Musings, Travel & Adventure

New Perspectives from the Airport Bathroom Floor

About eighteen months ago, I decided my life had gotten too comfortable and that I needed a new perspective.

A few days ago, I found myself on the tiled floor of a public airport bathroom in Bangkok, throwing up my food-poisoned dinner from the night before, cursing myself and the bathroom and all of Asia in general.

Why did I ever think that “too comfortable” was a problem?

Let me tell you exactly how I came to find myself on that bathroom floor: After deciding I needed this new perspective, I researched Southeast Asia volunteer teaching programs online for months, began setting aside chunks of my teaching paycheck, got a second evening job, booked tickets, quit both my jobs, moved back home, found a new job willing to give me three months leave, prepared sub plans for those three months, applied for visas, got all sorts of brutal vaccinations in my arms, stocked up on sunscreen and mosquito spray, and packed everything I could into a backpack.

And here I am.

Did I really do all of this for the sake of gaining a new perspective on life?

I’ve always been accused of being a little bit dramatic.

But on that bathroom floor, I came to the realization that it’s working. As my list of new experiences expands — some more enjoyable than others — I do believe I’m getting what I came here for. I’ve seen and tried more new things in the past two months then I have in any other period of my life. I’ve been lost, homesick, swindled out of money, challenged, exhausted, disgusted, and culture-shocked. I’ve lost what feels like half my body weight in sweat in one day; I’ve battled the fastest, most ninja-like mosquitos that I’ve ever battled; I’ve trusted the kindness of strangers who don’t speak a bit of my language. I’ve purchased overnight bus tickets just to find myself on the overnight bus from hell. And of course, I’ve lain on the floor of a public airport bathroom in Bangkok, wanting to die and be put out of my misery. (I told you I could be dramatic.) Oh, and I really miss my dog.

But here’s the thing: I’ve also made new friends, learned a bit of a new language, and (somewhat) successfully taught English to Thai children. I’ve enjoyed my interactions with locals; and I’ve had interesting conversations with other travelers from Poland, France, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, Iceland, Spain, Australia, and the UK. I’ve gained a new taste for spicy food, gazed at the Indian Ocean for the first time, and found a good traveling partner in my brother Tommy.

I didn’t know what to expect when I signed up, but I think I can say that so far — despite the few hiccups — it’s been a good decision. The months preparing weren’t easy; the months spent here haven’t been easy; but I knew they wouldn’t be. I knew I was going to be hot and sweaty the whole time. (To those freezing in the Midwest right now: I apologize and I know this may be hard to hear, but intense heat is not all it’s cracked up to be.) I knew I would end up lost more than once. I knew I would like the kids at my school just a little too much. I had a strong suspicion I might get food poisoning. And I knew I was going to be thrown right out of my comfort zone. That’s what I signed up for, for reasons I can’t always remember now.

Here are a few pictures of our more memorable new experiences. (If you don’t mind, I’d rather forget the airport bathroom.)

Remember The Spider?


I’ve made new little friends:


And new grown-up friends:


We’ve trekked over mountains:


Climbed waterfalls:


Visited countless beautiful temples (this, the White Temple in Chiang Rai):


Participated in a lantern festival:


Gave Thai cooking a shot:

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Went white-water rafting:


Got up close to an elephant:


And kayaked, in the rain, through Thailand’s renowned karst formations. On this particular adventure, I also had to arm myself with my paddle against creepy little bandit monkeys, but I refused on principal to take pictures of the little jerks:


Most of the new experiences, unfortunately, really can’t be caught on camera. If I could, I would show you the insane traffic in Cambodia, or the friendly Thai security guard practicing his English on me, or the moment we realized we were really, really lost in Chiang Rai. I can’t, but you can take my word for it that my perspective, in just 8 short weeks, is changing. I appreciate things I didn’t appreciate before. I’ve gained new ideas about the world. And I still have a few more weeks to go before I go home for Christmas. Hopefully, the list of new experiences will keep expanding until then.

