Monday, March 26, 2012

The Heat is On!

Despite my friends and family in the US currently freezing from winter temperatures, March and April here are the summer months.  Humidity shot up from a pleasant 18% to 46%, a very noticeable difference.  Much has happened here and more will be happening soon.  School is out until May except for the summer schools here and there which is where I have been student teaching.

Nee got a job starting tomorrow.  As are most jobs, this one is a two edged sword, as she will be able to re-enter her old career of working export for a factory.  Unfortunately, the factory is somewhere between hell and gone.  The logistics for now will be for her to catch a red songtaew at 6:30 in the morning and go to the main market.  From there, she must take the white songtaew and get off about an hour later in front of a school in the town there.  The factory is still about two miles away so someone will be picking her up there for the next two weeks until we can work out transportation, moving, and any other problems we might find.  We spent most of this weekend trying to find a new home and talking about other modes of transportation.  Unlike the US, used cars here are not much of a bargain.  Cars, in general, are quite expensive.  In fact we were looking at some land that cost about $600,000 baht and that much barely gets you a car here. 

My teacher training ends this week which will have me out looking for work....again.  I have already begun applying however schools are out now and won't start up again until May.  I have also been attempting to gain employment in my old career, auditing, down in Singapore.  I would have to travel back and forth but the advantage is that a week of auditing pays the equivalent of two months of teaching.  Ironically, I would probably enjoy teaching much more.  If I were to audit, I would try to do some tutoring here to stay in teaching.  I like seeing the lightbulbs going off in students' eyes when the learn something.
Fortunately, before all this happened, we were able to have fun last weekend.  We were asked by some friends here to help them with a, as Nee called it, some sort of Buddhist festival.  She spent Saturday chopping vegetables for a soup in preparation for Sunday.  The next morning we did the red then the green songtaew and ended up across the street from a Wat filled with traffic, lots of men in uniform and, as Nee noticed, most everyone was dressed in black.  If you read one of my earlier blogs, you know that funerals up here are as much celebration as they are mourning.  This was no exception.  Though we weren't dressed for it, we did manage to fit into the crowd with no problem.  Our friends had made a huge batch of a yummy vegetarian soup and a few tubs of rice noodles.  My job was to rip a handful of noodles and deposit into a bowl to have soup added to it.  You can see me at work below.

We did manage to take a break and check out the funeral proceedings.  Though there were some somber places, we also saw this.
The blue elephant face is actually the tail of a bird to fly the monk up to the heavens.  I can't see the bird but then I am not Thai.  The fellow standing on the statue is next to the body of the monk.  He is loading the entire structure with fireworks.  These were going to be set off much later with the finale being the burning of the body.  The whole thing is quite meaningful to the folks there.

We also managed to make it to the King's Floral Show, Rajapruk, just a few days before its close.  I photographed hundreds of orchids as I have dreams of growing some at our home here some day.  We just need to get jobs, find a home, buy it and move it.  Perhaps it will be a few years before I see my first blooms.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

You Never Know Who You Are Going to Meet

The TEFL class will be concluding in another two weeks leaving us to our own devices as to what we will be doing next.  Two sound like they want to consider other countries while four of us plan to stay a while.  I have learned to survive and get around, made some new friends and seen some old ones.  A challenge that I have mentioned before, transportation, came into my consciousness again these last few weeks.

The most typical and ubiquitous method of getting around town is by motorcycle.  Over last few weeks, as temperatures began to rise, more classmates got motorcycles.  Two of the guys who are best friends bought a pair of motorcycles and got a good price.  Within the first few days, they had adventures to tell.  One was getting pulled over for not having a helmet.  The police officer said they could go to the station and pay 400 baht or just pay him 100 baht and they could go.  These guys are quick witted, though.  They told the cop that they had just purchased the bikes and were on their way to buy helmets.  The cop shook his head and signalled them to go away.  We also heard tales of being chased by dogs and, of course, dealing with traffic.  Still, I take my songtaews or just walk.

