Monday, February 26, 2007

Seriously CELTA

So, as many of you know, I am deep within the bowels of CELTA and all I have to say is DAMN, the English language is hard. Some days, my head spins with the lessons that feel more like I’m learning the chaos theory than a viable human language, and I thought I already knew English! The course really is intensive and takes over one’s life. I don’t know how I could do it, if I had my regular life moving around me. However, I guess living in Thailand is my regular life these days.

I am very much in the boonies of Chiang Mai outside of Hang Dong… yes, that’s right, the place is called Hang Dong.

But anyways, being in the middle of nowhere can be a blessing and a curse. The great things are that the place has a very retreat feel with all the yummy homemade Thai meals scheduled and served buffet style, the area is quiet and pretty, there are few distractions, and it is easy to not spend any money. What’s rough is that you have to pay a pretty penny and schedule in advance if you want a taxi to get out of here, and that is pretty much the only way to go anywhere, unless you just want to go on a nice walk. The internet is very iffy (hey, at least there is internet), and you have to very consciously make an effort to not go stir-crazy.

I did turn out to be the only woman on the course, aside from one of the tutors. There are 10 students (9 guys, one girl) and 2 tutors (one guy one girl); we are mostly from England, with dabbles of folks from Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Germany and then there's the one bloody American (that's me), and we have all become a makeshift happy, neurotic, tired, funny, family. It’s just me and the boys, and sometimes some Thai students show up to learn English and every once in a while, on a good day, we teach them something.

That is really the best part of it all for me. I feel really good about the decision to do the CELTA. Being a teacher is a god fit. I had a really hard time of it at first, stumbling and mumbling along, teaching modal auxiliaries of permission while in the back of my head I’m thinking “What the hell is a modal auxiliary of permission?” (By the way, that’s can and allowed to for you!) Now, however, I think I’m starting to get the hang of this thing and I am actually starting to enjoy building lesson plans and researching learning styles and searching for appropriate grammar activities and situational presentations, CCQs… you know what I mean.

But, don’t worry, I have managed to get off of this island a few times with the boys, and the excursions have definitely been necessary. The first weekend, I fell ill and had to watch sad-faced as the guys headed out to night markets and bar-hopping. This last weekend, however, I was able to be a fully engaged participant.

Saturday night, a few of us did your basic pub-crawl in Chiang Mai. Started at some girl bar (use your imagination as to what that means) where we played pool and drank beer. We moved on to other pubs and eventually food. At one point we walked up and dowm Moon Muang Rd. looking for a rugby game that was supposed to be on TV that we never found (I’m also the only American). Just when we were about to give up and head home we decided to go to the hip dance club in Chiang Mai, Bubbles. I don’t remember whose idea that was. I think it was something like all of our and none of ours. The club was fun and funny at the same time. It was a very eclectic mix of folks bouncing about to House music and picking up on each other. I got to get my groove on, and if you know me, you know that that’s a good thing. The whole thing was quite a lot of fun.

A couple of “teachers”

That night, I also had my first taxi-gets-lost-on-its-way-to-the-middle-of-nowhere-in-the-pitch-black-with-a-group-of-native-English-speakers-who-all-have-different-accents-in-Thailand-who-are-studying-to-become-English-teachers experience. I think that songtaew was driving around on dirt roads in the middle of nowhere, Hang Dong, for a good hour. We have a map, but for some reason, it seems like there are really only 2 taxi drivers in the whole world who know where the place is.

Yesterday, after doing some work for the first half of the day, another group of us went back into town for some good food, massages, and the added benefit of getting out of the hamster cage for a few hours. A couple of the guys and I went to the university area where we found a quaint cafĂ© for dinner and a terrific spa for massages. I got the head, back, and shoulder version and I am officially hooked. That’s definitely what you need after being hunched over a computer and a desk for a couple of weeks. We wandered down the street and ran into some baby elephants that we bought some sugar cane for that they snacked on happily.

