Friday, August 27, 2010

She sneaks around the world from Hong Kong to Saronida…

Where as the first two months were spent primarily within the city limits of Chiang Mai, during the month of August I seemed to have barely been in the city.

For our week long break for midterms (which coincided with the end of my dengue experience) I drove solo down to the city of Lamphun – a drive lined with majestic rubber trees and explored wats both new and well kept, and ancient. On the drive back I went in search of an elephant chedi I had read about where one could offer up bananas and sugar cane to the stone elephants. I discovered the chedi and I also discovered around forty men and women dancing in bright and shimmering outfits – I stayed to watch sitting on the seat of my bike.

The next day I embarked upon a spontaneous trip to Hong Kong to visit my Princeton roommate Shobi! It was the oddest thing to board a plane in Bangkok and arrive in Hong Kong three hours later when I’m used to trips to Asia taking 30 hours…but wait I’m already in Asia. So I landed, made it into the city and was met by Shobi’s husband and led to a restaurant where we had a Chinese feast: fried fish, fried rice, cooked unidentifiable leafy vegetables, and Peking duck – I love Thai food, but there is a lot to be said for variety. Shobi and I spent the entire time giggling and swapping stories and remarking upon how absurd it was that we were both sitting in a restaurant in Asia! The next two days consisted of one delicious meal after another – homemade Indian chai in the mornings, and absurd amount of pastries, muffins, croissants, and cheese, long thin rice noodles that were made in front of us, curly black and white leathery mushrooms that looked like ears, an entire Indian feast of six dishes that we cooked together at Shobi’s apartment during a torrential downpour. For dinner one night we sought out a small hole in the wall restaurant notable for its possession of a Michelin star – the former chef of the Four Season’s decided to make a high class dim sum place for the people. There we ordered practically half the menu and left clutching our stomachs. When not eating we explored fish markets glistening with still flopping fish and malls shiny with Prada and Gucci, we took a day trip out to the coast and a trip across the river to watch the city skyline turn into an enormous light show complete with coordinated music.

(A little piece of Princeton for the two recent Alums!)

Then suddenly I was back on a plane and back in Chiang Mai…but not for long. The next morning Riley and I boarded a three-hour bus (playing Thai slap-stick comedy shows the entire way) to Chiang Rai to visit the three PiA fellows up there. We spent a day exploring the city via the flimsiest bikes I have ever had occasion to sit on. The next morning all five of us caught a bus up into the mountains to the town of Mae Salong. The town is famous for the large quantity of opium that used to be cultivated on its slopes, but the government in an attempt to crack down has had the town switch to growing tea and coffee. The town was originally settled by people of the Hunan Province of China and it has retained much of its ancestry in the modern day – the people look more Chinese then Thai, the food served is Chinese and so is all the writing on the store fronts. To sample the local goods we sat down at a tea-shop and sipped tiny scalding cups of green and jasmine tea. It sounds so serene right? Sipping tea up in the mountains in a tiny sleepy town…think again…while that might have been our intention, no sooner had we sat down then a group of locals sat down for a boisterous lunch, two kids got on a computer and started up a shooting game with the volume cranked up and a Chinese tour group descended on the shop in search of tea. Here be Thailand! I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But we not only sampled the tea of the north, but also the nightlife. First it was off to a Thai’s birthday party we ended up being invited to where we were served plates and bowls of Thai curries and soups and then (because such a party would not be complete without it) a good hour of karaoke! But the night wasn’t over yet and it did not end until early in the morning after exploring a hopping club complete with dragon head statues, fog machines, and green strobe lights, and deciding not to explore two clubs invitingly (or uninvitingly) named: The Womb and The Sperm Pub.

(A Small shop in Mae Salong)

Then it was finally back to that thing called work and class…but don’t worry not for too long…three weeks later I found myself boarding another plane this time to Bangkok for a three day adventure with the other Chiang Mai PiA girls! From our base camp on the edge of the famous red light district we hailed pearly pink cabs (the primary vehicle of the city) to the renowned old palace that literally glows with the amount of gold used on the wats, statues, stairs.

We explored one of the fancy malls of the city and ran into the oldest princess of Thailand – well not really ran into her, but saw her walk out of an elevator dressed all in pink on her way to open some store in the mall. The next day we headed out to one of the markets in the city – its enormous and seems to encompass everything if you can just find it: clothes – both practical and fashionable, pottery, jewelry, plants, food, music, furniture, art, cloth, and the most memorable – animals (also the hardest for me to handle). I have been to animal markets in China that are much worse, but even with it being better I don’t think I will ever be comfortable with them. But we did see everything it seemed: puppies and kittens of all varieties, hamsters, little squirrels on leashes, every kind of fish imaginable, chickens, ducks, turtles – including palm sized albino ones, raccoons, a small crocodile. In a dark corner we found a large group of men circled around a ring where inside we found two cocks going at each other… Geertz would be at home here.

