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6 posts categorized "Caroline Forsey"

The End of a Semester

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            Impressively, I was given a whole 16-hours to prepare my goodbye speech (in contrast to my Valentines Day speech, of which I was given 20 minutes notice). Teacher Ying appeared before me late Wednesday afternoon, flustered and breathing heavily (I’m not quite sure why she felt the need to run to me), and said, “Just talked to foreign language department… they want you to…” And here she paused and laughed to herself, unsure of quite how to say it, while I was gripped in panic. Wanted me to what? Put on a dance for the whole school? Go with them on a trip to Cambodia? What?

            “…Give a speech. A goodbye speech. Tomorrow morning. Now, you can have time to prepare for it.”

            “Oh, no,” I said, but it was half-hearted, and I knew it would do me no good. “Teacher Ying, do I have to? I hate public speaking!” But as I said it I was smiling, because as much as I’ve always dreaded public speaking, I didn’t completely feel convinced of my own words. Of course, public speaking still makes me nervous. But when, 6-months ago, I would have been Googling, “Ways to Calm Down Before a Speech,” and throwing cold water on myself in the bathroom moments before, this time, I only felt a slight twinge of nerves.

            I mean, I guess for one thing, I’ve been ‘public speaking’ every day for 6 months. Monday through Friday, I stand up at least twice a day in front of a group of 25 to 30 students. I’ve practiced the art of speaking slowly; of enunciating; of continuing to speak even when I think what I am saying is stupid, or when I can see my audience is more interested in their phones or their pillows (yes, they sometimes bring these to class) than me. It’s been great practice.

           But today I gave a goodbye speech to 3,000 people. And it occurred to me, as I spoke to them all this morning about my feelings about leaving, exactly why it was so comfortable and easy to speak to such a crowd.

            It was because I knew that even if they don’t know me, they respect me. A lot of them think I am beautiful (students I’ve never seen before often point at me and say, “Oh, suay—beautiful—teacher”); they think I am smart—at least, they think I know what I am doing up there in front of the classroom each day; and they think I am kind. And I can feel this appreciation, so standing up on stage, I didn’t have any of those mean thoughts towards myself that I normally would, in a room of 3,000 (“I probably look gross; I sound like an idiot; I shouldn’t be up here”). They’ve given me a confidence and a pride in myself that I can only hope I’ll find again in whatever future job I have.

            Here’s, in essence, what I said in my speech (at least, what I wrote down to say—I’m sure I left some parts out, but this is what I’d planned):

            “Hello. I would just like to say that it has been such a privilege teaching you all.    You know, so many of my friends back home dread Monday through Friday because of their jobs. And I know I have been so, so lucky, that I wake up Monday morning excited to come here, to you all. Thank you for showing me your culture. Thank you for including me in everything and making me feel at home here in Sakon Nakhon. Thank you to my co-teachers and director and you, Teacher Owen (he was on stage with me). Thank you for setting great examples of wonderful teachers, and for your kindness. Thank you, most of all, to my students, for your enthusiasm each day in the classroom and for your friendship. I will never forget a single one of you. I know you will all do incredible, unbelievable things with your lives. Good luck with everything. If you are ever in America, let me know, and we can… you know, hang out. (Because America is awfully small). Again, thank you.”

And then I bowed to them as they’d all bowed to me, hundreds of times before.

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            So, how does it feel to be finished? I’ve been asked this a lot. I taught my last class Monday afternoon. And when I got home, the first thing I felt was an intense level of relief. It’s such a heavy feeling, to be burdened (and gifted) with the responsibility of increasing a student’s English proficiency, especially when I never knew quite where to begin. Do I start with content—showing them songs by Bruce Springsteen, who they’ve never heard of, or Billboard Hits of 2017, to include them in a musical conversation with the world; showing them passages from books like Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22, books that changed my life and changed so many others; do I show them movies that portray American culture, movies that educate and move and inspire… or, do I start with grammar, with parts of a sentence, and how a verb must always follow a subject, and just how fascinating grammar is when you understand the formula and know what you can plug in where and when you can break the rules and why? I mean, my god—how can one person just decide which is more important, or which should come first?

            So I feel relief that I did the best I could, but that I don’t have to worry about it any longer. I hope whoever comes after me to teach these kids is a little more experienced than I was, because these kids deserve the chance to become fluent in English. They deserve the chance to watch a movie in their movie theatre without the weird Thai voice-overs (which never matches the lip movements, and is usually terribly translated). They deserve to read The Great Gatsby. They deserve to listen to their favorite songs (by the Chainsmokers, and Justin Bieber), and know, really know, what they are singing.

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            But after my speech, I also felt sadness and wished, a little bit, that I could stay longer (I know—I never thought I’d say that, either). Because my words were not lies. They have made this place feel like home to me. And I am so nervous that whoever comes after me will not have the passion and love that I have for English, or for these kids, and will be someone who doesn’t know how to relate to them or inspire them or grow with them. And it is sad that I will not necessarily know how they all end up.

            I’ve made plenty of lists before, and a lot of my lists mention all the difficulties of living abroad. I’d like to make one more, but this time, I’d like to list all the things about Sakon Nakhon that I will miss the most.

1. I will miss feeling like the wealthiest person on the planet. Seriously—I was shopping at the mall the other day, and I saw two dresses that I thought I could wear for whatever job I get next (in other words… not crappy quality from a street market, which I will inevitably throw out in 2 weeks when it falls apart). But they were “expensive”: $20 each—totaling 1,400 baht (anyone who lives here, knows… this is a lot of money. This is the amount I pay to rent my motorbike for a month. This is the amount I pay for a round-trip ticket to and from Bangkok. This is probably 3-weeks of rice and chicken and weird pork balls. This is probably 1/6 of someone’s monthly paycheck.) So when I bought these two dresses, the saleswomen, who had watched me wide-eyed as I’d begun picking out three, four, five of these expensive dresses to try on, and then had held onto two, practically bowed to the ground as I walked out of the store and repeated, over and over again, a bit in awe, “Thank you, Miss, thank you, thank you.”

            As I walked back from dinner last night, a man who sits on the corner in a little brown hut (I believe he is a tailor, because he’s always working on a sewing machine), began speaking to me about the food I’d bought. He gestured to his own dinner—some white rice—and then he said, “I am not rich, like you.”

            “Rich?” I laughed. “Trust me, I’m 23-years-old and I just graduated from college. In America, I am not rich.”

            “In Thailand, you are a teacher. This means you are very, very rich. You make 30,000 baht a month, don’t you?” (Not sure how he knows my salary).

            “Yes…” I said, becoming increasingly uncomfortable with this conversation.

            “Could I… do you think I could possibly borrow 100 baht for dinner? I will pay you back… on Tuesday morning, I will have more money. I will pay you back.”

            (100 baht = 3 dollars).

            “Yes,” I said immediately, reaching into my wallet and feeling embarrassed when I saw he noticed I had 2,000 baht on me. I handed him 100 and said, sincerely, “Really, please. You don’t have to pay me back.”

            Of course, I know, money isn’t everything/can’t buy you happiness, etc., etc. But when you have just graduated college, and you are about to be the lowest on the totem pole at whichever company you go to next, it is a very nice feeling, for a little while, to feel so capable of being able to afford anything (in moderation) and not having to worry about money. I don’t have to worry about my rent or how much dessert costs or whether I can afford the bottle of wine; I don’t have to worry about paying a ridiculous amount of money for two dresses or whether I can afford to fly to Bali for a weekend or get my hair cut in Bangkok, and if this was America, I would absolutely be worried about all of these things as a young 20-something starting out in a city. But here, my salary is incredibly generous and travelling is incredibly affordable. Which leads me to my next point…

2. I’ll miss my location. Of course, I don’t necessarily mean being stuck in the middle-of-nowhere Northeast Thailand, with rice fields on my left and dirt patches on my right and three-bus-rides-two-taxi-rides-one-songtaew-drive away from anything exciting.

            I mean being 40 minutes from Vietnam; 2 hours 40 minutes from Hong Kong; 4 hours from Bali.

            I mean being $50 from India; $100 from Australia; and $200 from Paris (I know—why aren’t I going to Paris, again?).

            Let’s do some quick comparisons here: I could fly to India for the price it costs me to take an uber back home from Boston. I could fly to Australia for the price of my Ray Ban sunglasses. I could head over to Paris for the price I made babysitting one night last summer. This is not crazy or unattainable or ambitious. This is why I will miss my location. It has made the entire world accessible to me. I can travel the world from Sakon Nakhon for the price of an uber or a pair of sunglasses, to places I’d never even had on my radar before now (I thought India would cost thousands!). If nothing else, I wish I could stay longer for this reason.

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3. I will miss my independence. I will miss my routine. As lonely as it sometimes felt, I will miss coming home after school and answering only one question: What do you want to do now? I will miss being able to make the decision to go to the mall and buy iced tea and wander aimlessly around the shops; I will miss heading to the gym and saying hello to my gym friends and taking a work-out class before bringing KFC chicken back to my apartment; I will miss deciding, screw it, and locking myself in my room with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and watching Netflix movies all night because I need a break from the whole world. This is not to say it will not be possible for me to do all these things in America—but the decision will not feel as guilt-free, and as easily my own, when I am considering what my friends or family are doing or whether I owe it to someone to be somewhere else.

4. I will miss (sometimes!) the time difference. This one is especially surprising, even to me. The time difference is a complete pain in the neck. Every time I’m waking up to start my day, everyone in America is headed to bed—or they are tired, and don’t really want to talk or Skype or catch-up; and then when they are awake and want to fill me in on their lives, I am tired at the end of a long day… an endless cycle.

            But it also means, from the hours of about 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., my phone is relatively quiet (apart from the friends I’ve made in Thailand… and my brother Max, who is nocturnal). And it’s a very nice thing. I have found creative ways to keep in touch with people back home (including Facetiming at 8 a.m., during morning assembly, in an empty classroom; writing long catch-up novels via Facebook; or sending good-morning-good-night texts for the other person to respond to the next day). But it’s nice to not feel glued to my phone. It’s become habit for me to put my phone on airplane mode for hours, because why not, and when I get a message from anyone, I don’t mind waiting a few hours to respond—blame it on the time-difference, blame it on a lack of urgency, or blame it simply on this (somewhat forced) living-in-the-moment mentality I have found as a result of the time difference.

5. I will miss every weekend being an adventure. I hope I find motivation to make my way to the bus station in America (do we even have one…?), to look at a sign, point, and say, “Okay, how about we try there?” I hope I hold onto this curiosity for my surroundings, but I know it is not the same. Part of the adventure, part of the spontaneity, comes from me simply not knowing any better. I point to a sign here in Sakon Nakhon Bus Terminal and say, “Let’s try there,” because it makes no difference to me, and because it’s in a different language, and because it usually doesn’t cost more than $5 to drive on a bus for hours. And I know it will not be the same, to show up at a Boston bus station and point and say, “Let’s try there,” because 1. It will probably end up shipping me off to some place like Lowell or Chelsea, and I’ll think, Okay, this was probably a waste of time and money; and 2. Travelling in America, to anywhere, takes more preparation. I cannot find novelty anywhere. I cannot just take a bus to Lowell and think, Wow, this place is so cool and different and look at that temple! But here, I can. I can literally take a bus 7 minutes or 7 hours away and it makes (almost) no difference to me—it is always exciting, it is always new and novel and interesting, because it is never familiar.

