Saturday, April 23, 2011

Cell Phones

With the recent exodus of my cell phone on Khao Sarn Rd, I decided it might be time to address the Thai attitude towards cellular communication.

As previously mentioned, cell phone usage at my school drives me absolutely nuts. Not the least of which because I have a rather personal disdain for the things to begin with and there is absolutely no rule against them at school.

I’ve come to realize it’s not just school. I read on another expat’s blog that if you see a Thai girl without a cell phone, run because there is something wrong with her. And while I first viewed this assessment as harsh, it’s become apparent that taking out exceptions for extreme poverty (and even then, phones are much more affordable here), that pretty much every Thai person has a cell phone. And I mean everyone – the monks have cell phones. What on Earth a monk needs a cell phone for, I don’t know, but then again I have yet to figure them out, and some of the ones in Bangkok are just in it for the free ride.

Boundaries of appropriate times and frequency with which to call also seem to be open to interpretation, though I realize that is an individual thing; I’ve run into it in a variety of contexts. Can I call you every day? No. Blank stare. Can I call you every day? NO. Blank stare. Lost in Translation, even with translation.

I went to the gym today for the first time since before Songkran and as usual I noticed the high volume of people texting while on the treadmill, with eyes glued to their iPhone while lifting weights with their quadriceps, or merely sitting on various pieces of equipment, eyes glued to their phone. I think their thumbs are getting a better workout than the rest of them.

I’ve learned that, in Thai culture, what is polite is to answer your phone immediately, regardless of what you are doing, even if you are busy enough to say you have to call the person back. A colleague of mine confided that he had gone native enough to do this in a job interview back in England, realizing just a moment too late wait, This Is NOT Thailand. Yes, it cost him the job.

So while in the United States, we confiscate student phones (I am allowed some leeway in this here) and force parents to pick them up, and remind the students that an employer will not allow you to sit and play on your phone; here in Thailand, that is exactly what everyone is doing in moments of down time, students, workers, Immigration officials… Nothing can be ‘mai sanuk,’ after all. I suppose there isn’t any harm in this in moments of down time, generally speaking. I am a little leery of the motorbike taxi drivers on their phones while driving.

Aside from the complete opposite take on cell phone usage, cell phone decoration is quite lucrative, and options are many. However the moment I decide investing in rhinestone-studded accessories and/or a Hello Kitty cell phone is a great idea is the day I’ve been here too long. Though to be fair Hello Kitty has no age limit here.
So cute!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Songkran 2011

I’m hesitant to write this post, because no amount of written or spoken word can really capture Songkran. The videos on youtube, though closer, do not really do it justice either.
For I cannot convey in words how drenched I was, the sensation of the clay/chalk water smearing across my face, or the sheer elation of young and old alike, throwing buckets upon buckets of water on everyone spanning across an entire country in celebration of the Thai New Year. But I’ll try.

So for starters, it was nice that MacGyver took a break from working on Atomic Layer Deposition reactors over in Taiwan to come “play water” for Songkran. For those of you think I’m stretching it with that last sentence, I assure you I’m not.

So it was nice to have my back covered, though it made absolutely no difference in how quickly we both got soaked – notably by the elementary schoolers toting Doraemon water gun backpacks, very Ghostbuster-esque, just down my soi.

The main road between my apartment and school is frequently a traffic jam, notably when a member of the royal family wants to go somewhere and thus traffic is brought to a complete halt or the road is completely cleared for them to use it. That is certainly a new one – commute disruptions due to royal caravans.
But on the first day of Songkran, almost all shops are shuttered and everyone is on the street or sidewalk, music is blaring, old ladies are selling water guns off of tables, everyone is smiling and oh yeah, pouring buckets of water on you. Sometimes ice water. Old men have brought out power hoses, taxis are parked and blaring music, pick up trucks and motorbikes full of people ride by throwing water at each other on the road. The pickups often have entire extended families, or large groups of friends, and huge barrels of ‘ammo.’ People are riding around in tuk-tuks just to shoot water guns at each other. I’ll tell you what, being able to shoot super soakers out the sides of the tuk-tuk makes it much more fun.

