Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ten days, four phases

December 6th was the King’s Birthday and December 12th is Thailand’s Constitution Day and I was lucky enough to have the entire week off in between.   Here’s the (relatively lengthy) travelogue in four chapters:
  • Motona Satu in the mountains
  • Tha Pae Gate
  • Lunar eclipse overnight in the Jungle on the Pai River
  • Renewed and refreshed with a goal

Motona Satu
The school was abuzz all week with many teachers asking me if I was “going to Chiangmai.”  I’d been instructed that I needed to be at school at 5am Saturday, to pack white clothing and to bring a sweater and socks.  We were spending the King’s birthday holiday weekend at a Buddhist monastery.

The teachers, bus drivers and a few family members milled about in the predawn chill with heavy jackets, scarves and knit hats, drinking coffee and eating leftover baked goods from the school’s canteen.  By 6am the school’s bus drivers had the four vans loaded up, the luggage was piled on the school’s pickup, the family ownership/administrative team had arrived in their SUV and the convoy hit the road.   We stopped four times along the six hour trip; for 2 bathroom stops (there were 40 women), breakfast, and gasoline.  I am seated in the front bench, right next to teacher Tuaw who speaks English well and her 12 year old daughter Ploy.

Once through the bustle of Chiangmai, we drove high on a winding riverside road into the mountains of Chiangdao. The van pulled off the highway and onto a side street, then another, past fields and small rural houses.   Before long we were turning into a driveway with a small sign and a curving road at the base of a small mountain and into the center.  Down past a simple kitchen and some other small houses,   we pulled up to a small pavilion.  It was then that I realized that I’d be sleeping on a tile floor, bamboo mat and a cotton comforter with the entire contingent of female teachers in the same dorm. This was not exactly the quiet and reflective space I’d envisioned, but I claim a space next to Tuaw and Ploy on the end of a long row and prepare for the experience.

We change into the white clothes, have a nice simple lunch and sat for the first of the prayer and meditation sessions with the Master Monk Napporn, who amazes me with his jovial presence in the temple.  Many of the attendees are wearing simple cotton clothing with the lightest tinge of blue lavender color, quite pure and pristine, like the color of the inside of a cloud.  Behind the Master Monk’s large seat at the front of the “stage”, three other resident Monks are seated.  Behind all of them is a glass encased room housing a giant Buddha, gold and silver lotus flowers, flower arrangements and red carpet.

During the prayers and teachings, I recognize some Thai words and phrases. However,  nearly all of it goes far beyond my understanding.  I have to bask in the presence and the honor of being here in this powerful place.  I suspect that I am one of just a handful of farang that have ever been on the base of this mountain.   After a late dinner and a simple recitation of the house rules by the resident caretaker, the girls pull out a golden banner and start sewing sequins on it. One of the teachers is entranced by my headlamp and models it throughout the large room to the delight of her colleagues.    I’ve been instructed that we will all be getting up at 5am for “cooking”, which I don’t quite understand.  Nonetheless,  I spend some time with my journal, do some reading and thus settle in to my very private haven of the English language.  By 10:30 pm, the entire dorm is eerily quiet.

The group starts rustling at 4:30 am and as most are getting dressed and some are using blow-dryers, others are picking through the food supplies that unfurled overnight.  We bundle up in the predawn and head up the hill to the monastery, where the 55 of us waits for the monks to finish their morning meditation.  I’m a bit stunned by the camera flashes and repeated entreats to join the group photo with two forefingers poised near the forehead against the dark backdrop of the day before dawn, but this is the excitement of spending time together.

As the monks move from silent meditation to articulated prayer, a silence falls over the group.  There is a gentle mist settling into the hills and it surrounds us all.  The monks come out and the group lines up in formation to provide alms, the plastic shopping bags brimming with noodle packages, the Thai equivalent of little Debbie snack cakes, bottles of water and power drink, small bags of rice. Each person places an offering in the "begging bowl", a wai is offered and then the person moves onto the next monk and repeats the procedure.    Each monk has a helper next to him, someone who removes the offering from the bowl and places it into the large plastic bin on the monastery steps.  The Master Monk Napporn utters a prayer to the group, one of the monastic volunteers pulls up an SUV, and the monks load up for another round of collecting in town while the camp truck loads to booty down to the kitchen.  The sun has risen and beyond the drive there are clouds rolling out as far as the eye can see.  More photos and the group retreats down the hill to coffee and a little pre-breakfast snack of flower-shaped butter cookies filled with pineapple jam.

When the Monks return, we engage in a morning prayer session with the entire camp attending.  Just behind Master Napporn, there is a long table filled with the riches of the community’s food gifts prepared for eating.  They prayer ends and the Monks break their 20 hour fast.  We spend a few minutes watching the Monks eat their meal (consumed before noon) and the bucket brigade forms to transport the food down to the kitchen where it is served to the entire community.

  After breakfast, I’m invited to join a team of regular attendees from Bangkok that have joined the community for the holiday weekend.  I’m quizzed on my knowledge of Buddhism, gently reminded that I forgot to mention the five precepts, and then asked if I would like to spend some time with the Master.

As some of you know, I consider myself a spiritual person but have spent very little time in the presence of religious leaders.  Master Monk Napporn has been a monk for over 50 years. He is a writer with a great sense of humor and a large, solid presence.  With the help of a translator, I am invited to ask him anything.  Thoughts run through my mind, “what about winter solstice 2012?”, “what do you think about plastic?”, “how can I make best use of my life on earth?”   This is my one big chance to access someone who spends a lot more time closer to higher powers than I do.

Instead, I tell him that I don’t speak the language and recognize that I am feeling very different in my community.  I ask him for advice about how I can help the Thai people.   He tells me that we are all the same as people and recognize those elements of our humanity.   He tells me that he would like my help in extending the word of Buddhism and translating his book into English.  He tells me to ask another question, and I ask about how to control those naughty Thai students who talk throughout my classes.  This, he says, cannot be done alone. You must get help from the parents and the other teachers.  Be sure that you observe their naughtiness as a human condition and remove your emotional attachments to their behaviors; the goal of the meditation is to keep your heart unfettered with emotional attachments and to just observe the reality of whatever unfolds in front of you as the condition it is.

Napporn goes to the back room and returns with a statue of Buddha seated atop  Nāga and a beautifully polished crystal clear tear drop of rose quartz.  “This is cool like the deep water from which it came.”  The person next to me clasps it in her hands and brings it to her forehead in homage.  I am filled with a deep sense of responsibility and a longing to understand the intricacies of his words.  My translator Koong is whispering his words in English, struggling with her own mental dictionary as the Master continues on.   Master Monk Nopporn arises and returns the treasures to their shelf, but comes back with a gift for me.  It is a picture of himself taken at the birthplace of the Buddha, high in the mountains of India.  The sun is in his eyes.  Behind him, a shadow stretches out with a clear profile of an elephant's trunk and head where his head should be.

