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.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Termination Dust

The thought hit me on the upside of the head  while I was wiping the dust off the dashboard.  I was preparing to end this stage of my life.  Perhaps in the way that Tim and Ben anointed Chena in lemon oil after she’d passed.   Yesterday, on a beautiful clear fall day, I hiked up as fast as I could through the newly fallen snow at Arctic Valley.  Saying good bye to the wild places that sustain all of us odd, frozen characters. 

Part of the need for the hard walk uphill was to clear the head out.  There’s so much swirling around
A whole hearted enthusiastic thump on the shoulder for a job well done, a profound and spiritual resolution for the journey ahead,  a wisp of regret,  the  stunning shock of  the lingering beauty of this long autumn, basking in the wonder about  synchronicity, gratitude for having plenty of bridges that have not been burned.   For all the sadness involved in leaving behind, there is also tremendous gratitude for the strength and gifts I’ve received from the people and places in Alaska.

I will never forgot the Kenai caribou on the top of knuckle mountain  that told me I would venture  to the Arctic.    The steady gaze of the wolf reminded me that it is always better to bear witness without any devices.   The floating eagle feather I found in Katchemak bay (likeingly never touched the earth) on the first summer I committed to stay the winter here.  The reminder from the startled sea lions that came while kayaking in encroaching darkness that it is always better to leave early.  The path of the bear in the Wrangell Mountains  that showed  me  the way on this journey of creative living.

  I know I can always return to this wild space and tremendous network of colleagues and  friends,  lovers and crush recipients, and people I have pissed off over the years.  There have been a myriad of jobs under my belt, traverses across all physical and emotional landscapes, and a heart and spirit that is both fulfilled and yearning at the same time.   Alaska, I will miss everything except the deep stupor and the urban warrior trucks with the halogen headlights in my rear view mirror in the cold dark time.

As I leave now,  I’m moving  into  the liminal state, the adjectival adaptation of the Latin word for threshold.   The hyperbaric chamber of my family in Maine awaits, the transition zone where I will begin the process of settling into my middle aged vagabond self.    The beauty of this next step is the fact that I don’t have a predetermined outcome.  I am trying not to make pronouncements about when, why or if I will return.  I am leaving, with the wistful nostalgia, upwelling emotions and armed with  Alaskan spirits—human, animal, vegetable and mineral—who have shown me that simultaneously being prepared and spontaneous are wonderful adaptation mechanisms. Friends, please know that  your wishes, dreams, protections, and tidings are packed along.      Fare thee well, my beloved land.