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.
The rice paddies at Mama Mu’s homestay, Sapa. Note the buffalo and the family planting rice.
Saw the year in with an after-party swim with friends at dawn. An owl winked at us from a perch between branches.
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).
Mourned the end of my ‘happy family’ fantasy. Decided to turn to Option B: Travel.
Got down and dirty at AfrikaBurn (the African version of Burning Man) after a seven-year break.
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*)
The sunrise burn at AfrikaBurn 2018 (unfortunately I didn’t make a note of whose pic this is…).
Completed my TEFL training to teach English as a Foreign Language.
Renewed both of my (long-expired) passports.
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.)
Had an astrologist tell me, “This isn’t as bad as it gets. Hold on for 44.” *gulp*
Worked with my old boss and mentor; repaired some (somewhat) burnt bridges.
Shared a sunset beach ritualwith 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 on the Cape West Coast, where we stayed for our shared birthday xxxx.
Danced around a pole. Poorly.
Left my country’s borders for the first time in nine years. (Ended up visiting five in that year.)
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.
Took a writing retreat on Lesbos, the Greekisland the poetess and ‘tenth muse’ Sappho was from.
Flamingo Beach Bar, at the lesbian-friendly Skala Eressos beach on Lesbos, the island the poetess Sappho came from.
Attended my first gay wedding as part of the (one) groom’s party – a special honour.
Packed up the apartment where I’d worked and lived alone for five years.
Marie Kondo’ed my home and got rid of most of my possessions. Not the books, though. Hell no.
Moved to a new continent – experienced the culture shock that is SouthEast Asia.
My first meal in Thailand. Unfortunately, and embarrassingly, I couldn’t stomach the overly fishy Som Tum salad with raw prawns.
Faced a financial reckoning. Filed years’ worth of tax returns (finally!).
Started paying off debts accumulated during my feast-or-famine freelance years.
Changed careers, temporarily. Started back at the bottom with others fresh out of uni/college.
Started working with children.
Monks’ Day at the farming school where I taught.
Became a foreigner in a foreign land. Twice.
Lived in neighbourhoods where few speak English; lost language as a daily tool.
Tried many weird foods for the first time. (Fried silkworm pupa, crispy crickets, pigs’ intestines, chicken-blood soup, to name a few…)
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.
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.)
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.
Walked into my first NYE party on my own, not knowing anyone there.
Went sailing for the first time, around Thailand’s beautiful islands.
Buying prawns off of a longtail from the yacht … near where the James Bond film was filmed, Phang Nga Bay northeast of Phuket.
Savoured the holiday romance of my dreams. Ooh. La. La!
Started learning (the basics of) two new languages.
Got onto the back of a motorbike for the first time. Got into a tuk-tuk for the first time.
Navigated the art of using a squat toilet. Note: navigated, not mastered.
Marvelled at the joys of walking alone at night, safely, for the first time in my life.
Took myself less seriously by becoming the buffoon you sometimes have to be when teaching without the aid of a shared language.
Moved into my first houseshare, the day I turned 41.
Stormy seas on my 40th birthday, Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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…
I took advantage of a freebie on a school excursion to (briefly) see the city where the historical Thai cat breed, the Korat, comes from.
The head of the school’s English Department, Teacher Po, kindly invited me on a field trip with an age group I don’t teach, so yesterday I went along for a day’s break from the small town that is Nongbuadaeng.
I’m loving so many things about this TEFL travel stint, but I’ve yet to slay ‘the dragon’ that is my hired scooter (eye rolls allowed, to a point, on this one – it’s an old fear story), so any chance to see other scenery for a better perspective (and sense of movement) is embraced.
You gotta love Thai buses. I see these Michelin men on many of them…
The great part about my teaching location is that there are a few small Northeastern cities a couple hours (by bus) away, so you can explore a region that isn’t on the typical Thailand Tourism map relatively easily (I say relatively because you always have the language barrier to navigate around bus times, which bus to take etc.).
The field trip was to the city the Thais call Korat, though its actual name is Nakhon Ratchasima (in what’s Thailand’s largest province). As Teacher Po said, “Even the cities here have nicknames,” referring to the fact that Thais commonly go by nicknames. The other foreign teachers here with me for the semester have been before, so I knew it has shopping centres and things Nongbuadaeng lacks, but knew little much else about the place – other than it’s where the famed blue-grey Korat cat, the relative of the Siamese, comes from. (Curious cat fact: The Korats are associated with good luck, so are often given as a gift in pairs to newlyweds here.)
I think the beaut on the right is a Korat. Been on the hunt for one since I arrived in the region. (This one lives on the streets in Nongbuadaeng, though, not Korat itself.)
On the itinerary:Check out the Suan Kaset 100 Rai flower show linked to Nakhon Ratchasima Rajabhat University’s Agricultural Research Center, which is only open at certain times of year; get to the Terminal 21 mall, so the students could do some shopping; then head to a temple.
There wasn’t enough time to get to the temple (sadly!), but we reached the first two stops. I had to laugh at the flowers, though, as they were cosmos, which grow wild on the roadside at autumn time back in South Africa, in the province I grew up in.
(They’re actually something of a family symbol, as I was pictured in them with my twin in proud family pictures. As kids, we liked to do the royal wave from the back seat, pretending the cosmos’ purple blooms were the admiring faces of our populace. And each autumn, when they come out, my photographer Mom drags my Dad out on a drive to find them.)
Cosmos in the foreground.
While the flower display wasn’t large (think two fields), the prettiness was great for taking pics, and it was fun to be among them with the Thai teachers.
Terminal 21 is the second ‘proper mall’ I’ve been so far since here (the other was in Pattaya, some 7 hours’ journey away), and each floor has a different country as a theme. There’s a food court serving all kids of delicious and affordable Thai food. (The Pad Thai was about 35 Baht/$1/R15).
Well, Hello Kitty! (And you, massive Christmas tree hiding in plain sight in a mall in a Buddhist country…)
Other than checking out the H&M sale and spending money I wasn’t meant to at my favourite shop here, the Chinese retail chain MINISO, the best part of this stop was the loo experience. I’ve never sat on such a fancy throne, with different bidet options (this angle, that angle, this speed, that temperature … lovely luxury after the non-Western toilet situations you can encounter in public facilities here).
Forgive me for I have pictured and posted a toilet. (This from someone who balks at buying toilet paper in bulk!) But some of the squat-toilet scenes I’ve seen here made this seem like it was gilded in gold. Hands-down the best toilet experience, ever.
I bought a big box of Dutch butter biscuits from the fancy ‘farang’ (foreigner) food place for Christmas Day at school, then it was back on the bus to Nongbuadaeng. My best part of the day was the booming beats the kids chose: regional folk-pop music featuring the dialect specific to Esan (or Isan … another thing here is the variant spellings, making Google research tricky even in English). Being around such smiley and wholesome teenagers can be good for the mood, that’s for sure. And I love that they’re loving their own culture so much.
Next weekend, we’re shedding out teacher caps for the long NY weekend to finally get to Chiang Mai. Can’t wait to see the city so many #DigitalNomads rave about.