On second thought, remembering the airport bathroom that I’d really like to forget, maybe I should be careful what I wish for….

Musings, Travel & Adventure

The Kids at Korpai

Our weeks at Korpai Kindergarten were filled with singing, games, flashcards, and all sorts of fun (slash exhausting) activities that I don’t usually get to do at my teaching job back in the States. “Teacher Tom” and I had a lot of fun during our teaching experience there. We taught little English lessons with different topics every day, from insects to zoo animals to things at a park. I think Teacher Tom was a bit of a natural, actually. If he wasn’t going into secondary science education back home, I think he would make a pretty good elementary teacher. He sang enthusiastically, he led games that were loud and boisterous, and the kids loved him.


One day, I did get a pretty good laugh, though. I was preoccupied taping flashcards of insects up on the wall for our next activity, so I let Teacher Tom handle the transition by singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” with the kids. He started too high. “Wait, stop,” he said. Then he started too low. Then his voice started cracking. Then, he skipped a line. Then, another kid sang the wrong line, so Tommy went with it. I found myself laughing harder and harder, unable to step in and save him. Tommy glared at me. “Thanks for the help,” he said. I just laughed more. The kids probably didn’t know much different, although I think a few of them had an inkling that Teacher Tom didn’t know much about “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

When it came time to say goodbye our last day of teaching, it was pretty sad. We sang the Shark Song one more time. I watched Dtang-Mo run around the Duck-Duck-Goose circle one more time. I watched Teacher Tom yell at the top of his voice during Red Light, Green Light one more time. The hard part was knowing that, more than likely, we won’t see these kids again in our lifetime. Hopefully, they are in good hands.


When we packed up to leave at the end of the lesson, the kids asked their regular teachers where we were going. “America,” she said. The kids rattled off something to their teacher in Thai, which we didn’t understand. She said something to them, and they looked at us pretending to rub their eyes and cry. “They are sad,” she translated.

When we walked away, they gave us a pretty sweet goodbye for us to remember. To leave every day, we had to walk by a gated doorway that looks from the kindergarten out onto the street. This time, the kids rushed to the gate when we left and stuck their arms out in little waves and little peace signs. They were smiling, laughing, sad. It was a pretty touching moment.

Happily, I snapped a picture before we left for good:


I’m going to miss those little rascals.

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Stolen Inspiration

I love learning about new cultures. But one thing that this trip to Southeast Asia is showing me yet again, is that although the world contains its cultural differences, the people in the world are really not that different. Everywhere I go, there is love and laughing; there is pain and despair and things we don’t understand and will probably never understand. My time in Cambodia was heartbreaking at times with its level of poverty, especially in rural areas. Some of Thailand’s kids, like my little friend Dtang-Mo, need more than just English lessons every day — and they are so adorable that it hurts. To the southeast, our neighbors the Philippines have been slammed by “super typhoon” Haiyan, which has killed and displaced thousands.

The struggles extend beyond Southeast Asia to the rest of the world, to America, to North Dakota, the oil boom, friends and family, my home, your home, everywhere.

That’s why I like this poem I’m going to share with you. I stole part of it from a decorative sign at a Minnesota lake resort last summer. I liked it so much that I recently did some research about its origins and in doing so, stumbled across the rest of the verses. I’ve learned that it is actually a hymn based on poetry written in 1919 by a young woman named Annie Flint Johnson.

Some stolen inspiration for you:

What God Has Promised

God has not promised skies always blue
Flower-strewn pathways all our lives through
God has not promised sun without rain
Joy without sorrow, peace without pain

God has not promised we shall not know
Toil and temptation, trouble and woe
He has not told us we shall not bear
Many a burden, many a care.

