December 28, 2015

Thoughts on Christmas Past and Present

I've survived my second Christmas away from home. My family does a big Christmas, and I really really really missed it this year.

During one of the last teaching days of the semester, I received by mail an invitation to my parent's annual Christmas party. Many of you readers are probably attendees of this party, and you know why missing it is a big deal.

Every year, my parents throw a huge party sometime in the week before Christmas and it's pretty amazing. They set up a Christmas wonderland in our house. The real tree is at least 10 feet tall and covered in glittering ornaments and strand after strand of tiny lights. My mom sets up her "village pieces"--miniature, winter-themed ceramic buildings lit from within--around the house. She pulls out huge strings of garland that we store in giant Rubbermaid cans. She hangs them on window sills, on banisters, and basically in any free space that needs a dose of holiday. From the garland, she hangs ornaments, bells, glittery snowflakes, lights, and so on. Once my mom is finished decorating, the house looks like something from a magazine. Seriously. She's that good. The decor is only part of the party though.

My stepdad is from Germany, so one of the party traditions started because he wanted to share some German food with our neighbors. From it's modest beginnings nearly 20 years ago, the food has become bigger and tastier every year. The party has grown so much that about 150 people come to eat and drink throughout the night. On party morning, he (and maybe my mom, too) cuts open huge bags of sauerkraut and empty them into two large electric roasters--the kind some people use to cook turkeys. After the kraut is in, they add pink ham shanks and plug the roasters in. We learned in the first years of the party ythat the roasters have to go in the garage because otherwise the pungent sauerkraut smell is way too strong in the house.

One of my jobs, when I lived at home, was to make the Glühwein, a sweet, hot, mulled wine that is often served at German Christmas markets. It starts with a simple syrup on the stove top, then oranges, cinnamon, and cloves are added. The fragrant syrup is then mixed with cheap red wine and served from a slower cooker to keep it warm. It's one of my favorite winter drinks.

The Glühwein is one of many drink options available from the open bar that my parents splurge on every year. One of their good friends runs a wine shop in town, and his business offers bar service. When my parents built their new house, they built a huge bar in the basement that is perfect for this party.

Upstairs, all sorts of snacks are spread on the dining table: traditional German cookies (made with Oma Elfriede's recipes!), a variety of cheeses, crackers, chips and dip, licorice, and maybe a veggie tray or two. As guests arrive, many bring Christmas cookie and fudge platters to add to the table.

The sauerkraut and ham roasters come inside at party time, as well as grilled bratwurst and fresh rolls. If you go hungry at this party, it's your own fault!

Guests wander in and out throughout the evening. It's an open-house style party. At the peak of party time, it's a packed house, full of merry people with plates of German food in hand. Most guests who come to the party come every year, and some of the guests only know each other from the party. It's fun to share this tradition with so many people.

Because my parents love to drink wine, most guests bring a bottle as a gift. When there are over 100 guests, you can imagine that my parents can practically restock their wine cellar by the end of the night.

What I love the most about the party is seeing how happy the event makes my parents. They are loved by so many people, and amidst all of their friends, they seem to glow. I can't rule out that the Glühwein isn't part of the glow, but the party epitomizes my parents and the Christmas spirit to me.

After the party, the festivities only continue. My mom's birthday is December 22, so there's always something fun happening that day.

On Christmas eve, our family tradition is again from my stepdad's German recipes. It's seared pork tenderloin and white asparagus served in a creamy, Cheese-Whiz-based sauce. Cheese-Whiz, yes. Don't ask, just believe. It's so good. My grandparents and my mom's brother and sister, plus their families join us for the meal. After dinner, it's time for presents and dessert for those who still have room.

Christmas morning with my parents is among my most favorite things. Still full from the night before, we pour cups of coffee or cocoa and open our stockings. My brother is 13 years younger than me, so I got to experience the magic of Christmas morning through his eyes for most of high school and college. He would wake me up really early because he couldn't open his presents until I was up. It was darn cute. My parents are really good at giving gifts. They are very generous. Our stockings always had fun things, like make-up for me, or a new video game for my brother. There was also usually chocolate and maybe a gift card to our favorite store. Santa also brought presents to open Christmas morning. In recent years, cool sportswear for my brother and nice sweaters and jewelry for me. We eat leftovers from the party and usually a few pieces of Christmas chocolate. The cats play in the wrapping paper and the dog eats the treats from his stocking. We go for a walk in the cold Nebraska air, and later we have drinks with my parents' good friends.

This year I spent time reflecting on some of the materialistic ways that I value Christmas. Yes, I like presents. I like giving and receiving them. But this year, I realized that what I like about presents is feeling remembered. That is, someone thought about me and wanted to represent that thought somehow. Small gifts or nice gestures mean a lot to me. I made Alan a memory map--a list of some of my favorite memories with him from our travels. Alan made me breakfast and coffee on Christmas morning. He also made a tiny Christmas tree and presents out of paper. He wrote me a note on a paper snowflake. I definitely cried. Not out of sadness, but out of something like joy. A small reminder that I'm valued and loved.

On Christmas day, we finally bought a couch and a Japanese screen to make our apartment feel less like a dorm room. That was our Christmas present to each other. Having a comfortable place to sit and relax together made me feel a lot better.

I'll be honest. I was a mess this Christmas. I was missing home. Most of my few friends here had taken off for the holidays, and I was feeling lonely and forgotten (though not for lack of Christmas messages on email and Facebook--thank you to those who sent them! I REALLY appreciated them). Welcome to my pity party. The box my mom sent to Thailand nearly two months ago is MIA in the Thai postal system right now, and that feels like a huge blow me. I'm just craving a little piece of home. Alan and Egg are a great comfort to me though. They sit and listen without judgment when I am upset. Alan makes jokes to make me smile, and Egg suckles on my ear to let me know that he needs me.

I'm grateful for Alan and Egg, and for my family, and for my memories of Christmas traditions. It was hard to miss Christmas with my family again this year, but I had Christmas with my new family. We did different things, and it was good, too.

As for next year, I'm already planning to go home for Christmas. I hope I can be home in time for the party!

December 19, 2015

Post on Proctoring

So I'm probably setting myself up for a pretty lame entry. My topic is test proctoring at a large university. Big rooms, lots of students, no talking, lots of sitting and waiting.

But the nuances of proctoring at MFU and the scrupulousness with which test supplies are distributed are somehow fascinating to me. Let me explain the procedure.

1) University faculty and staff receive a schedule of which exams they'll be proctoring about 2 weeks prior to the exams.

2) On the day of the test, proctors are expected to sign in at the Academic Services building 45 minutes prior to the exam. There is a long counter with big signs labeling the classroom and subject of the test, and under the signs, there are individual sign-in sheets. All exams have at least 2 proctors, and some of the larger exams have 3.

3) Teachers sign in and sign to receive a large envelope (or 5, depending on the test) containing tests and answer sheets.

4) Teachers then proceed to the far end of this same room to check out the "Stationaries" box. Let me just say that I'm not too satisfied with the use of stationaries in plural, nor to mean anything other than fancy paper. However, here at MFU, the stationaries box looks like something I would have had at home as a sixth grader. It's a clear plastic tote, about 10x5X5, with a laminated plastic card attached to the front listing its contents in English and Thai. The scrupulousness is amazing.

Inside the box, there is: a small pencil bag of freshly sharpened No. 2B pencils, 2 blue pens, 3 erasers, a pencil sharpener, white-out, a small ruler, a stapler, extra staples, a white board marker, a white board eraser, a red stamp pad, a stamp of the word "MISSING", and probably a few other things that aren't coming to me now. I was too self-conscious to take a photo during the exams in front of my co-proctors.

5) After all materials have been officially checked out, proctors can go to their rooms to set up. The rooms aren't that close to the check-out center, so if you are unlucky (or stubborn) enough to being carrying all 5 huge envelopes (rather than show your weakness and wait for help), your arms may be legit sore the next day. Personal experience.

6) Once in the room, proctors carry out the end of a very anal chain of organization. The desks have been lined up  and labeled with seat numbers. These numbers correspond with numbers that have been stamped on each test and answer sheet.  Proctors carefully place the test materials on each desk according to number. If some of the biggest rooms, two test run concurrently, and students from the different sections sit in alternating rows, labeled A and B. The test preparation committee has printed the "A" section on pink paper so that it's clear which rows get those papers. The desk labels for the A group are also pink. I'm pretty impressed by this attention to detail.

