Sunday, March 3, 2013

What I'm Eating

Because I know you were curious. 

Farang foods:

I had an enormous amount of pasta at my house because it went on sale at my local Tesco and so I stocked up, and it is a great thing to make when I don't feel like going out and getting fresh things. I like to make them a little bit fancy and add some vegetables to make it more nutritious, usually onions, garlic, mushrooms, or greens. I had some artichoke hearts and capers that were a Christmas present from my mother, which were absolutely amazing. 

Fusili tricolore with sundried tomato pesto and spinach

Fettucine with artichokes and greens

And some Thai foods too:

Kanom jin nam ngiao - loosely translated to Chinese noodles in hibiscus flower sauce. Actually I didn't make this one myself but it was leftovers from a lunch at the school. The cooks make a vegetarian version especially for me. It is spicy and tomatoey and super delicious

Geng kiao waan with kaow glong - sweet green curry and brown rice. This was a first-time recipe try and I loved it so I hope to add it to my normal repertoire. A little high-calorie though because it is made with rich delicious coconut milk.

A Kam Muang Primer

So, naive as I was, I never assumed being in Peace Corps would mean learning two new languages. In fact, I was first told during my application process that I would be going to French-speaking Africa, so I assumed I wouldn't need to learn any new languages at all. But here I am, up in the northernmost province of Thailand, surrounded by speakers of a language I have never studied and only know a handful of words in. That's right, all the time and energy I spent in Pre-Service Training learning Thai turns out to not be entirely useful here, especially in certain settings, because up here the language used in essentially all settings is Passa Nua, Kam Muang, or Northern Thai.

And this is not even just a change in a few words here or there or a different accent, as one might imagine, but pretty much an entirely different language in its own right, based on the traditional Lanna language spoken in the North before it joined with the Kingdom of Siam. And the North is not the only region in the country to not speak Thai - the Northeast (also called Isaan) and the South have their own mutually unintelligible dialects as well. In fact, it is only a handful of provinces (and, most importantly, Bangkok) where Thai is spoken at all. That is to say, all Thais are supposed to be able to speak and understand Thai, but in reality it is used very little outside of central Thailand, meaning that most volunteers are thrown right from PST into a completely foreign atmosphere where even our little bit of broken Central Thai is not much use to us. We can make ourselves understood most of the time, but trying to listen to what is being said around us or trying to understand questions and responses from others is like starting from scratch all over again.

On my recent trip with the elderly community members of my tambon, this dilemma was set in even more prominent relief, as most of the older Thai people only learned cursory amounts of Central Thai as they only attended school through the third or fourth grade (where standard Thai is taught). So, as usual, nodding and smiling becomes my fallback means of semi-communication when I can't catch a single word of what is being said to me.

It is easy to feel like my brain is atrophied or like I never learned anything in the first place, but I can tell this is not so whenever I go to Bangkok and it is like stepping into a world of sudden clarity where words make sense again and the soothing tones of Central Thai wash over me in a welcoming wave. I do know a Thai language, I think, just not the one I need to know. Sigh. At least if I ever come back to Thailand I will be able to speak the main dialect.

And so now the fun begins for you, The Reader, as you can teach yourself some basic Northern Thai!

English                                    Central Thai                                      Northern Thai

what                                             arai                                                   ayang

I (female)                                   di-chan (formal)                                ka-jao (formal)

not/negative word                       mai                                                    boh

isn't it?                                       chai mai ka?                                      men goh jao?

twenty                                        yee-sib                                                 sao

fun                                               sanook                                               muan

pineapple                                     saparot                                               bakanat

cucumber                                    dteng kwaa                                        ba dteng

vacation/outing/trip                      bpai tiao                                            bpai eeo

bicycle                                          jakrayan                                            rot teep

school                                         rong rian                                            hong hian

hello                                             sawatdee ka                                      sawatdee jao

go home                                       glap bahn                                           pik bahn

delicious                                         arroi                                                  lam

no problem/don't worry               mai bpen rai                                      boh bpen yang

Chiang Rai                                  Chiang Rai                                         Jiang Hai

Sanook, chai mai ka? Muan, men go jao? Fun, yeah?

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Goings On at The School for the Elderly

Recently, I have had the chance to become more involved with one of my tambon's most successful and innovative projects, the Rong Rian Puu Sung Ayu, or the School for the Elderly. And given that my natural demeanor and inner age, as my mother likes to remind me, is that of a 60-something, I fit right in. Sort of.