We caught a tuk tuk back to the night market area to meet up with another of our motley crew where we proceeded to pig out on night market Thai desserts. It’s easy to want to try a little bit of this and a little bit of that and by the time you realize it, you’ve had a meal of sweets. But, hey, half of them were just rice (yummy coconut rice, sticky rice, rice with dates, custard rice, rice, rice).

After sweetly filled bellies it was time for another adventure in taxi-gets-lost-on-its-way-to-the-middle-of-nowhere-in-the-pitch-black-with-a-group-of-native-English-speakers-who-all-have-different-accents-in-Thailand-who-are-studying-to-become-English-teachers, but this time we were yelling “We’re going to die” in German (courtesy of a quick lesson in German from my friend and fellow teacher Jan) and singing camp songs to the open night sky as the songtaew turned around and swerved over and over again, and coated us with a light dusting of dirt and grime. Eventually, we did make it home. I don’t know how it happens, but somehow we always do. (Apparently, the other group that went out last night did the drive for 2 hours… we were lucky.)

After a fantastic CELTA Monday and a lengthy blog entry, I am very ready for bed. I got some whole big day of English talk stuff tomorrow and the next day, and the next, and the next…

With that said, I must apologize for my lack of communication, both in the frequency of blog entries these days and the personal emails that I wish I could email you on a daily basis. I am nothing without my friends and family. You make me strong just knowing you are there.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Walking Walking Walking

(This should have been posted Sunday, February 11, 2007, a week ago.)
I think I walked for 7 hours yesterday.

The first half of the day was spent writing that last enormous entry. Then, I decided to go hunting for Wat Chedi Luan. The story behind this temple is that it was to be built “as high as a dove could fly”. When I got there, it appeared that this large temple was once as high as a dove could fly, but began crumbling to the ground some time ago. Though it had deteriorated substantially over time, this Wat was still very impressive.

After exploring Wat Chedi Luan, I found a nice family spot across the street for a lunch of vegetables, rice, and iced tea (cha yin is the fabulous Thai iced tea that you get in restaurants that, over here, is the beverage of the day). Then, I proceeded to get lost within the old walls of Chiang Mai, wandering in and out of temples, sifting through goods for sale, watching the sunset behind a bhodi tree, smiling at people; I found myself kind of in a walking meditation. I really didn’t have anywhere in particular I was headed, I just kept walking.

I walked so far, in fact, that I found myself on the other side of the walls amidst what would later become the Night Bazaar. I made a note of it and headed back to my room for a much needed shower… with coconut milkshake in hand. These are delicious. The stall woman cracked a young coconut open right there, dumped some of the juice in with some of its flesh, a little milk, a little sugar, and some ice in a blender, and I was in too-much-walking-cured heaven.

I later retraced my footsteps to the Night Bazaar. This is an endless night market of well… a lot of the same stuff. Every stall out of the hundreds had the same t-shirts for sale, the same hill tribe doo-dads, the same mulberry paper, the same everything. There were a few unique spots and I had some interesting bargaining experiences. I walked away with some pretty paper Christmas light thingies and some incense for my future CELTA home, as well as some gifts and yummies.

The next day, today, began with packing up all my belongings, and preparing for the move to my new home for the next month. When I headed downstairs for breakfast, I overheard some chaps talking about tests and vocabulary and such and I found out that they were also doing the CELTA. I took a seat beside them for some relieving chitchat and gossip spoken in English. One of them had just finished and the other one was going to be in the course with me. More CELTA folks began to join us and I started to liken the whole experience to MTV’s Real World… 12 strangers picked to live together in Thailand and become English teachers.

I had one more Wat to see before I left and was happy to have the company of my newfound friend, Max. Max and I walked on down the road to a Wat I had spotted late the night before. I was intrigued because it seemed very sparkly (even in the dark), and I swore I saw Donald Duck in the front yard. When we arrived, the Wat was more sparkly than ever in the sunlight and yes, Donald Duck was indeed standing in the front yard eating a bowl of noodles. When Max and I walked inside, there was a monk who very kindly blessed us both, sharing a bit of string that he tied around each one of our wrists. We soon had to head back to the guesthouse to catch our cab. With blessing on wrists, we were ready to go.