 I am stunned and bewildered with the magic of this image.  Why would this happen?  Earlier in the morning, I was shown photos of our morning alms giving.  Each of those misty raindrops is illuminated and this is interpreted as depicting angels.  They show me other photos of ghost images, a white aberration in the midst of an otherwise normal photo. To them, this is proof that there are energies and spirits in the world that we don’t see with our naked eyes.  The mystery of this experience is a gift and I am completely humbled.

After two hours and with some sympathy for my translator, I am reluctant to add any more questions to the day.   The Master wishes me well and moves into the residence to continue his day of writing and reflection.  Koong and I arise to leave and I hobble up, realizing just then that my feet are completely numb from being seated with my feet underneath me for so long.   With a few steps I make my way out of the monastery and into the morning sun as circulation returns and I'm able to walk down the hill and reflect on my experience.

The days follow in a similar pattern with morning service to the community following the breakfast and an afternoon prayer and discussion session with Master Monk Nopporn.  It’s hard for me to settle myself into meditation; my brain jumps between thoughts and recollections, the desire to sleep, the yearning to hear some words I understand.   After the discussion with Nopporn, I conjure up an image of a crystal clear heart, filled with the radiance and purity of white light, similar to Thailand’s prevalent cumulonimbus clouds this time of year. Not the empty heart and mind that I’ve gathered is the goal, but close enough.   I am sad to leave the place when it is time, but was told that I am welcome to return.  The prospect is enticing.

Tha Pae Gate
The school’s owner and her family drop me off at the hotel after lunch on Tuesday after a quick stop at the Royal Flora festival, where serindipitously we encounter a field trip of student Monks.  In the afternoon exploration of the neighborhood,  I am overwhelmed by the traffic, verbal invitations for Thai massage and Avatar-like posters for zip-line jungle treks, sandwich boards with scantily clad people riding elephants, lightpost flyers for English teacher training courses, the course of humanity that walks on the crowded narrow sidewalks.  I miss the school community and the quiet of the monastery.    I walk long and hard in a bit of a daze as I seek my ground as a new solo traveler, resisting the invitations of the Tuk Tuk drivers to go somewhere else.  That night, I’m a bit embarrassed to forage  nori chips, peanuts, carrot juice and chocolate from the 7-11 for dinner and retreat to the hotel room where I can watch English language reruns of the Office while nursing the new blister on the underside of my foot.   I am not the intrepid international traveler I'd hoped to be.

Tomorrow brings another phase of navigation, looking at maps and trying to determine the best way to take in a few of the sites I’d highlighted.  The prospect of negotiating in my pitiful Thai combined with the thought of trekking to Doi Sutep in the heat of the day and the high tourist season keep me in town, where I find some English language children’s books, uncover the challenge of purchasing the solutions for my rigid gas permeable contacts, lay down the baht for a trip to the Elephant Nature Park the following day, get a two hour Thai massage from women  in the latter stages of  job training at the prison and savor a cheeseburger.

In my travels, I really wanted to keep my impact kind to the earth, the animals and its people.   I won’t go to wildlife attractions like the “pet the tiger” place. Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary for injured, abused and orphaned elephants.  Unlike many of the other camps that feature tricks and elephant riding, this place focuses on learning.  The profit from the daily visitors supports the work of Lek Chailert’s non-profit foundation.  Lek has spent her life developing programs that integrate environmental, cultural and economic  sustainability with the  desire to offer domesticated elephants a better quality of life and ensure habitat preservation for wild elephants.

Through the day I learned a few new things:  women can never become mahoots (the elephant’s caretaker/trainer) and in fact are not culturally permitted to ride the elephant at all.   There are less than 1000 wild  elephants in Thailand and approximately 2500 in domestic service. When elephants are targeted for work, they are taken from their mothers at a young age and beaten into submission through a grueling week-long “boot camp” and face continued dangers from landmines in Burmese logging camps, physical beatings, drug use and overwork.

Tourism is one avenue of employment for these creatures which eat about 300 pounds of food daily, but the wooden saddles used by many operators can be damaging to their tender skin.   Elephants also receive lots of sensory information through the bottom of their feet, which makes the urban begging behavior seen in many Thai cities all the more stressful for the animal.  This was a great way to spend the day and with the extensive projects that Lek has throughout Thailand, I suspect that I will spend some time volunteering with them again in the future.  Another interesting footnote—I was the only American in our group of 7 and didn’t see or hear any sign of my countrymen around.  Now I know I'm living on my own version of "edge."

The next morning I was off to Pai, a neat town about four hours up and over a mountain pass west of Chiang Mai.  Instead of taking the more expensive, faster, air conditioned and nausea inducing minivans,  I got on the public bus and was assigned a seat just behind the side door of the bus that stayed open the entire time.   It was also here in Pai that I arranged to meet Lilly and Sara, friends of the tenants in my house who have been spending the month in Thailand.  After dinner and a stroll through the night market,  they made plans to meet me in Kamphaeng Phet and I headed back to my hotel.

 As I was walking through the street market, I noted a young woman wearing a tank dress and not much else.  This struck me as a bit odd since the locals were all bundled up in scarves and sweaters, and as I observed became somewhat annoyed with the fact that her friends were carrying big open bottles of Chang, the Thai beer. Banners hanging over the street asked that people not drink or smoke on the “walking street”.   “Typical American.” I muttered to myself- and then recognized one of the perpetrators as someone I’d gotten to know at the teacher co-hort orientation my first week in Bangkok.  I re-introduced myself, exchanged some details about the teaching gigs and we small talked for a while until it was obvious that they were off to something.   I excused myself on the premise of an upcoming river trip the following  morning.  I sensed a twang of pity from them in my  traveling alone status, but whether this was my own isolated weirdness or actually the intent of some of the teachers I still don’t know.  I was onto a new adventure- mai pben rai.  It doesn't matter.

Overnight in the jungle
On the morning of the river trip, I was the last person to get picked up.  Thus, I got to ride in the front seat of the shuttle rig: a songthaew truck that are used for transport around much of Thailand.  These trucks have benches for seating in the bed of the pickup and are often used as taxis that go in the same general direction.  I had an opportunity to chat with Guy Gorias, the founder of Thai Adventure Rafting.   He shared the story of how he, as a trained physical therapist and French expat, came to be the only entrepreneur to run the Pai river between Pai and Mae Hong Song.  I was also impressed with the fact that I was one of two Americans in the group of 16; the other had lived in Chiangmai for five years so I think he was out of the “tourist” category.

Leaving Pai, we passed fields where The women wore cushions like a low riding fanny pack that provided a bit of support as they squatted to plant garlic.  The truck passed through a Karen tribal village that had only gotten electricity last year.  I mentioned to Guy about what occurred when TV arrived to Alaska Native villages in the early 60s’; that one anthropologist referred to is as “cultural nerve gas”.     What will this advent of electric power bring to these people?

