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

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.

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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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Musings, Travel & Adventure

No Tarantulas In Food Heaven

Tommy and I have eaten a few new things since coming to Southeast Asia: Tarantula, cobra, and crocodile, to name a few. Now, these creatures-turned-cuisine might not exactly tempt you to get in a plane and fly over here, dying to sample the local fare. But have I mentioned that when I stepped out of the van into Thailand, I stepped straight into heaven?

Oh, yes. Food heaven.

Everywhere I look, there are food carts loaded with frying, sizzling, tempting tasty treats — and no, not the 8-legged hairy kind. I had heard rumors about Thailand’s food; that it is a haven for foodies with all of its spice and flavor. I guess I just needed to see for myself. Now that I’m here, I can fully, truly, 100% confirm these reports — and I’ve barely even touched the surface of all the things you can eat here.

Let me give you a few tiny little examples: You can have fresh seafood — lobster, crab, fish of all kinds, scallops and mussels and shrimp. You can have pulled pork and fried chicken and fish grilled on a stick. You can choose from more fresh fruit than you’ve ever seen in your life — bananas, pineapple, mango, dragonfruit, papaya, apples and oranges, grapes and pomelo, and several fruits I cannot even identify. Coconuts practically fall into your lap however you like: shredded or blended in a shake or handed to you whole with a straw poked into the top and brimming with coconut water. If you want a local flavor, you can devour fried rice, coconut curry, or pad thai off the street (or you can merely eat these things like a civilized human; I of course did the devouring), or if you want something with a European flair, eat shepherd’s pie at the local English pub or sample fresh French croissants from a local bakery. You can stop to buy a cup of steamed corn straight off the cob, a sliced banana folded into a paper-thin crepe and drizzled with chocolate, or my personal favorite, the Turkish kebab, which is made from a huge slow-roasted slab of meat, slices of which are rolled into a wrap with vegetables and sauces. I’ve eaten four kebabs this week. The one night I didn’t eat one, I was actually disappointed, but was too stuffed from the pad thai previously devoured to even think about attempting it. If all of these tantalizing offers don’t capture your attention and you’re just craving something familiar, there are of course several McDonald’s, a Subway, a KFC and a Pizza Hut all within walking distance. But don’t do it, my friends. Don’t do it.

The experiences of eating are almost as enjoyable as the food itself. Standing around a street stall, sitting in plastic chairs along a busy street, or strolling the market are all fun ways to enjoy Thai cuisine. A favorite food experience so far was a great little restaurant in Pattaya called Shabushi that we visited with our friend Marilyn. At Shabushi, you pay a flat fee and then choose a seat along one of many conveyor belts that wind through the restaurant. In front of you sits a little pot on a high-heat burner. On the conveyor belt, countless tiny plates pass by in front of you, each one containing a small portion of some interesting ingredient. When you see something you like, you simply add it to your pot. Cook as long as you like, and by the end you have a savory dish of your own making. It might be spicy; it might be garlicy. Be careful though — your time limit is one hour! My pot had noodles, shrimp, chicken, cabbage, egg, water morning glory, garlic, chilli pepper, and some other unidentifiable things. (I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better when you just don’t know.) Oh man, it was good. And such a fun experience!

They say a watched pot never boils but my pot at Shabushi sure did:

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Oh, right… I was just going to give you a few tiny little examples. Oops.

But really, this insane amount of food is not good considering one of my greatest loves in life is eating; I am trying to limit my intake of fried things and also limit my output of money. But since I have to walk to get most of this food, I figure I am justified. I am not quite lazy enough — or perhaps too lazy — to go figure out the bus system, so I am also saving money by not paying bus fares. So walking to get food kind of cancels out the food, right? It’s like I never ate it…

Here is just a sampling of the many, many good things we have been feasting on since arriving almost two weeks ago.

Piles and piles of fruit:

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Fried chicken better than KFC’s (and healthier, I’m sure):

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Don’t want to carry around whole pieces of fried chicken? Buy it grilled on a stick instead:

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Ice cold coconut? Don’t mind if I do!

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Speaking of coconut, this shake contains fresh coconut, pineapple, and banana:

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Pad thai, so good it’s gone in the blink of an eye:

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Grilled corn on the cob, which you can also buy in the form of kernels smashed into sweet potatoes and rolled into balls. Oh yummy:

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And my two biggest weaknesses of all:

Weakness #1: Banana crepes. HOLY SHMOLY:

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Weakness #2: The Turkish Kebab. I think this is #4. Or maybe #9. I lost count:

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This is all quite inexpensive, in case I haven’t mentioned that before. Tommy and I have gotten to the point where if we see a meal for more than three or four dollars, we say, “Nah, too expensive,” and walk away. Three dollars is actually a splurge; usually we are in the one to two dollar range.

