Thursday, December 19, 2013

Skipping Christmas

Text from my sister this morning: Hi sissy! Jake and I are on a ferry, going to take a bus to Logan airport and sleep over there.  Our flight leaves at 6 am tomorrow morning.
Wait, what?! You’re leaving for Michigan.. already?? This is when the wake-up call came through and I actually had to pause, take a step back, and really think about what day it was.  Not one bone in my body could ever imagine that it is actually the 19th of December and Christmas is a mere six days away.

Coming into this, I knew that I would be missing the holidays.  It was something I had to do if I wanted to take this opportunity to teach in Thailand.  I felt prepared to miss the holidays when I left, even though I knew it was probably killing my mom and dad to know that I wouldn’t be there on Christmas morning to open up presents and scarf down a breakfast made for kings.  My sister and Jake have decided to go to Michigan for Christmas, so that’s unfortunately a double whammy for mom and dad this year.  I’m banking on my extended family to get them through (load up my mom with mimosas and white zin!).

Thanksgiving came and went and I survived the holiday with the help of my new friends. I wasn’t very homesick for Thanksgiving and I’m glad for that, because I didn’t want to be homesick when I had only been here for one measly month.  There is a lot more time for that and I didn’t want Thanksgiving to be the breaking point.

After I received my first card from Em, I was so happy.  At the same time, it was my first feeling of Wow, this is the person I used to spend every moment with outside of work and now we are writing letters to one another.  It is a strange realization.  Those closest to me are now very distant, and it is not always easy to plan a Skype session, although I feel fortunate for iMessaging and whatsapp, which allows me to text when I have wifi without getting charged for it. 

When one card came, others slowly began arriving here and there.  I get my mail delivered to school to ensure that it actually gets to me safely.  Each time the secretary finds me, my eyes light up and I get a humungous smile on my face.  My students crowd around my desk to see what I get and I always show off my letters and postcards to them.

Last Friday, I had a field trip so I wasn’t at school (Let me add, the most horribly exhausting and sweaty field trip of my life. It was Friday the 13th, jokes on me!).  When I got home, I had a message from Brittany saying that she had a letter AND a package for me. She knew that since it was Friday, I would have had to wait in anticipation if it just sat at school all weekend, so she was a very good person and took it home for me.  I was so much more excited for this package than I ever thought I would be, I think mainly because this was quite a large surprise, and I had no idea that anything was coming for me or who it would be from.  So, Brittany and Emily brought me my package and they were just as excited for me to open it and to find out what was inside.  If I only could have had a picture taken of us sitting on my bed smiling and staring at this enormous package, frantic about what the contents would be.  As soon as I saw the handwriting on the box, I knew immediately that it was from my parents.  Leave it to my mom to send me some cheering up on a day that had just stressed me out to the max.  Funny how things work that way!

As I fumbled to rip the tape off of the box I heard a bit of jingling, like Santa himself was in the box.  Of course my mom sent me Christmas decorations! It wouldn’t be a Christmas living away from home if I didn’t get these from my mom.  I should have known!  Tinsel, door/window hangings, and Santa hats!  I have zero decorations in my classroom and I have zero decorations in my house, so this was an amazing surprise.  I think I will be decking out my classroom in these gifts so that I can share my Christmas cheer with my students!  The decorations will be appreciated much more in my classroom, where all of my students and parents can see them, as opposed to being hung in my bedroom to be seen only by me.

When I was finished oogling over the Christmas decorations, I went back at the box to see what else was inside.  All that I saw was a layer of wrapping paper with a piece of paper on top that read, Don’t open till Christmas J.  Santa Clause came a bit early and it will take all that I have to wait another week until Christmas to open this, but it will be well worth it I’m sure.  My parents are extremely thoughtful and I am very thankful that I will have something to open on Christmas.  As much as I know that giving is better than receiving, receiving will be especially rewarding this year for me, just to make it feel like I am not totally skipping the holiday.

What will make or break the Christmas feeling for me on the 25th is what it feels like to be working on the most wonderful holiday.  Christmas is only an observance in Thailand, not a national holiday, so my coworkers and I will have a regular day at work.  I am not sure I have come to terms with this yet.  Even though I have had many Christmases where my dad was working, and it happens to many people, it just doesn’t seem fair!  In my 25 years, I have always had school or work off, and had plenty of time to spend with my family, but this Christmas will be the weirdest yet.  I have high hopes that my friends and I will make it a holiday worth celebrating, and why wouldn’t we since we will all be trying to make the best out of what we have to work with.  I plan on doing Christmas activities with my students all week long.  They may have to be math, science, or English related, but I am determined to dedicate next week to Christmas and I think my students will be on the same page. We also have a Christmas Show on the 23rd, which should be absolute mayhem, and a classroom New Year's party on the 27th. Let's hope these events help me feel like I am not skipping Christmas.

