Thursday, February 23, 2012

Coconut Crazy

I’m all about the coconut. The milk, the water, the meat, the oil, it’s all delicious on its own and it makes everything better. There is nothing more refreshing than young coconut water; coconut milk and meat make Thai curries, soups, and stirfrys spectacular. The Thais use the oil to create wonderful bath and body products, and the shell is used for things from ladles to jewelry to lamps. It is not only probably one of the most versatile foods in Thailand, but it is also cheap. I cringe at the thought of going back to the States and spending $3 for a fresh coconut after yoga. Don’t get me wrong, I know I’ll fork over the money, I’ll just long for the days when I could get 10 for the same price. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


As someone who attended a catholic high school, I understand the pros and cons of school uniforms. Pro: never having to think about what you wear. Con: having very little options for individual style. My Thai students, much like myself when I was their age, use what little materials they have at their disposal to create a unique fashion sense. Bracelets, glasses, hats, and sweatshirts splash color across the white and red palette of CVK. The only other tool they have: their hair.

At our last school, they were militant in their rules regarding hair. All boys had to keep their hair close-cropped, girls up to M3 (9th grade) had to have their hair bobbed to the chin, and older girls had to have their longer hair tied back in a white or black ribbon. Any disobedience was met with scissors or a buzz clipper and zero regard for the appearance of the end result. The worst offenders had the worst haircuts.

Here at CVK, they are far more laid-back on the hair rules. Yes, the boys’ hair is supposed to be buzzed short, but they only have checked the length (by cutting out chunks in the back to force a trip to the barber) twice this year. The girls are supposed to keep their long hair tied back in a red ribbon (to match their skirt), but there are no strict guidelines on what that entails.

The most incredible feats of French braiding happen in my classes. They swirl around and down one side, they start at the bottom and work their way up from the nape. They fishtail, they waterfall, they twist. The girls even make French braids that, viewed from the back, make the shape of a heart. And with the girls' long, sleek black hair, the braids are not only beautiful, but practically perfect.

And from watching it all, I have learned lots of new French braid tricks to try on myself (or maybe friends first) in the future. And thank goodness for them; my beauty toolbox was surprisingly low on tricks for long hair. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Katois and Toms and Dees. Oh My!

Last week I had a conversation with some of my eighth graders about ladyboys; they wanted to know if we have ladyboys in America. We reached a bit of a language impasse when I tried to explain that we have a whole LGBT community in the States, but we don’t necessarily have a direct equivalent to ladyboys.

Widely accepted in Thai culture is the “katoi” or ladyboy lifestyle. Ladyboys are extremely effeminate boys and men who want to be women, or according to my students, “boy and girl in one.” Were they in America, many ladyboys would probably just be flamingly gay (think Kurt on Glee).Thai standards are a bit different though. They like men, but they don’t consider themselves to be gay because they identify more closely with women. And they, therefore, want to become women.

Thailand, as a whole, is incredibly comfortable and nonjudgmental about sexual orientation. Back in America, we have parades and prides and protests about who you are allowed to love. On both sides of the debate, insults are hurled, assumptions are made, and rights are fought over. In Thailand’s attitude toward sexual identity, as in all things, the “sabai sabai” outlook is dominant. It’s not something to fight over because people are who they are.

Roughly ten percent of the fifth and sixth grade boys at our school already openly identify themselves as ladyboys. Not that they could hide it very easily. They shake, shimmy, and dance better (and more provocatively) than any of the girls, and they have mastered the art of french braids and makeup better than I ever will. During school events where the students are allowed to wear their street clothes, many of the ladyboys show up in full drag -- sexy dress, wig, makeup and heels.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Thai lesbians. Also already out of the closet by fifth and sixth grade, are the more masculine lesbians, or “toms”. Around seventh grade, many of the toms start wearing their hair shorter. Much like ladyboys identify with females, toms act in a more manly fashion. Toms do not date other toms, they have girlfriends, called “dees”. A dee, typically bisexual, might be dating a tom, and might date men at other times.

I truly appreciate how accepting the Thais are when it comes to sexuality. Anyone is allowed to love whoever they choose. However, my one criticism is that, unless it falls into specific categories, they don’t really talk about it. Gay men, for example, not as blatantly obvious or fabulously loud as ladyboys, are a largely overlooked segment of Thai society. And what if two lesbians happen to both be feminine rather than butch? The Thais, for all their open-mindedness, seem to only be open to certain configurations.

