A Travellerspoint blog

I'll take some Thai, Skill, Car Talk and a side of Mayo.

Chicago and Thai Muang were perhaps tied for the best places to be on Nov. 4.


So Adena and I finished our journey together in a small touristy town called Krabi where we enjoyed good meals, some live music (I played at a small jam session where they had a trumpet and was hesitantly introduced to the crowd in a thick Thai accent as "Trumpet Guy!"). We also visited a great Buddhist temple that is situated up on a mounted, reached only by climbing about 1,200 uneven and steep concrete stairs, each of them conveniently numbered to tell you how close you aren't. It goes without saying that I had a great time traveling with Adena and would travel with her anytime, as long as she brings tea.

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I since then I have been on a coastal national park just outside of the town of Thai Muang. Here, I have been teaching Enlgish and helping out with a few small marine projects. The people are nice, the beach is beautiful, and Barack is going to be president. So far, so good.

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By almost any standards, the accomadtions are almost luxurious. I have my own bungalow, and while the term "bungalow" has quite a wide spectrum, it is pretty much exactly as you imagined it when you first read the word. A bathroom, sink, Western toilet, double bed, two fans, and a few chairs make it more than comfortable. I could never get away with claiming to be "roughing" it. It does, however, have some personality…

First there are the ants. By my last count there were three competing colonies in and around – wait no, just in – my bungalow who are extremely efficient at cleaning up after any mess I make, and as long as they don't bite my feet and stay away from my pants (we had a disagreement about that once, but we worked things out) they are welcome any time. As a matter of fact, I would probably get some ants for an apartment back in the states if I was not looking to court a significant other in the not too distant future.

And then there is Click and Clack! No, I can't listen to Car Talk. Those are the names of the geckos who live with me. Click is the darker one, but these guys change color so it's hard to tell sometimes. Actually, I think in the bungalow there is also a Doug Berman, Michael Feldman, Garrison Keiler, Johnathan Shwarts, Carle Castle, Kye RIsdall, and Padjole.

Finally, there are the gigantic beetles. These things are huge and dumb. They get locked into rooms, fly around, and die the next morning. When these things get locked into a small tin shed, it's like a performance of Stomp, without the talent.

I find that the people here are perhaps the hardest to describe. They are delicate yet strong, relaxed yet hard working, poor yet not poor, and content yet uneasy. Above all they are friendly. Now, this stereotype is often placed on Thais and it is true that people are always smiling, but I have come to learn, though being suspicious at times, that in almost all cases it is truly a welcoming smile. With my broken Thai, I often stop in stores and simply start up conversations. People are quick to offer advice, help with the language, and simply ask about me. The staff at the park, to whom I teach English twice a day and many of whom live here in the park, immediately offered food, comforts and treated me as if I was part of the team.

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I teach one class to the office staff and one to the housekeeping staff (don't tell anyone, but they're my favorite). Things are very relaxed with young children often around, small interruptions and lots and lots of laughter. I learned very quickly that the key to making any of the teaching work was making a bit of a fool of myself with some Thai as to reduce tensions about English, stay laid back, almost never start on time, and that women learn in class, men learn in the back of pickup trucks (almost all interaction and English with the men is informal, but I think they are still picking up quite a bit).


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Any level of sustainability is hard to gauge. Sym is a worker who speaks excellent English and I am going to start working with her to perhaps continue teaching when I leave in three weeks. The effectiveness of teaching English is something I still struggle with. In terms of motivation, all the workers have a simple answer: they want to be able to communicate with tourists. It's not for a better job or to move to a better paying position, it's simply to communicate more easily with the few tourists who do come to the park quite infrequently.

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One of my most intriguing friendships is with a worker whose name is too long and complicated to write but translates to "skilled one". I'll refer to him from now on as Skill. I first met skill just hanging outside the main office waiting for the day to start. He was serious looking, thin, of dark complexion and with a mustache and old long sleeved shirt with padding in the elbows all of which gave the immediate impression of "expert", and that was before I knew his name. Skill doesn't speak much English at all and seemed to want nothing to do with me after our brief introduction through Sym. Ten minutes later, in the back of a pickup truck, Skill was asking me every name for the tools in English and teaching me the names in Thai. It turns out that he is one of the resident divers at the park, his wife is one of the most frequent laughers in my classes, and he lives two houses away from my bungalow. I will forever remember that on election day in '08, I was in a friendly open-water race with Skill back from the buoy mentioned above, passing by the biggest jellyfish – pardon me, the biggest fucking jellyfish – I have ever seen.