(Riley utilizing her shades against all the glitter and gold of the old palace)

From Bangkok I headed off to my biggest adventure yet: a week in Turkey and Greece with the family for the occasion of our great friends Manolis and Lucile’s wedding! The trip could not have started off on a more promising foot – arriving bleary eyed to the hotel at 7 am I was beckoned down stairs and outside where I found a seat overlooking the Bosporus and from where I was served: a plate of cheese, cold meats, cucumbers, tomatoes and olives, a large basket of warm pastries, a bowl of muesli and yogurt in which I drizzled honey, a plate of fruit, a large glass of fresh orange juice and two steaming mugs of tea one after the other. While staring in wonder at this feast in front of me (many portions which are very sadly lacking in my new home country) I glanced up to see dolphins jumping off shore…can it get better than this? I don’t think so…of course it did!

First of all it was amazing to see most of the family (Daniel was home because he already had started college) as well as Pardis and John who were traveling with us. Then of course there was the exploration of Istanbul itself! Every morning we would set sail from Asia in pursuit of Europe (the Bosporus runs along the meeting of the two continental plates allowing us the amusement of breakfast in Asia, lunch in Europe and dinner back in Asia). We wandered through the Grand Bazaar, craned our necks to get a good look at the painted interior domes of a number of mosques, strolled through the old Harem quarters of Tokapi Palace. To escape the sun we stepped into the dimly lit marble chambers of an old city Haman – possibly patronized by Ataturk and Florence Nightingaleand were led into octagonal heated rooms with geometric perforated ceilings and gushing fountains along the walls, where large Turkish women scrubbed years worth of dirt from your skin and sang songs that reverberated off the stone.

While wandering one afternoon in the Grand Bazaar we happened upon a backgammon game played by old Turkish men in a side silver workshop. (Backgammon is an unofficial national sport of the country and personally my favorite game). Staying to watch we were drawn into the folds of the game. Then suddenly I found myself warmly beckoned to the wooden stool and throwing dice with trepidation, with an older mentor at my side who would shake his head and re-move my pieces on occasion if he thought my moves unwise. Over the course of three rounds we drew thirteen more men around our table and at some point we were offered tea that I gulped in between moves – The men play incredibly fast seemingly having memorized every possible move and combination – I have thus since resolved to study hard before my next visit.

(David scaling an old Byzantine wall)

Then of course there was the food: I could go on and on about the wonders of cheese (and by the trips end it had become a running joke) however I will attempt to spare you and just say that there is a glorious amount of cheese and yogurt in Istanbul and I made it my duty to sample some at every meal and indeed between meals – a daunting task for sure, but utterly enjoyable! But besides just cheese it was simply amazing to not be consuming coconut milk, curries, and somtam (papaya salad). I have grown up partaking in the cuisine of a different country every night and it has been odd to limit myself to just one these past months. We ate: cheese borek, overstuffed potatoes, small Turkish dumplings smothered in yogurt, kefta, fresh fish – grilled and fried along the Bosphorus, cherries and meatballs, lentil soups, kebabs, baklava, honey cakes, Turkish double boiled tea, blackberries, figs and, the day before we flew to Greece – goat milk ice cream with the consistency of melting taffy, sweetened with tree pollen and flavored strongly with Turkish coffee grounds!

All to soon it we were grabbing our last cheese borek to go and boarding a plane to Athens, but our prospects were hardly gloomy for of course there was the main event of our trip still ahead of us. Friday night dinner consisted of an intimate family feast at Manolis’s parents’ summer house – an intimate feast of maybe forty people. Platters of lamb – including the local favorite – lamb innards, which taste just as succulent, tzatziki, fries, spinach dishes, trays of figs, Greek ice cream, French fruit pastry tarts…dinner.

The next day was one of recovery and utter laziness…sitting by the pool reading, swimming, exploring just far enough to find a cheese shop (you have probably gotten the impression that I might be harboring a not so secret obsession…you would be right) and a shady restaurant by the beach where we filled the table with food (we guessed that dinner wouldn’t be till quite late). Then it was off to the wedding where we sipped wine on the beach and applauded when the bride and groom emerged looking gorgeous. And then we were off in all our finery following the bride and groom as they led forty minutes along the beach and up into the hills to a tiny church, all the while the bright red sun slowly dipping into the ocean.

For all those who have seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding and wonders as to the validity of the service I can attest that it is relatively accurate. The church that Manolis and Lucile got married in was much more beautiful – all awash in floor to ceiling murals, and the priests were large, bearded and robed. After the service we processed in a leisurely fashion back to the house carrying small white lanterns that flickered in the semi-darkness. Then there was cocktails, speeches, pictures, movies, dinner (as we had surmised) was not served till midnight – but what a Greek feast it was! Dessert was not till 2 am, as was dancing. Despite the lure of 4 am swimming we said our good byes around 2:30 as all those west bound (everyone except me) had to get up again to catch their plane at 6 am! My plane did not leave till 2pm so I had a leisurely morning at the hotel – and yes stuffed down not one but two bowls of Greek yogurt and honey (can you blame me? I have to wait another six months before I’m likely to have any). And then I was off back to Asia.