Before long, a couple from Spain, a single Frenchman and myself were on the river with our guide Peaw.  A father and rapidly approaching 40, Peaw had been boating since he ran into Guy as a teenager and needed a job.   As the boat floated downriver on the first day, we passed a shady place where the rich, earthly, cool and oh so clean smell of the jungle drifted over the water.  Breezes fluttered the single leave of a bamboo plant and Kingfishers flitted about. We saw a sunbathing water monitor (over three feet long!) slither into the water.  Monkeys swung around overhead and Paew apparently saw a python.   The fig trees were laden with fruit and majestic teak and mangrove trees lined the river.

  The current was lanquid but steady until the rapids appeared with a few more rocks than I would have wanted.   One raft flipped and with little fanfare was resurrected and back on the river.    We arrived at the jungle camp, a quite primitive but serviceable facility with sleeping bunkers and a covered eating area, alongside a small stream.   The land is owned by the Thai government, but apparently Guy makes payments to the appropriate person and makes sure he does his part for the community and jungle.   It all works out.

After dinner, a group gathered around the camp fire and were all mesmerized by the emerging  light of the full moon in the darkness of the deep wild.  Shortly after it appeared above the horizon, I was delighted and awed to witness the progression of the  lunar eclipse.  After watching for a while,  I went into dining area where a sub- group was fully immersed in a candlelight card game.  “Hey you guys…just wanted to tell you... there’s a lunar eclipse happening...  if you want to check it out.”  As the moon got dark, Orion and a planet emerged.  The eclipse moved through as I went to bed, but the light from the moon was still bright most of the night.

The next day after a muddy hot spring soak and a swim in the river , I made a snap decision to fly from Mae Hong Song instead of engaging in another 6 hours of bus  travel back to Chiangmai.  As the small jet took off, we circled around the town and there lay the glittering thread of the river amidst miles of jungle and mountains.  This region definitely deserves more exploration and I promised I’d be back.

Renewed, with a goal
My last 24 hours  of my trip was consumed with shopping.  Once I got settled in after the flight, I headed out for a long walk around Chiangmai’s legendary night market.  Booth after booth of Angry Bird merchandise, paper lanterns, elephants in all forms, silks, woven cottons, jewelry, Buddha paintings on velvet, shoes, khaki shorts and t shirts were all in stock.   I found a green polo shirt (Wednesday’s color)  in size XXXXL that fit and a pair of capris for exercise.  The next day,  I was up and out the door in the remaining five hours left in Chiangmai to stop by Rimping supermarket.  This market stocks  western food where I purchased Thai peanut butter at a decent price, but noted that the 6 oz of extra sharp Tillamook cheddar was 780 baht ( about $20)  and visit the Wapporn Day market for some extra kicks.

 I always have mixed feelings about retail in America, but this market left me stunned and wondering about the capitalist manifesto.  Floors and alleys crowded with any sort of shop imaginable. Plenty of sales staff to help you ding anthing.  Christmas music playing.  Crowds of people on Constitution Day holiday shopping making their way through the aisles.  With all this selection, I know there is  potential of finding clothes that fit, but I was losing steam.

Then, down the street and into the temple, where a woman was offering me a chance to build luck by releasing a set of very small birds from very small  bamboo cage (there are often plastic bags of live fish hanging from racks alongside many Thai rivers with the same premise) and a nice Donald duck eating noodles sculpture.   Then, it was time to pick up my luggage and leave the city.   I went to the bus station without a clue on departure times, but as luck would have it the bus to Kamphaeng Phet was leaving in 45 minutes. Before I knew it, I was settled on the bus with my trusty anti-AC pashima shawl on board.  As the night settled in on the highway and the driver's Thai country music gently crooned, I'd realized this was a milestone.   My first experience out of Kamphaneng Phet, all by myself.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Small talk

I’m living in a foreign language movie.  The line that absolutely killed me was when the kindergartener at school quietly uttered a short, simple and declarative sentence.  I murmured encouragingly in response, knowing absolutely nothing about what she said.

This is only one of the characters in this film.  Her compatriots hail me (TEACHA!!!!!!!) with exuberant enthusiasm in the school yard at every chance they get.   The bevy of teachers that have extremely limited English, welcome me to lunch with them and proceed to discuss all manner of topics in a lyrical, rapidfire chatter that leaves me running behind on a single word I recognize three or four sentences back.  There are my incredibly patient co-workers who see me struggling every single day.  The primary students who are learning a new English word of the week (generated in response to hearing “I’m fine” about a hundred times a day), but who also enjoy hearing my attempts at the Thai language.
The few English speaking contacts (including a British male teaching three classes a week) that are able to share observations and the occasional translation of the dialog, speeches and shouts that I’m hearing.   In the dark moments, I am convinced that I will live in this stupefied oblivion forever.

In the past, I orchestrated my life as a series of campaigns when the going got tough.   The “lose weight/train more” crusade is a perpetual, followed closely by “meet new people and attempt at mate finding”. Neither of these has been very successful over the years.   After the initial shock of the job termination wore off, I schemed and saved my way to a two year “sabbatical” with three goals:  do something completely different, immerse myself in a cultural experience and move forward to a yet unknown outcome.   However, in order to be happy, develop community and take care of myself here in this rural provincial capital for the next nine months, I have to communicate more effectively.

The good news is that I can buy the food and conduct most business with a combination of sign language and use of the Lonely Planet Phrasebook or the iphone dictionary in a pinch.  The bad news is that most of time that I try to articulate the Thai language in various forms beyond the “Hello, How are you? Thank you. How much is it? This is delicious” category, I am met with a series of puzzled looks.   It doesn’t help that I am a habitual nodder and smiler, which many people across the world interpret as actually understanding.   Yesterday, I almost walked away with a shirt that didn’t quite fit before I looked up “decide” and added the negative before it.

In terms of intellectual capacity, I seem to be failing hard.   I can’t remember the words.  Sometimes I reverse order of the words which makes people confused.  Once and a while, the meager Spanish I learned twenty years ago appears unexpectedly.  The other night, The Director and her son Coon took me over to the Monk’s school for an evening visit to a Chedi (a place where some remains of Buddha are interred).   On the way, we made a quick stop at the ATM, where Coon explained that the Thai word for ATM translates to “box buttons money”.  Shortly after, I repeated the new word back to them as a check that I got it right.   The Director looked at me quizzically, “Why do you say “good man?”  “Really?” I replied.  “Good man?  I meant to say box buttons money.” We all laughed, but inside I was feeling a bit embarrassed. What will it take to imprint this lyrical, melodious and nuanced language in my middle-aged brain?

