Monday, February 14, 2011

Still here...

I know it's been a while, and I wish I had a good excuse for taking so long to update. Things have been very busy during the past 2 or 3 months, with my dad visiting, then my mom visiting, then a series of meetings in and around Bangkok this past month that have kept me away from site for way too long. And when I'm at site, things tend to be so routine that I rarely feel the inspiration to write anymore. But the truth is a lot has happened, so like I said, I wish I had a good excuse for taking so long. I'll try to touch on everything. But where I'll start is with what happened just this morning, as it provided more than enough inspiration to make this entry.

Last night I took an overnight bus from Bangkok that dropped me off in front of my house at around 5:30am this morning. I was thrilled to finally be home after almost 2 weeks on the road, and have a chance to crash for a few hours of much needed sleep after the 9 hour ride. But when I opened my door, I noticed something odd – the doormat inside my house was missing. Why would a doormat be missing? Did my landlord come in and take it for some reason? It was too puzzling to ignore for the moment, so I did a quick check around the house, and finally found what I was looking for... sort of. The doormat, or at least what was left of it, was under my bed. This is what it looked like:

My only thought was that a hungry cat or dog somehow got into my house and for some reason decided to quench it's appetite on gnarled cotton. By now I was sufficiently freaked out, thinking there must be some scared, rabid animal hiding in my house. I looked around again... nothing in the bathroom or kitchen. But then I noticed, in a corner of my bedroom where I hang up some of my clothes, some stray shreds of the doormat. I took the clothes off the rack to look underneath, and made a startling discovery: all the doormat shreds were piled up in a nest. And something was moving inside it. Holy shit.

Somehow I gathered myself enough to take a closer look, and what I found were baby rats, probably not more than a few days old. Freaking great. To add insult to injury, they had chewed up the bottom of my 2 nicest dress shirts and had gotten into my stash of See's lollipops that my mom gave me a few weeks earlier. I considered my options... to a Thai person, the obvious choice would be to bash the little things to death with a stick. But somehow I couldn't bring myself to kill them, so I swept the whole nest, baby rats included, into a dustpan and dumped it outside on my porch. That is where they remain right now as I sit at work, trying to figure out what to do with them. Never did see the mother rat either... so something tells me the fun is just beginning.

So, hitting the high points of the past few months... my dad's visit was a blast. It was nonstop and exciting, from bike rides through ancient ruins in Ayutthaya to an overnight boat ride through a thunderstorm. Not to mention that his visit to my site coincided with the King's birthday, also known as Father's Day in Thailand. The timing couldn't have been better. We were honored the entire day, from my dad's ribbon cutting at the bathroom opening ceremony to the District Chief inviting us to the front of the crowd during the evening's festivities. In the pics, you'll notice how my dad was immortalized forever in a sign over the bathroom:

My mom's visit a few weeks later was great as well. We started with her and Tom's tour group in Bangkok, then after their tour ended, they came down to check out my site. Unfortunately this one didn't coincide with Thai Mother's Day, but they were still quite well received. It was a lot of fun letting them see the community and the people's relentless efforts to shove food at us, no matter how much we told them we were very full in as many different languages as possible. We spent a night on a beautiful, albeit overtouristed, island close to my site called Koh Phi Phi – whose claim to fame is that it's the setting of the movie “The Beach”, and also one of the places hit hard by the 2004 tsunami (although the only evidence of that now is in pictures). To wrap it up, the last two nights we stayed in Bangkok in probably the nicest hotel room any of us had ever been in. Guess the rat experience is the Peace Corps version of karma.

A week after my mom left, it was back on the road again – this time, to meet the new group of volunteers who just arrived in country last month. I was lucky to get an opportunity to help out for a few days with their training. It was a great time and a really refreshing week for me. To see the energy and motivation of the new group was a big lift. It put a lot of things into perspective about our one year here so far (really, one year... crazy). And as easy as it is to feel like we are constantly fighting an uphill battle and not getting anything accomplished, the truth is we've come a long way – longer than we probably let ourselves realize most of the time. But again, it was just really refreshing to see the positive attitude of the new volunteers and hopefully carry some of the energy back to my own work.

