Saturday, March 8, 2014

Gift giving in Thailand

The big day(s) for exchanging gifts in Thailand is New Years.  I went to a party on New Years Eve at the home of the director of English teachers in Nongkhai Area 2.  She invited Faith and me to have dinner with her extended family.  When we got there we saw the table of gifts and asked if there was an exchange.  I think we were supposed to know it would happen, it is so normal for Thais.  We quickly went to a store and bought gifts.  They were beautifully wrapped and back we went.
Each gift/giver receives a number.  There is a list where that is recorded.  The gift gets a tag with the number.  Sutheeporn chose the youngest child to start and he picked my number, 15 (from a bowl of folded papers, so it’s random).  I went and got my gift and gave it to him, with pictures taken.  Then, it was my turn and I picked number 9.  The person who brought that gift got it from the table and gave it to me and the process continues until all the gifts are given.  NO ONE opens his or her gift.  They laugh and say thank you and enjoy each person getting their gift. 
At both schools on Wednesday, we had another gift exchange.  Same procedure.  At one school students and teachers exchanged together, at the other it was a big lunch/party for the staff at 4 schools and the village leaders.  There, we also took breaks and danced and sang Karaoke.  It is a nice tradition that seems to focus on being together, having fun and the gift exchange is just a small part of it that provides excitement and a process. 
Table of gifts and Sutheeporn at her house on New Year's eve

gift giving 
 Receiving my gift

Faith receiving her gift

 Table of gifts at Ban Tha school
 We need warm hats now that it is cool season (at least in the morning)

Trying to do the Thai dancing with Paaw Wanit

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Back home

Coming home a year early seemed like an easy decision to make in March.  Actually, it was easy, my brother was in the end stages of lung cancer and I wanted some time with him before he passed away.  I got 16 days, most of them in the hospital, but 16 days nonetheless.  I got to tell him about Thailand and the experience of being a Peace Corp Volunteer and he shared some of his feelings about dying so young.  Since my condo was rented until July, I lived with Tom and his wife Jane.  We co-existed easily and I was able to be helpful in ways that gave me time with Tom and allowed Jane to try to continue to work.   
Tom died on March 26th and those first few weeks are a blur.  There were so many people in and out, lots of activity to plan a funeral, lots of stress and tears along with sharing memories and laughing together. 
Once we had the funeral and things started to settle down a little, I questioned my decision to leave Thailand permanently, rather than taking an emergency leave.  I missed life in Ban Soem and compared almost everything here to life there.  I missed my PC friends and the chickens and wonderful bi-weekly markets with fruit like none other, the friendly faces, travelling by bus, visiting Bangkok and Nong Khai and feeling comfortable in a foreign country, finally.  The first year was so hard and I finally had friends, a house I liked, acceptance in the village and confidence in living there.  Here, I was having trouble re-establishing friendships, finding activities to fill the days, feeling displaced in Jane’s home and generally restless.
My struggles have included trying to hold onto the life style I had in Thailand and live in Denver.  For me, it has proved impossible.  I can no more bring that life here than I could bring this life there 18 months ago.  I have had to surrender to the fact that my life is here and it was always going to be here at some point.  I have no idea what year 2 would have been like, but I know that I made the right decision.  I have developed much closer friendships with my sister-in-law and my nieces and nephew. And the 2 little great nephews never fail to make me smile and laugh. 
The rawness of Tom’s death has eased and now the deeper grieving has started and I think it is better to experience that here with family.
I will always treasure my time as a Peace Corp Volunteer in Thailand.  It was life changing and I hope with time I will be able to integrate some of the inner growth I experienced there, not the life-style but the values.  One of the things I plan for fall is working with refugees, helping them to learn English and make their new life here.
These past 18 months have been some of the most challenging and most rewarding and I feel lucky and blessed with family, experiences and friends

By brother, Tom

Back home in Colorado

Sunday, March 10, 2013


It was a bitter-sweet, but mostly sweet, evening leaving Ban Soem.  The community was even better leaving than it was coming.  Truly a generous, friendly, fun-loving group and I was one lucky Peace Corps Volunteer to have lived there.
From the party to a trip by van to say good-bye in Bangkok at the airport, over and aboove.

Sang was a member of my host family and spoke a fair amount of English.