MacGyver and I met up with Natalie at Central World for an attempt at breaking a Guinness World Record. I’m not sure which record we broke, because really, Songkran itself has got to be the world record for world’s largest water fight and it only grows every year, but whatever it was we hit the mark. Dance party plus world’s largest squirt gun bonanza? I think this is the best thing ever. EVER.

Aside from the water and dancing, there is the clay. I still have yet to figure out the significance of the clay/chalk stuff, but people carry the stuff around in small buckets and smile while smearing it across my cheeks with hearty “welcome to Thailand!” Cheers. The clay coats the streets, splatters cars and handprints are all over the place like cave paintings. I realize a couple of things about the chalk: one, foreign woman = higher priority target, two: you’re probably going to get it in your eyes and mouth. This wouldn’t be too big of a deal, as long as you don’t get the prickly heat powder spiked variety in your eyes. I’m wearing goggles next year, I don’t care if I look ridiculous. I already looked pretty ridiculous this year. And really, it’s not like adding some goofy accessories will make me any LESS of a high priority target.

Though most shops are shuttered and people have gone to spend the holiday with family, extra food stands and beer coolers have popped up amidst the sometimes ankle deep clay murk of the street. Sometimes people are considerate enough not to squirt you if you are eating.

I feel somewhat sorry for the poor tourists who have arrived in the middle of Songkran wholly unaware of it, trying to make their way down Khao Sarn Rd with their unprotected packs. The road is annoyingly difficult to navigate on a good day, absolutely impossible to do so now, especially without proper waterproof gear. At the same time though, Som Nam Na, grouchy old tourists that didn’t do their homework! It is kind of a big deal, Thai New Year.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Of Nightbuses, Borders, and Learning to Drive a Motorbike…

…not necessarily in that order. For the record: I know for a fact my mother is not reading this. Therefore, dear readers, those of you that communicate with my mother have a moral obligation NOT to mention the particulars of the motorbike driving. Please and thank you.

This past weekend, I took a night bus up to Mae Sot with my friend and former neighbor, Vanda. From the beginning, we weren’t sure we were going to make it. Her Thai family here warned her that all the seats would be sold, as it is Songkran time, and she called to say we might be out of luck. However, I was not deterred, in fact, I was determined that we would find a way, and it turns out so was she.
I haphazardly packed a weekend pack, grabbed the large bag of donations for the Orphanage and hailed a cab to the BTS (Skytrain). From there I took the SkyTrain to the end of the line, then caught a moto taxi to the bus station and met up with Vanda. We tried three different ticket counters, outside and inside. No go. We were approached by a van driver (common way to get around Thailand) waiting to fill his van before taking off; and out of options we accepted. Shortly thereafter, van guy says he’s not going after all, try that counter – and Vanda and I bought the last two tickets to Mae Sot for Friday night, eleven minutes before departure. Score.

On the second class bus we wedged ourselves in with our packs, Vanda’s backpacking to Laos after this so she’s got more than I’ve got, but I’ve also got the donations bag. And then naturally, my travel seat karma kicked in and the guy in front of me leaned his seat onto my knees, into my lap, and proceeded to awkwardly flail his hands in my face while coughing up his emphysema. The people that sit in front of me on buses or airplanes almost always manage to be special like that. At least my seat leaned back to counter this a little. Somehow I managed some sleep.
Around seven hours in, the bus stopped at an Immigration Check point, one of many in the Thai provinces bordering Burma. Everyone hands over their ID for inspection. No problems on our bus.
We arrived in Mae Sot around 5 am and call Kim, then take a tuk-tuk (which looks much different from the variety I’ve seen in Bangkok), to the guest house she is at and are able to get a room at this ridiculous hour of the night. We settle in and collapse.