As far as that work goes... not a whole lot new to report unfortunately due to all these distractions away from site. It's looking like we have about 10 villagers genuinely interested in converting their farms to organic, and had an initial meeting with a potential fruit buyer, but so far it's still too early to tell how successful this will end up. A real challenge is coming into focus, and that's the fact that my counterpart with the organic farm (Pii Peera) doesn't get along too well with the people at the SAO. This wasn't really earth-shattering news to me, but it did shock me when my SAO's Nayok and Balat (the Mayor and Chief Administrator) told me they wanted to do this project without Pii Peera's help, basically because they say he isn't trusted in the community. There are clearly some deeper issues there that I may have been too quick to ignore at the outset. But Pii Peera has too much knowledge and too many contacts in organic farming to shut out completely, and if it weren't for him this wouldn't even be happening in the first place. For now I've gotten them to agree to let him be involved as a resource, and I guess we'll see how it plays out from there.

Another project that is on the horizon is a family development workshop. I'm very lucky to have someone living close to my site named Wipada who has been working as a language trainer for the Peace Corps for many years. She also happens to be very involved in a family development program called Krop Krua Kem Keng (Strengthening Families). She invited me to help out at some of the workshops close to her, and now we're trying to bring it to my site. My SAO's Balat and I just went to a training in Bangkok to see what other communities have been doing, and it seems like we're all on board with the idea. Looking forward to getting the ball rolling on it.

That's about it for now, but hopefully things will start happening now that I'm actually going to be at site for more than a week at a time. As fun as it was being with my parents and with the new group, it will be a relief to have a chance to actually start doing something at site – or at the very least, make sure people know I'm still alive. And keep the rats at bay.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Toilet Talk

We're about to get started on a project to build a new bathroom in my community (woohoo!). Please check out the details here:

Tree and Medicinal Plant Orchard Bathroom Project - Thailand

The funds have been graciously donated by a group called Water Charity. This group was started by a former Peace Corps volunteer and works very quickly to pre-fund water-related projects that Peace Corps volunteers want to do. They have pre-funded $500, which should cover most of the costs, and now we are looking for donations from those of you who would like to sponsor this project. If you would like to adopt this project and have your name forever immortalized in the annals of this bathroom (enticing I know), please feel free to donate any small amount of money you can by following the instructions on the link above. We would really appreciate your support!

We plan to finish the bathroom in about a month, in time for the Father's Day celebration that will be held at the site on December 5. By pure coincidence, my dad will be here visiting during that time. My community wants him to be the one to open the bathroom, and I told them he'd be more than willing to oblige. Better start working on that squat :)

Friday, October 1, 2010


I've always been a dog person, but these two cats are on the verge of converting me to the other side. A few months ago, sadly, they were left for dead after birth. But they now have quite a comfortable home at our office, as you can see.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Stayin' Alive

First of all, I would like to apologize for taking so long to get to this entry. Granted, it has been a crazy busy month in which I can count on one hand the number of days I've been at site, but that's no excuse for taking over 2 months to update you all. That being said, I'll admit I'm not really sure where to begin with this one considering all that's gone on recently... so I guess I'll just type freely until my fingers or brain give out.

Carly came to visit. It was beyond great having her here. In the time she was here, I'm not sure she could've gotten a better Thailand experience. Meeting both my host families in Surat and Chainat; lounging on a beautiful beach as we could see a rain storm coming towards us in Koh Samui; getting treated to genuine Thai hospitality when my Chainat host family, in response to a request for nail polish remover, took her to get a full manicure and pedicure; staying at a cheap hole in the wall guesthouse one night in Bangkok (run by a couple of the friendliest Thais around), and staying in one of the best hotels in the world the next night (The Oriental, thanks to the one and only Meema); experiencing some genuine Thai nightlife with a bunch of other volunteers at an all-Thai club until the sun came up; screaming at the hand-sized spider that found its way into our bathroom; partying with some new friends from Israel; and stuffing ourselves silly with the best breakfast buffet we will probably ever have. It was an amazing vacation, and couldn't have asked for a better first visitor.

Let's see... there was an English camp that I got to help out with last week at Zerina's site. They were easily the most tiring 3 days I've had as a volunteer, but I thought equally as fun. We had about 150 students each day, 4th through 6th grade. Plenty of singing, playing games, and of course being paraded around the school with hero status. The kids were great. The English part of the camp was kind of pointless, because they all seemed to know the vocabulary beforehand. Which was nice, because that meant more time for fun and games. The most memorable part was how awed the kids were at our presence. A few of them came up to us on the first day and asked for our autographs. When the other students caught wind, they all flocked to do the same. Before we knew it we had close to a hundred kids swarming us with their little English camp booklets and pens. It brought me back to the days I would wait with my dad after Phillies games for the players to come out and sign stuff. What a crazy experience to be on the other end of that. I've felt like a celebrity quite a bit in Thailand, but never to the extent that these kids made me feel like one... and I gotta admit, I loved it.

