Birdhouse in my soul

I was walking past the pet shop on the way home from school, when I saw a toddler trying to get my attention. The snotty little boy was holding a bottle, pointing; his adorable brown eyes eager for me to see what he was clearly so enjoying seeing.

I followed his gaze to the birds and the fish, and started ‘talking’ to him. Noting his grandfather’s approving smile from the shop next door prompted me to take the boy’s lead. Of course, he spoke no English (and, at his age, likely barely any Thai). But he clearly wanted to communicate about the colours and movements surrounding him. Bless.

petshop

We walked the shop, and I got down to his level to ‘ohh‘ and ‘ahh‘, and point out this fish, that fish. We were babbling away, sharing the uplifting feelings that animal encounters can bring. I love how, as a toddler, all sounds are new to him. It doesn’t matter that I am English. He knows no difference yet. He is too young to laugh at me, or exclaim ‘farang!’ [foreigner] to get his family’s approval.

When it was time to go, I waved and said goodbye. His grandfather was now outside the shop entrance, smiling from where he’d been watching us. (Don’t say I don’t do my part to try improve community-foreigner relations, he he.)

Truth is, I’ve had so many moments like this on the walk home. No matter my mood or energy level, there’ll be some encounter with a Thai child that buoys my spirits. I wonder whether I should be teaching toddlers, instead of high school kids? I also wonder whether the early experience of being one of twins, using the crytophasia ‘non-speak’ secret language that twin toddlers use, has helped me access that age, in which sounds can mean so many things, as they’re not yet defined by one language group’s rules and codes…

Anyway, thanks, kid. You won’t remember it, but I certainly will 🙂

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Cats of Thailand: The False Friend

grumpy cat
After I took this pic at a dress shop at Lonely Beach, Koh Chang, I did something I never do – asked if I could touch him.

I’d been admiring an olive-green slinky number for a couple days, and was about to ask “Tao rai?” [How much?], when I saw this comfy beaut. Normally, I go ahead and touch the goods. But something told me to get permission first…

Good thing I did.

The owner said: “No, he bite. People say, ‘Oh, I have many cats.’ He don’ care. He bite evelyone.”

Of course, then he rolled onto his back, making his large furry belly look all inviting. Not this time, kits…
#CatInstinctStrongWithThisOne

PS. I did not buy the dress.

Some street scenes from Chiang Mai, Thailand’s chic, cosmopolitan #DigitalNomad city

“Do you ever get to a city and immediately think, I want to live here?”

This question, along with “Do you ever get to a city and instantly hate it?”, is frequently posted in some of the travel groups I’m part of on Facebook.

Tha Pae Gate

Big girl + little girl = captivating scene near the Tha Pae Gate, on Chiang Mai’s moat.

In the case of Chiang Mai, it was the former for me. I could say it began the moment I stepped off the overnight bus, when I saw I had two lovely Tinder matches, while deciding how to head where next. This is no big deal for some, but for me teaching in rural Thailand for three months, the Tinder pickings have been slim.

The feeling certainly grew as we took our Grab taxi to the old town, and I spotted so many cute cafes, and more men – and trees! (Isaan is the dry part of Thailand so I have been longing for greenery).

But to be honest, I was primed for this ‘love at first sight’.

A close friend spoke highly of it, saying his fancy-sounding Italian mamma talked dreamily of retiring there. And it’s a hot spot among the global #DigitalNomad community, of which I hope to be part of (someday soon?).

Anyway. It didn’t disappoint.

Apart from my self-confessed bias, several of the other foreign English teachers who came to Thailand with the same agency as me had the same feeling. Unlike Bangkok or Pattaya, which can turn some (including me) right off, Chiang Mai is a heart-stealer of note.

Here are some pics I took while walking around, all starry-eyed and full of that hope-filled energy only a truly promising strong first attraction delivers.

(I’ll be posting more on what I’ve gleaned on the city’s #DigitalNomad scene, and what to do there if you’re just passing through, soon.)

Chiang Mai cafe

Asian Art Deco: A cute cafe (and English signage, rare in my Thai experience so far) on Ratchapakhinai Road in the Old City.

Kad Klang Wiang chiang mai

Tempting streetside seating at the Kad Klang Wiang foodie/shopping square in the Old City.

mango Thailand

When it comes to tourist pics, this mango place is ripe for the picking 🙂

asian beauty

Glamour pusses take a break to post those all-important status updates 😉

John's Place chiang mai

John’s Place, beside the east side of the Old City’s moat. Go here for nice views of the NYE Lantern Festival goings on.

wat temple chiang mai thailand

Ah, the temples you see, just walking around at night … peeping at monks going about their daily business.

thai monks morning alms round

Speaking of monks … they’re an everyday sight in Thailand, but I can’t get used to it. It was beautiful to be up early and hear their chants as they walked the streets on their morning rounds collecting alms. They do this every day, barefoot, no matter the weather. Read more at: http://www.thaibuddhist.com/monks-on-their-alms-round/

Wat Phan On temple walking street chiang mai thailand

This little lane in the Wat Phan On temple provided brief respite from the crowds of the Sunday evening walking street market. I saw women circling the temple’s Golden Pagoda, carrying flowers; heard the bells being rung; saw delicious food; and bought colourful earrings here.

capervan thailand

Cocktail, anyone? No, but I do WANT THIS DISCO CAMPERVAN REAL BAD!

wall art graffiti thailand

Hello Kitty wall art on one of the little lanes I liked.

urban hanging garden

Lush hanging garden that fills me with a good kind of envy…

scooter thailand

White respite.

massage chiang mai

A welcoming entrance to one of the many massage parlours in the city.

