Tuesday, May 15, 2012

This Monk's Life -- Part 2

Pra (monk) Kale enjoying a break from sweeping the grounds.
Luang Dta is an ancient gnarled tree.  Near toothless wth a ring of prickly white hairs ringing his lined, brown head, the old “uncle” monk led our procession through the village each morning during alms round.  One morning, after waking as ususal at 4:30am from the reed mat I slept on in a side room of the temple’s main hall, I asked my fellow monk buddy Tik about Luang Dta:  “He drank well. So well.”  This was Tik’s euphemistic way of telling me the old monk had formally been the village alcoholic.  “He didn’t eat food; just lao kao [moonshine].”

The crematorium is located
at the back of the wat and
intricately decorated.
These days, Luang Dta is in his 70s and will live the rest of his life as a Buddhist monk, spending his time sweeping the wat grounds and performing walking meditation.  From my place behind him during morning alms round, I could see the soles of his feet were calloused white, encrusted with dust and gravel from years walking barefoot (required when asking the villagers for food each morning).  Without notice, he trampled through piles of broken beer bottles while I attempted to weave around, awkwardly tiptoeing through roadside rubbage but struggling to maintain the somber expression of spirituality.

Pii Wan’s son ran out into the street to plop a couple hardboiled eggs into my bat shiny stainless steel alms bowl.  The villagers were thoughtful to make sure my vegetarian diet wasn’t disturbed during my ordination.  After the neighbors, most often middle-aged women, placed offerings of sticky rice and eggs or curry into the alms bowl, Luang Dta, Tik and I would chant a blessing in Pali, the language of Nepal and official language Theravada Buddhism.  Then, the kneeling villagers would rise and our trio of saffron robed beggars would move on to the next home.

Tik meditates beside the pond on the temple grounds. He and
I organized a litter cleanup the following day to make a more
peaceful spot.
Village monks eat only twice per day, both meals taken before noon (forest monks are of a tradition that eats only once each morning).  After alms round, Tik and I would perform small chores and maintanence of the wat grounds: raking leaves, collecting litter, and cleaning bathrooms.  Before 11am, Fon (Rain), the shy and pretty 22-year-old girlfriend of my friend Duum, would show up to deliver a special meal she had prepared for me, dtom yum spicy soup with egg or sweet and spicy fried eggs.  I was humbled throughout my time as a monk at the outpouring of generosity from visiting villagers.

Through the heat of afternoon, Tik and I would rest.  He often flipped through the TV channels to watch Thai soap operas or check sports scores.  “I though monks weren’t supposed to watch TV,” I said.

Tik, "Uncle" Dta and I chant blessings during the morning's
alms round through the village.
“They aren’t,” Tik replied, eyes glued to the TV. “We also aren’t supposed to smoke, eat garlic and peppers, or pee standing up.”  I thought of our chain-smoking abbot.  This was Tik’s way of saying how while the precepts are meant to be followed, village monks often bend the rules.  Over time, I came to accept these allowances for lifelong monks but tried my best to follow all precepts during my own short time as a monk.  I brought a book of meditation and plopped down on the bamboo bench beside Tik, trying always to be reading while he watched TV.

In early evening, Tik and I swept the paved walking path that encircled the temple.  Fish flopped in the pond while children splashed in the water and men came in from the fields to bath in their underwear.  In the distance, a wall of black smoke rose into the air – the sugarcane fields were burning.  Farmers watched the inferno, burning out the sharp leaves to make the sugarcane easier to chop the following day.  “They are working so fast,” Tik commented.  In 3 days, the field had been chopped, the sugarcane loaded up and the fields already tilled and ready for a new planting.

Our two meals, taken before noon, began with prayer.
Rice was eaten from the alms bowls and leftovers eaten
by the congregation once monks were finished.
As though an apparition, a 30-something monk in the dark burgundy robes of the forest tradition appeared from the fields without a sound.  He had walked nearly 35km that morning, a monk on tudong (travel in search of spiritual wisdom).  Covered in Thai traditional tattoos meant for protection and transcendence, this pra was not much older than me but had the spiritual intensity and sharp eyes of a monk with many years meditation experience.  In the evening this visitor led us in prayer before rolling out his reed bed mat on the cold tile beneath the altar.