Our taxi showed up with room for four, though we had five. We piled our stuff up in the back and then piled ourselves up in the seats, four guys in the back, me in the front. Hey, I’m the girl.

It didn’t take too long before we reached our destination. And what a destination it is. Tucked in the back jungles just south of Chiang Mai, this lovely little resort exceeds my expectations. (The rooms just keep getting better and better.) I have hot water with serious pressure in an enormous green tiled shower, huge windows with lovely views of lakes and jungle, a king-size bed, a powerful ceiling fan, a/c, a flat-screen television, a fridge, an enormous closet, a western toilet, and lots of space. When I first walked in I immediately knew I could stay here for a while, a month, even.

So, now I settle in and prepare to go back to school tomorrow.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Chiang Mai is Friggin' Awesome!

First off, I have to heartily thank those of you who have written comments. They really inspire me to keep writing… I mean typing, and sharing pictures. I love to hear from you and what you think. Did I mention I love the comments?

After a fabulous shower at the Bangkok train station for 10 Baht, I bought my supplies (yes, beer and crunchies… but also, some dumplings and a “Pepsi Light” for dinner. I still don’t know what was in those dumplings, but damn, were they good.), and boarded the train to Chiang Mai. I was seated in 2nd class this time and really had a good time of it. The seats are set up as you would imagine, with two seats facing each other on either side of the car as far as the eye can see. The other three people who were seated in my little quartet area were a Thai older couple and their adult daughter. They were all going to Chiang Mai “to visit Buddha”. Grandma had the best English and they were all very friendly. When the seats were turned into beds the train car turned into rows of curtains, teenagers giggling from time to time, train tracks thumping, and the older couple began an evening chant that set my soul at ease. I drifted into sleep with thoughts of “the North country” dancing in my head.

I awoke with an hour and a half to kill before the train would arrive in Chiang Mai. It was still dark outside, but the sky was slowly warming to the arrival of the sun. I had no breakfast waiting for me in my bag, but the lovely family that I was sitting with was kind enough to give me a box soy drink with black sesame seeds. Yum!

When I arrived in Chiang Mai to a hundred faces waving and calling, “Taxi!” no one seemed to know where All in One Guest House was. So, I had to yet again go online, so that I could get the address. (My bad for forgetting to write down this important piece of information.) I found the address and a songthaew (truck with benches in the back and sometimes handrails and a canopy) driver that would take me there. I watched the sunrise from the back of the songthaew as we drove through the morning traffic to the “Old City” part of Chiang Mai.

After asking a couple of folks, we finally found the All in One Guest House and I was pleasantly surprised; a sweet little guesthouse with a courtyard and three stories of clean lodging. I had a breakfast of tasty coffee, scrambled eggs, and a really good croissant. I then checked into my room on the third floor with a view, a flat screen TV, a hot shower, a fridge, a flush toilet, sparkling tile floors, and a double bed with sheets that smelled like fresh laundry. I was home… at least for a couple of nights, anyways.

I was off for a day of Chiang Mai exploring. With sneakers tied tightly to my feet, I walked through the interior streets of Chiang Mai’s Old City walls. I started by finding Wat Umongmahatherachan. I meditated for a long time in there, something about that particular Buddha that really got to me. He had the kind of smile that just made you feel like everything is going to be okay, all is forgiven, we are all the same.

After that, I wandered the streets and found myself on the doorsteps of the Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Center. This was a really great museum that familiarizes you with all the history and culture of Chiang Mai. It is set up in such a way that you start in one place and end in another feeling as if you know all the basics of Chiang Mai. I was glad to have found it early on in my visit to Chiang Mai.

The museum took a long time to walk through and I came out on the on the other end looking for lunch. Eating is quickly becoming one of my favorite things to do in Thailand (if you haven’t already guessed) and I’m starting to take pictures of my meals. I’ll try to only post the most interesting ones.