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6. I will miss the people. I’ve said it before, so I’ll try to be brief: I will miss their kindness. I will miss their inclusivity. I will miss 21-year-old girls driving me to their hometown, even though I am a stranger to them, because they are “headed there anyway.” I will miss teacher Ying, who invited me to camp for an entire weekend with her and her friend because, “You should have the opportunity to see Phetchabun Mountain while you are here.”

            I will miss Fluke pointing to the word “Perfect” on a Present Perfect Quiz and whispering to me, “Teacher, why does it say my name?” Or Oom looking over, from the seat beside him, and saying, “I do not know where you are getting this confidence from.”

            I will miss students literally chasing after me to lean over the railing to shout goodbye at the end of the day. I will miss Googling what the sheep look like in New Zealand with Oom (and, then, of course… what the boys look like). I will miss Top always saying good night when I walk into the classroom, and how he is always prepared to sing song lyrics in response to anything I say (Me: “I will always…” Top: “…love you?…” Me: “It’s not too late…” Top: “…To say sorry…?”). I will miss Noon always giving me some of her breakfast and Mew always grabbing my wrist as I walk by to tell me how beautiful I am and Jom telling me before anyone else about going to Wisconsin and Benz saying, “We have to be on our best behavior in class today; we have someone coming to observe,” and me saying, “What, you don’t have to be on your best behavior when it’s just me?” And all the kids laughing… Actually, just in general, I will miss all the kids laughing. They make me feel like the funniest person on the planet… Which leads to my last point…

7. I will miss who I am as their teacher. When I stand in front of them, I can be silly and funny and ridiculous and witty and confident. And these are not compliments—I am not saying I am any of these things. I am saying these are things I have become because of my students—they make me this way. They allow for it. They encourage it and inspire it. I wouldn’t say I am a different person in front of them. Because I act the same way around my closest friends. But this is the first time I have seen myself act this way out in the world, with (essentially) strangers—or, at least, not my best friends. They have given me the confidence to say things spontaneously, and to embarrass myself, and to show my foolish or naïve side, because they have never judged me or shown me anything but admiration. If, in my next job, I am surrounded by people who make me even half as confident, I will be happy.

            Next Thursday, I head to Bangkok at 10 a.m. I will have packed up my entire apartment and I will be taking it all with me. I will store it in Bangkok for a month, and then (finally) I will begin my travels. I can’t express how excited I am for these travels. March 11, I fly to Chiang Mai. I will take a bath with elephants and feed them food; I will take a cooking class; I will explore the Grand Canyon and try new foods and venture to waterfalls.

            I will head from there to Pai, a gorgeous little town, which I’ve heard also has great waterfalls and Grand Canyons and tea plantations. From there, I will go to Chiang Rai to see temples and museums and then back to Chiang Mai.

            On March 24, I will fly back to Bangkok and, from there, I will fly to Hanoi, Vietnam. After a few days there, we will head to Sa Pa to see beautiful fields and waterfalls (Google it—I can’t quite explain it, since I haven’t been there, but it looks breathtakingly beautiful).

            Then we will do a cruise on Halong Bay. We will fly to Hoi An from there, and then Saigon, and then we will fly to the south of Cambodia. We will spend a few days on an island there—I’ve heard the beaches are incredible: white sand, clear turquoise water. From there, we will end up in Angkor Wat.

            On April 14, I will head back to Bangkok to grab my suitcase. Then I will fly to Dubai to spend 5 days there with another CIEE friend. And then, on April 20th, I will journey home.

            I am beyond excited. I know it will go fast, but I will do my best to take plenty of pictures and write (in my phone Notes section) all about my travels, so that when I am home (I am leaving my laptop in Bangkok, so I cannot blog before then), I can update you all on my experiences exploring this little piece of the world. But even if I manage to blog again for CIEE, this is the last one I will write from Sakon Nakhon, and probably the last one I will write until April 20th. So thank you all for reading about my Sakon Nakhon adventures—updates to come! 


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Bali: The 'Real' World

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            So, if you are reading this, you might be doing exactly what I was doing 8-months ago. You might be researching ways to travel the world. You might even get scared, and start Googling, “Ways to travel Boston,” or, “Jobs to Travel Internationally but Then Come Home Again,” instead. Trust me, I here you.

            Last week, I took a solo trip to Bali. And, instantly, I understood why all those other options never would have worked for me.

            Let me start by saying exactly how high my expectations for Bali were.

            Two summers ago, I read Eat, Pray, Love for the first time (I’ve read it twice since). It completely changed my life. It changed how I felt about relationships, it changed how I saw religion, it fueled my desire to travel, and, mostly, it changed how I understood writing. Never before had I read something so philosophical and intelligent and thought-provoking. I mean, truly, it was smart. Elizabeth Gilbert is a writer who could probably sum up all of Einstein’s theories in some neat, funny little chapter, if she wanted to. Whether you’ve read it or not (or seen the movie—which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t do the book justice), you might already know that the ‘Love’ part of Eat, Pray, Love takes place in Bali. Since reading the book, it had been my dream to go to Bali alone, like she did.

            The thing about this dream was, it was far-fetched. It was so ridiculous to me, in fact, that I’d all but forgotten it, as if my mind said, ‘Okay, we’ll go back to that when you’re older’. I wasn’t in any way actively pursuing it, and, honestly, it felt as out-of-reach as becoming a famous movie star or going to the moon.

            So it seemed a little bit like Fate when, last week, I realized I had this exact opportunity, randomly, to fulfill this dream to travel alone to Bali, like I’d imagined.

            But actually, no. Not just Fate. Fate implies that it was the universe, or something of which I had no control, that got me to Bali. But that is not true. I was able, at 23-years-old, to seize this opportunity for myself; I was an active participant in the fulfillment of this dream. I was able to do something that, a year ago, I’d only romanticized as something I might do by the time I was 30. I mean, on Tuesday, my coworkers said to me, “Did you know we have six days off next week? I guess they’re using the school as a parking zone for parents during the University’s graduation. So you can travel, if you want.”

            On Wednesday, I booked my plane tickets.

            Honestly, I could have gone and laid in the grass at the airport and been completely content. I was just so happy to be there, and so happy to see that the nature outside the airport windows already did not disappoint. The grass was a different shade of green than I’ve seen; I could see palm trees and coconut trees and banana trees with three-foot-long leaves; it was all just so green, compared to Thailand.

            As I’d discussed with my friend Gabi the weekend before, who had studied abroad in Indonesia: There are two ways I could do Bali.

           I’d done plenty of research. I’d drawn maps and graphs and timetables and schedules and emailed Yoga studios and tour guides and hotel managers and read blogs and news articles and watched Youtube videos. I’d eventually decided to do 3 days in Ubud, since it was the ‘cultural capital’ and their major city (although ‘city’ sounds pretty urban—more like a very busy hippie/vegan town), and then 2 days on Gili Air, the Gili Island that is relatively empty, but still has more restaurants than Gili Menu, which is more suitable for honeymooners.

            To say I was prepared for Bali was an understatement. I had six days to cover everything, and I was ready to do exactly that.

            Gaby supported this. She said: “You can do Bali that way, if you like. You can get up at the crack of dawn and see the sunrise over the rice fields before making your way to the temples and the markets; fitting in a day-long bike tour; doing yoga in the evening and making sure to stumble across all the top-rated restaurants; getting a massage and facial at night; seeing the dance festival after that, etc. etc. You can do Bali that way.

            Or.” She’d said. “Or… you can sleep in. You can wake up when you want to wake up, and lazily have a smoothie for breakfast from some random place, and maybe make your way to a yoga studio. And get a massage in the afternoon. And read in a café for a while. And do some meditation at night, and get some ice cream if you feel like it, and go to bed. You can do Bali that way, too. Whichever you like.”

            When I am travelling, I am most always person A. I am the person who makes sure I see every square inch of land that I can within 24-hours: sacrificing sleep, sacrificing money, to make sure I am signed up for every temple-visit, Bike-tour, wine-tasting, spiritual-awakening, and overnight-hike the country has to offer. And I’d planned on doing Bali this way, too.

            As soon as I saw my bed, which was a beautiful white canopy with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking rice fields, I wavered. Okay, I thought, I can sleep in. Just tomorrow. To enjoy the bed.

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            I woke up around 9. I read my book for an hour before remembering breakfast ends at 10:30. So I ate breakfast at the hotel, and finally asked the front desk how I could walk to the Yoga Barn.

            As I walked, I realized: I will waste all my money, and all my time, this vacation if I am constantly thinking about what’s-next-what’s-next-what’s-after-that. I mean, my god: I was in the Spiritual Motherland of Being-In-The-Moment.   

            These people, this is how they live (at least, as far as I could see, from my extensive experience driving past them): They sit. They relax. They meditate and pray. They eat when they want to eat. Then they sit some more, in the same spots, talking to the same people, believing to their core that this is where they are meant to be.

            So, by the time I found the Yoga studio, I’d made my mind up. I was going to do Bali the Balinese way: relaxed, unplanned, leisurely, doing only what I really wanted to do in that moment. (Granted, I do understand that my experience was not at all a ‘true’ Balinese experience: I know the Balinese are not typically getting high-quality massage-and-facial packages, or paying $10 a class to sit and do Yoga, or paying $20 for a 4-course meal at a 5-star Italian restaurant, or stopping to pay for fancy juices with chia seeds and organic kale… I do know this; but still. I guess I was trying to emanate their spiritual beliefs, in my own nice, cozy tourist-bubble).

            After yoga, I thought about asking them where the nearest temple was, after this; or if they knew of any cultural museums in the area. Instead, I approached the front desk and said, “Do you know where Taksu spa is?” I’d written it down in my notebook after finding some blog article about it.

            I walked to Taksu and signed up for a Balinese massage (because I was trying to get into the culture, of course), and a facial. In total, it was $40, for a two-hour treatment. The first hour, I had a full body oil massage. After that, I sat for another hour for a deep-cleanse facial. Then, I sat in their garden, drinking a smoothie, included in the package, and read my book.

            By now, it was about 4:30 p.m. I decided to make my way to the Palace and a temple, since I was feeling guilty for hiding away in this spa when there was so much of Ubud I hadn’t seen yet. So I walked, and saw the ‘Palace’ (which was pretty grungy looking, and crawling with tourists and selfie-sticks and loud chatter), and this beautiful temple (which was right beside a Starbucks, and again, crawling with tourists and selfie-sticks), and I realized I had nothing to feel guilty about. These places might’ve been nice to visit, but they certainly weren’t do-or-die… they were just tourist spots.

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            For dinner, I went to an Italian restaurant called Kebun Café, which Gaby had recommended, promising me it had “the best gnocci of my life.” I had tea and a salad (with beets! And spinach! I almost died of happiness) and gnocci with pesto (she was probably right… and I lived in Florence). Then I walked home through the rain, read some more, and went to sleep in my little canopy bed.