Silver lining: Amelia, Brittany, Emily, and I will be headed to Koh Tao to do our open water scuba diving certification course on the 27th and we get time off for New Year’s, so at least we get a long 5 day weekend.  It still would be better to have Christmas off, but I’ll take a trip to a beautiful island as a late Christmas present to myself! Check out where we will be diving and staying at!

We skip Christmas, save the money, and go splash in the Caribbean for ten days.
                           -Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham

Thursday, December 12, 2013

For The Love Of Food

I have been doing really well trying not to miss things from home too much yet. I figure, I still have over 4 months left abroad, so what's the point in dwelling over what I can't have? Well, Chiang Mai has finally made me start thinking of foods that I would give a lot to have. It seems to be the most simple foods that I miss. It was actually a relief to get away from the foods that I ate so often at home, but now, I can't seem to stop thinking about them!

Foods I miss: 
Mexican (Bombers specifically)
Buffalo chicken anything
Cheese (hard to come buy, VERY expensive at grocery store)
Wheat thins
Mom's ziti and chicken parm
Coffee-mate creamer

Never thought I would miss this "dinner" so much.

I went to Chiang Mai for Loi Krathong three weeks ago. While I was there, we figured out that the city caters to tourists and Westerners, and had many hidden gems for foodies. We stumbled upon Nice Kitchen that weekend, where I had an amazing carrot, cinnamon, and cashew pancake, and vowed to go back again. We kept eating great food in Chiang Mai, so I began researching restaurants before we went again this past weekend. I was getting so excited for these restaurants that I started planning what to eat and when to eat it throughout the weekend. I absolutely love the Thai food I eat all week, but it is nice to have something else to look forward to!

Food I ate this weekend:
Mexican: margaritas, chicken burrito, chips and salsa at El Diablos. The salsa may be the best I have ever had.
Fried chicken sandwich with CHEESE AND TABASCO SAUCE, french fries, onion rings, side salad, and a large Heineken at U.N. Irish Pub.
Plain bagel with grilled chicken, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and avocado at Bagel House Cafe. I even brought a bagel home with me!
Cinnamon french toast with fruit salad (EXTREMELY FRESH banana, papaya, watermelon, pineapple, clementine, and dragon fruit) at Nice Kitchen. Had this meal twice and devoured it both times.
Chocolate pancake with banana. Cannot remember the name of the cafe, but if the pancake wasn't good, I wouldn't be talking about it.

                         El Diablos                                                                                        Nice Kitchen

I am happy to travel with the people I do because we plan the food we are going to eat just as much as the activities. I have never looked forward to anything like I looked forward to riding elephants but at the same time, I knew that I would be eating bagels this weekend and I had been smiling about that for a week! We talked about bagels at least four times a day leading up to THE day.I am thankful to have made friends who, like me, looked forward to eating just as much as I do.

Good thing we did as much physical activity as we did eating because we were constantly eating! I had a serious breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day on this trip and I am sad that I'll no longer have that variety available to me anymore! But, even as we talked about going back to Chon Buri and the Thai food we constantly consume at home, there is always something to look forward to. Said my skinny-minnie friend Brittany: "My stomach hurts but I really want to eat the chocolate cookies we get on the bus." Then when feeling better on the bus, "I'm definitely going to eat both meals we get tonight." Case in point. Food is important so we eat it, especially when it's free.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Elephant Days

I found my one true love this weekend. He is large and big-boned, has thinning hair on the top of his head, has two long sharp teeth, goes to the bathroom A LOT, and he's Asian. I am luckily not referring to a man, but the elephant I got to have for a day.

Amelia's birthday is December 11th, and in Thailand why not ride an elephant for your birthday?! After researching elephant conservatories for a few weeks, we finally decided on Thai Elephant Home. We wanted to be able to ride bare-back at a place that we knew did not abuse the elephants. I guess you can never truly know that for sure, but from the reviews we read, this place had everything we were looking for, even though it was a bit pricey compared to what we're used to spending. I splurge for elephants.