We meet for breakfast a couple of hours later, taking motos over to an Indian place with more of the volunteers. Indian breakfast of curry and naan is delicious. Afterwards we split up, and Shea, Kim, Vanda and I set off on our next mission: learning to drive motorbikes.
We rent one moto from the guest house, Shea has already rented one. Vanda practices a little in the parking lot, then Kim and I hop on Shea’s bike and Vanda braves the main road out to the bus station so we can practice. We practice for an hour, maybe two, taking turns without any passengers and then carrying one other person and head back to town for lunch.
We are getting close to the hour of meeting at the Orphanage, and one of us has to drive on the main highway to get there. I volunteer. Vanda gets on behind me, Shea leads the way and we are off. Saturday morning: driving around the bus station parking lot. Saturday afternoon: driving on the high way, with a passenger. Do I have a permit? A license? Any previous experience? Allow me to remind you: This is Thailand. Also, this is not driving in Bangkok. Also, don’t tell my mother.

We make it out there, about 7 kilometers, just fine – though Shea makes fun of how slowly I’m driving. This is my first time visiting the Orphanage/Half way house that I’ve been hoping to get to for months now. We park our bikes and walk around. The kids are mostly inside the living house watching Burmese karaoke or an English dubbed made for TV Chinese movie. It’s Saturday, it’s a rest day. Two of the youngest boys are running around completely pants less. I’m told they are not yet toilet trained and will not keep diapers on. I suppose I don’t blame them, especially in this climate. The kids range in age from infant to 14, and though we refer to this place as ‘the orphanage,’ not everyone is an orphan. Many of the kids have one or both parents just across the border in Burma. Some of the kids truly are orphans, to the extreme of simply being found and brought here by word of mouth. All of the kids here are Burmese, and though it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out, it’s a detail best left out when discussing the Orphanage elsewhere; it’s a very touchy subject in Thailand. Some of the kids’ families have been able to come back for them, so the number that live here has fluctuated, but that’s the exception and not the rule. During the school year, the kids have been able to begin attending the Thai school just down the road – though when their Thai skills are lacking they get stuck in first grade regardless of age. The alternatives in Burma only go up through fourth grade, and that’s if the family can support it. It’s currently summer break, so the long stay volunteers and the ‘House Parents’ have organized a summer camp to keep some structure going.

For three hours of Saturday afternoon we tour the grounds, hear the stories of the buildings that have just been built (the kitchen counters and sink are a mere week old), mostly by hand, and the plans for what is next. Vanda and I climb the jungle gym and watch some of the boys scale far up into the trees to knock mangoes down. And naturally, we become human jungle gyms. All the kids learn my name immediately – “Jenny Two! Jenny Three!” Depending on which child you ask. One of the biggest contributors to the Orphanage, if not THE reason the place is still running, is also named Jennifer. Apparently every third foreign woman in Thailand is named some variation of Jennifer, Jen, Jenna, Gen…Bah. At least if I do something stupid I can blame some other Jenny.

Saturday night we left as the kids were sitting down for dinner. It was near sunset and thunder and lightning were clapping in the distance, getting antsy to get on the road. Vanda hops on the moto behind me, but she’s already spooked because I’ve had difficulty starting it. This drive was the rockiest of the weekend, and though we all have helmets, Vanda is done riding with me. Kim hasn’t written me off yet.

We have dinner at what becomes our favorite haunt, and is a favorite of the many foreigners here doing NGO work – Casa Mia. The place has Thai, Burmese, Italian, American breakfast; and at a fraction of what it costs in Bangkok. I’m a fan.

Sunday morning we explore the local market, the kids are at church so we have a lazy start to the morning. In the market it’s pedestrians, bicycles, motorbikes, the typical assemblage of motorbike/ice cream cart or bicycle + motor + push cart. The Thai ability to take things and make them into all sorts of mobile contraptions that they will drive on the road or the sidewalk continues to amaze me. I’ve realized the concepts of road, sidewalk and vendor and what constitutes the rules of those things are all relative and subject to much variation. Aside from the usual jumble we spot bags of live toads for sale, something resembling cockroaches or locusts dusted in rock salt, and fish the size of corpulent toddlers under large blocks of ice.

