A Saturday – 1 year in

Jump on my bike. Secure my green helmet.

 

First time wearing a tank top with my shoulders exposed – 1 year in and I am willing to risk this less conservative shirt for the sake of getting rid of my shirt sleeve tan (unheard of to Thais who hide away from the sun, hoping to keep their skin lighter).

 

It’s 8 am and about 25 degrees Celcius (almost 80 degrees), but on my bike the wind is cool and the road is lined with groves of palms and rubber trees that shade the newly paved road.

 

I recognize the papaya trees lining the road by their fanned leaves and bunches of cylindrical green fruits versus the dragonfruit vines I’ve passed for the last 10 months, that have yet to blossom fruit (it takes a whole year!).

 

The smell of trash burning is in the air.

 

I am greeted with a friendly “hello!” by many out-and-about locals I’ve never met personally (or maybe I have) yet they recognize me and my bike.

 

I take a left out of the shaded rural road and onto a main drag.

 

Riding down the left side in the “bike lane,” people are out walking their cows. Tractors join me in my lane when they are too slow for traffic.

 

It’s a 2 laned highway and vehicles are pulling out blindly into the oncoming traffic to speed past other slower cars.

 

Older ladies sit at their roadside booths selling assortments of packaged treats and the newest fruit harvest.

 

I pass several fried banana stands where I occasionally stop.

 

Motorcycles going the wrong way and monks in orange robes returning from a morning collecting food offerings also share my lane.

 

I stop at 711, a convenience store that once stood as an oasis of comfort in my beginning months, and now I spend money at sparingly, preferring to spend locally (cheaper) and accumulate less packaged trash to burn.

 

I pull out some baht from my Thai bank account, the smell of fried chicken and sticky rice wafts over from the left (a typical thing to be sold in the morning) and a small market of vegetables to my right, with less vendors than usual.

 

I park my bike at the coffee/bike parts shop where the owner greets me, knowing my routine will lead me to the post office before I order from her.

 

She’s busy, but not too busy to stop and take a few photos of the farang to post on Facebook (she does this with all of her customers, not just me).

 

Her friend joins the picture and I notice we are all wearing purple, the lucky color for Saturday.

 

The post office staff knows my routine too; today, there is a new guy up front that looks at me a little wary, but the others assure him that this farang speaks Thai.

 

I send off my paperwork to the Peace Corps office along with a few letters and postcards to friends and family, then return to the coffee shop to enjoy rice porridge, a large iced coffee, and some sweet treats (like glazed donuts).

 

Overall, I’ve spent less than 100 baht ($4) today.

 

The owner trusts me enough to jump onto her motorcycle and ride down the street to pick up some supplies as I sit alone in her open air shop and write down my thoughts on a notepad.

 

A year into my service and I am appreciative that the strange has become the norm.

 

I appreciate so many weekends with no plans other than this routine bike ride; an unscheduled weekend was such a rarity in the States.

 

Appreciative of the sugar rush that propels me 10 km (6 miles) to the place I call home with my host family.

 

Appreciative of the cold shower and air conditioned room that awaited me there.

 

It is important to keep in perspective that not every Saturday is this idyllic, a bike ride where I am bursting with gratitude and seamlessly integrating.

 

It has taken a year and a low slump to overcome (around month 10) to reach this peace.

 

Appreciative that although many expectations were not met, although I am missing out on things at home, and although not every day is easy, I’ve made it a year, a challenge that has made me more wise, more patient, more tolerant, and more open to the inconsistencies and simplicities of life.

 

Like a papaya tree spreading out its great big leaves to take in as much sunlight as possible, I am expanding myself to embrace the open air and soak in the energy around me.

 

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The Unexpected

I expected to meet with the US Ambassador to Thailand for lunch with a fellow volunteer.

I did not expect the other PC volunteer to drop out last minute, leaving an intimate talk and joyful meal with him, his wife, assistant and Thai embassy workers. I was then invited to continue with the entourage and visit the monkey training college.

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These monkeys were trained through positive reinforcement methods within 6 months to pick coconuts from trees efficiently, problem-solve issues like untangling themselves, and ride on the back of motorcycles safely.

