Musings, Travel & Adventure

Scuba Diving and No Mishaps

Traveling is full of mishaps. Just when you think everything is going smoothly, you get food poisoning and only barely make it to the public airport bathroom. You get lost looking for a museum and somehow find yourself in a field of goats. You end up stranded on an island because the weather prevents any boats from leaving. You “accidentally” almost murder a rooster. These things just happen. Actually, now that I think about it, all of these things I just mentioned DID happen.

Mishaps make the best stories provided they don’t end up in disaster.

However, I will put my storytelling instincts aside and report that our last week in Thailand actually decided to be kind to us. How boring! No one got sick. Our scuba course passed by in a blissful three days with no problems at all. Even the weather, which had been on-and-off rainy for weeks, seemed to smile on us. We also spent the last week in great company: Our brother Danny and cousin Adam joined us in Asia for the last two weeks of our trip – one week in Thailand and one in China – following the conclusion of our volunteer teaching. Seeing them across the world was a pretty sweet feeling.

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And of course, for them, missing the -40 degree wind chill back home and swapping it for a balmy 85 was a pretty sweet feeling too.

We met them in Bangkok and spent a day there before heading south to the island of Phuket, Thailand. We had to spend a little time on the beach before we could even think about doing anything else. Adam was so thrilled to be in sunshine again that he fried himself a bit – I don’t even think he cared. The rest of us are Norwegians with a red-headed mother. We don’t mess around with sunburns.

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The next day, we started what we had come to Phuket for in the first place: our scuba certification course. Of the four of us, Tommy was the only one with any scuba experience from a college class he had taken, but he hadn’t been certified. We chose a 3-day course that included coursework, pool work, and the open water dives. At the end, provided we passed, we would be PADI Open Water certified.

Usually at this point the mishaps would come in. I would tell you about one of us getting seasick, falling off the boat, failing the course, eating something nasty, getting caught in bad weather, being hospitalized for sunburn, or some other problem. But everything was pretty perfect. We liked our English instructor within a few minutes of meeting him. The weather was gorgeous. The water was so clear it was turquoise. Being able to breathe underwater is a pretty sweet feeling. And yes, we all passed.

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Pretty boring, isn’t it?

Because it really was perfect. Hands down, these were my favorite three days of our entire Asia trip. When I looked around and realized I was a world away from home, underwater in the Indian Ocean with two brothers and a cousin… Well, maybe it was one of those times you just had to be there. And maybe every once in a while, perfect isn’t so boring.

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It was a good way to end our time in Thailand.

Musings, Travel & Adventure

The Truth About Roosters

I have a confession: Tommy and I have an ugly side. For the most part, we are easygoing and agreeable, but this ugly side revealed itself recently.

Because of a rooster.

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I really don’t like those things. Don’t get me wrong: Chickens are great – cooked and arranged artfully on my plate, that is. Roosters live and in the flesh? No, thank you. In fact, I have some disappointing information: We have all been misled on the topic of roosters. According to cartoons and egg advertisements (both reliable sources, so I thought), these colorful fowls are supposed to perch on the barn around 6 a.m. when the sun is peeking over the horizon to give a cheerful crow and wake up the farmyard. At this point, the farmer and his wife and their daughter, who is wearing some adorable blue cotton dress, finish their breakfasts of biscuits, bacon and buttermilk and tramp out of the farmhouse with rosy cheeks to begin morning chores. That rooster, he just starts the morning off right. Thank goodness for his cheerful crow every sunrise.

So idyllic.

Such a lie.

Here is the truth about roosters: They do not crow at 6 a.m. They crow at 3 a.m., 4 a.m., 5 a.m., 6 a.m., and whenever they darn well please, lest you have forgotten their measly little existence in the past few minutes. Also, they do not crow in the farmyard. In Asia, at least the parts we visited, roosters crow all over the cities, in backyards, on rooftops, in the markets, and next to hotels where people are sleeping peacefully, Furthermore, their crow is anything but cheerful, and I wouldn’t even go so far as to call it a crow. It’s a screech.

Had I been asked a few months ago my opinions on roosters, my answer probably would have been indifferent. My dislike for them started in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. After months of listening to the horrible screeching music of roosters, the dislike has only magnified. Now when I am walking down the street, I give each one that I see an evil eye. I secretly hope that every chicken meal that I eat contains at least part of the rooster that woke me up the night before. Harsh, I know. I’m not proud of this.

I mentioned that Tommy also has an ugly side when it comes to roosters. On a recent visit to Chiang Mai, Thailand, this came to surface in both of us. (Never mind that we could have ended up in jail.) Here are both sides of the story, which we had sent in an email to our family shortly after the incident:

Tommy’s side of the story: A couple weeks ago, Rachel and I were staying at a hotel in Chiang Mai. It had great reviews and we were excited about our nice place to stay upon arrival. That changed quickly. The very first morning, I woke up at 3:59 am to the sound of a dying rooster. His song of sorrow was a sick melody of crowing for the next hour and a half. At first I felt bad for the chicken, but soon that changed as I realized I should probably put an end to its life. Hence, I soon found the chickens’ roost next door, in clear sight from the 3rd balcony, right outside my door. Looking for an object to throw was difficult, as many of the objects were too valuable to kill said rooster’s poor crappy existence. However, finding a 5-liter bottle full of water soon gave me hope. I was going to crush that rooster’s head.

