A dose of ‘Rona Reality’ after three COVID-free months in Vietnam

vietnam covid poster

Poster by Le Duc Hiep with the words, ‘To stay at home is to love your country’.

After three months of glorious ‘life after lockdown’ here in Vietnam, I’m having a dose of Rona Reality. I suspected it would come.

It’s been three months of euphoria, pinching ourselves, saying “we’re so lucky”, and doing the thumbs up whenever a Vietnamese person with a bit of English says, “Vietnam safe; Vietnam beat Covid”. It was good to see the nation so proud − and great to re-integrate into the society, after the unsettling anti-foreigner sentiment that COVID-19 brought about earlier in the year here.

As a life-long pessimist, I wondered when the bubble would burst. This week, it did.

On Monday, because I’d recently been to Danang − where there’s been a flare-up of Covid after nearly 100 days of no community transmission in this country bordering China − I was ordered to self-isolate at home.

Compared with what others have experienced this year, it’s not much to complain about.

Besides, we’ve had the freedom to go out without masks on (and so on) for some time. Because everyone deemed the country safe (and it WAS), our new normal had relaxed enough to look not that different to the old normal − except we don’t go out as much as before, are still trying to recover financially and are all in limbo about future plans as we can’t go back to our countries right now.

Still, we all shared this feeling of having found ourselves in one of the safest places in the world. There was this sense of being held in a soft cocoon, while the virus caught up with the rest of the world, and sucker-punched our home countries.

The minute I could, I travelled locally, supporting the Vietnamese government’s drive to boost local travel. I’d accumulated a year of Annual Leave dates, and I was finally free to take them. (Would you have done the same?)

Since our social distancing ended, I’ve watched the sun set from Cát Bà Island; planted rice in Sapa; learnt how to embroider in Ninh Binh; swam in rim-flow pools overlooking the sea in Danang; and bought custom-made wares in beautiful Hội An. Tourists were few, hotels were cheap, and those in the service industry were all eager to please, clearly so enthusiastic to be serving customers again.

"Cat Ba Beach

Cat Ba Beach, the first weekend after lockdown, was the first place I took my mask off (everyone else was without one). Mask-free locals saw us and joked, nervously, “No COVID!

Then news of one new case of COVID in Danang broke. My landlady began frantically messaging and phoning. “When did you get back from Danang? The authorities want a list of all the places you went to and stayed in Danang. Hurry, they are waiting!”

I thought that was that – I’d flown back on 17 July, a day before the 18 July date they’d announced as the ‘safe’ cut-off period. Phew! “I’m so lucky”, I said, high-fiving the people I was with on a trip to Ninh Binh.

Those three words: I’m so lucky.

Before COVID, I hadn’t said them much in relation to my own life. But it’s funny how quickly you can get used to that idea, even as a pessimist – and to a tenuous, false sense of security (when you really need it).

The sense of rebirth and elation was quite something to experience. But since we’ve been taught that pride comes before a fall, and we wouldn’t want to ‘lose face’, there was still underlying uncertainty and caution. In my case, there was also some guilt. Sure, we faced Corona fears and social-distancing early, given our geographic closeness to China. But, thanks to Vietnam’s swift, strict response, it was nothing like what our home countries are now experiencing with the full-on COVID blow.

But back in Danang, when we all still believed Vietnam was safe, we finally blew caution to the wind. We’d gradually done all the post-lockdown ‘firsts’: first beer out, first grocery-shopping trip, first social dinner, first staff meeting, first face-to-face class, first time being brave enough to go to tourist areas as a foreigner, etc. Now that we’d navigated out first time in an airport, it was time for our first time in a local nightclub.

Karma, hey.

It turns out when me and my friends were bar hopping, dancing, and sharing cigarettes and body space with Vietnamese youth in a nightclub called Hair of the Dog – counting our lucky stars that we could enjoy life again sans masks or social-distancing restrictions – we were in the same area that the man who later tested positive had visited at some overlapping point in time.

(Don’t judge: We started the corona battle back in January. We couldn’t teach face-to-face for three months. There had been no new cases of infection for nearly 100 days.)

Note, too, the word ‘area’: We were not in the same venues as this infected person (bless his soul, health, family) just in the general vicinity of streets. And that shows how efficient the Vietnamese contact-tracing strategy has been; how they managed to contain the virus so well, for so long. Within two hours of receiving my detailed list (thanks, Google timelines), they’d deemed me enough of a risk. “If you are out, get home. They are coming,” my landlady said.