My time as a Buddhist monk held none of the magical transcendence toward enlightenment that we often associate with robed life.  Instead, it held something more practical: a compass toward the gradual, plodding path of practice that characterizes all religions of the world.  Enlightenment is not achieved overnight.  Instead I learned something of discipline, humility, the unending generosity of my village neighbors and friends, the subtle beauty found in faith and ritual, and how incredibly far I still have to go.  Spirituality is a journey, and mine had only just begun.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

This Monk's Life -- Part 1

Mae (mom) Lee, Blue and Pii Pu shop for ordination gear
at the monk store, including toiletries, an alms bowl, and
saffron robes.
My front door creaked open a little after 3:00am.  The sky was still filled with stars and a moon that glazed the single blacktop village street in silver.  Pi Pu poked his head in, “Kale, are you awake?”  It was my last night sleeping in my house, and it had been a short one.  I crawled off the doubled-over mattress on my floor and snaked around the piles of boxes and bags on the cold tile.  Knowing I’m not a morning person, even when it starts at 8am, I slept in my clothes so that I could hop into Pu’s truck and shoot down the street to my friend Tik’s house.

No more than 5 feet, 5 inches tall with a hesitant demeanor but quick smile, 25-year-old Tik and I quickly became friends when he began working at our office 6 months ago.  He sends me pictures through email of Thai models in bikinis laying across European sports cars.  A true friend.  According to Thai Buddhist tradition, a man will ordain as a monk in preparation for marriage.  It is a time of reflection and cleansing, a full transition to manhood.  Tik had met a girl from Bangkok and although my marriage prospects are not so strong, and I’m a little old to only finally reach manhood, he agreed to let me ordain alongside him.

A group of neighbor girls stay up late into the night making
a payanak sea monster, believed to dwell in the Mekong,
out of banana leaves gathered at the wat temple.
Hours till sunrise, Pu dropped me at Tik’s house and I took a seat beside Mae Lee and the other moms and grandmoms to chop buckets of carrots, cucumbers and chili peppers.  In Thailand, ordination parties can be grand affairs, involving concert stages, gold chains, coyote dancers and enough whiskey to fill a swimming pool.  Thankfully, Tik’s family kept the party appropriate for a village family.  A couple hundred people were invited to sit around the dozen round wooden tables set up in the family’s large grassy yard.  Mae Lee let me borrow her gold chains with a single white Buddha image.  “These have brought us much luck,” Pu assured me, kissing the image before fastening it around my neck.  No coyote dancers or stages, and only enough whiskey to fill a bathtub.

My neighbors poor water to cleanse me after the
wat's abbot finished shaving my head and eyebrows.
At sunup, Pu shuttled me to the wat, village temple.  A congregation of villagers including my host parents, Mae Pramuen and Paw Puttichai, were circled around a plastic chair.  I had a seat and Mae handed me a large bowl-like leaf filled with flowers and snail shells. Friends and neighbors each took a turn snipping a few hairs from my head and placed them in the leaf.  Then the abbot, an intense and muscular man of 50 whom I had always been too intimidated to talk to at length, came forward with a razor.  Pu soaped my head into a sudsy George Washington do before the abbot shaved my head to a shiney scalp with a few deft swipes.

Back at Tik’s house, I was dressed into ordination garb: a white shirt and sarong-like silk wrap.  A silk sash and gossamer white shirt were finished off with more gold necklaces.  Tik and I, dressed identically, were led to the center of the house where we took a seat on the floor.  An ancient man with creamy white eyes came into the room and the congregation dropped to the floor in a bow.  In the middle, a kratong, made from banana leaves and white flower buds, dangled with ceremonial threads.  The man took my hand.