Once I get a job, we agreed that we will definitely need a vehicle; most likely a pick-up truck as we have dreams of buying some land and growing food.  I am a product of the 60's so I haven't given up the dream.  I just put it off a bit too long.  In the meantime, I still have my adventures on the buses.

If you catch a bus in San Francisco or New York, you gradually get to recognize each bus stop, turn, stop light and other landmarks.  You might even begin to measure your progress by which bus stop you are at, smiling whenever you get to pass one.  Chiang Mai has no bus stops.

The songtauw are a combination of taxi and bus.  We could rent one, with driver, for the entire day, if we want.  A songtauw brought us here from our original hotel.  There is quite a network of songtauws in different colors.  The red ones are downtown and after that, it is anybody's guess.  The white ones seem to go to San Kampaeng, we saw yellow ones up in Mae Rim, but there don't seem to be signs saying which goes where and Nee says they don't even say so in Thai.  I guess you just have to grow up here.  If I had a motorcycle, I would probably see Chiang Mai in an entirely different light; one of a place trying to kill me.  The songtauws, though, give me a chance to meet the people who live here face-to-face.

The day I was student teaching the little ones, I dressed in a nice shirt and slacks, looking more professional than tourist.  An older lady got on, dressed in her work apron, worn hands and a face that has seen it all.  She looked at me and said, "bpai nai," where are you going?  I said gat luang, the main market.  She looked baffled.  She pointed at herself as to say, "I am going to gat luang.  Where the hell are you going?"  I have no idea what she thought I was or why I was there.

A couple of days later, a lady in her 30s got on, smiled at me and then settled into her seat.  She then started to talk and ask where I was going.  As she spoke some English, I told her I was getting my license to teach English.  She told me she was working up with the hill tribes to teach them Thai.  At that point I noticed her arms, legs and face were covered with insect bites.  She said she had come down from the hills to go to the hospital as she had an allergic reaction to the bites.  The bus stopped and she got off and then got back on, looking a bit flustered.  She said she doesn't know the town and didn't know if she was at the hospital yet.  The driver told her to get back on and we dropped her at her destination. 

One morning, three young monks got on.  Once again, "bpai nai," asked the one in front of me.  I told him I was going to school and he said he was, as well.  He showed me some papers he had with various complicated formulas on it.  He said he was going to take a midterm. 
"Is that calculus?" I asked.  He said it was just math.  I wished him luck and got off for my class.

Friday morning, I crossed the busy street in front of my apartment to catch a bus.  A well-dressed young lady came out of the building behind me and she also caught the bus.  She sat across from me quietly for a time and then just asked me where I was going in English.  I told her and she said she was in an English class just up the street from the apartments.  She started to ask me about what I was doing, so I told her I was on my way to teach a class.  She apparently wanted to talk more and I realized that I might have been able to gain my first tutoring student.  Unfortunately, before I got my brain working, my stop came up and I just said good-bye.  I have business cards saying I am an English teacher with my phone and I realized I probably should have given her one.  Thus I could see why I am much better at working for someone than running my own business.

Nee and I will probably move from this place in a few weeks to find something closer to my job I hope to get and to be a bit further out of the city.  We have talked of getting a car or motorcycle.  I said that as long as the school and home are near a songtauw route, I am happy to keep riding.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sometimes It Is the Little Things That Can Be So Big

Last week I began my student teaching.  I was to teach two sets of pre-kindergarten kids 20 minutes each.  What could be easier?  Well, probably doing my old job, for one.  Pre-kindi means two and three year-olds, about 16 in each class.  My theme was transportation; cars, trucks, buses, and so on.  My teacher supplied me with flashcards and toys and I was to make up my own plan.  I was going to show the kids each card and read the name and have them repeat the word.  I had a game planned out and was ready. 