No matter the flaws in the national outlook on sexuality, there is something spectacular about a society in which a sixth grader has enough love and support to already be confident in who he or she is and to proudly announce having a crush on someone of the same sex.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Slither Slither, Hiss Hiss

As I may have mentioned before, Thailand is absurdly cheap in most respects. Combined with the fact that we make a huge amount of money by Thai standards (as much as teachers who have been working for thirty years), this means we have a pretty stable financial situation. However, we try our hardest to pump a majority of that money back into the Thai economy. This leads to a great deal of outrageous purchases, as well as general money-blowing tendencies, in an effort to give back to the locals.

Ridiculous purchase of the week: photo-ops with massive reptiles!

This is quite clearly a because-we-can situation. When exploring the local countryside several weeks ago, we drove through a nearby “hilltribe” (quotation marks due to being more of a tourist trap than a genuine village). Alongside the road was a sign reading BIG SNAKES with an arrow. Concise and direct, we followed that sign to another sign and eventually to, you guessed it, a bunch of cages full of pythons and assorted other reptiles.

They were asking the exorbitant price of 300 baht ($10) for a printed picture of you holding a snake. So we, in typical Thai fashion, struck a deal. We would come back with our camera, take all the pictures we wanted, no printing necessary, for just 100 baht.

So, this weekend, we went back. The deal was adjusted: unlimited pictures, two reptiles per person, 150 baht. Not too shabby, and how often does one get to play with snakes and lizards of gargantuan proportions? 

They may have been big, but they certainly weren't in any way threatening. The biggest snake there was geriatric, drooling and clearly blind. So I guess we got the $5 experience we bargained for.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Ostrich Cowboy: The Sequel

Turns out, riding an ostrich is not as easy as it looks. And it doesn’t actually look all that easy.

Win thoroughly enjoys taking the giant birds for a spin, and in the time we have lived in Chiang Rai he has taken two visiting friends for this “Once Time in Your Life” experience. Seeing as our departure is rapidly approaching, I figured this weekend was the time to put on my big girl pants and just ride an ostrich, dammit.

Ostriches apparently each have a unique personality, and, as we discovered, drastically differing reactions to having a foreigner perched on their backs. Becca (another visiting New Mexican), for instance, rode the smaller of the two ostriches. It trotted around politely, sometimes just standing still, allowing her the comfort of only moderate awkwardness, as well as normal facial expressions in all the pictures.

I was on the bigger of the two birds, and I think Becca and I had completely opposite experiences. My ostrich liked to run full-tilt, make quick turns, come to short halts and try to buck me off its back, all while making terrifying hissing noises. Not that I blame it; I wouldn’t like it if someone were clinging to my body, holding onto my useless wings and treating me as if I were a horse.

Becca was able to gracefully slide off the tail-end of her ostrich. I was not so fortunate. Mr. Ostrich did manage to successfully hurl me off his back. I went down sideways, but somehow managed to stick the landing, inciting a burst of applause from a group of tourists who had been watching my entire ostrich debacle.

On a related note, during this visit Wanna Farms had a cluster of new hatchlings and toddler ostriches. If you have never seen a baby ostrich (as we hadn’t before yesterday), they are possibly one of the most bizarrely adorable creatures I’ve ever seen. If they didn’t grow into the mildly creep monsters that those of us in Chiang Rai like to treat like horses, I would make Win promise that we could get a bunch and let them run around our backyard.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Fear on Two Wheels

This week my seventh grade students inadvertently made me feel very pathetic, not to mention a little bit terrified, when they started showing up to school on motorbikes. First of all, I don’t even know if they are old enough to be driving (Do you turn 14 in seventh grade?), and it isn’t exactly comforting to see them driving alongside us in traffic. But it also brought up a bigger, ongoing issue: I cannot drive a motorbike.

I have tried to learn how to drive a motorbike/scooter three times without success. The first time, I panicked going uphill and, remembering that if you put down the kickstand it would turn off, tried to get off the scooter while holding the brake, accidentally hit the gas at the same time and had to have Win come rescue me while I stood there baffled. The second time was mildly successful. I got going without tipping over, but then I couldn’t figure out how to comfortably steer. It’s not like a bike, it’s not like a car, and I just had no idea how to turn the damn thing. The third time was the most pathetic. I had psyched myself out so badly I couldn’t even go without feeling certain I was going to fall over or crash.