I think you are getting the picture. I don’t need to rub it in anymore. But if this doesn’t convince you to visit Southeast Asia at some point in your lives, then I don’t know what will. If you’re looking for me, anyway, I’ll be stuffing my face at some food stall in Thailand. Possibly eating my 178th kebab. It’s too soon to tell.

Probably not eating my 2nd tarantula, which is fine with me.

Musings, Travel & Adventure

A Free but Priceless Lesson

As part of our language training, we were instructed to go out into Pattaya, find someone of the local culture, and offer them a free one-on-one English lesson. What? This type of thing is not in my nature. I am not good at small talk with strangers and I also fail at everything related to sales. In college, I held a job for a while where we called and asked donors for scholarship money (basically: telemarketing). Every time I made a call, I wanted to apologize. “I’m sorry that I have to ask you this, but…”  Apologizing is not a good quality for a salesperson, but I hated asking. Those four hours a week were torturous.

To go out and try to get someone I don’t know to hang out with me while I attempt to improve their language skills for an hour seemed dubious. Plus, this would not work well in America. How would you even approach this? “Excuse me, but I notice your language skills aren’t up to par? I would love to help you out.” People would not only be offended, but would also be extremely suspicious of what we really wanted and get out of there as fast as possible.

However, we were told that English language lessons are highly valued by many people here. To take English classes costs money; to hire a private English tutor costs even more, anywhere from $10 or $15 on the low end to $50 or higher an hour. And wages in these Southeast Asia countries are very low, hence the inexpensive travel costs for Westerners. They want to learn English though. Knowledge is considered valuable, and as the influx of Western tourists is a large industry here, stronger communication in English is seen as an asset.

So, after a couple days of scoping out the area, I chose a young Thai waitress nicknamed Gif at a small local restaurant whom I had tentatively befriended. We had been there once or twice and she was bubbly, adorable, and seemed hesitant to speak very much English to us. Although locals have a much stronger grasp of English generally than we do of their language, some don’t want to embarrass themselves by speaking incorrectly. So one day when Tommy and I went in for lunch, I offered her the free hour lesson. (I didn’t even apologize while offering. Good job, Rachel.) To my surprise, she really did jump at the chance.

We met after Gif was done with work the next day at 9 p.m. She showed up, bubbly as usual, and as we conversed it became clear that she had stronger English skills than she originally let on. We had a great time talking about her life in Pattaya, her job at the restaurant, and my life in America. She had never heard of North Dakota, not surprisingly, but she seemed unusually interested in Texas. She also likes action movies, going to the beach with friends and misses her family, who live in another province. We worked on some of the pronunciation of items on her menu in English and also on some of the strange usage in our English language: For example, why does “down” mean to go lower, but if you say “down the street” you do not mean lower?

She also graciously taught me many words in Thai. Of the two of us, I was definitely the less advanced student. I know how she feels about feeling hesitant to completely butcher someone else’s language. She praised me for my every attempt though, which only made me like her more.

Here was my favorite part. At the end, I asked if there was anything she wanted to know in English. She said adamantly, “I need to know about buildings.” This threw me a little. What did she want to know about buildings? She wanted to know “who makes buildings.” So I explained, as best as I could, about architecture, about the building process, about contractors and construction crews. This seemed to satisfy her, but I just had to ask why she was so interested. She happily revealed that she has an American boyfriend named Patrick from Texas (which would explain her earlier questions), whom she met in Pattaya when he was on vacation and who works on building projects in different parts of the world. When he gets time off, he flies to Thailand to see her. When they communicate by phone or Skype, their only tool is her somewhat limited English as he knows no Thai. She claims that they really don’t understand each other a lot of the time.

Ah… Suddenly it makes sense why she jumped at the chance for this free English lesson.

But this Patrick better be a decent guy.

Because I feel like my new friend Gif is a pretty awesome girl. So I might have to step in and/or make some pretty serious threats if this Patrick is anything but nice to her.

This lesson wasn’t just beneficial for Gif. It forced me out of my comfort zone, which is exactly what I signed up for when I came over to Southeast Asia. I wanted several months of new experiences and I’m getting them. And they’re turning out to be worth it in every way.

Here is me and my new little friend (I can actually say “little” for probably the first time ever):

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