I found a cavernous spot with only Thai writing on the boards that looked a little grungy but smelled terrific with lots of Thais inside. Great signs for good food. I walked in and a girl came up to me and I think she said with a smile, “What you want? We only have beef noodle soup.” I gave her the universal thumbs up sign, grabbed a Coke from the fridge, and took a seat in the back with a good view. (I am always looking for the most defensive position to sit in a restaurant. Thanks Dad…) The soup was amazing, though not as spicy as I would have liked. I kept adding chili to it. I think they leave out the spicy in a lot of dishes when they see the white folks come in. Now I’ve learned to say “pet nip noi” which mean “a little bit spicy”, and if you want the “mouth on fire” option that’s “pet pet”. Don’t say that. Thais are serious about their spicy. I learned my lesson through a glass noodle salad that made me feel like I was on Fear Factor. I think lunch cost less than a dollar.

Oh, that’s another thing. Just when you think Thailand is cheap, Chiang Mai hits you with supercheap. The U.S. dollar equals about 35 Thai Baht right now. My kickass room, for example, costs 550 Baht a night, which is roughly $16. An hour long Thai massage on Koh Tao or in Bangkok was 250 to 350 Baht, which is roughly $7 to $10, in Chiang Mai, you can get the same thing for 150 Baht… do the math. I have yet to pay more than $3 for a meal with an average price of $1 without the beverage.

Speaking of which, I bought a couple of really cute, like awesome, designer shirts that fit me great (this is of interest, because fit is very hard when your American woman shoulders are a third wider than a Thai woman’s shoulders) for 300 Baht.

I wandered the streets some more, popping in and out of Wats, getting lost, and eventually finding my way back to my room. I also found a fellow CELTAer from Germany whose name is Jan. I was happy to have his company to the Muay Thai Boxing match later that night.

Muay Thai is that crazy fighting style like in the movie Ong-bak, which uses knees and elbows and I think just about anything except for teeth. The boxing ring was classic and they play this weird, slightly annoying, live music with a drum, little cymbals, and some horn that sounds like a dying duck. (When I can get my video uploads to work, you’ll see what I mean). Jan and I had ringside seats, the Farang (Thai word for ‘gringo’) section, for people who pay way too much without knowing they could just go to the fight and buy a standing ticket or back bleachers section for about half the money. I was one of those people. Oops. But, by the 5th fight, I was glad to have the seats. By the end of the fights, Jan and I were right in the first row. The whole time this weird music is playing, the people are whooping and yelling, everyone’s drinking Sing-ha, and the fighters are kicking each other’s asses like it’s nobody’s business. It’s quite an unforgettable scene that I recommend to anyone in Thailand, whether you’re into fights or not.

Well, it’s another day, and I’ve already spent a lot of it writing this enormous entry. One more day in Chiang Mai before the CELTA begins, what to do, what to do…Probably go eat something.

I leave you with these wise words.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Alone in Thailand

I’m back in Bangkok, all alone.

I have not written in a while because I have been so busy with traveling from Koh Ko Pha-Ngan to Koh Tao and then back to Bangkok and finally wishing Robin adieu.

Koh Tao was all that I had hoped it to be. I only hoped that I had had more time to indulge in its pleasures.

Robin and I organized a ride on the Lompraya high-speed boat to Koh Tao, but found out the day before our departure that the boat was full, so we opted for the next best thing, which was a whole 100 Baht cheaper, Songserm. We soon discovered that this only slightly sea-worthy wooden vessel of diesel fumes would be packed to the brim with sunburned, sweaty, bodies looking for cheap scuba diving certification. We started in the belly of the boat, but had to come up for air, after I started to get light-headed from the fumes after only 20 minutes. The boat creaked and splashed through the ocean and I was amazed when we actually made it to the pier at Koh Tao.

Robin and I had reservations at the AC Resort. A resort, it was not. We decided to head down the road for sweeter pastures and eventually settled in to the Island Dive Resort. We paid a lot more than we wanted, but we were right on the beach. Can’t argue with that.