Just before I was waylaid a  nasty sinus infection of last week, I got the idea to learn how to read Thai first.  It’s a phonetic language so the way it is written is the way it is said. I’m a visual person so perhaps it might work.  This will take some work but it might be the key to figuring it out.  Of course, then I’d need to actually understand what the words meant.  This will be the epic battle of my experience here and I suppose I need to muster the forces to overcome.

In the meantime, one can dream.  I have a few fantasies about how this foreign film will end.
  • Science fiction ending:    I will miraculously awake one morning and the variety of verbal expressions I hear every day will manifest in perfect translation.   I will gloriously understand more of what is being said. 
  • Love story ending:  I find an available, attractive tutor and as we transcend the boundaries I become passionate about assimilating all elements of the language. 
  • Disney ending:  I bumble my way through the year as a well-meaning but clueless character, stuck in the rudiments of language but never moving forward to any significant character development.
  • Dark ending:  I never learn.  I am consigned to the great unknown.    I fumble my way through this contract and then work to find a new teaching gig in Latin America where head back to the familiar cocoon of romance languages. 
But, in fact, this movie will go on for another nine months.  It’s a day by day process that requires steadfast commitment.  I have to face it- I’m not a person who pursues things single-mindedly for sustained periods of time.  I’m all about the short-term project and the love of efficiency that is most of the time not that effective.  I tend to get distracted, bored by the repetition, not really willing to do what it takes to really succeed.  However, physically I’m finally starting to feel better.

There may be hope ahead.   Two days ago, one of the 4th graders stopped by my classroom after school was let out.  “Speak Thai.” He said, I think secretly hoping that this could lead to some opportunities to make fun of me.   I came out of the classroom, brought out my Thai language textbook and some other reference materials, and before I knew it he moved on but  a team of fifth graders five girls helped me through the pronunciations on the Thai alphabet and some basic vocabulary. Ditto for yesterday... I just find a few kids who are hanging out waiting for their parents and ask them to help me.  The tone marks on the alphabet have me a bit flummoxed, but progress will be measured in very small steps.   Now… what was the word for rice noodle?   

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

There's a frog in the laundry

I’d finished washing clothes and they were hung out to dry on hangars in the metal rack on the porch when I went to fold it up Sunday afternoon.  As I reached for the shirt off the hangar, I noticed the frog inside the sleeve and smiled.  Perhaps the frog thought my shirt was a big flower.  “Nan,” I went inside the house and gestured to Tuy’s younger sister, “Come here.”  I don’t have the Thai vocabulary to say, “I have something to show you.”  She approached the laundry skeptically. When I revealed the frog she screamed and lunged for it. 

The tree frog jumped to escape, bounced off my arm and landed on the adjacent wall with all feet sticking, then leapt in a panic inside the house.  I’m used to frogs that stay on the ground.  He found some perceived refuge on the dark wood of the door, then leapt to the wall and up a few feet, faster than I could have imagined.   Tuy comes out of her room to see the commotion, has a short yell herself and runs for  the broom.  With some guidance, he gets a sharp kick out the door to the liberation of the front yard.

Laundry seems simpler here even though you really have to follow the load. I am grateful for the machine in the house.  The washer gets filled from the hose in the kitchen sink. Add some soap, the clothes and set the agitation for 12 minutes. There isn’t a lid so you can watch things moving around it you like.   Then let gravity do the work and drain the hose into the shower/bathroom complex.  Then rinse the clothes, agitate for a few minutes, drain, and put the clothes in the spinner for four minutes and on the line to dry. Your choice of inside (we have a drying room) or outside.

Food is a bit more complicated.  To clear up a few preconceived notions, Thai food is not necessarily healthy.  Much of it is breaded, fried and covered in salty or sweet sauces.  Fresh fruit is not immune; Thai people often use a combination of sugar, salt and chili spices on many fruits including pineapple.  With all the hoopla surrounding the Thai cooking classes for tourists in Chiang Mai, Thai people eat out habitually.  Between street vendors, small sidewalk set ups and more formal restaurants, Thai people have plenty of options.

Over the past couple of weeks, dinner generally has three tangents:  eat rice noodles at home, Nan brings over take out from somewhere or Tuy and I go out to pick it up ourselves.  One night right after school ended at 5pm, Tuy told me that I was joining her and her fellow teacher friend Apon for a ride over to the market.  It was the first time I had a chance to look at the day market, which was filled with more items for cooking instead of the prepared foods of the night market.

 When we get there, Tuy and Apon are clear about what they are looking for, but I’m mesmerized by the large plastic tubs filled with squirming eels, floppy snakefish and placidly swimming orange Talpia like fish that I haven’t been able to identify.   There are the frogs and squid on skewers and the piles of beetles and what are either maggots or worms piled high on wide bamboo plates. The vendors are chatting, the crowds are lined up like a crowded art show perusing the goods.   I’m entranced by the variety and health of the vegetables:  green leafy basil. Asian broccoli, spinach and what looks like collards.  I’m going slowly, with the gentle reminder of Tuy’s hand guiding me along so I don’t get left behind.

Tuy asks me “what you eat?’ and I’m frozen in the internal storm of indecision. I’m blinded by the brilliant light of so many options and unknown tastes surrounding me.  I wish I had the language to explain that I want to look around a bit and then decide, but the girls seem to be on a schedule.  In that moment inside my brain, I’m a large, white, ancient balloon  that requires transportation and translation everywhere she goes.  I settle on the usual fish and vegetables, with a variation on a roasted eggplant.  I hustle through my wallet and embarrassed that I mistake a 500 baht bill for a 50 and it’s the only money I have.  This is a fortune for the vendor who balks at the bill.  A single eggplant sells for ten baht.  The girls simultaneously chide me a bit while Tuy reaches for her purse.

In this moment, I’m tortured by my need for independence.  I so badly want to explore and soak it all in, muddle through the problems and figure it out.  On the other hand, I’m grateful for the diligent  attention and boundless caring.  With the limited amount of daylight at the end of the school day, the extra 15 minutes gained through the use of Tuy’s motorbike are valuable. I’m hoping that there is some prestige for her in carrying around this large white language impaired blimp.  I’ve never been this dependent before.  I should be more diligent in sharing new vocabulary and pronunciation lessons.  Make sure I think of her with a small gift.  All of these experiences are learning lessons, but this is one of those uncomfortable moments.

On the way home, the cumulus clouds are showing their nightly alpenglow pink in the night sky.  It’s rush hour:  hundreds of mynah birds have begun to congregate on the trees on the riverfront.   Their collective evening songs turn into a humming that escalates past every tree, then reaching a crescendo on the utility lines that traverse the second stories throughout downtown. Everyone is moving in cars, motorbikes and a few bicycles.  Past the Wat with the city’s shrine where everyone honks as they go by to the long curve and look both ways before crossing the street and down the small dirt road to our house.  Dinner, some brief conversation and pronunciation guidance shared and then it’s to the bedrooms for reading and lesson planning.