In the afternoon we check out a place called Borderline – a Burmese Tea House, Fair Trade Shop and Art Gallery. I feel quite at home here. And the paper cranes hanging from the rafters for Japan add a lot of perspective – people fighting for Burmese freedom, or at least to help those displaced, still made cranes for Japan.
The adolescent chicken wandering the grounds and hopping up on tables bothers Kim but I think he provides ambience. After a long time in the gallery and shop I drive the two of us back to the Orphanage on the motorbike, and I do pretty well driving if I do say so myself. Kim concurs and is not too easily spooked.
Since it is another weekend day, it is still just a short time and the volunteers convince me to call in sick on Monday so I can help teach one actual camp day. I feel very little guilt calling in for this purpose, especially because it’s a sit in the trophy room and ‘play’ workday. If anyone from work asks, I had bad seafood.

Monday is a longer day – we get up early, check out of the guest house and throw our stuff in Kim’s room and move breakfast up an hour. I drive Kim and I and Vanda rides with another volunteer. The first lessons are art and English. The older kids are drawing from life, and the younger kids are learning ‘I, my, me,’ and ‘they, their, them.’ After the English lesson, the younger kids have art and we’re up to help.
I have to work very, very hard to tell my art teacher training to shut up, I am not in charge I am just assisting, and neither their artwork nor the teaching is being graded in this case. Though I’m not entirely surprised when ‘according to plan’ train wrecks. It doesn’t really matter, the kids still get to paint, cut, trace – that’s more important than following the rules of the project.

After art it’s lunch time, the kids eat first, and the volunteers are served after the kids eat. Burmese food is not as spicy as Thai food and I’m fine with that. Shea and the House Dad have been working on mixing cement by hand and building a rain water collection housing. The younger kids have nap time and the older kids are learning the lyrics to a Justin Bieber song they always attempt to sing without knowing them. I help another volunteer start to make homemade twister boards with donated black sweatshirt material – much cheaper than buying the real thing. We stop when it’s time for the younger kids to have more lessons – and somehow Kim, Vanda and I end up in charge of the last lesson for the younger ones over the course of five minutes. We tried our best with ‘eating, drinking, cooking’ and then drawing food – but it was too much art time for one day. We tried singing “Apples and Bananas,” that worked for about, two and a half minutes. We tried but if you don’t speak Burmese the last class of the day is somewhat of an impossibility to begin with. Really I think the last hour of the day regardless of age group and language barrier is the worst when trying to do anything in a classroom.

Lesson time ends and we sit down and resume being human jungle gyms, or simply hug givers or someone to sit upon. We finish one of the two twister boards with acrylic paint at my suggestion. One of the creative minded older girls helps. She’s crocheting animal finger puppets to sell; she’s already got almost ten. She’s amazing.

We have to say our final goodbyes, though most of the kids don’t realize this trio of women will not be back tomorrow. It’s the part that tears me up most – how much does it help if we walk back out of their lives? But what can you do. All three of us hope to be back at some point. Shea and I drive to dinner, I’m feeling pretty good about driving on my third day. Though I freak Kim out when we come up on a checkpoint too quickly. I said I’ve got it; I’ve just got a long braking distance. We don’t know what this checkpoint is for, but, as white girls we get waved through. I’m sure the officers get a kick out of two white girls on a moto. We drove through an Immigration check point each time we went to the orphanage, simply waving at the guards. To be clear, we remained in Thailand, but we were a quarter kilometer from the border. We could have walked down to the river and seen if it we wanted to. The kids often go there to swim.

We enjoyed our last dinner at Casa Mia, of course, and I had to excuse myself in time to return the motorbike to the guest house (Kim and Vanda have decided driving motorbikes is not their thing) and catch my bus. I’m really cutting it close, and when I ask the guesthouse to call a motorbike taxi, there is some issue and one of the family members that owns the guest house says “I’ll drive you!” Since I’ve got ten minutes, I graciously thank her and hop on her lime green moto to the bus stop, and we make it, realizing yet again I’m one lucky white girl.