7) After the tests have been distributed, the proctors usually have about 30 minutes to wait before students are allowed in. It's a good time to do some of your own grading, or maybe introduce yourself to the other proctors, assuming that you've got enough proficiency in a common language.

8) When the students come in, years of practice in such a scrupulous system are evident. They drop their bags near the door, and bring only bring their pencil cases to their assigned desk. For the most part, they are silent, and dive into the tests immediately. One area of the test administration process that is not very scrupulous is the late policy. As far as I can tell, THERE ISN'T ONE. Students are allowed to just roll in whenever, I guess. I'm not a fan.

9) Once the students are settled, proctors bring around the attendance sheet, and check each student's ID as they sign next to their names. Thai names are extraordinarily long when written out with English letters, so many of the names on official IDs are abbreviated. That seems weird, but when your first name has 13 letters, and your last name has 15, what are you gonna do?

Interestingly, after I offered the sign-in sheet to the students, many of them "wai" me, which is how Thais show respect for older or more prestigious people. It's a small bow with hands in a prayer position. When they do it, it strikes me as oddly religious, and I imagine the western equivalent as crossing oneself as a Catholic. Please let me pass this test! In reality, though, it's more like a very formal "thank you."

Students who do not come to the test (yikes) get the red "MISSING" stamp on the attendance sheet, and on all of their test materials. That's the funnest part of proctoring. Stamp, stamp, stamp!

10) After attendance has been taken, the arduous 3-hour wait sets in. Every test is allotted 3 hours, and in general, at least one student will take the ENTIRE time.

So, proctoring.  The idea is to prevent cheating, I guess. Ideally, proctors should stand in various locations around the classroom to monitor students. At MFU, sitting is acceptable. The proctoring directions indicate that we should not eat, drink, *smoke*, or work during proctoring. By the way, smoking on campus is punished with a 2000 Baht fine, so I'm not sure why that even made it into the directions. Although, after staring at students for 2 and half hours, even I could go for a cigarette! (Kidding, mostly).

What actually happens during proctoring depends greatly on who your proctor buddies are. I know that many people grade or work while proctoring. There is a lot to do during finals week, so I get it.

Other faculty take proctoring uber-seriously and pace the aisles.

I was a sociology major, but I don't remember if I know a word for the phenomenon where we police ourselves based on what we see others doing. When I proctored with more lax people, I was more lax. However, when my co-proctors were serious, I was serious, which I think reinforced their seriousness, and made it uncomfortable fo any of us to check our phones, or pull out reading material. If you know the name of this phenomenon, please comment.

Time passes incredibly slowly when you sit and stare at people taking tests. Especially when you're thinking about all the work that you could be doing. I took to counting the number of students with dyed hair, the number with bangs, the number with glasses, etc. just to stay conscious. I sipped water and ate mints periodically to stimulate my brain.

11) Eventually, some students begin to finish the test, and a glimmer of hope shines that at some point, each of them will finish, and maybe before the 3-hour limit. When students finish the test, they leave their testing materials on the desk, pick up their bags, and often "wai" (bow with hands folded) the teacher. Once several students in a row have finished, some proctors begin to collect the papers in small stacks, leave spaces for students who are still working. It's torturous to watch students sit and stare at their papers for literally minutes without making any progress. Minutes turn into hours very slowly when you're watching the clock, waiting for the last few to finish, or at least give up on their test.

12) After all students are finished, proctors reorganize the test materials, file them back into the big envelopes in order and then walk back to the Academic Services building together, relieved, but disoriented from the experience.

13) The materials are turned in at the check-out center, proctors sign out, and the stationaries box is checked back in.

So, those are the 13 steps of proctoring I guess. Step 14 is obviously getting a glass of wine as soon as possible.

December 13, 2015

I went to Myanmar!

It's not every day that you get to cross off a major life goal.

Today, I went to Myanmar. I walked across a bridge from Mae Sai, Thailand to Tachilek, Myanmar. I paid 500 Baht to the Myanmar government, and then, there I was--in Myanmar.

Life dream, check.
My post requires a short backstory of the job in Mandalay (that's in Myanmar) that I almost took in 2013. I didn't exactly chicken out, as there were legit reasons not to take the job, but I think I made a good choice to stay in Flagstaff that year to develop my relationship with Alan--the guys who would later become my husband. However, the allure of Myanmar had only grown in my mind since then, and today I got to experience it firsthand!

Tachilek, all things considered, is pretty similar to Chiang Rai, and really similar to Phnom Penh; however, there are plenty of distinctly Myanmar things. The Burmese script is full of circles and boxes. I loved seeing it on signs to remind me of the foreign place I was visiting. Many of the women were sporting a traditional, canary yellow paste on their cheeks to keep the sun off. They wore their hair in long ponytails dangling down their backs. The men had darker skin than Thais, more like Bengali or Indians. They wore flip flops and t-shirts at the tea shops and in market stalls.

I was once again a highly conspicuous foreigner worthy of a stare. In Chiang Rai, there are plenty of foreigners, so people are used to seeing tall blonds roaming the streets. Much less so in Tachilek. The cigarette dealers tried to get my attention, as did the counterfeit handbag sellers, and the watch peddlers.

The strangely familiar scent of roasted chestnuts and charcoal filled the market from the vendors churning the nuts in piles of blacked coal bits. Wares and goods of all sorts line the walkways of most Southeast Asian markets, so that wasn't new, but it was overwhelming as usual. I didn't buy much, except a couple of bottles of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from a vendor who is friends with one of my colleagues. Wine is expensive in Thailand, and I got two bottles for less than the price I'd expect to pay in America. I passed on the counterfeit goods because I don't care about brands, I like high-quality things (and I'm willing to pay for them), and I'm scared of being caught at the wrong border with the wrong pirated DVD.

After round one of navigating the market, our group (consisting of me, Alan, a few Thai colleagues and the colleague's friends who run the liquor store) went for tea and a snack. Based on the number of different dishes that came to our table, it seemed like our host (liquor store owner) had said, "bring us one of everything." I can't tell you the name of anything I ate, but it was really distinctive cuisine. Among many things, we had a bread with bean spread that I'd expect in a Middle-Eastern country, a tea-leaf based salad, thick noodles famous in the region, and some fried tofu chips. I sipped a Myanmar milk tea and Alan tried the local Myanmar beer.

We took a second round of the market and then ventured out into the city to see a few temples and a golden Pagoda. I loved it.

The sidewalks were what I would describe as "developing country" in that they were uneven and full of gaps that dropped 3 feet into knee-deep water/sewage. I remember these somewhat fondly from Cambodia, though I am still paranoid of falling into a hole. The temples weren't different from Thailand, at least to my untrained eye, but the Pagoda was pretty cool. We had to take our shoes off to enter the complex. It contained a huge golden pagoda, probably 30 feet tall, overlooking the city from a hill. I found the statues corresponding with my birth day, Thursday, and my friends helped me perform the expected ritual of pouring water over the Buddha. The view of the city was excellent from that vantage point. Interestingly, the cross of a nearby Catholic church could be seen from the pagoda.

After the pagoda, I was pretty tired. A full day of market shopping, foreign-food eating, and group dynamics is enough to do me in. We went for one more snack. I'd like to front this story with my friend's words, "It's like wet pizza."

I don't really "go for" wet pizza, so I wasn't looking forward to the dish much.

Wet pizza...
I do enjoy trying new foods, but this one looked like someone had stacked a bunch of paper towels and gotten them wet. The rice-flour sheets were stuck together in a way that we had to kind of use chopsticks and fingers (dirty from a day out) to pull them apart for the group. There was a peanut-based sauce for dipping. My bite was too big, and I swear it was like eating lukewarm wet kleenex with peanuts. It was all I could do o get it down without seriously gagging in front of my friends. After that bite, I was ruined. I began to notice how dirty the shop was, how tiny my seat was; basically, I was ready to bolt. When asked, I confessed to my hosts that the dish just wasn't for me. I kind od wanted to disappear. I never want to disappoint a host.

More food came.

A hot version of the previous dish. Slightly more tolerable.

Eggs that had been punctured with a syringe (not a word you ever want to hear in SE Asia), the contents sucked out mixed with spices and then replaced back in the shells and boiled. Our host peeled one for me. It was ok. I ate it, wishing it had a yolk, because that's the best part!

Luckily, that was the end of the food, as my appetite was totally gone and we started back for the market. We had left our car on the Thai side of the border to avoid paying the car fees. The market was just steps from the bridge anyway.