Boy, was I scared. I didn’t know whether they were the police, ‘coming to take me away’ to one of the many military-style quarantine facilities I’ve seen pictures of and read about. All my xenophobia fears from earlier in the year resurfaced, and that sense of being so powerless as a foreigner in a country without the essential tool that is language.

quarantine

Gavin Wheeldon wrote about his experience in a Vietnamese quarantine facility, saying is wasn’t too bad. I see a lack of mattresses…

I was pacing, calling my housemate at work (a language school). The potential severity of the situation was freaking me out (“What if I DO have COVID? I live opposite a daycare! I work with children! I’ve just bought cigarettes from the old lady shopkeeper a few houses down!”). This was ‘worst-nightmare’ stuff a few months ago, when locals assumed we were travellers bringing COVID into the country and we were treated like disease-ridden ticking time bombs. Even our Vietnamese colleagues started stepping away from us, with clear fear in their eyes, thinking we’d perhaps been in contact with foreign travellers and so on.

Hanoi xenophobia during covid

A sign in Hanoi from a few months back, when anti-foreigner fears were high (as was xenophobia).

Would they haul me off, those men in green who frightened me during our lockdown?

I left my weekend bag from Ninh Binh packed in case I’d have to leave in a hurry, as I’d been told others going to quarantine had had to do. Then, for some strange reason, I put on my favourite dress and earrings, so that if they marched me off in full view of the nosy neighbours, I’d at least be able to hold my head up high. (I know, I know: logic level = zero.)

THE BACK STORY TO THE FEAR (circa March 2020):

During lockdown, there were checkpoints on every street (three on my little alley alone). The army was called upon. When the uniformed officials first saw me, their eyes widened and they asked the taxi driver: Where did you collect her from? Where is she going?

They were worried I was a traveller, just in from some flight or other. As I’m mute without the language, it was intimidating. Especially given the trickles of info we were getting at the time − that security guards and officials were threatening foreigners with instant detainment in the military quarantine facilities if they didn’t provide passports/money/medical certificates etc.

On the day we finally got news of a ‘lockdown’ (they don’t like that prison-like term here, preferring ‘social distancing’), communicated via Whatsapp from our manager, we went straight to the grocery store to stock up. Returning home an hour later, the officials stopped me and my American friend, called us out of my home where we were separating our groceries. They marched us back to the checkpoint, took our temperatures, phoned people, and kept us there. They didn’t want to use Google translate to answer my question: “What are our temperatures? Why are we being kept here?”

The neighbours I’d had for 10 months gathered. My friend didn’t have his passport. He was without a phone. He was nervous. I was furious. I called my landlady to talk to the sternest official, a man old enough to have fought in the Vietnam War. He let us go. I walked in front, my friend behind, between the rows of onlookers and neighbours standing at their doorways, as I raged with a sense of injustice and powerless.

Two more intimidating home visits from immigration police followed within the hour. And only when my landlady and her husband arrived in person did they disband and leave. My landlady was clear: no more visitors. No more going out.

Fortunately, that was the worst of my run-ins with officials. But the encounter − along with hostility from locals jumping out the way when they saw me, saying “không tây! Corona/Covid!” [No Westerners! Corona/covid!] – made me feel quite unwelcome here in HaiPhong, North Vietnam, where foreigners are few and remain ‘Othered’ to begin with.

BACK TO MONDAY, THREE DAYS AGO:

So there I was in my pretty dress and dangly earrings. Pacing. Looking down at the alley from my balcony, waving at the toddlers saying “Helloooo!” to me from their daycare opposite. My landlady arrived to be the translator. And when they arrived – one man and two women in white, wearing their masks and face shields – I wish I could say I handled it all with the dignity befitting the dress. I didn’t.

In fact, as the women from the daycare opposite looked on, eyes wide (there’s no privacy here in Asia, so they could see everything through our floor-to-ceiling glass doors), I turned into a dramatic, frightened child.

“I’m scared,” I wailed, gripping the couch in semi-foetal position.

ppe nurses at home visit

Blurry pic of the government nurses, with the daycare workers in the background.

At least the landlady-translator and PPE dude found it funny. (They would not have a few months ago!) The two nurses doing the forms were kind, and they laughed when my landlady didn’t know the word for ‘diarrhea’ (on the checklist of symptoms), and had to resort to childish ‘explosive poo-poo’ sounds and gestures 🙂

My biggest worry was, and is, the neighbours. The daycare women opposite were watching on with worry. Their front door is mere metres from ours. Grandparents collect their grandkids from that front door … they can’t be (and don’t look) happy to have foreigners living so near them.