Some of the students from Ban Tha school rode their motorcycles over to say hi (6th graders)

The beautiful girls from Ban Tha performed a traditional Thai dance

The staff from Ban Soem school and my felllow volunteers, Kyle and Faith

Dtom and Joom singing "Take Me to Your Heart"

Thais love to have their picture taken and this shows how much fun they have doing it

Cherished, generous friends, Thai and American

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Coming Home

I’ve known for a while that life can throw all of us curves we didn’t see coming.  I am ending my Peace Corps service early because of one of those curves.  So here is my reflection on leaving Thailand.
What started me thinking about writing this reflection was looking out my kitchen window this morning and seeing things differently than I did a few months ago and receiving messages from my fellow volunteers who I also saw so differently a year ago.
Last May when I moved into this house, I would look out the window and see people walking by who were looking at me.  Usually, when I smiled and said “sa wat dii ka” I got a smile in return but sometimes they laughed at me.  My Thai language skills are not the best.   People will laugh and giggle or  they will tell me that I speak very, very well.  I don’t know why they react in a variety of ways, but I do know that I see it all differently now.  Last year I was nervous all the time.  My guard was up because it was all so new and I was trying to be ready for anything.  Now, I am pretty relaxed and look out to see people going about their daily activities and I smile easily and accept the barking dogs and loud music and motorcycles and cows and chickens and ants and toads and every once in a while a snake.  
What I realize is that I have changed.  I got to live in a totally different culture for over a year.  I have learned my strengths and weaknesses and fears and faith. 
I can now sit among Thais and not understand the conversation, but be part of the group and if there is something I need to know, they will make sure I understand.
I have formed precious friendships with volunteers who are so much younger than me.  During training last year, it could be very lonely and difficult.  I did not feel especially close to anyone and had some fears about being really, really alone in Thailand.  That would have been a disaster as I quickly found I needed to be with other Americans on a regular basis.  The group in Nong Khai has been beyond what I could have wished for.  These people have become a family and we talk about where we might meet up in the states.
Lucky for me, they all like Colorado! I have also gotten to know many other volunteers and appreciate their amazing characters and the wonderful spirits they have shared so freely.
I have tremendous respect and gratitude for the Peace Corps and especially for the staff in Thailand.  They are so good at their jobs and have been supportive, encouraging, while letting us find our own way in our various sites.
I am now comfortable traveling by bus, tuk-tuk, bike, and sometimes I just have to ask for a ride in someone’s car.  But I know I can get where I want to go and can find a way to communicate with the Thai people.  A little effort and a smile is usually all it takes to engage help from a stranger.

All the lessons that I cherish have come from experience, stepping out of my comfort zone (because I had to), saying a prayer and taking a risk.  I have been rewarded with unbelievable kindness and cherished memories.    
There are a few activities planned before I leave on March 10th, so expect some pictures soon.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Scout Camp

Scout camp was held for 4 schools last week.  The 4th, 5th and 6th graders hiked to the camp site.  The all set up tents and stowed all their belongings.  They brought camp gear and cooking gear and their bedding.  There was a course set up with about 10 activities for each group to go through.  It included walking on ropes, crawling through mud, teamwork exercises and lots of water (splashing and balloons).  The students cooked their own dinner and breakfast and we all got to sample what they made.  They did a great job and had a lot of fun.  There was a campfire at night with skits and songs.
I was very impressed with how well organized the camp was and how busy the students were kept, with some free time for just hanging out and having fun. 
The king of Thailand was in the boy scouts in America and the tradition is very strong here with weekly scout days at school and the annual camps.
Sadly, no girl scout cookies.


crawling and ropes

school dog who walked to camp site with students, 3K and she is very pregnant.
She is the most exceptional dog I have ever known, everyone loves her and she returns the love.

scout uniforms for everyone

Friday, February 8, 2013


Just when I think I have made it over “the hump”, I find out I haven’t and don’t really know what “the hump” is.  At first I thought it was getting to site and knowing where I would do my Peace Corps Service.  Then, I thought it was once school started, then when language got easier, then with more time, then after the holidays.  All of those milestones have been significant, but I am still not “acculturated”.  
Living has gotten so, so much easier.  I can get most of what I need by myself now, what I need has changed, but that is probably part of the process.  I have friends in the village and I feel like a part of the school communities and accepted by the villagers.  Language is still a challenge, but many people know some English and I know some Thai and we can have brief, superficial conversations that feel okay.  I have a few PCV friends who I have come to love and we support each other well and consistently. 
So why now is there a feeling of being disconnected?  It seems to have come from nowhere and all of a sudden I feel like I am not making a contribution and wonder what my purpose here is.  The funny part of that is that I don’t especially want to go home right now either.  I miss home and family and friends, but I have come to really love many things here too. 
As promised by Peace Corps "Peace Corps service is the hardest job I have every loved."