Thursday, April 27, 2006

Back in Los Angeles

I'm back in LA with many more stories to tell, but perhaps I'll have to catch up with everyone in person to have any hope of relaying those. And, for now, a few photos of Railey, the last place I was (other than Bangkok, which isn't nearly as photogenic, although I have a few good shots of there as well):

The isthmus from the top of an hour of rock climbing:

Railey Isthmus

The Princess Lagoon, buried inside the middle of one of those huge rocky cliffs, and at the bottom of another hour of rock climbing:

Princess Pool

A more classic view, from another hike:

Railey Southern Tip

A monkey (I mentioned there were monkeys, right?):

Railey Monkey

And a sunset:

Railey Sunset

Hope everyone is well!

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Swimming with Monks

Swimming with Monks

Just a quick little update. I've managed to escape from Koh Tao and I'm now on the Andaman Sea side of Thailand, near Krabi. I'm "meeting" with a few volunteer organizations here, most Tsunami related, not really to do much volunteering right now but to get a sense of the different ways they work. All in all, they don't work, but interesting to meet all the people. And I still spend a lot of time with kids, but mostly just because they like that I know how to ask their name. And I still attract monks like flies to honey. Why is that?

I took a break yesterday morning to go on a little hike, something the sign called a nature trail. Three kilometers straight up and I was dripping in sweat. At least 2 of those three kilometers were through spiderwebs -- I was plastered with webs -- and surrounded by ants that looked like three black kiwi fruits strung together. A yorkie is a small dog but a mighty big ant. Anyway, I'm starting to seriously consider that I might not be able to make it, or that I might be eaten by a jaguar, when I finally reach the top and start coming down the other side and discover this 11-tier waterfall. Beautiful. And of course as soon as I'm stripped down to my underwear and going for a swim: monks. Lots and lots of monks. Little monks, big monks, and one particular monk that was definitely in between....

Koh Tao was great. I wish I could have spent a little more time diving but the doctor recommended against it when she put me on antibiotics. I spent quite a bit of time with a nice German couple on a month long honeymoon. Tom and Teda? And then I hopped a boat Koh Phangan, Koh Samui, and then Surat Thani, where I took a bus to Krabi, spent the night, and another boat to Railey. I'm back near Krabi now, because here is where the volunteer groups are, but I'll catch a long boat back to Railey this evening because I left my stuff there.

Another trip, to Ao Nang, tomorrow for someone else I want to meet, and hopefully a bit of kayaking in the afternoon. I'm too exhausted to regail you with funny tales today, so you'll have to do without.

I hope all is well with everyone!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

I Was Tortured on Koh Tao

I went into a small shop, only one room, filled with shelves of bottles, jars, and tubs.  Some kind of apothecary, plus a small bamboo desk and two chairs, each the perch of a thai girl.  I was ordered to wait, shoeless, for 5 or 10 minutes, then one of the girls rose, went outside, and climbed in the cab of a black pick-up, Jamahkiri stenciled on the side.  The other girl tossed me in the back of the truck, my few belongings after me, and the truck sped off.  The sun beat down from a cloudless sky and sweat formed on my arms, legs, and my lip, ankle, the small of my back.  We paused at a gas station.  I was told to stay in the back. 3 minutes, 5 minutes passed.  We got no gas.  Nobody got in or out of the truck.  We drove off.
I began to climb out at the next stop, but the driver, a small Thai man, climbed out of the cab and shook his head.  He said, "Mai."  A woman, perhaps Chinese, got in the cab behind the driver and we drove again.  The pavement ended and the dirt road grew rough and rutted, then rocky.  We drove up and down, but slowly higher and higher up a mountain on the south side of the island.  I was thrown about the bed with every bump in the road, a collection of bumps. I flailed for handholds but found none and clung to the rollbar as best I could, watching for low limbs of the jungle overhead.  My bags flew about the bed unattended.
My muscles waned and the sweat on my forehead beaded and streamed.  We reached the peak and stopped again.  The driver ordered me out; I climbed over the wheel well and down to the dirt.  He pointed me to covered stone stairs.  I climbed slowly.Inside I was given water, and it was taken from me before I'd drank half.

My shoes were taken from me and I was pushed through a bead curtain onto a balcony of frail wood, high on a cliff face.  Between the slats beneath my feet I could see a plummeting death, and past the narrow railing lay open ocean.

I was made to strip off my clothes on this precipice, and made to shower, then given a narrow fabric cloth to wear.  Still dripping I was taken to a heavy wooden door and into a stone chamber, then pushed through another door into a black cave.  The cave was hot and steam filled my lungs.  I gasped for breath.  The heat and moisture weighed on me like bricks.  At the far end of the room was a tiny glass block and my eyes began to adjust to the meager light playing in the steam.  A massive boulder formed the roof and one side of the chamber.  A slab of stone seemed to be a bench on two other sides.  I sat down.  Instant agony. The stone was scalding.  I imagine I left a bit of burned thigh on the rock.  I could now see the steam billowing into the room (still more steam?) from directly beneath where I had sat down.

Now in the light I saw the chinese girl, in a sarong, sitting on the bench near the door.  I yearned to talk to her, to hear a friendly voice, to plan an escape from this mountain, but I felt only fear.  Was she like me?  Or was she one of my tormentors?  Bait to lure from me secrets I didn't know I kept?  Or perhaps a means to taunt me?  When I failed to greet her the door was cracked open and she was released.

I was alone.  Alone and hot and moist.  The air clung to me.  Imagine yourself plastered with boiled wet naps.  My eyelashes grew heavy with drops of water.  My body began to shrink as the heat melted both it and my soul.  I lay on the stone bench and tried to get beneath the stifling cloud, but it surrounded me.  My skin oozed moisture, in one direction of the other.  My lungs drowned fire.  The door opened and I was released.

My narrow cloth wrap was heavy with water and I held it around me as I followed this tormentor a few steps to a wooden palette.  On the wood lay a white cloth and she pointed my down to it. I lay down.

"On back, please."

I turned over and she began to coat my body, head to toe, in an oil, a shellac, perhaps a polyurethane. In Thai she called it, "Aloe Vera."  I turned over and she continued, leaving my side only long enough to get a second bucket. She seemed confused at the need for a second bucket.  And then she pulled the white cloth over me from both sides.  It was a shroud.  I was being mummified.  It grabbed my shellac coated skin and clung to me.  My feet stuck out the bottom.  She leaned in and said words that will haunt me forever,

"Twenty minute please."

What did this mean?  Did I have only 20 minutes to live?  Or worse, only 20 minute, not even a plural to cling to?  Or would this be my last 20 minutes of peace before the tormentor returned?

Ninety seconds later she returned and smeared something on my face.  She disappeared again. 

I lay immobile in my mummy's clothes.  I don't know how much time passed.  20 minute, perhaps.  But my shroud was pulled from me and I was pointed to a stone cubicle.  There I was made to shower again, hiding my nakedness from the open portal, and my tiny cloth decency was taken from me.  I was given only a tiny towel, and I did my best to cover myself before I was led away.

I lay on my back and she began to attack my face.  Pulling it and stretching it.  Pushing up on one cheek and down on the other.  Down on one cheek and up on the other.  She coated me with layer after layer of ointments and tidbits.  My face was stripped away.  This mistreatment continued for an hour.  An hour!  She placed weird leech things on my eyes and in the sucking blackness I heard her start a machine.  What a lawnmower would sound like if constructed only of recycled car tires.  The squealing, peeling sound of rubber raked against rubber as it was pulled to life.  She placed the machine's turning heat above my face and the ointments constricted and crushed my skin and muscle.  A bit like an Iron Maiden made with Liquid Nails (tm).  She pulled my face away and took the leeches from my eyes.

"Done here.  We go on."  I may have heard maniacal laughter.

The next room was the final stage of my undoing.  On my back.  On my stomach.  Sitting up.  I was beaten in every conceivable position.  She placed her feet inside my thigh and leaned away with my calf, pulling me apart.  Twisting.  And then more pummeling.  She put me in a headlock and then turned me around so I could ponder a mole on the small of my back.  And always back to the beating.  The beating.  An hour passed.  An hour and a half.

I realized I was not alone.  In another room other victims moaned for mercy.  I let out a whimper.  Suddenly she relented and allowed me to escape.  I hobbled from the room, knocking my head against the ceiling. I was shown to the precipice where I had left my belongings and, snatching them up, I ran for the door.  I bribed a woman at the exit 1580 baht and made my escape, to the back of the pick-up truck.  I huddled in the back as the truck bounced, careened down the "road" and was finally put out in the blackness of the jungle.  It was night.  Where was I?


All that aside, I am a bit stranded on Koh Tao.  A doctor here who doesn't speak a word of understandable english but writes it perfectly has put me on some unknown antibiotic.  My diving has been cut short as I try to recover from whatever has afflicted me -- headaches and one extremely large lump and a few other symptoms.  If it seems like this medicine is working then I'm going to try and make my way out of here tomorrow.

On the other hand, it isn't such a bad place to be stranded.  Here is a photo of my bungalow on Ao Tanote (a bay on the east side of the island):

My Bungalow on Koh Tao

And here is the view when I wake up in the middle of the night in my hammock:


Night View from the Hammock

And the road to Ao Tanote:


Road to Ao Tanote

Last but not least, most of my clothes didn't survive the orphanage experience, so here is what I look like in bungalow (in a shoddy self-portrait):


In the Bungalow

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Going to Koh Tao

I'm headed to Koh Tao in another marathon traveling session. A 12 hour train ride to Bangkok, followed by a few hours there -- I'm not sure how long it will take before I can get another train out -- but I can wander around the city for 4 or 5 hours, and then an 8 hour train ride to Chumphon. At that point I can either take the 6 hour midnight boat to Koh Tao, or decide I am too exhausted and stay the night in Chumphon for the boat the next day.

I have no idea what I'll be up to on Koh Tao, but I need a few days of rest, so I'm going to find a nice secluded bungalow on the beach on the secluded side of the island, rather than the busy-with-tourists side.

I suspect internet access will be harder to find over there, but I'll do what I can!

Friday, April 14, 2006

I Have Been Wet for 72 Hours

(Which means I am now adding a fungus to a list which already includes cuts, bruises, cuts with bruises, rashes, and rashes with cuts and bruises.)

The evening after the orphans and the octagenarians drenched me, I went to one of the Nong Khai temples to help dress "the car" which turned out to be a flat bed truck / parade float. We loaded four massive, seated, gold-leafed Buddhas onto the truck and lined them up facing front -- they, and the Buddhas on the other "cars" are clearly the stars of the event. The throwing of water is ostensibly to wash the Buddha images as you go into a new year. (The vast majority of water of actually thrown at whomever attracts the eye of the average water-thrower. Someone as attention grabbing as, say, a 200 cm tall white guy in the middle of a crowd of short Thais.)

After placing the Buddhas, I tied blocks of floral foam all around the base of them, as well as a huge round trellis at the back of the truck, while the temple Buddhas and their helpers prepared all the flowers, and then placed all of the flowers beautifully. We also placed, just behind the cab of the truck on either side, huge barrels of water, so the float riders would have ammunition. The evening would have qualified as rather dry, only a few water pistols -- most of the water throwing stops at sunset -- had it not been raining at the time.

The next day was hot and sticky, my sweat was already sweating in the few minutes before the ceremonies began. We started at 6 am, lining up outside the largest Wot in Nong Khai, everyone with platters full of individually wrapped food, and after the playing of the National Anthem the monks walked down the line with their bowls out and everyone filled their bowls with food. The live on just donated food -- officially they can't handle money -- and this ceremony is a big start to the Songkran festival. This all sounds rather orderly when I describe it, but you should instead imagine total chaos. Bodies pushing in from both sides of a narrow street; arms thrusting out holding juice boxes and dirty wads of unwrapped sticky rice; people kicking their shoes off to be shoeless when they put food into the bowls; the monks barely managing to squeeze through the tumult, tossed this way and that, as their helpers (handlers) push back into the crowd and occasionally scooping the contents of the bowls into big plastic bags so there is room for more single wrapped marshmallows and whatever those orange squares were that I was try to place rather than toss into the bowls. At one point I was definitely passed by a money tree: some kind of plant that had been speared with hundreds of chopsticks, a bill wedged and rubber banded into each stick. And a money goat as well went by, some kind of paper mache goat with the porcupine treatment of tattered baht notes. All in all, it was total chaos. Or so I thought. Chaos actually came later, after a quick and still comparatively dry breakfast.

Back at the temple, the temple workers, largely ignored by the monks, went through a long process removing the huge gold Buddha from the center of the room and lifting it on massive bamboo poles down and out of the building, and into a parade boat of sorts prepared for it in front. Meanwhile, the crowd outside of the temple, formed themselves into the definition of potential energy. The Buddhas would be walked around the temple, clockwise, three times before leaving off as the head of the parade, and all the way around the temple the people prepared themselves. Three other volunteers and I looked impotent standing the four 1 gallon buckets of water. All around us the way was packed with Thais, everyone with trash cans of ice water and hoses running off down alleys and water cannons, and, oh yes, two fire trucks -- the tanker kind with hundreds and hundreds of gallons of high pressure water at the ready. Everyone stood behind and these massive supplies of water and stared each other down across the sidewalk the Buddhas would be carried down. A few small children wandered around shooting their water pistols, but the true chaos was obviously lying in wait. From the east side of the temple we heard a massive cheer. The Buddhas were started their first trip around the temple, and going the opposite direction. I looked around me as everyone leaned in, but nobody touched the water. Katrine, a Danish volunteer splashed me with a little of her water, and we laughed, but everyone else lay in wait. The noise of chanting and screaming and cheering and splashing began to move around the temple and approach us.

And then they rounded the corner. A hundred men at least, in a tight and sopping wet scrum, holding the bamboo poles with one Buddha, and then another scrum and another Buddha, the whole crowd surrounded by soldiers forming a ring, hand in hand, to thrust the crowd apart and make sure the men had room enough to pass through. Some phenomenal display of military might mixed with unbelievable fraternity antics. And as they moved, ever so slowly, forward, the water was thrown. Buckets and buckets of it. I can't imagine how the men nearest the middle could even breathe. And bottles of perfume, like Tabasco bottles again, were shaken and splashed across the crowd. Wedged in between the scrums were more people, following along the circular parade, throwing water back into the crowd. We were all sopping wet in seconds, and after the last Buddha passed, we all paused, 1 minute, 2 minutes, and then they came again and the water again from in front of me and behind me and on either side. We had to run between passes of the Buddhas to a nice family we had met with huge trashcans filled with ice water who let us fill up again in exchange for dousing us with a few gallons. But it was worth it. Nam Ken, ice, was definitely the ammunition of choice.

After the three rounds of the temple, the crowd began to disburse, and most of us didn't have much water left. I found a spigot and filled up again to dump another gallon on Katrine, but there were only a few buckets and waterguns in action as the 5,000 or 10,000 of us made our way off the temple grounds. The other volunteers and I were all together when we reached a gate, a narrow gate, everyone had to pass through. A bottle neck. A laughing Thai woman spotted us; we did stand out after all. And as we waited 4 minutes or so to get through the gate she hit us with bucket after bucket of water. Thirty or forty gallons of water thrown, one after another, as we laughed and tried to escape.

Even our eventual escape wasn't quite what we expected. Through the gates to our bicycles and then the ride home. We had to get there to catch a tuk-tuk to Lan's house, but the main street had become a war zone. Crowds along both sides of the road throwing water, and jammed traffic going both directions, every vehicle a pick-up truck and every pick-up truck had a handful of people and a couple trash cans or metal drums of water. The trucks threw water at each other and down on the crowds at the street. The crowds on the street would dip buckets into kiddie pools of ice water and through them back at the trucks. Riding our bicycles we were beset on all sides. Bins and buckets and tubs of water would hit me coming from any and every direction. My bicycle was pushed to and fro in the onslaught and I could hardly steer. Motorcycles received the same treatment, and the trapped souls in tuk-tuks received a fearsome barage. I would jump off my bicycle with my bucket and fill it up in someone's trash can just to hit them directly in the face with the entire load. And they would return the favor. And everyone from teenagers to senior citizens would tell me to stop yelling, "hello! hello!" and then come up to me and rub talcum powder, or a mud of talcum and water, all over my face. When it got into my eyes I just had to wait a moment and bucket full of water would wash it away.

At this point, of course, the parade had not yet begun.... The volunteers who had painted with me, and Sabine -- we all loaded ourselves into a tuk-tuk and road down the highway to Lan's house to take part in the ceremony of washing her Buddhas. We carried them outside and placed them on a table, perhaps 40 in all, large and small, and then poured a mixture of water and perfume and 4 kinds of flower petals all over them. With the requisite lighting of incense as well, of course. And then we ate a quick lunch of noodles, and returned to Nong Khai (perhaps 5 km away) for the parade, soaked by passing trucks the whole way. Passing trucks coming into Nong Khai to join the celebration.

The parade looked just like our bike ride earlier, but, well, more so. Drunken celebrants by now offering beer and unknown home made hooch and whiskey. And talcum powder on my face, over and over and over again. I was asked and asked and asked something in Thai I couldn't quite figure out. ("Pom Pued Thai Dai Nid Noi. Pued Cha Cha Khrup," I would say to no avail.) I think it was the rough equivalent of, "Will you be my valentine?" but I really can't say for sure. They definitely said it with those drunken valentine eyes, though. And of course water. The Thais loved that I knew the words "Nam Ken" for ice, which I'd scream (squeal?) whenver I was hit with ice water and they'd laugh and clap me on the back and say, "Nam Ken! Nam Ken!" The volunteers and I, We all walked through town, up and down the main streets, to see it all, and everyone loved us. They loved everyone. Teenage boys would jump off trucks in motion to run up to us and hit us with powder, then jump back on the trucks to throw buckets of water at us. There was always at least a water gun hitting you from somewhere -- never a moment when you weren't getting wetter rather than dryer. It was, I can only say, total chaos. Total, total chaos. I tried and tried to find the actual "parade," meaning the part with the floats and the Buddhas, but trucks drove in both directions and the river that was the street was impossible to read, so I just wandered through it, meeting people and trying to drink as little of the undoubtedly dirty water as possible. (My throat is still sore, who knows from what?) And finally I spotted a float, a block away, going the wrong direction. I chased it, my blue bucket clutched in my hand, only pausing occasionally to return a particularly egregious barage. And I passed that float and then another and another, looking for mine. I finally found it. I wanted to ride and the Monks had offered.... But when I reached it, it was definitely full. The young monks threw some water at me. Had me empty my bucket into theirs and then gave me the water dripping off the Buddhas. I splashed that at them and then got more. We laughed and they gestured to the truck, but I couldn't see a spot. And, to be honest, I was exhausted.

I think it was around 4 pm. I didn't have a watch, of course. And I realized I had the keys of the other volunteers, who I had lost in the race to catch the floated Buddhas, because I was the one with a ziploc bag in my pocket, so I decided to make my way back to the house and make sure they weren't waiting outside. Which, of course, they were. Looking more strangly and exhausted than I was, and it hit us even harder an hour later. None of us could move the rest of the day and evening. We lay there remembering it is possible to get heat stroke while drenched in water. We could still hear blaring music and screaming and laughing from the main road as we lay there on the terrace, unmoving. We all had headaches, and plain aches, and I think everyone's throat hurt.

I crawled into bed at 10 pm. I think I ate a little something, but I can't quite remember. Oh, yes, a ham sandwich from a nearby german place run by a german expat. After dark we all braved the water to get there and eat something, and didn't hit many buckets of water on the way. A couple only.

The next day, still exhausted and we all looked a mess. I snuck to an internet cafe to see if I had any work emails I needed to answer, but it didn't work. And Christina did her laundry, about 3 buildings away, and I went to try and get throat lozenges for everyone from the closed pharmacy on the corner. And in the middle of the afternoon I just started to laugh, and then we all laughed. Christina was coming back from putting a second load of laundry in, while we were between backgammon games. She was dripping wet, and we all ignored it. It was so hysterically entertaining: the day was hot and clear and sunny, and we took for granted that anyone leaving the front door of our building would come back absolutely drenched. It was so obvious and predictable that we just ignored it when it happpened. You leave, you come back wet. And when I pointed it out, we all had to laugh. And eventually we all went for lunch, and came back soaking wet.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Ways I've Had Water Dumped On Me Today

1) From a 30 gallon blue trash can held by a gentleman I've never seen before.

2) From the sidewalk and through the open door, as I sat riding in the back of a bus.

3) Water filled with perfume and flowers from a small parade of 18 octagenarians, first dumped in
my hands and then down my back as I sat thanking them.

4) At the wrong end of a firing squad of 30 orphans armed with home-made plastic tube water canons.

5) In my hair, in a bucket mixed with ice and flour.

6) By a woman with a five gallon bucket on the street as I rode my bicycle down the street.

7) By another woman with a five gallon bucket about 5 meters after the first woman.

8) By the young son of the second woman, with a half gallon pan.

9) From a teenager filled pick-up truck, via both super soaker and plastic water bottle.

10) Down the back of my shirt, by an completely unknown man with a pitcher of ice as I sat eating

11) Innumerable roadside incidents of children with pans and cups.

12) In a two hour long inescapable chaotic flurry of orphans and volunteers and, yes, 18

That said, the water festival for the new year hasn't started yet. Apparently it starts

Don't expect pictures. I had a 20 baht bill in my pocket and even that didn't survive the
onslaught. The camera stays home....

Monday, April 10, 2006

My Daily Ride on a Minibus

At about 12:30 today I climbed into a minibus and slid down the bench to make room. A minibus is a pick-up truck with padded metal benches down each side, and a sheet metal roof for shade high enough for most Thais to stand in the back. I can stand on the metal step welded to the back of the truck and let my head stick up above the roof, but today there was enough room to sit down. And the inside of the roof has four little lever buttons running down the center so riders can buzz the driver when they need to get off.

As I settled into my seat, a truly foul can of Green Tea ignored in my hand, the woman across from me says,


Or she may have merely burped -- this point is unclear. I look at her and say,

"Sah Waa Dii Khrup."

This means hello in a respectful fashion, when spoken by a man. When spoken by a woman it means, "Hello, and did you know that I'm really a man?" I've made this mistake in reverse. She responds,

"Sah Wah Dii Kha," pauses, and continues with, "Larai Neaou."

I try to look benevolent and say nothing. I smile. I assume as I always do that the sentence following "Sah Wah Dii Kha" means, "My, aren't you tall?" or, "How tall are you?" (although I think this sentence would end in "otrai" which hers definitely does not) or perhaps, "You are too tall for this minibus." I know for sure she doesn't say, "You are so tall, could you come and help me fix my curtains," because I've heard this sentence on two previous occasions and I believe I would recognize it at this point. All of this pondering on my part means I say nothing.

The woman repeats, I think, "Lalai, Kun Myung."

I smile again and now take time to look the woman over. I have trouble gauging her age, but I think she is about 50. She is quite busy with prints. Her blouse is black with a flurry of fine white, curly lines -- it looks a bit like the web of a drunken Charlotte in the midnight sky -- and a grid of small red flowers cover the shirt as well. Her shorts or skirt or skort are a greenish mustard base with a print of pale peach and cream flowers, each with a bright red stamen. She wears worn brown sandals, the tiniest black pinprick stud earrings, and has had a pink mani/pedi within the last couple of days. Her complexion is simultaneously leathery and brittle. I realize that I've taken too long to respond.

Poogee, my Thai teacher got on the bus with me and is sitting to my right.

Poogee nudges me and says, "She say you handsome!"

I am at a loss for words. I'm also completely covered in paint, particularly the black fisherman pants that I bought at the market here so I'd have something to paint in. Everyone in the bus looks at me, but not the amused look of someone entertained by the situation. This is a look of expectation. What I should say here is, "Kahp Kun Khrup," which would mean thank you, respectfully.

Instead I say, "Bin ot lai." This is not helpful. This means, "What's the matter?" Although I believe in this situation it means something more like, "what is wrong with you?"

To recap:

She burps.
I say, "Hello Ma'am."
She says, "Hello sir. You are very handsome."
She repeats, "Yes, you. You are very handsome."
I respond, "What is the matter with you?"

So.... My Thai lessons are problematic. Poogee can attempt to teach my three words in a row, with simple and very different meanings, and I can hardly hear the difference between them. And this throws me a bit when I try to converse. I am forever saying, "Would I like ice?" rather than, "No ice please," because both of them sound an awful lot like "Nam Ken Mai." It is however very helpful of Poogee to try. I've managed to pick up some. The other volunteers and I bought all the paint that we used, and I purchased brushes etc. and some concrete as well. So I think they are trying very hard to return the favor in kind. In addition to Poogee's lessons, we are all invited to endless ceremonies -- most of which we can't go to because we'd never get anything done -- and other events. I saw 20 minutes of the middle school basketball championships the other day....

Ed, the brit, and I played football (soccer) with the staff of the Adult Rehabilitation Center the other day, and the other volunteers joined the fans to cheer us on. Ed was quite good, the best on the field. I wasn't bad, although I believe my main technique was to confuse the enemy. On two occasions I managed to kick off a shoe at the same time as the ball and run off, half-shod, with the ball as the opposing player chased after the wrong object.

I blame a small part of my incompetence on the pre-game ritual here, which seems to be drinking shots of hooch before taking the field. The jar of redish liquid contained floating wood chips, but I drank it as indicated. Ed declined, which I suspect helped his play. The entire first half of the game my belly rumbled with the heat. And I did manage to take two shots at the goal, which is more than I had hoped for.

Painting goes well. We've done most everything in the one building we really thought needed painting, and we are working on a second coat in a few places. I'm going to the local "Home Depot" this afternoon to try and find new table tops. The tables they use for everything now are of old and rotting wood so they can't possibly be cleaned between meals, and I think something else would really keep the bacteria down. I'm thinking of just covering them with linoleum, perhaps.

The New Year's Celebration approaches. I don't know much, but I have three pieces of information:

-- I've been asked to be in the parade.

-- I've been told to wrap everything electric in plastic bags.

-- It has been suggested that I buy a super-soaker. Or a bucket.

I'll let you know how that goes....

At my sister in law's request, a photo of me: (The photos taken by the kids are usually blocked by fingers and the heads of competitors, so this is a photo taken by Ed. In my right hand is Asan, and I'm not entirely sure who is in my left hand.)

After the 2nd morning of painting

Friday, April 07, 2006

Changing My Itinerary

Sala Keao Ku

I haven't really wanted to get bogged down in all the sordid details of trying to get things done here, but a little bit of an update is in order. As of last Tuesday I pretty much gave up on building the school. It isn't that they aren't building something -- they are -- but I'm not entirely sure why. Both the schedule and the way (administrative/procedural, not construction) that they are building it is flawed, but I think that is just symptomatic of a clearly questionable need for the building.

I'm having trouble sorting out everyone's personal motivations, and I think that there is a lot at play here I haven't quite figured out yet. The long and the short of it is that the one and only thing they really don't need is additional structures. More refined and better maintained structures for sure, but they have plenty of them. To call where I am a village is extremely misleading, although they call it one. (I believe some of the error is in translation -- the connotations of village aren't, perhaps, present in its definition, and in some ways the error is, I believe, intentional.) I am staying in Nong Khai. My book gives it a population of 62,000, although I believe it is a bit more, and the city is certainly growing in leaps. There is construction -- large concrete structures ill suited to the climate -- on the edges of town, especially on the highway leading to Bangkok, a 12 hour bus or train ride away. Twenty five kilometers down that road is my village. Ludicrously enough, I'm still unable to understand the name of it well enough to even give you a good phonetic version, but it is something like "San Du Nong Khai." A very narrow strip of ramshackle buildings interspersed with huge concrete buildings of government and industry trails both sides of the highway from the village to the city. Third world urban sprawl.

The problems I'm greeted with are that the many needs here aren't all that disimilar to needing better education in the worst neighborhoods of the U.S. They certainly won't be met by building anything, so I'm trying to focus elsewhere. And the education problem for the kids in this environment is one I'm ill-suited to meet, as would any temporary visitor. I made small inroads with the main leader of the "village" yesterday, who invited me, and 4 other western volunteers, to the opening of a temple.

[That, by the way, was amazing. Huge crowds circled it three times holding gifts and striking gongs before entering and placing the gifts inside a huge unfinished hole in the foundation at the center of the temple. And the entire temple, inside and out, was under a huge mesh of string, many miles of it, that had been woven into a grid ceiling from the wall surrounding the compound all the way into the high ceilinged interior. White strings running every four inches over ever bit of space.]

So I've decided to adjust my plans here. I spent most of last week and will be spending this next week working on the orphanage. It is in horrible disrepair and I'm doing what I can to improve that. I've learned that the term orphanage is not entirely accurate. While most of the children, and there are about 80 of them (I think?), have no parents, there are quite a few who have families that can't provide for them and so they have to live here. They live in 4 buildings. The upper floor of each building is a long dormitory with just the beds. The lower floor has the open bathroom, at the other end a small kitchen, and in between a big open area with some tables. There are lockers on the main floor where they can keep their belongings. And that is about it. The floor and walls of the building are concrete, and there are plenty of windows. I'm told the kids are up to 18 years old, but I've only seen one that could be that old and no more than 6 that could possibly be older than 12. Most of them look like they are between 6 and 9. The most striking thing is that the orphans live at the orphanage, and only the orphans. There is one adult assigned to each building, but they live elsewhere and are only at the orphanage during the day, most days of the week. The kids do a pretty amazing job of cooking and caring for themselves, but there is definitely a "Lord of the Flies" feel to the whole thing.

Ed and the Starer

That is Ed, holding Som (I think). He is a british college student here that is helping out, and I took this photo after Ed and I and Christina and Catherine (both Danish and 20 years old) and Reike (German and also 20) had already spent a day scrubbing the walls as best we could. We were still working on cleaning the ceiling beams at this point....

We are going in tomorrow to repaint this building to try and make the space a little better, and I'm going to try and paint letters on the walls as well, because the kids are all trying to learn English. And after the German and Danish girls leave I'll finish the little bits of construction repair I am trying to do, mostly to their water system to keep the wash water separate from the sewage water. (I'm waiting until the girls leave so I can take advantage of their help with painting.) And Ed is going to be hear another week after me, so hopefully he'll be able to paint another of the buildings.

At the end of next week is the Songkran festival of the Thai new year. I am told I can't possibly get anything done during that, so I'm going to leave Nong Khai at that point and go down to Bangkok and then on to one of the islands. Ko Tau I think, although I haven't decided. And then after a bit of rest I'm going to try and explore a bit more. I am evolving a theory of how best to volunteer and help, but the troubles I had sorting things out over the internet make perfect sense now that I'm here, so I'm going to try and explore while I'm here in order to figure out how I can achieve more in the future.

That is already far too much detail, I'm sure! But I'm getting things sorted out. It is very clear that the people that need help the most have no access to the internet or international channels in any way at all. So when you go through those channels, you find yourself mostly stymied by the people that were the middlemen. The motivations, as I said earlier, and suspect and hard to pin down. Not money, in most cases, but still suspect. So I think to really help you would need to do all of your research on the ground, requiring longer volunteer times or multiple trips. But I'll let you know what I discover....

I just realized that I haven't seen any kind of English language news source since I arrived. Somebody will let me know if anything big happens, right?

Rainy Day

The sky broke open last night. Thunder, lighting, and torrents of water, but it stopped around noon today, so it is looking like another hot evening coming up and a scorcher tomorrow.

I know I need to relate more about what I'm actually doing here, but to be honest that part is emotionally exhausting. I do a lot of arguing, always in exceedingly pleasant tones all around, and I don't understand how anything ever gets done here. Since a few days ago I've actually started to completely re-plan my trip, and I'm working on different things than I expected. So I'll try to sit down and fill you all in on that when I have enough energy.

In the meantime, here is the orphanage (the exterior -- you don't want to see the interior):

The Orphanage

And here are some of its finest residents:

Playing at the Orphanage

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Things You Don't Want to Hear in a Lunch Conversation

Craig: SaWaDee Khrup!

Brother of Lan: SaWaDee Khrup! Khrup!

Lan: Come. Sit here!

Brother: Noodle? Noodle? Or... Ahhh.... Khrup! Noodle?

Lan: Noodle or ....

Craig: Noodle, yes. Thank you. Kahp koon khrup.

Lan: Sit here. No. Here.

(Craig sits down.)

Lan: Come here.

(Craig stands up and goes to wooden railing.)

Lan: Mekong. Lao. Thai. Lao.

(Lan points to the friendship bridge.)

Brother: Seattle?

Craig: Bin ot lai?

(These words mean "Is something wrong" and are completely inappropriate at this point....)

Brother: Seattle? (Spoken in baritone.)

Lan: Their daughter have Foolbright and goes to Seattle fah school.

Craig: Great! Great!

(All laugh. Wife of Brother of Lan walks out with glass pitcher of an iced amber liquid. A
yellowish tea perhaps? Employee of Brother of Lan arrive with a bowl of rice and a western spoon.
Lan sends her away for something else. She returns with an empty bowl and an asian spoon and a
plate. Lan takes some rice from the bowl and puts it in the empty bowl. She begins to eat, and
pushes the rest of the bowl of rice to Craig. It has other items mixed into a creamy sauce -- it
looks pretty good. It occurs to Craig that it in no way resembles noodles. Brother of Lan begins
to swirl the glass pitcher so the ice clinks inside.)

Lan: Ta much fo me. You eat!

Craig: Ta much for me too.

Lan: You wait fah noodle?

Craig: No. This is good. Too much.

Lan: Put some on tis plate.

(Lan pushes the plate to Craig, who uses the asian spoon to put some on the plate. Craig looks
back and forth at the plate and the spoon.)

Craig: I use? ....?

(Lan ignores Craig. Brother of Lan looks at Craig and swirls glass pitcher again. Ice
clinking. Craig begins to eat. He finds the rice dish bland but good.)

Brother: Tamind? (Pitcher swirls. Ice clinks.)

Craig: Ok. Yes?

Brother: Tamind?

Lan: You try. Is very good.

Craig: Khrup. Yes. Thank you.

Lan: Go get glass.

(Lan gestures across the hotel patio. Craig and Wife of Lan both stand up. Craig walks to the
location gestured toward, and sees no glasses. He picks up a small coffee cup.)

Craig: Can I use this?

Lan: Ok. Use that if you lie.

Brother: No. No.

(Brother of Lan gesticulates widely. Some of his glass of tamind spills onto the table. Wife
of Brother of Lan walks around Craig with a glass and begins to tong some ice into it.)

Craig: Thank you. Kahp kun khrup. (Side note: These three words need to be spoken to the melody
of the Mr. Ed theme song.)

(Brother of Lan pours a glass of tamind for Craig, who drinks it and finds it very tasty.)

Craig: Good. Mai. (Inappropriate.) Tamarind? Tamarind?

Lan: Yes. Tamarind juice.

Craig: It is very good. Kahp kun khrup.

(Eating and drinking continues. Chatting continues. Plates of noodles arrive.)

A glass and a half of Tamarind later:

(Lan points to Craig's glass.)

Lan: You like.

Craig: Yes. Very good. Very good.

(A crucial pause.)

Lan: Do not worry if you get diarrhea. This is a laxative.

Craig: Oh?

Lan: Yes. This is laxative. Tamarind.

(Another pause.)

Lan: You need toilet.

Craig: Uh. No. Kahp kun khrup.

Lan: I am sensitive. I go now.

Craig: Ah. Ok.

(Lan rises and leaves the table. Long pause. Craig looks around. His gaze falls on the east
side of the patio.)

Brother of Lan: Toilet.

(Brother of Lan points and nods head. Craig rises and leaves the table.)

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Monks and Funerals

Starting with business and then moving on: construction is well under way and beyond my expectations. Everything here on that front is going to go well. Extremely well, I dare to say, although I have underlying questions and confusions. I believe I'll be done early and may find time to go down and see the Thai islands at the end of my trip. However, it is a good thing there was a lot of progress before my arrival, because it is rather hard to keep us on task. For example, I'm pretty sure I made one of these boys a monk today:

Most of the ceremony was completed by, well, monks. But because all of these boys are orphans, they needed volunteers to take the role of the boys parents. So, surrounded by a few other western volunteers (Danish and German) and a variety of local Thai, I did a lot of bowing, lighting of candles, bowing, lighting of incense, and bowing. And then I had to kneel across from one of the children and pass him one by one his yellow robe (which he is wearing in this photo) and a white flower wrapped around a stick and an envelope with 20 baht. (That is about 50 cents.) That took about, oh, an hour and a half. Kneeling with feet flat on floor, kneeling with toes curled under, "standing up" in the kneeling position, kneeling with feet to one side.... Then eating the spiciest food I've ever eaten in my life. I'm pretty sure I lost a lung. Did I mention this was breakfast? And last but not least playing with all the orphans that weren't made monks today. They loved my camera and took dozens of pictures with it, capturing truly lovely, blurry, hand-blocking the lens photos of everyone that wasn't clustered behind the camera.

And, while I'm talking about things that I've been doing instead of working, things to know about a Thai cremation:

(As a prologue, let me mention that I was at the cremation ending the 7 day funeral for a woman, not a man, which I render as evidence of my email communication difficulties.)

1) Monks use cell phones. They use them all the time, but somehow at a cremation it is particularly noticeable. One of them had to make a call (to the A/V dept?) to confirm how to hook the VCR to the oven at the crematorium. Yes, that's right.

2) The end of the funeral is incredibly light-hearted, until it really isn't. There were hundreds of us there listening to the chanting of the monks, and -- with occasional wai-ing -- there was all kinds of chatting and people wandering around handing out glasses of Thai iced tea. Then we were all given a paper flower and a candle, tied together, and got up and approached the altar. (The very traditional and very large altar, which I soon discovered hid the massive stainless steel oven.) As the masses of people funneled through to wai (bow) and place the paper flower into bowls on the altar, money was thrown at us, wrapped in little colored wrappings. Although "thrown" isn't quite the right verb. Somewhere between "chucked" and "hurled" at us might be more accurate. I think I saw a woman with a welt on her face.... And then everyone dives and scrambles for the money. I don't think it was all money actually -- I think other bits of paper were wrapped around candies -- but the only one I managed to pick up was a 1 baht coin. In the tumult of bodies clawing at the ground, my height put me at a real disadvantage. And then we placed our flowers in the bowls and received a small package from the family and most of the hundreds left. Here is where you are thinking that I probably left, but indeed no. I was taken by the arm and introduced to a few people. (I didn't know their names even as they were saying them to me. This language is impossible.) And then I was taken to the other side of the oven. Right about here is when it stopped being light hearted.

3) They release these huge beautiful balloons with dangling sterno canisters. I forgot to mention that part. These balloons occasionally get stuck in trees and start fires.

4) The body was lying in a white plywood box without a lid. She wore the same huge round glasses in the box as she had on in the photo of her on the altar. She was draped in a shiny green fabric from chin to toe, so all you could see of her was her feet, and on the fabric were a few small flowers, and the mourners went up to the white box one by one, not really in a line, and poured brilliantly colored perfumes from bottles like tobasco on the body, starting at the top of her head and over her glasses down towards her feet until the bottle was empty. Many bottles. Perhaps 20 people did this and I didn't know the relationship of anyone to anyone else, but I think two were her sons. They gestured to me and said, "You can do that if you want to," but the way they said it made me think I wouldn't be insulting them if I declined, so I declined. And then they began again, now placing those same white paper flowers in the box, kneeling around and placing there hands upon it, and then lifting it up into the oven. They slid it in, and the door mechanically shut.

5) On the other side of the building that was the oven a monk (next to the monk with the cell phone and the not-a-monk with the VCR stood in front of a stainless steel panel full of huge red and green buttons. How many buttons does such a device need? Eventually they gave up on the VCR and the monk pushed a button. At this point I'm told that the family will stay a while and then return in the morning for the body. I assume they mean the ashes. And I'm told it is time for me to go. It felt about 30 minutes past time for me to go, but they had kneel again and place some more incense and seemed very happy I was there. They are a very welcoming people, I would say.

6) I now have red string tied around my wrist with no idea of how long I'm supposed to leave it there....

There is undoubtedly more to tell but this is too long and I must return to my labors. They've lent me a bicycle to ride to the grocery store -- a route that goes under a huge dragon -- and to ride to the bus station to catch the bus I need every morning. The grocery store is astounding, as is the market all along the Mekong River. The heat is stifling, at night, the rest of the time it is indescribable. And some kid named Fong really likes it when I pick him up.

I hope you all are well!

Saturday, April 01, 2006

After a shower and good night of sleep

I have reached my Thai-Laotian border destination, which means right on the Mekong River, near the
12 km long friendship bridge.

The plane flight from Taiwan was uneventful, as was customs and immigration in Bangkok. The train
station was within 100 meters of the airport, so it only took me an hour and a half to find it....
Instead of taking a bus or a cab the 25 km into Bangkok, I stayed at the airport / train station
the 5 hours delay before my night train left. And I discovered what American airports are missing
-- massage parlors. I have to say there isn't much that takes the edge off a 22 hour plane trip
like a small Thai woman standing on your back, and on your thighs, and on your calves, and
generally meandering about on top of you.

The train was a 12 hour night sleeper, which was delayed a very painful hour. Exhaustion was
beginning to set it, and my clothes (which were entering their 33 hour or so and still, it turned
out, had another 17 hours to go before I would have a chance to change) had adhered to various
parts of my body, but I stayed awake out on the platform long enough to make sure I got on the
correct train.

Every time I travel I find the bathrooms to be about the most fascinating thing. (The way people
do their laundry is also high on the list.) So if you don't want to read my bathroom observations,
it is best to skip ahead a couple of paragraphs.

The lavatory on the train has now reached number 2 on the list of most terrifying bathrooms. I'm
not referring to the beer rating system: for example the Valparaiso bathroom that would require me
to drink 12 beers before I'd be willing to enter it again. No, that is merely an unclean room --
in the case of Valparaiso, very unclean -- I'm talking about a room that in its very architecture
can only breed terror. Number 1 will always be the outhouse Mark and I discovered in La Bufadora
which had slid out of place and could only be reached by walking a narrow gangplank across the pit.
But a close second, the bathroom on the night train: first of all, it was an Asian toilet, which
was to be expected. So two places marked out on the floor to put your feet and between them a
hole. Often those footpads are made of white porcelain, much like a western toilet maker has
started a side business in shoe shaped trivets. In this case, however, the footpads were a pebbled
steel, only slightly different from the various other unpainted steel textures that were every
surface of the room. And all of the steel was oversized and gothic, much like you had found your
way to inside of huge dialek(sp?). Still not terrifying, I admit. But between those two footpads
was just a hole. And I mean a big hole. I don't think I could have fallen completely through it,
but I wouldn't have wanted to check. And underneath the railroad ties rushed by at 75 miles per
hour. Not much light was under the train long after sunset, but enough see the darkness speed
furiously by. On a couple of occasions I saw children headed into the bathroom, and thought it was
about a 50/50 shot at seeing them leave by the door.

My other bathroom observation (I told you, these places are FASCINATING!) I've seen in every
public bathroom here. As all of the men reading this know, and I'm sure the women can surmise, men
stop and zip and buckle and all of that before turning from the toilet and going to the sink. The
exact same thing happens here, except there is a 180 turn in the ritual. The men all do it in the
public bathrooms -- they turn around and face the rest of the bathroom, but remain standing
immediately in front of the toilet, and only then zip up their pants, fasten their belts, take a
last perusal of the room, and then walk over to the sinks.... Ok, enough about bathrooms. I'll
try to restrain the urge to tell more stories about them in the future.

The bunk on the train was Craig minus 6" in length, but otherwise surprisingly comfortable. Much
more confortable than the pallet I'm staying on now that I'm here. And I was met at the train
station by someone who had brought a tuktuk.

Unfortunately, after 24 hours here I don't have many details to share. The culture isn't really to
rush to action, and as a volunteer I definitely want to follow their lead in what they want to have
happen. It would be unfortunate to get the work done but to have everyone here unhappy about the
process. Surely the social goodwill is as important as any structure. So I haven't seen the site
yet. I've learned it is next to an orphanage and that it is only a 40 minute busride from where I
am staying. I had breakfast this morning at the house of a Thai woman who is helping with
arrangements and is a regular supporter of the orphanage as well.

And, I've been able to ascertain the reason for most of the difficulties of communication over the
last weeks. I'll be attending the cremation tomorrow of the man who was providing the
infrastructure for this entire plan. His death is obviously changing not only the physical
planning here but also the emotional landscape. The funeral is a 7 day process that ends with the
cremation tomorrow. I've also been invited to the funeral dinner this evening, but I don't really
have anything to wear. I'm going to find something between now and the cremation tomorrow
afternoon. And, in the meantime, I'll be taking the bus tomorrow morning to go see the orphanage.

I'm sure there is more to tell, but I'll save it up for next time. No serious problems to relate.
My allergies are acting up, but the food here is fantastic and the people are very nice. The
living arrangements are minimal, but not less than I expected. It is great.

Testing Take 2

Hello All.

Having some not unexpected internet problems. I'm just checking to see if I can get this new way
to post to work. Cross your fingers...