On the weekend, Tuy is off to her parent’s house and I make a pilgrimage to the market on my own in the relative coolness and quiet of the morning.   My one speed bike is steady but clunky, the brakes are bad and the chain needs oil.  I am delighted to be finding my own way.   I discover the local retail bike shop and  buy a  tail light to complement my headlamp for my evening rides in the park.  I come across the local version of Three Bears/Costco, stocking up on soaps of a few forms and the ginseng instant coffee I’ve grown to like.

I realize that I am close to the riverfront, so I stop by the tourist office and ask for a map (there isn’t one, but I am given a large paperbound book on Kamphaeng Phet’s local attractions.) Meandering back through some side streets I pass a shack with a few second-hand bikes for sale.  With a quick u-turn to pull in, I demonstrate the squeaky brakes and the father-son pit crew gets to work.  Some wrenches are turned and a few drops of oil are applied for less than a dollar.  The brakes are improved and I'm feeling confident.

With the need to pick up a little lunch before my English class with a couple of Thai teachers later that afternoon, I swing through the open market to pick up a snack and buy my own produce for making a stir fry on the hot plate for dinner.  I experiment and buy a relatively large package of what looks like dried fruit without trying to ask what it is.  When I get home, I realize it’s a seedy, sour, face wrenching awful package of dried tamarind.  This was my official first independent market mistake and I find great satisfaction in the rebellion of my tastebuds. I know someone at school will think it’s a bonus.  And probably laugh a bit at me at the same time.

n.b.  This post includes images from the internet.  Sometimes I got caught up in the heat of the moment and couldn't take a picture.  These are likely better anyway.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

School Daze

For the past few days, Tuy has been giving me a two minute ride to school on her motorbike.  As she starts up and I get on, she always asks, “Are you sure?”  I think she means to say, “Are you ready?”, but I like the associations of security and assurance in addition to the connotations of confidence.  It’s a great way to start the work day to say, “Yes, I am sure.”
With the first week completed, school is settling into a routine.  I arrive at around 7:00 and head to my classroom in the cool of the day. Shortly after, either Ubon or one of the other kindergarten teachers comes in to start the PA system, which broadcasts cheery and cheesy music as the Anuban (preschool and kindergarten) teachers sweep the courtyard of last night’s leaves and the sweet smelling long flowered blossoms from the “peep”  tree.   No one knows the English name for this tree, but the blossoms are fragrant.

When the school arrivals reaches the right crescendo, I move over the Prattayom (primary grades 1-5) and Mattayom (grades 6-8) student morning assembly.   Arranged in orderly rows, the assistant principal Diyo addresses the students with general announcements.  The flag is raised while the anthem is played.  Afterwards, students pray to the Buddha and recite the  five Buddhist precepts:  refrain from harming another living thing,  do not take what is not yours, don’t engage in sexual misconduct (not sure how this is addressed for the Prattyom students), do not lie and refrain from alcohol and drugs.   Then, the students formally address the teachers standing in front of them with a Wai and the word Sawadee (the general greeting), and then formally address each other.

By this time, the anuban have finished their  mini flag raising and prayers and it’s time to do a little singing, handclapping and general simple movements to the songs.  As the new teacher, I am able to bring a new energy to the moves.  The kids go wild and the teachers appear supportive.    At some convenient point, I retreat to my classroom and let the other teachers take over for the rest of their gathering.

Thai teachers are extraordinarily hard working.  Each day, they act as campus greeters to orchestrate student comings and goings (complete with the announcements for students to come to the front gate for a pickup) ,  purveyors of breakfast and lunch snacks, cleaners of their classrooms, and supervisors at the canteen.  At lunch today, one teacher had students showing her their plates as lunch finished up.  For the one student who couldn’t eat their chicken, it was shared between a couple of  teachers who couldn’t let the protein go to waste.  Incidentally, lunch is included with my job and typically includes white rice and curry, vegetables and a small bit of protein.  Students use tokens to purchase extra sausages, buns, eggrolls, beautiful little white cakes and ice cream.   Thai teachers have about 35 students in their classrooms and are generally on campus until after 5pm.

English language is a mandatory part of Thai education, and Supsathit Wittayakarn (my school) uses the Express English textbook for levels 1-3.  These texts are filled with many internal work-at-the desk activities which the students seem to love in the safe and familiar way that we all gravitate to the known.   Students wish me a good morning all day and all levels of students recite the  now familiar conversational routine.  If I deviate from the script, profuse giggling and hands covering the mouth generally follow.  Their  English is word bubbles and  memorized scripts, but I can relate.  If someone goes off my script of basic words and phrases, I am befuddled, smiling and nodding.

My first week is punctuated by surprises:    A teaching schedule that changed within days,  groups that showed up unexpectedly or never showed up at all and  classes that are wildly motivated and receptive, others that exhibit the notorious Thai elementary school student naughtiness.

I have a fabulous group of second graders that is very excited about the letter P lesson plan.  The  P song sung to the tune of John, Jacob, Jingleheimer Schmidt  that  I miraculously found on the internet is punctuated by visual cue cards I made depicting princess P and her pink pumpkin.  After about ten solo renditions in the first class, the next day the kids are all over it.  They take turns holding the cue cards and raising them when their character is mentioned.  They are all singing along enthusiastically.   Then they sit quietly for an English reading of a story of Pigs packing a picnic of peaches, pickles, pumpkins, pears and plums. “So awesome!”, I both think to myself and tell them.  The teacher’s aide that was assigned to my classroom looks a little bored.

Later in the week, another class of kindergartners shows up unexpectedly without an adult to help me.  I hindsight, I wished that I’d mustered the authoritative command in the universal language of teachers and sent them back to their Thai classroom.  But in the spirit of always providing a welcome environment, I bring them in.    The K.2 group appears completely underwhelmed by the butterfly song.  In an attempt to get them moving around and singing the song I just taught, a few start fake tripping and falling from their socks on the tile.  I have visions of bleeding heads which dissipates when half the group floats off to play with the abacus while the others are pitiful with a beseeching look for either some new action.   In a slacker version of panic, I google the online video of the butterfly song  on my computer and set the forlorn  group to watch  that while making an effort to corral the miscreants who are now trying to pull the bookcase away from the wall in an effort to rescue the marble that’s fallen out of the run.  Just in time, my supervisor Kim appears at the door looking  pristine in her beautiful  size 2 suit.   She makes a quick call to their teacher who was still operating on the first schedule, not the second one I just got.  After all this, I vow to have lesson plans galore, activities that can fill more than every second of a 50 minute  hour class and a standby of old favorites that the kids know and love.