Tik's mom feeds me a ball of sticky rice with boiled egg
during the pre-ordination ceremony at their house. A palm
reading followed from the local soothsayer.
“You will live past 80 years,” the old fortune teller began.  “You will be very rich by the time you are 50 years old.”  That’s always good news but as I later confirmed with Pii Pu, a fortune teller is never going to be the bearer of bad news.  After the reading, the man powdered our heads and faces with a menthol-infused paste that burned throughout the rest of the day.  Friends and neighbors took turns performing the bai see luck-bringing ceremony, tying the white threads around each of our wrists with words of blessing.

The jolly laughs of a tipsiness wafted into the room.  Outside, partiers sat around eating squid, mountains of jasmine rice, and spicey som dtam papaya salad.  Tik and I made our rounds, posing for photos with each table.  “Eat as much as you can now,” his mom told me, “because once you ordain, you cannot eat after noon.”  I knew this rule of the monkhood and so stocked my belly up accordingly, slurping up plates of spicey glass noodles and thick red coconut curry.

In my full pre-ordination attire, I pose with the implements
of ordination, including the kratong, money bucket, and
plenty of uncooked sticky rice.
A truck arrived, its bed topped with a wooden platform and showy canopy of banana leaves and flowers.  Tik and I rode around the village, paraded kinglike on this throne with solemn expression, for three hours into evening.  We tossed candy at the crowd and tiny starbursts of ribbon tied to small coins.  Grandmothers approached the creeping vehicle to offer flowers and leaves in exchange for blessings and merit.  Unlike a king, however, perched above the crowd on the back of the truck, I felt extremely humbled.  For this opportunity, I must have made some decent merit.  Regardless of how the ordination would go the following morning, I was already sublimely blessed.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Goodbye Issan: Loei Province


Andrew, Jeff and I bathe in our new status as
Phu Kradeung "conquerors."
Loei Province is
purported as one of the
chilliest.
I suspected immediately the events he was recounting happened nearly 100 years before.  The park ranger was a short, squat man in official-looking fatigues and an even more official-looking glare, which he had focused on me like a tracter beam from across the wide green field.  It was a look intent on delivering a stern warning.

“You cannot sleep in the forest.  4 people were killed by elephants,” the ranger said, wagging his finger at the pots and tents strapped to our backpacks.  Jeff, Andrew and I were soaked through in sweat and caked in dirt after hiking 7.5km up the side of Phu Kradeung mountain in Loei Province.  The hike, a brutal winding thing unlike any trekking I’d found in Thailand, is something of a rite of passage for young Thais.  Each year during summer and college breaks, hundreds take to the stone and dirt path that meanders through crackling bamboo groves and dry dipterocarp forest to reach a summit dotted with pine trees and sweeping views of the valleys below.  Nearing the end of our Peace Corps service, this was a rite we too could not return home without passing.  That is if we didn’t get trampled by elephants in the process.

Phu Kradeung is famous for its stunning sunsets.
Big grassy clods of elephant dung lined the trail.  Heavy with our packs, tents, tarps, cooking implements and water, I had some sense of what it might be like to be a lumbering elephant ascending the steep mountainside in search of food.  I couldn’t fill my belly with water fast enough to replace the river of sweat that poured out of me.  Every few steps we stopped to give our backs a break.

A series of tiny, time-worn women passed us with easy smiles, ancient tortoises plodding determinedly upwards with careful steps.  Long bamboo poles balanced on their shoulders with large bundles tied to each end – hikers’ gear.  The women, in their 50s and 60s, were porters hired to carry the packs of lazy hikers, the 20-somethings who bounced up the trail with the laughs and freedom that only come with carrying nothing more than a water bottle.  One of the porter ladies, head wrapped in a piece of flannel cloth, offered her walking stick to us as she passed.  Andrew looked to me: “That’s just embarrassing.”