One last friend I have to mention before wrapping this up is Mayo. Mayo is a goddess - she cooks my food. Let me briefly summarize the reason for my admiration: Mayo is the mother of two, a three month old and a two year old. She comes to class every day as the most enthusiastic student, teaches the others, all while taking care of Furn (the two year old) literally during class, runs a small store in the Visitor Center, takes time out of her day to cook me both lunch and dinner, all Thai vegetarian including tofu, delivers it to my door each evening, won't let me clean up after lunch, and does it all with a consistant "Mai pen rai!" (no problem, no worries!). Mayo is great. The highlight of my day is sitting down to lunch on the floor of the visitor center each day after the lesson with the housekeeping staff. Things in Thai Muang are slow for my taste, but I am getting to meet some amazing people.

And now it's time to go diving...

Addendum (added two days after prior entry)

Patong sucks. I decided to do a little scuba diving this weekend as Thailand has great diving. The tourism here is unbearable, though. The town is the complete opposite of Thai Muang and quite frankly is different than anything I have ever seen. There are endless clubs, shops, resturaunts, hecklers, taxis, prostitutes (I mean "Thai Massage" providers), dealers, wheelers, flyers, buyers, beggars (few givers), scams and shams. It is not tourism I am against or even the heckling and constant barrage of offers, it's the desperation behind it. The business here is not benefiting the local people as I don't think they see much of a slice of the profits.

And the environment is taking a pretty big hit, too. I tried to book with an environmentally friendsly dive shop, but even they "farmed" me out to another agency with a dive master that fed the fish, etc... At one point, when he offered me the pufferfush which he had trapped, grabbed and therefore induced into an ever so photogenic panicked state of puff, I could only wave my hands - "no thank you". I couldn't tell if the lack of coral was due to the tsunami (understandable) or the careless dive industry. I hope the planned dive next week at a marine national park (with a hefty fee to dive) is better. Diving is unfortunately becoming a hard hobby to swallow for this Greenbaum.

So please don't come to Patong, unless of course you have a brilliant strategy for sustainable re-development and a distain for touching poor pufferfish.

Posted by Jazzob 00:33 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

B.O.

For those of you tired of election stuff, you can skip to the next entry. For those of you who can tolerate a bit more, here are my thoughts...

Blind optimism. It feels great to be blindly optimistic. Of course the election of Barack Obama to the presidency is not going to solve every problem and he is no silver bullet, but for at least today, or maybe for the next few weeks, I am going to let myself feel blindly, naively, amazingly, stupidly optimistic. Everything is going to be great. Things will turn around. Yes, we actually can and will. There is no doubt that things will not be perfect, but few times, maybe if ever at all, in at least my life, have I had the opportunity to feel truly historic optimism. Things are shittier than ever, and something really good actually happened.

It might end here with the election and just be awful or fall way short of expectations, but I don't care right now. Growing up I've read and heard about hard times, be them personal or national or global and how people waited, hoped and worked for something great to come and occasionally it did. I've read of keeping hope alive and of course I understand it and it feels good to hear about it and perhaps try and put myself in someone else's shoes who felt that way. But now it is our turn, at least a little bit. Something really great (in my view) actually happened amidst many awful and hard things. I'm going to relish it for a while, inflate its greatness as much as I please, before the hard stuff hits again.

Yet, a thought on something not so inflated…

I am adamant about separating synagogue and state, but thank heavens Barack won. Putting all the other good reasons aside (economic plans, healthcare plans, foreign policy strategy, etc…), it is so important that he won simply for the impact it will have on all the minority students out there. Not only for the literal reasons (parents and teachers explicitly pointing out the fact), but for the powerful subliminal message as well. Every child, especially minority children, born from this day forward for the next four years will grow up with the fact that the leader of the free world is black. They will be bombarded with images of a positive role model and an unquestionable fact that an African American is in perhaps the most significant leadership role in the world. This alone means a huge amount for kids, even if they aren't old enough to realize it. There a millions of kids who needed Obama to win for that reason alone. I can never suggest that I understand or feel the emotions of the black community (and other minorities) and those who have struggled for so many generations, but I can certainly appreciate, respect, and admire the emotions they must be feeling. I can't wait to hang a poster of President Obama in my classroom.

Posted by Jazzob 00:28 Comments (1)

Jau about a trek in the woods?