And now finally I am home…it is still slightly odd to think that Thailand is home, but there is familiarity and comfort in being back in the city for sure. (That comfort started even before I unlocked the door of my apartment, when I ran into one of my students at the airport who then offered and gave me a ride home!) I am settling back into routines, though there are never fully formed routines here. I have taken on new projects to keep me busy (their description will come in a later post) and I am re-taking up older pursuits. And yes, I am already looking online and talking to friends about our next adventure – the semester ends in little less then a month, at which point we have a three week break…I still have much of Asia to explore!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

By Your Students You'll Be Taught

Two months have been washed away by the monsoons that now scour the streets of Chiang Mai daily, and which turns the road outside of my house into a foot high river. With the rains, have come new fruits: bright orange persimmons, oblong Langsats and longans, pebbled sugar apples, golden bananas are just starting to appear. The weather is humid and hot, but not quite as hot as July and certainly not as hot as June. Mosquitoes are now a given (hence the dengue), as are the raised bites that speckle my legs.

Noticing these changes I also find myself realizing how I have settled into life in Chiang Mai. The smell of dried squid or the sight of men and women driving motorbikes while carrying umbrellas up against the rain seems normal (true I still get extra excited when I find a black Labrador balancing, while standing up, on the back of a motorbike speeding through downtown traffic!) The back of the throat spice and the coughing fits from cooking chilies in the air is routine (I don’t bat my eye but they certainly do water.)

And as I get more comfortable, I have found myself (at times) getting less comfortable – feeling like I am not pushing myself hard enough, exploring more, getting farther outside my comfort zone (and it is in many ways great to say that daily life here is now way within the limits of my comfort zone). Even being halfway around the world, in a country where I know only a handful of phrases and am in charge of over 150 students, I find myself slipping into patterns – going to the same smoothie shop to work and sip mango smoothies, the same restaurant to grab fried eggplants or pineapple fried rice. Thus, I have taken the two-month mark as a time to re-assess: what I eat, where I explore, how I teach.
Such thoughts led me to jump bleary eyed on my motorbike Sunday morning and drive to the market for breakfast before heading to a Wat to draw, and where I ended: up drawing with the four year old son of the women cleaning the wat, falling into conversation with an extremely Buddhist older woman and her husband down from Bangkok and having a impromptu Thai lesson with a taxi driver. It is these sorts of experiences that I am on the prowl for.

But at the heart of my experience in Chiang Mai are my classes and my students. There are certainly days where it is challenging, more then challenging. I have had a share of terrifying moments where my words are greeted with silence and blank stares of absolute incomprehension. I have had activates take an hour that I had budgeted for fifteen minutes and I have had students require their fellows as translators because they know so little English. I have had kids stroll in fifteen minutes late and I have had more than my share of very low grades (especially disheartening when I have so many students that I can’t possibly help all of the struggling students get A’s). Yet despite all of the frustrations and self-doubt that is part of my daily homework and life as a teacher, one “ahh” or funny moment in class remains my greatest endorphin and will leave me grinning all day long (and sometimes longer). On the few occasions when I have been down, it has been my students who have succeeded in making me smile and laugh.

A few such moments:

• For one class I had my 201 students come up with advertisements of new products. Here are two products/advertisements that will soon be hitting the shelves across the world:
Underwear! “Cover all your secret hairs” “make good shape” “recommended by Jessica Alba and Lady Gaga” $13!
Sorcerer pen – “buy in 10 seconds. 9,999 baht.” “Infinity (symbol) ink” “Increase 10% for guess answer” “write by itself from owner think” “tui engineering guarantee”

• For the 101 presentations five of my guy students turned the stage of our classroom into one of the most popular bars in town: Warm Up, and proceeded to present their conversation in a “drunken” state, stumbling around while wearing light up horns on their head!

• In a charades like activity on romance vocabulary two of my guy students faced with acting out the word “romance” first acted out a proposal and then gave each other a full-on stage kiss!

• I have had Harry Potter visit my class, apparently – he professed – having come to Thailand specifically to see me. My class has also played host to fire bearing fortune-tellers, globe-trotters, and fairy godmothers complete with costumes and accents.
• I have a tendency to use the word “lovely” a lot (ex: “Great job! Lovely! Lovely!”). In one activity where a girl in my 201 class was pretending to be a teacher and teaching all of us the word “specific” I got to see myself acted out. Girl: “ok repeat after me: Spe –ci -fic” Class: “Spe – ci - fic” Girl: “Aww lovely lovely!”

