Peace Corps Thailand

Whoa! Long time without an update. Sorry about that, guys, between work and my mom visiting for a few weeks, I have been swamped! But more about that later, let me crank out a few blog posts to get us up to speed on Southeast Asia.

As you may have figured out, I try to check out the local village life when I travel. It’s a nice way to see another side of the country, and what can I say: I like revisiting the lifestyle. Thankfully a Peace Corps Thailand volunteer named Kathleen was kind enough to host me for a few days at her village in the north.

Getting there was a matter of being dropped off alongside a long road between major cities. Telling the attendant where to drop me off…? Well, it seems like many Thais are shy about speaking English – or don’t know much – so Kathleen had me copy down the directions in phonetic Thai. I tried to read these and, predictably, the attendant was like: whaaat is this chick trying to say? But it all worked out in the end, by calling Kathleen and having her talk to the attendant. I swear she said the directions in the same way I did! Tonal languages!! *Shakes fist.*

Fun fact! Apparently Thais are very sensitive to cleanliness and smell, and place such an emphasis on the importance of showering that there’s a greeting which translates to, “have you bathed today?” Go fig. I guess many foreigners have a reputation for being dirty. Not surprising if you’ve ever seen some of the backpackers who frequent in SE Asia! Ha. I thought I was doing better than the matted-hair crowd: showering daily, washing my clothes diligently, etc. Yet when I sat down on the bus, the elderly Thai woman next to me opened the window. Ouch. She who laughs first, laughs shortest.

Highlights of the visit!

(1) Bicycling all over the village streets and countryside. Beautiful.

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Harvested rice paddies. The surrounding hills are home to Thai hill tribes, like the Hmong people.

(2) Fried bananas in the marketplace! World’s most delicious breakfast snack? Yes. Afterwards, whenever buying a morning cup of Thai coffee (yum!) I’d stop by the local market for some warm, freshly-fried bananas. [Accidentally wrote 'keep me eyes open' at first. Like a market-roving junk-food pirate. Now that's what I want to be when I grow up.]

(3) Learning how to properly season my noodle soup! Invaluable skill, my friends. This is why I always visit PCVs, they get what I want to know.

(4) Meeting all Kathleen’s coworkers at the local municipality (department? place?), her neighbors, and her students at the primary school, and getting a tiny taste for real life in Thailand.

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The primary school kids were rehearsing a parade… so we jumped in. Here’s Natea, the wonderful English teacher, and Kathleen.
Naturally, we joined the parade

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The kids practicing for a parade. Rum-pa-pum-pum.

I enjoyed getting to hear about the challenges and rewards of Peace Corps Thailand. Some comparisons:

-> Peace Corps SA has been open since 1997 (it didn’t start earlier for obvious reasons), whereas the Thailand program has been running since 1962! Seemed like many more people were familiar with Peace Corps.

-> All the volunteers I met seemed to speak excellent Thai. They were all modest: “No, I’m not very fluent…” then went on to hold a 20-minute conversation about politics or whatever in Thai. Guess that’s what happens when few people in your community speak English, or are too shy to try. On the other hand, most PCVs in South Africa never learn the local language beyond conversational level, because people speak English and there aren’t as many opportunities for immersion. Not learning the local language well is a bummer, but getting to speak your native tongue and teach English in an environment where people are very eager to practice it is nice!

-> Much like South Africa, Thailand can be called a ‘posh corps’ (blegh) assignment. I can share my thoughts on the term ‘posh corps’ on another day, but suffice to say I don’t like it. I had to reexamine my prejudices because my first impression was that PC Thailand was a super nice assignment, and things were generally a lot more developed than South Africa (wifi, hello?) But when I heard about some of the (really tough) challenges that PCVs serving there faced when trying to integrate into local culture, I had to reflect that as an outsider: I’m pretty clueless! And just ’cause a country seems developed, doesn’t mean it’s an easy place to serve. I should certainly have learned that lesson already.

-> Besides Zimbabweans, I encountered very few other foreigners where I lived in Limpopo. But in Thailand you’ll find young backpackers partying it up all over the place! Often they’d be dressed and acting really inappropriately for the local culture, too, and that’d color everyone’s opinion of Westerners. I would find that frustrating. Made me glad to live in the boondocks, where people just formed their preconceived ideas of Americans based on trashy TV shows. ;)

Peace Corps Posters: The Good, Bad, and Inexplicable

To celebrate the Peace Corps’ 53rd birthday, I’ve collected and rated Peace Corps recruitment posters from each decade. Click to enlarge ‘em.