We went to the forest,
To see the mountain folk,
This was serious trekking,
Through real jungle, it was no joke.

We climbed into a truck,
A pickup with seats in the back.
There was no AC or seatbelts,
But hey, cut them some slack.

The ride started off as expected,
A bit bumpy but not insane.
But once we left the city,
Then the real ride came.

Taking bends at 50,
The truck was like a comet,
Over the hills we flew,
Causing Adena to eventually vomit.

So they let her move to the front,
The trooper that she was,
I was feeling ok,
But the mountains brought the buzz.

I started to hate this driver,
This man (boy) I had never met,
Did he even have a liscense?
He knew no rules to forget.

If the drive was a candidate,
He would certainly be McCain,
Both should not be driviing,
And both are clinically insane.

My ass was getting number,
My stomach in a befuddle,
This guy should write to NASA,
To provide training for the shuttle.

The guys who ride a barrel,
Over Niagra Falls,
Could never ride in this truck,
For this they do not have the balls.

The wheels finally stopped turning,
It was time to eat lunch as a group,
And what was put in my face?
Smelly, hot, pork soup.

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And so the trekking andventures in Chang Mai began. Adena (my sister) and I had met up in Bangkok to fly to Chang Mai, one of the larger tourist cities with plenty of guesthouses and trekking. After signing up at our guesthouse for a trekking trip the next morning, we went for a walk only to discover a more interesting guiding company. Pooh Eco-Tours (no, the guide was not Christopher Robin) offered a trek through a more remote part of Thailand, further from Chang Mai. The typical elephant rides and bamboo rafting was replaced with a homestay in a mountain village, more time spent on history and ecology, rougher trekking, and a more authentic experience. While the 3 hour truck ride was authentic in its own way, the rest of the trip was excellent.

After "eating" lunch, we began a hike down a steep, densely covered mountain slope with Sam, our guide from Pooh, and Nuk, a farmer from the Karen village we were going to. The four hour hike (everything in measured in time, as measures of distance are quite useless for mountain villages if you think about it) brought us through rice fields, down to a river, then back up to the Karen Village.

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The Karen people are amazing. They farm rice and other vegetables on what are literally the sides of mountains. Cows, chickens and pigs supplement their diet along with a bit of hunting. The road to the village is farely recent (ten years old) along with minimal solar electricity for each house, a few motorbikes, and a handful of trucks. Despite this small influx of technology the people lived quite traditionally with wood homes, subsistance farming, fire-cooked meals, children leaving school in their teens to work in the fields, and mostly traditional dress.

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The first night we stayed with Nuk and his family in what was a basic, raised, two-room home with a fire pit kitchen and animals hanging out beneath the kitchen (clean-up was easy as all we had to do was sweep our crumbs between the floor boards). This night gave us a great opportunity to learn about the culture, ask questions (through Sam), and enjoy a bit of rice whiskey. It was apparent that while life was hard and simple, the people were clearly content. As Nuk said when asked if he enjoyed life in the village,"Here, everything I need I get from the mountains. I don't need to worry about money." Their lives may certainly be more difficult than ours, but it would be wrong to categorize it as "worse".

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The two days took us into the mountains of Thailand where I would describe the environment as where the forest meets the jungle. While the jungle had lots of things that could kill you, we were in good hands becasue we had part of the jungle with us. Jau was also from the village and makes Bear Gyles look like a soccer mom. With a single machete-type knife he cut down bamboo trees, carves cups and utensils for us, and helped cook almost all of our meals. He had quads of steel. If I had to choose between his quads or Lance Armstrongs, I would choose Jau's every day of the week and twice the Sunday before the Tour. There was Jau, in his Walmart clearance rack crocs, old T-shirt, with his knife tucked into his small traditional pouch, carrying a twenty-foot bamboo log and a carton of eggs with a banana leaf cigarette tucked behind his ear, in his underwear.

Then his cell phone rang. Some things are inescapable. Needless to say, Jau was awesome and simply put, we would have died without him. After a night in a camp near the river, we hiked out through an amazing cave (no Petzl headlamps here, all bamboo torches) and up and out of the mountains. The experience was amazing and Adena lost only one toe. All kidding aside, the leaches, heat, humidity, rivers, bats, language barriers, cow shit, and pit toilets, etc...this trip was right up our alley.

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The trek has once again proven what I beleive is as much a law of the universe as gravity: the best things in life are earned.

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Posted by Jazzob 21:00 Archived in Thailand Comments (2)

Nong Khai

(Please excuse the gross mispellings and lacgk of pictures. The keyboard I am using is missing 40% of the characters and the connection is slow. I will update it as soon as I can)


View Trip A on Jazzob's travel map.

The monk leading the small ceremony indicated that he wanted me to come forward. I inched forward and placed my right hand on the large bowl of food as he had indicated. This was a time to follow directions.

I plunged the knife deep into the skin knowing that in order to be successful I would have to get it to bleed. The knife work was working, but for the next step I would need a different tool for the job.

The fish was gross. It had what looked like wood sticking out of its mouth, eyes popping out, and enough blackened spice all over it to make it look repulsive. As it sat there on the grill, I knew it had probably come from the muddy (yet mighty) Mekong River merely hundred of feet away. The conglomeration of strong and potent sea food odors was overwhelming.

With no plan and very few English speakers, the challenges were beggining to pile up. I wondered if I would be up to the challenge. And that was before the cobra...

Arriving in Nong Khai was pretty nerve racking as I had little idea of what to expect. A good sign, however, was that Dawn, a long time volunteer, was on the same mini-bus to the Openmind Training center that I was. Upon arrival I quickley met the staff of locals ad volunteer that ran and managed Openmind Projects, a grassroots program that organizes projects throughout Thailand, Laos, Nepal, and Cambodia. The cast:

Sven, a Swedish consultant, started the program to empower local people to benefit from tourism through learning English, computer literacy and sustainable, community-based eco tourism. Toto (or TT) is second in command and is the first Thai to be a part of the program back when it began. Despite few "academic credentials", Toto speaks both Englsih and Thai knows as much about IT and computer technology than any Bucknell computer science major (that is a compliment to Toto, not an insult to Bucknellians). Nik, Suriya, Khai and Orn provide both technical support and lead the training for volunteers in Thai culture, language and teaching. All three also do office and computer work. Ram and Dawn are both longtime volunteers who provided great companionship and advice (plus, Ram is a vegetarian...very helpful). Along with this crew was three or four local teens (18 or so) who served to both help us in teaching and speaking and hung around the center to learn English. They included Moss, Boom, Naan, and Gui amoung others.

Joining me in the training were three other volunteers: Ben, Andreas, Gameron and Bree (in their late teens and twenties from Malaysia/Germany/US/US respectively).

Through the training we learned basic Thai language and culture. Most exciting was when we were given a list of words and had to go into a market by ourselves and, using what little Thai we knew, ask people the words' meaning in Thai. "Nee riok waa aroi?" has become my official favorite phrase ("What is this called [in Thai]?"). People love a farang (westerner) spek their language and it simply provides a great opportunity for both parties to laugh with (oh please..at) each other. I would like to specifically thank the young woman selling jewlery in the first walkway who insisted on giving me almost my entire list of words.

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After this adventure, we met up for lunch at a small riverside resturaunt just outside the market. Nik had already ordered for us and on the table were three, large, wood-stuffed, blackened, Mekong fish. They were delicious. When opened up the fish had the tastiest, white meat I have had, completly in contrast to the outside appearance.. What can I say, never judge a book...

Also part of our training was Thai cooking. After going to the market (on our own) to shop for vegetables for which we only were given the Thai names, we brought back our produce and got to work on some Thai classics. It was my job to make Papaya salad. Equally as important as the 7 hot chillis was to juice, or "bleed", the papaya before peeling it. Toto quickly showed me the lateral slicing motion and subsequent artful slicing to obtain those long nice strips we all know (and if you don't know, go order some..it's good). I, however, quickly surrendered the knife for a modern peeler. Oh, the wonders of technology.

As our training ended, Bree, Cameron and Ben were off to their placement about two hours away at a remote village. Sven invited me to come and so I joined them. Two hours in the back of a pick-up truck later, I had seen the city streets change into beautiful countriside in which a small, basic village lay next to the Mekong. As I walked around the village it was the first time that I felt I could actually do this: go into a village on my own and converse with the people and feel moderatly comfortable volunteering there. While I have not yet been to my placement (which will be a bit different in a small marine national park), it felt good to be only slightly nervous and mainly confident- a testiment to our training. While I was wondering how I would fair at my placement, it was time for us to leave Cameron, Ben, and Bree, the latter of whom was rightfully nervous about the language barrier, loose plan for the project and the critters. On the drive out we saw a cobra.

