Friday, December 23, 2011

Sawadeeka Bprae Taet Thai

Has it been 4 months already? A few weeks ago I felt ready to pack up and go home to my family. I was homesick- in need of a hug from my grandmother, hungry for bagels and pizza and New York City’s merciless winter air. With only a few hours until I am finally home though, I cannot believe it’s already time to say goodbye.

I am currently sitting in the airport in Korea, waiting for the 14 -hour flight that will take me home to my family. I'm excited, I really am. There is so much to look forward to- Christmas, my last semester in college and my mom and brothers living only an hour away from me in New Jersey! They moved to New Jersey from Ecuador the day after I left for Thailand. My heart fills up with joy when I think about it but a big part of me is not ready to leave. I feel like in Thailand, there is still so much left to explore, so much more to learn and even more to reflect on.

These past four months, I've learned and loved so much. In the classroom, I've had the opportunity to develop opinions about topics that before this experience, I knew nothing about. Not only that, so much of what I learned was reinforced through excursions and opportunities to directly connect with the people and places we read about in our textbooks or heard about through lectures. I am thankful for this unique learning experience and all of the people that have opened themselves up to share incredible stories of devotion, struggle and survival. Despite moments of discomfort and confusion, these past four months have been the happiest months of my life full of adventures, beautiful people and eye-opening experiences.

Saying goodbye has never been easy for me. I do not want to lose the meaningful connections I've made with the people, the culture, this beautiful country. But the connections have been made and for that, I am so incredibly thankful. I don't mean to overuse the word "beautiful" but that is just what this experience has been- absolutely stunning in every possible way.

Below, I’ve included some of my last-minute Thailand adventures. Thailand, thank you for your warmth, your smiles, your huge heart. Di chan rak kun ka maak maak!

Ya pronto llego Nueva York.

Flight of the Gibbon

I won a raffle at Payap International Day and got to the zip line through the the Thai rainforest.

Playing with tigers on my friend Loretta's birthday.

I've developed a love for Thai pop music, haha. My friends and I went to see Palmy, a famous Thai singer in Chiang Mai last week. We danced all night to lyrics we didn't really understand and it was so much fun!

Loretta and I joined some of our Thai friends on their annual winter break trip to Pai. It was the first time Loretta and I got the chance to get around on a motor bike.

Man made ferris wheel!

My roommate Lookpla and I

Saying Goodbye
Thai and Southeast Asian Studies Program Fall 2011.
And finally the person that was always there to shine up everybody's day, Jayje!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

สู้ๆ = Finish Strong

Sometimes I forget how much I love to write and how incredibly therapeutic it is. After feeling like I’ve been drowning in tons of research and academic writing, I have made little time to sit down and reflect on my feelings. I am going home in two weeks, my last day of school is on Friday and as the departure date approaches, I am feeling overwhelmed, anxious and even a little frustrated. Despite all of the negative emotions that lie on the surface though, inside my soul is experiencing a level of thankfulness I've never felt before...

I write to you in the midst of finals prep. I spent the week writing papers, preparing presentations, doing research and did hours of work every single day. This week will be quite similar as I prepare for another research paper, another presentation and exams! Woo hoo to the last week of school!

“An entire generation is vanishing in the shadows of AIDS” - Reporter Alice Park.

The past couple of days I’ve been working on my final integration paper for my service-learning course. Thursday was my last day with Grandma Cares and as I reflected on my experience, I felt so proud and thankful to have been given the opportunity to work with not only such a beautiful organization but an incredible person like Khun Hope.

Soy Chicana from Tejas! she says. Hope or Esperanza is Mexican-American and has lived in Chiang Mai for over 40 years dedicating her time to easing the hardships of rural children and families who have been affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I have not written much about Khun Hope but Ella es la jefa- she is the boss and it is through her leadership and guidance that Grandma Cares continues to change the lives of over 70 families in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Four months ago, Khun Hope and I sat down and established goals regarding the website. Our small-scale goals became updating the website to be visually attractive as well as easy to navigate, concise but also informational. Our primary goal though was to gain sponsors for our 32 children still in need of sponsors. Throughout my experience with Grandma Cares, I dedicated my time to getting the word out there through casual conversations with classmates, Chiang Mai strangers, the website, Facebook Fan page and brochures. Whether it was teaching at the Bon Mae Yoi school or working in the office, I've had many positive experiences and as a human services student, I am happy to have spent 4 months learning the way an NGO works, especially one so committed to facilitating Quality of Life. In the end, I think that I as an individual have not made a huge impact on the issues Grandma Cares aims to address but I can only hope that what I did do serves as a positive step toward making Grandma Care's mission a reality.

