items I needed to make home feel a little more comfortable. I stocked up on clothing, granola bars, hooks, a hamper basket, and another fan for my room to name a few. I ordered Pad Thai noodles in an omelette and devoured it. My stomach has been very happy with me today, drinking a ton of water and no spicy food has proven successful.

Pad Thai in an omelette, and yes it's better than anything you can get in America.

Tonight I sit in my bed feeling almost like a different person from last night. I am still absolutely terrified about what I’m doing and don’t think I’ll ever get used to showering in a sticky dirty ant infested box and squat toilets, but I feel a lot more confident in my path. I also seriously just don’t understand how the Thai’s can handle this heat. The heat index today said it felt like 106 for most of the day, and the air is so moist it feels like you are swimming through it. And I’m witnessing locals wearing puffy vests and hoodies! Am I going crazy and hallucinating? Maybe it’s the heat. Time to spray my body with bug spray 4 times and go to bed. Goodnight. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Day 8 // The First Week

The past few days granted me virtually no time to just sit at write about everything that was happening and what I was feeling. Orientation feels like summer camp, and it finally set in yesterday that we were all saying goodbye for a while to most of our new friends. After an impressive karaoke session with a Thai local the third night and an early bedtime the day after, we packed up our lives again and headed off to Kanchanaburi for the night.
Kanchanaburi was lush, green, and absolutely beautiful. Our hotel had multiple pools that we most definitely indulged in under the baking hot sun. 

After we completed our last Orientation task of presenting a lesson in small groups, we bussed on over to the Bridge over the River Kwai (pronounced Kweeh). Some coconut ice cream covered in condensed milk and peanuts saved me from the sweltering heat. After boarding the bus, we all thought we were going home. 

The bus stops at a floating restaurant. Hungry and tired, we relish the thought of a giant family style dinner. The outdoor restaurant is located on the water and gives us a beautiful view of the trees and the setting sun. I became aware that the floating restaurant actually has sections that get pulled around by a small boat, so you can enjoy your dinner as you float along the river. With our bellies full, we all enjoy our surroundings as the sky turns purple and red. Quickly after the sky darkens, our floating dock dims it’s lights and starts blaring dance music. Flashing lights and smoke fill the space as we continue to float down the river.

The boat pulling our restaurant/dock down the river.

Sunset on the river

 New Friends :)

 Dance party!

The next day I was overwhelmingly excited for, the day we get to see the elephants. We started off our time at the Camp rafting down the river. We waited anxiously to jump in because it was getting hot, as always. The water was cool and we floated along with the rafts.

The rest of my time at the elephant camp was filled with mixed emotions. I have a strong moral code against any violence against these wonderful creatures, and much to my dismay this camp was using hooks and sharp sticks to control the elephants. All too often my stomach turned and my eyes welled up with tears when I saw this. I could be mistaken in this behavior towards elephants, and it perhaps isn’t as bad for them as I think it is, but I stay grounded in my beliefs. I’m only posting one picture of the elephants because I don’t believe we should be paying any recognition towards an establishment that profits off of the mistreatment of these magnificent beings.

After the 3+ hour ride from Kanchanaburi to Bangkok, we all stuffed into the warm hotel, picked up our luggage and met our coordinators. Rachael and I found out we would be taking a 12 hour bus ride to Chiang Rai. I honestly wasn’t too thrilled at this notion; I was more than willing to shell out however much baht it would cost to catch a 2 hour plane flight. But the ride wasn’t all that bad. I impressively slept the entire way, although we were awoken jarringly at 11:30pm for dinner in an outdoor bus station restaurant with absolutely zero English to be found. I managed to order some delicious noodles, but I still haven’t gotten the hang of eating 1000 degree noodles in 1000 degree weather. It’s really hot and humid in Thailand, have you figured that out yet?
We get picked up at the bus station about after waiting for about an hour, and our coordinators take us to the market and show us what food to get. We buy about 6 rice concoctions covered in crunchy fish stuff and egg all wrapped in a banana lead. It was good but SO sweet. Sweetness in Thailand is a whole new level.
The school is beautiful. Trees and greenery surround the campus and all dozen buildings. I met Monique, who has been here for 6 months already, and she has already been a wealth of knowledge. Let’s just say I have been slightly anxious about this whole experience and today most of that hit me hard. I am LIVING here, not just running around on vacation.
My house is hot. Really hot. If I didn’t have A/C in my individual room I might not be alive to write this post. A gecko just scurried by me on my wall too. We just got back from the Big C Supermarket, a Thailand Walmart equivalent, and it has been quite the task to communicate with people who know virtually no English and me knowing barely any Thai. 

Home sweet home for the next 5 months.