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Friday, September 7th, 2007
3:36 pm
I signed a lease for a house today.

2 bedrooms, 1 office, 2 bathrooms, 1 laundry room, 1 kitchen, 1 very large central room which doubles as living room and dining room (also great for entertaining)
Fully furnished, large TV with cable (CNN, BBC, Star Movies, and HBO!), refrigerator, stove, dishes
Nice tiled floors
Very friendly landlady who lives next door and helps to look after the place, will also help me clean and do my laundry, she's already calling me "son"
Air-conditioning in smaller rooms, ceiling fans in all rooms, hot water, seems to be "sealed" so hopefully not too many geckos, bugs, and rats
Large yard with locked gate
Central location

Only thing I'm missing is a view of the Mekong.

Grand total?

$300 per month! Woo-hoo! I love this country....
Monday, August 27th, 2007
5:32 pm
Settled in Lao
Hello out there!

Well, this is my first real post in quite some time. Lately, I’ve just been giving brief informational updates, but—looking back—I see that I haven’t posted anything of any real significance since January! Where does the time go? Luckily, I’ve kept most of you abreast of what’s been happening in my life and even got the chance to see most of you in June.

In a nutshell, here’s how my time has been spent these past months. In March, my Peace Corps service ended. I then spent the next couple of months travelling, relaxing, and looking for a job. My job-search kept bringing me back to Lao. My travels took me all over Thailand, mostly visiting friends who are still Volunteers. Time not spent travelling found me at Goi’s house in Nong Khai.

In June, of course, I was in the States, where I visited LA, San Francisco, Minnesota, and South Dakota. That was an awesome trip and it was great to be back and catch up with family and friends, most of whom I hadn’t seen for quite some time.

A couple of you have asked to me to comment on my trip home. Surprisingly, I suffered very little culture shock. Perhaps it’s because Thailand is so developed. Honestly, I mostly just felt like I was home—it was very comfortable to be back in America. Being back there, I realized how much I actually missed the place. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll find my way back there someday.

I arrived back in Thailand in July and I spent most of that month again at Goi’s. By the end of the month, it was time to buckle down and look for some serious employment. So, I headed back to Lao to do some serious networking and nail down a job.

My timing was excellent because in Vientiane, the capital of Lao, I was just in time for the 2007 Lao Ecotourism Forum: “Bridging the Mekong Region.” The convention brought together just about everyone who was anyone in Lao, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam to “network and expand ecotourism opportunities in their respective countries.” Ecotourism is the latest buzzword and refers to a responsible tourism industry that supports local economies and preserves natural habitats and cultural heritages—prevents the world from becoming another Kao San Road. Talk about a perfect opportunity for networking!

Seriously, everyone was there, and every major organization was well-represented. I already knew quite a fair number of individuals thanks to the network I’d already established in the prior months. I showed up with a fresh haircut and a clean suit and spent the entire day talking to everyone I could, collecting business cards, and passing out my resume. I generated quite a significant amount of interest and there is more than one organization that may be interested in working with me in the future.

Anyway, it was that day that I met my current boss. A former Thailand PCV had given me a list of names of people in Lao to talk to—one of these women suggested more people for me to meet—and it was one of these individuals to introduced us. Here’s to the power of networking! The next day I was at the office for an official interview. That night they offered me the opportunity to come on for a one-month trial period. I started less than two weeks later. The following week they gave me a permanent offer to come on full-time and the week after that I accepted. Talk about a fast turnaround!

I am now the Projects and Operations Manager of Sunlabob, Rural Systems, Ltd. in Vientiane, Laos. I am responsible for the company’s social projects, managing the daily operations of the office, and overseeing the marketing department. I am about to become extremely busy. It’s a unique time for the seven-year-old company as it is about to expand and take off in many directions at once, including a move overseas. Consequently, my boss is having to spend more and more time out of the office and needs someone to help pick up the slack. That’s where I’m gonna come in.

My boss, Andy, is a German who’s been in Lao with his wife for over 11 years. He started the company in 2000 with his Lao partner. They’ve primarily been providing solar power to off-grid villages and have franchises all over the country. In Vientiane, there’s a staff of about 35—most of whom are engineers and technicians. The rest are office staff. I am now the third permanent foreign staff. The other is Lloyd, a Welshman who is the Financial Controller. The Lao staff is quite competent, but many of them are quite young and lacking in experience. They need a little bit more direction, which is also where I’m gonna come in.

As the company grows, and if I stay with it after my six-month contract is up, there should be a large number of opportunities for me. I should be able to get some experience in the field and, potentially, assist with expansion overseas (!). My contract is quite fair, with some good perks, and a nice income for Lao. I like the staff and, thus far, I’m enjoying the work. The company is quite good and definitely has a genuine goal of being socially responsible.

I’m here, I made it—I’m officially living in Lao! I’m still living in a guesthouse for now, but will be moving into an apartment (or rented house) as soon as I find one. There are some good options around, so I’m going to take my time in looking for one—would like to find the ideal place to be for the next 6 months.

I bought a motorbike the other day! It’s a good new Lao bike that I picked up for only $585. It’s black and fast. I love it—it’s good to have my own wheels.

Vientiane is a nice town. I think it’s a nicer town to live in than to visit. It’s a small city—about 200,000 people—with everything really in a close area. My guesthouse is about 2.5 miles from my work—and that’s really the furthest distance I have to travel. There is quite a sizable expat community here—probably about 5,000 white foreigners. I’m developing quite a good network of friends and acquaintances—both Lao and foreign. My boss Andy and colleague Lloyd between the two of them probably know everyone in town.

There is an excellent selection of foreign restaurants, cafes, and bars in town. In addition, shopping is good and I’m able to find western food for home. Many a night has been spent at the local bars where—I’m beginning to suspect—much of the business is discussed and decided. Sometimes it feels like I’m living in The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson where a bunch of white foreigners live in a tropical country and meet everyday after work for drinks. At Sunlabob, there is also a good number of foreigners who seem to pass through or who are, in one way or another connected with the company. Right now we have one German-Australian student working as an intern, in addition to others who are about.

I say Vientiane isn’t that interesting to visit because, well, there’s not much here for a tourist—especially when compared to the beauty of the rest of Lao. Sure, there’s a couple of nice wats—but little else. Geographically, in a nation known for its breathtaking mountains, the area around the capital is flat, just like northeastern Thailand. The Mekong River is nice and it is an enjoyable activity to sit and drink Beer Lao and gaze over at Thailand. It adds to the general sleepy feel of the place.

That being said, there are a couple of notable, um, “attractions.” One is the Patuxai, also known as the Victory Monument, or the Arc de Triomphe. This is a giant monument in the middle of town, modeled after its Parisian counterpart, which was built in the early 60s. It is ridiculous and really quite ugly. It’s built rather shoddily out of concrete and, despite some ornamentation, is really nothing to look at. As one of the tallest structures in the city, it’s an absurd eyesore.