The School for the Elderly was begun by the head abbot in my community, who has given his heart to it and is in turn rewarded by the enthusiastic and devoted loyalty of the 300+ elderly students who attend each week, with the student body growing each year the program continues. The school is held at a local temple and is open to seniors age 60 and over (although in reality there are many younger members who come because they are interested and want to mingle) and is held every Thursday during the normal school year, with classes on three subjects (religion, culture, and health) taught by prominent members of the community. Originally, the school was open to members of this tambon only, but now it has members from all the nearby tambons, some of whom are bused in by the school's van service. There are currently four years, each with their own school uniform and tote bag, and they proudly wear their class colors when they attend.

This year, with expanding enrollment due to the program's vast popularity, new subjects were added to the curriculum. Thai reading and writing, computer usage, traditional music and dance, and English are the new electives that students could opt into for afternoon sessions, which is where I come in. English is taught by a local retired English teacher named Ajaan Somsri who asked me to come help her as an assistant, which I was more than happy to do. The English lessons are of course very basic and each word has to be translated and acted out many many times before the students grasp it, but they are very enthusiastic and love to try out new vocabulary with unceasing excitement whenever they see me. In return, I am showered with free Thai treats and sticky rice and traditional medicine capsules and black sesame seeds and amulets and get lots of arm squeezing. I hardly understand a word they say, since they speak very thickly accented northern Thai and don't slow down for me, but their endearing sweetness is still very apparent.

Two weeks ago, the School for the Elderly held a ceremony to honor its teachers and to bless all the participants with long life. I really don't remember what the ceremony was called in Thai but it was a beautiful and elaborate event that took all morning and included monks invited from all over the province, including the head abbot of all of Chiang Rai province. The main part of the ceremony was a long chant, about an hour and a half long, recited in Pali by the monks while the students sat with white thread entwined around their heads. Candles were lit and the monks were given baskets of bird's nest soup and the monks flung water over us and then tied the white strings around our wrists. I don't know what any of it meant but I came away with a distinct feeling, after sitting on the floor with my numbed legs under me and with my hands clasped for an hour and a half, that Buddhism is in no small part about physical discomfort. The monks hardly took any breaths while they chanted interminably and the elderly students couldn't get up to use the bathroom or even stretch their legs. I suppose it induces a sort of reverential trance where the physical pain of kneeling for hours is transcended by the emotional experience and rhythmic repetition of the Pali chants.

Photos in this post are courtesy of Lung Taawohn, the photographer for the School for the Elderly. 

The monks file into the room where strings have been prepared for the ceremony, strung from the ceiling. The monk in front here is the head abbot for Chiang Rai.

The monks went to sit up on the special platform for them at the front of the room, while our tambon's monk sat under the teepee with little paper flags and the Persian rug.

We all tied strings around our heads and sat this way for a long, long time. On the ground here are the teachers (ajaans) for the School for the Elderly (from left, our abbot Taan Pra Kru, the nayoke Winai Kruangchai, Thai teacher Ajaan Saner, his wife the English teacher Ajaan Somsri, me, two people I don't know (man in blue and woman in purple), and Lung Taawohn the photographer/general helper man)

We sat and sat

I really love Taan Pra Kru, the head of the school. He is hilarious and a very dedicated English student who I tutor two days a week. He became a monk 37 years ago out of a thirst for education because his family could not afford to pay for schooling but he could gain learning through the temple. The elderly students adore him.

At the end of the ceremony, we were thankfully able to sit on our chairs again and the monks splashed water on us as they went out.

Now that I was really getting in to being an 'ajaan' at the school, I was invited to join the whole group on a field trip to a massive temple complex in Chiang Mai province called Wat Tathon.

At the SAO before getting on the bus, a group photo

It had some spectacular views on top of a hill.

They crammed us into some scary little flatback trucks to go up and down the different stations of the temple on the hillside

The Crystal Pagoda (chedi geeo)

 At night we changed into all white and did a celebration of Maka Bucha Day called a wiang tian where we walked in circles first around the outside of the pagoda and then on the inside, carrying flowers, candles, and incense.

With new friend Mee Mali, the youngest student of the school at age 44, who comes because she likes it

With another sweet lady whose name I don't really know

With Ajaans Somsri and Saner, the English teacher and her husband, who are sweet friends

Walking inside the chedi

Many of the officers from the SAO came along too. I am pretty much taller than everyone.

The moon was crazy colors

And the sun was bright too, in the morning. This is the silly intern Nong Ming who is a college student at Chiang Rai Rajabat University and reminds me of my host sister Nong Kaow

Aj. Somsri and Saner

Pii Pin, the education officer and a good friend, poses for some sun shots too.

More group shots! It is Thailand, after all. Never too many pictures.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Little Comforts

Garden things:

My garden is growing!

Miracle berry

Kale is sprouting (and peas in the background)

House things:

Pretty things from a care package from my mama

Christmas tree blinds for my front door so I can finally have some privacy

My little fish jar, out of cat's reach on the fridge, with three little guppies and water plants from the canal


She is a good predator

Food Things:
Muesli with coffee on the weekend

A giant spinach salad with homemade balsamic vinaigrette, capers, artichoke hearts, and grapes
Yeah, you can say Posh Corps. But just look at the size of that spider!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Happy Birthday Daddy!

