Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Southing, Northing, In-Betweening...

Hello folks, it has been a while since we had a one-on-one conversation. You know, I speak to the computer screen, you read it. Just like me and you are having a nice little chat, except that you don't really respond. Well, in any case, it has been some time, and I apologize for that. But ever since the beginning of March, I have had no time! The school year in Thailand runs from mid-May to the end of February, and so, since the beginning of March, I have been trying to get as much traveling into my stay here in Thailand as possible.
I love Yasothon, and I have made so many good friends here in the Northeast, but I also think that since I have been given such an insane and lucky opportunity to come to Thailand, I might as well try to see some of the rest of the country while I am here. With some luck, I have been able to travel with friends and AFS people and have gotten to the south, Bangkok, and most recently the north.
I can easily say-- easily because I have still not seen all of Thailand-- that my two favorite places in this country are the extreme North and the extreme South. In early March I went back to Koh Lipe, the place I visited back in October with YES Abroad. Amina was also there, and Augusta, and some other friends from Yasothon and Chiang Rai. Although there were more tourists, being there a second time only confirmed my thoughts that paradise does exist, as long as you discount the sunburns.
I think that island culture transcends borders and countries. The people we met on Koh Lipe-- mostly Thai people running small businesses and a few tourists, were all so relaxed and laid back, living their lives from moment to moment, in almost a meditative way. There is so much to be said for the dichotomy of cultures in Thailand. The people I met on Koh Lipe are considerably so "Thai," yet so different than the Thai's I know from Yasothon or elsewhere. It might be good for me to mention how small Koh Lipe is. Here is a map of the island, it might put things in perspective:

As you can see, it must not be wider than one mile and longer than three. It is a bit hilly, as all islands should be, but it isn't much of a deterrent, and you can get from one side to the other in a good twenty minutes. Imagine for a moment that you lived there. Imagine living on such a small little piece of displaced Earth in the middle of the ocean. It's total isolation-- yet the whole world is within your grasp. My German friend and I met two really cool Thai guys who did fiery circus tricks, and at one moment I realized how sad it would be to be them, in a way. They meet really nice people every day from all around the world, have good conversations, and then, the next day, their new friends disappear forever. The sad thing is that my friend and I didn't get a chance to say goodbye to them after having talked to them consistently for a few days, and just like everyone else, we disappeared without a trace from their lives and will most likely never see them again.
So maybe that is why island people become so laid back and "mai pen rai" about life. Meditation is about accepting what /is/ in the moment and then letting it go. What better example than Joe and Alif, our two friends from Lipe who spend their days playing with fire and meeting new people, only to wake up to exactly the same but also an entirely different island every day, with tourists coming and going in the hundreds.
I want to go back to Koh Lipe one day, and I want to see how it is constantly changing. Like Thailand itself. It was basically unheard of fifteen years ago, a natural preserve owned by the state, and has slowly but surely grown into a crazy tourist destination that is enlarging by the minute. It saddens me as I see it changing, becoming more commercial, and being taken over by bungalows and private beaches (that we use nonetheless), but I also must realize that this is maybe Koh Lipe's inevitable path to take, and that one day, it wil all be taken back by the government and closed to visitors, becoming once again a beautiful landmark full of the memories of so many people.
My other favorite place is almost as far a possible from Koh Lipe, and takes about 30 hours by bus to reach from that far South. My other favorite place is called Pai, and it is a town nestled in a canyon among the magnificent and giant mountain range called the Shan Hills right next to Myanmar. Here is a map of Thailand, and on it, Satun(the province to which Koh Lipe belongs) and Mae Hong Son(The province that contains Pai) will be marked for a little perspective...