God has not promised roads smooth and wide
Swift, easy travel, needing no guide
Never a mountain rocky and steep
Never a river turbid and deep

But God has promised strength for the day
Rest for the labor, light for the way
Grace for the trials, help from above
Unfailing sympathy, undying love…

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Musings, Travel & Adventure

A Little Watermelon

I know I’m not supposed to pack the kids from school into my bag and take them back home with me, but I can’t help but want to, just a little bit. Especially one tiny little girl named Dtang-Mo, which translates literally into “watermelon.”

Dtang-Mo is about 2 years old, has dark eyes, dark curls and chubby cheeks. She is missing her front teeth prematurely. She grins at us every time we make eye contact with her and every time she sings. She loves singing. Her favorite song is “Itsy-Bitsy-Spider.” Sometimes when we are sitting on the floor, coloring or playing a game, she sits close to me, begins doing the actions for “Itsy-Bitsy-Spider” with her little chubby fingers, and whispers the words to me, or at least something that sounds sort of like the words. When I sing it softly with her, she holds up one index finger at me at the end, which means “one more time.” When we get to the end, she holds up one index finger at me again. I could sing “Itsy-Bitsy-Spider” with her all day long.

When we color, we sit on the floor like all the rest of the kids. The school doesn’t have many school supplies, but it does have a bag of crayons and the kids get only one or two colors each. She sticks out her tongue when she colors pictures of lions, spiders, and gardens. When she is finished, she points at the blank white back of the coloring page. I draw a flower. “Flower,” I say. “Fwow-a,” she repeats. The next day, she finishes coloring and points at the white space again. I draw a flower. “Fwow-a,” she says excitedly, and begins pointing to all the white space repeating “fwow-a,” over and over again. Pretty soon, her paper is covered in flowers. This happens every day for a week. At least I know I taught one word, flower, to at least one student, Dtang-Mo, if I accomplish nothing else on this trip. I could draw flowers with Dtang-Mo all day long.

When we play duck-duck-goose at the end of the morning, she gets picked sometimes. Seeing her little grin and her chubby little legs as she bounces around the circle makes me bubble up with laughter inside. She never tries catching the kid who picked her. She just bounces. I could play games with her all day long, too.

I would take this little watermelon home with me, if I could.



Musings, Travel & Adventure

Handle with Care

Tommy and I are having a great time teaching and traveling here in Thailand. I’m pretty lucky to have my younger brother as a companion. We make a good duo with our similar yet different personalities. We are alike in many ways: We both like good food and good books, we like to explore, we have the same sense of humor, we enjoy conversation but can also go for hours without speaking and be perfectly content, and we’re both pretty good about rolling with the punches when plans change. We have different personalities, too, in good ways. I get things done; Tommy keeps things calm and cool.. I arrange the details and book the flights and hotels; Tommy follows along cheerfully. I score 1% higher than Tommy on the Thai language Test; Tommy scores 1% lower than me on the Thai language test. (Oh wait, that really has nothing to do with our personalities. I just had to throw it in there.)

Anyway, it works out.


But let me just say, that every once in a while, Tommy is pretty good at tuning me out when I chatter away.

And every once in a while, Tommy can get a little bit ornery. When this happens, the situation must be handled with the ultimate delicacy and care. The rest of my family can attest to this fact. Unfortunately, in this particular instance, I failed.

On Saturday, after a long week of teaching and Thai class, we jumped on a bus from Pattaya to Bangkok. We booked a hostel, met up with a couple friends named Jackie and Carlton from our program, and starting exploring the city. I have to say, I hadn’t given Bangkok enough credit. It is busy, yes, but really it’s more like bursting — with life, energy, and of course, food.



I don’t need to bore you with more descriptions of street food and street markets — Bangkok has plenty of those. One market in particular, though, turned out to be pretty cool. That’s because this one wasn’t exactly on the street. The Dumnoen Saduak floating market, a couple hours’ drive out of Bangkok, is entirely organized within canals and shopping there can only be done by boat. To get there in time to visit the market, we were told we needed to get up early, take the Sky Train to Bangkok’s Victory Monument, and locate a minivan to take us there for a couple dollars. Jackie and I planned the excursion and arranged the details. When we informed the boys we were leaving the hostel at 6 a.m., they enthusiastically agreed. Or at least I thought they did.

