Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Team Spirit

After a month of preparation – practice, tournaments, sweat, injuries, construction, choreography, and three weeks of half-days of class – C.V.K. was ready for Sports Day. And they were gonna do it right. The students were split into five color-specific teams, spread over the entire age range of the school: red, blue, green, white, and yellow, representing pre-K through high school seniors. And, Sports “Day” was really two days made up of all sorts of (very) different events.

Day One:

The full-sized football (yes, I do mean soccer) field was divided widthwise, allowing four games to be played simultaneously. In one game, the sixth graders, decked out in fancy gear, played an intense game of soccer. They played like their legos depended on it, the whole weight of their color resting on their shoulders.

At the same time, three games of handball were occurring. As an American, I had never seen handball before; seemingly handball is just soccer for those who prefer throwing and bouncing instead of kicking (with a little bit of monkey-in-the-middle mixed in for good measure). It also uses basketball rules, preventing players from simply grabbing the ball and running. With three games being played at once, balls were flying into other games, evoking a sense of pure chaos for spectators.

Practiced during the class-less, lawless afternoons preceding Sports Day, but seemingly absent from the festivities (and surely deserving of mention) was Chairball. Resembling short-range basketball, chairball has one big twist. The traditional basketball hoop is replaced by a team member standing on a chair, holding a laundry basket over his or her head. Clearly, they can do their best to assist their team by moving to catch the ball, but they face much more pressure than a stoic, metal basketball hoop has ever known. Popular with the elementary school kids, chairball is far more entertaining than your typical basketball game.

Not to be left out, the kindergarten carried on Sports Day activities of its own. The main event: tug-of-war! There might be nothing cuter than eighty toddlers, donning hats made from recycled milk cartons, flower headbands, sequins and makeup, playing a massive game of tug-of-war. Unless of course, after so many games, all that tension and tugging, the rope, pulled taut, snaps directly in the middle, sending each side’s tiny tuggers flying into a flat, domino-ed pile. The way they all bounced up, made of rubber, brushed off their knees and ran to the canteen for lunch, was equally adorable.

Day Two:

Friday was the real deal: official Sports Day. Cheer stands had been constructed. The band and junior band were prepped and ready to play. A parade had been planned: floats built, costumes rented, faces painted, and hair elaborately styled.

The parade was painstakingly elaborate, the student-powered floats massive. Each team color had come up with their own individual theme, ranging from Victorian Era, to traditional Thai, to something showcasing a massive, red demon. Confusing, delightful and bizarre, the students mixed in costumes and props as they saw fit. There were costumes including what I can only assume were colorful condoms, Thai slaves, some gender-swapping prince/princess combos, and hill tribe-themed dancers.

Each team had not only its own parade section, but a cheer stand, with color-coordinated decorations and two sets of cheerleaders, one elementary and one senior high. The choreography, with crowd participation, was impressively mastered, the costumes flashy and loud. It seemed to be more about team spirit, screaming, shouting, glittery team spirit, than about the sporting events themselves.

The events leading up to the grand finale football game were mostly toddler-oriented. There was a relay race in which adults ran while carrying pre-schoolers, a three-legged race where adults were tied to small children, and a big-wheel race that mostly ended with the little kids riding around in circles.

Despite the oddity of all the sporting events, Sports Day was a huge success. Win and I, both on the blue team, represented our color proudly. Blue sunglasses, bubble necklace, dragon crocs, skirt, shoes, earrings, and hats. We rocked blue hard.

Blue vs. Green. Red vs. White. Yellow vs. Blue. Red vs. Yellow. White vs. Green. The whole thing was a chaotic jumble of running, screaming, and pom-poms. It was a high-energy, high-excitement day, but I have absolutely no idea who won any of the games.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Markets of Thailand: Student Market

Like many countries, a vast portion of Thailand’s economy revolves around consumerism. With the abundance of shops, restaurants, markets (street, night, produce, floating), and even stores selling nothing but temple-sized Buddha statues, Thais earn a living (or at least a supplemental income) selling goods to tourists and their fellow Thais.

Since it is such a big part of Thai adulthood, the schools (or at least the two where we have taught) allow students to host a market for their teachers and fellow classmates once a year. Everything is either student-made or student-cooked (possibly student-purchased instead). The kids practice at playing vendors and merchants, and I’m sure they don’t mind missing a half-day of classes.