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            The next morning, I woke up at 7 a.m. to begin a bike tour I’d signed up for with the Eco-Cycling Company in Ubud. We started at Mount Batur. The mountain, because of the shifting of the Earth over thousands of years etc. etc., has become two volcanoes separated by a beautiful lake, much like the lakes I’d seen in Europe. It is one of the 10 biggest craters in the world.   

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The bike ride was easy. It was entirely downhill, and I barely moved my feet; I mostly just glided.

            My favorite part of the trip was our experience stopping at a Balinese family’s compound. The compound consisted of a few small, dilapidated bare white buildings, mostly empty of furniture apart from a mattress or a pot above a coal fireplace.

            Our tour guide walked us over to the kitchen. This ‘kitchen,’ was a small, very dark room, with a single black coal pot sitting on a hole, under which were some sticks for the fire. This was their stove.

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            “Every day of our lives, our mother cooks us breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” our guide, who must’ve been at least 25, said. “But she only makes one meal per day, and we just eat it whenever we get hungry. She wakes up at 5 a.m. to get to the market to get our food. People from Bali love breakfast, because it’s the only meal of the day that is fresh. After that, our food sits on the kitchen table all day.    So, when I get hungry, I just walk into the kitchen and eat some more of whatever my mom prepared that morning. We obviously don’t have microwaves or refrigerators, so we definitely have some hygiene problems, but we have built up a high immunity.” He said casually, unfazed.

            As we exited the compound we passed a rooster stuck in a little straw cage, and our tour guide pointed to him and said, “We are going to have a cockfight at the end of the month. To sacrifice rooster blood to the spirits. That part is legal. But we will also be gambling, which is illegal.”

            I don’t want to say any of this with too much pity, or too much wow-aren’t-we-lucky reflection, because 1. It’s been done before, and 2. I don’t really think I saw enough to generalize anything about what it is like to live in Bali (what if someone took you to a random house in rural Texas, for instance, and said, ‘This is how all American families live’).

            I will just say that I was shocked, to see how little some of these Balinese people had, because—my god, they seem so happy. As I biked past them, every single person came to the doorway of their shop or compound, or looked up from the ground they were laying on or from the river they were washing clothes in, and smiled ear-to-ear without a trace of bitterness or dejectedness or defeat, shouting out to me: “Hello! Good morning!” Their days seemed so monotonous, and terribly hopeless, without any promise of variation. I just kept thinking—what do they have to ‘live’ for? I don’t mean that question in a religious way, or any deeply philosophical way. I simply mean: What dreams can they entertain for themselves? What goals can they work to achieve? Is there any serious reward for their hard work, besides the same meal on the table every morning?

            Perhaps this is why religion, or spirituality, can be seen everywhere. Bali’s predominant religion is Hinduism. I didn’t know much about Hinduism when I arrived. Here’s all I know after my trip: Everywhere I went, each morning, there were small baskets filled with fresh incense and flowers, which were offerings for different purposes (good luck, warding off evil spirits, expressing gratitude, etc.)

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            Besides the offerings, they have temples everywhere. Each house has it’s own family temple, and it would be ridiculous to pray at anyone else’s temple, because each family temple is for that family’s ancestors. The family temples were my favorite temples—must more impressive than the ones over-hyped by tourists.

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            And then, besides the temples, they simply have a spiritual language. For instance: “I hope you have a blissful time in Bali; Would you like to come and get a massage, so I can rearrange your chakra energies? Would you like chia seeds in your smoothie… it is good for the soul. Everyone, can you please breathe in, and when you breathe out, breathe out all of the evil spirits that reside within you.”    

            And, perhaps most fascinating: the word for ‘artist’ and ‘human being’ is the same in Bali. They don’t have a word for ‘artist’ because everyone is an artist. Art is simply a devotional prayer to the gods.

            Anyways, so we biked past rice fields and through little towns and saw a more authentic version of Bali than I’d seen before. There were just two other Asian women with me on this trip, but they were very nice.

            After the bike tour, I went to this fantastic place called Kafe for dinner, and got a sweet potato/beet/spinach/walnut salad with some healthy smoothie and hummus on the side. It was probably the best meal I’ve had in all of Asia (that’s terrible, I know. I feel guilty for saying it. Okay, okay… the fried rice is good, too).

            Then I walked, again through the rain (it’s ‘rainy’ season in Bali… glad I was warned), and ended up buying gelato at some fancy hotel. I sat on the porch and talked casually with the Balinese worker who’d scooped my gelato for me. He told me that this is how all Balinese people learn English: they speak to tourists. Considering I didn’t need to know a single Indonesian word (not even hello!) the entire time I was there, I was impressed by this. I apologized for not knowing any Indonesian, but the man shrugged it off. “We should learn English. It is the language of the world. It is not just for speaking with Americans… it is how we speak with Europeans, Chinese. Everyone.” Still, I thought about how difficult it would be for me, if I had to learn Spanish through random exchanges with foreigners on the streets of Boston, and I told him again how grateful I was that he was trying.

            The next day, I got up early, took a van to the harbor, and then took a fast ferry across the ocean to Gili Air.

            Seeing as every single other person on the boat got off at Gili T, I understood quickly just how secluded I’d be on this island. And it’s what I’d wanted, originally: seclusion, a chance to lie on the beach and do nothing and tan and read.

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            The only problem was—rainy season, remember? So it was cloudy when I arrived on Gili Air, and started raining within minutes. And what, exactly, are my alternative options on Gili Air, if I am not lying on the beach?

            First, I spent three hours reading in my hotel room. I took a nap. Then I woke up and considered just staying in my room the rest of the day. I know, that’s pathetic. But I was so tired from moving around, and also, the rain was depressing. Thankfully, I found the energy to get up (and the motivation: I promised myself a snack, if I could get out the door). I ate some yoghurt with fruit, overlooking the ocean (which definitely has a different kind of beauty, in the rain), and was extremely well attended to by two boys who live on the island and work at my hotel; since I was the only customer, they stood near me the whole time I ate. I liked their company.

            After my snack, I took an hour and a half candlelit yoga class. It was peaceful, for the most part, and filled with at least 30 other tourists (no idea where they’d all been before, or where they went afterwards).

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            After the class I wandered, and ended up at some random restaurant because it was selling pasta.

            I was trying not to attract any extra attention (feeling a bit like some strange loner girl as it was, reading her book and not really talking or looking at anyone, while mostly everyone else was here with a boyfriend/girlfriend), when this cat came to my table and just wouldn’t stop meowing. Meowing is an understatement—this cat was screeching, right at my table. I kept smiling at it and kind of shooing it away before going back to my book, thinking, Please leave me alone, I cannot be the girl who sits by herself and feeds the stray cats.

            But the cat wouldn’t shut up, and people kept looking at me like, Uhm, can you please control your friend, so finally I just pushed some of my pasta onto the seat beside me and the cat shut up, happily eating his share.

            So that was Gili Air. I left the next morning. Overall, I can’t say it was my favorite part of the trip. But I will say one thing: I felt lucky, that I had the opportunity to be disappointed by a place. I mean, if I’d done the whole office job back in America, and had accepted a quick 10-day trip to Asia as my consolation prize, my night on Gili Air would have felt disastrous, like But this was 1/10th of my trip! Instead, it was just a mediocre solo adventure to an island, (which I know I would’ve regretted had I skipped), and one of many adventures I will have in Asia before my time to leave.

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            The last thing I will tell you about is my experience after arriving back from Gili Air on Monday afternoon. I was staying near the airport, and my flight wasn’t until Tuesday morning, so in classic “Me” fashion, I began thinking about what I could do in the 5 hours I had left (before sleeping). It dawned on me that I felt very unfulfilled with what I’d done in terms of following in Liz Gilbert’s footsteps—I hadn’t meditated once, I hadn’t fallen in love, and I hadn’t visited a Medicine man. Seeing as only one of these was something I could Google (and not waste $500 learning how to do), I found a Medicine man, not too far from the airport, and emailed him.

            After receiving a response from him, saying he could help me, I grabbed myself a taxi from the airport and was dropped off 20-minutes later on this desolate side street. All I could see on this street were two men sitting on the front stoop of a random white building.

            “Ah,” I stepped toward them, my taxi driver still watching. “Bali Chy Healing?”

            They pointed down the street.

            “Okay, thanks.”

            I turned the corner and saw the sign. I entered this ‘shop’ and sat down in a chair while I waited for an older (mid-60’s?) dark brown Balinese man to finish his conversation with another patient. The Balinese man looked sweet, with large, thin-rimmed square glasses, a wide smile, and black hair graying around the ears. Like a grandfather, maybe (not mine, of course).

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            While I waited, I read a pamphlet about him. It said: “Sami is a traditional Balinese healer and doctor known as Balian Usada. With his holistic treatment he is able to diagnose and find solutions to physical ailments, emotional trauma, and spiritual consciousness issues… Sami had the opportunity to meet high spiritual beings (for example Sri Chinmoy), who regarded him as a superior being as well… He is now a very wise man.”

            I skipped a few (boring) parts. On the front, it said he could do energy balancing, reading and life coaching, kinesiology… and some other stuff, mostly stuff I’ve never heard about. I thought about what I wanted and decided my ‘energies’ probably needed balancing, and I probably needed some life coaching, since I was here and all, and paying $70 (I’m embarrassed to admit that… my co-teachers all laughed when I told them how much I’d spent, and said, ‘I could’ve told you how to be happy for free! I could’ve balanced your energies for a discount!’)

            An older, bigger woman, with jet-black hair and a sweaty face, suddenly appeared in the doorway. “Come, come!” She said, motioning for me to follow her. “You have appointment?” She asked.

            “Uh, sort of. I emailed,” I said. She nodded, and that was that. (Note: if you’re ever in Bali, just say you have an appointment, even if you don’t. How will they ever know?)

            “Lie down,” she pointed to a bed behind a curtain, and then said, “But first, take off all your clothes.”

            I did as she said and lay down on the bed. She explained that, first, she was going to give me a massage and do some acupressure to ‘get my energies flowing.’ For the first 15-minutes, as she worked, I asked various questions, like I was writing some research report on the whole thing. “How did you become a healer? He trained you? Who trained him, though? Wait, what are you doing now… can you feel the energies? Are there different energies in different parts of the body? How will we know when they’re balanced… can you feel the imbalance right now? Also, just curious… can the Medicine Man tell me my future? Can he read my mind?”

            Finally, as I relaxed, I quieted. Actually, I probably pretty much fell asleep. It felt really nice. If nothing else, the $70 got me a great massage.

            After at least 45-minutes, she finally called the man in. She told him, through the curtain, that I was “ready.” He came in and said, “Just relax, Caroline. Don’t think. Close your eyes.” I did as he said and there, in the dark, he put both sets of fingertips on my head and kept them there.

            For a while, I stayed relaxed. My mind was still thinking ferociously, as it always does (it gets worse, I’ve found, when I try to think, ‘don’t think of anything! Be in the moment! Relax!’ When I tell my mind not to do something, it tries really hard to do the opposite).