A sambar deer mosies into the cookshack for a snack.
We thought that Phu Kradeung would be like other national parks in Thailand, easy to sneek off into the brush and pitch a tent clandestinely in the wooded interior rather than in the sprawling, fluorescent bulb-lit campground.  We were tiptoeing away from the campground on the sly when the stocky ranger spotted us.  Light was fading the mountaintop to a deep purple and now that our cover was blown we resigned to spend that first night in the campground.  We pitched our tent on the perimeter and hiked out to the cliff to watch the sun set.  That night we ate at the camp restaurant.  The pretty cook assessed us with a wry grin, no doubt critical of the ragamuffins seated at her table.  She served up a banguet of fried vegetables, broth soup and steaming jasmine rice.

A rustle behind me: nostrils flaring, a brawny male sambar deer sniffed the air hoping for some leftovers from the restaurant.  The glands at the corners of his eyes dripped tear-like liquid.  At the stall over, an elderly lady cook mixed rice and some leftover veggies in a big pot.  The deer knew the deal and sauntered over to the woman to bury his head into the pot.  Throughout the night I would awake to a snorting muzzle frisking the tent walls.

A beautiful strangler fig.
The next day, Andrew and I explored the series of rocky cliffs that line the summit.  We were there during low tourist season and at times it seemed we had the mountain to ourselves.  We had packed up in the morning and informed the ranger that we were leaving the park, thinking we could still get one night of forest camping in.  I stood on the gray stone and peered out into gray sky.  Smoke filled the valley.  Forest fires had plagued Southeast Asia for weeks, from Burma to Yunnan and Laos.  The flickering light of a few fires in the forest below, like tiny orange fireflies, could be seen through the haze.  The sun seen through the gray smoke was a perfect white ball, a full moon, above.  Without the views and air quality at a throat-scratching low, we decided to head down the mountain.

We should have started sooner.  In the dark haze of burning spring, light fell out of the sky quicker than we’d anticipated and soon Andrew and I found ourselves descending the mountain at a touch-and-go snail’s pace.  I worried we’d meet an elephant pack on the trail and validate every warning the ranger had given us.  When all sunlight had seeped from the forest, we found a place to pitch our tent.  We would get our forest camping after all.  We piled dried leaves and rotting bamboo into a pile and cooked over a small fire, careful to contain any sparks from igniting the parched land.  Pan-fried noodles with some tomato and onion, staring out at the valley below dotted only occasionally with clusters of lights from tiny villages.

Andrew and I prepare to dig into campfire curry.
“Ancient people must have been fascinated by the lights of villages so close but inaccessible,” I thought, feeling myself entirely isolated by the smokey night.  A sign at the top of the mountain declared us Phu Kradeung “conquerors.”  Dirt-logged but well fed, I lay in my tent beaten, thinking it was the mountain that might have conquered me.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Goodbye Isaan: Kalasin Province


Ryan and I take a break in a dried stream bed during our
hike up his trail to view petrified wood.

He squeezed my shoulder dozens of times, whispering nonsensical, lao kao moonshine-infused phrases into my ear.  More than twice, as the rickety country bus we were riding lurched to a stop, he face planted into the wooden floorboards.  The bus’ attendant would, ever so casually so as not to break the old man’s face (figuratively this time), scoop him up by his arms, no bigger than a child’s, and place the elderly figure back in his seat directly behind mine.  The gasoline smell of lao kao would waft my direction, my shoulder was given a firm squeeze as the man leaned his stockinged head to my ear, and the scenario would repeat itself this way for nearly an hour.


Kalasin Province is
in the heart of Isaan.
Country buses are adventures on wheels.  Leering, bounding adventures with windows permanently jammed open no matter the weather, the wind whipping the dish towels grandmas use as scarves around their dainty necks.  Babies miraculously sleep through the bucking and roar of the engine, and even in the heat of mid-summer only a half-dozen ancient fans dangerously mounted to the low ceiling struggle to keep the things cool.  It was on one of these adventures that I rode with Jeff to fellow volunteer, Ryan’s, site in Kalasin Province.  The heat was intense, the lao kao scent of my backseat buddy suffocating, but I knew the friendly joking of Ryan’s counterpart, Naporn, and some cold beers awaited me.