To add to the bizarreness of it, there is a very wide avenue stretching out from the Arc all the way to French-built Presidential Palace on the river. The avenue is clearly meant to be a replica of the Champs Elysees, although the traffic and surrounding buildings are decidedly less than those in Paris. Imagine the Champs with nobody on it…. The local expats do indeed refer to it as “the Champs,” always tongue-in-cheek. That all being said, the views from the top of the Arc are nice and there is a rather nice park surrounding it, as well.

Also nice, is the fact that I’m right across the river from Goi. Once I get my work-visa (which should be this week), I should be able to cross back and forth between the two countries with very little fuss and, most importantly, for free. The current 30-day tourist visa for Lao for Americans is $30, which can get expensive. Additionally, the hassle at the borders for tourists is always annoying. That visa should make my life easier in all respects. There is a bus that goes between the market here and the bus station in Nong Khai—but tourists can’t take it because of the length of time spent at the border—but I’ll be able to take it. Also, Goi can visit Lao for free because she’s Thai. So, we’ll be seeing quite a lot of each other.

Anyway, I’m ready to begin my new life in Lao! I’ve got a good job and I’m getting settled and I’ll keep you all posted as to everything. Life is good.

Peace and love,
Tuesday, August 21st, 2007
2:45 pm
Hello out there!

Well, I've really got a job now.

Sunlabob (see previous entry) made me an offer and I accepted. I'll be signing a 6-month contract with them. The pay is quite decent--good for here, anyway. I'll be working as a Project Manager.

I'll be the third permanent foreign staff member and working on the management level. It's an interesting time as the company is really starting to take off and expand. I'll be overseeing the Marketing department, but also contributing to other projects, and assisting with basic office management. The current foreign staff is quite busy and the Lao staff need some additional direction, so I should be able to help out quite a bit.

After the six months are up, who knows?

Now I need to look for an apartment and a motorbike!

More soon....

Peace and love,
Wednesday, August 1st, 2007
11:30 am
I got a job!
Hello out there!

(I suppose I should change the name of this blog to kevin_lao. I'll try to figure out a way to do it without confusing all my loyal readers.)

So, yeah, I got a job! Well, sort of....

I've been hired for a one-month trial period with Sunlabob, a private company that provides renewable energy--like solar power--to rural areas of Lao. Here's their website: sunlabob.com. They're a good company and have received a couple of awards for being ecologically responsible. Their main office is in Vientiane, the capital of Lao.

For the one month, I'll be managing a small project marketing the company to different ecotourism organizations. I'll be supervising two Lao staff members.

So, why the trial period? Well, they were looking for someone with more managerial experience in the private sector--which I don't have. So, they need to see if I'm a good fit.

As for me, it's not exactly what I was looking for, which was an NGO job in Luang Pabang, in Northern Lao. So, I need to decide if this company is right for me--while still keeping my options open. In the end, maybe I'll decide that this is fine for now. Either way, it could be my "foot-in-the-door" in Lao.

The pay for the month is not much, but it would go up if I did come on for something more long-term.

I've found that apartments and houses-for-rent are bit pricier in the capital. (Ha! "Pricier" meaning $200+ per month.) So, for this first month I've decided to stay in a nice guesthouse. I wouldn't want to live in a hotel room long-term--but it's fine for one month. Besides--laundry service is included! I think that's what sold it for me.

Also, since I don't know how long I'm gonna be living here, I'm holding off on buying a motorbike. I did meet someone who will rent me one, however, for only $2 a day (maybe even less!)

I start work on the 7th. Wish me luck!

I will write more soon.

Peace and love,

p.s. In regards to the previous message: Right after I wrote that, I lost my Thai sim-card. So, I no longer have a number in Thailand. My Lao and US numbers, however, will remain the same.
Wednesday, July 25th, 2007
12:08 pm
New Lao phone number
Hello out there!

I have moved to Lao and have a new phone number. If you'd like it, please email me at kevinpeterjohnson@yahoo.com.

Also, I'll be keeping my sim-cards for Thailand and the USA. So, when I'm in a country, I'll be using the respective number. Don't delete them!

Lao is on the same time-zone as Thailand. So, right now, it's 14 hours ahead of the West Coast and 11 hours ahead of the East Coast.

No job yet, but I'll keep you posted.

Peace and love,
Saturday, April 21st, 2007
12:09 pm
I'm coming home!
Here is the exact schedule of where and when I'll be in the States!

5-31 to 6-4: Los Angeles
6-4 to 6-15: San Francisco
6-15 to 6-21: Minnesota
6-21 to 6-26: South Dakota
6-26 to 6-29: Minnesota
7:1 Arrive back in Thailand!
Thursday, February 15th, 2007
2:13 pm
So, I've set up an account on flickr.com so you can see some pictures of me. I'm still setting it up, uploading pics, and getting it organized--but check back later and it'll be all nice and pretty. Right now I'm putting pics on there from my tsunami project. I'll keep the site as part of my email signature, so you'll always have it. Once I finish PC I'm gonna finally get a digital camera, so there'll be even more pics on there. Here's the address:

Thursday, January 25th, 2007
3:53 pm
The Tsunami Volunteers
Two events happened a little over two years ago. One was global, one was personal.

The global event happened on December 26, 2004—Boxing Day in some parts of the world. As you all know, on that day, the Indian Ocean earthquake, with a magnitude of 9.15, triggered the Tsunami that killed an estimated 230,000 people in a large number of countries. In Thailand alone, about 8,200 people died, 8,500 were injured, and 7,000 were displaced. Many people were left unemployed and many children were left without one or both parents.

The personal event occurred on January 15, 2005. That was the day I first arrived in Thailand. As my site is in the far northeast of the country, about as far away from the ocean as one can get, I thought I would never be involved in the ongoing Tsunami relief effort.

But, over two years later, the two events finally met in what can only be described as perhaps the highlight of my entire Peace Corps service.

I think it was last May when we received the email from Peace Corps—one of many containing various pieces of information about resources available to us. This one mentioned a new grant being made available by USAID—the Tsunami Special Project Assistance grant. I read the email and transferred the information to the back of my mind, sure that I would never have a chance to take advantage of it, being so far away.

Then, in June, I was at an HIV Camp. I was quite fortunate in my site placement that in my province are three other guys with whom I’ve gotten along smashingly well and have also collaborated with on numerous occasions. These three are Chris, Josh, and Tom. Anyway, this particular Camp was at Chris’s site and the other three of us were there to help out, as per usual. During the Camp we marveled, as we had so many times before, how awesome Thai kids are. We’ve all had success working with the kids at our various sites and both us and the kids enjoy working with each other.

It was Chris who first came up with the idea, almost in passing. He wondered if we could use that grant to take a bunch of kids from our province down to the South of Thailand to do a community service project, helping out with the relief effort. In the process, they’d learn about volunteerism, leadership, and get a free trip to the beach. We all laughed at the impossibility of such a crazy scheme. But, it also stuck with us. It was so crazy, it just might work.

Next month, the four of us met up again—this time in our provincial capital—to discuss if such a harebrained plan actually had any validity in it. There were a lot of factors that had to go into play. A lot of “ifs.” Could the grant possibly pay the enormous expense of taking a large group of people to the other side of the country? Would Peace Corps give us more money since there were four PCVs involved? Would our villages and schools let us take the students? Would our counterparts be on board? Could we count on support from the local government? Was there an NGO down South that’d be willing and supportive to work with us? From the beginning, there were a number of things that could have gone wrong.