Of course, sometimes I actually do find the time to be home, hard as that is to believe. My typical day goes something like this: I get up at 6:30, ride my bike to a local shop to eat kao dtom (rice soup) and pau-dong-go (fried dough) with some of the village leaders (which generally means I sit quietly while they all talk in an impossible-to-understand Southern dialect). Then I go home, take a cold shower, and ride my bike to the office around 8am. The first hour or 2 I generally sit at my computer and check email, update myself on sports and other news, etc. Then the rest of my work day is really up to me. Most of the time, I try to find some excuse to get out of the office - today I rode my bike around to talk to people about the organic farming project explained in my last post (more on that in a sec). Some days I'll check out what's going on in the schools. And there are no doubt plenty of days where I will stare brainlessly at my computer screen until lunchtime rolls around - I call that "adapting to the general work environment in Thailand", which is just another form of cultural integration and hence me being a good Peace Corps volunteer. Ahem. Anyway, I then go to eat lunch at one of any number of little shops in the area. As you are probably well aware by now if you've been reading this blog, I love all the food here with very very few exceptions. But if I had to choose, my favorite lunchtime meal is a dish called "laap muu". It's basically minced pork meat with some liver and intestines thrown in if you're lucky, and my host sister Pii Lek makes it better than anyone else in Thailand. So more often than not, I find myself at her shop. Of course, you have to eat it with kao niao (sticky rice) which you ball up in your hands and dip in the juice before eating. Yum. After sufficiently gorging myself, most afternoons I'm scheduled to teach at one of the schools here. But, much of the time when I get there the teachers tell me that they aren't learning today because they have to practice for the Mother's Day show next week, or the sports day in two weeks, or they are learning muay thai (Thai boxing) today. Oh the wonders of education in Thailand. After teaching or not teaching is completed, it's really just more of the same - either sitting in air conditioning on my computer, going around the village on my bike, or sitting at my host sister's shop to chat with my favorite group of local Thai women (the Thai desperate housewives, which may not be too far from the truth). Most nights I like to go eat dinner at my host mom's house, not only because she's hilarious to be around but also because she makes the best food in town (your mom's cooking always tastes the best, right?). Get home just before dark, cold shower, and spend the rest of the night reading a book or watching a freshly-downloaded movie. That pretty much covers 95% of my life here, so consider that retribution for taking so long to post this blog.

Finally, an update on the organic farming project. Things are looking good at this point. A month or two back, I had a surprise meeting with someone from a fruit exporting company who was in town to check out the organic farm mentioned in the previous blog entry. Turns out this guy is interested in how we're trying to promote organic, and he has committed his company to buying and exporting our fruit as soon as we get a new farm up and running. Pii Peera, who has his existing organic farm, is confident that we can do this within 1 year as long as we have the land. So this Friday at my office, we are having a meeting between everyone who may be willing to help out with this project, and also 11 people who are potentially willing to convert their farms to organic. My SAO has already committed to funding around 30,000 baht, so it all looks pretty promising at the moment. Hopefully it will stay that way...

Until next time (and I promise next time will not be another 2 months).

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Something to do for 2 years?

I know it's not good to get your hopes up in the very early stages of an idea, and that holds particularly true when dealing with project ideas in Peace Corps Thailand, but nevertheless I am excited about a potential project just uncovered at site.

The project is promoting organic fruit farming and exporting in my area. The idea came about because of a villager named Peera. Peera's brother met me at a village meeting a few weeks ago and requested help exporting fruit. I visited his house, met Peera, and a few days later got a long tour of his model organic farm. It's a really cool place. Some highlights are:

-He makes organic fertilizer out of manure and material from palm trees.

-The farm feeds a lot of frogs. At night, the frogs are let loose in an enclosed space in the field to eat bugs, which are attracted to the area by purple lights. This helps control the bugs without chemicals. He also breeds the frogs and sells them when they are big enough.

-To also help control the bug situation without chemicals, he has a tree that grows a certain type of fruit that birds like, and the birds eat the bugs too.

-He plants a lot of bamboo on the farm, for multiple uses. He plants it around the perimeter to block chemicals from neighboring farms, because it grows very tall very quickly. He plants it in areas of unwanted grass/weeds so that it will grow and block the sunlight, killing the grass without chemicals. He also sells the bamboo once fully grown.