Scraggly hardwoods and
dry bamboo flank the trail.
“Kale! Listen up! Kale! I miss you.”  Naporn, a tall, jolly chap (there’s no better way to describe him), had been practicing his English, which he always delivered with a drill sargeant’s deep bass.  I shook his hand at the bus stop and we made our way to a local seafood restaurant.  Heaping plates of yellow squid and white rings of processed squid were brought out, in a thin, sweet sauce flavored with pepper and cilantro.  I ordered a bowl of suki noodles, the broth bright pink and slightly tomoto flavored, and helped pour the Beer Leo over a line of glasses full of ice cubes.  Naporn is married, but that day his mistress unapologetically joined us for lunch, wearing a fashionably skin-hugging black skirt and white jacket.  “Now, we speak Enlgish only today,” she requested and so we did, albeit what New Yorker writer (and former Peace Corps volunteer in China) Peter Hessler refers to as “special English.”

Four or ten hours sitting on country buses will make one want to walk around a while.  One of Ryan’s projects was to plan and help construct a nature trail up a hillside where a remarkable amount of petrified wood remains.  Ceremonies marked the trail’s construction, with Ryan’s forest group posing in camoflauge and serious expressions.  Jeff and I had always wanted to hike “Ryan’s” trail, nearly 8km from his house, and this was our opportunity.  We hitched a ride the last couple kilometers to the base of the gravel trailhead, marked only by a handpainted sign.  Thin, sickly-looking hardwoods lined the path that meandered for 500 meters or so before reaching the first petrified tree.
A petrified tree is one whose organic material has been
completely replaced by minerals.  It's not so much a fossil
as a mummy tree.

I would have walked right on by, mistaking the fallen log-turned-stone for any ol’ boulder, if Ryan hadn’t pointed it out.  “This tree was alive a million years ago,” he said with the weasely smile Ryan’s known for, leaving me to wonder still if those logs shaded dinosaurs or rather ancient mammals, even humans.  Wood, under layers of sediment without access to oxygen, will take under 100 years to petrify.  This fallen fossil had been stone for no less than centuries to be sure.  The striated rings could still be discerned at the base of each segment, and all along the path, not just chipped fragments could be found but entire trees had been preserved in this way.  “The wood fiber is replaced by minerals that cause the wood to harden into stone.”  The lack of oxygen prevents normal decomposition, and now, centuries later, erosion has re-exposed the trees like the mummified corpses of Medusa’s victims.

Ryan gives a goodbye gift to one of his
neighbor boys, who wants to learn to
play the guitar.  He may have just created
Thailand's next big rock star.
At a lookout a couple kilometers up to the mountain’s peak, I surveyed the valley below.  Concrete watertowers, the villages’ tallest structures, made it easy to pick out Ryan’s house.  A thick haze covered everything; Thailand has been burning for months with the flames that will sweep the fields clean in preparation for a new harvest.  The patchwork of dried and burnt fields reminded me of gold foil squares, the kind that devout Buddhists will press to the faces of Buddha images.

That night, the day’s images of petrified and burned lifeforms gave way to the intense sense of existence that comes with several glasses of fermented rice wine.  Ryan’s village has a group that specializes in the dried herbal mix packaged in terra cotta jugs – just add a couple bottles of beer and enjoy by sipping through a hollowed bamboo straw.  It had been a great goodbye tour of Kalasin, and I was able to bid farewell to Naporn and a few other goofy friends that have colored my Peace Corps experience.  I slept soundly that night, blood thinned with fermented rice and the clarity that comes from ascending a mountain.  It would be only a few hours before a country bus would once again take me away.

Me, Jeff and Ryan conquer the petrified forest mountain.


