Thursday, May 26, 2011

Oh, How Things Grow

One of the most delightful aspects of living in southeast Asia is the greenery. Although the word greenery is far too monochromatic to be apt. Flowering trees and tropical plants are everywhere. And moving to northern Thailand has only increased my delight. It even smells better up here.

Half of the trees are dotted with orange, white or pink, raining petals on pedestrians. Walking down the street, the scent of one flamboyant tropical flower after another ambushes your senses, light and ephemeral. 

Even when surrounded by city pavement, the Thais go out of their way to fill their lives with plants. Hanging, potted, and nurtured, they fill every bare space unreachable by nature alone.

And, in no way lacking for water, the plants are ruthless in their growth. Vines spiral and climb. Leaves reach out, soaking up life-giving sun. Water lilies awake to greet the sun. Banana leaves tower over fences, stretching their massive leafy limbs. Morning glories embroider themselves over heaps of garbage, a living camouflage.

In a tropical climate, variety and creativity have no bounds. Flowers bigger than my outstretched hand and as delicate as tissue paper abound. Magenta, yellow, and ruby as bright as if they were dyed, synthetic. Others, more solid, erupt in orange and scarlet, announcing their presence. The versatility, colors and complexities nature creates constantly amaze me.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

We Are Glorified Babysitters: Adventures as Wranglers of Tiny Children


Children are exhausting.  Put thirty to fifty of them in one room and the exhaustion factor increases exponentially. Add the fact that they speak little to no English, and we speak no functional Thai, and you have pure chaos. Twenty to twenty-two hours a week of absolute unbridled chaos, complete with yelling, hitting, rolling on the floor, dumping water on each other, and (in some of Win’s fourth grade classes) riding each other around the classroom. 

Last semester we taught high school, where they want to talk about boyfriends and girlfriends and listen to Lady Gaga or Justin Beiber. Now we are getting a crash course on teaching elementary and middle school. First lesson: They are tiny balls of energy who need constant entertainment.

Luckily, when it comes down to it, our job (officially teaching speaking and listening) is just to play with kids. This typically involves speaking like a caveman while gesturing like a mime on drugs, hoping we are loud enough that the trouble kids in the back are distracted enough to stop hitting each other, and encouraging kids to speak above a whisper (a lot of clapping helps), all while sweating and getting chalk everywhere. And laughing. A lot of laughing. 

Four to five classes a day is nearly unbearable. In the post-work collapse, we can hardly do more than shower and eat before falling asleep. But it’s worth it to have a job where the main job requirement is making sure the kids have fun.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Creativity Nurtured

At the end of our Cambodia excursion, we decided to go to Battambang. Cambodia’s second largest city, though by no means actually a large city, Battambang isn’t exactly jam-packed with sights and activities. But, our aim was mostly to relax and spend as little money as possible before heading back into Thailand. However, fliers for the local circus certainly caught our eye; knowing that the circus was also a school for children made the money worth spending. 

Phare Ponleu Selpak, meaning “the brightness of art,” is a Cambodian NGO aimed at helping the children of Cambodia with education, life skills, as well as creative and performance skills through their art centers. Originally opened at a refugee camp near the Thai border in the 80s, PPS began as a way to help children deal with the psychological impact of war. They then moved to their current locale in Battambang and continued their efforts, as well as opened a public school, a circus school, and housing for children who were victims of child trafficking, poverty, street begging and the like. The organization helps to renew Cambodian culture through its children, and to foster learning on an individual level. 

We opted to go during their Community Day, a showcase of all things PPS, rather than simply paying to see only the circus. The event was promoting a coffee table book published by one of their circus troupes that was about to go on a European tour. The books, while beautiful, were expensive by Southeast Asian standards. At $1 a glass, the beer was more reasonable, so we did our part to contribute financially. 

Scattered about the grounds, children worked on drawings and watercolors, set up easels for paintings, and paper-maché’d masks. The public school got out of session around 4 pm and throngs of elementary children flooded the area around the arts buildings. As the only foreigners, we stood out from, as well as towered over, everyone there. This distinction also meant we were the proud recipients of limitless high fives and hellos.

There was a toddler fashion show, a live painting, and a break dance performance. The circus school was open for spectators, red, yellow, and blue mats lining the floors. We took off our shoes and watched them flip, spin and fly, contort and bend, juggle and climb. They balanced, lifted, and actrobatted. It was more diverse than an entire circus, and all happening simultaneously.

Before the actual circus performance, they had live ice painting, pretty much the last medium you would expect to see in Cambodia. By layering color after color of paint across the tops of large blocks of ice, the blocks began to slowly melt away. Very slowly. As it did, the paint seeped into cracks, gaps, and little tunnels in the ice, slowly causing elaborate designs to spider through the clear white ice. 