Last year, while teaching at Benchamarachutit in Ratchaburi, the students had a market with an environmental theme. Old bottles had been turned into lamps, flowers and animals; pictures and decorations were made from re-purposed straws; hats had been made from braided banana leaves and old soda bottles. There was a full traditional Thai band, complete with a massive bamboo organ. And the best part, they were all so excited that foreigners had showed up, they kept giving us things for free, refusing to take our money.

At C.V.K.’s 2011 Student Market, the fare was simple. Students made pressed sandwiches, cookies, cakes, ice cream sundaes, milk shakes, meat on a stick and various fried foods (although the deep frier did require teacher supervision). There were also keychains, bows, comic books, and burned copies of movies.

Over the course of an hour and a half hanging around with my students, I sampled an array of foods, tasty and not-so-great. I was talked into eating something with a consistency somewhere between Jello and gummy bears, full of pieces of corn and topped with coconut, I tipped my older students in (useless) half baht coins, and students kept trying to sell me their used Thai comic books knowing that I can’t read Thai. The highlight: when the kindergarteners were paraded across the street to spend what little baht they had; even the middle-schoolers, so tough, cool and above it all, thought it was adorable.

The food might not have been the best, and many of their goods were overpriced (let’s hope that they were raising money for some school function), but it was a nice experience. Not only was it fun to spend time with them outside of class, mixing English, Thai and a boatload of miming to form a conversation, but it was lovely to see some of the quieter kids out in full bloom, vying for the best compliments from Teacher.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

In the Presence of Pachyderms

Up close, an elephant is a creature like no other. Gentle eyes the speak of unplumbed emotional depth, stubbly hair across smoky-grey flesh. Riding on the back of an elephant, you tower and lurch, high above the world.

Blessed with remarkably quick wits, we have seen elephants perform incredible feats. Dancing and hoolahooping, painting and playing soccer, even drinking soda through a straw; elephants have a knack for learning. Among Thailand’s hill tribes, a number are native mahouts and elephant herders, holding annual Elephant Roundups, hundreds of elephants displaying their talents.

Small town men will purchase elephants, parading them around town selling sugar cane to pedestrians or people in restaurants in order to feed the elephants (which will then be locked in too-small yards until the next night’s circuit). Standing on the sidewalk, bobbing his or her head along with the music, swaying with a remembered dance, the elephant will wait patiently for another handful of food.

Such treatment isn’t befitting of such elegant giants, but the treatment of elephants seems to be getting ever-better. No longer will you see elephants being exploited thus on Bangkok’s Khao San Road, or anywhere in Bangkok. And many of the formerly mistreated elephants from Bangkok have been sent north, living out their lives in elephant camps and orphanages, given fresh air and open spaces, tromping through jungle rather than city streets, and fed on a regular basis. While many of these places operate as tourist attractions as well, the conditions are kept under closer scrutiny, hopefully providing better quality of life for the liberated pachyderms.

Leathery skin, wrinkles like canyons spreading across their broad backs, bristle-like hair springing up among the cracks and gullies. Ears flap like massive water-soaked flags, slapping their sides as they sway, huge gait, like a minivan on legs. Big, bright, long-lased eyes sparkle with depthless sentience. A curious trunk twists above stray chin whiskers, searching for anything edible. Lumbering, weathered and majestic, elephants have been a magical presence in our travels.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Floating Light

As a lunar holiday, Loy Krathong typically falls sometime in November. Last year, oblivious to the fact that it was a holiday weekend, we went to Surin in northeast Thailand for their annual Elephant Roundup, effectively missing Loy Krathong entirely. This year, we were more prepared.

Loy Krathong is Thailand’s equivalent to a festival of lights. “Loy” means “to float.” And “Krathong” refers to homemade floats that carry a candle. A traditional Krathong is made from a cross-section of banana tree trunk elaborately decorated with strips of banana leaf and the decapitated heads of flowers, painstakingly twisted, twirled, stapled and pinned.

During November’s full moon, the krathongs are taken to the local river and loy-ed. Symbolically, the light from the candle is meant to honor Buddha, and the krathong carries away all grudges, mistakes, and negativity. Loy Krathong is a holiday of letting go, of new beginnings.

Over the years, the holiday has been augmented, and the beloved Thai lanterns (kohms) included. Kohms, made from tissue or rice paper, are like miniaturized hot air balloons, using the heat from a burning ring of oiled paper to lift up and away from earth.

From the banks of Chiang Rai’s Kok River, krathongs drifted downstream, kohms floated off by the hundreds, boyant and glowing. The sky was full of false constellations that shift and change with the wind. Fireworks burst overhead, close enough to rain paper on our shoulders.