I'd like to end this post by saying that our visit to Myanmar was wonderful, exotic, and refreshing. Our weird little dormy-apartment in Chiang Rai felt like home for maybe the first time today.

December 6, 2015

My Top Three Must-Have Items for Female Travelers

 I've been a very lucky person to have the time and opportunity to travel and live abroad. If any out there is looking for advice of what to pack, here are my top three must-have items.

1. MoonCup. It's an alternative to pads and tampons. It's a reusable "cup" made from silicone. Buy it once, use it for years. It's major selling points are that it is healthier, cleaner, and more eco-friendly because you aren't throwing away tons of paper and plastic. You keep it in a small cotton pouch in your bag, and it's always ready when you need it. You put it in at the start of your period and check it (dump, rinse, and put it back) in the morning and at night--that's it! It's by far the most convenient way I've ever dealt with a period. A friend introduced it to me in Turkey, and it has solved several problems for me, including (a) trying to buy tampons and pads abroad, (b) always needing a place to dispose of used pads and tampons (not always available abroad or on adventures in the wilderness), and (c) the discomfort of pads and tampons. It also saves me money, probably at least $10 a month. It's important to me that I not be too embarrassed or grossed out by writing this. In general, our society assigns a lot of shame to menstruation, and I disagree with that. Most women experience this totally natural phenomenon every month, and it's ok to talk about it. Even better, organizations like Femme International provide menstrual cups to girls in rural Africa so that they don't have to miss school during their periods. I strongly recommend that all women try this product, even if you aren't abroad.

2. Undersummers. If you have thighs and you wear skirts, you've probably experienced thigh rub or sweaty and uncomfortable thighs. With the slogan "Thigh Love," the Undersummers' creator developed what are called "slip-shorts;" essentially,  the material of a traditional slip, but made into shorts. These aren't your granny's bloomers, and they are definitely NOT Spanx, a product I do not like because they are uncomfortable and in my opinion, body-shaming. On the other hand, Undersummers don't squeeze or pinch your legs, but instead skim over them lightly. They stay where they are supposed to be all day, and they keep your thighs from rubbing together. They are easy to wash, and they are surprisingly durable considering the feminine lace detailing. I won't wear a skirt without them.

3. iPad. I have raved about my iPad Mini before, and I'm still raving about it. It's the right size and light enough to be easy tucked into your bag. It's super functional as an internet accessing device and e-reader. However, the function I get the most use from is definitely the camera. I carry my iPad everywhere, and when I need to take a photo, I just whip out the iPad, snap, and carry on with my life. It's been a handy teaching tool, for taking pictures of my whiteboard notes and posting them online when necessary. Admittedly, the quality of the photos isn't as good as a "real" camera, but then again, I'm not a "real" photographer, so that's ok. Quick editing apps and internet access make it really easy for me to post photos to Facebook or Instagram on the spot. I love that. None of these features are new or extraordinary, but they are super useful as a traveler. Speaking of traveling, my iPad also functions as a GPS, language dictionary, calculator, and--on occasion--flashlight. Note: make sure you've got a sturdy case with a cover. If you use your iPad as often as I do, you'll have lots of chances to drop, spill on, or otherwise damage your iPad. My case from Targus is resistant to the mold that grows on absolutely everything in Thailand, which is a huge plus.

Well travelers, I hope that these three items make it into your suitcase, and bon voyage to you!

December 5, 2015

A great day and the challenge of loneliness

Today, Alan and I drove our truck to the river that runs through Chiang Rai province. We also brought Egg, the kitten who has at least doubled in size since we got her.

We put Egg in her little harness and walked along the sandy edge of the river.

We stopped to get out of the sun and order a round of beer and chicken wings from a riverside restaurant. Egg sat comfortably on Alan's lap as we lounged in a little cabana overlooking the river.

The experience was surreal for me. It was exactly what I've always wanted, but rarely achieved, from life abroad. It was easy, exotic, and it involved people and a cat that I really care about.

One of the greatest challenges of living abroad is loneliness. At times, it's a self-created challenge--in that I seek out alone time to recharge, but in the process miss out on opportunities to spend time with others. As a teacher, I'm surrounded by people all day; yet, loneliness and a longing for deeper interactions is something that I definitely struggle with.

Not being able to speak the local language plays into loneliness too. I often feel alienated by menus I can't read or interactions I can't have because of the language barrier. Sometimes it's hard to play it cool when you just want to communicate something simple, but can't.

Moving to new places year after year also creates a lonely dynamic. Most friendships don't continue after a change of location. When it comes to friendships, I feel like I've had to pretty much start over three times in the past four years. It's hard to maintain the deep friendships I crave when I don't share a location or cast of characters with my friends from past locations.

Anyway, I just wanted to commiserate with anyone who has felt lonely this week, or this year. Loneliness is a formidable challenge, but I believe it is only temporary.

November 23, 2015

Bathroom stuff that's weird in Thailand

A student reaching into a friend's purse, pulling out a full roll of toilet paper and scurrying over to me to ask to go to the toilet.

Two friends running out of the room at the same time with toilet paper in hand.

Silently cheering whenever there is toilet paper, soap, or paper towels in a public restroom. If there are all three, it might not be a silent cheer.

Using the butt sprayer. Yes, the butt sprayer.
Wishing for the butt sprayer when there is only a bucket (Turkish style).

The excuse of "I have diarrhea" being a perfectly acceptable and public reason to miss almost anything. Post it on Facebook.

Watching people walk past the sink and out of the restroom without washing their hands.

Being really happy about hand sanitizer.

Cautiously inspecting ALL restrooms for bugs with bodies larger than my thumbnail before sitting or squatting.

Deciding after inspection, "you know what? I can definitely hold it."

November 17, 2015

November Updates

I haven't written for a while. I've been getting to know Egg (our kitten), reading Orwell's "Burmese Days," and learning how to be myself in this new Northern Thai context. I also haven't had Internet access at home for nearly a week.

Egg is growing so fast. She has probably doubled in size (weight at least) since we picked her up nearly a month ago. She's been getting her kitten vaccinations every other weekend and seems to be in very good health. According to the internet, she will be losing her kitten teeth soon, and that means she'll be gnawing on everything and have bad breath. Not a huge change from the usual, but I'm glad there is a purpose for the gnawing. She is probably one of the most spoiled kittens I've ever known. Two parents to pay attention to everything she does, a big cat tower to climb, and lots of toys to scatter around the apartment. She even gets to play on the iPad. She likes the cat app ok, but her favorite is the photo rolls, where she can use her digging instincts to scroll at lightning speed through all of her best selfies. It's darn cute. She has also learned about sleeping preferences. She's not allowed to sleep on the bed because it causes us too many allergic reactions, so she has learned to put herself to bed in the bed on her cat tower when we go to sleep. It's awesome. She doesn't even wake us up in the night. All the cat parents out there--are you jealous?

While Egg is no match for a child, I do appreciate the grounding effect of a being under my care. I want to be at home to be with her, and she gives me a very strong sense of purpose. It's nice, especially for someone like me who tends to be a workaholic (or binge-TV watcher) unless I have another outlet for my energy. Another amazing Egg fact is that she goes on walks! She's got a leash and harness, and we take her to nice walking spots and let her explore. We are still working on pace, and sometimes it feel more like dragging, but she's getting better every day.

Alan and I are learning which adventures we do together and which we do separately. The big-ass scary caves--separate. I get about three steps in and panic, mainly due to the stories that some friends told us about scooting through a pitch-black narrow tunnel into a tiny cave room only to come face-to-face is a spider the size of a grown man's hand. That combination of tiny spaces and big arachnoids is my idea of a nightmare, not a Saturday afternoon. I'll be in the parking lot with my book, thanks.

I do like the drives we go on, and I can handle most of what's involved with getting to waterfalls. Sometimes the hikes freak me out because I'm always worried about snakes and bugs (they are plentiful, though mercifully, mostly they hide from humans). I guess I could also worry about leopards, but I don't...yet.

Caves and the outdoors, in general, may be Alan's spot, but grocery shopping? That's my arena. It may not seem like an adventure, but shopping in a language you don't speak is always interesting, and usually exhausting.

I also managed to arrange the fixing of our motorbike's flat tire. It involved an in-person conversation (in Thai) at the shop about the bike and how it was at our house. I also had to talk on the phone briefly. That wasn't very successful, but somehow it was still ok. They found me and the bike, loaded the bike into their truck and took me and the bike back to the shop where, for just about 5 bucks, we got a new tire and a full hour's labor. Prices for services here are very different. 