            After a while, my mind drifted and I thought about how much trust I was giving these people. Then I really thought about it. I mean, wait a minute. My bag, with my purse and debit card and credit card and cash, was sitting right beside him, not me. And I’m lying here, in the dark, on some random road on a deserted street, with my eyes closed. What the hell is keeping him from stealing from me? I thought, and then, even worse, Oh my god, what the hell is keeping him from KILLING me? Seriously, why hasn’t he stabbed me ALREADY? It would be genius. Stab me, put my body in the backyard… no one in the entire world knows where I am anyway… take all my debit cards/credit cards etc., and you could probably make a pretty good life for yourself… for at least a month or two… in Bali. And no one will ever know.

             As I’m thinking this, I opened my eyes (just to check, you know… that he doesn’t have a knife in his hand, or something), and he said, like he was reading my mind, “Okay. We are done.”

            I met him in the front room, right by the road. I had no idea where the woman went—I never saw her again.

            He smiled at me and took out a big book and said, “So, Caroline. What is your problem?” I realized he meant what is my physical ailment—why am I even here in the first place—and I know I can’t really say, “Oh, I don’t have one, I just want you to tell me my future like someone in Bali told Elizabeth Gilbert hers. And maybe also tell me my purpose in life, and anything else you think is fun I should know.”

            So, instead, I said weakly, “Oh, I don’t know. I wanted my energies balanced…” I have no idea what that even means… “And, also, I want to be more in-the-moment, I guess?”

            He nodded and said, “You worry. You are very self-critical. You get stressed. You have a lot of knowledge… but you are not wise.”

            He drew a triangle on a piece of paper and turned it to face me. Then he wrote, at the top of the triangle, the word ‘Spirit.’ Below, in the middle, he wrote, ‘Mind.’ Finally, at the bottom, he wrote, ‘Body.’

            Then he drew a chart and wrote ‘Emotional,’ with all those really nice attributes he’d given me below (stress/nerves/anxiety/self-critical); on the other side of the chart, he wrote ‘Think.’

            “You are also very active. Very creative. Very innovation.” (English is his second language; let’s bear in mind). He wrote these words below ‘Think’. Then, randomly, he drew a bunch of + signs under ‘Think’.

            “You think too much. That is your problem. When you think too much, you are not in the moment. To be happy, you must be in the moment.”

            “Yes, but… how?” I asked.

            He looked up at me, exasperated. “I just told you!” He said, laughing, but sounding frustrated. “This is what I’m talking about. I told you!”

            “Oh… Okay! Okay! I see now!” I said conciliatorily (Did he tell me? Was I not listening close enough?).

            After a moment, he continued. “See, you want to know Who you are. You want to know Where you are. You want to know How to be happy. You want to know Why life is like this. You want to know What can make you happy.” He wrote these words in the corner of the page.

            “You are 23, Caroline. 23. You don’t need to know. Step-by-step, yes?”

            “Okay,” I nodded. “Okay.”

            “You want to know how to be happy… To be happy, you must be Healthy. You must be Aware of yourself. You must be Present. You must be Positive. And you must be Yourself. You see! It spells Happy!” He showed me on the paper, and then said, kindly, “You can keep this, by the way.”

            I continued to nod. I mean, I didn’t really know what else to say (I certainly wasn’t going to ask him any questions—I didn’t want him exploding on me again, and ripping up the paper in frustration, or something).

            “You cannot reach your spirit until you calm the mind. Just be happy. When you reach the spirit by being happy, you can find inspiration (he wrote in-SPIRIT-ation on the paper), from the universe. Do what makes you happy, help other people, and find inspiration—and you will be happy.” It began sounding a bit like circular reasoning to me (you know, X is true because of Y, and Y is true because of X), but still, the more he said it, the more I could believe it really was that simple. It felt a bit like he’d taken a burden off of me. If my only ‘homework’ from him was to be happy… well, that’s a fun thing to focus on, isn’t it? Much better than becoming some meditative guru and spending hundreds at a retreat, or something.

            When I asked, “To find my spirit, should I meditate or pray?” He shrugged and said, “You can. Or, just be happy.”

            Okay. I think I can do that.

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            The crazy thing about this whole trip was, I didn’t have to sit at a desk for 5 years to save up for it. I didn’t have to land a book deal or go through some traumatic mid-life crisis. I didn’t have to try all that hard, really… the opportunity more or less just fell into my lap. And that in itself is CRAZY to me. I mean, Bali? Indonesia? What do I even know about Indonesia? I don’t think it really hit me, how lucky I am here, until I realized just how graspable the whole world feels to me right now. It’s all so much more within reach than I’d realized.

            May of last year, I’d stopped researching work opportunities abroad and, instead, I’d begun emailing colleges in the local Boston area about Admissions Counselors positions because I figured I could travel that way (in the local area, to local high schools). Then, in June, I began researching opportunities to be an event planner in Boston, because I figured I could travel to different venues around the city.

            Looking back, I feel sorry for that girl who, for even a brief period of time, narrowed her dreams so severely out of practicality and convenience… And out of some obscure pressure from this imminent ‘Real World.’

            This is just as much a ‘Real World’ as any other. I get a salary at the end of every month that pays for my rent and my food and my transportation; I wake up and drink coffee from 7-11 to save money; I get tired and frustrated and my motorbike breaks down and my packages get sent to the wrong post office and all of it is real life.

            But then, on a random Monday in January, a little over a year since I talked to someone from a Boston company about being a travel agent to help other people travel the world, and a little over 2 years since I read Eat, Pray, Love for the first time, I ended up in front of a medicine man in Bali.

            I’m living this life that scares me sometimes, because I don’t always recognize it as something I’ve prepared for or studied for or navigated before; but, at the same time, there are moments like my trip to Bali where I can look up and recognize exactly where it is I’m headed. It makes me realize just how much I’m capable of doing, not just someday, but soon, now. I've learned that I have total control over my own version of 'reality' and the 'Real World.' If I want my 'Real World' to include spontaneous solo trips to Bali, and who know's what else, than I can make that happen--I just need to remind myself to keep dreaming that big.

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The Highs (and Lows) About Travel and Teaching

            Without a doubt, Krabi falls somewhere between 1-5 on my own personal list of “most beautiful places I’ve seen in my life.” I spent the weekend there, and it didn’t feel a bit like the Thailand I’ve come to know. Instead, it felt every bit like the Thailand I’d imagined before coming here; the Thailand I’d envisioned when I’d found this Teach Abroad program in the first place. For the first time, Thailand surpassed all my expectations.

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            It also couldn’t have come at a better time. When I write these posts, I try not to include too much of the “bad,” because I don’t want to spend my time focusing on the negative, and plus, being here for such a short period of time, it feels a little silly for me to have any complaints (Like, “you’re complaining? Try being a local here—watching you jet off every weekend to places we’ll never be able to afford to visit; making a higher salary than all of us, because you’re not from here; leaving at the end of this trip to return to a country we’ll most likely never see, because the conversion from baht to U.S. dollar will swallow our savings whole, whereas your savings have quadrupled here in worth.”)  

            At the same time, I think I should at least mention the “bad,” partially for my own memory, and partially because if I don’t, all my high moments will just seem ordinary against the backdrop of other equally-high moments. If anything, everything I say will begin to sound false and fabricated, if all I ever do is cover my sunset/pina-colada moments and fail to record all the many ways this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

            So here it is, a quick run-down: three days before Krabi, I wanted to quit this whole journey. Really. First of all, I’d been sick following my New Years adventures, and there is no lonelier feeling in the world than waking up in a small apartment feeling dizzy and nauseous and realizing, wait a minute, if I want a banana and a piece of toast, I will need to get on my own motorbike and travel to 7-11 in 100 degrees and hope I don’t faint on the ride over, because I have no one here to help me.

            In itself, that isn’t true at all. I could have called my co-workers or the owner of my apartment building and I’m sure they would have been more than happy to help. But I didn’t want to inconvenience someone I didn’t know well, and besides, that wasn’t the part that was making me so sad. It was more that it hit me, all at once, how very on my own I am. When else in my life have I been this alone? I grew up with my family to take care of me, and when I went to college, I was surrounded by people who very quickly became my best friends. I’ve also never lived alone, and that’s a different thing entirely. So it wasn’t until I woke up sick that I realized the gravity of my situation in one panicked-filled instant: I have to take care of myself and figure out how to make myself feel better, because no one else is here to lessen the burden.

            And then, besides being sick (or maybe because of it), I just felt ready to be done. I kept having these thoughts like, “Okay, so I did the whole ‘Eat-Pray-Love,’ thing, and let’s face it… I’m not a 28-year-old divorcee looking to find herself, and this was a silly and way-too-extreme idea to begin with, because I really didn’t need to rip myself away from all my family and all my friends to come explore a foreign country for this amount of time and live in this grungy apartment by myself with one spoon and one cup to my name; I probably should’ve just booked a 10-day vacation instead, and then I should have found a job in Boston or D.C. with friends and family, at the most, only a few hours away.”

            Plus, the time difference is hard, because it means I haven’t talked to some of my family and friends since October 20th when I came here; I’m just on the opposite schedule of everyone else I’ve ever known. Every time I wake up, all of you are going to bed (unless you’re reading this from Thailand, in which case—thank god we wake up at the same time!), and every time I go to sleep, all of you are just beginning your days. So it’s hard not to feel even more isolated, given that I am literally living by a different sun and different moon (I mean, technically I know it’s still the same sun and same moon, but it doesn’t feel the same, when I see them at such drastically different times).

            So that’s the “bad.”

            And then I arrived, Friday night, in Ao Nang in Krabi.

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            My friend Devon and I went to Krabi with her brother, who was here visiting, and his girlfriend and their friend. This, in itself, was a blessing. It was so nice, for a weekend, to travel with three people who were seeing Thailand as I would see it, if I also only had ten days here: they had endless enthusiasm for the novelty of it all, and when they pointed out the oddity of this culture after I’ve learned to ignore or accept it, I could see it for it’s uniqueness all over again. Plus, they had a stricter time-table than I have, so our trip was anything but laid-back (in the best way possible): we fit in bar-hopping, clubbing, snorkeling, speed-boating, sunbathing, eating, socializing, dancing, shopping, and a million other highly-rewarding experiences, while limiting our sleep and down-time because who has time for that?

            As I look back on the weekend, I still think, It has to be one of the best weekends of my life. First, Saturday morning at 9 o’clock, we were picked up at our hostel for a full-day speedboat ride to lagoons, various islands, and snorkeling spots around Krabi. This cost us roughly $90.

            We took a speedboat to our first location, a low-key spot with only a few other boats, where we could jump into the warm light-blue water to snorkel. The fish were outrageously colorful—I mean, even just one fish might be purple and neon green and pink and blue spotted, at all once.

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            Then our tour guide, a guy named Sunny (who spoke English incredibly well), and his boat crew (who could not speak English at all), took us to Maya bay. He offered to take us to the beach where The Beach movie, with Leonardo Dicaprio, was filmed, but since it was 400 baht and literally crawling with tourists with no more than a foot or two free-space in between them, we declined. We stayed in Maya bay (I think), but he took us to a quieter beach he knew of, a small strip of sand maybe 30 feet long with only a few other boats and maybe 20 other tourists, a big improvement. The boat beside us, actually, had three Russian men and 15 Russian models (we assumed the men were paying, since they were older and fatter and the girls were young and stick-thin and spent their time taking hundreds of Victoria Secret Swimsuit-Edition-inspired pictures in the water and on the sand). And then the other boat carried three Americans from Chicago (all average looking, so I’m assuming no one was paying).

            We lay on the sand for an hour and walked around our small secluded/Photo-shoot beach, taking pictures (not quite as impressively as the models) and swimming in the warm, salty Andaman Sea. I did not forget my luck that I was floating in this warm water with the sun beating down while most of my family and friends are freezing back home in Massachusetts. Isolation has its perks.

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            Then Sunny brought out some fruit, rice, vegetable stir-fry, chicken wings, and curry that he’d prepared personally for us. He kept us well fed and well hydrated during the day with a cooler in the back of the boat. He even risked his life cutting the fruit with a very large knife while our boat slammed up and down at high speed on the waves.

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            After we ate, Sunny began telling me a little bit about his life here. Krabi, he explained, wasn’t always this tourist hot-spot. When he was younger he went out on the ocean every day with his father, a fisherman, to catch fish which they could trade in their village for other things they needed, like rice and clothing. “It’s not like that anymore,” he said, smiling, “I can’t trade my fish for anything anymore. Everything is too expensive now to do that.”

            I asked him if he still fishes, and he said, “Only if the tourists want to, but most of them don’t. Sometimes people from China or Japan want to fish, and then I fish with them.”

            Hearing that most of his day was crafted for the whim of a tourist, I said, “When you were younger, was Krabi like this? Filled with tourists, I mean?”

            “No,” he shook his head, smiling. “When I was younger it wasn’t like this. I used to go out on the boat with my dad. We would sometimes come to these beaches together. He doesn’t come out here much anymore—he’s weaker now. A couple years ago I stopped being a fisherman, and now I do this, because this is where the money is. In the last twenty years, I’ve had to learn a lot of English… I try to learn one word a day. My English isn’t that good. But I need to know it.”

            Doing my own research, I’ve read that there were 336,000 foreigners and 54,000 GIs here in Thailand during the peak of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, around the late 1960s. In 2015 alone, there were over 29 million international guests. Assuming Sunny is in his 50s, this makes sense. He most likely grew up during the initial tourism boom in the 1960s, when Thailand became a destination for R & R visits of American GIs:

These visits were significant not only in terms of the increase in numbers of foreign visitors, but also as a principal factor of change of the touristic image of Thailand, and of the kinds of tourists which began to be attracted to the country from the mid-1960s onward. 
In the past, the image of Thailand in the eyes of Western visitors was that of an exotic, enchanted kingdom in the Orient. The arrival of American servicemen on R & R visits, compounded by the stationing of about 40,000 U.S. military personnel in bases in Thailand, shifted the emphasis in the tourist sector from sightseeing of cultural attractions, reflecting the earlier image, to more mundane pursuits, primarily sex and recreational activities. (http://thaiworld.50webs.com/travel.html).

            Although the Vietnam War is a big factor, tourism also boomed in Thailand during the 1960s and 70s due to the “rising standard of living, more people acquiring more free time, and improvements in technology, making it possible to travel further, faster, cheaper and in greater numbers… Thailand was one of the first players in Asia to capitalize on this then-new trend”(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tourism_in_Thailand).

            Today, tourism accounts for 10% of Thailand’s GDP and supports 2.2 million jobs, with around 30 million people visiting each year. I assume, on the basis of my own guess for Sunny’s age, that this is why things looked so different for him when he was young; but this is my own assumption.

            After lunch, Sunny cleaned up our dishes and trash and said, “Okay, now I will take you to Phi Phi Don. You can stay for an hour there.” Phi Phi Don is one of the more popular tourist-destinations in Krabi. I hadn’t done much research prior to visiting Krabi, so I only knew this from Devon’s brother, who was surprised upon arriving that the beach was “less packed” than he’d expected, although it was still well populated with people sunbathing and drinking and swimming, as well as shops and restaurants and resorts which are, apparently, at least $100 per night and out of our price range (to put this in perspective, we paid $60 for an entire weekend in our hostel).

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            My group agreed that they were slightly unimpressed with this beach, after all the hype. We preferred the more private beach we’d been taken to earlier. We also greatly preferred the lagoon Sunny took us to after Phi Phi Don. The lagoon was light blue and surrounded on three sides by high limestone rock and dark green trees; a few other boats were anchored in the lagoon, and people were casually jumping off the sides of their boats, like we were, and floating in the lagoon. There was a light mist coming off of the water (I still can’t believe how blue the water was). Floating in the water and looking up at these limestone “walls” had to be one of my favorite highlights of the weekend.

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            Then Sunny took us to another area, Bamboo island, although we never stepped foot on the island. We jumped off the side of the boat and then snorkeled for another hour. He came with us and pointed to little reefs filled with Nemo look-a-likes, all identical to Nemo and coming out of the coral and going back into hiding just like Nemo does in the movie (I didn’t know they do that in real life!). There were so many different kinds of fish here, so I just spent the hour with my head underwater, watching them all in their quiet little paradise.

            Afterwards, Sunny drove us past a cave called Viking cave with egg nests that are apparently sold to eat in places around Thailand and Asia (side note: bird saliva is also sold and eaten in Asia, because it has health/spiritual benefits). Then he took us near Chicken Head Island so we could take some pictures. We drove back to dock the boat around 4 p.m. We showered quickly and ate dinner on Ao Nang beach, only 100 feet or so from our hostel, to watch the sunset. Then we walked around and went to some low-key bars before falling asleep around midnight.

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            The next morning, we got breakfast at Café 8.98 (I googled “Breakfast in Krabi” and it was the first result with 5 stars. The website said, “New York in Thailand.” It was delicious. I had an avocado and blueberry smoothie—I didn’t know they had avocado in Thailand!—and an omelet with real cheese and real tomatoes and no rice).

            Then we took a long-tail boat to Railay beach. The boat gets its name from the engine-design—a long wooden stick hanging off the back with a motor attached to the end, which the boat driver has to navigate by pushing the motor to one side or the other depending on which direction he wants to turn us, all the while carefully balancing on the opposite side so as not to fall into the water. It cost us about 200 baht, or $6, round-trip.

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            In the airport on the way to Krabi we met a fellow American backpacker named Brenden who told us, “Don’t just go to Railay… there’s a cooler beach called Ton Sai right on the other side. Walk all the way to the end of Railay and find a path through the jungle to the other side. It’s much less populated and so beautiful; plus, you can rock-climb there.”

            “Oh! Can anyone rock climb? Like, could I?” I asked him, picturing Dick’s Sporting Goods’ man-made 10-foot rock-climbing wall.

            He shrugged, putting way too much faith in my athletic abilities, and said, “You might be able to. It’s tough, but maybe.”

            So as soon as we set foot on Railay, Devon and I led the group to the left side of the beach to find this hidden path. We finally located it—around the corner of a cliff, just a short path through the waist-high ocean. A few shirtless rock-climbers with ropes tied around their waists verified for me that, if we walked the path, we’d find a beach on the other side.

            The path in itself is a great deterrence for less-motivated tourists. It was difficult and steep and sometimes terrifying, especially in my Jack Roger sandals. There was a rope we needed to hold onto just to keep from falling, and by the time we reached the other side, we were dripping in sweat.

            Once we touched foot on the other side, I saw immediately that my friend Brenden had generously overestimated my previous rock-climbing experience (which consists of a few experiences tackling the man-made wall in Dicks Sporting Goods and struggling, with my limited arm strength, to pull myself up the 10-feet to the top, at which point you hit a bell for succeeding in the ‘feat’).

            Apparently, rock climbing at Railay beach is a very popular activity for well-seasoned rock climbers around the world who don’t mind risking their lives. The people who were rock-climbing had “Rock-Climbing in Thailand” travel books on their towels and were climbing hundreds of feet in the area, looking for places to put their hands and feet on real rock—there were no red and green plastic “rocks” sticking out of the limestone for them, like what I’d expected—these people weren’t messing around.

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            We spent the day on the beach here. Right behind us we had a jungle with palm trees and wild monkeys with white-rimmed eyes and slightly crazed expressions. A little to the left, we had two limestone rocks with a wild green mess of trees and bushes in between. As the tide went out, many of the old boats became locked on shore, sunken into the sand.

I can’t think of a more beautiful view, in all my time in Thailand; it’s hard to think of many more beautiful views, actually, in all my life.

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            The tide was out around 5 p.m., so we were able to wade back over the rocks and through the ocean to Railay beach (the tide was so low, actually, that I said to Devon nervously—“is this low tide or the beginning of a tsunami?”)

            I took hundreds of pictures over the weekend (the views were too beautiful to resist), but I put my phone away for an hour so I could enjoy the sunset with Devon as we sat on the sand in the water, which was up to our necks and still not cooling us off enough. I could’ve sat there for longer, but the last boat back was at 6.

            When we docked back at Ao Nang, we ran to 7-11 and grabbed bottles of wine (300 baht for a full bottle--$9; or less than $1 for two mini bottles, which I bought), which we carried with us back to Ao Nang beach to watch the end of the sunset. Then we got Mexican food for dinner and asked our waitress if there were any clubs in the area or, at the very least, places open past midnight.

            “Go to the Burger King down the street and take a right,” she instructed. “Chang bar.” We’d already heard about this bar, because it was really the only place open past midnight. So we ventured there and had an incredibly fun last night, playing pool with boys from Switzerland and dancing with Argentinians to American music and watching Lady Boys parade around the street and boys in wheelchairs spinning sticks on fire in the air. We had so much fun that we didn’t leave Chang until 4 in the morning.

            The next morning we shopped around and returned to Café 8.98 before leaving this little piece of heaven. I boarded a plane to return to Sakon Nakhon, which was hard to do. Part of me wished I was travelling like Devon’s brother, his girlfriend, and their friend—short-term and filling my days with only the best parts of Thailand, the parts that look like the travel brochures and the Google images. But I know my time will come soon enough, and I will have more of it, courtesy of the money I’m saving up working here first. Beginning in March, I can travel to see only the best places.

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            Plus, there’s something to be said for this kind of “travel.” Some days, when I'm feeling especially homesick and wishing I was home, and even (at my lowest points), regretting my decision to come here, I think of the alternative: imagine if, all my life, I’d never lived in Sakon Nakhon and had never met students like Oom and Fluke and Folk, their eyes bright every Monday morning when I walk into the classroom, always eager to offer me half of their morning breakfast and intensely interested in my weekend travels because they want to learn about the places in their country they might never see; imagine if I’d never met my travel friends, who are sharing all of these highs and lows with me; and imagine if, all my life, I’d never felt this kind of loneliness, this kind of sadness, that, by contrast, make weekend trips to Krabi feel like a unique kind of euphoria, because I’d gone a little while without it.

        Never in my life will I regret giving myself the opportunity to live alone in a foreign country; but I know, without a doubt, that I would have had plenty of regrets if I'd chosen not to teach in Thailand because I was afraid. 

Weekend Trips: The Difference Between Planned and Unplanned Adventures

First of all, let me just explain why I’ve been a bit behind with my blogging.

        I am currently uploading a new version of Adobe because I am trying to find “Educational TV Shows for ESL Little Kids that Teach Prepositions.” Surprisingly, there isn’t a whole lot. I might have found one good TV show (to be determined), but my Adobe player is out of date. I’m also cutting up pictures of little animals for a 3-7 year old group I’ll be tutoring starting tomorrow for extra cash (and because it sounded too cute to pass up—although 3-7 sounds like a ridiculous age gap, which makes me nervous).

            Meanwhile, I’ve spent today grading tests, creating new tests (midterms are coming up!), creating projects, realizing over and over again how many different ways I’ve secretly been messing up my grading system (and then thinking—screw it, nothing I can do about it now), and trying not to rip my hair out every time a student wants to just sit and chat while I’m trying my absolute hardest just to make sure, at the very minimum, I have a lesson prepared 3 seconds before I enter the classroom.

            Along with all this, I’ve been lugging my suitcase to school with me on Fridays so that, at exactly 4:29, I can run out the door to catch the next bus/plane/van going towards whichever town I’ve chosen as my next vacation destination, arranging meet-ups with friends, and figuring out how to do the reverse-trip back on Sunday so I can wake up bright and early Monday morning and start all over again.

            I’m not complaining. It’s certainly not a bad lifestyle—I mean yes, it’s challenging, but it also means I get to have amazing weekend experiences, and if in exchange I have to feel a little exhausted and frustrated, I’ll take it any day.

            I mostly say all this just to explain why I’ve had such a difficult time finding a chance to blog. But I’m putting aside my TV show hunt for the moment (and thinking maybe I’ll just have them color instead), to write about my last two weekends.

            We had two three-day weekends in a row because it is Thailand and they love any excuse to go home and sleep. I mean, technically, they were both holiday weekends. But when I asked the students what they do on these holidays, they said, exasperated, “Nothing, teacher. Nothing. Really, nothing.”

 “Do you hang out with your family—maybe have a family dinner, at least?” I asked.

“No.”

“Do you go to temple? Is it a religious holiday?”

“No.”

“Does anyone in the entire country do anything, even if you don’t?”

“Not really.”

Regardless, I was ready to celebrate.

Kohn Kaen

            Friday, immediately after school (two weekends ago), Devon and I took a bus to Koen Kaen. Koen Kaen is a great city in the Northeast. It’s excitingly urban for our region—it has a mall with The Body Shop and Aunt Annies, a few Western restaurants (yes, the taco shells are so crunchy you might break a tooth, and the breakfast is still waffles with ice cream and condensed milk and fruit syrup on top, but still), a temple that is 9-stories high, and a very expansive Saturday night market with literally everything you can think of—delicious food (they had gyros! That means bread people!), animals for sale (goats, different types of dogs, cats in outfits, bunnies in outfits, birds, etc.), clothing, Kylie Jenner lip kits, English-language books, caricature artists, bags, Ray Bans, Nike sneakers (the brand items I just listed are cheap and fake rip offs, but they really do look the same)… the list goes on.

            Saturday we did exactly all of these things. We woke up and found ourselves a “Western” breakfast, which, to the Thais, means the sweetest and most high-calorie dessert you can think of (start with a waffle or a pancake, add scoops of ice cream, drizzle with condensed milk and chocolate sauce, add honey on the side, put some ‘natural’ fruit on top, and you might be getting close to what Thai’s think we want in the morning). After eating, we made our way to this 9-story temple. It was beautiful and elaborate and shiny and expansive, as they all are, with a great view of the lake and the tops of buildings.IMG_9050

            At the peak, we asked a monk to take a selfie with us (is that allowed?). His name is Novice. I know this because, after we spoke for a few minutes, he said, “Can I have your Line and Facebook account?” Line is, well, essentially my phone number. A few minutes before, we’d been contemplating whether or not it was appropriate to take a picture with a monk, and now here we were, getting hit on by one.

            “Sure!” I agreed quickly because I felt it was probably very bad karma to refuse.

            Many of you, if we are friends on Facebook, have probably since gotten a friend request from him. It seems he wants to expand his social media circle—sorry about that.

            A few minutes after I left the temple, I got a couple of messages in a row from him (which seems common for some of the Thai people I’ve met here… they aren’t bothered if you answer or not, they will just keep sending you new messages on top of the old). His messages were: “Hello, do you remember me. I’m Novice. Good night. Have a good dream. Bye bye.”

            I said, “Yes, I remember you! Thanks for the chat today.”

            He said, “Never mind.” (We think he thinks this means, “You’re welcome.”)

            Then, long story short, after a few more messages he sent me a very eerie-sounding voice message via Facebook of himself saying, “Helllooooo, Caroline… I would like you to explain to me the difference between the U.S. education system and Thailand. Please tell me immediately.” He said these words slowly, stretching out the “hello” for so long that his voice withered off at the end. Then he sent me a bunch of pictures of himself giving a speech for a university class he’s taking and said, “Excuse me! Where are the pictures of us!”

            I’ve decided I am willing to take whatever bad karma I might receive for not responding to him.

            After the temple, we went to this big mall and then travelled to the night market. Here, I spent about 1,000 baht ($30… not a lot, until you think about how the cost of my plane ticket was also 1,000 baht). I bought a delicious chicken gyro wrap for dinner, mango sticky-rice for dessert, a light blue dyed shirt that looks ridiculous on me, a cute tank top-short combo (made of the same fabric) that looked trendy on the manikin but also looks ridiculous on me, two English-language books, a bag, and some white sneakers I plan on ruining at New Years.

            We had a lot of fun walking around and returned to our hostel exhausted.

            The next morning, we got ourselves up by 7 a.m. and made our way to 7-11, where we picked up breakfast, and then ventured to the bus station.

            The thing is, I’d been told by a friend I work with, Teacher Ying, as well as a few of my students, that there is this beautiful hiking mountain in Petchabun. They showed me a few pictures, first of themselves at the top of a mountain, watching the sunrise, and then of this huge five-headed Buddha statue, overlooking these very Swiss-looking fields. The region is even considered “The Swiss Alps of Thailand.” I couldn’t wait. I even wanted to leave on Saturday, but my friends convinced me to stay in Kohn Kean Saturday night for the night markets. Seriously, this was the one trip to which I was so looking forward. I just imagined myself hiking to these stunning peaks and overlooking views so beautiful that I would be overcome, all at once, with the deepest love and admiration for Thailand that I’ve felt so far.

            After one 3-hour bus ride to Lom Sok, where we’d been told we’d find a connecting bus to Petchabun, I stood at the bus terminal and showed them my Google-translated sentence: “Petchabun National Park. We want to hike.”

            “Hike?” They repeated, clearly barely understanding the meaning of the word, yet slowly shaking their heads. “No. You drive. Cannot hike.”

            “We don’t want to drive,” we tried to explain. “We want to hike.” Why, I began thinking nervously, do they think we need to drive to the top?

            “National park,” I repeated, and they nodded slowly. “Okay, bus 11.”

            We got on this bus and started winding our way up a mountain, moving slowly because the turns were sharp. I’d pulled my GPS up on my phone, and it said we were still 45-minutes away from the national park when the bus pulled over to the side and the lady pointed to us. “Farang (foreigners), off.”

            Off? We were literally halfway up a mountain, surrounded by absolutely nothing of importance, stopped in front of a wooden bench that was meant to constitute as a bus stop. And we were 45-minutes from where we wanted to go.

            And yet, the bus was headed in the wrong direction. What were we supposed to say, “No, can you actually take a left here and take us to the national park—we understand you don’t speak English and we don’t speak Thai, but regardless, we refuse to get off”? So, we got off.

            At this point it was almost 2 p.m. We were starving and so frustrated. We’d been travelling since 8 and had originally assumed we’d be hiking by noon. Instead, it felt like we’d just been wasting the whole day. We tried to ask a few different people how exactly we were supposed to get to the national park, and of course, we got plenty of different answers (take a taxi for 1,000 baht; take a bus; you’re already here.)

            Finally, we were told to take a songtaew. We decided it sounded like the cheapest and easiest option. We stayed on the side of the road until one pulled up, and then we hopped in the back. We sat on top of large blue bags of rice, laughing because of the absurdity of it all, while two young Thai girls stared at us wide-eyed, probably thinking, Mom, who the hell did you just pick up.

            We drove for a few minutes and began to relax. It was hard not to, in a place like this. There were so many bright green strawberry fields and hills and mountains—it was just beautiful. And then the woman took a sharp left turn and drove us down a dirt road, parked in front of her house (presumably), and turned off the engine. She got out, as did the girls, and they sat around this table outside with a few other women and children. A few men began unloading the rice after we got off, and meanwhile, this gathering of women stared at us as if they’d brought us here just to say, “Look what I found wandering around out there.” One woman literally had a bag of chips.

            At this point, my friends were exasperated. I was too, a little bit. I mean, my god. We just wanted to get to this STUPID national park. What were we doing? Why couldn’t anything just go right, and be easy, for once?

            One of my friends called her Thai coordinator so we could use him as a translator. After a few minutes, we began to understand the story.

            Thai translation-conversations, as a side-note, take forever. I have no idea why. An example might be: I say, “Hello.” And then my translator says, “ehte hwatheh twhhhasgb sad bga beb ehwhq dhhe hasdhe qyleg hdh ahd………” and five full minutes later, my translator will say, “She says ‘hello,’ too.”

            So, after a few minutes, we finally begin to understand that this lady is a “tour” guide (I am sure this is a loose term, generally meaning—“a woman looking for extra cash, who does not know English and has no credentials, but who is willing to drive foreigners around when she finds them on the side of the road”). She is apparently willing to drive us to the top of a mountain, and find us accommodation and dinner, etc., and drive us back to the bus station tomorrow, for 2,000 baht.

            At first, we considered just calling it a day. At 3:30, we honestly said, “Is it too early to go to bed?” We were just so tired of trying to get them to understand us, and all of the miscommunication that led us here in the first place. Then, on top of it all, my friend Marly realized she’d left her wallet on the bus.

            Finally, however, we realized that this was really our only option. I mean, if we said no—then what? Where would we stay? How would we get there? Where the hell WERE we, anyway?

            So we agreed. She drove us, as promised, to this beautiful lookout point. A lot of tents were pitched in the area (although I understood, finally, that this was not a hiking spot—you just drove your car up a road and pitched a tent at the top, there were no hiking options), but, slightly terrified, we kept repeating, “We don’t want tent. We want real bed. No tent. Bed. Go down mountain please.” We were just not interested in any more crazy adventures. We saw a beautiful sunset, ate chicken and vegetables with our quiet Thai “guide,” and then drove back down the mountain. She stopped at some bells so that we could hit them with some wooden sticks (worth the trip right there), and then asked us for 1,000 baht. We grudgingly handed it over, and then she left us at a hostel. We didn’t even mind sharing one King-sized bed between the four of us, even though it meant we slept sideways on the bed.

            And the thing is, maybe this day was a “waste,” and maybe it was “disastrous,” if I want to take the perspective of someone who expected something much, much different. But then, on the other hand—all of this travel is teaching me something about letting go of my expectations. I mean, what if someone told me, “Today, someone you don’t know is going to pick you up around 2 p.m. in a songtaew. Everything you do after 2 will be a surprise—nothing is planned. She will not speak your language. Just go with the flow. Enjoy whatever surprises she wants to throw at you. Laugh with your friends. Trust her.” If I’d heard that, then maybe (apart from Marly’s lost wallet) everything would have felt a little less, well… wrong.

            I mean, yeah, we were “off track.” But what is the problem with what we ended up doing? We saw the sunset. We ate a pretty good dinner. We were safe and together and fell asleep comfortably in something that was not a tent. For some of these trips, I just need to learn how to let go of what I think I “need” to see, and to let the momentum of the trip change course as it needs.  

            The next morning essentially made up for the entire “disastrous” experience. She picked us up outside of 7-11 at 7 a.m. We had our “typical” breakfast—corn flake cereal with yogurt for me, egg ham and cheese “toastie” microwaveable sandwiches for my friends—but regardless, she still handed us a large wicker basket filled with steaming hot white rice. “Breakfast,” she said.

            “Oh, uh, no,” I stammered, pointing to our food. “We have breakfast.” She took the basket back to the front seat. We felt slightly guilty for refusing to eat the meal she’d prepared for us, but none of us could consider eating more rice just to satisfy her.

            Then she drove us to the beautiful 5-headed Buddha statue that my students had showed me. And, honestly, it is better than the pictures. First of all, especially in the coolness of early morning and with a light mist covering the fields, the expansive landscape is breathtaking. It is truly just endlessly green fields and light yellow cornfields and oddly shaped mountains and dark green trees—and that’s it. No streets, no houses, no buildings, no smoke. And the statue itself is bigger than I can even conceptualize—the shortest Buddha head was at least 30 feet above me. And the floor below and around the Buddha statue is exquisite—colorful gems and diamonds and stones. There is another nearby temple, which is just as impressive, covered in bright gems and gold pieces. I’ll post pictures, but really, it might not do it justice.

            Then we travelled home. I won’t complain too much, but let’s just say, it was it’s own sweaty kind of hell: 8 hours on a bus, without a bathroom, and without food. It took days to recover.

Pranburi/Kho Sam Roi Yot National Park

            A few weeks ago, Devon and I googled, “Beach Day Trips from Bangkok.” We scrolled through a list of them and landed on one: “a temple in a cave on a beach.” This sounded fascinating, so we planned our trip.

            I didn’t even realize until arriving that this is the same place Jojo and Jordan (from The Bachelor…), spent one of their dates. So, really, you could just watch that episode if you want to know what my experience was like (minus the dating parts).

            Travel was easier this weekend, and really, it was probably just luck that made it that way. We took a 3-hour van to Pranburi, got off at a random bus station that looked just as random and deserted as the one last weekend had looked (resulting in slight PTSD for Devon and I), and then found ourselves a taxi and showed him the address. “Oh, 20 minutes away,” the driver told us. Thank god.

            My friend Gabi joined us, too. It was honestly a perfect weekend, and the best part was that nothing was planned. We arrived at our beautiful hostel, Sweet Honey. They told us we had an entire cottage to ourselves, with a kitchen and a living room. Yes, we were surprised with an unexpected fourth roommate (a nice but absent Yoga-teaching woman), but we couldn’t really complain. The place was empty (why they needed to put us with a stranger, I’m not sure… there really wasn’t a shortage of rooms). But, regardless, the emptiness meant that we were truly VIP guests. They held a cocktail hour just for us three (not sure if the cocktail hour would have happened regardless… we were the only guests), and brought us 2-for-1 drinks and dinner. Then, upon our request, they made multiple batches of popcorn in their popcorn maker, and allowed us to plug our own iPod’s into the speakers to listen to our own choice of music. On the second night, a worker actually surprised us with free mojitos delivered to our room. This hostel was truly fantastic.

            The first day, we took our free bicycles that the hostel provided us and began biking to the “beach.” We quickly figured out that we could not sunbathe on this beach—it was all rocks. Regardless, we weren’t really bothered. It was beautiful and completely empty, besides a few fisherman and townspeople. It was as if the entire ocean—the entire town—was ours.

            We returned to our hostel and requested a taxi to take us to the national park, figuring there’d be more to do there. A songtaew arrived to drive us. We spent the afternoon at the beach there. We had the option to hike to the cave with the temple, but we wanted to save that for the following day since it costs money and it was already 2 p.m. The beach was empty and it was overcast, but it was beautiful. The ocean was light blue and clear, and mountains bordered us from all sides. Besides a stray dog and a random couple, we were the only ones on the sand. We pulled out a book I’d brought with me—Outliers—and my friend read it out loud. We spent our afternoon like this—reading chapters out loud, pausing to discuss, pausing to drink coconut and eat pineapple and mango, pausing to walk the beach, and then reading again, discussing again.
            

    

            We returned for our cocktail hour, ate some chicken and pasta, and brought bowls of popcorn back to our room for a movie.

    The next morning, we adventured back to the national park. There was a large sign. Beside the Thai words, it said 40 baht. Beside the English words, it said 200.

            “That’s what they do,” Gaby explained to me. “They charge the foreigners more—a lot more—because they can’t even read that it is so much cheaper for anyone from Thailand.”

            We refused to fall for this, and we were ready to “fight” (our plan was to repeat, “we teachers! Not foreigners!” in English until they got frustrated and took the 40). However, as we approached the ticket booth, we saw someone else was already getting yelled at… so we just slipped by them and began hiking, for free, courtesy of some very dumb luck.

            The hike was steep and long. It was mostly rock, with a concrete platform built beside the natural rock as an option to use when passing people, although the concrete made me more nervous because of how steep it felt. About two hours later, we reached the opposite side of the mountain, with a beautiful white “sand” beach (the sand, really, was just millions of tiny pieces of broken shell). The water was clear, light blue, and refreshingly cool. Dark green trees separated the beach from the woods behind it. It reminded me a bit of a hybrid—Florida-beaches, perhaps, beside some Maine-woods.

  

            We hiked into the cave (VERY steep, long, and so tiring that we couldn’t really breathe the entire way up). I got a few glances because of my outfit choice—are those knees? Finally, we descended into this cave. It was incredible—and felt like an adult playground. There are holes at the top of the cave to let light in, which means a lot of natural greenery grows inside the cave. The temple, built by a Thai King (Rama V?), looked from the entrance to the cave like it was glowing. There were little pitch-black sections of the cave you could crouch and enter into, with small Buddha statues and candles set up. There were hills in the cave made of reddish-brown dirt, which, although slippery, we climbed up and down. Truly, it was a place you could get lost inside, a place you could spend hours just circling and exploring.

            After a few hours, we climbed out of the cave and back down to the beach. We were starving, so we were actually grateful (for once!) for fried rice. Then, we SWAM (December 11, 2016—I swam in an ocean! 14 days before Christmas). It was as refreshing as you could imagine, especially after our sweaty, tiring hike. Then we lay on the beach for a while, before climbing over the mountain in time to see the sunrise. We took our motorbikes and cruised around for a bit, down random dirt roads, pulling over every so often to take pictures. And then we journeyed back to our hostel (where we watched The Bachelor episode… you know, to compare). We ate dinner (FYI, burgers taste weird and different here—I wouldn’t necessarily recommend… but banana splits really taste the same anywhere), returned our rented motorbikes (and almost got attacked by a crazed dog on the way home, on our bicycles—I’ve never ridden a bike so fast in my life), and went to bed.

            The next morning, we lay at the pool for a while and then began our long journey back to Sakon Nakhon. We also found Burger King at the airport, and I felt an excitement for food that I haven’t felt in forever.

            This weekend was wonderful. I was lucky, honestly, that I’d experienced the “disastrous” Petchabun weekend right before. By the time this weekend arrived, I was well aware of exactly how vacations in Thailand might go. They might go like this: transportation takes forever, no one speaks your language, Google lies to you, places you think you want to see turn out to be unimpressive, and places you hadn’t planned on seeing turn out to be your favorite. I mean, we didn’t do all that much this weekend—we found some fruit and some drinks, we read a book together, we saw a temple in a cave, we swam at the beach. The difference was simply that we didn’t start this weekend with a hard-and-fast “to-do” list, so we didn’t feel any sense of guilt or regret for changing our minds in the moment. Every minute, we asked ourselves, “Is this what we want to be doing? Is this what we want to do?” We were flexible. And we gave ourselves plenty of time to just read a book on the beach, or watch The Bachelor in our living room, without any of us saying out loud, “Hang on a minute—didn’t Google say we could cliff dive and scuba dive and swim with sharks and ride horses, only a few hours from here? Why are we staying still? Why aren’t we moving?

            What I mean is this: I am learning that if all you do is move, it is really hard for anyone or any place to introduce itself properly to you. 

Thanksgiving Blessings Look Different This Year

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Yesterday, I celebrated "Thanksgiving" at a woman's house whom I've never met, with a few strangers and a few new friends. We had turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and tacos. It was a day filled with both familiarity and strangeness, but when asked what I am thankful for this year in Thailand, I did not find it difficult to think of a couple things at the top of my list. So here it is: 

Being a Native English Speaker

    A few days ago, I asked my M6 students (M6 is like senior year, in America) to tell me one reason they want to learn English. Most of them said that they dreamed, one day, to travel outside of Thailand by themselves. Not just to America—to anywhere (many of them mentioned Laos, Korea, China, England, Canada). They knew they could only do this if they knew English, the world’s quickly growing #1 form of communication.

    This dream is so earnest and pure and beautiful. I think we can all empathize with this desire. They simply want to communicate, professionally and personally, with the rest of the world, of which they know only a tiny, tiny part.

    They trust English to build them a new life, even if they can’t imagine what this life is supposed to look or feel or sound like. And they trust me, their teacher, to get them there. They assume that I know best, that I am intelligent, because I am a native speaker. For them, being born a native English speaker is like being born lying on a pile of gold.

    There is nothing wrong with the Thai language. In another reality, another world, perhaps Thai would be the language taking over the world, and I would be the one struggling in the classroom because if I did not learn it, I would never have the privilege to enjoy travelling by myself as I am right now. But this is not another world. So I have learned, here in Thailand, to be incredibly thankful for the arbitrary blessing of being born to two parents who speak English as their first language.

    I have been told that, in Thailand, when you are 21-years-old you go to the store (or, you go somewhere… I think my coordinator said store, but I might have misunderstood), and you stick your hand in a basket, which contains red and white cards.

Red: You are obligated to join the army to fight for your country for two years.

White: You are not.

    This is how I am beginning to feel, in regards to my slowly growing understanding of the importance of being a native or fluent English speaker. I feel as if I have pulled a white card out of a basket. I mean, many of us (us meaning me and whoever is reading this, assuming you are from America) are in the top 7% of the world: we have a college degree (only 6.7% of the world has one), we live in America, and we are native English speakers.

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Being Paid to Live Abroad

Last week, my student Fluke stood up to describe an item that “reminded him of home.” His item was a grey nondescript sweatshirt he wears every day.

“This is my favorite item from home because it is the only birthday gift I’ve ever gotten, from my friend,” Fluke said shyly. I didn’t really understand, and, ridiculous as it is, I still felt bad (here I was, fretting that this was the only birthday gift he’d gotten this year). “No, teacher,” Fluke clarified for me. “This is the only birthday gift I’ve ever gotten.”

    Fluke and my other students have reminded me of my fortune. Some of them have no concept of the rest of the world. I showed a few of them pictures of Switzerland the other day, because they’d never heard of it. When I mention small weekend trips I’ve taken or plan on taking here in Thailand, many of them tell me, “Oh, Teacher, I’ve never been there.” Some of my students truly do not know how big to make their dreams. Nevermind leaving Thailand… some have never left this town.     

    What I am saying is, my job is the second reason I feel thankful. Because for long periods of time, I forget that I am technically getting paid to do this job, and that I am not doing it simply because it is so painfully essential that it get done, for all these students who deserve opportunities similar to mine. For me, I feel lucky to realize that my trip to Thailand, an experience I thought I was doing just to open up my own world, is really a chance to open up someone else’s.

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6-Month Time Limit

    This sounds a little ridiculous, but bear with me. I do not mean that I am thankful I only get to be in Thailand for 6 months, or that I would not be thankful for Thailand if I stayed longer. What I mean is, the time limit gives every day this sense of urgency (the thought, “If I don’t do it now, I never will,” of which many travellers are familiar). I feel pressure to say yes to every adventure. I feel pressure to explore side streets that I have not ventured down. I feel pressure to try strange foods. I feel pressure to stay out late despite exhaustion, and to wake up early to glimpse whatever it is Thai people do at 6:30 in the morning. When someone says, “Want to take a kickboxing class with me?” I do not think about all of the work I should be doing, or whether or not I will embarrass myself.

    I think, “Well… I am only here for 6 months…”

    And this is the third reason I am thankful for Thailand and it’s 6-month expiration date. This urgency dissipates when we live the same lifestyle for a long time.

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Thai’s “Work Mentality”

    This morning, by 9 o’clock, I was ready to go home and go to bed. I was tired, I had to fill out all of these stupid sheets having to do with my grading system and my syllabi for the semester for each of my classes, and everyone just kept talking all around me. And then, when I went to the refrigerator, we were out of water, and I felt incredibly dehydrated. I turned to my friend Teacher Ying and, barely capable of not snapping at her, said, “Teacher Ying, where can I get more water?”

    “Hmm, shoot. I will have to go get some more down the street,” she said. She looked up at the ceiling and then her face brightened. “There is a coffee shop near there. Want to come with me and I will take you there?”

“Yes!” I could not say yes fast enough. I wanted out of this fluorescent office, of these people talking all around me, of these stupid sheets I’d been filling out for three days.

    So I went to this cute coffee shop with her and ordered a very delicious, very American-tasting iced coffee and a cake (because why not?). When we got back to the office, I’d barely sat down when a teacher I work with asked me, “Caroline, want to come get lunch with us? We’re going to sit outside and get chicken and sticky rice from a restaurant down the road.”

    So I went with them, and ate chicken, and learned about these porcelain dolls in Thailand that people sometimes try to put spirits into (illegally, by stealing corpses, which is a whole other topic… Google it). These dolls are supposed to bring you good luck as long as you don’t forget to feed them (like your children).

    After lunch, Teacher Ying asked if I wanted to go to the mall, so I went with her and played Dance-Dance-Revolution in an arcade. My 1-hour lunch break turned into 3-hours. When I returned to the office around 3 p.m., my director said, “Okay, that’s enough working, everyone can go home early today.”

    This is one other thing I am thankful for, here in Thailand. Just when you are ready to explode because everything is feeling frustrating and mundane and stifling, you realize that YOU are the only one who is making it feel this way. All of my other coworkers understand Thailand’s work mentality (one which I think should be adopted everywhere). Luckily, they are slowly teaching me: you do what you feel capable of doing that day, and then you take the rest of the day off to play arcade games at the mall and discuss porcelain dolls at a chicken shop. This is not to say that they do not work incredibly hard—they do. It is just to say: they know when to take a deep breath, push their chairs back away from their desks, and say, “Okay, enough.” They know the importance of spontaneity. I do not know if I have ever learned this, back in America. I am thankful for the chance to learn it now.

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5 People Everyone Should Know

I have only been in my province, Sakon Nakhon, for 6 days now, so I don't feel quite qualified enough to talk about what it is like to live in Thailand yet, or which are the best waterfalls to visit, or which temples can change your life, or anything else related to Thai culture. But, having been here for 6 days now, I do think I am somewhat qualified to write about 5 people I have encountered in my province, and why I think they are all worth writing about. 

1. The Thai man who owns my apartment building: Although I’ve slightly adjusted to my first experience living alone, sometimes it makes me sad. It is hard, however, to feel lonely here, thanks to the owner of this building. He is an old Thai man who might be my favorite person here. He is so petite that all his clothes practically hang off of him, and he has this wide grin. Whenever he sees me he follows me to my door just to hang around outside of it and practice speaking English, of which he knows only a few words. So he will say, “How are you?” and then I will practice responding in Thai, and he will say, “Yes, we will teach each other!” And then he gets excited and laughs to himself. 

    On Sunday he knocked at my door at 9 p.m. with a blue plastic chair for me and said, “For you. Also… I come… fix,” he paused and pointed at my dresser, which has a drawer that is loose, “tomorrow.”            

    “Great!” I said, and then grabbed my Google translator and typed in: mosquito netting. I pointed the phone at him. “Do I need one of these?”

    He peered at it and then said, “Ah!” and left. I closed the door. Ten minutes later he was back with his own personal bug spray. He handed it to me and said, “Use this.” Then he just smiled at me until I said, “Okay, well, goodnight.” He liked that word a lot, and repeated it a few times: Goodnight, goodnight, goodnight.

     Tonight, he drove me to my first exercise class in the province. I asked him for the number of a taxi company; he told me, "No. I take you." I feel like he is looking out for me here, and I also feel that he is not the only person with this level of selflessness in Thailand--many people are like him here. They do not want to do you only a small favor when they can do a large one. He sat on the couch and waited until I finished the exercise class, despite my assurances that he could leave and I would get home fine. Then he said, "You hungry?" And drove me to the 7-11, helped me pick out a spaghetti meal for dinner, and asked the 7-11 clerk to heat it up for me. All this, and he knows maybe 7 English words.

2. My student, a girl named Oom: On my first day, a student found me at my desk and asked if I would eat lunch with her and her friend Fluke. I sat with her and asked questions in English and she spoke back respectfully and excitedly. She told me she is so happy I am here because now she can practice her English. 

Ever since then, Oom comes straight to my desk at noon and says, “Let’s go to lunch, Teacher!” Sometimes, her friends join us. When they speak in Thai, she says, "No, let's try to speak in English, so Teacher Caroline understands." She walks with me around the cafeteria as I point at different foods and say, "What is that? Spicy?" And, not only does she answer me patiently, but she translates my order to the cafeteria lady, so I have not needed to learn any Thai words (a good thing and a bad, considering I cannot carry Oom with me everywhere I go). 

She wants to be an English teacher and an exchange student in America. She is so passionate about learning English that she found this school on her own and now travels three hours a day to get to the school and to go home. This means she wakes up at 5 a.m. and gets home around 7:30. And yet, she is so patient and considerate with me. When I'm finished eating, she always says, "Okay, Teacher? You want ice cream?" 

3. Another one of my students, Fluke: The sweetest looking 15-year-old boy, who is not only incredibly responsible and respectful (voted leader of his class, and the one who always quiets the others), but also, he often sits with myself and Oom at lunch, despite any deduction in "cool points" this might cause for him.

Yesterday, I said, “Oh, it’s so nice out today! I love the sun!” when we were walking outside to the cafeteria. Fluke turns to me and says, “I hate the sun. Too hot.” After I ordered my food, I found Fluke and said, “Where are we sitting?” And he said, “I picked a table near the sun for you, since you like it so much, even though it is too hot,” and then he gave me this shy little smile. 

4. My coordinator (the Thai teacher basically responsible for my adjustment as a teacher and as a foreigner in my province): Every night he picks me and the other American up for dinner and takes us to new places because, as he says, “I want to give you options so you know where to go on your own.” He is like a parent. He takes me to the store to buy cleaning supplies and food and shampoo and to the pharmacy and shows me the “American” tasting coffee shops (there is exactly two in this area, and they’re a little far, so I can’t get there Monday-Friday. During the week, instead, I drink orange tea with condensed milk from the school cafeteria because it is my only option). He translates for me and makes promises like, “this weekend, I show you hiking spot!” and “I will talk with my hospital friend to see if you need malaria shots.” Also, today he offered to go with me tomorrow to the Songtaew stop (like a pick-up truck that acts as a bus), and to speak with the driver to get the schedule for me, although, as he warned me: “Thailand is underdeveloped, not like Japan or America. So there is no schedule. It comes when it wants to come. So, every day is adventure!” Truly, I would be lost in this country without him. 

5. The Phillipino women I work with: Although not at all interchangeable, I put them in the same "category" because I do not know them well individually yet, and also because they have all been equally kind and inclusive with me. Although they are foreigners and share a native language, they speak English when I am around so I can be included. They ask a lot of questions, and a few nights ago they invited me to go shopping and to have dinner with them. They've also already invited me to their house to cook me Phillipino food, and have even offered to give me one of their bikes because one teacher assured me, "I don't know how to ride it, anyway."

    They are incredibly inclusive and welcoming and laugh a lot, even in the office, and step away from their desks whenever students ask to play games with them. Last night they took me to the market because they wanted to show me where to get fruits and vegetables as well as the “greatest pad thai in Sakon Nakhon,” and on the way back they continued to mention all the survival tips they’ve come up with since living in Sakon Nakhon. They even walked with me to the pharmacy because they wanted to help me translate “aspirin,” even though they don’t know any more Thai than I do. The four of us stood together at the counter anyway, pointing to our heads and saying the word slowly, “as-pir-IN,” as if this is all that is needed for translation.

And today, because they knew I wanted to find a gym, they coerced a few older students to show us the gym at the university, and then we sat at a table and each ordered a different dessert from a bakery, passing them around and sharing them with each other. Some of them, I've heard, have kids and husbands in different places. You would never know this from our interactions. They are so entirely present and here with me in this moment, and so warm, and so willing to make these experiences feel a little more like home for me. 

Basically, what I am saying is, beaches and national parks and waterfalls are not the only places beauty can be found in Thailand. 

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