-He plants a lot of "ya-fek" grass, which helps draw minerals and water into the soil. The grass is distributed for free at every province because of its good environmental impact.

-He has a bee house that feeds a small, non-stinging type of bee which pollinates the flowers on the fruit trees.

Peera claims that this farm is unique to the entire province of Surat Thani. He has a background education in organic farming, and is passionate about promoting it in the community. Besides the environmental benefits, growing fruit organically means you can potentially export it at more than double the local prices. Peera already exports, but he is looking to expand.

This is a potentially big project because Peera already has a successful organic farm of his own, and he is willing to share his knowledge with the community. He claims that the SAO is not willing to help him, that it is more interested in building roads than helping farmers - but when I presented this to the top people in the office, they were on board from the start. They are willing to use budget money to support it, and have set up a meeting to tour the farm with a local professor who has a background in agriculture. Now I'm just hoping to get outside support from an NGO, and also connect with some other contacts the Peace Corps gave me who have experience in organic farming and exporting. We'll see where it goes from here...

Speaking of fruit, another equally important project in the community was helping to decorate a car with fruit to be entered into a competition. We came in 5th out of 30... pretty decent showing for sure. Maybe a waste of fruit, but well worth it for the sake of the art and fine craftsmanship that went into it.

The following is the car that won...

Friday, June 4, 2010

(Re)-Settling in at Site

I guess when you look at the time in between when I wrote the last entry and now, a lot has happened - but it's hard to reconcile that with how little seems to be happening on a day-to-day basis. Most of my days have been spent sitting in an air conditioned office with internet access. Hard to believe I'm in the Peace Corps sometimes. Then again, other times it's pretty easy. Just ask the several dozen pet lizards who are running (and defecating) throughout my house at this moment.

Since my last entry I have moved out of my host family's place and into my own house. Unwanted pets aside, the house is great. It's perfectly small, everything I need and nothing I don't, and it came just about fully furnished. Even have my own washing machine - not nearly like the ones in the states, but infinitely better than washing clothes by hand. And the best part is, of course, the sit down toilet and overhead shower which will relieve me (so to speak) from squatting and bucket showering.

My water source is a small water tower outside my house. Since I can't go within 50 feet of it without being eaten alive by mosquitoes that apparently love American blood much more than Thai blood, it's fortunate that I don't have to refill it myself. The first time I ran out of water, it was at night right before I was going to take a shower. I called my landlord to tell him, and he said the tower would be refilled the next morning and invited me over to his place to shower. I thought that was odd that his house had water, because it's right next to mine and gets water from the same tower, but didn't bother asking to clarify before going over there. What followed was another one of those moments that helped convince me I'm actually in the Peace Corps - bucket showering outside, completely in the open, with water he had stored in a big outdoor container. Was actually kinda fun, notwithstanding the fact that I think his creepy older brother was watching me the whole time.

As for my daily activities, things actually are starting to pick up a bit. School has been in session for a couple weeks now. I went to visit the principals at each of the four schools here, and set up a schedule where I'm teaching two hours per week at each school. I was originally thrilled to actually be getting out and doing something - and then I was completely overwhelmed when I actually did it. Most of my students are elementary-middle school age, and sometimes they can make the kids in Lord of the Flies look docile. But there has already been a marked improvement since I started, probably resulting from a combination of me being more comfortable in a classroom and them being more comfortable with me (and me being more selective about giving out the conch shell). By far the most useful item from the states, besides the conch shell, has been a bingo game that my mom bought for me to play with the kids here. It keeps them entertained, in their seats, and (theoretically) learning numbers in English. Thanks a million, Mom.

The other day after teaching, I stopped at a place to buy some fruit (which is excellent here by the way). The nine year old daughter of the woman who runs this fruit stand is named Noon, and she always lights up when she sees me. So this day, I decided to spend some time there, play some games, etc. Noon is a wonderful kid. Besides being very smart and grown up for her age, she is really enthusiastic about learning English. I told her I'd teach during the weekend, and the next day she had a group of 15 kids lined up to come as well. Definitely a worthwhile visit to the fruit stand, and all the free fruit they supplied while I was there didn't hurt either.