That night we got our first real Thai massage. After an hour with a couple of smiling, STRONG, Thai, women on the beach twisting and turning us every which way, we resembled a couple of bowls of Jello. If you ever get a chance to try a full Thai massage, I highly recommend it. Just make sure you’re good and warmed up first.

We did end up changing bungalows to a place a little more affordable and just as charming. Though it was not on the beach, the local cat decided to adopt us as the best petters around. (I think she could sense our missing our own kitties.)

We spent most of our 3 days in Koh Tao kayaking, snorkeling, swimming, and just floating under the sun in the sparkling blue water.

The underwater world is kind of the main event around Koh Tao. There are more places to get your scuba certification for a couple hundred bucks than you can shake a stick at. There are world-renowned places you can boat out to all around the island. But, even just a few feet off the shore in front of our bungalow was good enough to keep Robin and I entertained with little fish and colorful anemones.

We ate on the beach, napped on the sand, and watched every sunset. We really tried to not try to do anything (if that makes sense), and by the last day, we were pros. We finished up our Koh Tao trip with another Thai massage and a good night’s rest to prepare us for the long day of traveling we had in store.

The next day, we took a truck taxi to the pier. We boarded the Seatran ferry: a high-speed, padded chair, luxury (after the Songserm experience anyways). We got to Koh Pha-Ngan in about an hour this time, waited for more folks to board and then sped off to Koh Samui. From this pier we rode a mini-van to another pier on the other side of the island, so we could catch another Seatran ferry to Donsak. Whew! From there, we got in a bus that took us 70 miles to Surat Thani. When we got to Surat Thani, we got in another taxi that took us to the train station (a mad taxi driver, if I do say so myself, as he sped down the road at frightening speeds with us in the back of the truck).

I’m not finished, and it wasn’t even dark yet!

Once at the Surat Thani train station, Robin and I had a few hours to kill, so we wandered down the road to a fabulous street market. We got some great stall food and ate it on a bench in a shady park.

(A note about stall food. It’s cheap, interesting every time, and the yummiest! I have yet to get sick and by now, I think my stomach has adjusted nicely to the Thai diet.)

After the park, we wandered around the market gawking at the wares while some of the Thai gawked at us. I think Robin’s height is pretty impressive. At 6’3”, he has to duck down a lot in Thailand, or get smacked upside his head by the ceiling.

On the way back to the train station, we saw an amazing sight. As it was getting dark, a man was riding an elephant down the road past the mini markets and family stores. I ran over and bought some bananas to feed the elephant. I got to get up close and personal, and I felt honored to feed the respected creature. They are really magical creatures. One cannot help but be in awe of their presence. All of the Thai were getting a real kick out of the elephant too, snapping photos with their cell phones, laughing, and watching. I will never forget seeing that elephant walking past the 7-11 in Thailand.

Once Robin and I got our supplies (beer and crunchy snacks), it was time to board the overnight train to Bangkok. The train was very noisy and not the smoothest of rides to say the least. We arrived in Bangkok early this morning, very ready to exit its confines. We had our own little room with two bunks like in the movies (but a little more real and dirty) and the whole experience was really kind of funny, romantic, and well, neato.

I don’t really know how to share my experience of saying goodbye to Robin at the train station, but my eyes brim with tears at the thought of it. I have a whole mixture of fear, excitement, sadness, and joy. I am afraid of the challenges I may face being a lone traveler in Thailand, excited about the CELTA course and Chiang Mai, sad to see Robin go, and joyful to still be in Thailand.

I miss you Robin.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Full Moon Party and Chillin’

The wind continued to blow, but that did not stop Robin and I from going to the legendary Full Moon Party.

After a dinner of Tom Ka Koon, Laab, and vegetable stir fry, Robin and I hurried back to our bungalow to catch the evening taxi to Haad Rin for the Full Moon Party. We had learned our lesson from the ride to Thong Nai Pan Noi and made sure to find a ride back to Haad Rin where we could sit inside the vehicle (as opposed to holding on to the back of the pickup with a mouthful of jungle dust to look forward to). While everyone else held on for dear life in the back, Robin and I rode in style in the cab.