When we arrived, our fears of what we would actually walk into we're immediately put to rest. We had a briefing from a bubbly Thai man with good English. He gave us the history of the elephant home, told us about the elephants, taught us commands to use, and also explained the stick with a hook that the mahouts, or elephant trainers, would be carrying around. The stick is used for tapping the elephants to guide when they are going astray (which mine often did), and their skin is so thick that it is basically itching a scratch for them. The hook is only used in extreme measures, like if the elephants are fighting, if they are putting someone in danger, or when teaching them not to eat plastic or garbage (we have to teach dogs not to eat our furniture somehow too!). I have heard horror stories of how elephants are treated at some zoos and sanctuaries, and the fact that the guide brought up the hook without anyone asking gave me reassurance that they were being honest with us. Also, the elephants were in perfect shape. No holes in their ears and no gashes on their bodies. It was a great sign and we all felt like we chose a place that genuinely cares for and respects the elephants.

We were given a beautiful change of clothes to wear over our bathing suits (can you hear how sarcastic I'm being?) and off we were to practice getting on and off the elephant. Not so easy and extremely terrifying but, if the 7 year old girl behind me could do it, so could I. When we were done practicing, we got assigned an elephant.
The mahouts must have seen it in my eyes. Terror. I think to mess with me, they gave me the elephant wanderer. The one who was always turning left or right or up or down to look for food. Elephants are vegetarians, so 9 year old Won (pronounced Juan) literally stopped every 30 seconds to try and eat something.

Now, you might be thinking that I was so silly being scared of riding an elephant. I rode one at the Catskill Game Farm when I was about 4 and I was probably fearless then, sitting on the elephant in a basket with the comfort of my sister sitting next to me, but this is no Catskill Game Farm elephant. This is a huge, wild, Asian elephant that I rode with nothing but Won's head, ears, and a rope behind me to hold onto. I have a fear of falling down. My friends can all attest to this weird fear of mine.. Slipping on ice/snow/water and falling, falling backwards on an escalator, falling from climbing/being on a tall surface (another fear I came face to face with while zip lining this weekend), and now I can add falling off of an elephant down the jungle mountain to that list that goes on and on. One thing I know about myself and accept about myself is that I am a chicken, but I always follow through, and this day was no different.

As petrified as I was while my mind was trying to figure out how to balance on this gigantic animal, I had to talk myself down from the fear so that I could enjoy one of the reasons that I came to Thailand in the first place. How could I possibly get through this without falling down the steep mountain to my death?!
I had my own elephant trainer with me the whole day. My mahout walked beside me all morning and all afternoon. He shouted commands at Won when his trunk began to wander to to the nearest tree. He knew I was a chicken. I even flapped my wings at him and said I'm a chicken bawk bawk so he was well aware. Without my mahout, I may have had an anxiety attack.

The balance thing was really stressing me out. If I had a seatbelt, I wouldn't have had one single issue, but who uses seatbelts in Thailand?! So, I had my cheerleaders in front of me talking me through it. My friends were cheering me on, taking millions of pictures (since I couldn't even take one hand off for more than 2 minutes to do so), and told me where it was more comfortable to put my feet. That was a lifesaver. I assumed just hanging my feet made the most sense for my safety, but turns out legs bent behind the ears was the place to be. Once I figured that out, it was smooth sailing. Won was even so nice and smart as to give my legs a boost back up with his ears if they began slipping down.

Amelia and Shelby were directly in front of me and were riding the elephants so effortlessly, like they had been doing it for years. They were my motivation to really take it all in, enjoy myself, and stop worrying so much. I even got myself to take my hands off Won's head for 30 seconds so my mahout could take this picture of me. So glad I did, this picture is worth a thousand words.
Look Ma, no hands!

In the morning, I rode my elephant for about 2 hours straight. I saw amazing views of the jungle and village below. I got to see elephants in their natural environment. They are smart, friendly, curious, and hungry. These enormous creatures were going up and down very narrow paths, along a steep drop of the mountain, all with their four gigantic feet. How they figured that out is beyond me!

We had lunch provided for us, which was a humungous portion of amazing pad Thai, and we gave the banana leaf it came in and any leftovers to one of the elephants.  Then we got big ole elephant kisses! That was just awesome.