But, in the end, the answer to all those questions was Yes. And nothing went wrong.

It took a long time and a lot of work, but somehow it all came together. We got each of our respective villages—and the important people—on board. Made contact with an NGO. Had a lot of meetings. Wrote the grant and budget proposal. Submitted the proposal (at 8 pm on the day of the deadline). Got the proposal returned with “suggested changes.” Made the changes and resubmitted the proposal. Finally got the proposal approved! Found out the money would take much longer to arrive then Peace Corps had first indicated. Cancelled the originally scheduled date of October and changed it to January. Then, three months passed in which we all got busy with other things and each took long vacations. Finally, the end of December arrived and we scurried around for two weeks with last-minute plans.

In the end, the United States Government gave us over $3,000 (which comes out to quite a bit of Baht). We also got over $50 from each of our respective local governments. Additionally, the NGO we partnered with helped out with in-kind contributions totaling over $600. The money and contributions went towards supplies, enough food for 24 people for 6 days, transportation (the bus we ended up renting cost over $2,000 alone), paying the salaries for our counterparts who all have regular jobs, t-shirts for all 24, lodging, and various other expenses.

And, here’s what finally happened:

Us four PCVs. One adult counterpart from each of our sites. In my case, I brought Ja—the health educator I work with at the health center. She’s great for any trainings, good with kids, and one of the people I get along with the best. She was also the person we entrusted with the funds because she’s uncorrupt (unfortunately a rare trait out here). The other Thai adults were a teacher, a woman who’s in charge of Education for the local government who used to be a teacher, and a Councilmember. Two women and two men. From each of our sites we brought four kids—two guys and two girls—mostly between the ages of 14 and 15. Due to local politics, we ended up with two 18 year-olds, which was fine because they ended up being the leaders of the whole group. The kids were picked out by us and our local teachers—kids who were felt to be leaders amongst their peers. My kids were ones whom I’ve worked with on a variety of occasions: Prao, Mon, Nam, and Bees. 24 people in all.

The first day was spent in our provincial capital where we had rented a conference room in a hotel at the local university. That day we spent training the kids. We taught them about volunteerism and leadership. We explained to them about the tsunami and about what was expected of them during the trip. Then we taught them activities that they would run on their own once we got down South.

That first day was perhaps the toughest because the kids didn’t know each other yet. Also, we had to get all of the boring stuff out of the way at the beginning. Furthermore, for a lot of them, this was their first time away from home. Ever.

For most of us Americans, when we look back on growing up, our memories are filled with summer camps, day camps, scout camps, field trips, band trips, theatre trips, church trips, family road trips. It’s an essential part of our growing up. It has a huge influence on our whole life-experience. Getting away from the parents! Sleeping in a strange cabin or tent! Staying up all night! The endless fun one can have on a bus! Gluing macaroni to paper plates! However, this is something that is almost completely lacking from the Thai growing-up experience. Especially if you’re from the poor, rice-farming Northeast where such luxuries are unaffordable. Plus, Thailand’s a big country. Think Texas with worse roads. It takes a long time to get from one end to the other, especially when you get to the long narrow peninsula that is the South. Most Isanites never see the ocean, unless they become migrant-workers.

Putting 16 young teenagers on a bus was a shocking experience for a lot of them. Some of them got roadsick. One threw up on the bus. That first day was pretty hard as they got homesick, they missed their moms, they missed homecooking (especially since Southern food is much less spicier than Isan food). But, the trip got gradually easier. I was reminded of the old camp song: “Hello mudda, hello fadda….” You know, where the kid complains, but things get better until by the end they don’t want to go home. I don’t remember getting homesick when I was a kid, but I could understand.

We got on the bus that first night and there was the initial excitement on the part of everyone. We had gotten a sweet bus too and I think everyone was happy about that. We were travelling in style and comfort. Only right for $2,000! There was even a lower level with a little table where we Americans stayed up most of the night playing Spades. The bus pulled out and we couldn’t believe it. It was actually happening and there was no turning back! Most of the kids slept that first night, despite the complaints. We were pretty stressed out and nervous—we still didn’t know exactly what was going to happen down South—so we didn’t get much sleep.

The distance was about 900 miles (1,449 kilometers). This is roughly the same distance as San Francisco to Denver, LA to Seattle, Minneapolis to Dallas, or New York to St. Louis. If you’ve done any of those routes—you know it can seem like forever. Rice paddies aren’t too much different from corn fields in the end.

The total ride took 22.5 hours—which is a long time, even with a lot of stops. We did stop a lot too. Bathroom breaks, food breaks. We ended up with only one driver! Not sure why—we were supposed to have two—just another thing to stress us out. The guy proved to be a champ though—still don’t know how he did it.

The first morning, we stopped at a tourist site a little over halfway. We visited Phra Nakhon Khiri—a forested hill in Phetburi province on top of which are several wats and the remains of a palace built by King Rama IV (title character from the historically false The King and I). It was a nice visit with good views—although the hill was covered with mean monkeys who stole our kids’ snacks and tried to get into one girl’s bag.

The kids started to get into good spirits that morning, once they realized that they were away from home and that they were having fun. Every bus in Thailand, no matter the size or cost, comes equipped with TV screens. Our bus had three and two microphones. In no time at all, the mics were discovered and the karaoke began. The bus had a good supply of karaoke vcds. Thais love their karaoke and this kept the kids entertained for most of the trip.

Finally, that night, after a LONG ride, we arrived in Phang-Nga province. Phang-Nga is a beautiful province, located on the western coast of the Malay Peninsula facing the Indian Ocean. It’s the mainland province which has a bridge to the well-known island of Phuket. It was one of the hardest hit during the tsunami. About 6,000 of the deaths or missing-person cases occurred in this province alone. In some areas, the wave came as much as 4 km inland. Although I have visited Phuket twice, and passed through Phang-Nga province, this was really my first visit to an area that was heavily hit by the Tsunami. Things have come a long way in two years. Businesses are back and this year saw a huge boom in tourism—the industry of the area. Still, everything looked new—a constant reminder of all that had to be rebuilt.

The first night we stayed at some bungalows near the beach in the town of Takuapa. The bungalows had been hit themselves by the Tsunami. They were quite nice and we got a good deal from the kind woman who ran them—she gave us a discount since we had a group of students. Everyone was pretty exhausted and grumpy after the long ride—but the luxury of the bungalows made up for it: air-conditioning and hot-water!

That night we first met up with the NGO that we were partnering with. The NGO is the 4Kali.org Foundation, which was created after the Tsunami. Their mission is “to serve the people living and working in Khao Lak and nearby Phang Nga Province, Thailand, whose lives were impacted by the Tsunami.” They were created in honor of Kali Glynn Breisch, who lost her life in the Tsunami. One of their many projects—which include small-business development and construction—is the Support-A-Child Program, which was “established to provide support to children who have been affected by the Tsunami.” This was the particular program that we were partnering with. The children they work with were affected in a variety of ways. A number of them were orphaned by the Tsunami, including children and teenagers who lost only one parent. Also, there were a number of children and teenagers who were indirectly affected by the Tsunami but are feeling the affects due to various reasons, such as the unemployment of parents. Furthermore, there are children who were orphaned before the Tsunami whose previous support has been cut off or shifted to help the children orphaned by the Tsunami. The children we’d be working with on this project fell into all of these categories. The employees and volunteers at the NGO were English and Thai. They get most of their funding from private donations, which have petered off lately.