I arrived and was told I was on.  I entered a room of 16 tiny kids in orange aprons.  Thailand loves putting kids in uniforms.  There were two young ladies in the room to be my helpers and translators but I was assuming they probably didn't know much English either.  That was a correct assumption.  I had planned to take about ten minutes to go through the cards and I lost track of time.  My first mistake.  Always keep track of your time.  I suspect I was done in two minutes.  I tried a few things with them and some ideas worked and others failed.  I started talking.  My second mistake.  When teaching a foreign language talking is a bit like having the dog bark.  You are making noise and little else. 

The first group was far more receptive than the second.  I managed to get the first to play games with guessing the vehicles and matching them to cards, and then acting like the vehicle.  The second group needed lunch and a nap.  Two were crying, three kept running up to wrap their arms around my legs while the others struggled to figure out what this old man was even doing there. 

Fortunately I did come armed with a song.  If at first you don't succeed, have them do "Heads and Shoulders, Knees and Toes."  That was a hit.

After class, my teacher who was observing me pointed out my errors I mentioned.  He also said I need to slow down.  If I show a card and get no response, do not move on.  Keep them on it until I get them to say the word.  I was completely deflated.

When you teach a room of American adults, as I have done, you can get a clue whether or not they get it.  I had no idea about these kids. 

Next I got to work with a group of 5 pre-teen girls.  Right now is their summer vacation so most kids are out playing and doing whatever an 11 year-old girl does in Chiang Mai.  These kids actually asked to be taught more English.  We volunteered for different times and were told to teach them anything.  I decided to teach them how to take directions.  My plan was to start by drawing a map of downtown Chiang Mai on the board and then showing them where they were in relation to it.  The center of town is a moat that forms a square around the inner old town with the rest of town outside.  The class is on the outside of the moat near a big market.  I was ready to get them to increase their gray matter.

I soon discovered they didn't know what a moat was, my picture confused them and I had to teach vocabulary that I had assumed they knew.  That reminded of the old saying, when you Assume you make an Ass out of U and Me.  I had my vocabulary words on the board and then had to add more and more.  I simplified my talk by having them give directions to me and others to get from one point of the class to another.  I had to teach them left, right, stop, go, and so on.  My own ignorance of the group got me flustered and I started to talk more. 

The teacher said after that when I am in my own work world, I can often talk my way out of a situation, but the more I spoke to the girls, the less they understood.  He gave me suggestions for my next opportunity to teach and then he got me to agree to teach again the next day.  I had visions of Darth Vader saying, "You have failed me for the last time."

I spent all night planning what I was going to do.  I thought about just trashing my plan but instead decided I was going to just improve.  The teacher said I should have brought some real maps, another word they didn't know, so I could show them.  I actually had fake maps and showed him and those were to remain in my plan.  I tossed and turned all night thinking of how to do a better job, waking often with this idea or that.  Finally morning arrived.  I showed Nee what I planned to do and she suggested I do it in a different order.  Start with the vocabulary on the board and have them read each word.  My maps had the same words such as post office and library.  I found out what we call the Moat they call the Klaang.  As a precaution, I also got her to give me the names in Thai in case they didn't know.  I also learned out the say, "repeat after me" and "speak louder."  I will not fail, I kept telling myself.

I started them with the same game I had played with them yesterday which was a hit.  I looked the ringleader in the eyes and quietly said, "Poot dtam pom" or "repeat after me."  She blinked, repeated what I said and told the other girls.  We played the game, I got them giggling and sat them down.  Next I went over my list.  They could read the words and knew every word.  My heart began to beat just a bit more comfortably.  Next I showed them a real map of Chiang Mai and their eyes showed pure terror.  I took it away and had them review left, right, forward, etc.  I broke out my fake maps.  I explained about streets and avenues and showed them how to walk from one point to another.  I took out some toy animals.  They jumped out of their chairs to grab them.  Finally, I was seeing a light go on in their faces.