I leave Grandma Cares with a new outlook on HIV/AIDS, not only as a disease that affects the person who has it but also as something that affects a population of children and families that are often overlooked. In Thailand, many children are orphaned as a result of HIV/AIDS often left in the care of aging grandparents who don’t have the financial or physical stability to care for their grandchildren. Through their sponsorship program, Grandma Cares provides children with the funds they need to continue their education. And through vocational training, they offer grandparents and relatives emotional, financial and psychological support in an effort to keep families that are often torn apart due to HIV/AIDS, the opportunity to stay together.

To learn more about Grandma Cares:

To stay updated on what Grandma Cares is doing, be sure to "like" our Facebook Fan Page: Grandma Cares Partnership Program.

สู้ๆ or “su su” means “finish strong!” in Thai. As I prepare for finals and the inevitable and dreaded task of saying goodbye, I am trying my best to stay strong (and focused!). We are all going a little crazy, I think, trying to “finish strong” but also get the most out of our last bit in Thailand. This weekend, I say goodbye to a handful of people that have opened my mind up to perspectives and ideas I never even considered. So much has happened in the last 4 months and together we’ve laughed, learned, loved and supported each other with hugs and therapeutic conversations in moments of overwhelming stress and sadness.

School ends on Friday and I will be in Thailand for 7 days with no responsibilities- just me and the country that has given me more than I ever imagined.

Y finalmenete, el 23 Diciembre termina unas de las mejores experiencias de mi vida.

Grandma Cares Partnership Program

Khun Hope and I on Dec. 2 at Payap University's International Day Fair selling scarves made by the Padaeng Village Women's Weaving Group.

Last Day at the Bon Mae Yoi School

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bangkok's Red Light District:

Photo by friend Jenica Baldwin

Even though prostitution in Thailand was made illegal in 1960, sex work in Thailand continues to be a widespread practice, existing often unmasked among the public eye. On an academic excursion, my classmates and I visited Bangkok's red light district. Everything I've been learning in my Economics of the Sex Industry class suddenly came to life. Here, drunk foreign men dominated the streets and beside them- young Asian women with numbers pinned to their exposing outfits. Although prostitution is perceived as a human rights violation by many, there is also the perception that prostitution is a legitimate business with willing workers and economic organization. As I walked along the brightly lit streets of Bangkok though, I could not help but feel that every woman and man I saw in search of their next customer was deserving of a job/occupation that did not objectify their being, risk their health or well-being.

This is the youtube channel for the Thai and Southeast Asian Studies Program. Here you can find videos from our trip to Mae Chaem, the Goldern Triangle and Bangkok/Pattaya:

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Night in Burma

Last week, I noticed that my multiple-entry Visa required I leave Thailand before Nov. 17 to avoid any fees. What I thought would be a huge inconvenience turned into a spontaneous and interesting adventure to Burma (also known as Myanmar) with a few friends from my program.

Last Saturday, Sam, Abel, Kathryn, Alex and I took a 4-hour bus ride to Thailand’s town of Mae Sai on the Thai-Burma border. We arrived in the early evening but the border was already closed. Thankfully, we found a hotel room in Mae Sai that fit all of us for just $3 each!

The next morning, completely unaware of what we were going to do, where we were going to eat and spend the night, we walked over the bridge to Burma’s Shan State and watched the cars going into Burma switch from the left side of the the road to the right side. Only a short walk away, this part of Burma was much different than Thailand’s Mae Sai, with neglected roads and sidewalks, smaller buildings but more opportunities to see tall green trees and natural surroundings. It was kind of bizarre- walking such a short distance and then being in a completely different country where driving on the other side of the road was actually an indicator of such powerful differences between the two. (In the 1970s, Gen. Ne Win supposedly made the change from the left side to the right side of the road because a fortune-teller advised it, saying that the country was moving too much to the left, politically).

Trying to get over the fact that we had just walked into Burma, we cluelessly searched for food and walked right into a crowded market. A bunch of taxi drivers approached us to take us to the very few tourist attractions their town had, showing us pictures as a way to communicate. One driver though had been walking and following us since we’d gone through immigration and aggressively approached us, reassuring us in pretty good English that he could show us around and take us to a cheap place to eat. Completely unaware that he was a taxi driver though, we rejected his offer.