The next morning, the kids got to walk along the beach. For many of them, this was the first time they’d ever seen the ocean—which was awesome. I also got a chance to eat some Masaman Curry—the South having a wide variety of Muslim food, something one can’t get in Isan.

Then, that afternoon, we headed down to the campsite where we’d be doing our project. This was Thai Muang National Park—a beautiful, well kept park right on the beach. It was amazingly well-run—akin to a National Park in the States. I know that’s a cynical statement, but you can’t take anything for granted over here. They run activities for groups of kids all the time and had a great staff of rangers. We were able to mix our activities with theirs’. At that beach, we all got a chance to play in the Indian Ocean. The weather was absolutely perfect—a little warm but not hot—the waves breaking but not high and dangerous—the beach beautiful. I’ve always loved the ocean and miss living close to one (and yet I’m moving to Lao—a landlocked country!!). I’ve also always been a huge fan of playing in the ocean. But, something about this particular time, with a group of energetic kids who’d never been in the sea before—something about seeing it all through new eyes all over again—I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun in the sea. There was seashell collecting, sand-castle building, burying people in the sand, Frisbeeing, tossing the ol’ pigskin around. Even a beautiful sunset over the water (after years in California, I’ve never been able to get used to a coast that faces east—maybe because I’m never up early enough to watch the sunrise). All in all, a great day.

That night we had a feast—a feast! We all ate so much. There were tons of options—but what I remember is the squid. Giant pieces of squid—barbecued, fried, sautéed—they kept bringing out more and more. I’ve never eaten so much squid in my life. The kids liked it too—although it was a bit new for them. One of the boys from my site ran around catching these giant bugs that were flying around—the next night he fried them up with some delicious spices. It was quite a good snack, but we had to laugh: you can take the kids out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the kids. Here we were, offering them exotic seafood, and they’d rather eat bugs. Ha!

We had a meeting that night before lights out—reminding them of the next day when the Tsunami orphans would arrive—going over our expectations of them and so forth. Then, it was time to go to sleep. The kids were all camping out in tents—we were in a multi-roomed cabin with our counterparts. Then, it started raining and a couple of the tents got wet. Then the power went out and, with it, all the outdoor lights and the kids got scared. Soon enough, every last one of them was piling into our cabin. We made room for them. Us PCVs still ended up with a room to ourselves. Thai kids are ridiculously well-behaved. The next morning they were complaining that we kept them up with our late-night talking and laughing!

True enough, we didn’t have a single problem with any of our kids. Would that ever happen in America? Sure, there was stuff we didn’t know about—some minor flirting, some tired eyes the final morning after a late night full of who-knows-what—but nothing major. They were all really good kids. Strange culture. Maybe America encourages our kids to be rebels. We even entrusted these kids with their own money to buy food, so we didn’t have to be responsible for it. I was expecting the worst—thinking of my own youth—but there was nothing to be worried about.

The next day we all spent the morning getting ready—and then the Tsunami kids arrived. Up until this moment, I don’t think any of us had an idea what was going to happen. But our students surpassed all expectations. From that moment on, we all stepped back and our kids stepped up to the plate and took charge of the show. As soon as the younger kids started arriving, our students took them by the hand and immediately befriended them. The whole plan was to run a Camp for the Tsunami-children that would be both educational and fun and would be run entirely by our students—in the process they would learn how to be volunteers and leaders as well as mentors to the younger orphans. They were awesome—I’m extremely proud of them.

We managed to pack a lot into the short time we had—which was good because all the kids had tons of energy. Lots of sports and games and songs, and—of course—more fun in the ocean. One student who came from my school is rather shy and hadn’t been speaking much. He started to open up once the sports began and I think he really enjoyed that. And what a football-throwing arm on this guy! The water—if I thought the previous day had been fun, this day was even better as we played for hours with the children. We also went on a long hike in the nearby national park to the top of a waterfall.

That night, the park rangers took us for a moonlit walk on the beach. There was a possibility that we’d get to see sea turtles laying their eggs! Unfortunately, we didn’t see any but the walk was nice and we got to see huge turtles the next day that are being raised and protected in captivity.

Also, that night, we had the pleasure of participating in a serene ceremony honoring the lives of those lost in the Tsunami. The NGO had brought these giant plastic lanterns. Not quite sure how to describe them except as miniature hot-air balloons—without the basket. There were about 25 of them in all. We lit them, then waited for the heat to fill the lantern (same principal as the balloons), then they rise into the air on their own accord. We released them all at relatively the same time—they caught a draught of wind—25 beautiful orbs, orange against the night sky—soaring off over the Indian Ocean….

That night it, luckily, didn’t rain and our students piled into the tents with the Southern children. We retired and passed out, utterly exhausted.

The next morning, everyone rose at dawn to go do some bird-watching. Us PCVs decided we’d be much more effective in the coming day if we got some much needed sleep. They apparently didn’t see any birds anyway.

That day was full of activities. These were the activities we had taught our students, which they ran and led themselves for the Southern children. They were all fun games which taught basic lifeskills about teamwork, HIV/AIDS, alcohol/drug abuse, and others. The children had a good time and, once again, our kids did an awesome job. Even some of the shyer ones stepped up to the plate. True leaders, indeed.

Soon, it was time to say goodbye. In the end, perhaps the time was too short—but I think everyone would have felt that no matter how long it had been. We ended the Camp with a white-string ceremony. This is an Isan ceremony that’s used on almost all occasions. Simply, everyone ties white string on each other’s wrists and says nice things about each other. Everyone in Isan is constantly walking around with white string on their wrists, myself included. It was a fitting cultural exchange. Afterwards came tons and tons of photos. We waited around while most of the Southern children got picked up. Maybe I’m getting sentimental in my old age, but it was heartwarming to see the bonds that had been formed in so short a time. Our kids had become fast-friends with the Southerners and there was much exchanging of cell phone numbers and long goodbyes. After living through so much loss and destruction at such a young age, the spirits of these kids was truly inspiring.

Then came our last day on the beach. First, we went and visited the sea turtles I mentioned earlier. This was a stop that was enjoyed by all, especially yours truly. I’ve always liked turtles and they had a large number of all different sizes. The sea turtles grow to huge sizes! We even got to pick some up which was awesome. They had a large amount of other sea life as well.

Then we visited a Tsunami Museum and the office of the NGO where we learned a little bit more about them and their work. In the Tsunami there were a number of migrant workers from Isan who also lost their lives, so the NGO is currently trying to track down orphans in Isan. We got a list of their current efforts for possible future collaboration. They also graciously let us use their showers before we all piled back onto the bus for the long ride home.

Before boarding, we ran down for one last look at the beach. The beach near the office was a bit touristy and the kids were amazed at all the falangs. Some of them got a picture with some falangs that were playing volleyball. The falangs were good sports, although terribly amused.

Then, it was back on the bus!

There was a different atmosphere on the bus-ride home. Everyone was in high spirits. There was a general feeling of a job well done, of satisfaction, mixed in with the bittersweet of having to go home. Everyone was talking about the beach, the Southern children, the turtles. This good feeling turned into lots and lots and lots of karaoke and dancing! The ride home was pretty raucous and we joined in as much as possible. There was also exhaustion and I think everyone slept more on the way back. The ride home took longer—24 hours this time due to longer stops—but it felt much shorter.

On the way back we stopped at Prasat Phimai in Khorat Province. This is one of the few Angkor sites in Thailand. The Angkor Empire, you’ll remember, was based in Cambodia roughly around 900 to 1500. While centered around the present-day city of Siem Reap in Cambodia where most of the famous “Angkor Temples” are located, the empire spread quite far into parts of present-day Thailand, Lao, and Vietnam. Southern Isan is scattered with a number of large Angkor temples (thought not as big as those in Cambodia). Prasat Phimai, where we stopped, is the second largest in Thailand. It was built in the 11th century, about a hundred years before Angkor Wat, and the style is very similar. It’s almost like a miniature Angkor Wat.

If you’ll recall my blog from December 2005, I was quite enthralled by the ancient beauty of Angkor. I love being in those old, huge temples that expand in every direction. Thus, we felt this would be a perfect place to hold a little ceremony for our students. We gave a little speech about how we were immensely proud of them and then passed out certificates which we had made special for the occasion. We then let everyone wander through the ruins for a long while and some of us checked out the museum that had a number of artifacts from Isan history.

That night, sometime after sunset, the bus finally pulled in to our provincial capital. Everyone said goodbye to the new friends they had made as we got picked up and went our separate directions. Chris and I, living near each other, got a ride together with our groups for part of the way. We decided to stop and have dinner together—the twelve of us.

That dinner was awesome as Chris and I watched our kids talk on and on about the trip, looking at photographs, even calling the children in the South. It was a far-cry from the kids who had complained at the beginning that they wanted to go home.

Then the kids turned to us and asked us when we were going back! They wanted to go back as soon as possible and meet up with the same children. They suggested that we go during their month break so they could spend longer down there.

And what could we do? We have two months left. I guess that’s the nature of Peace Corps—it takes a long time to get things going, then you do something awesome, and then it’s over.

The night wore on and we slowly saw everyone dropped off at their homes. I was the last one dropped off. I walked into my house and immediately passed out on my bed and slept well into the next day. When I woke up I thought about the entire trip and those kids wanting to go back. Peace Corps has never been easy—but this trip and, especially, that last conversation over dinner with those kids made it all—everything—worth it.

Peace and love,
Sunday, December 24th, 2006
1:32 pm
Back to Lao....
Hello out there!

Well, my big sister Jenny came out to visit for two weeks and we had quite the awesome adventure!

My part of the journey began in Bangkok. I was down for the weekend for a meeting and to pick up Jenny. The meeting was on Friday morning and Jenny was scheduled to arrive on Sunday night, so I had a weekend to kill. As it was Loy Kratong, my favorite Thai holiday, the Thai Valentine’s Day, Goi came down to spend the weekend with me. She hasn’t spent much time in Bangkok, so I got to show her around a little. We visited some of the tourist spots. We also spent a lot of time with family. She has a ton of relatives working in Bangkok. We hung out with her brother, sister, niece, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, aunt, uncle, cousin, uncle’s family, and I don’t even know how many more. For Loy Kratong we floated our little boat in a canal off of the Chaopraya River.

Jenny’s flight was delayed and she got to spend a night in Tokyo (which she used to sleep). Fortunately, it didn’t affect the schedule on the Thailand end too much. Goi and I picked her up at the airport and we immediately flew up to Udon. It was Goi’s first plane flight, which was very exciting. She quite enjoyed it. We spent that first night in Udon, eating pizza, playing cards, drinking Jack Daniel’s, and generally catching up.

The next day it was out to my village! Threw Jenny right into the thick of things. Luckily, she’s been here before. But, this time she got the real PC experience. To get there we had to take one bus, one pickup truck, and then get a ride in from the district-town. She slept on a mattress on my floor. Luckily, we didn’t have any rats, although she did have to deal with the infinite numbers of lizards and bugs. She also had a hard time sleeping in the morning—what with the roosters, the dogs, the farmers heading out to the fields. The country sure is noisy in the morning! I just sleep through it all anymore. Once everyone’s out in the fields, things quiet back down. She did fine with my bathroom what with the cold water and the squat toilet—but I think she was relieved when we finally got back to a hotel.

I also put her to work! Well, what we call work out here. I think she got a good taste of my existence. We were supposed to help P. Mee harvest rice, but we were there on the wrong day, so we went fishing instead. We fished out of a fish pond using a bamboo pole and a big net. The net was a new experience for both of us. Jenny caught us lunch—I had no luck whatsoever—even with the net! Guess I just wasn’t cut out to be a fisherman. I barbecued it up for lunch, however—something I can do.

We hung out with the health center a lot. I was encouraging them to practice their English with Jenny, although they’re shy about speaking. Ja’s the best and she did practice. Good, since she has a TOEFL test next month (she’s applying for grad school). Everyone—across the board—thinks my sister’s beautiful and couldn’t believe that she’s the elder or that she’s 30 or that she’s single.

She was by far the biggest hit at the school, where we taught English one morning. The two teachers I work with the most were absolutely in love with Jenny. They even got her address so they can write her letters. We ate lunch with them and they didn’t want us to leave! I never get this kind of treatment…. The students loved her too—I could tell, even though they’re still shy.

Anyway, our English teaching was a big success. We had an hour with each of the junior high grades. First, with the 7th graders we did basic greetings and salutations. With the 8th graders we did family members. Jenny and I brought in a picture of our family and taught them all the vocabulary (“sister,” “brother”)—adorable, no? For the 9th graders, we tried something a bit more advanced, taking a page from an activity that a friend of my sister’s used in Peace Corps Russia. First, we taught the students “directions” vocabulary. Turn left, right, go straight, stop, etc. Then, we marked two spots on the ground with tape: a Point A and a Point B. Then, we created a maze with chairs, blindfolded Jenny, and had the kids direct her through the maze using English directional words. The most important word, of course, was “Stop!” which they had to yell before she ran into a chair. Then, we blindfolded the teacher, myself, and finally had the kids blindfold each other—each time rearranging the maze. The activity worked remarkably well and I will definitely use it again. We found it worked best with my sister, because she couldn’t understand the kids discussing the “route” in Thai—with her, they had to use English. A very good day.

It was great having Jenny at my house. First of all, because I don’t get many visitors and was perhaps a little attention-starved. I made her play all my board games with me. We also watched some dvds, drank Jack Daniel’s and Scotch (no, not mixed), and caught up with each other. It was also great showing her around the community. People have gotten bored of me—having her around gives them something new and interesting to talk about. She also reminds them that I’m human and have a family too—I’m not just a weird foreigner with completely different ways. It puts perspective on it all for everyone involved. After surviving through it all, Jenny proclaimed herself an Honorary PCV.

After the stay at my house, we went travelling—backpacking for a week in Lao, which was awesome.

(A brief note here. The international spelling for Lao is Laos. But, it is pronounced “Lao.” The “s” is silent. “Lao” refers to the country, the language, the people, the culture, etc. So, what’s up with the “s?” Blame it on the French, of course. The French added the “s.” When they colonized the country, Lao was actually a number of smaller kingdoms that France was “uniting.” So, the adding of the “s” was actually making it a plural, in reference to the several Lao kingdoms that existed side by side. Of course, in French, the “s” is silent as well. So, I will refer to it, in writing, as Lao.)

Ahhhh… Lao. As you may recall, I first (and last) visited the country the previous December with my best friend and instantly fell in love with the place. Refer to my blog from that date for more information (and so I don’t have to repeat myself). Here’s a brief summary of why I love the place: Exquisite natural beauty—lush green mountains cut with rivers. Very similar to Northeastern and Northern Thailand, except less developed, it’s often called “Thailand fifty years ago,” and this is not far from the mark. If you love Thailand—you’ll love Lao. The people are even more laidback, if it’s possible. Thais laugh at me when I say I love Lao and say it’s because Lao girls are prettier. I won’t judge one way or the other (although Lao girls generally have lighter skin). Besides, Lao is home to multiple ethnic groups—various hill tribes each with their own culture and language—the most famous, perhaps, being the Hmong group—making Lao a rich, fascinating country. The architecture, especially in Luang Pabang, is old and beautiful—many wats, some as old as 500 years. Furthermore, they’ve retained some excellent remnants of French culture—most notably cuisine and architecture. And coffee and bread—two things sorely lacking in Thailand! I could go on and on about this country—as you can see I am quite enamored by it. Revisiting the place brought all my old feelings back and rejuvenated my desire to live there. I made up my mind—after Peace Corps, I’m moving to Lao, that’s all there is to it. More on that later.

Anyway, we spent the first night in Vientiane—the capital (pronounced “Wiang Chan”—blame the spelling on the French again). Stayed in a nice hotel right on the river. Another thing about Lao—it’s even cheaper than Thailand. Jenny was happy to be back in a bed with a hot shower. Splurged on a fancy French meal that night. (Splurged! Still probably cheaper than a comparable meal anywhere else in the world.) Had some foie gras, salmon, some good wine, some cognac. Mmmmmmm…. After dinner, we went and sat next to the Mekong and drank some Beer Lao, the best beer in Southeast Asia. That night we went to two discos. Vientiane probably has the best nightlife of Lao—it is right next to Thailand, after all.

The next day we took a bus up to Wang Wiang. This is a beautiful little town about three hours north of the capital. The town is surrounded by lush limestone mountains (called “karst”) and a river flows through as well. The area is flat and then the mountains jut straight out of the ground! We stayed in a rattan bungalow near the river, complete with a balcony-view of the mountains (rattan comes from palm). We rented bicycles and spent a day biking through the mountains and the small villages nestled inside them. Then we did some minor rock climbing and minor spelunking. The caves were particularly impressive. One, specifically, was enormous! The giant mountains are essentially completely hollow and we wandered around inside—with a light on my head. Inside the biggest one, there was a statue of Buddha reclining and, way up above, was a crack in the cave wall that allowed a ray of sunshine to shine down on him. Very Lord of the Rings (if the dwarves had been Buddhist that is…). That last cave came at the end of a long hot 7k ride and there was a lagoon of water coming out of it. Talk about an ice-cold refreshing dip! I drank a Beer Lao in the lagoon.

The natural beauty aside (the town also offers trekking, tubing, kayaking, and more), Wang Wiang’s a weird place. It’s essentially a small Lao village that’s been overrun by tourists. Lots of dreadlocked Europeans and not much to do in town. All of the tourist-restaurants have the same menu (literally, the exact same menu). There’s also a lot of drugs there—mostly marijuana and mushrooms, but also opium. We didn’t partake but pretty much all the tourists there are high and they just chill out in the restaurants watching TV. The local proprietors have gotten their hands on endless Friends episodes, lots of Simpsons, soccer games, and a variety of movies. You stand in the middle of town and the sounds of Ross, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, and Chandler are all around you. Since the menus are all the same, you essentially pick what you feel like watching. However, there are still some good Lao restaurants and places where the owners haven’t gotten totally tired of falangs. Despite the weird tourism of the place, we enjoyed ourselves.

After Wang Wiang, we headed to Luang Pabang. To get there involved a 6-hour bus ride through an area I hadn’t previously seen. This ride is awesome—very beautiful—but also very nauseating as the whole thing winds through the mountains. I recommend not being hungover. Also makes it hard to sleep or read. But, worth it for the views.

And, then, back to Luang Pabang. If you recall my blog from a year ago—this is my favorite place in Lao—and one of my favorite places period. This town is so laidback. The entire place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The wats, the French buildings, the Mekong river, the peninsula, everything great about Lao is wrapped up here in this unassuming city in the mountains. It’s here that I’d to like to move to after Peace Corps. I can think of no better place to write a novel then Luang Pabang’s riverside cafes….

We stayed at the same place I stayed at during my last visit—an old French mansion—although this time Jenny splurged for the most expensive room. Tall ceilings, shuttered French-windows which we threw open in the mornings…. The room even had two stories! A smaller sleeping area on the second level. Jenny loved Luang Pabang—it appealed to her bourgeois tastes, especially after “roughing it” at my village and being hippies in Wang Wiang. I’m a city person myself, although maybe more bohemian than Jenny. The first night we splurged on another expensive French meal—I had wild boar. We spent the rest of the time visiting the wats, exploring the town, checking out the large open-air night market (where Jenny spent lots), and generally relaxing. Ate at cafes a lot and also found a good Indian place.

One day, we checked out a waterfall, about 30k south of town. We had to take a tuk-tuk to get there—through more windy mountain roads—this time mostly made of dirt. The waterfall was quite large and we hiked all the way up to the top of it—then came down for another ice-cold refreshing dip in the pool at the bottom.

Finally, after three lazy nights in that city, we flew back to Bangkok. We had one last night there. I took Jenny to the Night Bazaar for some live music, then to a bar where we rode a mechanical bull. Got her to the airport in the wee hours, then headed to the bus station for my own long trip home.

And that was our trip! It was quite the adventure. As always, it was nice to have a visitor come out, especially my big sister. It’s great to show off my site and what I’ve
actually been doing out here. And great to get back to Lao….

Unfortunately, due to the amount of travelling that I’ve done in the past two months, I’ve hardly been able to keep up with the news. So, I can’t give a sufficient update on the Coup and the situation in Thailand. Not as sufficient as I’d like, anyway. Luckily, as I said before, little has changed on the surface. Also, the government has endeavored to maintain normality. They’ve even lifted martial law in some provinces—although not in the far south where there’s still a Muslim insurgency and not in many provinces in the Northeast where there’s still strong support for Thaksin. Not sure when the elections are supposed to be, nor how democratic they will be when the time comes. I guess there was a large protest in Bangkok a couple of weeks ago—the first large gathering the new government has allowed—so perhaps they’re lightening up. As far as the new guys go, they don’t seem to be initiating sweeping reforms and I also read that they gave themselves and their cronies huge pay-raises. As these things go, it looks to be like another case of what Pete Townsend called “Meet the new boss—same as the old boss.”

Not sure what’s up with the economy either. I keep reading varying reports—when I get a chance to read anything at all. It seems they may be lightening up, but at first it looked like a reversal of “Thaksinomics” and that the country was entering a phase of isolationism. In my opinion, this would be the wrong path to take in the age of globalization—and maybe an impossible one as well. The “interim” prime minister, Surayad, said, “I will not focus that much on the GDP number but rather on the indicators of the people’s happiness.” And the King has previously said, “It is not important to be an economic tiger.”

In early December, we had our final Peace Corps seminar—our Close of Service Conference! That’s right—there are now only three more months left of my Peace Corps service…. My last day as a Volunteer will be March 27th. Hard to believe that two years have passed already. Hard to believe that it’s all going to be over soon. To be honest, I can’t really get my head around any of it yet—although it’s time to start thinking about the end and what happens next.

As far as Conferences go, it wasn’t so bad. Remember, I hate Conferences—even the good ones—but especially the mandatory ones. But, this wasn’t so bad—that meaning I actually got something out of it.

The Conference was on a beach. Not a nice beach—actually one of the ugliest beaches in Thailand. Did go swimming in the ocean, however, so that was nice. It was also the last time my group would be all together. This is the same group that I flew over with two years ago. Since then, we only lost 5 people—which is kind of a crazy record as far as Peace Corps goes. But, some people will be ending their service early—so this was our last hurrah. It was good to see everyone. I got voted “Best Hair,” naturally.

The Conference itself was designed to get us thinking about the end and the next—even if we’re not ready to think about it, or don’t want to. Also time for reflection on the past two years—accomplishments, memories, and whatnot. Yes, there were tears—even from this hardened soul. So it goes…. A lot of time was spent on how to write a resume, how to interview for a job—which seemed to me to be redundant since we had to do all of that to get here in the first place. One would hope that there’s a modicum of professional standard for the Peace Corps—but one can’t be sure of anything anymore. There was also a lot of time devoted to the “culture shock” of returning home after two years—which also seemed a little unnecessary since we live in Thailand, not the Sahara or the Mongolian steppes—Bangkok is enough like an American city to remind one of home. I suppose it’ll be a change—but nothing anybody with common sense couldn’t handle. After all, we just did the Peace Corps! One would think we were mature enough to handle going home—of all things.

Anyway, what did I get out of the Conference? The best part was a panel of RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) who came to speak to us about jobs and other things. I had good conversations with a few of them before and after the session.

Yes, I’ve decided to stay in Southeast Asia after the Peace Corps. Let that be said here and now—in case there’s any confusion on the matter. Why? Well, there’s work to be had out here—especially with NGOs doing community development work—which is where I’d like to lend my skills and continue to make a difference in the world. Also, I speak the language—actually I speak Thai, Lao, and local dialects—a skill I’d like to put to use. Finally, I like it out here. I really enjoy living in both Thailand and Lao—enjoy the people, the culture, etc.—what’s not to like? And I suppose there is the matter of the girlfriend—which also affects my decision to stay—even if I don’t admit it.

Finally, I’d like to focus on my writing for a while. The relaxed pace of life, the natural beauty, the low cost of living—all these factors and more are conducive to writing. Time to be a starving artist—like I’ve always wanted to be. I’d also like to start doing some travel-writing and try to make a buck in that racket.

Anyway, so I’m going to stick around in March. So, the panel of RPCVs was extremely helpful to me. There were three guys who all served in Isan and I spoke to them about job prospects, connections, visa situations, and much more. I’m going to stay in contact with them and continue to network, hopefully lining up a good job. I really think I’m going to move to Lao—Luang Pabang, in particular. I could get a job at the Lao National University up there teaching English—this would help me get my foot in the door in the area while I meet people and look for NGO work. Sounds like a plan!

Anyway, I’m not done yet. There are still three-plus months to go—and I have a lot of work to do. My Tsunami project, my HIV project, a final English camp, and generally wrapping everything up at site. It’s going to be a busy time—and will be over before I know it. But, I’ll try to keep this up-to-date and keep everyone abreast of everything. Until then,

Merry Christmas!
Wednesday, October 18th, 2006
10:01 am
The Coup, amongst other things
For those of you who need reminding, this blog represents my own stupid opinion.

Hello out there!

This is a unique entry for this blog because this is my very first entry written on my brand new laptop! Yes, I finally have a laptop. My 28th birthday passed a couple of weeks ago. Yes, I made it to 28, surviving (just barely) the dead-rock-star age of 27. Anyway, my parents’ gift to me was this wonderful machine. They’ve assured me that this is the only gift I’m getting this year and that includes Christmas and probably next year as well. I bought it here, in Khon Kaen, and it is awesome. It’s changing my life! However, don’t expect the amateur quality of this blog to improve. Hopefully, however, I’ll be able to crank these things out on a more regular basis. Don’t really have an excuse not to, now do I?

Speaking of which, man, has a lot happened since the last time I wrote in here! In my defense, I tried to put up a post immediately after the coup occurred, but for some reason the page was blocked. Hmmmm…..

Yeah, there was a military coup! Crazy, huh? What the hell happened? Well, coups are nothing new to Thailand. There have been twenty since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932—10, now 11, of which have been successful. There were some violent coups in the 1970s and the last coup was in 1991. The country was unstable for five years, then, after the financial crash of 1997, they created a new constitution, the “people’s” constitution. That constitution was in effect until a few weeks ago. After the recovery from the ’97 crash, Thailand was consistently praised as a leader in the region of democracy and capitalism. Things may have gotten rough in the past few years, but they were still a leader. That’s all over now….

If you remember, a few months ago, there were loud calls for the removal of the popularly-elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shiniwatra. Things quieted down around the time of the 60th anniversary of the King’s coronation. Then, the military decided to take things into their own hands. With Thaksin in New York for the opening of the UN, tanks rolled through the streets of Bangkok. Democracy died overnight, not with a bang, but with a whimper. And who was pulling the strings behind the military? How deep does the friendship between the King and General Sondhi go? Hmmmmm….

No, Thaksin wasn’t perfect. His “war on drugs” killed over 2,000 Thais, and drug use continued. His handling of the Muslim insurgency in the far South has been terrible, often brutal. (Gotten worse lately, however—the first foreigners died and there was a beheading early last week.) He was corrupt and loved his shady business dealings. He suppressed critics (although not as much as the new regime). Poverty continued, in spite of subsidies to the poor. Worst of all, he forced all of Thailand’s entertainment places to close at 1 am—less than 1 year before I got here! But, he did open Thailand up to free trade and improve the economy. And, he was democratically elected….

And where is Thailand now? The military’s still in control, putting all their buddies into power, incarcerating all of the members of the former regime. Changes are coming slowly, as they try to maintain the picture of normalcy. Indeed, life in my neck of the woods has changed very little, if at all. But, there is little hope for the future. This is bad for the country, bad for the economy, bad for the people, bad all around.