As the kohm began to glow brighter, hotter, we shifted our grip from top to bottom. Suddenly, as if of its own accord, the lantern tugged itself free of our fingertips, slipping away to join the school of glowing lantern jellyfish, easing their way heavenward. With it, all mistakes and negative energy, leaving us cleansed.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Tiny Flippers

All along Sri Lanka’s southern coast, evidence of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami is prevalent. In between tourist towns, ruined walls and remains of gutted, faceless homes have been left to crumble. With no tourist income in the area, there is little reason or financial means to bother tearing them down or building them back up. In some places, shops spring up like weeds within the collapsing buildings. And on each of our bus rides, I was overwhelmed by the number of roadside graveyards, wondering if they were tsunami victims.

Among the devastation, Sri Lanka’s turtle hatcheries took a particularly hard hit. Many of them, though they had been in business for decades, are run complete off donations and volunteer work. So, I figured that we should surely go put our money to good use, donating to the rebuilding turtle hatcheries in the area. Kosgoda holds the highest concentration of turtle hatcheries; it is the only place where, of the five species of sea turtle that lay eggs on Sri Lanka, all five come to nest.

Since Sri Lankans consider sea turtle eggs to be a delicacy, and the hatcheries have a hard enough time with natural predators, the hatcheries pay a higher-than-market price to all local fishermen who bring in turtle eggs. They then put them in a “natural incubator” (sand box) until they are ready to hatch. Since turtles hatch at night, using the reflection of the moon as a guide back to the sea, the hatcheries rig a system wherein an artificial light lures the hatchlings into a box instead.

Baby turtles, already susceptible to birds and other predators, are especially vulnerable when they are first born. Not only are their eyes not yet open fully, but their bellybuttons aren’t closed; it’s like ringing a dinner bell for all nearby predators. The hatcheries keep the new turtles in tanks of seawater for three days, by which point their eyes are open, their bellybuttons sealed, and they are ready to go. On the night of the third day, the hatchery workers, along with any volunteers lucky enough to be there, release the baby sea turtles under the cover of darkness.

In addition to giving baby turtles a helping hand on their way to survival, the hatcheries take in wounded sea turtles. Injured turtles can be nursed to health and then released back into the ocean; turtles that have lost limbs and would typically die in the wild remain at the hatcheries, helping to educate local school children (and us tourists). Rare albino turtles, massive and majestic, don’t end up in the wild at all, their luminescence making them immediate prey.

There are obviously many people who are opposed to the turtle hatcheries’ interference with nature. But you have to figure, with sea turtle numbers dwindling, even one more turtle that survives is a small difference. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


With only a few short days left in our Sri Lanka adventure, we started to wander up the coast. The goal was a leisurely journey, as we were no more than three hours from Colombo.

First, we went to Bentota. Unfortunately for us budget-conscious travelers, sometime between the printing of our mysterious bootleg Lonely Planet and our arrival on the island, Bentota decided that it was some sort of luxury resort town. We told a tuk-tuk driver than we were looking for something cheap. He repeatedly took us to places that wanted $25 a night or higher, insisting the whole time that many tourists come, pay 5,000 rupees, 10,000 rupees a night ($50-100), beautiful on beach. He couldn’t understand that it wasn’t a personal insult to Bentota or his family, just a budget issue.

Eventually, we got back on a bus heading toward Galle and hopped off in the town of Amblanagoda, where a tuk-tuk driver immediately took us to a big, rambling guesthouse overlooking the ocean. We took the first room they showed us, huge with a oceanview balcony and a roomy mosquito net, only 1,800 rupees per night. Downstairs, a wedding reception was winding down, so we were invited to have a free buffet lunch (we’re pretty sure they were just hoping we would burst into flames because of the spice) and hop into family portraits.

Amblanagoda is famous for its carved masks, both theatrical and for folk medicine, so we made the rounds of the mask museums in town. The masks ranged from simple affairs in vibrant colors, representing various ailments, to massive carved garudas and cobras meant for blessings and luck, to even bigger, more elaborate king masks. Hand carved from balsa wood, and then delicately painted, the construction process was done assembly-line style, each artisan with a niche.

The beach at Amblanagoda was lovely to stroll, but hazardous (okay, probably fatal) if you were looking to swim. Even at low tide, the sand was a narrow strip, frequently interrupted by natural rock walls and fallen palm trees. Not surprisingly, the beach saw very few visitors, making it less-than-ideal if you were looking to open a resort. However, the seclusion and solitude caused us to spend the rest of our Sri Lanka days lounging in Amblanagoda. 