 

 

Two months of teaching in Thailand: Some thoughts…

I’ve been teaching English in Thailand for two months now, and it’s been three months since I left my friends, life and (dis)comfort zone in Cape Town.

It feels far longer.

Nong Bua Daeng Hae Krathup festival
The high street of Nongbuadaeng was festooned with decorations from the October Hae Krathup Tradition festival, which I missed by days (dammit!).

I’d never been to Asia before, and when you do full-on cultural immersion − when nearly every sight, sound, smell and taste is fresh (well, not literally − some are anything but…), and you can almost physically feel your perceptions shift around every street corner − even 15 minutes of a day stretches into something memorable. Seeing the world through new eyes engages your full attention, which slows down time.

I see a lot of adorable Thai toddlers here; they make my insides gooey. They’ve also made me reflect on cognitive learning … on how the familiar becomes familiar so early; on the joy and wonder of experiencing things for the first time.

But newness isn’t always easy. Especially when you’re 40, and frequently fearful.

Back home, I’m often the youngest among friends; unmarried, childless, still “a maiden” in many ways. Not here, among teenage students and other foreign English teachers so fresh out of school, they may as well be taking a gap year. And while home (Cape Town) can be a playground for skateboarding Peter Pans and festival-hopping party girls to say things like “age is just a number,” being a middle-aged (!!!) teacher among twenty-somethings in a conservative, small SoutheastAsian town means you’re forced to confront your chronological age – or, at least, traditional (and possibly small-minded) perceptions on it almost daily.

But I digress. Back to the many gains of this adventure: So far, the biggest immediate gain has been the sensory stimulation. I see so many intriguing sights just sitting on my veranda here in Nongbuadaeng, in rural NorthEast Thailand. Then there are the festivals and markets and celebrations and rituals. And there have been many buses and budget hotels and markets and minibus trips to other Northern places in-between.

Chinese opera
Chinese-style opera at the carnival that came to town for the week of the 5 December National Holiday, in honour of the birthday of the King of Thailand, Vajiralongkorn (AKA Rama X).

I sometimes wish I we were living in the imagined future, so I could do a quick download of all the daily images and impressions. I’m constantly thinking: I must write this down. I must save this picture. I must remember…

Then, there’s what this place is doing to my long-heavy heart.

The main reason I chose to try out ESL teaching here, over more lucrative places, was because of “the people” everyone raved about. While I’m wary of romanticising “the land of smiles”, I’ve been touched by so many everyday human interactions and treated very well by students, colleagues and town folk. Living so openly within a community (rather than behind high suburban walls, as we are in South Africa) makes you feel part of it, even if you’re just a foreign guest.

Last week, at a temple in Chiang Mai (where some of us teachers went for New Year), I said a prayer of gratitude for all the moments of grace and kindness I’ve been blessed to experience in the last two months – the sweet laughter in class, the generous warmth from the women of Nongbuadaeng, the nourishment of the delicious food. Thanks to my time in Thailand, something inside me must surely be shifting – how can it not?

wat phan tao
The place where I gave thanks: The teak Wat Phan Tao temple, meaning ‘temple of a Thousand Kilns’ (due the fact that it was once used to cast Buddha images for Wat Chedi Luang next door).

Below, some notes on some of the things I miss, and some of the things I’m grateful for.

(More blog posts on teaching and living here to follow!)

WHAT I MISS

Proper conversations with friends. I love nothing better than a good, deep and detailed natter with people who know me. Language barriers reduce conversations to the bare basics here. And getting to know new people, from vastly different backgrounds, takes time and is not without its own challenges.

My car. I asked for a walkable town and I’m glad for it, but a lot of the local sites are only reachable with wheels − and I’m having scooter issues. With my driving phobia history, knowing two young men who died on scooters, and not having insurance to cover scooter accidents, I wasn’t going to hire one. But the three younger English teachers I’m with did and I didn’t want to miss out on outings or be the ‘granny of the group’. (Too late!) I’m still too poep-scared (as we say in South Africa) to ride the damn thing further than our block. But I haven’t given up on slaying the beast just yet … I miss the freedom of being able to go greater distances than my feet will take me.