Eventually it was time for the circus, and we filed into the tent. Seats were full, so we stood off to the side, children seated around our feet, perched and leaning for a better view. The performers clowned, tightrope walked and unicycled to the delight of the audience. But in the late afternoon, the heat under the big top became stifling, driving us out before the performance was over. Having seen the full showcase of the day, the circus wasn’t the main event anymore. Missing a little of it was okay. Not only did we feel good about where our money was going, but we were excited to get back to teaching and spending all of our time playing with kids.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Yet Another Empowering Experience Brought to You by Your Loving Boyfriend

Win takes incredible photographs. Before coming to Thailand, we made a joint investment in a digital SLR. It wasn’t the most expensive one on the market, but it has proven itself to be a worthy purchase. It is wonderful traveling with a boyfriend who not only loves taking pictures, but also has such a remarkable eye for it. It is, in a word, intimidating. I love playing with the camera, but I never feel like my pictures are up to snuff. (Although in the past couple month, more and more of my pictures have snuck their way into Win’s albums.)

Win is always encouraging me to go ahead and take over on camera duty, but sometimes I feel that it’s best to just leave it to him. However, since he had not only been to Angkor Wat before, but already has numerous pictures of it, I was given three days of full camera privileges. 

And what a three days it was. We scampered, climbed, and explored ruins overrun by the ferocity of mother nature. Trees, vines, and roots pushed and pulled at the temple walls, greenery making the most of any foothold. When all was said and done, we ended up with almost 1500 pictures (digital is such a blessing), which we whittled down to 200. And I’d say that my pictures aren’t half bad. Now we just have to decide who gets to play with the camera when we go out.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Like Painted Lace

The Angkor Butterfly Center is a tiny place just near the ever more popular Landmine Museum. After seeing numerous war-based museums all over Vietnam and Cambodia, the choice was easy. I wanted to see pretty things, dammit. 

For a $4 entrance fee, we were given a personal tour by one of the staff, as well as peace of mind. The center functions not only as a way for tourists to see the local butterfly varieties, but also as a way to give supplemental money to local farmers. For each cocoon or caterpillar they bring in, they receive between 600 and 2,000 riel (about 15 to 50 cents), depending on the species. The center also ships some cocoons to Holland (apparently they love their butterflies like they love their tulips), for which the farmers are paid a higher rate. Not surprisingly, cocoons come in by the dozens. 

Caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly – all stages were represented in a multitude of colors and sizes. A month-old giant moth hid inside the caterpillar room, tattered and torn. Fragile like antique lace. An individual butterfly lives between one and two weeks; a lifespan that makes them seem all the more delicate. 

Throughout the year, our tour guide told us, they house a total of around 40 species, running the color spectrum – oranges, yellows, neon blues, lime greens. Stripes and spots of limitless detail covered wings. On the day we were there around 15 varieties were flitting about, landing on flowering reds and magentas. Spindly legs gripped leaves. Black, red, white, they drifted by on the breeze, lazy in the midday heat. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Vietnam Thrifty

Beer: 3000 dong per glass (15 cents)

Toothpaste: 3500 dong (17 cents)

Birdie for foot badminton: 20,000 dong (1 dollar)

Massage during dinner: 40,000 dong (2 dollars)

Toothpaste again when you drop the cap down the sink: 3500 dong (17 cents)

Low-quality photocopied book: 80,000 dong (4 dollars)

Q-tips from roving street vendor: 4000 dong (20 cents)

Ducklings: 10,000 dong apiece (50 cents) 

A Colorful Calm

While in Saigon, we joined a trip to Tay Ninh in order to see the Cao Dai temple and watch their midday mass. Officially established in 1926, Caodaiism is a colorful mixture of religions. The religion combines elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, and animism, and one of their three main saints is Victor Hugo, whose picture occupies a prestigious place in the temple. 

The temple itself is equally colorful in every sense. From the outside, the windows are made of the All-Seeing Eye surrounded by flowers. While inside, a massive orb with the Divine Eye sits center stage. Green dragons spiral around pink pillars, sporting colorful faces and displaying striped tongues. And the ceiling is covered in stars and clouds. 

Mass is led by a handful of musicians and practitioners singing hymns. The men and women sit separately, cross-legged on the floor in evenly spaced rows, their traditional robes always seeming to make perfect rectangles about them. The higher-ups don red, yellow, and blue, each representing one of the three main belief systems, while the women and those lower on the totem pole dress in all white. 

The music reigns, all else is silent save for the occasional bell, which reverberates throughout the temple, causing those gathered to cascade into bows. The bells resonate rich and pure, bouncing from the walls, tumbling over the room. You can feel it in your chest. It drowns out the murmur of the tourists watching from the balcony. The onlookers cease to matter; they are enveloped in prayer, overtaken by the music.  The scene becomes nearly hypnotic as a sense of tranquility settles over the temple.