We tried to walk a critter from point A to point B and they still didn't get it.  I took a map and put it on the floor and said, "I am walking on this street.  What direction am I going?  How should I turn to get to the library?"  The answers started coming in like wildfire.  They got it.  I had them work in teams and gave them fake restaurants with map points noted on them, such as an Italian place across the street from the library.  I helped them and they were showing some excitement.  My heart had calmed down and I stopped sweating. 

To conclude, I brought back the real map and showed them how to read it.  A couple of the girls got it and showed the others.  They went home thanking me, "Thank you, teacher," and I went back to my teacher.  He said I had improved 100%.  I told him I was thinking I was out of my mind to teach until he told me that.  He gave me a few pointers but mostly I did well.  Damn.  I think I can do this.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Family, Tradition and Goldfingers

Tevye: Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as... as... as a fiddler on the roof!

Nee got a call from the shipper this week.  Our boxes had arrived, all 66 of them weighing 3,000 pounds.  My brother-in-law, Suvit, and his wife, very kindly stationed themselves at our house in Bangkok for a couple of hours waiting for the truck to arrive.  Unfortunately, Nee's house is without air conditioning making the wait quite uncomfortable.  They oversaw the placement of the boxes throughout the house and now we have the remainder of our worldly belongings.  We only need to find a job, find a home and then get a truck to move them here.  All such details will work themselves out with time.  In the meantime, I feel fortunate to have such a supportive family.

Wednesday, I got the day off for Macha Bucha Day, a Buddhist holiday.  Tradition says it is the day that Buddha, having reached his state of enlightenment, was met by 1,250 other enlightened monks whom he them blessed as Buddhas, as well.  Our friends out in Sun Sai took us out to see the Temple of Four Buddha Footprints.  They met us at our apartment in the morning in their 4x4 Toyota along with two other folks, a total of 8 when including Nee and me.  We drove north to Mae Rim into the hills, up a very narrow and winding road.  The patience of Thai drivers always amazes me.  An American would have been screaming at each motorcycle and slow truck they passed.  Our driver, the son of the car owner, merely focused on his driving and stayed calm then entire hour and a half of driving.  Such patience would do me much good in my new career and life.

Upon our arrival, the parking lot was filled with hundreds of people walking up the hill from their cars and motorcycles, as well as additional arriving vehicles.  Military police were there to direct traffic making me wonder if, perhaps, there was a concern of a terror plot.  None occurred and I wasn't particularly worried. 

We walked up the hill to see pilgrims placing gold leaf on iron balls hanging from ropes over square holes in the ground.  There were nine balls in total.  I found out they are called, "luk nimit."  One is in the center of the circle while the others are placed at 8 points of the compass, probably representing the 8 Fold Path of Buddha.  Nee said that once the balls are covered in gold leaf, the Princess will come to cut the ropes holding them and they will be buried.  A bit like placing a cornerstone in a western building.  I was impressed and awed by the number of people, including myself, who carefully placed a piece of gold leaf on each ball often leaving bits of gold on fingers, face and hair.

I stood and listened to the chanting, feeling the warm air around me, the smell of incense, the call of birds and the sound of the trees swaying in the wind. 

The temple is like many of them here, a collection of several temples, each with its own unique architecture. However this is special. It is the Temple of the Four Buddha Footprints. The story is that the orginal Buddha, Siddartha, once came here and left his foot print, a very large print of about 10 feet long. Three more Buddhas came over time and each left a footprint on the same spot, though each became smaller. Signs to get there all had pictures of a big foot with three smaller ones drawn in. The belief is that someday the final Buddha will arrive, step in the footprints and they will all shrink to normal size. I waited in line to see them and was humbled by the respect shown.
Buddha's footprints
At the Thai temples I have attended in the US, members would bring food each week to feed the monks with the remainder shared with everyone there.  Food was usually delicious and plentiful.  The same thing happened here.  The tents you see in the top photo were filled with people serving food they had made there or at home and were offering it free of charge to anyone who wanted it.  I had some delicious fried rice and a cabbage noodle soup. 
My new world has welcomed me with food, family and tradition.  I look forward to seeing more.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Don't Worry, Be Happy