Remember when I said Tommy tunes me out from time to time?

And remember when I said he can get a little bit ornery?

And remember when I said these situations should be handled with delicacy and care?

Here is how that morning went:

  • 5:30 a.m. Wake up and get ready.
  • 5:55 a.m. Realize Tommy is still sleeping facedown while the rest of us are ready to go. Wake him up by shaking him and saying, “Tommy, we are leaving now!” At this point, I was not handling the situation with delicacy and care. Mistake #1.
  • 6:02 a.m. Tommy is still sleeping facedown. Ask impatiently if he is getting up or what? Still not handling the situation with delicacy and care. Mistake #2.
  • 6:05 a.m. Realize mistakes #1 and #2. Decide to be patient and leave Tommy alone to get ready. Try to make amends by asking if he wants me to buy him a bottle of water. No response. (Tommy definitely appears to be grumpy.) Ask if he can lock the door when he comes. No response. (He still appears to be grumpy.) Ask again if he wants me to buy him a bottle of water. Finally a mumbled “yeah, sure” in reply. Leave the room carefully with no more questions for Tommy.
  • 6:20 a.m. Finish breakfast and coffee with Jackie downstairs. No sign of either boy. Try to maintain patience.
  • 6:23 a.m. Appear in the doorway of the dorm room. Give the boys the evil eye. Tommy still appears to be grumpy and is throwing piles of clothes out of his locker angrily and shoving other things back in. He is muttering to himself. I am by now a little nervous to approach but I declare anyway, “Um, we were supposed to leave at 6?” He glares at me and replies, “I didn’t know that. You never told me that.” Do I tell him that I did in fact inform him? It’s at my own risk, but I go for it. “I did too tell you.” More glaring, muttering and throwing of clothes. I leave the room wishing I had handled the situation with more delicacy from the beginning. Remind myself to never wake up Tommy in anything but a gentle manner.
  • 6:27 a.m. Leave the hostel with ornery Tommy trailing behind. Although he doesn’t smile much, I think by the time we get on the Sky Train that he might be warming up. Or waking up. One of the two.

Several hours and a van ride later: Tommy is back to his cheerful self and we have a great time at the floating market.

Lesson learned.

Here are some pictures from the floating market so you can see that Tommy did, in fact, start smiling again. 🙂

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Ah, there’s that smile. It was a fun day.

And my traveling companion? Well, he’s still awesome; I can be a bossy older sister, after all, and I understand feeling ornery from time to time. I got a few good laughs out of the morning at any rate. (Although I tried not to laugh at him until I thought he was a little more cheerful. Remember… delicacy and care.)

More on teaching to come soon!

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Tommy and Rachel Walk to School

Thailand is not all beautiful beaches, relaxing massages, and delicious food, although it certainly contains all of these things. Thailand has indeed seen rapid economic growth and development in the last two decades, making it fall under the category “newly industrialized countries.” However, it is still a country of low wages and a significant level of poverty once you look under the surface of all the glossy guidebook photos. In the mornings when we walk to school, we do not walk toward the beach and the nightclubs and the classy malls, all popular tourist spots. Instead, we walk ten minutes the other direction, but a direction which I find much more interesting. Our “kindergarten” is a low-income school for small children in a neighborhood that many tourists do not visit. The school does not have tables, chairs, desks, or an abundance of school supplies. The kids do most of their coloring and tracing on the floor and rely on volunteers for English lessons.

One morning when Tommy and I walked to school, I brought my camera along. This post, “Tommy and Rachel Walk to School,” is a tribute to walking in the other direction. You will see photos of the streets, the street stalls, the outside of our low-income kindergarten, and Thailand’s questionable electrical wiring. Enjoy!











And one more for my Dad, because he thinks he is a packing expert. Dad, see the real experts: