A Travellerspoint blog

November 2008

In Light of Recent Events....

Having taken the 10 hour train ride from Krabi (in the south) up to Bangkok, I was greeted with the news that the airport had been shutdown due to protests. My friend, Lindsey, who was to meet me there from the States was stranded in Hong Kong. Lindsey and I got in touch and decided that we would meet in Kuala Lumpur (and subsequently Singapore), a location she could fly to and that I could get to even if all the airports in Thailand were shutdown (train, bus, taxi, horse, swim, walk, whale-shark...you know, the usual). From my guesthouse 20 minutes from the airport, I went back to the train station. In Bangkok long enough to take a piss.

Having taken the 10 hour train ride from Bangkok down to Krabi (still in the south), I was greeted with the news that out next destination following Singapore had suffered an awful attack. India. For the benefit of everyone, I am no longer taking overnight train rides as they seem to bring only bad luck in the morning.

More seriously, I am safe and the protests are quite localized around the airports in Bangkok. While many tourists are starting to scramble and are a bit peeved about the airport delays, most people seem more discouraged about the unseasonal rain at the beaches. My overall opinion of the protestors is "good for them". The government is largely corrupt and it is fascinating to see a strong public voice at work. (A brief history: Prime Minister T was largely corrupt and fled to the UK out of which he was recently kicked out. Prime Minister S, a puppet of the former Prime Minister T, recently flew to the north of the country right as the protests started. He can't come back; the people in yellow shirts you see on TV protesting want new elections and a new government. The military is caught in the middle, wanting new elections, but the generals not wanting to lose their jobs. From what I can tell, things are likely to tighten up and escalate more now than in the past few months. The airport stuff is the real deal.)

Anyway, now that my plans are slightly up in the air, it's time for a little interactive blogosphere action. While I reserve the right of veto power (a does Lindsey, being as that she is my travel buddy for right now), I'll throw the decision out to you...where should I travel next? Any ideas? I have a few preferences myself, but I like you guys (most of you). Respond via comment or email kengreenbaum@gmail.com

(and for those of you readers in a particular collegiate demographic, "Nudie Bar" is not a country)

Peace out!

NOTE (added 3/12/08): After reflecting a bit on the above entry, it occurred to me that its light tone may have been perceived as ambivilant or even inconsiderate of both current events. That was never intended. Both situations were (and are) serious, with the events in India particularly grave. The sadness, surprise, and my high degree of unease and concern for the Thai people and victims of the attacks in India were not meant to be lost or covered up in the above entry. My apologies to anyone who was offended by any unintended tones, or lack thereof.

Posted by Jazzob 00:04 Comments (2)

Finding Nemo

A marine adventure as my time in Thai Muang, and Thailand, winds down.

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We were staring at each other both equally perplexed at the situation. I was standing there soaking wet with dozens of tropical fish at my feet, tied in little plastic bags like the goldfish you get at a carnival. He was at the steering wheel of the small fishing boat not knowing what to say. I had, after all, been dumped onto his small boat with loads of fish only moments earlier. “Ken, you stay longboat. OK?” my friend Wut had said as the little red dingy from the national park pulled away.
“No problem!” I said as if it was my day job. And there were two. Just me and the fisherman on his little wooden boat. With the mystery black bag.

The morning had started off by speeding around the ocean searching for buoy lines, attaching the buoys, speeding off to the next site (using GPS), snorkeling, finding the line, attaching another buoy, so on and so forth. The buoys were going to be used for…oh that’s right, I had no clue.

After about four hours, Skill stopped the dingy about 100 yards out from the beach avoiding the breakers. Wut and I swam in to a scene I was not used to on the quite beach front of Thai Muang. There were about 40 chairs set up, all of them full with reporters, civilians, and all of the staff from the national park. There was also a man in a military uniform at a podium giving a speech. Under the shade of a tree were about twenty bags of tropical fish and two tanks filled with rare giant clams. I had known we were releasing some fish today from the nearby research center, but I hadn’t expected the pomp and circumstance.

“Ken!” The deputy who was in charge of my volunteer work was coming up to me in a nervous quite whisper. “The director will hand you a giant clam, then go to the boat, then release the clam, ok?” I hadn’t even taken off my fins.

“Ok, so-“

“And take a picture too! Here give me those,” he said as he took my finds and mask. A fun day of snorkeling and swimming had just had the pressure raised a bit. The deputy, I assumed, was the man giving the speech at the podium who had more medals than General Schwarzkopf. There was also the issue of getting the clam to the boat. Breakers of 3-6 ft didn’t have me worried, except that I would be doing it with a rare giant clam in front of forty people. And cameras. Ok, no problem, I said to myself starting to formulate a game plan for the swim. And then everyone broke into applause. The speech was over.

To my relief I was not the only person receiving a clam. As a matter of fact, I didn’t receive a clam at all. Everyone and anyone who wanted to give a bag of fish to someone did so (actually, I didn’t see any clams exchanged). An older farang approached me with a bag of fish and seemed as confused as I was. “I think I give this to you?” he said.
“I think you’d be right!” I replied as I took the bag.
“This one here is Pete. Can you make sure he makes it out there safe?” he joked, pointing to one of the small fish.
“I’ll remind him to swim down, not up.”
“Great. Where are you from?” I told him about volunteering in Thailand, what I did at the national park, and that as far as I knew I was supposed to set up buoys the entire day. He was from the UN, having something to do with tourism and apparently fish. As we followed the crowd to the beach I was relieved again to see that Skill had pulled the red dingy up to shore so that Wut and I wouldn’t have to shuttle the fish back and forth. We set off to the fishing boat waiting 200 yards out, which is where I believe this story started…

So it was me and him. I’m sure he was thinking how great a blog entry this would make, too. Seeing as that he didn’t speak English and his Thai was too quick for me to understand, we each found something to do. I organized the bags of fish and he smoked some tobacco. I still didn’t know what was in the big black bag that had been loaded onto the fishing boat along with all the fish. What could it be?

After about 20 minutes the dingy came back from who knows what and someone I didn’t know yelled, “Ken, you release fish, ok? Fifty meters out. No problem!”.
“Ok. Just…anywhere?”
“Release the fish. Yeah. Fifty meters!” Hey, if they wanted me to do it, no problem. But no guarantees. I mean, these fish didn’t stand much of a chance anyway. They would have to swim through 30 feet of open water down to the reef and they already had the two worst characteristics a fish could have: tiny ‘n shiny. But the fisherman pulled away, steered the boat fifty meters out and I began opening the bags into the ocean. I laughed to myself as I realized the irony of releasing rare fish from a fishing vessel.

After a rendezvous with the red dingy, we continued setting more buoys in the pouring rain. It was fun, but I was getting tired. We couldn’t find the last line snorkeling, so it was time to don our dive gear. Wut (a dive master) got in and headed down, saying that I would meet him down there. With a dive computer low on battery, no idea where my dive buddy was, and struggling with the gear, I embarrassingly said no-go to the diving. At this point Wut had surfaced and had found the line, but I was still embarrassed ( I learned from the best and I don’t like having any troubles diving, especially simple things). Growing tired of finding buoys and having spent almost 8 straight hours on the water, I had had enough.
“I’m going swimming, boys,” I announced.
“You go swim?” Skill and Wut gave me quizzical looks. Skill and I had done a swim before, but that was 1k boats to spot us. This was about 50% farther in a steady downpour.
“Yeah. Mask, fins. No problem. Mai lom,” I said, indicating that there was no wind.
“Ok, we check on you later.”
“Sounds good. See ya later!” I said as I rolled of the small boat. The current was easy, there was little wind and I had fins and a wet suit for extra buoyancy. It felt good to exercise. After a great day, I enjoyed a slow easy swim to shore, feeling the cool fresh rain on my face as I swam through the warm clear ocean below.

P.S. (because I can’t end like a James Peterson novel) – the mystery bag had a fuel canister. The national park had “paid” the fisherman for his service that day by providing him something more useful than money. I wonder what the blog entry of ThaiGuyFisher43 looks like?

Posted by Jazzob 06:02 Comments (2)

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)

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