There... You can even see where I am right now, in the Northeast, pretty much equidistant from my two favorite places in Thailand!
In any case, Pai is really something. The car ride there from Chiang Mai took about four and a half hours with our coordinator driving us, and about three hours back in a van whose driver probably never passed a driver's safety course. It was like driving on some of the smaller roads on Highway 17 (If that means anything to you, reader), except that it was approximately six times longer than the time it takes to get from Los Gatos to Santa Cruz. Of course, there is no beach in Pai, but there are waterfalls, hill tribes, glorious viewpoints that look out onto spectacular views, and a whole bunch of (and I say this with all of my heart) amazing people. I have never been very good at making friends when I am alone, but with another person I am generally able to open up a bit more. Of course, the first people we met were Thais... Or at least we supposed that they were Thai, until we found out later that almost all of them came from hill tribes in the surrounding mountains and that they didn't necessarily associate themselves with our definition of Thai. In retrospect, they were also very, very different from North Eastern Thai people or central Thai people, from my experience. But they still had some similarities, such as there fanatic obsession with feeding us-- wherever you go in Thailand (there is one exception, the temple), Thai people are always ready to give you a huge meal and urge you to eat everything in sight.
Peculiarly enough, over one meal of sweet pork and rice with the Thai guys, I mentioned how I was feeling full, although I had only finished half of the generous portion of rice they had given me. Then one of them said something that changed my view of Thailand forever. Simply enough, he told me to finish my meal because the Thai people work hard for months harvesting rice bushel by bushel. Suddenly everything made sense. To me, up until that point I had been force fed for some unknown reason by my host families and other Thai acquaintances, and I had found it almost a daunting aspect of the Thai culture that they almost didn't understand the words "I'm full." But in a moment this all changed. Something clicked in my head, because I don't think that he was just making light conversation. I truly believed that this man was speaking for the countless rice farmers and harvesters that break their backs for hours and hours in the hot sun tilling and sowing and harvesting one of Thailand's premiere exports. I managed to shovel the rest of the rice in my mouth within the next ten minutes, and although it caused me slight stomach disruption, I am glad I did. I did it for the little people. I did it to be grateful that I get the chance to have a full meal. And I did it to say thank you to Thailand for everything that it has provided for me and its people.
These same guys were also some of the first people who I got to sit down with and talk seriously with about Thai culture and some things about it that I don't necessarily like, and I was amazed by their openness and their ability to say what so many others would never dare to.
In addition to the native people we met, though, Pai was also full of a colorful group of hippies and travelers who came to experience the "natural energy of Pai" as per the board in our guesthouse that also told us not to wear hot pants. Judging by the sheer percentage of dreadlocks and sarongs, I truly believe that these words were used to attract the majority of these people.
Personally, I loved meeting such a diverse range of people, all so full of character, but nonetheless, I didn't necessarily feel "at home." It is easy to fall into the rhythm of Pai, and I am sure that the slow pace of life and focus on wellbeing and peace with nature brings most people back a second and a third time. I met a lovely couple from Portland, Oregon, and one of them had come back eight times within her year in Thailand because she loves it so much. Among the other encounters were a San Franciscan DJ (I believe maybe the only person who has known where Los Gatos is in all of my travels in Thailand...?) who mixed really cool music, a traveling Frenchman who hadn't lived in the same place for over a year since he was ten, and an amazing 20 year old German girl who hitchhiked her entire way to Thailand, stopping along the way in places such as Iran and Nepal, and who is not nearly finished with her nomadic way of life.
My friend and I met her at a coffee shop that pretty much describes all of Pai. You walk in and it smells of Chai tea and incense. All the swing seats balancing from tires wrapped around wooden beams were taken, so we sat down at the next table, surrounded by books and wheatgrass. It was poorly lit but not fully covered, so outside light reached where we were by the cracks in the concrete wall dividing us and the outside world. The menu sold natural healing herbs and colloital silver in addition to food (vegan included!) and drink. She was strumming at an instrument I couldn't name off the top of my head, but sounded like a sitar, and sitting with a Russian family that looked rather normal in comparison to the other families I had seen in Pai (Turns out they live in India. Totally normal! ;) ). Upon taking my seat, I notice two books on the table-- the first is The Wheatgrass Book, and the second is called Pottenger's Cats: A Study in Nutrition. I think I have understood this place completely at that moment. I'm pretty sure I had. She started talking to us first and invited us to come sit on the swing chairs. She told us to come to the art festival that night because she would be playing. And we saw her a couple times after that, each time conversing about everything and nothing. I'll call her K, because I don't know how much information she wants to give out on the interwebs, but I can sincerely say that the conversations I had with her were so refreshing and so interesting because beneath her dreadlocks and tattoos, she is a 20 year old girl, and she didn't hide that fact. Self-taught in Setar and having covered a good portion of two continents in the vehicles of various people, her advice for me was that you can do whatever you want to do. You don't have to be "brave" enough to do it, or "talented" enough to do it, you just have to go at it with your all and it will be your reality. Although I may never stick my thumb out to get half-way across the world, and certainly not in the United States for that matter, I will keep that in mind when I think about my aspirations in the future.
Pai was wonderful. I felt like I changed while I was there, tangible changes that make me realize who I am a little bit more. I want to go back some day, but I know that it, too will be different. Everywhere will be. As we left the town in a twelve seat van headed up the mountain curves, I realized how different life was there from my time in the Esan. Oftentimes, when riding in a car down an endless stretch of Northeastern road, I am standing still, and I focus my eyes on the invisible destination ahead. Trees and road become just a part of the time warp that consumes me. all the life and beauty is irrelevant, it mixes together as my eyes struggle to find the unreachable. Leaving Pai, you can't help but look as the trees whip past you and you are once again turning 180 degrees in the opposite direction. you can't help but stare back at the place you left when you round a corner and see the valley off in the distance, surrounded by a curtain of mountains jutting up and around the civilization like a balancing act. You stare at the last bits of this beauty that you will find for a while, lingering on the memories, until you fall asleep.
Pai and Koh Lipe are so fragile, and so beautiful. They may not be the same today and tomorrow, and there is nothing we can or necessarily should do to keep this from happening. This constant change is visible everywhere in Thailand, as cities become more boisterous, touristic, and vertically oriented. The economy is growing at absurd rates, and the American dollar has gone down from 31 THB to 27 THB just in my short time here. I can see myself coming back to Thailand in several years and seeing it change before my eyes, and how I might grieve for the Thailand that once was. But it's okay. I will know where to find my Thailand, and I doubt that it will be very changed. In the small villages, in the country towns, on the long stretches of road connecting Bangkok and Chiang Mai, in the natural parks full of waterfalls and vibrant colors of green, and in the hearts of the people who call themselves "Thai." It is all there, where I left it, just waiting to be unearthed and resurrected. It may not be visible to the naked eye, but in the sights and smells of the new, my third eye will ascertain the old, dormant Thailand that comes alive to those who search for it.