We successfully got our license plates for the truck too. Whatever perceptions you have of your local DMV, just thank your lucky stars that things are in a language you know well and are mostly digital. Even with our Thai colleague, the process was super complicated. It involved about 17 different employees, and 3 hours of signing, copying, inspecting, stamping, and resigning various documents and official record books. We get to do a similar process for our motorbike soon.

The shower water heater and clothes washer are making life a lot more pleasant. Doing laundry no longer takes 5 hours, and I don't have to cringe when I think about taking a cold shower at night. Modern creature comforts help this modern creature a lot!

My classes are nearing the end. We've got about four weeks left in the semester, and I'm looking forward to getting the first one under my belt. Once you know the system, things get so much easier.

So I guess that's the overview from here. Mostly Egg, a little adventure, and I also work. 

November 1, 2015

Domestic Delights

There's a gentle hum from our balcony this morning, and I'm pleased to report that it is not one of the many forms of megabug that live around here, but instead it is our new washing machine, churning a load of laundry in soapy water.

Undoubtedly a boring subject, washing machines, yet, I feel that the washing machine now rigged up precariously on our balcony and the new electric water heater in our shower represent something important for us in Thailand. Having a handful of creature comforts are the things that make life abroad more sustainable. Taking cold showers every day and hauling our clothes around to the old student dormitory washers on campus was definitely wearing on me.

There is some part of me that craves the  adventure that I associate with living in a village without electricity or running water. One of my childhood friend spent two years in rural Rwanda with the PeaceCorps. I imagine that her experience was far more difficult than my packing of laundry into the truck every weekend to take it to the washing machines. I don't think she had hot showers, either.

For every part of me that craves the hard-core adventure, there are two parts that want something less difficult, a controlled experience. Drive into the jungle for a few hours, then come home to a warm shower and clean clothes.

October 19, 2015

Monday Morning Me(w)ditation

Life is pretty short.

Life is also pretty sweet sometimes.

Alan and I adopted a kitten over the weekend. If you know me well, you know that cats are one of my greatest pleasures. One of the things that Alan and I wanted to do differently in Thailand was to make choices that prioritized our quality of life. For both of us, that meant a pet.

Given the size of our apartment and our long work days, a cat made more sense than a dog.

On Saturday, we made the one-hour drive to Mae Sai (Thai-Burmese border) to check out a litter of kittens that we had seen advertised on a local website.

We spent a long time getting to know the litter, and after much deliberation, decided on a mellow, strawberry blond kitten that passed our tests of not squirming when held by the belly or scruff of the neck.

On the drive home, she slept in the box we had brought.

We named her "Egg." We don't remember how that suggestion came up, but it's strangely fitting in Thailand, where almost everyone has a short (and sometimes silly) nickname. I've mentioned some of the names my students have: Piglet, Mint, Milk, Donut, etc.

Her coloring is exactly what I would expect if Alan and I produced a kitten baby: strawberry blond with green eyes. She has white feet and a white belly, and a very light pink tongue. Clearly, she is the cutest cat on the planet.

Her mellowness has since given way to a playful and inquisitive "cattitude" (I'm really not a fan of cat-related puns, but I can't help myself sometimes). I think getting out of a somewhat dirty and crowded environment has given her health an instant boost. She is no longer competing with 10 other cats for the food bowl or human attention either, which probably makes a big difference in her personality.

We also bathed and de-fleed her the first night. She didn't like the water, but I'm sure getting rid of those pesky parasites was worth it. The funniest moment was when she got a little too warm from the warm bath, and stuck her tongue out to pant. I had never seen a cat do that and I was actually disconcerted until I realized what she was doing. She was fine, and so cute!

Although she has more energy, she is still cuddly. She likes to sleep close to her humans. Especially the first night, she alternated between snuggling me and Alan all night. It was too cute. Last night she was more settled and I assume that she slept through the night, just a few feet from my face. I didn't wake up at all during the night to her meows or face-bumps. I hope that the restful nights continue.

This morning she woke up at 6:00 and I decided, rather than sleep another hour, to get up and spend time with her before my long work day. My original intention was to write my Me(w)ditation about this part only, but in the interest of providing context...all the previous paragraphs happened.

This morning, Egg and I did a lot of things together. We played with various "toys" (aka pieces of plastic from water bottles that would have been thrown out if they weren't so fun to play with). She ate breakfast while I drank coffee. I gave her a cotton ball wipe down to get the dust out of her eyes. We built a tunnel out of an old box. Of course we also snuggled together in the aptly-named "Egg Chair."

Here's why I like having a cat: I didn't worry about work or money this morning. I didn't obsessively check social media. I didn't even take any pictures of her to post. I was finally in the moment, enjoying the simplicity of one of life's pleasures. It was refreshing and energizing--truly a great way to start the week.

October 10, 2015

Reflections on Gun Violence as a Teacher

As a teacher, I am a small blip in the lives of many people.

I made a few students cry this week by giving them "zeros" on assignments that included plagiarised material.

I've handed out a lot of tissues and advice to students who are going through life's struggles while trying to also pass my class. I've said, "Let's walk over to the counseling center together."

I've celebrated students' successes in my class and beyond. Study abroad, landing an RA-ship, getting a scholarship, even meeting a boyfriend/girlfriend via one of my group projects.

Today I can add a new and very painful part of being a teacher: losing a student to gun violence.

There was a shooting at Northern Arizona University, where I completed my master's degree and also taught full-time. I heard the news last night.

This evening, I found out that the student who was killed had been in my class in 2013.

I recognised his name, and although the news source I was reading mis-identified him as a freshman, looking at the photos confirmed my suspicion. He was a friendly and smiley guy who looked a lot like one of my childhood friends. I always wanted to call him "Ben" because of that. He sat in the front, which is a notable characteristic of a student, as most sit as far away from the teacher as possible. Although I remember that he occasionally came late, he participated in class discussions and turned in his assignments on time. By my account, he seemed like he would survive the challenges of college life just fine.

I did not count on one of those challenges being a bullet fired at his chest after a party. His life was taken away by an 18-year-old student who often posed for Instagram pictures with automatic weapons. I don't know the details of why the shooter brought out the gun, and I don't really care.

What I do care about is that gun violence appears in the news too often and the laws aren't changing. There have already been three shootings at university campuses this month. It is unacceptable that guns are so readily available in our country, and that in states like Arizona, it is legal for college students to have guns on campus as long as they are in a car. Moreover, I don't believe that civilians need guns at all, and I definitely don't think 18-year-old should have guns.

I'm sick of seeing gun violence in the news, and I'm heartbroken that someone who I knew was killed in such a senseless way. As a teacher and as a human being, I believe it's time to change our laws to be sensible in a world where gun violence has become normal, and where parents have to worry about their children going to school, to a theatre, or to a mall. Limiting the availability of guns is the first step to stopping gun violence and needless death.

October 5, 2015

A few unrelated topics including volleyball, tires, and lady-boys

Readers, I'm sure you've been on pins and needles waiting for the next post.

In the last entry, I think I mentioned that I was going to try out the volleyball club. Well let me tell you, they play some ball here at MFU! The first practice I attended was easily the hardest I've worked in the past 5 years. We started with a mile job at the track, then did some stadium stair jump training. That would have been a tough work out for me, but we followed up with a legit practice for 3 hours. I could barely jump by the end. It could be argued that I can barely jump anyway, but the point is, I really couldn't by the end of that practice. I ended up going the next 3 nights in a row, mostly to prove it to myself that I could.

They've asked me to be the assistant coach for the women's team, which I've sort of accepted, though I'm still not sure whether I can make that commitment in addition to my teaching load. Without a command of Thai or much knowledge about how the team runs, I don't know whether I'm ready right now, but I'm sure that I can bring a lot to the table as a pseudo-coach with a fresh perspective. I definitely bring up the average height by a couple of inches!

The good news is, the players are athletic, friendly, and most of them speak English really well, so they help me get through the practices. Since the first day, practices have gotten easier. My body has adjusted to the incredible buckets and buckets of sweat that I produce and we haven't done some of the more difficult drills.