Rachel’s side of the story: I had no sympathy for this so-called dying rooster. It was not dying but probably just really stupid. Its song was not a crow but a 3-note call that went high-low-SQUAWK! High-low-SQUAWK! Over and over, every 5 seconds, from 4 a.m. onward. I agree, however, that this thing needs to be put out of its misery. By 5:30, my ears were ringing with the high-low-SQUAWK and my thoughts had turned murderous. I wondered to myself, how much time would I spend in a Thai jail if I went out of this room, found the rooster, picked it up and wrung its neck? (This thought process really happened, by the way.) At least jail might be quieter. Did I just hear Tommy’s door open and close? In fact, unbeknownst to me, Tommy was indeed outside, taking my thoughts one step further. He had located the squawking rooster and was standing on the balcony aiming a full water bottle at it. He was checked only by the rooster’s owner coming outside to feed the chickens. This was probably a good thing, we decided — until the next night, that is. This time, the squawking started even earlier, and all I felt was despair. Did I just hear Tommy’s door open and close again? Way to take one for the team, Tommy. I promise to visit you in jail after I sleep a few more hours.

The third night, I had gotten past anger and despair, and when I heard the rooster squawk at 4 a.m., I felt nothing but depressed. I was going through the stages of grief. The thing I was grieving was my chance at ever sleeping again.

Only one thing has happened which has made me feel sadly vindicated over these little brainless menaces. Don’t worry, I promise this turned out fine in the end. But we did get a little laugh when we saw this:

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I still wouldn’t be too upset if he ended up as a box of nuggets….

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Tidbits About Thailand

Our time in Thailand, rather shockingly, is drawing to a close. Two months ago, I had said goodbye to my family and students and made frantic last minute additions to my backpack and iPod before leaving in a rush with an anxiety-induced stomachache, having no idea what to expect. Experiencing the initial culture shock upon arriving in Cambodia, I felt that my almost three months here would trickle by slowly. Instead, it’s flown by. I can hardly believe that we have only a week and a half left in Thailand before we head up to China for another week and then, home to the United States.

I have learned a lot of interesting things about the culture here. I am grateful we were able to come here as part of a volunteer teaching program, because we were able to learn more about local life than we would have merely as tourists. Of course, in two months I have barely scratched the surface of understanding a new culture, but I thought I would share a few little tidbits that people back home might find interesting:

  • Chopsticks are not widely used in Thailand. More common is a fork and spoon, as in the West, but general table manners would have you use the back of the fork, in your left hand, to push your rice or noodles onto your spoon, in the right hand.
  • Tipping is not common in Southeast Asia. In fact, on some occasions when we have tried to leave tips, the server has insisted we take our “change.” One transplanted American working at a beach restaurant told us that generally the only customers that leave him tips are other Americans.
  • It is generally considered poor manners to drink from a bottle by tipping it up to drink from it. Better manners dictate to drink from a bottle by using a straw. Should you buy a bottle of water or a Coke from a 7-Eleven, for example, you will be given a straw to go with it. Teachers should definitely not drink from bottles of water without a straw in front of students, as the students are likely to emulate them and thereby go home copying these bad manners.
  • Speaking of 7-Eleven’s, they dominate every street corner in every major town here. I haven’t even seen one in the United States for I don’t know how long, but I have grown to love these little treasure troves of convenience where you can buy a 1.5 liter bottle of water for a mere 40 cents.
  • The “wai” greeting is used largely among native Thai people, meaning to place two hands together in a type of bow to show respect. How high or low you place your hands depends upon the rank of the person you are greeting – place your hands higher (fingertips at eyebrows, nose, or chin, depending on the situation) when greeting monks, elders, teachers, and bosses, for example; and place them lower (chest level) for employees beneath you, people younger than you, and students if you are a teacher. However, with Thailand’s active tourist industry, the locals generally understand that we Western visitors will not be able to “wai” correctly and don’t often try to greet us in that way.
  • It is rude to beckon someone with one finger as we do in the United States, mainly because that is how they call animals such as dogs. Instead, you should turn your hand so that your palm is facing down and use your entire hand to beckon someone. It is also rude to point at someone.
  • In Thailand, the head is considered holy and the feet are considered lowly. For this reason, you must not touch the head of an adult (with small children, it’s usually ok), and you must not point your feet at someone while sitting. Instead, it is more polite to keep your feet crossed safely underneath your chair.
  • Because feet are considered lowly and feet touch the floor, the floor is also considered an undesirable place for items of value. Books and school supplies must not be placed on the floor or stepped over, as knowledge is considered valuable and stepping over them would be disrespectful to knowledge.
  • So many people in Thailand’s tourist areas speak English, that if you attempt to speak to them in Thai and greatly butcher the pronunciation (as I do), the friendly Thai people are almost less likely to understand you then if you just speak English. At the very least, you may very likely get laughed at. At least, I do. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, however! Tommy is better at speaking Thai than I am, I admit.
  • Much of the beauty market sells “whitening” products, in the form of face creams, lotions, and makeup. I always find myself jealous of the beautiful tan complexions here, but then again, usually we want what we can’t have. Perhaps it is similar to America’s obsession with tanning beds, fake tanners and bronzers?
  • Although Thailand is a democracy with an elected prime minister, the country greatly adores its royal family, so much so that to say anything disparaging about the king could land a person in jail. Even to step on money inadvertently is considered disrespectful, as the face of the beloved king is displayed on Thailand’s coins and bills.

Cultural differences are fascinating.

Speaking of, I think going back to the United States may be a culture shock all over again. Going from the humid 80- and 90-degree weather back to North Dakota’s winters will be the biggest shock of all!

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?

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I’ve made new little friends:

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And new grown-up friends:

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We’ve trekked over mountains:

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Climbed waterfalls:

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

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Participated in a lantern festival:

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Gave Thai cooking a shot:

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Went white-water rafting:

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Got up close to an elephant:

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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:

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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

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