I got to have a mud bath all while giving an elephant one as well. We got a free facial! We were encouraged to get all muddy, and then give the elephant a mud and dirt bath. After walking for two hours in the Thai jungle heat, these big guys deserved it. You could tell how much she loved the wet mud, and it was fun for us too! Still nice and dirty, we hopped (more gracefully now after doing it a few times) back onto our elephants to walk for about another hour. Our next destination was the river and my mahout and I gave Won a bath! Won was just like a dog, plunging under water for as long as he could hold his breath, just soaking it all up. Looking around, every single person was smiling and laughing. We were playing with our elephants. I really appreciated them at this moment, and I'd like to think that they were appreciating us as well for washing them clean and letting them take a nice break after working so hard all day. After the river, it took another 20 minutes to walk back to the sanctuary, and then I had to say goodbye to my elephant. It was around 3 pm. I spent a whole entire day with my own elephant and I will never forget it.

This was a once in a lifetime experience. I say this about a lot of the things that I do in Thailand, but unless I come across an inheritance I don't yet know about, I may never even make it to Asia again. I have adored elephants since I was a little girl. I used to collect anything elephant but eventually grew out of that phase and got rid of my collection. I've grown back into that phase again and may become a crazy elephant lady. I now have an elephant collection of bracelets, scarves, necklaces, Thai pants, a hanging rope of colorful elephants (props Erica Wordon), and I was THIS close to spending way too much money on an original painting of an elephant's behind this weekend. I actually may regret not buying that later in life, but for now, I had to think realistically about my financial situation and how much more debt I would be in at home if I went for the splurge. Maybe I'll take up painting in the future and just make my own.

I'm pretty sure nothing will top this experience and I'm okay with that. I conquered a fear and lived out a dream all in one day, and this memory will last forever.

I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant's faithful one-hundred percent!
        -Dr. Seuss

Other weekend highlights:
                    Jungle hike                                                    Sunrise at Doi Suthep                                                            Zip lining

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Turkey Day

Thanksgiving is the second holiday that I have missed. The first was Halloween, but I don't love Halloween so I didn't care to miss it. Thanksgiving on the other hand, I LOVE. Thursday was a bit difficult but here is how I got through it..

Firsts things first. When you're teaching on a holiday in a foreign country, you bring your culture to your students! Amelia made an awesome powerpoint with the basic history of Thanksgiving, the foods we eat, and what we do on that day (aka eat food, nap, and pretend to watch football). Then I talked to them about being thankful and I made them do a typical handprint turkey where they wrote what they were thankful for. Some turkeys became rainbows and some were made into Angry Birds, but I was so happy to be able to share our customs with my students.

Thanksgiving this year also happened to fall on my grandmother's birthday, so I videotaped my students singing to her, and they said a little message at the end. Like the Thanksgiving message I put up on Facebook, it was by far the cutest thing ever. A few periods after we videotaped, my Thai teacher gave me a pad of stationary and she wrote on it, "Happy birthday T Laura, From T Ae." As much as I tried explaining that it was not my birthday but my grandmother's, it was lost in translation and became my birthday for the day. One of the most awkward encounters ever, but presents are always much appreciated.

With much anticipation all day, we finally headed to Pooky and Erik's for Thanksgiving dinner (no I do not know Pooky or Erik, but they were amazing and cooked for us at their restaurant). A whole turkey. Mashed potatoes. Stuffing. Carrots and snow peas. Bread and butter. Apple pie. Blueberry pie. Pumpkin pie. I think it was the first time I have actually been full in Thailand. If only there had been a couch to lay on immediately after! It was a delicious meal and it really did make the holiday seem as real as it possibly could. I was surrounded by new friends that I have made over the past month and we made the best out of the holiday!
Gravy and everything!

This past year has really been one of ups and downs, but even when times have been tough, there is always something to be thankful for. There are a million things that I could list right now, but I'll leave it at this:
        I am thankful for the opportunity that I have in Thailand. Although I don't love every minute, I am always happy to have a teaching job.
        I am thankful for my students who make being here well-worth it.
        I am thankful for my coworkers who are always in the same boat as me.
        I am thankful that I haven't gotten hit by a motorbike (yet).
        I am thankful that I haven't gotten malaria, even if I think I have the symptoms once a week.
        I am thankful that my time difference between America allows me to talk to my family and friends plenty every day.
        I am thankful for being safe. I was in Bangkok this past weekend when tensions were at a high. Some voilent protests occured and I am happy to have steared clear, even though this meant missing out on lots of sight seeing.

Next year, I hope to be thankful that this experience led me to a job that I love in the Sates!