Nice toilets and showers. Cape Town’s drought toughened me up a little, so I’m used to no baths and treating showers as cleaning necessities rather than languid luxuries. Here, you have to confront non-Western toilets (and ‘the bum gun’), carry toilet paper (which can’t be flushed and must be placed in the waste basket), and showers are those soft-flow hand-held jobbies hung upon the wall. *Sigh* #FirstWorldProblems

Proper cutlery (and such things). No, this isn’t because we’re eating with chopsticks. We aren’t. In Thailand, you eat with a fork (left hand) and spoon (right hand). You use the fork to push food onto the spoon, then spoon the rice into your mouth. (I’m still figuring out if it’s the same for noodle dishes). The cutlery is of a thin metal, the kind you may take camping, so I miss the feel of a heavy knife and fork in hand. Ditto for plates and glasses. At café’s here, it’s all plastic plates and cups. I wasn’t able to find any ceramic plates at the shops for my flat, either. On the plus side, everything has that impermanent/festival/camping feel, which is fun. And there’s less to break.

fork and spoon in Thailand
It took an hour’s bus ride to the nearest city, but I finally found a knife (the type that goes with a fork) among boxes of the spoon & fork combo you quickly get used to eating with in Thailand.

Some food items, like proper coffee, cheese, salt and pepper. Even though coffee is grown here, Thailand isn’t a place (like Greece) where you’ll easily find a good coffee. At the cheap hotels we’ve stayed at, it’s strong and powdery. In the shops, you’ll find instant varieties pre-mixed with milk powder, sugar and even ‘weight-loss’ or ‘skin-tightening’ ingredients. It took me a few weeks to find ground coffee, but I’m still on the hunt for a bodem (using a tea strainer until then). At restaurants and cafes, there’s sugar, chilli and soy sauce on the table. Funny how you quickly miss everyday rituals, like cracking salt and pepper onto your meal before starting.

Friendly pets. In Chiang Mai, I asked a #DigitalNomad I’d just met if there was any downside to living in Thailand. “As you’ve probably seen, it’s the attitude towards animals,” she said. It’s true. The many street dogs here are full of mange and on their own mission. The outnumbered cats are skittish and still elusive. As a pet-sitter and animal-lover, I miss animal affection.

Thai dog
A typical Thai dog. He is not as rough-looking as the street dogs, so likely belongs to the shopkeeper family. He will be fed and perhaps get the odd scratch, but he likely won’t be washed, sterilised or cooed over.

A body of water to swim in. In the North, we don’t have the beaches Southern Thailand is known for. While Cape Town’s cold Atlantic sea is hardly inviting, you always know it’s there. When it’s hot here, I crave a body of water to swim in. But the local reservoir is not for swimming, and the nearest pool requires a scooter ride to get to (and is not exactly clean). It’s not surprising that most of the kids here can’t swim. (Again, #FirstWorldProblems).

Articulation skills and the ability to read environment. There’s lots to be said here, in a longer post. But just imagine, for a minute, not being able to read street signs, menus, receipts, SMS messages from your bank or phone provider. I’m used to being literate, and feel pretty ‘lost’ in my surroundings at some point in every day.

WHAT I’M GRATEFUL FOR

Living in a walkable town. During the placement process, the agency asked us for our preferences, and this was one of mine (together with WiFi and a verandah or outside space at home). I’m loving walking through the food market each day, and strolling to the 7/11 at night – pretty much a no-no back in South Africa, as it’s too dangerous to walk alone at night.

Thai market Nongbuadaeng
Markets everywhere! In addition to the daily market, the nightly produce market, the Saturday night market and the 15th of the month big market, there’s the Mon-Wed food market outside the school.

The agency support. I’m told I can earn more through a direct placement and wasn’t too sure about my agency before getting here (I had all kinds of suspicions). But they offer a curriculum, telephone support 24/7 (even for things like translating a Thai text or speaking to a Thai person to organise transport etc.), and the visa support has been a relief.

That I’m not a vegetarian or vegan, yet. (Sorry!) Contrary to what many expect, Thai cuisine isn’t that vegetarian friendly. And ordering veg-only is just another communication complication. I’ve seen the lengthy process of someone trying to explain that no meat should be in the fried rice be served pork fried rice, only to get non-veg food served to them, and have to suck it up and eat plain white rice and sliced cucumber … there seems to be fish sauce, chicken, pork broth or egg in most dishes.

That I was able to buy a new phone. My one had a cracked screen and kept running out of space, even with a new SD card, but new phones were just too expensive to buy back home. I picked up a new Samsung Galaxy J4+ for less than 5000 Baht ($156; R2230) at the Big C in Bangkok, and it’s been essential for life here (with its need to Google translate, use local banking/taxi apps and Google maps).

That I’ve had some teaching experience. While it was part time and at an English creative college, rather than full time at a Thai high school, it made it easier for introverted me to stand in front of many sets of eyes and do all the prep necessary to feel prepared for 50-minute classes.

Feeling part of a community. Note I say feeling over being. We are farangs (foreigners) and get called so daily. We’re just passing through for a season. But after five years of freelancing alone at home, with no family of my own nearby, being a respected member of a community, living close with our neighbours, attending local events and just being part of the daily flow of life has been so good for me on so many levels.

So after that long post, is there anything you want to know about my Thai teaching adventure? Let me know in the comments and I’ll get back to you here…

Thai sweets
A sweetie stand on a street in Chaiyaphum, the city an hour or so away from us. Ain’t it PRETTY??