So when I haven't been on the volleyball court, I've been on the motorbike, getting flat tires. It happened when Alan and I were on our way to dinner with friends. Our best guess is a pinch flat for the extra weight (me) on the back of the bike at a higher speed on rough roads. It was a stroke of luck that we came to a stop in front of a shop where the employees were willing and able to help us. One of them asked around and found a shop close by. The other literally escorted Alan and the bike to the shop. I stayed with the grandma at the shop who was literally sewing doggie clothes. Could that be any cuter? She also had a guinea pig which I tried to play with, unsuccessfully.

In other news, Thailand is so different from Turkey. Our university literally has a drag queen pageant called Miss Satellite. There is a huge poster of biologically male students dressed in black gowns, beautifully made up. In Thailand, so-called "lady-boys" are part of the gender spectrum. It's hard to write about in a way that doesn't other-ize too much, but sometimes, you just see a person wearing a man's uniform with his hair braided and make-up on. It's Thailand. It's a lady-boy. They play volleyball, too. Very well! In any case, if I could sum up how Thailand is different from Turkey, this might be the example I'd choose. I hope I can attend Miss Satellite 2015!

I think I've pretty much covered the news. Volleyball, flat tires, lady-boys. I also saw a big snake get whacked by a gardener, just a few feet from my office building. No biggie. Actually it was a biggie--a big snake, but not a big deal.

Clearly time for me to stop writing.

Best from Thailand--

September 28, 2015

The Golden Triangle and The ESL Teacher Paradox

Although it seems like something I would do, I never really pictured myself standing in Thailand and looking across the Mekong to see both Laos and Myanmar at the same time.

This area, affectionately called "The Golden Triange"--was once a major supplier of the world's opium. The material to make opiate drugs is extracted from a special type of poppy plant which grows particularly well in certainly climates. Here and Afghanistan. The latter has the current market on lock down, which unfortunately means that neighboring Pakistan has one of the highest rates of opiate addiction in the world.

So there I was, fresh with knowledge from the "Hall of Opium" museum, standing in the shadow of a 30 foot golden Buddha, pondering the confluence of two rivers and three countries. The street behind me was lined with small shops selling handicrafts from hilltribes, and I'm sure a bunch of cheap plastic from China. Across the river, the Laotion side looked like a showy casino area. There was a building with a giant crown on top of it. A big sign welcomed visitors to Laos. In sharp contrast, the Myanmar side was a field. That's all. Granted, the visible part of Myanmar was only an isthmus jutting into the confluence of the rivers, but I think the stark differences between these three countries was clear.

Myanmar remains a huge question mark in my head. The social and political issues that have plagues the country for the past century have meant that it has been relatively untouched by the outside world, and that it's culture is uniquely preserved. I am sure however that with each passing day, more of the world is coming in. I nearly took a job there a few years ago. It's for the best that I didn't, but my intense curiously about the state remains. It's on my list of places to go while we are staying so close. On the note of culture coming in, my one regret about my profession is that I feel I contribute to the homogenization of the world. That is, through teaching English, I promote Western values and expose students to a culture that some of them idolize. I travel to see things that are different; yet, in being a traveler, I encourage (force) the world to adapt to me. People speak English to deal with me. They offer burgers and fries to feed me. There is some irony in the fact that in my quest to see things that are very different, I contribute to making them more the same.

As a teacher, I know that helping my students learn to use English is probably one of the best skills I could give. As an academic, I'm well aware of the World Englishes paradigm which suggests that communities can speak English and maintain their native languages, cultures, and identities just fine. I guess I can hold two ideas at once. I'm contributing to something positive for my students and something questionable for the preservation of difference.

Wow. Did not see that mini-ponder coming.

The Golden Triangle was pretty awesome and the museum was informative. We also stumbled upon a quaint riverside market with a great selection of food. That's always a plus. We already have plans to go back for a fun Saturday evening with friends on the Mekong.

Thai-Style Waffle Roulette

I've been wanting to sit down and write for at least a week now. Somehow it hasn't happened.

I think I'm finding my own rhythm here in the mystical hills of Chiang Rai.

I wake up, drink a huge glass of water, get dressed and walk to work. I've usually sweat through my entire shirt by the time I make it to the little bakery on campus.

I play waffle-roulette, choosing a few flavors of waffle each day, not really knowing what I'll get. I save the stickers from the wrappers to ask my students during office hours. The burgundy sticker says red bean, and the dark blue says coconut. It's a waffle filled with chunks of coconut--pretty awesome.  One of them is too intense, it's filled with a strange custard. Not sure which color that is, hence the roulette aspect. The pink sticker is plain. I prefer those. Mostly because I smear peanut butter all over it when I get to my office. Protein. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

There weren't any pink ones this morning, so I got two small coconut waffles to go with my peanut butter and coffee.

Alan got me a mini French-press for my birthday, and it's gets good use every morning.

So that's breakfast. At my desk. Air conditioning on full-blast until the humidity has come down to a level where I'm not sweating. Actually, I guess it's sort of the other way around--until the humidity becomes low enough where I can sweat and have it evaporate.

Anyway, I teach 18 hours a week, and my office hours have recently been absolutely packed with students from my writing class who want to refine their projects before the due date. It's been a lot of extra brain work for me, but I like working with students one-on-one. It's a more human connection than teaching in a big class.

At noon, I usually get lunch in a cafeteria on campus where I'm likely to see colleagues. There are a lot of food choices--if you speak Thai--so I usually get whatever I can point to. I'm not very proud of that, so I am trying to add a few words to my vocabulary every week.

After work, which sometimes doesn't happen until 6:00 pm, I usually exercise. I've been walking and jogging on the university track lately. It's a nice place to exercise, and certainly less nerve-racking than walking on the edge of the street where you're competing with motorbikes and shuttles.

I found out when and where the volleyball club practices, so I'm going to try it out tomorrow. I'm excited and a little nervous. I hope I'm good enough to play with them. I've enjoyed being a big fish in a small pond for several years...

Alan and I go to the market almost every night for dinner. There's a lot to choose from, again, way more if you speak Thai.  On Mondays, there is a special market that most of the university students go to. It's fun. Tonight I found a gyoza (Japanese dumpling) station. Too delicious. I am trying to get myself to be healthier, so with my fried gyoza, I had a big fruit salad, Thai-style. Thai-style usually means adding soy sauce, fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and the hottest darn peppers in the world. This is salad roulette. Every bite has the potential to draw tears from the sensitive farangs (foreigner) novice eyes, and most bites at least make my nose run. Rumor, and perhaps biology, has it that spicy food makes it harder for bacteria to grow, which ultimately makes food safer to eat--I guess. That is one reason that Thais eat their food so spicy. I don't know the others. Glutens for punishment?

The food is going down fine, but I still can't stomach (not literally) some of the fauna near and inside our house. We had a pair of small lizards darting around our bedroom the other day. I successfully wrangled one outside, and gave up trying to find the other. There are spiders galore, and of all sizes. The tiny jumping ones are pretty annoying, but I'm not nearly as afrid of them as the I am of the bigger ones. Yuck. I'm even down with the daddy long-leg guys hanging out on our balcony, as long as they don't come inside.

Every time I take our laundry off of the line (it hangs on the balcony), I have a very strong fear that  spider will be tucked away in a cranny of my undies and come crawling out when I'm folding. I'm actually super surprised that it hasn't happened yet.

Alan and I bought a little dust-buster vacuum, which makes bug clean up a little bit less awful, but I still get pretty jumpy.

Every night I see roaches. Luckily, they are outside. Roaches are the worst. Or spiders. They are both terrible.

Ok, bug rant is over.

September 17, 2015

Wai Khru (Teacher Appreciation Ceremony)

One of the best parts of my *lifestyle* (an English teacher who lives abroad) is that I get to see so many different viewpoints. Seeing traditional ceremonies often offers insight on the culture and its values.

Today our university celebrated Wai Khru, which translates to Teacher Appreciation Day. In fact the day is about forming the teacher-student relationship between faculty and freshman (called "freshers" here as a non-gendered term). I observed the ceremony briefly, as my teaching schedule didn't line up for me to participate fully. In the auditorium, faculty members decked out in red and black robes sat in chairs near the stage. Students formed a lined in front of the faculty, kneeled and received a blessing from the faculty member. Three dots of white powder were given on each students' forehead, symbolizing ancient Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. I'm having trouble finding exactly what the dots mean, my best guess is: morality, concentration, and wisdom. These are considered pillars of Buddhism.

There are many aspects of the ceremony that I didn't see. For instance, student representatives offer symbolic foods and plants to their teachers as signs of perseverance, intelligence, discipline and humility. In some ceremonies, there are traditional music and dance performances.