Monday, February 27, 2012

Goodbye Isaan: Ubon Ratchathani Province

A troop of Peace Corps volunteers in Ubon Ratchathani.
“I haven’t stopped sweating since 2009.”  I often throw this out and so what if it’s a bit of a stretch; it often feels like it.  However, I got a bit of reprieve from the heat during last weekend’s goodbye tour of Ubon Ratchathani Province.  Hot season has not yet struck the Mekong region.  The heavily-sedimented, chocolate milk water of the river has always been a heartwarming sight for me.  Boasting the world’s largest freshwater fish, largest stingray and further downstream in Cambodia, one of the last remaining pods of river dolphins, mystery and wonder rush beneath the river’s dark surface.  The Mekong supports over 100,000 million people in Southeast Asia.  And last weekend, our group added a couple dozen more to that tally.

Ubon borders the Mekong.
“This is the last time we will ever see each other.”  It’s funny because I have been repeating this phrase to my fellow volunteers for the past 6 months.  And often I believe it while I’m saying it.  We Thai PCVs hail from as disparate places as Seattle, Washington, and Whiteville, North Carolina.  Minnesota, Texas, Iowa, and New Jersey are all represented.  The United States is not necessarily a country where people may well run into one another.  Our serendipitous encounters in Thailand are always a surprise, but happen regularly enough, so that when I spied Eleanor, Jeff, Jeff, and Maggie I knew to hold my tongue from repeating the phrase once more.  They have already heard it too many times.

Ubon is one of Isaan’s larger cities, but retains the laid back atmosphere of river life.  There is some purifying power that wafts over the water into the city, creating a culture even more sabai (comfortable and carefree) than the rest of the country.  When trendy little coffee shops close down each night around 10pm, clever lounge style bars open up next door with green sofas and blown glass lighting.  How does chic make its way to the remote outer edges of this country?  I am not sure, but it does.  Several large universities occupy the land outside of town, and the sidewalks clack with the sound of stileto heels supporting Thai-Laos students in glamorous makeup clutching designer handbags.  We asked for a weekend out of the village, and that is exactly what we got.
The country buses of rural Ubon, with their teal vinyl and
wooden floorboards, will forever bounce through my memory.

That night, after a few Beer Leos, we walked to the market.  Vietnamese-style springrolls stuffed with fried tofu were too enticing to pass up.  Mini cake donuts, noodles in broth made from the gray unidentifiable parts of pigs, even hot dogs in the shape of panda bears.  Mekong markets are easy entertainment and add a touch of exoticism when thick Laos dialect fills the air.  Across the dark waters, Laos stretches out like a spiney crocodile along the nighttime banks.  Thick forests are so sparsely dotted with electric light one might mistake streetlamps for fireflies.  This night, Laos lent Ubon its sense of peace.

The next morning, I traveled to Jeff’s site 4 hours north of the city.  My bones and guts rattled like a human maraca as I fought to stay planted on the aquamarine vinyl seats of the country bus.  Screws loosened from wooden floorboards.  Witherd yaai grandmothers stepped on and off with dingy towels flung around their necks like scarves, occasionally a bit of betel nut juice escaping the corners of their lined mouths.  We arrived before dark and, after walking a couple kilometers, entered Jeff’s corner shophouse at sunset.  The shophouse owner remembered me from previous trips and I explained how Jeff had agreed to teach me to make pad prik tai, a stirfry with Cambodian origins that uses fried green peppercorns.
Ridin' in Style: I borrow Mae Ao's pink cruiser to tour the area.

Rural Ubon is best bid farewell by bicycle (isn’t anywhere?).  A slow pace is conducive to lingering goodbyes, and linger is exactly what Thai goodbyes tend to do.  I borrowed Jeff’s host mom’s little pink cruiser.  With a short seat, single speed and single pedal, I rode through the streets in style, happy for the pink basket and oversized bell.  In America, people get beat up for things like this.  Jeff’s counterpart, Pii Neung, hands greased black, was busy under the hood of his pickup truck.  Flying down dusty backroads, hauling sugarcane, bags of jasmine rice, clay-caked cassava roots and risk-taking farang, it’s a miracle Nueng’s beat up truck runs at all.
With whittled bamboo straw in hand, Jeff
prepares an earthen jug of rice wine for us
to share.