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The next morning Gui and the others invited me and Dawn to a Buddist ceremony to offer the local monks food. I nervously accepted demanding of Suriya, "You better take care of me." Dressed for a piano recital, I entered the small temple with the others, shoeless, with food, and barely on time. Excited about foriegners joining them, the thrity or sopeople quickly waved us to the front of the small, three-walled sanctuary. A "bima" (excuse this comparison, but I can only reference what I know) of sorts raised only slightly was occupied on the left by a beautiful golden Buddha and various incence and such, next to which sat about a dozen monks ranging in age from about 18 to seventy five. As the serious, yet relaxed ceremony proceeded, we respectfully sat and bowed as the monks spoke and chanted and eventually got up to put the food we had brought in big bowls.

(I must stop here to address an issue that may have crossed a few of your minds. You might be thinking,"but wait, isn't Ken Jewish? What about no Gods before me, and Mordechai, and no idols? Well, I am quite sure that another Jewish teaching is to love and respect thy neighbor and I am quite confident that this falls into that category. Either way, I'm sure Buddha can put in a good word for me with God this weekend when they sit down to watch the ball game.)

After filling the bowls, the head monk motioned for me to come slightly forward and join the ten or so others who would be offering the bowls to each of the monks. I placed my right hand on the bowl and bowed my head slightly with the others and waited for the prayer to begin and end. That was a pretty long 5 minutes. What was I going to have to do? Say a prayer? Give a sermon? As it turned out, as I had quite honestly trusted, the monk had not put me in any sort of embarassing position. Handing to the bowl to one of the monks was enough to complete my duties and I was honored to have had such an experience.

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That night, my Thai friends and I enjoyed the rest of the festival on the rivier with the music, food, touring other temples, and fireworks. The next day, it was time to leave Nong Khai. While the global economy is in turmoil, the Greenbaums in Thailand Index has just grown 100%. I'm off to see Adena in Chang Mai...

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Posted by Jazzob 06:31 Comments (1)

Number One Super Guy

(The title is not self-fulfilling. Google it with quotes. And if you don't need to Google it, then you know who you are)


View Trip A on Jazzob's travel map.

"Pae!"

"Yes, but which floor is the hostel on?"

"Pae!!" the doorman/security guard repeated.

"One, two, three, four?" I indicated the floor levels with my fingers.

"Pae!!!"

After riding the elevator for a few minutes, it turned out that "Pae!" meant "third floor", either that or "leave me alone." After a 16 hour plane ride I was finally in Hong Kong. While I didn't get ino the hostel until about 11:20pm - excuse me, 23:30 - local time, I had already had quite a bit of fun.

I decided to give up my valuable ailes seat for a middle seat on the plane. Why would I do that, you ask? (many of you who know me already know the answer.) Merav and I had started talking at JFK. As it turned out, she was flying to Hong Kong, too. She is a beautiful, smart, funny, young lawyer living in Hong Kong (did I mention that she ordered a vegetarian meal?). She told me that she is Israeli, but I think that's a lie; she's actually from heaven. Needless to say, we go to know each other well over the course of the flight, went out for dinner the next evening (after the hostel episode), watched the Hong Kong skyline light show, and went to a jazz club. Hong Kong was fun.

Earlier that day I had breakfast with two guys from the hostel. Ben (from Utah), Ronald (from Amsterdam), and I were eating in a second floor fast-food resturant when a guy outside the window started climbing a bamboo pole. He was up at least 15 feet and had literally leaned the pole against the building like a ladder (minus the ladder) and climbed up. His partner passed him another one from below and he proceed to tie them together to create scaffolding. "There aren't many regulations here," Ben said, making me even more confident in the quali of my breakfast. "Yeah, lots of those guys fall to their deaths," Ronald added in. Who knew one could grow to appreciated OSHA. Even more amazing was later when I saw an entire skyscraper surrounded with this bamboo scaffolding. I guess in someways it very much is reflective of how the old meets the new in a place like Hong Kong.

In addition to these adventures I was able to see a decent amount of Hong Kong in one day by simply walkin' around. I took the tram up the Peak, the highest point with a great view, took a ferry across to Kowloon, and found the zoo (which I think was free because I turned into what I thought was a park and was suddenly staring at a ringed tailed lemur). Aside from being offered cheap Rolex watches constantly and hashish (twice in 5 minutes), it was great just walking the streets.

I'm in a guest house in Bangkok now and tomorrow I'm heading to Nag Khai. And Thailand Chapter 1 begins....

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Posted by Jazzob 06:29 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

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