The following day, the K.2 students  showed up on time and ready and each wearing uniform shirts in green, yellow, red and blue. The butterfly song goes much better this time. Shortly after our lesson,  they all got up to leave.   I’m a bit confused but figure they know something I don’t.  A few minutes later I heard some unusual commotion around the school yard and  walked to the sports field in  a beautiful colorful spectacle.  It was primary color day and the classes were facing off on a tug of war competition.   There was terrific cheering and all sorts of good natured effort.   Before the kindergartners went home for the day, they lined up to get their faces powdered and looking fresh for their bus ride home.

On Friday, there was an especially long assembly that required additional time.  As the day borne onto 9am, the teachers began moving the students to the shade.   The Director addressed the group, academic achievement certificates were awarded  and the head teacher and new friend Tua talked to the group about hygiene, exercise and making an effort in school.  This assembly cut into class time for the English Club, which ended early for the mattayom meditation practice before lunch. 

On this brilliantly sunny and steamy late Saturday  afternoon and amidst the drone of fans and the occasional bird song, my 24 year old  roommate  Tuy is diligently grading 52 workbooks from her sixth grade classes.  Through the trials of the first week, I’ve been tested.  I have also heard some of the internal whispers of my work ethic and my western career coming to visit me in some moments of uncertainty.  What lessons of my past work in effective group process can I bring to 20 kindergartners?

This next two years will involve many lessons on many fronts.  I have to let go of my western career ethic, slow down and focus on the keys for opening the doors and joining this community.  Fundamentally, I know I must approach all problems with an open and cool heart and keep the patience to allow information to be revealed at the right time.  My work, both for the students and myself, is clear:
  • Build an environment for creating confidence and trying new tasks,
  • make a diligent effort to learn new vocabulary with a strong  focus on speaking and listening, and,
  • continue my effort to sing new songs with a sure voice and a strong sense of สนุกสนาน (fun).

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Glossy tiles are dangerous when wet but the ancient temple at sunset will be worth it

It was a long journey leaving Bangkok on Friday.  Crowds were stacked up in front of the monitors waiting for information on flights.  Many who could afford it were to leaving to visit family and the white travelers seemed to be relieved to be headed to Phuket or any other part of the country.   A number of Thai professionals were plugged into one of the few power stations like elephants at the watering hole.  
My flight was first delayed from an early evening flight to one at 11pm and then again projected to leave well after midnight.  On the second delay,   I called my local contact, Kim, to let her know I would just get a hotel in Phitlsanulok for the night.  I had no idea when I would arrive and it seemed more sensible to avoid driving so late at night.  Kim had errands to run in Chaing Mai over the weekend, which while I was invited to participate in. With the uncertainty of my arrival and a need to preserve my mental functioning, I declined.   I think she was relieved about this.

The plane landed at 2:30 am.   While the rest of the western teachers were met at the airport by their hosts, I stoically waved goodbye and made it out to the curb with bags in the cart.  There was a harried conversation with an apologetic farang (forienger) who was trying to catch a bus to his next destination and thus took the first cab that came along.   Little did I know that would be the last white person I would see, let alone converse with.

 In that moment, I experienced a   thought that seems to recur with relative frequency.  “Really Ellen.” I said to myself. “What were you thinking?”  I waited by the curb in a bleary acceptance of the current reality.  Within moments, a cab driver pulled up, understood me and deposited me at the hotel where the night manager spoke enough  English to check me in.  Within the hour, I was sleeping.

With a morning phone call from Kim to confirm, JeJee and and Nuy came to get me around noon the next day.  JeJee is a “lady boy”, a term used to describe very effeminate homosexual men in Thailand.    In the school’s small truck, we bounded  across the countryside, passing the rice fields, motorbikes and farm trucks.  In typical Thai fashion, JeJee talked on his funny red  Ferrarri cell phone (it honks when it rings) and dodged around and through incoming traffic while sharing his dreams of finding an American boyfriend and bantering on in combination of Thai and broken, heavily accented English.  He was proud to share the photo of himself as “beautiful”, with wig, makeup and an engaging smile.    There was the obligatory stop for lunch at the rest stop, complete with a Pepsi and a toilet that required squatting and water scooped from a nearly receptacle to flush.

We arrived at the house where I am living and located just a few minute walk from school. The  entourage from school pulled up in motorbikes shortly later. Everyone swarms around, with concerns about the A/C (aa, prounouced aaaaah, like the Thais would pronounce air) not working, the condition of the washing machine (hose is broken).  I am simply impressed by the gleaming and polished 2x2 tiles all over the living room floor, the relatively new leather living room set. I am intrigued to see the hose connected right next to the toilet and then delighted to not need toilet paper.

No one speaks much English.  Nuy picks the travel hula hoop from my duffle bag and we exchange a few giggles on technique.   Once the initial move in has been completed, JeJee runs me into town for some quick groceries at 7-11.  Thailand has one of the highest per capita prevalence of these stores and one can top up a pre-paid phone card  in addition to getting a slurpee.  I ask to go to the hospital for a bandage change and relived on three fronts:  expedient healing, bandage materials and only 120 baht ($3.)

Shortly after we return from the store, the contingent returns with packets of “Super Coffee” (Nescafe, sugar and creamer with a dash of ginseng encased in small packets), a case of bottled water, two packages of kleenex and a fan.  Uben (head kindergarten teacher) ,Chan (the janitor) and the  aa repairman show  up and replaces the propane tank on the unit, which goes a lot faster with the headlamp I provide.   Everyone wishes me a good sleep and leaves me locked inside the gate around the house.  I feebly unpack a few items, close the door to the house, fire up the shower that encompasses the entire bathroom,  revel in the noodles and crawl into my silk sleeping sack without opening the book.   This is the definition of delicious relief and security, landing softly with an extended stretch of runway for the night.

Roosters wake me up with the early morning light, with the thunka thunka of what I think is a washing machine in the front yard of the very simple shantytown complex across the street.  Uben and the aa repairman show up to finish the work on the aa, and Uben and I  look at my photos from Alaska. She also notices the hoop and gives it a whirl.  JeJee comes at noon to run me through the washing machine, which is not his not his best skill set.  This results in a lot of water on the kitchen floor and a "Near Whoopsie" slip on the gleaming tile, to which my new Thai friends laugh nervously.  JeJee runs me through  the UNESCO world heritage site of ancient temples that is located just down the road then onto the “Big C” the supercenter mall. Kim calls and we make arrangements for the pre-semester teacher’s meeting the next morning.

The first day of school arrives for Ellen.  I put on the long skirt and yellow shirt because it’s Monday, and Thais have special colors for each day.  I wait at the head office for a bit and eventually, I am escorted to the teacher’s meeting and seated at the front of the room.  There are presentations by a person that I think is the assistant principal and a number of other senior teachers before  The Director and her daughter Kim (my supervisor) show up.   There is more discussion, which Kim translates as reports from the project-based learning workshops other teachers  have attended.   Eventually, The Director nods in my direction.   After my new roommate and fellow Thai teacher, Tuy,  introduces herself.  I stand up.  I say (in Thai and read from the script of written materials we were given at orientation)  “Hello.  MY NAME IS ELLEN. THAILAND IS BEAUTIFUL. THE THAI PEOPLE ARE VERY NICE”.