Seeing my students driving made me positive that it couldn’t be that difficult. So, I resolved that this weekend would be the weekend I learned to drive a scooter. This weekend, I would not panic ad I would not give up. And since Win’s friend Becca was visiting, there was a necessity to the situation. We rode with three of us on the motorbike, but only once. It wasn’t pretty.

Saturday morning, I got up ready to go, eager to learn, feeling sure of myself. Then, I started to think about all the ways I could really and truly screw up, most of which ended in me crashing a motorbike. By the time we arrived at Becca’s guesthouse, I was no longer confident. So when the guesthouse owner said she only had one motorbike to rent, I figured, clearly Becca should be the one to learn, right? I mean I have Win to drive me around, and then I’m leaving Thailand. Becca just got here and she has a year of needing to drive herself around. Logical though it was, I was mostly just terrified. Of course, the guesthouse owner looked even more terrified upon hearing the Becca had never driven a motorbike. When she nearly crashed into a bunch of potted plants, I thought that the offer to rent the motorbike might be revoked.

Mrs. Guesthouse Owner turned to me and asked if I knew how to drive. In that moment I felt like I was trapped in a nightmare. But, I got on the scooter. I gave it some gas and slowly inched forward. I crept along at a snail’s pace, but didn’t tip over. So I kept going. Luckily, the guesthouse is located down a small side soi, so I could drive around and practice (read: inch along trying not to crash or throw up).

We pulled into traffic and I didn’t die. I kept up with the pace of nearby cars, and I still didn’t die. It was phenomenal. And, once I stopped thinking about it, steering wasn’t anything to get worked up over. Apparently, you lean more than steer, so the whole thing starts to feel like second nature.

All told, I probably drove a hundred kilometers (that’s a guess, I’m still not sure what a kilometer feels like). And, by the end of the day, even though my wrists were sore, my hands felt like they were going to fall off from all the vibration, my eyes stung, my ass was killing me, and I’m pretty sure I ate one of the numerous bugs that hit me in the face, I thoroughly enjoyed driving. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Be Mine

Happy Valentine’s Day from the Land of Smiles. The Thais, especially the students, adore Valentine’s Day. They exchange much bigger, lavish gifts than students in America ever would. Giant teddy bears, huge bouquets, and massive amounts of candy change hands.

As an elementary and middle school teacher, I left every one of my classes laden in roses, pockets full of candy. Instead of giving valentines the way American children do, our students just covered each other’s shirts in heart stickers, so I was also repeatedly stickered mid-lesson. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so loved or received so many gifts for Valentine’s Day. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Flying High

In celebration of my 25th birthday, Win and I sprung for a ziplining trip in Chiang Mai this past weekend. Our friend Brad came up from Ratchaburi to join us, bringing his girlfriend, Kelly, along for the adventure. After a few bus- and guesthouse-related hiccups in our plans, we were in a Jungle Flight van, snaking our way along single-lane roads through the mountains.

Suited up in safety harnesses, hairnets, and helmets, we were thoroughly uncomfortable (the boys even more than the girls) but ready to go. They gave us a run-down on the pre-ziplining procedures, which turned out to be entirely unnecessary because we were accompanied by guides who did all the clipping, unclipping, and re-clipping work. 

Off we went, one-by-one, zipping among the towering trees. It was exhilarating, and surprisingly simple. All we had to do was let the guides do their thing, sit down, and soar from tower to tower, taking in the fantastic view out across northern Thailand’s rolling, mountainous jungles.

Over the course of two hours, we enjoyed flying between fifteen towers, three abseils (a rope pulley system that dropped us each down to the ground), and a ton of good-natured fun from our guides. Some towers were equipped with double cables, allowing couples to go together. At other towers one of the guides would join the last female zipliner, tailing her by a couple of meters, using his body weight to bounce the cable up and down.

At the end of the day, as we sat down to the included buffet-style meal, I think we all wished we had forked up the money to do a longer course. But, now we know. Next time, we will just have to go for a full-day package.