We were dropped off a few blocks back from the beach and within a few feet of the party. The streets were lined with dealers of booze sold by the bucket. Literally, there were rows of little plastic buckets stuffed with ice and a bottle of hard liquor accompanied by a can of soda or juice. Still early at 9pm, we walked past restaurants packed with partiers preparing for a night of serious mind alteration and body locomotion. Robin and I made our way to the beach where the main attractions were located. Haad Rin was now a long stretch of powdery white sand lined with bars and black lights, and thumping with bass.

Techno, trance, house, and electronica music was pouring out onto the beach, the fire dancers were just warming up, and you could still walk freely from one end of the beach to the other. Robin and I were doing just that. We walked from one end of the beach all the way to the cliffs on the other end of Haad Rin.

We found a comfortable table at a bar with a view high up above the main event and watched as the beach filled with people. Our quiet bar turned into a happening party as people continued to arrive, and we met a group of Australians drinking “magic mushroom” shakes. They were just traveling through, and we were soon wishing them a “good trip”. By the time Robin and I made it back to the beach, The Full Moon Party was in full swing.

I, however, was on a full-fledged search for black lights and space. I had brought my flags with me and would not rest until I could sail them in Thailand. About two thirds of the way down the beach, I spotted the perfect space. An empty bar filled with black lights was waiting for me. The music was definitely too loud, but the opportunity was perfect. My flags glowed and twirled in the black lights for a good 30 minutes, and by the time I was done, I felt pretty complete with the Full Moon Party revelry.

Robin and I bobbed about through the crowd that was slowly becoming insufferable. The crowd squeezed in on us, but before we were in the clear, an enormous scaffolding lit up with fiery elephants and letters that said “Amazing Thailand”; not to mention the number of people who had decided it would be fun to climb up this scaffolding and take their clothes off.

By 2am, it was time to catch our 4X4 taxi home. Again, we were fortunate enough to be inside the cab; and though this time I was pressed up against the inside of the cab by a drunken Irish girl who decided she had to lay down no matter what (hey, better that than barf on your knees), I was just happy to be on my way through the jungle back to a quieter piece of the ocean.

We have spent today lazing about and doing nothing really. A little napping, a little eating, a little walking on the beach, a little kicking a ball around has been the only activities we have partaken in today. The weather has still been… to say the least… crappy, but we have a new destination on the horizon. Tomorrow, Robin and I leave for Koh Tao, apparently the world’s second best diving and snorkeling site ever. We will finally be able to break in our snorkeling gear on some seriously stunning waters!

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Another Day, Another Adventure

Robin and I have now landed in one of the bungalows on the beach, Thong Nai Pan Noi, still on the island Ko Phangan.

We left The Sanctuary by longtail boat yesterday, and landed on Haad Rin. The legendary Full Moon party that attracts thousands of ravers and onlookers alike happens every full moon on Haad Rin, but this was not our final destination. We caught a 4X4 taxi truck over the mountains to the other side of the island. After an hour long, very dusty, and potholed ride, we made it to Thong Nai Pan Noi, where the Baan Panburi Bungalows awaited our arrival. Thong Nai Pan Noi is one of those perfect little beaches that stretches along the shore of a crescent-shaped cove. We have a bungalow right on the beach with a thatched roof and a little wooden deck, just like in the pictures. When we got there, we immediately made a run for the ocean to wash off all the dust and grime from our recent journey. Later that night, we had a fabulous buffet dinner on the beach and then settled into a balcony style bar built into some hillside boulders, aptly named “The Balcony”.

Life is tough.
Today, the storm gods have come and I am glad to have my lightweight, little, wind and rain jacket, because the wind is blowing like crazy. We have had a little rain here and there, but for the most part the skies are just grey and very windy, the ocean choppy, and the temperatures cooler than comfortable in shorts. At least where there’s wind, there’s no mosquitoes, right?