The teachers look at me a bit stunned, then break out into applause. I grin.    I sit down and realize that I neglected to put the feminine polite at the end of each sentence, which sounds rude to the Thais.  One must carry on.  In Thailand, if you try hard with open heart, all will be forgiven.   After the meeting, I am greeted with smiles and the typical Thai way of touching on the arms and the waist. This seems common with the women in this country. My new roommate and fellow English teacher, Tuy, gave me a ride home on her motorcycle with an arrangement for Kim to pick us up for another Big C shopping trip later in the evening.  I got the verbal memo to wear pink tomorrow.

The evening falls slowly here.  The neighbor’s pool table has the occasional subdued interaction of both the balls and conversation.  The papaya trees, larger unidentified deciduous trees and the low forest scrub punctuate the background as the prolific  dragonflies wave around in circles in the late afternoon light.  This place has a very strong identity, which I can appreciate. The students start tomorrow and I suspect my first class will be sometime later this week, where I can teach “Hello. My name is…  and it will be pronounced “Helro my naay if…”    I have finally arrived.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Is there cheese in Thailand?

The culture shock began the moment I joined the first group of students who were waiting for the plane at JFK.  I knew it would happen.  Just after I joined the “OEG Teach in Thailand” Facebook group, I was was moderately entertained by a discussion about the availability of cheese in Thailand and the drama resulting from the realization that it would be difficult to find. 
 As the first days progressed, I was mistaken (more than once) for a group leader or teacher. I got some traction on the Alaska factor.   I was perturbed by a participant whose girlfriend needed to borrow a shirt to visit the grand palace despite the fact that considerable orientation material that stated that tank tops were unacceptable, and the tall lanky bearded participant who needed to clarify that, indeed, shorts were unacceptable teaching attire.

I am finding small glimpses of insights into personality in the masses of these young people: two women in their early 30’s who left existing careers, a former Americorps volunteer, a rugby playing student of Buddhism from Denver, the multi-lingual recent college graduate.   Many of these young people are exceptionally well-traveled and others are coming to the country for the first time. They are all extraordinarily connected to their devices: phones, music players, cameras.   The Americans are more prone to this, with some participants skypeing  their friends in the states every night.  (I admit to being guilty of this during the one night I bought internet service  and Carrie happened to call from Tanzania to discuss our scheme for climbing Kilimanjaro for our 50th birthdays.)

During the orientation sessions, we are free for dinner on our own. The Louis Tavern hotel, located north Bangkok, is in a residential area and also hosts a flight attendant academy.  There’s a busting market district a block away, with street vendors, 7-11s and street dogs.  On the third night and in the default position of having not made prearranged plans for dinner, I muster courage to venture out for food on my own.    I approach a well -lit outdoor restaurant with a lighted deli cases facing the street.  I point to a dish and wave my hand in front of my mouth with a questioning look on my face.    I’ve forgotten the word for spicy, but I know this is gaeng (curry).  The shopkeeper responds in perfect English (what a surprise!) and with that I decide to sit and take it all in.  I take a seat close to the sidewalk and wait for her to prepare a plate.

You can’t understand the complexity of smells until you’ve lived in a tropical country.  My nose sifts through the laden aroma of pungent spices, hot oils and the smoky exhaust of the propane burners. There’s a base note of fetid waste combined with the lingering bouquet of poverty.    It’s an urban smell of human development and activity: not pleasant to me.  I eat in relative isolation, noting the other program participants winding their way up the street and not noticing me.   After being sated in both food and the adventure quotient, I head back to the hotel and am happy to have my own room.

We’ve been attending a variety of training sessions each day with classes on teaching methods and Thai language, broken out into levels of education. I’m in A group, intended to group those that should be teaching primary school.  Some students in our smaller group are experienced teachers with focus areas in math and science, others have never taught a class in their lives and performing their first job.

The teaching method class is taught by Paul, a middle aged British expat of nineteen years, who shares some of the realities of teaching in Thailand:
1)     You must smell good and look clean and fresh at all times; use powder and deodorant liberally.
2)      Always start with a warmer as the students will often arrive late. There is no time between classes.
3)      Thai students help each other on tests.  In the states, this is called cheating.
4)      You may not find out the expectations of grading or materials covered until midway through the semester.
5)      Over prepare your lesson plans at first, remain flexible and don’t worry too much.  Mai bpen rai. (It doesn’t matter, it will be okay)

As we head into this last stage of orientation, the level of babbling hubbub within the group maintains steady with the incessant sharing that fuels this age group.   After the early departure from Bangkok yesterday to avoid the floods, the four bus loads arrived at a small coastal beach restaurant at Pattaya.

The air was languid and humid, and after dinner the conversation at my table became tiresome in the midst of the music and overall scene.  I asked a few participants to not smoke right next to our table where we were eating.    I was desperate for some fresh air and some meaningful conversation, obviously tuned into a different channel than the rest of the group who were consuming extensive amounts of beer.   I went off to the jetty in the harbor and sat next to the group of Thai folks eating take out, surrounded by a pack of hungry, patient and hopeful street dogs.

In that melancholy moment, I realized that I was on this journey alone.  Perhaps I had failed in the goal of connecting with other people for travels during this week, despite the special dispensation for my differences of age and lack of roommate.   When I sold everything I owned and headed out to work my way around the country in 1989, I did that by myself.    And, as selfish as it may be, I find myself most comfortable moving as a planet with no moons.

However, all this went out the window at the moment nearly 24 hours later.   When I strode down to the beach to watch the sunset at the fancy beach resort hotel, I stepped on a wooden step which collapsed under me, fell onto my knee which broke my fall on the corner of a sharp piece of granite.  Profuse bleeding, stunned realizations and survival instincts resulted.    I asked a not so drunk fellow participant to bring me some napkins as I washed the knee off in the faucet for rinsing feet, got first aid from the pool guys (that blue antiseptic hurts like old school) and eventually getting driven to the hospital for a proper washout and dressing, antibiotics and bandaging supplies for the next two weeks.  The owner/director of the Thai program partner invited me to the end of orientation celebration dinner with her staff.  I am now back in my room with internet.

I am grateful for the support of this agency that set up my school placement and is now available to help ensure that I continue to heal.   Secure that I have someone covering my back in my new home, I am headed to the airport where I will fly to Kampaeng Phet, my  base camp until early September 2012.   I am remembering vocabulary and starting to get my legs under me, headed out of the harbor and underway. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Family Legacies

“You know, you do what you have to do to get the job done.”  Mom summarized the ethic that has held our family together since my WW2 survivor British mother met my depression baby New England father when she was a secretary and he was a Ph.D candidate at MIT in Boston.   