After lunch, we got a ride from another driver to the replica of the Shwedagon Pagoda and as we drove away, I noticed that the man who had originally approached us at the market was watching us. Then, my friend said she saw him flip us off. It was at that moment that I realized we had rejected guidance from a taxi driver. We had unintentionally insulted a man, felt that we had been over-cautious and decided that on our way back we would look for him and apologize. When we finally found him, he wanted nothing to do with us, calling us “rude Americans” and accused us of discriminating against him because of his dark skin and dirty clothes.

The five of us left him feeling quite shitty about reinforcing his feelings about Americans. I couldn't shake the idea that I had made somebody feel so badly about himself but in the end, I know that our actions were a result of complete miscommunication. Although, I do not blame us for not going with a stranger after being in the country for less than ten minutes, we concluded that when traveling its important to be cautious but not overcautious or so quickly dismissive of other people.

My friends and I decided that we just had to accept this experience as a lesson learned and after a couple of overwhelming hours, it was time to look for a hotel. In our search for a driver who could somewhat understand us, we met Sai Sai who spoke a little English and was also fluent in Thai. He took us to a near-by hotel, and kept assuring us that it was the most secure place in town. Once we settled in, Sam, Kathryn, Abel, Alex and I had no idea what to do. We had come to Burma with no plan, to a town with very little foreigners. Sai Sai waited for us though and was being so kind and helpful about showing us around. We sat with Sai Sai in front of the hotel for a bit when my friend Kathryn finally asked him to just show us his town and even asked is we could go around his house. Sai Sai started to laugh and seemed so surprised that we wanted to just hang out with him. After some contemplation, we jumped on Sai Sai’s blue tuk tuk and he took us to his house where he lived with his parents. His father greeted us with the big smile they both shared and a bottle of homemade whiskey! And before we knew it, their coffee table was filled with sticky rice, homemade soup, salad, fruit and water.

When I decided to go to Burma, I was not sure what to expect but I was happy to find a family that was so willing to show us the good they had to offer. Although we did not openly or directly discuss Burma's political situation, Sai Sai and his family expressed their desire to leave Burma and move to Thailand "because in Thailand there is a good king," he said.

Sai Sai and his Taxi!
This is a picture of the replica of the Shwedagon Pagoda at night. The original is in Yangoon, Burma's capital. It is where Buddhist monks gathered and organized the Saffron Revolution in 2007.

At 5am on Sunday, my friends and I sat on the high steps leading up to the Shwedagon Pagoda replica and watched the sun rise over Burma, a country that has experienced so much suffering and injustice.

Monsoon season is over in Thailand and nights in Chiang Mai are getting cooler. Only one more month until I am home in time for Christmas. Time is moving so fast, ah!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Loi Krathong

It was a river full of people's apologies to the Goddess of the River and a sky full of people's wishes to the universe. From Wednesday to Friday, Chiang Mai celebrated the Loi Krathong Festival, an annual tradition of Northern Thailand. My friends and I gathered by the Ping River and released lanterns of fire into the sky. It was beautiful and refreshing.


It was an incredible sight.

In Thai, "Loi" means to float and "Krathong" is what you see in the picture above. A few days before the festival people gather to make their krathongs out of banana leaves, flowers and plants. Instead of teaching a full English lesson on Thursday, my third grade class taught me how to make my own krathong while we sat outside. Here is the one I made!

My friends and I praying to the Goddess of the River. Before placing the krathong in the river, the people pray to the Goddess of the River, thank her for everything she provides and also apologize for treating her poorly. Money is also placed in the krathong. Many children living in poverty go into the river during the festival in search for the money.
My roommate Lookpla before placing her krathong in the river.
Releasing the lanterns represents the releasing of all the bad in one's life, what people want to let go of.

Loi Krathong was a refreshing festival and I am happy that I got to experience it. Despite the nerve-wracking fire crackers all over the place, the festival brought a sense of closure and renewal.

This weekend I am off to Burma.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Mai Pen Rai Ka

I’ve been wanting to update my blog for a few days now but I’ve been distracted by endless pages of reading and the haunting thought that May will be the end of my undergraduate career, ay dios.

Before anything, I want to say that Koh Chang was significantly soothing in many ways but one. I returned to my dorm room on Saturday morning feeling rested, relaxed and ready for the second half of the semester. The first morning on the island, I left my inexpensive bungalow and trekked down the mountain it settled on to lay under the sun, next to a perfectly-heated pool. Right behind this pool-the most crystal water I’ve ever seen. Hoping to get a tan, I lay there and felt happy that I could finally finish A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. For the past couple of weeks, I’d been reading it before bed but falling asleep after a mere few pages. To finally lay down with absolutely nothing to do but that felt really, really good!