While I still only know a little about the ceremony, it makes me happy that students and teachers honor each other in this way. I enjoy working in universities because they are centers of knowledge, as well as places of personal and societal development.

September 16, 2015

The Adventurer's Life

So, I'm working on a can of Chang beer, decidedly a cheap and less tasty beverage than perhaps a BeerLao or Leo Beer.  In any case, it's cold and refreshing.

I just took my first turn as driver of our rented motorbike. Although I was nervous, it wasn't so bad. Fairly intuitive little machine, that Honda Click. I don't like how exposed I am on a motorbike, but the breeze is nice. Alan and I have decided that the bike is more practical for going places where parking is limited--like the market where we usually pick up dinner. The truck is hard to park in small spaces--an understatement for sure.

We ventured a little further today to the Ban Du market, just up the highway toward the airport. It had the usual fare, so we picked out some fried items--plus 10 Baht worth of garlic and a few dragonfruit to take home.

I also picked up some Tiger balm from the pharmacy. It's basically Vicks rub and IcyHot combined. It has seemed to be ubiquitous in most parts of Asia I've visited (granted that is a fairly narrow swath). Good for aches, pains, congestion, and mostly--bug bites.

That's all for tonight. Riding motorbikes, eating fried chicken, and applying balm. The life of an adventurer.

September 14, 2015

Driving in Chiang Rai

Alan and I now have two official modes of transport: our diesel pick-up truck and a rented motorbike. I feel like I spent the whole weekend in/on one of those two things. It's good to be mobile.
The Witch (named after our Thai friend Witchaya who helped us get it)

Chiang Rai Clocktower
On Saturday, we drove a few hours to a waterfall near the Laos border (um, how cool am I?), and on Sunday we drove the motorbike into town for breakfast and an errand. Being the passenger on a motorbike isn't much fun, but Alan is a good driver and the roads are in good condition. We found an awesome coffee place near the clocktower (a major landmark of Chiang Rai city), and we continued our street food experiments with a new variety of soup.
Panorama at Phu Sang Waterfall

I even drove the truck myself for some appliance shopping. I bought an additional fan and an indulgent, but utilitarian fabric steamer. I also picked up a second set of bed sheets, as it takes so long for laundry to dry this time of year.

I'm glad that I learned the basics of driving a manual in Turkey, because driving our beastly diesel in Thai traffic (even in a small city--can't imagine Chiang Mai or BKK) is no easy feat. Lots of clutch work. Lots of manoeuvring in tight spaces. I'm getting better.  I love our truck. I feel really safe inside a bigger vehicle (compared to the back of a motorbike).

We bought our truck at a dealership for a great price. It's certainly a no-frills vehicle: no power locks or windows--sort of annoying, but better than our Turkish car in which the passenger window couldn't be put down by the passenger, only the driver. The only thing about the hand-cranked windows is when I have to slow down at the security both to get my university entrance and exit ticket. I need at least one more hand to do the window, the shifting, and taking of the card. I haven't stalled out during that yet, but I think it's only a matter of time. Too many things going on at once--especially because there is a hill involved.

Driving on the other side of the street is pretty confusing at times. Enough said, right?

So that's the transport update. I'm really happy that we've got that settled. Getting around is a lot easier (not to mention faster) when you can jump in a car or on a motorbike.

September 7, 2015

In Motorbike We Trust

I came to Thailand thinking that I probably wouldn't ride a motorbike--if I could help it.

I stuck to that for, let's see, 20 days.

Last night, clinging to Alan as we sped down the highway during a light rain storm, I hoped that my Bebe guardian angel was watching. I am not a fan of being a passenger on a motorbike. I've never driven one myself, but I've heard it's far less scary. I surely got my fill of motorbike passengering in Cambodia, and now that I'm back in SE Asia, I wasn't thrilled to be on the back of a bike with someone who had never driven a motorbike before. We did have helmets.

Just like the wet hot heat, riding motorbikes is part of Thai existence. At least half of the vehicles on the road are motorbikes (the other half are giant pick-ups). Alan and I gave in a rented one yesterday after a week of missing out on the on-campus dinner options because of our work/exercise schedule.

It's a long walk to the nearest food option that isn't instant noodles in a styrofoam cup. MSG overload is no fun. In fact, it's very itchy.

So, until we get the money wired for our elusive Isuzu pick-up (in a few days, hopefully!!), we'll be motoring around on a little Suzuki. Side story, we've been trying to buy this darn truck for more than a week, but no one wants to take our credit or debit cards as payment. I've learned a lot about the Thai banking system in the meantime.

Honestly, Alan did a great job driving our motorbike in the chaotic traffic and rain. The real test was of my trust. Apparently, I REALLY trust Alan. This is a very good thing for our marriage, and for our rented motorbike rides.

September 5, 2015

Being Sweaty and Other Thoughts

Southeast Asia is a hot and wet place.

There's no getting around that fact.

For example, Alan left his slightly damp backpack on the floor of our for a few days and today it was covered in mold. A little Clorox seemed to take care of the mold, but now the backpack is actually wet, which may keep it out of commission for a week or so.

Things don't really dry here. After you wash a load of clothes, you hang them out on your balcony. Three days later, they are still a little damp, but at some point you just have to bring them in. It rains pretty much every day.

In my mind, as long as no giant spiders (or even small ones) have made homes in my socks or undies while they were hanging on the line, I'm pretty okay with the dampness.

The humidity situation kind of effects other areas of the apartment, too.

The closet is a little musty.

The bathroom is a little moldy--despite my efforts with bleach.

We have to mop the shower floor literally after every shower because of the way the shower floor slopes away from the drain, leaving a pool of standing water. Mosquito-breeding ground, anyone?

We've got one cupboard that I refuse to open because of the smell that comes out. I don't know what's causing the smell, but I haven't seen anything (no dead animals or horrible obvious mold), but it is a choking stench. I can live with one fewer cupboard.

That's our apartment in the rainy season (a.k.a. now).

House chores during the rainy season are a bit of drag, but nothing compared to trying to keep one's body unsweaty. When I stand in front of the fan applying baby powder post-shower, I feel like a pre-game LeBron James. But even the cloud of powder isn't enough to keep my skin from sticking to everything. Mostly, I just get powder all over my black shirts. 

I spray a tea tree oil and water mixture on my scalp during every shower to ward off itchy head and the heat-induced rashes I used to get in Cambodia.

I don't wear face make-up. I'd sweat it all off by the time I finished my walk to school anyway.

I carry a sweat towel at all times, especially for eating at the campus canteen.

I don't wear jeans. Too hot. WAY too hot.

I change underwear pretty often. Sweaty butt is no good.

I drink a lot of iced coffee, iced tea, and ice-based smoothies. 

I don't teach without the a/c on. 

I don't sleep without the fan on.

So, I hope that satiates my need to whine about being hot and sweaty. It's part of the deal when you live in Thailand. The beautiful and lush tropical forests come at a cost. It's worth it. 

September 1, 2015

Dragon Fruits and Lacking Belt Loops

I'm stealing a couple of minutes to write before my lessons today. I've got a mess of books and papers on my desk, and I'm snacking on dragonfruit--a delicious tropical fruit that comes in a magenta rind that looks a little like an artichoke. Anyway, exotic fruits are only part of the experience at Mae Fah Luang University.

I wanted to note something interesting that I see female students do with their uniforms. The uniform is a white shirt with a black pencil skirt. A tan belt is worn at the top of the skirt. To keep the belt in place, most girls use those big, butterfly document clips. They clip the belt to the top of the skirt. Functional and practical--you never know when you'll need to bind 50 sheets of paper at a moment's notice.

On the note of the uniform, I actually really like them. Students here look put together and prepared to learn. In the US, sometimes my students looked like they were fresh from gym, or fresh from their beds. I think clothing shouldn't be uncomfortable, but our outside appearance does influence how others (yes, your teachers) perceive you.

It's nearly time to teach, as I've had a few random tasks in the middle of writing this, including an apartment inspection form (all in Thai). I'll stop for a Thai iced tea before class, and wish me luck teaching everything my students never wanted to know about nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

August 30, 2015

The view from here

Here are a few photos of our university, our apartment and our pick-up truck (will be officially ours on Tuesday) in Chiang Rai. Our living room isn't set up well yet, so we will wait on those photos.