My parents moved to Poughkeepsie, New York when my sister and I were both under 5, but their  hearts, my mother’s sister and my  dad’s parents were  always here in midcoast Maine.  In this land of towering pines, crustacean worship and rugged coastline, I am recognizing the threads that hold family’s together.  Steve Job’s recent death prompted some additional thoughts on this- the place where genetics meet upbringing.  Steve Jobs was adopted by a working class family who valued education.  Steve Job’s biological father, Abdulfattah Jandali, runs casinos in New Jersey who had other child that evolved into  novelist Mona Simpson.

On Friday, my parents and I drove to my mother’s sister’s house in Damariscotta  for a lunch of eggs salad and haddock chowder. Uncle Bob and cousin Cathy ‘s husband Nick discussed the politics of scallops and an apparent fraud at the local diner, where some fisherman was punching skate flesh (similar to a sting ray) with a round cookie cutter and calling them scallops.  Then back to my parents house of about ten years in Harpswell to wait for my brother Jeff to arrive from Burlington Vermont with his wife Trish and two children under 5.   In the typical way of “doing what it takes to get the job done”, they arrived at midnight Friday night through batches of driving rain.

On Saturday, everyone  got packed up for a morning at Wolfe Neck Farm and the adjacent Recompense Shores campground, where my  family had camped about 35 years ago while my dad was helping his parents move out of their apartment in Brunswick.

My brother Jeff and his family on the hayride to the pumpkin patch, with straw bale pig in the background.
My brother Jeff and his family
on the hayride to the pumpkin patch,
 with straw bale pig in the background.

    My sister Barb and her older son Andrew drove up from their house in Kennebunk and her husband and her younger son Ian drove up in the  Prius after a soccer game in New Hampshire.      By Saturday in the late afternoon, the family was all together: the dog chasing the tennis ball, ten year old Ian shooting off the pump rocket, Amisha shouting and running at everything in her two year old sweetness,  Cayen so eager to have an older boy to play with and the teenager Andrew observing with Granny, Grampere while the mothers chatted over coffee in the kitchen.   The next generation manifests with the inclusion of other families, including my brother in law’s father who just moved to southern Maine

What are we born into?  My sister and I both having the same dimple and birthmark on the left side just above our lip.  My mother, sister and I share the same body shape.   I look quite a bit like my father.   The entire family is conditioned for cocktail hour just before dinner.  The clinkle of ice cubes in a glass combined with a festive beverage seem to make us all happy.   My sister and I both noted  Ian, her younger son,  swinging around a bottle of root beer. We exchanged eye contact and raised eyebrows, wondering. 
Barb's family on the Toklat River in Denali.
Barb's family on the
Toklat River in Denali

My dad turned 80 in February, just after my parents celebrated their 50th anniversary in December.  On a whirlwind trip across the continent just last month where they happened to spend the night at the Marriot in Guam on their way to Japan, my mom met a businessman who was based in Bangkok.   “Ellen”, she exclaimed, “I got all my questions answered.  You’ll be fine over there in Thailand.”   I look at her with relief that worries have been assuaged.    Ian, in his infinite 10 year old wisdom, stated over dinner at their house in Kennebunk last week, “You know Auntie Ellen.  You are not like other aunts.”  I look at him expectantly.  “Most aunts would have us over at their house for cookies and TV, but you think it’s a great idea to go camping where bears live.”     I raise a hallelujah in my mind on the perspectives of both generations.  In these times ahead we are forming our own traditions.

In my final preparations for the imminent departure on Thursday afternoon, I am spending some time sifting through my parent’s basement.  There’s been an accumulation of their parent’s photos, magazines for recycling, aged technology and signs that the stairs in their house may be difficult.   My work, in between the final preparations, is sifting through the detritus to find the good stuff.   For all of  the collective family issues that every person experiences, the core tenet must be to stay focused on what’s important—the real work of creating our own legacy and that within our family units in whatever form  they manifest.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Packing the Pillow

In the days of late July after leaving my house in Spenard, I realized that I’d mistakenly donated two feather pillows to the Value Village.  I’d thought I would hang onto them through August and September, but off they went.   When you are traveling, the pillow seems to be the ticket to the restful and familiar bliss.  The travelers walking on the ferry or boarding the plane with the familiar large rectangle of fluffy softness have a strong connection to the object. 
There must be pillows in Thailand.  But as I’m lying in the beginning stages of sleep, I toss and turn, punching and folding the head rest that came with the guest room.   My thoughts swirl around themselves over and over again. Placement letter, work visa, plane ticket, clothing for the classroom, insulin.  The fragments are tumbling around in the laundromat of my brain.   Not the single bulky sleeping bag but the mismatched socks, the worn out t-shirts, the wool sweater I forgot to take from the washer, the underwear that really should be replaced.   A determined gerbil that suddenly stopped  running on the small metal wheel.  Carried with the force of their frenetic energy, the rodent finds himself clenching the small metal bars, whisked around and around again until finally gravity prevails. He starts running again.

When I refused to wait for the Peace Corps and wasn’t accepted at CUSO-VSO in the height of the escalating mania that is springtime in Alaska, I developed a mantra to slow myself down.    Breathe out. I am open to whatever the Universe provides. Breathe in.  I know the Universe will provide. After some time, I would fall asleep rocked by the waves that slipped in and out of the shore with the falling tides of encroaching sleep.

Last weekend at the Tutka Bay Writer’s Retreat,  , I learned a new practice of Buddhist belief, the Metta. This is the loving kindess to self, to others and to the world.  Some see the next step of Metta to be Tonglen, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of exchanging self for the other, holding the pain or suffering that others feel and embracing it in ourselves with a spirit of acceptance and compassion.

The practice of Metta begins with holding your internal self and breathing deep.  May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be strong. May I live with ease.   Then, conjure a loved one.   May you be safe. May  you be happy. May you be strong.  May you  live with ease.   Bring someone who you see in your life but don’t know well.   The checker at Fred’s that often works the self-service stand.  May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be strong. May you live with ease.   Consider someone who irks you or with whom you have friction.  May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be strong. May you live with ease.  Lastly, and my favorite part.  Hold all the beings of the world.  Feel your heart swell with the power of mustering your internal power to wish:    May you be safe.  May you be happy.  May you be strong. May all sentient beings- mineral, plant, animal and human- live with ease.

After practicing this, I’m the center pole of the merry-go-round.  I’m not clinging to the perimeter feeling the dizzying exposure of centrifuge.    I’m connected to the universe.  With this safety, happiness, strength and ease I can feel lulled and fulfilled, rocked in a gentle crib of a wooden boat in a wild anchorage.

The right pillow will come.  No need to bring the ultra-large American style.  Just muster the faith that it all will work out on all counts.  Slow down.  Breathe.