After only minutes though, I could not help but feel a sense of guilt- a feeling difficult to shake during the remainder of my trip. I am not sure if “guilt” is really even the right word but I am having trouble identifying what it was that was making me uncomfortable. I think my main concern was that in Koh Chang, I was not a student. I was a tourist indulging in the inexpensive pleasures easily accessible to me in Thailand. I spent 7 days on an island that revolved around “farangs,” the Thai word for foreigner, where knowing Thai was not necessary because almost everybody spoke some English and getting pizza or a burger wasn’t a mission for it was available at every restaurant.

The Thai and Southeast Asian Studies program aims to teach its students about Thailand’s culture, social struggles, history and traditions. My inability to completely enjoy myself when hanging out on this beautiful island surrounded by so many other foreigners was not so much strange, it was a result of everything I’ve been learning in the classroom. Even though I am here trying to learn the language and the culture as much as I can, in the end I know that I am still a foreigner and essentially, a tourist. During this trip that feeling tripled but I also realized that my friends (and I am sure other foreigners there too) and I had a really special advantage. We understood the importance of keeping the effects of tourism in Thailand in mind and continued to practice cultural competence and respect.

In the end, my time in Koh Chang was a time of reflection but also a much-appreciated and scenic break. I had a wonderful time and finished reading a book that is now a part of my all time favorites! I spent the mornings on the beach, reading, eating and my nights watching the stars, drinking Chang beer with some of people in this program that I have developed very meaningful friendships with. I even developed an unexpected addiction to banana roti, a really sweet and delicious desert in Thailand, which is strange considering my very inactive sweet tooth!


On another note, because the past couple of months have been filled with so much excitement, suppressing feelings of anxiety regarding post-graduation life has been easy. During my fall break though, I decided that it was time for me to make some moves. Deadlines for graduate school and other alternatives are right around the corner. Over sticky rice and chicken, I nearly broke down when my friend said she was ready to go into the “real world,” people speak of so often. Initially, my reaction was “I’m not” but then I was like “oh shit, I should probably start thinking about it too.” I am still not sure about a lot of things but I have made one productive decision and that is that within the next few days, I will complete my application for City Year New York, an Americorps program for the year after graduation.

My decision to apply to this particular program was highly influenced by my experience volunteering abroad. As I mentioned in my very first blog entry, I am in Thailand to learn from the people of Thailand and show appreciation for the community that has welcomed me by getting involved in community projects. I am not in Thailand to impose my values and ideals onto others. That does not mean that I will or never have shared my opinion or values, but I would never force anybody to think the way I do. I am also not here because I pity the people of Thailand or feel that I, as an American have something incredible to offer. Quite frankly, I don't think I do. I am still working on developing my own ideas and opinions. Moving on to my original point though (I can't stop rambling!), after this experience I am still unsure of where I stand regarding international service and service within one's own culture. In other words, my perspective on where I want to be is bound to change. While living in Thailand though, I've been inspired by the efforts of people to facilitate change within their own communities. Although I don’t expect to change the world, I feel motivated to get involved at home, in neighborhoods and schools similar to my East New York childhood home. I want to learn more about the city I grew up in, how it works and what needs to be changed in order for all to equally benefit from our right to education.

With so many other thoughts taking over my mind, my feelings of homesickness aren't as intense as they were a few weeks ago. I still miss my family so much and continue to feel thankful for their supports and encouragement during my semester abroad. Only 6 weeks remain until I leave this incredible place. The thought of it makes me sad but I am excited to spend the next few weeks exploring the rest of beautiful Chiang Mai.

To my friends at New Paltz also preparing for their last semester of college, I am keeping all of you in mind and wishing you all luck as you too explore what it is you want. And if any of you are feeling the way I am, mai pen rai ka. It means "no worries," "its nothing," or "take it easy." The phrase is heard all over Thailand and when I've expressed my concerns to my Thai friends, they simply say this and remind me that no matter what, it's alll good and it will all work out.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Halloween in Thailand:
Hours before, my friends and I decided it would be fun to celebrate halloween in Thailand. With last-minute costumes and ridiculous makeup, we went off and enjoyed Chiang Mai's energetic night life!

I am back from break and have returned to a much busier schedule than the last half of the semester but I have not forgotten about my blog and will be updating tomorrow! For now, I thought I would share a picture and say that I hope my family and friends in New York are staying warm despite the snow :)