I spent the week worrying about how I will survive here on a teacher's salary and other such nonsense.  Thailand, by American standards, is very inexpensive.  However, when you start earning a Thai wage, everything else is put into a different perspective.  Getting my brain to stop thinking of 50 baht as only $1.50 US, and thinking it is 10 baht too much to spend on a lunch.  Ideally, I would prefer to get work out here in my old career and teaching on the side and in retirement.  Added to that, we have had so much smoke in the air from all the agricultural burning, I then started worrying about my overall health.  Fortunately, we were saved by Nee's brother this weekend. 
He drove up from Bangkok Friday to take us on a tour of our new home.  Since we don't have a car or motorcycle, we have been dependent on the songtaews for transportation, which is less flexible than I prefer.  He picked us up Saturday morning and drove us up to see some of the hilltribes above Mae Rim.  The road was pretty steep for his pickup with four of us in it, but we made it.  Our trip reminded me of the Hobbit.  We would get together, go on a long journey, have a bit of adventure and then stop for coffee.  We stopped a number of times.  Usually such travel would have me feeling impatient to do more.  This weekend, what we did was plenty.

The hilltribes are the native Thais.  They speak a different dialect, dress in traditional clothes, and now they grow strawberries.  They used to grow opium until the king came along and convinced them that opium wasn't doing the country, let alone the world, much good.  We stopped at a farm to pick, now that our group had grown to six.  The sun was hot, but we managed to pick enough to fill two quart containers.  The treat was that I had never eaten such sweet berries.  I have picked many strawberries and eaten far more.  None compare to these. 

We were also looking at some lots to possibly build a home on.  We went to the town of Maejo, the home of an agricultural college that reminded me of my alma mater in California.  The lot we saw had two large mango trees on it, big enough for two houses, and next to a lovely home owned by an Irishman.  I spoke with him and admired his yard, which was beautifully manicured and shady.  I started to see myself in my garden growing strawberries and eating my own mangos.  After we had lunch and iced coffee.

Today we drove up to Doi Sutep, a mountain outside town with a number of very ornate temples.  Though it was a bit of a tourist trap, I enjoyed the colors, the smell of incense and the site of the natives dancing and playing music.  I took a picture of the temples, a number of Buddha statues, and the, of course, went to have coffee.

My weekend trip helped end my week of school.  We were learning more grammar and practicing to teach younger children in class. Someone teaching English as a second language could be working with adults, teenagers, primary school students or even what my British teacher refers to as "kindies." Surprisingly, a few teaching methods are the same for anyone. Games are a way to get a student's mind focused away from their world and in to the teacher's. Walking into a room of active children takes determination on the teacher's part to gain their attention and get them working on the subject at hand. Our assignment was to come up with a game that would get the class' attention while also teaching a bit of vocabulary. The age group we were to be teaching is the kindies.

The actual students were the teachers in training, such as myself, and most of us struggled through. A few already have education degrees, and they don't really need to be in the class, but they wanted some extra credit. When working with young children, the rule is, "the less said, the better." I wanted to teach them animal names, such as dog and cat. I made a game of showing them a picture, telling the name, and then giving them the animal sound. However, I added a bit of a challenge to my "kindies" by using the sounds used for animals here. Dogs don't say, "arf, arf," but rather "hong hong." Ducks say, "gap gap," pigs say, "oot, oot" and so on. I got a room full of adults to sing, "Old MacDonald" making such sounds and it was great fun. I wished I had my guitar and was tempted to buy a ukulele beforehand, though I didn't.

Thoughts of animal sounds went through my mind as I stood by a reservoir near the lot we looked at.  I stood on the dam, watching fish jump to catch bugs.  I pictured myself in the future riding up on my motorcycle, fishing pole strapped to my back, food on board, sitting next to the cool waters watching my line bob in the water.  I wondered what sound the Thais think fish make.  And then I went to get another iced coffee.