• At the end of every class I end with having my students teach me three Thai words – partially so I can learn more vocabulary and partially so that it is not just me teaching them and they can see that it is ok to mess up – as I struggle to get the tones right and all the kids laugh and encourage me. One of my 201 classes takes particular pleasure in coming up with the most similar sounding Thai words to teach me: Krai (who) Kai (egg) Kaai (to sell) ta pu (nail) Blah tu (mackerel) Bra tu (door) Ta roak (baby) Ta Lard (Market) Ta loak (funny) - ahh indeed!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Hills with White Elephants

This post is a little late in coming - but its writing was interrupted by dengue... which I would say is a reasonable excuse.

Every morning I walk out on to my balcony and look out on Doi Suthep Mountain – some times beautifully clear and other mornings covered in low hanging clouds or obscured completely by sheets of rain. High up on the mountain a triangle of gold can be spotted on clear days – Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. The legend goes that a monk had a dream which lead him to discover a bone believed to be the shoulder bone of the Buddha, after offering it to one king who didn’t not believe the monk’s story the bone made its way to the king of the Lanna Kingdom where the relic split into two. One piece was enshrined in a temple a couple blocks from my house, the other was placed on the back of a white elephant who proceeded to climb the mountain, trumpet three times and then die. The temple was then built on this site.

Most people drive up the mountain to visit the temple, but I wanted my first visit to be by foot. Sunday it finally happened. Plans were drawn (literally and figuratively) I would start at the bottom, Denali and TeReva would meet me halfway up at a beautiful forest temple, we would hike to the Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep and then circle around to an enormous old fig tree and down nine waterfall tears.

So at 9 am I set out in search of the trail head – up Suthep Road, passed CMU, passed the zoo, up a couple of steep roads and finally to a small dirt lot with a wooden sign complete with a simple map of the hike. I locked up my bike and headed out into the jungle. I have hiked in jungles before – in Costa Rice, Trinidad, Kenya, Tanzania, but always with a friend who knew the area. Here I was all by myself tramping down narrow paths, passing large leafy fronds and wondering what large wild animals might possibly be lurking nearby (or large slithering reptiles). Fortunately none materialized.

At one point I came upon a rest area that was lined with trees that had been dressed in bright orange monk clothes (to signify that they were sacred and should not be cut down). I also came to realize that what I thought were vibrantly pink shoots lining the path were actually hundreds of incense sticks – perhaps I was not quite as alone as I had thought.

Because of the vast quantity of mosquitoes I kept a steady pace. At one point I passed through a steep rocky stretch covered over with a canopy of bamboo that hung so low that I was forced to proceed bent double. Just when I really began to wonder when I might reach this forest temple I came upon a stone bridge and on crossing it the temple appeared in front of me.

At the temple I met up with Denali and Tereva who had dined on oatmeal and bagels and had brought me up jerky grilled chicken to munch on – delicious! We wasted little time heading up on the second half of the hike, which was steeper and at first drier and more exposed before it plunged back into the depths of the jungle again near the top. Summiting to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep was not quite as epic. The trail ended three turns on the road below the temple entrance but the actual temple itself was beautiful and very grand. Because it was my first time Denali suggested I buy an offering of lotus flowers, incense and candles to present at the temple, which I did. First I walked thrice clockwise around the main chedi the offerings held out in front of me as I contemplated what wishes I wanted from the temple and the mountains then I lit the incense, knelt in front of the chedi and deposited the blossoms on a silver tray the now lit candles in the holders that were suspended over a basin of water and the incense in a large incent holder. Outside the main temple we could look out over the whole of Chiang Mai and with a little searching I was actually able to spot my apartment! (The rainbow painted garage near me was helpful - check out the picture in the earlier post about my room!)

From there it was farther up the mountain, leaving the tourists and temple goers behind and off into the quiet of the jungle again in search of an enormous old fig tree. The particular species of fig tree is a strangler fig, which does just what you would expect – grows up and around a host tree and suffocates it. The host tree in this case had long since died, leaving the absence only, like a giant ribcage stretching upwards.

We continued down through the steamy jungle finding leaves the length of our arms, seeds that were deep brown and smooth and more then a few mosquito bites. And then after climbing over a particularly large log and balancing our way across another we arrived at the highest of nine waterfalls. On one of the lower falls we found some stone slides that were too irresistible not to swim in…of course that was until we discovered the little black leeches that started crawling up our legs! We moved on quickly!

Finally it was back to the road, a songtow back to Denali and TeReva’s motorbikes, wet ride down to my motorbike, a quick shower before meeting up for warm bowls of noodle soup and an epic showing of Cliff Hanger at the climbing wall! A worthy adventure all around!

Now looking out at the mountain every morning has a whole new meaning.