Anyway, I’m armed with a thermometer and must send my temperature results to my landlady to pass on twice a day. My total self-isolation will only amount to six days. Not bad. (Well, that’s if we don’t go into another city lockdown, which is seeming more and more likely.) I hope that when I step out, if I get to step out, I won’t be feared by the neighbourhood.

This experience has certainly cued some paranoia, which only amplified when I heard the police would pay a visit, to check that I’m staying in my room (to avoid contact with my housemate), and to check that we’re not hiding any other foreigners. (They’re trying to trace the source of these new infections, and believe it may be from Chinese illegal immigrants being smuggled into the country via the porous Northern border.)

We were told they would arrive at 8:30am on my third day of isolation. My landlady brought over fire extinguishers (!!??!!) for, I assume, added proof that we’re following Health & Safety protocols. So just after 8:30, I sat in my room like a good girl, while 10 police officers (TEN!!) crowded my downstairs couch. My housemate was sitting on the stairs, texting me. 10 men in uniform. Because of me. I couldn’t hear much; there were no raised voices. But I could see passers-by stopping to look at what ‘the problem’ was from my balcony window.

“What are they doing???” I texted.

“Going through our papers.”

Being a foreigner in a country can sure be scary during a pandemic.

haiphong covid

One of the pictures that scared the crap out of me during our lockdown, when there were checkpoints on every street and alley of this city, Haiphong.

I heard them leave, checked that the coast was clear for me to come down (in my mask) for another cup of coffee. The landlady said they were asking how many people live here, and about me who came back from Danang. She says this was a mandatory annual visit, which was especially important at this time. Her uncle has a relationship of some kind with the police, so we’re lucky they didn’t stay too long. (Not that we have anything to hide, mind.)

FUTURE FEARS

I’m lucky years of living alone and working from home have prepared me for days of being inside alone. Right now my biggest concern is that my housemate is having to be my grocery shopper etc. I’m used to my independance. But looming over all of us here is the very real prospect of another lockdown, of teaching online, of being paid 25% of our salary to do so, with worries that the language centre we work for won’t survive financially, and we’ll be stuck here without an income. (Fortunately, I have resurrected my freelance writing and editing career since the last lockdown. Can’t have all eggs in one basket!)

So it’s back to tracking new cases, waiting on government notices to be translated by some well-meaning person on one of many expat Facebook groups, etc.

Thankfully, I know I am still lucky. I do not appear to have COVID (at this point in time). My family back home are still (thankfully) healthy. I have a housemate to help me get things from ‘out there’, an English-speaking landlady, two income streams (for now at least) and a working visa that extends until next year.

May luck be with you, and us all, until this damn virus dies out.

COVID-fighting superhero

Nữ Anh Hùng (NAH), a COVID-fighting superhero character created by illustrator Fred Serra, who is based in Ho Chi Minh City.

40 things I did the year I turned 40

I just turned 42. I spent the day in Sapa, up high in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains of northwest Vietnam. As we sat down to eat and drink rice wine (AKA “happy water”) with the hardworking Black Hmong family hosting us in their homestay, after planting rice in the green hill terraces you see in travel guidebooks, I wondered how I got to be so lucky.

My life post-40 is so different to what it was pre-40. My thirties were full of highs, and way more lows. So I thought I’d share some of the big and small things I did the year I turned forty in a deliberate effort to change course.

rice planting in Sapa Vietnam

The rice paddies at Mama Mu’s homestay, Sapa. Note the buffalo and the family planting rice.

  1. Saw the year in with an after-party swim with friends at dawn. An owl winked at us from a perch between branches.
  2. Celebrated 12 years of ‘flying solo’ (with its many moments of romantic potential, missed connections, heart-heaviness; as well as its total independence and undeniable character-building).
  3. Mourned the end of my ‘happy family’ fantasy. Decided to turn to Option B: Travel.
  4. Lived in other people’s houses, giving their pets and homes TLC while they were away. I stoked fires, gazed into glossy animal eyes and slept with furry bodies breathing beside me.
  5. Went on a facilitated sacred mushroom journey. The fabled Heroic Dose took me on a (thankfully) beautiful trip that nourished me for months after.

    sacred magic mushroom journey

    Artwork by Burakerk / Pixabay.

  6. Got down and dirty at AfrikaBurn (the African version of Burning Man) after a seven-year break.
  7. Subsequently lost my heart on a sparkly dancefloor under a big, starry sky 😉
    Saw the sun rise just after watching a huge wooden artwork burn in the African desert, being held by a beautiful young foreigner dressed in a Zebra suit. (Ten months later, I was being held by another older foreigner while watching the sun set over the sea on a Thai island *wink*)

    afrikaburn 2018

    The sunrise burn at AfrikaBurn 2018 (unfortunately I didn’t make a note of whose pic this is…).