The Monkey Training School in Surat Thani is mentioned in this NPR article about the monkey coconut-picking business:  What’s Funny About The Business Of Monkeys Picking Coconuts?

I expected to take a trip to visit the grandmother of a Thai family I have befriended at the end of October.

I did not expect a full ceremony in respect of the grandparents with monks and food galore. 

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I did not expect to feel such a part of the family, exploring the markets, temples and rivers of the surrounding area with the cousins in the family.

I expected to go with my host family to show my respect at the passing of King Rama 9.

I did not expect an old woman to do my hair upon arriving to the event because it wasn’t up high enough, and then 3 hours of sitting and standing to pay respects with a flower and a curtsy, and for me and the thousands of people around me to all be fed afterwards.

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I did not expect to be so touched by the exhibit at the Arts and Culture Centre in Bangkok, featuring portraits painted by over 120 artists of the former king, explanations and models of the Rama IX’s sustainability projects throughout his 70 year reign, and his own photography.

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I also did not expect the 2 volunteers I visited this exhibition with, my 2 close friends, to have both early terminated their Peace Corps service (keep in touch Liz and Cheri).

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I expected to continue writing letters as my only means of communication with Kevin.

I did not expect him to buy his ticket to Bangkok on a whim, planning a birthday trip for himself whether or not I joined him.

He wasn’t sure what to expect from me.

I didn’t know what to expect either.

I did not expect to travel so well together, face and defeat my biggest fear (SCUBA diving) while gaining international certification, and learning that despite my ocean swimming prowess, Kevin was the better diver of us two.

Watch the underwater video of our dive here (password: scuba): Koh Tao 3rd Dive

I didn’t expect to fall in love again.

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On Thursday I expected to co-teach the fourth graders about the subject of the weather.

I did not expect to witness corporal punishment used on over 20 boys, because no one confessed to the crime of spitting over the ledge of the balcony. I could not teach after the scene, my system was shocked all day and was offered abundant support from fellow PC volunteers.

*event not pictured*

Today, I expected to ride my bike to the post office 10 km away, as I do most Saturday mornings.

I did not expect half the road turned to dirt, creating a rocky and dusty ride and then receiving a huge package from my parents which I unboxed and stuffed what I could of all the jars of peanut butter, the extra virgin olive oil and vinegar set, the heaps of books to read and color, the colored pens and pencils into my backpack, the rest in bags.

And so, I unexpectedly enjoyed this meal and added new maps to my wall.

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Language and Culture. Thai and English.

Although I am missing a language training this week (provided by Peace Corps in Hua Hin to support volunteers with our Thai), I wanted to share some reflections about language and the interesting connections I’ve seen between language and culture.

Language is a way to discover cultural values. For instance:

 

  • Thai does not have verb tenses, just a word or two added to the context of a sentence to indicate the time – this seems to reflect the Thai people’s relaxed view of time (they are unconcerned with punctuality or planning ahead of time) and the Buddhist tradition of being present more than speaking of the future or past.

 

  • Also, one word that exemplifies Thai people is “naam-jai” which means “water of the heart” and roughly translates to “generosity” – Thais value water, see it as a giving entity (a river is “me-naam” or “mother water”) and the heart as the seat of our experiences (many emotions have the word “jai” or “heart” attached to them).

 

  • Thai people go by nicknames that are one syllable, having nothing to do with their real name, and are often shared by many others (communal). Thais will put a Pi or Non to start a name in order to indicate age (respect for elders) as well as kinship (everyone is family).

 

The inherent values I’ve seen in the English language that reflect at least American values are:

 

  • an over complication and obsession with time (we have 11 different verb tenses)
  • a sense of individual possession (possessive nouns)
  • breaking the rules (often)
  • diversity, incorporating components of many cultures (latin, modern romance languages, Germanic, Hindi, Sanskrit, Slavic, Baltic, Celtic, Greek)
  • continually growing and morphing with new words (an American value)
  • attempting to dominate the world although it is not the biggest fish in the sea (3x as many people speak Chinese natively at 1.2 billion and 100 million more people speak Spanish than English, and yet while only 360 million people speak English natively, it is estimated that another half billion speak it as their second-language)