Last but not least, I made a video about the southern trip. I hope you enjoy! ~Comment on youtube~


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Farewells and French Fries

Life in Yasothon is moving along, as life always does. There have been good and bad times, but I can effectively say that everything here is now normal to me. Christmas and the New Year came and went without much of a fuss, that which proves to me that it is easy to avoid homesickness during these times if you just think about a holiday as any other day of the year... Score one for apathy!

As far as farewells go, there have been a couple this month. I had to say goodbye to Jana, a farang friend who worked as an assistant teacher here at Yasothon Pittayakom School. She is off to travel independently for a month, and then she will be reunited with her family in Germany! So we went to "Coffee Bar," the cutesy cafe near her house (where the owner speaks English with a real English accent! She lived in the UK for a while) with all five of us (Me, Silvia, Jana, Marine, and Natasha), to wish her good luck in the next few months and have a last little moment together.
I've also had to say farewell to somebody else. I am going to be really mysterious and annoying here and tell you much, but it was a necessary goodbye for me, and I know that it will be for the better. I don't have regrets, and my life continues moving as always-- trudging forward, through the bad and the good, not necessarily with a specific goal besides trying to find some peace of mind, clarity, and happiness in this life. As of now, I think I have found that. I am finally happy with myself.

On another note, did you know that they eat more French Fries in Belgium than in France?! That's a mind-blowing realization, folks. The two Belgian girls here are making this Thai exchange far from normal and predictable, and I have been consuming lots of French Fries and waffles. Who would have thought that I would come to Thailand and speak primarily French with my farang friends? I am certainly not complaining... my French skills are returning, and I am even hoping to mix my slight American accent with a Belgian one so as to confuse the heck out of my French host family when I talk to them next. But aside from that, I can safely assume that there will be even more French Fries in the future... for a Belgian boy named Maxime will be joining us here in Yasothon at the end of January. I am certainly excited. More French Fries, and more French speaking...
But don't worry, my Thai isn't left by the way-side with this crazy mix of languages. I have been improving pretty steadily, and I can hold simple conversations with just about anybody, as long as they don't start to speak to me in the North Eastern dialect. Hmmm.

I am not sure if AFS would approve of my situation here, consistently having five farang at one school-- but as much as my exchange is not necessarily conventional, I can proudly say that I am happy as it is, and I wouldn't want to change it. In all truthfulness, I am not an "exchange purist." I think that you should make your exchange into what you want it to be in order to make yourself happy, so long as you still make an effort to connect with the people of your host country as well. And that I do...

The last thing I want to mention is that I made a (really crappy) video!
Watch it!

It may not be the most accurate portrayal of daily life, but it will show you some of the interesting stuff I have been up to... and put a picture to some of the places I mentioned in my last blog post!


The link is not herrrr... but here I will try again: