A Lost Month, and Beautiful Things

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Floor at Wat Pha Sorn Kaew, Buddhist Temple in Khao Koh, Thailand

Okay. We have some catching up to do.

First of all, culture shock is real, and I lost August. Not entirely lost—I traveled to Chiang Mai and Bangkok, I wrote some, and planned and organized thoughts for the rest of my novel. I went to school every day, and joined my friends for dinner and lunch and afternoons at coffee shops. When I wasn’t with people or fulfilling a work obligation, though, I was lying on my bed watching Gilmore Girls, and even when I was with people I mostly felt really, really bad. I identified with many of the things on this “13 Lies Your Depression is Telling You” list, I felt like a terrible teacher, and I wanted to go home.

I don’t know how much of this was the isolating effects of culture shock, and how much was mild depression. I’ve always struggled with ups and downs and probably always will, and going to Thailand in the first place was a response to some pretty serious negative feelings about my self-worth. I didn’t feel like I was capable of anything, so I went to the other side of the world to prove myself wrong. I’m not necessarily knocking this as a solution, but… you’re still you, even in Thailand, and all those bad feelings won’t instantly go away.

I’m doing amazing now, though, and I’m really grateful to everyone who sent me emails and skyped and chatted on facebook and talked and ate meals with me during my bad month. The human contact was so needed and appreciated. Somewhere along the line I got really cynical about a lot of things, and I made a decision a few weeks ago to be more grateful and less self-defeating. To believe that things can be done when I start them, instead of assuming laziness and failure from the outset.

Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Running. Thursday will mark three weeks successful completion of my 5-runs-a-week routine. I run around our school building (.4 miles a lap!) and the students laugh and smile at me. They wave and shout “Hello teacher!” when they see me, every time they see me, which is sometimes three or four or even six times per run! This is a good system because I always run a little faster after a student makes me smile. My favorite was when a group of M1 girls (seventh graders) said, “Teacher, fighting!” as I went by. That’s my new mantra, whenever I’m out of breath and want to stop: Teacher, fighting!

Strength training. Three days a week, I’m doing push ups and squats and crunches. Like, more than I knew I could do. I’ve flirted with pushups in the past, and exercise machines and stuff like that, but this is the first time I’ve realized how it works. You do this. It feels like this. This is uncomfortable, but instead of stopping you do a few more, or a lot more. Sweat drips onto your yoga mat, your muscles surprise you, and you feel fierce. In a few days, you come back and do even more.

[Reality check: I still can’t do more than three full push-ups in a row. Instead of letting that discourage me, I’m killing it with the modified ones and I’ll work my way up to full ones very soon.]

Other stuff. Stretches and yoga, which get mixed in with the running and strength training. While on a school trip, I got up early to do yoga on the balcony while the sun rose over a misty sea. My yoga instruction is entirely from youtube videos, but maybe all these people who are talking about yoga all the time are actually onto something.

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Environment. My brother told me a while ago that a clean house fights depression, so I’m trying to do things to make my surroundings feel nice—even though I’ll only be here for six more months. It’s difficult because my house is dirty and desperately needs a coat of paint, but I’ve been putting things on the walls and investing in cleaning supplies. I haven’t kept up with the cleaning quite as well as the exercise, but I’m picking things up more often and working on some projects. I’m sewing fabric curtains for an ugly piece of furniture, and I bought a new bed set and a folding table to go by my bed. Little things, but worth it for the happiness I get when I use them, and the happiness that comes from feeling at peace with my surroundings.

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I’ve also done some traveling these last few weeks to the ocean and the mountains. The ocean, man. I lived a ten-minute walk from the ocean for last past two years, and didn’t realize how much I missed it until I saw it again. And yesterday’s ride on a mountain highway to a stunning temple 117 km (70 miles away) was awesome, and now I’m remembering my plans for longer bike trips. Things feel possible again, and it feels especially amazing because nothing felt possible in August.

There’s a lot more to say, always is, but for now enjoy some pictures from yesterday’s road trip!

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The five sitting Buddha statue at Wat Pha Sorn Kaew

Me and Anna, my friend from Germany who has been teaching at the school and sharing my house for the last two months. It was her last weekend in Phitsanulok, and I'm so glad we got to do something fun together!

Me and Anna, my friend from Germany who has been teaching at the school and sharing my house for the last two months. It was her last weekend in Phitsanulok, and I’m so glad we got to do something fun together!

Stairs!

Stairs!

Mountains!

And mountains!

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The Last Few Weeks in Photos

I spent the weekend of July 4th in Khon Kaen, a city in the East of Thailand. It was a six hour bus ride from my home in Phitsanulok; unfortunately, too far to drive. Here is a view of the city from the top of a nine-story temple:

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Here is the perfectly roomy and comfy hotel room, which cost 230 baht, or seven US dollars, a night. Seven dollars a night!

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This is how much fun you can have riding in a tuk-tuk.

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This is what happens when your bus breaks down on the way home (they had it fixed in under half an hour).

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This is how beautiful Namtok Chat Trakan National Park is in the morning. This is about five days later; we stayed here while running an english camp at another school an hour and a half away.

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Back in Phitsanulok, this is what the sky looked like over the river on a Friday evening.

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Last weekend, I got coffee from a new coffee shop. It came with a flower on top.

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Yesterday, I left the house early, drove over an hour on highway 12, and toured three waterfalls on the Khek river. Here is the Kaeng So Pha waterfall.

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In the parking lot, I saw a really cool lizard.

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Kaeng Poi, cool tree, and selfie. I had to cross a not-very-obvious bridge and drive through a Thai neighborhood to find this vantage point!

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I crossed another bridge to get a good view of Kaeng Song. The locals actually drive their bikes across this one, but I didn’t dare.

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After some emotional ups and downs this month, I find that I am doing quite well. Teaching has started making more sense to me, and I’ve started exercising frequently. When I tried to run around campus every day it was difficult to stay motivated, but I’ve become running buddies with a teacher from Arizona who teaches at a different school in town. We’ve been running around the river path in town a few nights a week, and exercising (as it always does) is giving me more energy for life in general. Today, Sunday, is writing, planning, and laundry day. I’m doing Camp NaNoWriMo this month, which is National Novel Writing Month but in July and you can set your own wordcount goal. I’m shooting for 30,000, and for the first week and a half I was writing every day and the challenge went really, really well. I now find myself behind by considerable thousands of words, but there are two weeks left in the month and I think I can catch up.

Cheers!

Thailand! Motorbike! Yeah!

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Yesterday marked six weeks since my departure from the US, if anyone’s keeping track.

There are a lot of things in life I just never really pictured myself doing. Operating a wheelchair-lift bus for two years was one of them. I’m a words-and-pictures person, you know, a books-and-paper kind of girl. Being on the road 8 hours a day and barking, “Ten-four,” and “What’s your twenty?” into a two-way radio wasn’t really on the bucket list. I learned a lot, though, it paid the bills, and it got me to the next thing. Which is here.

Then there’s teaching. I never thought of myself as qualified for the responsibility, and I only really decided to give it a try when I saw my twenties slipping un-adventurously away and realized that less qualified people than me apply for this gig all the time. Now I’m here, and some days I struggle with the work, but if there’s going to be a foreign teacher struggling at this school it might as well be me. I’m doing my best, and I’m learning.

Another thing I never saw myself doing is owning a motorbike.

It’s a 1998 Honda Dream Exces. Semi-automatic; four gears and no clutch. I’m still not entirely clear on the distinctions between scooter, motorbike, and motorcycle according to US standards, but I’ve gathered that this sort of thing depends on the number of CCs in the engine. I’m also having trouble finding the exact specifications for my vehicle on the internet, but my current understanding is that is below the 150 cc threshold for full-on motorcycle status. It gets up to 55 mph easily, though, topping out around 60, and I would definitely need a motorcycle license to operate it back in the states.

In Thailand, giant touring motorcycles a lá Harley Davidson are just not a thing. My motorbike is the same size as every other motorbike and scooter, and motorbikes and scooters are everywhere. They’re like bicycles! I got mine from a guy around the corner with some help from a fellow teacher who’s been at the school longer than me. “This is the one,” he said. “10,000 Baht.”

(That’s 300 US dollars.)

“Oh,” I said. “What about the blue one, is that for sale?”

It wasn’t, and that is just fine. I have grown to really like my motorbike, with its black paint and dented tailpipe. Somewhere along its life someone christened it with a BMW sticker, and it has a basket for groceries. I had originally wanted an automatic scooter, having had 24 hours experience driving one four years ago in Koh Samet, but Brian (the same teacher) told me that was silly. This would be cheaper, and it would be easy. No problem.

Brian is a hero, by the way. He got the seller (chicken guy, we call him, because the shop also sells roasted chicken) to drive my bike to the school. He then drove the guy back to his shop, and spent the next hour teaching me how to work my gears and start my bike while I drove endless laps around around a parking lot at the school. By the end of the night, I felt nearly confident. Easy! I am still not always the smoothest gear shifter, especially when I get to thinking of other things, but I can cruise along on the left side of the road with the best of them now. And having wheels makes life possible. Having wheels means freedom.

Incidentally, I’ve never owned a car before. This is my first motor vehicle, so I’m a little proud. But I would be completely stuck at the school, miles from anything, without it. It means I can drive into town to go shopping, to get dinner, to find a coffee shop, to sit by the river. And maybe it’s not really built for long distance, but taking an hour and a half highway drive to Sukothai and biking around the ruins of famous temples was so much more satisfying than an hour bus ride. Life is good. And life is still confusing and full of ups and downs, but hey. Motorbike. Ancient ruins. Can’t complain.

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First Weeks Abroad

My favorite little guardian demon from the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

My favorite little guardian demon from the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

So I’ve been here (Thailand) for nearly two weeks. You’re probably wondering what the heck is going on. I guess the answer is, “A lot!”, which is also the answer to, “Why the heck haven’t you blogged about it yet?”

I got in to Bangkok last Wednesday morning, and then waited a few hours for the shuttle to the hotel. I had the rest of that day free, and my main achievements were buying water and beer from the 7-11, taking a nap, and finding some delicious pad thai.

Orientation was five days of classes in an air-conditioned hotel with about 70 other westerners (mostly americans, but there were two brits and an australian). I found the whole thing to be a stressful social situation, which isn’t to say I didn’t have fun, but my faculties were maybe too overwhelmed by the Implications of Being in Thailand for a Year to really participate in the “Wow, new best friends forever!” thing that was going on around me. I also made a point of not being dependent on other participants to go do things, and as a result ended up doing a lot of things by myself… go figure. :-p I did have a lot of good conversations with a lot of people over the week, and met quite a few people whom I would love to see again and have the chance to become better friends with. One of the happier moments was breakfast at the hotel on the first day, when I found the three people (Jayson, George, and Katie) that had been part of my TEFL class, and whom I had been communicating with over the internet for the previous three months. Big smiles, big group hug. It was a good moment!

On the Bridge over the River Kwai. My arm looks like a noodle, but I sure am in Thailand!

On the Bridge over the River Kwai. My arm looks like a noodle, but I sure am in Thailand, yessah!

After some sightseeing and one night at a resort hotel on the last day of orientation, I boarded a flight to Phitsanulok from Bangkok’s domestic airport on Tuesday evening. Nok Air was the cutest; all of their planes are painted to look like birds.

Next would be the big moment: meeting my coordinator at the airport and rocking the first impression. I was tired and nervous, but as soon as I saw my welcoming committee I knew everything would be alright. The school director, my coordinator (and boss of the English/Foreign Language department), and three young teachers from Canada, Japan, and Thailand were all waiting for me. The director and my coordinator welcomed me and gave me a lei of flowers for my wrist (which didn’t quite fit over my big american hands), and then I piled into a car with the three young teachers to go to my new home.

The house is nice! My school is a boarding school, so am living on campus in an area with several houses for teachers. It’s like college; all my friends live next door! I live with a Thai teacher (she teaches English and German) who was able to show me around when I got here, and a Korean teacher (she speaks really good english and will be teaching Korean at the school) who arrived three days after I did. The house has four bedrooms, so we may be getting one more teacher later on.

My first few days were a little strange as I navigated settling in. I was told that I wouldn’t begin teaching until Monday, even though school had already started, but after the busyness of orientation it felt strange to have little to do. I sat at my desk in the English office at school, but felt like I was shirking my duties somehow as all the other teacher came and went from their classes. Also, having more time to think about it only increased my nervousness about the first day in the classroom. On Friday morning, my class of M1s (Mathayom 1, equivalent of 7th grade) came looking for me, and I ended up teaching their class and taught all my classes for the rest of the day. Definitely had some awkward moments, as I had very little prepared, but it went okay and I feel so much better now about being able to do my job.

The other thing that took some getting used to is that my school is actually fairly remote, and you need a motorbike to even go to the convenience store. It’s about a 20 minute motorbike ride into the city (Phitsanulok). Everyone was very nice and took very good care of me, but I don’t like having to rely on other people to do anything or go anywhere! I knew I had to get the situation sorted as soon as possible… which led to an exciting purchase yesterday evening. More info (and pictures!) to come in my next post. 🙂

There’s lots more to tell about teaching and making new friends, but it will have to wait until next time. I’ll leave you with a few photos from the lovely dinner I had with one of the teachers from my department on Wednesday evening:

Top right is the teacher who took me out to dinner, and top left and bottom right are the restaurant owners, and also the mother and grandmother of one of my students.

Top right is the teacher who took me out to dinner, and top left and bottom right are the restaurant owners, and also the mother and grandmother of one of my students.

Fried chicken with rice and cashews. Have I mentioned that everything I've eaten here was delicious?

Fried chicken with rice and cashews. Have I mentioned that everything I’ve eaten here was delicious?

Leaving on a Jetplane

All my bags are packed, it’s time to go

I’m standing here, outside your door…

I’ve been singing that song all week. My bags have been (mostly) packed since late last night, and I’m sitting at the Portland International Jetport waiting to board my first flight. This one’s to JFK, where I’ll board a flight to Abu Dhabi later this evening. My final flight is from Abu Dhabi to Bangkok, and I should arrive about 25 hours from now. I’ve just said goodbye to my parents and my boyfriend, and I’m a little sad. It’s been a wonderful last weekend in Portland, though; my boyfriend and one of my oldest friends teamed up to orchestrate a surprise going-away party on Friday evening, and there have been a lot of good times around all the packing and panicking and last-minute goodbyes. Thank you for all the support and well-wishes; I love you all, and I will do my best to keep you posted as my journey continues.

So, I’m moving to Thailand in a week

Maybe I should have mentioned something earlier?

It was such a hard decision to make that I didn’t want to post anything before everything was settled, and then when everything was settled I became too busy to do anything else.

I’ll be teaching English at Princess Chulabhorn’s School in Phitsanulok, Thailand, for an entire year. To prepare, I have been taking an online TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) Certification class, which includes a 20-hour practicum that I have been serving by volunteering at an adult ESL class in my community. I have a week to pass my final exam, move out of my apartment, pack my bags, and say goodbye to family, boyfriend, and friends.

And then… well, then I’ll have an adventure. Updates to follow.

See you in Bangkok.