As a last hurrah, that night we flew through the dust roads in a labyrinth of rice fields that months ago gave up on their withered brown stalks from last season’s harvest.  Miles into the night, the faint glow of twinkle lights appeared: a karaoke bar, out here?  We ordered a bottle of whiskey and sat under the thatched-roof pavilion, pumping coin after coin into a video jukebox.  Jeff has mastered a repertoire of 8 Thai Isaan songs.  Pretty Laos girls, speaking now Thai, sat down to fill drinks and marvel at Jeff’s talents.  Music blasting, I stared around the room at the ladies and my friends, a warm glow of holiday lights, and only dark forest and fields beyond.  I would have thought we’d never see each other again, but Thailand has taught me otherwise.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Be My (Thai) Valentine

A troop of dancing elementary students pose after a sexy
dance routine.
It shocked me then and it shocks me now: 7-year-old girls, their faces plastered with white foundation, fake eyelashes and glittered red lipstick, shake and shimmer in scanty dresses for a crowd of cheering middle-aged men.  The girls twist their hips and bat their eyes, stomp their heels and point their toes to show some thigh.  Where did they learn these sexy moves, and how are they maintaining inspiration when set to this Thai country beat?  The music stops and the girls smile and wai for the most senior of the men to drop a couple 10-baht coins into their hands.  We are not at a go-go bar; we’re in the school cafeteria, and I can only hope this activity is considered extra-curricular.

"Be My Valentine" begins a lesson on possessive pronouns.
The school principal had asked me to show up on the day education officers visiting from Bangkok would visit the school for an assessment.  I would go to make my village look like it had a strong English language program.   As a community development volunteer, teaching isn’t my primary assignment but I still have managed to help out with English and environmental awareness lessons at my village’s school one day each week.

It is important for a Peace Corps volunteer’s mental health to devote some of our time to children.  Kids are the people who viewed us from the start as fellow humans, not yet engraining the nuanced definition of the word farang (foreigner) into their minds as their parents and grandparents have done long ago.  It is with the students that I am able to be most fully myself, and for this I love them.

Happy Valentine's Day from the village school!
And love was in the air the week of Valentine’s Day.  Thais have taken and appropriated the holiday as their own (just don’t ask them who Saint Valentine was).  “Where’s my rose?” Dtik asked me at the office.  I laughed before realizing he was serious; my coworkers were expecting red roses from me.  I dug through my bag and pulled out a package of bubble gum to pass around.  It was pink and sweet and would have to do.  Sappy love songs eminated from the television throughout the day.  My classroom time began with an activity for the kids to make their own Valentines.

“Write ‘Be My Valentine’ across the front of your heart,” I instructed the 10-year-olds while passing out a carton of pastels.  In preparation for an interview I had later that week for a teaching job, I practiced a lesson on possessive pronouns.  Normally I am happy if the students can remember the regular pronouns.  Whose Valentine? MY/HIS/OUR Valentine!  After the lesson I explained how we celebrate the holiday in America, mentionaing that Valentines can be given to anyone you love in your life, not just boyfriends and girlfriends.  “When you go home tonight, give this card to your mom and dad and say the English words ‘I love you.’” (Incidentally this is a phrase most every Thai person knows.)

Pii Sombat demonstrates an ancient weaving technique
(still very much alive) at a village training on making
reed mats.
A few “I love yous” were murmered in the crowd while we watched the dancing pre-teens.  No, this is not an appropriate use of the phrase, I whispered to the boys sitting near me.  Here in Thailand, as in America, this may well be one of the most convoluted phrases in use.  But the students were finding practical, everyday applications for using English.  I still had my own Valentine in my pocket, thoughts for all the people I love and miss back home in my mind, and each of my students and the village in my heart. The calendar needs more wan rak, days of love, for the whole world to enjoy.  Yours, mine and ours. 

Two of my students dress in traditional silk and jewels for
the school assessment events.