Mae Fah Luang, a.k.a the university in the park

Our bedroom (Grandma, your mom's tablecloth is on the nightstand)

kitchen view 1

kitchen view 2

our awesome balcony

our truck, name TBA, 2010 Isuzu D-max Spacecab

August 27, 2015

Bug thoughts

One of the striking features of Southeast Asia is the amount of flora and fauna.

This morning I saw the biggest spider of my life hanging out in the entry to our apartment building. No big deal, just a GIANT spider whose leg span was at least the size of my palm. If that thing comes inside my apartment, I don't know what I'll do. Call for Alan, probably.

Right now, I'm listening to the frantic buzz at the end of a fly's life. It's stuck in the web of a much smaller spider that apparently has set a trap near my desk. The fly is trying to get away, but evolution has made that spider's string too sticky. He's stuck. He will either be eaten alive or die of starvation--either way, he's done. I'm a little grossed out and a little fascinated.

Just some bug thoughts for now.

August 25, 2015

Ode to street food

For the past two nights, Alan and I have been exploring a little street food district just off campus.

Although street food is a common culprit for what ales travelers' bellies, I think it's an important part of experiencing a place. I also rationalize that it's somehow building my immunity to tummy bugs. It's like a vaccine that I won't faint from. Not right then, anyway.

No, this isn't a fainting story.

So, back to the street food vendors. They set up little stalls along the sidewalk, or in larger covered areas. Many of them sell the same things, so as I browse, I always look for what catches my eye out of uniqueness.

Tonight, I spotted a large table covered in jugs of ingredients, and in the middle of all the jars, there was a pan of freshly fried something. It looked like the homemade tortilla chips that my Mom makes for tortilla soup. They are undoubtedly the best part of that dish. Salted, and a little crispy, a little soft. The Thai version was a little thicker, but looked really good. I could see where they were being deep fried, and doggonit, deep-frying always makes things more delicious.

So, I watched a few Thais get their meal so I could just point and hope to get the same thing. Here's a summary of my food. A handful of egg noodles goes into the bowl, then some chili sauce, fish sauce, sugar, peanuts, two kinds of garlic, red pepper flakes, fresh cilantro, green onion, a dash of MSG, and a spritz of soy sauce. The bowl is topped off with some of those crispy tortilla-ish things (after she has used a scissor to chop them into bite-size pieces). The cook then quickly stirs the entire bowl and hands them to you. The fresh and slightly spicy aroma of Thai food is so good in general, and this dish didn't disappoint. It was delicious, and about 75 cents.

My tastebuds are loving Thailand. Between the awesomely cheap and delicious street food, and the ever-present freshly-brewed ice coffee, I'm pretty much in heaven here. I don't even miss cheese yet.

August 24, 2015

For Bebe

Note: I wrote this on Saturday evening--it's now Monday afternoon.

I often plan blog entries in advance. Today, I was planning how I’d write some detailed descriptions of our day deep cleaning (I’m talking scour pads and bleach) our new apartment.

Sometimes between my plan and when I sit down to actually write, other things happen.

I called my mom to chat about Thailand, and I found out that my cat Berlin died last week, probably right around the time when I left Nebraska. She wasn’t old or sick, so I definitely wasn’t expecting it. After she had been missing for a few days, my brother found her little body on the edge of their property. Based on what he and my stepdad saw, she was probably in a fight, or got injured somehow. She loved to hunt mice and rabbits in the swampy area behind their house, so I guess at least she was in one of her favorite places.

The death of a pet is heart-wrenching. Berlin, or Bebe, as I usually called her, was my cat. I made a questionable decision when I was 19, and my roommate and I ended up with two kittens. Unfortunately, around the same time, I started to do the world-traveling that now defines a lot of my existence.

So my little black cat with white paws and whiskers got to live with my parents, in a much bigger house, with a better yard, and with more places to pee. She had a little trouble adjusting to new places, and usually resorted to peeing on carpet or other surfaces to try to mark her space.

I think she had settled into her surroundings pretty well in the past 5 or so years. Once I left for graduate school, she had discovered the heated floors in my parents’ bathroom. The warm tiles became a favorite place. Recently, she had taken to burrowing under the comforter on my parents’ bed. My mom often sent me photos of the little bump under the blanket.

I’ve often felt guilty that I couldn’t provide for Bebe myself, but I know she had a good life at my parents’ house—much better than she would have had tagging along with me on international flights.

Bebe was a natural hunter and she loved to practice with toys. We used to play a version of fetch with these small mouse toys that I would send careening across the wooden floors of the entryway. Bebe would skitter along after them, struggling to keep her grip on the slick floor. She’d pounce and attack the little mouse for a few seconds before trotting back to me with the mouse in her mouth, ready for the next round. That part of her personality was unique.

She was also a finicky eater, preferring the “paté” version of Friskies food over other textures. Bebe also loved yogurt, especially finishing the last bit from a plastic carton. We had that in common.

My favorite moments with Berlin were our cuddle time. Although she wasn’t a people-cat, when Berlin wanted affection, she made it known. She’d get right up on your lap or your chest, and nuzzle your face with her face. If you stopped petting too soon, she’d nuzzle under your hand to inspire a few more strokes. She liked to knead legs and stomachs as she purred and enjoyed the love. The last time I saw Bebe was one of these cuddle times, and I’m grateful for that.

I’ve always loved cats, and I’m heartbroken that I won’t see Bebe again. I loved her the best I could when I was home, and thought of her every day when I wasn’t.

Her body is buried now in the back yard, under a little wooden cross. I imagine her spirit roaming kitty heaven on warmed tile floors where there’s always a mouse to play with, plenty of paté, and a blanket to burrow under when you need to rest.
Rest in peace my Bebe girl. I will always treasure the time we had together during your life with our family. One day I’ll join you in kitty heaven, but until then I know you’ll be watching over me.

August 20, 2015

Some Things are Just the Same Everywhere!

Everywhere you go, there you are.

I’m pretty sure I’ve started other entries this way, but today—my 28th birthday—it just seems like the right phrase. Or maybe this:

Everywhere you go, there are your ridiculous medical idiosyncrasies.

In general, I’m a super healthy person; however, vasovegal response is something that I’ve dealt with my entire adult life. Going to the doctor for shots or to get blood drawn is a huge ordeal for me because of my tendency to faint. Apparently, the stress of the procedure causes a spontaneous seizing up of the blood vessels in the brain, resulting in momentary loss of consciousness.

Today Alan and I had to get check-ups and some lab work at the Mae Fah Luang University Medical Center as part of the process to get our work permits. I was pretty nervous about the lab work, as I know what a pain in the ass my condition is for doctors and nurses. They give me a very routine shot or take some blood and I end up slumped on the floor, unconscious.

I explained to the staff that I at least needed to lay down so that if I fainted, I wouldn’t hurt myself.

The young female nurses, decked out in lavender and mint uniforms, braces, and hair-bows directed me to the Emergency Room so I could lay down. It was certainly an interesting choice for someone who is clearly squeamish about blood and the like.

Anyway, once I entered the ER, I removed my shoes and hopped onto an empty bed between two people with injuries that looked fairly serious. I’d guess one had a broken leg and the other had road rash from a motorbike crash. As the nurse had said a few minutes earlier, “You’re welcome to Thailand.” The grammatical and pragmatic mismatch of her utterance seemed somehow very fitting as the tourniquet was wound around my arm, protruding my veins for the draw (I’m a little squeamish just writing that).

I optimistically asked the nurse to also tell me my blood type after the draw because I honestly don’t know—I tried to test it in biology class during my undergraduate degree, but nearly fainted after not being able to draw any blood from a needle prick. I had to lay on one of the lab tables while my classmates fanned me. Very embarrassing. However, I had no problem dissecting a cat later in the semester. Weird how that works.

I didn’t mind the prick of the needle, and I thought I was in the clear as I laid a few minutes to rest afterward. I was still feeling a little car sick from the days’ previous adventure to Doi Tung (Royal Village) which awaits visitors at the end of a super curvy mountain road. I stood up, and made it back to where Alan was standing in the waiting room.

All was in order as Alan and I took seats on a long and cushioned bench to await the results of our blood and urine samples. As I stared at a sign announcing an “Influenza Corner” (what is that, anyway?) I felt a wave of nausea and heat. Instinctually, I tried to lay down in Alan’s lap to avoid the fainting crumple to the floor…

The next thing I remember was a vivid flash of images and coming back to reality totally disoriented. I guess I was out for at least 30 seconds before I awoke frightened and gasping to Thai nurses fanning me and asking in their sweet ways whether I was okay.