Here's what's going on at Bahn Dteng Kwaa these days:

I planted a little garden, thanks to my dad's efforts at getting soil and making my planting beds all pretty.

Here is what I planted. I hope at least some of it grows!

  1. Back row: Peas (with some errant arrowheads from before)
  2. Third row:  Chili peppers and eggplants
  3. Second row: Chinese kale and flowering bok choy
  4. Front row: Water spinach (with miracle berry on the left and my ailing cyclamen on the right)

I put in some sticks so I can tell where the rows are.

My little water garden is spruced up, with some new plants and happy little guppies

My little girlie with her shaved tummy after coming back from getting spayed at the vet. Not that it fazed her

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Welcome to the year 2556!

No, you have not miraculously time-traveled to the future by 543 years. In fact, you have just moved into the Thai calendar, which counts its years from the date of the death of the Buddha, instead of from the birth of Jesus (makes sense, right?). Time is moving right along, the newest crop of Thailand Peace Corps Volunteers is about to arrive (Welcome Group 125!) and my group's time as the newbies is over. We have been here on Thai soil for exactly a year. We have (depending on whether we close service on time or early) one year and one or two months left to go. We have gained a hefty amount of Thai cred, and can start feeling like the end is (gasp) in sight. Sort of. Ready, set, GRE studying!

So yes, I have not written in a good long while. But I have a good excuse. My family, my boyfriend and I spent the past three glorious weeks taking a well-deserved vacation for Christmas and New Year's on the beaches of Koh Lanta, the streets of Bangkok, and in the misty hills of Chiang Rai. I won't even attempt to describe how wonderful and emotional it was to see my parents and sister, and to have them here in the flesh for such a delicious vacation. It was the best gift they could have given me. Here are some highlights:

My mother and my sister, Haley, on the ferry over to Koh Lanta

James and my mama surveying the island

At the windy National Park

We stayed in lovely cabins near the beach

My family had a slow and gentle introduction to Thai food

Christmas morning

Our beautiful and essentially un-peopled getaway on Bamboo Bay Beach

Haley and Daddy on Christmas Day

There were Rhesus macaques aplenty

We went on a lovely and peaceful hike at the National Park that yielded this view

We spent an afternoon perusing the shops in Saladan, Koh Lanta

We met a man who makes handmade, beautiful batik cloths

The five of us spent the first sunkissed week of vacation lounging on the beaches of Koh Lanta, an island in the southern province of Krabi (and a part of the country that James and I had yet to see). We stayed at incredible little cabins near the beach owned by a charming Japanese girl named Yuko, who, to my great delight (if not James') was a cat lover and had several friendly felines roaming the place. It was a glorious and slightly non-traditional Christmas week of snorkeling, lounging, Indian food, hermit crabs, coconut water, sunburns, tuk-tuks, Scandinavians, bi-ah Chang, mai-riap-roi wear, sandy beds and croissants. We managed a small makeshift Christmas tree and enjoyed the holiday at Bamboo Bay, sipping Pina Coladas and eating dtom yam het and spring rolls. Mmmm.

Our second, shorter leg was in Bangkok, where we followed a pattern of sweaty-crowdy-noisy-busy morning activities accompanied by more sedate afternoons and exhausted evenings. We managed to fit a few must-sees under our belts, including tourist attractions I had heretofore had zero interest in not gotten around to seeing (Wat Pra Kaew, Grand Palace, Jim Thompson House) and some other favorite stops of ours (Chatuchak market, Beirut Lebanese food, Govinda vegetarian Italian restaurant, Terminal 21 to see Life of Pi). I made everyone walk way farther and longer than they were accustomed to and made everyone pity James for what he normally has to put up with, but all was good.

In Bangkok, we went to Chatuchak Weekend Market

Mother learns about silk production at the Jim Thompson House Museum

Jim Thompson's house

Lookin' good at the Grand Palace

Trying the cheapest form of Bangkok transportation: the highly unpredictable but often exciting bus routes

Last stop: Chiang Rai. Goodbyes imminent, heavy heart, but at least everyone can meet Éponine at last.

We happened to be in Chiang Rai during the Flower Festival.

Haley zones out on my front porch

The demonic and dream-like White Temple, Wat Rong Khun, is a key Chiang Rai attraction

We had some lovely dinners at my house

With my baby cat, Éponine (Poni)

We visited my SAO and met the Balat

Sorry Haley but you have to get your own cat. Poni is mine.

Thank you so much for everything, guys. Good luck to Bay across the pond.