Old World Splendor

The old city of Galle, located on the southern coast and the final World Heritage Site on our itinerary, is a neighborhood surrounded by massive fortress walls. Elsewhere along Sri Lanka's southern coast, the vacant shells of former homes, piles of cinderblock rubble, stand ghostly tribute to the havoc wreaked by the tsunami. But, in Galle’s old quarter, colonial-style buildings, all shutters, archways, and balconeys covered with flowering vines, flank the streets.The fortification, serving little modern protective purpose, actually saved the old quarter from damage during the devastating 2004 tsunami.

A meandering gridwork of cafes, guesthouses, and giftshops, Galle is also graced with walk-able fortress walls. We walked the majority of the walls, perched high above the crashing waves, taking to the streets whenever construction prevented passage. A beautiful vantage point for watching the sunset over the ocean, the fortress walls seemed popular with tourists and locals alike.

Wandering through the local Antiques Museum, we witnessed local men hand carving gems, something done by machine these days. But Galle strives to keep alive traditional handicrafts. We were lucky enough to see an elderly woman making lace by hand, sun-wrinkled fingers flicking bobbins over and under each other, a craft that is quickly fading away as the older generation disappears in Galle.

Full of textiles, antiques, tea houses and beautiful ocean views, Galle was a lovely place to waste several days roaming, looking for local knickknacks or napping the day away.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Rainforest Expedition

Among the numerous forests and national reserves, the Sinharaja Rainforest Reserve stood out to us, after all how often do you get to visit a rainforest? We opted to book our rainforest trek through our guesthouse, which turned out to be excellent foresight. The tuk-tuk ride to the entrance of the national park took nearly an hour, bumping over flood-damaged roads, massive chunks of pavement torn up and left unrepaired.

Our guide was a local 21-year-old who had been working as a registered Unesco guide since the age of 16. He obviously loved his job, and who wouldn’t? His sole purpose was to walk around a rainforest with tourists pointing out birds, trees, plants and wildlife; his positivity and absolute awe spilled over, sometimes to the point that his English started to jumble, and made for a lively, enjoyable walk. From wild coffee, cinnamon, and lime leaves to massive palms, enormous spiral trunks, and tiny plants that would close their leaves when you brushed against them, he reveled in the greenery all about.

To safe guard against leeches, we stuffed our pants into our socks and covered our shoes with salt. Luckily it wasn’t a rainy day, so the leeches were fewer in number. I come from a world in which leeched are big nasty black blobs, roughly the size of your thumb. So I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about, I mean, it’s not like you can’t see them.

Apparently, this is not true of all the leeches in the world. After taking a picture of what I thought was just a cute inch worm trying to resemble a stick, I was told that, nope, that would be a Sri Lankan leech! And, they were busy using the stillness of my photo op as a chance to climb up and into my shoes. Hiding between leaves, sticking to the soles of my shoes, and even trying to shimmy in through the mesh along the sides of my sneakers (thanks, ventilated running shoes), even on a dry day the leeches were bad.

After de-leeching, our path led us to a river. We removed our shoes and crossed through waist deep waters, following the path farther along to a lovely waterfall. Our guide and Win went for a dip, but having not thought to wear a bathing suit I skipped it, choosing instead to lounge on the riverside boulders.

In his tracking of animals, birds, and reptiles, our guide was relentless. He wandered in front of us, eyes always alert and roaming the foliage. We watched giant squirrels, the national animal of Sri Lanka, leap through the trees, the biggest reaching three or four feet, nose to bushy tail.

We tried to sneak up on kangaroo lizards and hump-nose lizards. He told us about cicadas and giant snails, introduced us to some crabs living inside a tree trunk, and pointed out all manner of creatures. We even spotted several kingfishers, flitting past, beautiful in bright blue, a rare sight I am told.

Since there aren’t many big animals in the Sinharaja Reserve, he made sure to point out the local monkey population, but saved the reptiles for his grand finale. He spotted a green vine snake, which we picked up immediately upon learning that it isn’t poisonous. Vibrant lime green, the small snake twisted and spiraled, coiling around our fingers. He also found a pit viper, but since it is “medium poisonous” (“two minutes, go to sleep”), we left it alone.

It wasn’t the safari experience that many people aim for. There might not have been leopards or elephants, and I’m not really sure why it is called Sinharaja (Sinhalese for “lion king” when there certainly weren't lions), but our rainforest walk was just what we were looking for: low-key, intimate, and relaxed.