As per my usual modus operando, I thanked them, in Thai, and immediately moved to lie flat out on the hospital floor. Once on the floor, staring up at a graceful daddy long legs spider on the ceiling above me, I realized I was in Thailand, and that yet again, I fainted because of a needle-based procedure. Thailand is a beautiful place, but coming to in a Thai hospital is, how can I put this, probably NOT on my list of to-dos. The staff were a little horrified that I was on the floor, but they dealt with the large foreigner sprawled in front of their check-in desk pretty well. One of the male nurses loosened the side zipper of my dress pants and checked to whether the band of my bra might be too tight. It sounds a little weird, but I thought it was medically sound and a helpful gesture to ensure my proper blood flow. My blood pressure was found to be normal, and a fan was brought to help me stop sweating (my chronic issue in SE Asia, regardless of whether I’m passed out on a hospital floor). I had hot tears running out of my eyes from disorientation and embarrassment for causing such a spectacle.

For the next few minutes, I just laid on the floor trying to get my bearings. The tape holding the cotton ball to the offending needle mark was pulling too tightly, so I asked Alan to remove it. I stared up at the spider and wondered why this always happens. After what was probably 30 minutes on the floor, Alan helped me move the the bench. Shortly after that, our colleague arrived to pick us up. She was surprised to see how badly I was doing. I couldn’t even sit up because of the continuing nausea. Fortunately, we had to wait for the results anyway, so my need for rest wasn’t obtrusive…yet.

Once the doctor was ready to sign off on our paperwork, saying we were indeed “free from defect”—an irony not lost on me, the lady who is way too nauseous to even sit up—I became a bit more of a burden. I couldn’t sit without feeling the warm tingles of an impending faint or puke session.
Me and Zip the cat, chilling on the floor...

Ultimately, I ended up back in the ER to rest. A flamboyant nurse brought me water and a cold pack that actually seemed to speed my recovery pretty well. The doctor, on the other hand, decided that I had some exhaustion and electrolyte imbalances, so he prescribed two anti-barf meds and sent a few packets of rehydration mix home with me.

The short car ride between the Medical Center and our new on-campus digs was hellish. Every bump sent a wave of nausea through my entire body. Nevertheless, we made it, and we even stopped to pick up our freshly laundered sheets to go with the new mattress.

Alan set up the bed as quickly as he could so that I could lie down again. We also fixed me some of the rehydration drink, which seemed to help immediately. One thing that is very hard at the beginning of a trip to a very foreign place is knowing how to keep your body in balance, I’ve had two bouts of big jet lag and several long plane rides in the past two weeks, not to mention lots of sweating the moment we hit the ground in Thailand. My body has no idea what’s going on, and add to that some BBQ chicken assholes and a little carsickness—no wonder I was on the floor of a hospital.

The doctor did sign off on my bill of health, after asking whether I could be pregnant (I’m not). According to the tests, I don’t have a meth addiction or syphilis. Two pieces of good news (I wasn’t worried).

So, after three days in the country, I’ve already had lab work and two visits to the ER. The funny thing is, I still don’t know my blood type.

Chicken without Borders

I ate barbequed chicken ass within 200 meters of the Thai-Burmese border.

Feel free to stop reading now, as I’ve totally spoiled the plot of this entry.

It all started at the Poonyamantra resort where our faculty orientation was being held. Following a light dinner, a few colleagues’ stomaches were still wanting more, so we set off to find a certain Chinese barbeque spot in the Thai-Burmese border town of Mae Sai. I didn’t know where the restaurant was before we got in the car, but since I’ve always been fascinated by Burma, and by land crossings, not to mention by grilled meats, this was the opportunity of a lifetime—just 3 days into my stay in Thailand.

Mae Sai at 10 PM is a quiet city. Birds lined up for hundreds of feet on telephone wires strung just in front of hotel facades and dentistry buildings. The buildings themselves hd a European flare, tall and narrow with triangular roofs and wooden frames. In the glow of street lights, we found our barbeque stand. Some of the experienced Thais chose what we would be eating, and then they volunteered to take us closer to the border for photos.

The border itself had the same strangely European style of the building facades—a little bit awkwardly vertical. As we got closer, the signs were translated from Thai to English, Chinese, and the wonderfully mysterious Burmese script.

The natural border is formed by a river, and the guards were just closing the traffic bridge. A foot path to the “Northern-most point in Thailand” was still open, so we braved a dark alleyway beneath the bridge for a photo op.

On the Thai side, we stood in a well-lit and comparatively vibrant scene. Just across the flowing brown water, though was a much different picture. The Burmese side of the footbridge border was mostly dark, with just one guard standing watch in the moonlit shadows a blocky colorless building. The Burmese side looked how I’d picture North Korea in terms of lack of flare, lack of color, and lack of people out and about on a Wednesday evening.
Where's the Y?

View across to Myanmar (a.k.a Burma)

Well, here we are

It's the Russian Roulette of meat!

The grilling process

We snapped a few shots of ourselves, the razor wire wrapped around the fences, a strange sign saying “Welcome to M anmar” with the “y” clearly missing. Note: Burma and Myanmar refer to the same country—the name you choose is very political, but I choose Burmese as the adjective because I think Myanmar as an adjective and noun is confusing.

So, back to the grilled meat we went. The type of barbeque is apparently particular to this city. It’s called “Ma-La” which is the name of a special spice mix used on the meat. The result is delicious, no matter what part of the animal you’re eating. I ate intestine, stomach, kidney, and few other things I didn’t know. By the third round of meat, it was my turn to pick, so I went up to the cart and surveyed the options. Knowing it’s better to eat first and ask later, I selected a few interesting looking skewers of meat.

I later found out that I had picked beef heart and chicken asshole. Who knew that beef heart could sound so appealing by contrast? In case you’re wondering about the texture of the ass, it was crispy on the edges and chewy in the middle. Not the worst thing I’ve ever eaten. I managed to eat my share, and so did everyone else. There was a lot of variety, so the strange cuts weren’t a problem.

So, like I told you in the first sentence, I ate chicken ass 200 meters from the border. It was awesome.

First Impressions of Thailand

I wish I had composed this entry sooner, when my first impressions were more “first,” but here I am, five-ish days in.

Chiang Rai is gorgeous. It’s a green and luscious paradise of oversized leaves, tropical flowers, and misty mountains. It still takes my breath away. The campus where I now where, Mae Fah Luang University, is in the middle of all the lusciousness. If you’re a Nebraskan reading this, imagine the Henry Dorley Zoo, but without the animals. Add in some stray dogs and kittens, and you’ve basically got how our campus looks. It’s beautiful.

And even thought the campus itself looks like a resort in terms of natural beauty and food options, our Dean generously took the English department to a small resort for a multi-day orientation. After an introductory meeting on campus, we continued with some community and cultural service at a temple on the way to the resort. Our department offered the monks a large Buddhist lent candle and a tub of supplies for their daily lives. We participated in a Buddhist prayer session, and then continued on, heading North from the university, which is already 15 kilometers outside of Chiang Rai proper.

The resort property was quaint and cute, with lots of birdhouses and tropical foliage. Most of the meetings were in a large room that was well air-conditioned (yes!), but I spend the most quality time with my new colleagues over the many meals we ate together at the resort. All of the food was excellent and fresh. My favorite item, though, was the freshly brewed Americanos (form of coffee) that were available all day. I must have had 10 over the 3 days.

Just now, Alan and I are settling into our new apartment, a semi-furnished apartment on campus. We bought a mattress, bedding, and towels with the help of a colleague, and we plan to buy other essentials over the weekend. The apartment did not come with much in the kitchen. Only a sink. If we want to cook, we will need to buy a hot plate and/or microwave, and probably a small refrigerator. For the time being, we will eat the excellent campus cafeteria food and enjoy not having to do dishes, save for a few coffee cups here and there.

The people we’ve met so far have been sweet, courteous, and the kind of people who go out of their way to help. Speaking Thai, or I guess, NOT speaking, understanding, or reading Thai has been a challenge for us. It took a long time for us to learn the basics in Turkish, and I know we are in for a steep learning curve here too. I’m ready.

Big tree with strange other things growing on it (I said "What are those!?)

My name, written in Thai; and my new university photo

Inside the Buddhist temple

Coolest flowers at the resort

Rice field--we are in Asia after all!
Overall, my first impression of Thailand is hugely positive, much more so than my usual first impressions of places. I think Alan and I are in for many good things in Thailand.