The Peace Corps has taken the stance that community development volunteers, which I am one of, should try to avoid teaching English in the schools. My view is obviously a bit different. Teaching English is helping me meet teachers, who in turn can help me with other youth development activities. Not to mention that it's the easiest way to get face to face with the youth themselves. For these reasons and others, teaching is a very useful community entry tool. It's true that everyone here automatically assumes I'm just here to teach English, even after explaining that I'm here for "community development", but ultimately I think teaching English is as much a part of community development as anything else - so why fight it?

The following story may illustrate the general attitude here as it relates to that. There was a meeting one day at the SAO with all the council representatives from each village (in Thai, their title is Samachik Au Bau Tau). These are the people who, in theory, should be very in touch with the villagers and the needs of the community. I asked my Nayok for a spot in the meeting to introduce myself, explain why I'm here, and get input from the Samachik. After explaining that I am here for two years to do community development and use my resources to help address needs of the community, I handed out a worksheet in Thai (that office staff helped me type) asking for their suggestions on problems or issues I can help with. Everyone filled it out and returned it to me, and I was thrilled to have received all these potential leads on projects I could do. Then I went to the office staff to help me translate what they wrote. All of the sheets except one said something like, "Teach English in the schools for several hours each week". And the one that didn't say that said, "Help with community development". Turns out this whole thing might not be so easy afterall...

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Settling in at Site

It's now almost three weeks into my assignment at site and all's going well. Initially my biggest concern, shockingly, was the language. It's a different dialect down here. Instead of five tones, there are eight (and even the original five tones are spoken slightly differently). People also tend to speak really fast. It's frustrating at times but slowly getting better.

Overall, the people here are as welcoming as I've come to get used to in Thailand. My host mom constantly shoves food in my face. People invite me to monk ordination parties (ngaan buat) whenever they're happening (three so far) and compliment my unfortunate attempts at Thai dancing. As awful as I am at soccer compared to everyone here - and I really am terrible, pretty much turn the ball over whenever I touch it - they want me to come play everyday.

Last week was the Sonkran festival, which is the celebration of the Thai new year. People celebrate by throwing water on each other, and generally take the whole week off from work to do so. The first day we went to the temple to participate in a "rot naam" (literally, water car). The elderly sat down together in a long line, while everyone went up to each one individually to pour water into their hands. In turn they wish you happiness and good luck, and many times splash the water back in your face. It was all pretty low-key until someone snuck up behind me and drenched me with a bucket of ice water. Might've been annoyed if it didn't feel so good.

The next day was the start of the official celebration. I joined a group of people in the street, and after dumping water all over each other we soaked everyone that passed by on motorcycle, foot, or in the back of a truck (most of the time these people had their own water to dish out). We also had face paint to pretty up the drivers. At around noon, the Nayok came by unannounced to take me to another temple for another rot naam. He even put me on the spot to introduce myself in front of the gathering... all the more fun considering I was drenched head to toe and had all kinds of colorful paint on my face.

When we went back to the street, it got crazier. Some people had made their way into the middle of the street, stopping all the passing cars so as not to leave out anyone. They offered swigs of beer to the drivers and passengers. At one point, a wild pack of transgender folks (commonly called ladyboys in Thailand) joined us. Every time a car went by, they would scream, dump water, and sometimes grab men in inappropriate places. It got even more nuts when a drunk, older woman was brought to tears yelling at the ladyboys for doing these things around children. Thais are typically very low key, but people seemed to let loose a bit on the biggest holiday of the year.

There have been too many other experiences in the last three weeks to fully recount. The first weekend here I took a bike ride to explore a cave and waterfall that are part of a nearby national park. Really beautiful... some pics are below. During Sonkran, I played in a game of soccer with the women. I didn't score, but I managed to literally kick the ball into my own face while trying to do a bicycle kick. Most nights here I play soccer with some local neighborhood children, much more appropriate to my skill level. I've done karaoke at the Puyaiban's house (village head), danced more than I should be allowed to, and have quickly become acclimated to using a squat toilet and bucket shower... both really not so bad once you're used to it.

Most days so far, I've been spending my time in the SAO office getting to know the staff here and learning to read Thai with some books the Peace Corps gave us. No projects to be involved with yet. Right now the schools are on break, but once they re-open I'm planning to do some teaching and other activities there. The youth here always seem really excited when I'm around, so I'm thinking of starting a community youth group. Most projects will have to wait until I have a better command of the language. But overall it's fun being here. I enjoy the people and the fact that they yell out "Mr. Joel!" whenever they see me on my bike. And I have enough internet access to stay up to date on the Phillies and South Park episodes... all of the essentials in life.