I also chose the top three terrible posters. Look forward to those, because yikes.

• • • 1960s • • •  

Pros: Just looking at them makes me nostalgic for JFK’s Camelot, and I was born in the 80′s. The text on the second one warms my heart. Too bad you can’t read it unless you click here and zoom.

Cons: Bold move with that “Make America a Better Place: Leave” slogan. Really confident that the audience’ll read the small print, aren’t you?

Score: I think it’s an 8 out of 10… wait, maybe a 3? a 6? Geeze, that’s a lot of small font. Ah, forget it. 

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Fun times in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is a blast. Even better, despite being the largest city in northern Thailand (and a tourist magnet) it is  still somehow charming. This is thanks to the historical old city: walled-in with stone, surrounded by a moat, the city is brimming with temples, criss-crossed by cobblestone alleys, full of street food vendors and well-looked-after dogs lounging on the sidewalks. 

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Wat Tung Yu. Pet dogs roamed the streets without their owners. They even knew to look both ways before crossing the street.

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Countryside Cambodia

Angkor: temple overdose. After a few days, I was ready to see another side of Cambodia. Through word-of-mouth I learned about a local Khmer man, S., who leads day trips to his family village, and so a guy from my hostel and I booked a tour.

Even though the village was less than an hour from Siem Reap, it couldn’t have felt more distant. The roads immediately deteriorated upon leaving the town, and the pace of life slowed noticeably. I can only imagine how different the really rural areas of Cambodia must be.

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A typical homestead.

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To Southeast Asia! Angkor Wat

The hardest part of traveling is buying the ticket.

Okay, hold up, obviously I know that the hardest part is finding the time and money. But even when you have both, a lot of travel plans die somewhere in the “one day I’d love to…” stage.

My own “one day” destination has always been Southeast Asia. Backpacking there just seems like the quintessential 20-something travel experience, and was always going to take sometime in my nebulous future. But when I got time off for the holidays, I realized nothing was stopping me from making it happen now. I was a little nervous about an extended solo trip… but I bit the bullet and bought the ticket anyway. Things would figure themselves out.

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Meet Cape Town

Time to catch this blog up!

I moved to Cape Town in September; getting there involved roadtripping alongside a driver named Abe who has worked with the Peace Corps forever. It was a 1500km/930 mile drive that took 2 days. The morning that we left, Abe showed up to breakfast and told me: “We are going to the end of the world.”

This route, readers. This route did not have a lot going on. There were so few towns that every road sign just gave us an update about how far we were from the Cape. Abe and I had a lot of conversations like, “Going to Cape Town! Yeah! … Cape Town, woo! Any minute now! Cape Town!”

It took us through the Karoo, a semi-desert in the southwest interior. Occasionally it was dotted with charming little outpost villages centered around white-washed churches. Mostly, it looked like this:

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But as we neared the Cape, snow-covered mountains came out of nowhere and soon everything was glorious and beautiful!

Cape Town has been fabulous so far.  Both my house and office are in what’s called the City Bowl: the heart of Cape Town, which sits in a natural amphitheater of mountains.

citybowl

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I stay in the Gardens, which is a lovely residential neighborhood with lots of restaurants. I’m sharing a roomy apartment with five of the ten Grassroot Soccer interns who are working in Cape Town for a year. Check out their bios/blogs here - they’re a great crew. Our flat’s informally called the Kloof house. Check out the view from our rooftop balcony (aka the klooftop, copyright me?): 

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Unreal. Plus, I have running water! Talk about upgrades.

I work at the Grassroot Soccer office in the city centre, which is about a 20 minute walk from my flat. I spend a lot of time there, it’s a hardworking crew. It’s a really fun work environment though; GRS cultivates a culture of upbeat energy and activity. How many energizers have I learned since I began working for GRS? All of the energizers. That’s how many.

Here’s what our office looks like. Stole this photo from an intern’s blog:

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So that’s the lowdown on my life! I do still miss the people of Bungeni a lot, but I love living in the city. It’s great to be surrounded by so much activity and bustle. It’s so luxurious to have everything you could ever need/want within walking distance – instead of taking an entire day to travel and buy groceries, I can just pop across the street. Pretty wild. Yay city life!

More updates to come!

Sleep No More

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One of my best things I did in the States was see Sleep No More, an immersive theater performance in NYC that I’d heard amazing things about. It was the best. I’m going to talk about the time I got locked in a room with a character. And because this is me, I’ll tell it via animated gif. Prepare yourself.

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