  8. Admired an epic halo form around the moon with special people. Twice.
  9. Completed my TEFL training to teach English as a Foreign Language.
  10. Renewed both of my (long-expired) passports.
  11. Had an Enneagram reading tell me I’m likely a type 4 (Individualist – sensitive, introspective), not a 1, as previously believed. (Makes much sense, TBH.)
  12. Had an astrologist tell me, “This isn’t as bad as it gets. Hold on for 44.” *gulp*
  13. Worked with my old boss and mentor; repaired some (somewhat) burnt bridges.
  14. Shared a sunset beach ritual with my identical twin sister (to claim what we wished for, and let go of what no longer serves us). We later dined at the place the World Restaurant Awards voted Best Restaurant in the World for 2019.

    paternoster beach

    Paternoster on the Cape West Coast, where we stayed for our shared birthday xxxx.

  15. Danced around a pole. Poorly.
  16. Left my country’s borders for the first time in nine years. (Ended up visiting five in that year.)
  17. Met the male cat that lives in the rocks beneath the Greek Parthenon (meaning “unmarried women’s apartments”, ha!) on the Athens Acropolis. Fast, feisty fella.
  18. Took a writing retreat on Lesbos, the Greek island the poetess and ‘tenth muse’ Sappho was from.

    flamingo bar skala eressos lesbos

    Flamingo Beach Bar, at the lesbian-friendly Skala Eressos beach on Lesbos, the island the poetess Sappho came from.

  19. Attended my first gay wedding as part of the (one) groom’s party – a special honour.
  20. Packed up the apartment where I’d worked and lived alone for five years.
  21. Marie Kondoed my home and got rid of most of my possessions. Not the books, though. Hell no.
  22. Moved to a new continent – experienced the culture shock that is SouthEast Asia.

    som tum salad

    My first meal in Thailand. Unfortunately, and embarrassingly, I couldn’t stomach the overly fishy Som Tum salad with raw prawns.

  23. Faced a financial reckoning. Filed years’ worth of tax returns (finally!).
  24. Started paying off debts accumulated during my feast-or-famine freelance years.
  25. Changed careers, temporarily. Started back at the bottom with others fresh out of uni/college.
  26. Started working with children.

    monk day Thailand

    Monks’ Day at the farming school where I taught.

  27. Became a foreigner in a foreign land. Twice.
  28. Lived in neighbourhoods where few speak English; lost language as a daily tool.
  29. Tried many weird foods for the first time. (Fried silkworm pupa, crispy crickets, pigs’ intestines, chicken-blood soup, to name a few…)

    Khanom chin and chicken feet Thailand

    Khanom chin noodle soup with chicken feet and chicken blood (the dark jelly bits). It was made by my favourite student’s grandmother, so I didn’t have the heart to decline the offer.

  30. Spent my first Christmas away from home. Worked on the day. (Which, in Thailand schools, means wearing red, posing for pics, watching a lot of Christmas-themed shows put on by the students, making kids make Christmas cards and sing along to English carols.)
  31. Walked with elephants at a sanctuary.NOTE: Never ride elephants, and do your research to find out which sanctuaries are really what they claim to be. I went with Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, which is an ethical and sustainable eco-tourism project started by Chiang Mai locals and the Karen hill-tribes. But I still have mixed feelings about the experience/sanctuary vis-a-vis responsible tourism and the elephant issue in Thailand. In my mind, my money went towards supporting the tribes who look after the elephants in their care. I realise it may not be as simple as this.
  32. Walked into my first NYE party on my own, not knowing anyone there.
  33. Went sailing for the first time, around Thailand’s beautiful islands.

    Phang Nga Bay northeast of Phuket

    Buying prawns off of a longtail from the yacht … near where the James Bond film was filmed, Phang Nga Bay northeast of Phuket.

  34. Savoured the holiday romance of my dreams. Ooh. La. La!
  35. Started learning (the basics of) two new languages.
  36. Got onto the back of a motorbike for the first time. Got into a tuk-tuk for the first time.
  37. Navigated the art of using a squat toilet. Note: navigated, not mastered.
  38. Marvelled at the joys of walking alone at night, safely, for the first time in my life.
  39. Took myself less seriously by becoming the buffoon you sometimes have to be when teaching without the aid of a shared language.
  40. Moved into my first houseshare, the day I turned 41.

    Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town.

    Stormy seas on my 40th birthday, Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town.

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 🙂

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??