Perhaps most shocking of all is the attitude of the people towards it. There are three attitudes that I can see. The loudest: those who welcomed the coup with open arms. The silent: those who shrugged their shoulders and accepted the coup. The most quiet of them all: those who actually oppose this regime—barely heard through all the fear.

I realize that I’m writing this from a completely biased, Western perspective, but this coup is not a good thing! The same people who cried for Thaksin’s ousting are the same ones who say this coup needed to happen, that this was the right thing to do, that this was the only way to remove him from power. Who are these people? The educated, the rich, the elite, the people in power, academics! People flocked through the streets of Bangkok, singing songs, cheering, bringing flowers and food to the soldiers as they sat in their tanks. Truly bizarre….

And what about us? What about our status as Peace Corps Volunteers? What about the fact that I am, technically, an employee of the Royal Thai Government? What about the fact that I work in a government office? What about the fact that I’m working for a military dictatorship, working to support it?

What has Peace Corps had to say about the coup? Absolutely nothing! The complete and utter lack of information from Peace Corps to the Volunteers has been rather strange. First of all, Peace Corps proved that their “emergency response system” is totally flawed. Most of us heard about the coup from friends back home who called us to inform us. Peace Corps contacted some of us, but some people were never contacted at all. Their method of contacting was to send text-messages to a couple of us saying: “There might be a coup going on.” They put us on “alert,” but that doesn’t mean anything. A couple of days later, they lifted the alert. And that’s all she wrote. Good ol’ PC staff, what would we do without them. So, I have no answers to the above questions. Luckily, we’re still here and there’s little sign of us being evacuated.

I’d like to think that I’m being too pessimistic about this, but I am convinced that this is bad for the future of Thailand.

And what of life in the village? Well, life goes on, much as it always has. No reason to stop your daily activities, is there? There are some things that have been cancelled. The new regime has disallowed any meetings that contain more than 5 people! But, on the surface, things continue on out here.

Also, like I said, there is definitely an attitude of acceptance. I think this is a very “Thai” attitude. A Buddhist attitude, perhaps…. That being said, it is definitely strange to this Western mind.

Now, what’s been going on in my life? ;-)

Quite a bit, actually.

First of all, we got our grant approved! Woo-hoo! This is the grant for the tsunami project we’ve been working on. It was a long, arduous process in which I had to keep rewriting the darn thing and sending it back to the committee with their “suggested” changes. Anyway, they finally approved it. However, they dragged their heels on it for so long, it became impossible to do the project this month. (Despite the fact that they had copies of all the drafts for over a month, they didn’t actually respond to any of them until the last possible moment. Even then, they forgot to send them to me for a few days.) So, we’re now doing the project in January. In the end, this’ll be a good thing, as we’ll have more time to work on it and make it an even better project. I’m just happy that it got approved.

Attended a sad event a couple of weeks ago. Ja, my close friend and coworker at the health center, suffered a loss. Her boyfriend died of leukemia at the age of 27. He’d had it for a long time and been through a lot of therapy, but I don’t think anyone expected him to go so quickly. We attended the funeral, which was a very sad event (although there were still plenty of happy drunks around—is this more of the “Thai” attitude?—I swear, there are days when I don’t think I’ll ever figure this place out). Ja’s been out a lot lately, helping the family, taking care of her own life. She’s only 25 herself and has been really sad since then….

In other news, we finally had our Community Enterprise Conference. This was the workshop created by the group that my friends and I started—the Community Enterprise Committee, devoted to income-generation and helping local community groups in the area of small business. Well, the workshop was a huge success! Essentially, it was a three-day small business training for local group leaders. PCVs came with counterparts from their sites. There were sessions led by guest speakers, and then we walked them through all the necessary steps of running an effective group. The session topics included obtaining startup loans from the government, group administration, accounting, packaging, and marketing.

The Conference was a little different from the usual ones we’ve gone to because of the Thai people involved. Instead of being government officials, health workers, or teachers, most everyone were local community members. And almost everyone there was from the rural areas of Isan! There was a lot of Lao being spoken. They all participated and got a lot of out of it. The guest speakers explained these concepts much better than any of us could have. I brought P. Mee and Ba Somkit, a leader of a local sewing group. They were both awesome and enjoyed themselves. Best part—they’re going to take the information back to their groups and I’m going to help them give trainings to all the local groups.

I’m pretty happy about the results of the Conference. Ever since I first got to site, they’ve wanted help in the areas of business. Of course, that’s not exactly my area of expertise and PC wasn’t much help there either. That’s one of the main reasons why we started the Community Enterprise Committee and why we had this Conference. Bringing P. Mee was an excellent choice—she is by far the best person in my community to disseminate this information to the right people. I feel passing this knowledge on to her was a success on my part. Even if I have nothing more to do with it (which I will), I feel successful. Maybe I won’t see the results while I’m here, but the seeds of knowledge have been planted and P. Mee can help herself and others to continue on their own.

After the Conference I headed to Udon for our very first Football meeting. This was a meeting to discuss our plans for teaching our kids American Football—to make sure we’re all on the same page and to begin to plan the Tournament we’re going to have next year before we’re done. A few of the other guys there have a bit more experience than I do, to say the least. Three of them played football in high school. One of them, Dom, played in college. When did I get jocks for friends? How did this happen? Dom used to coach PeeWee football in the states as well, so he’s our coach. He’s hilarious—he’s one of those guys that takes football really seriously. For our little PCV publication he submitted an intense analysis of the NFL draft. Anyway, he got right down to business at our meeting. He had made up a whole book of drills! By the end we were discussing plays. I may be in over my head here, but I think my kids are gonna have fun, regardless.

That night, after the meeting, we celebrated my birthday! Of course, I rang in my 28th year in style. It was a good night—I had about thirteen good friends there—all guys ,except for my girlfriend. We had dinner at Sizzler, then went bowling, then headed out to the discos. The rest of the night is lost in a happy rice whiskey haze.

When I got back to my site, I celebrate my birthday yet again with my friends at the health center. Here it’s tradition to buy dinner for others on your birthday! So, I made them all spaghetti. Do a little exchanging of culture! About eight or nine people showed up. From the health center and from the market across the street where I usually hang out and eat lunch. It was a huge success. I was surprised how much they liked it. A few even had three servings! It’s surprising because spaghetti contains just about everything that Thais consider strange in food: a wheat product, a flavor other than spicy, and cheese. We washed it all down with some local wine (from the mao berry, not grapes) and a good time was had by all.

Of course, the rainy season has ended (finally!) and the “cold” season begun. It’s dropped into the 70s a couple of times, but it has yet to really cool off. Some people have already started harvesting rice, although most of the work will be done at the end of this month and beginning of next. As last year, I am suffering from the worst allergies ever. The humidity left with the rain and this area has gotten extremely dry and dusty—add to that all the rice stalks reaching their heights, filling the air with pollen (or whatever comes from rice)—and I’m a sniffling, sneezing, wheezing, crying mess. I’m taking Ceterizine, which knocks me out. Just a couple more weeks and I should be all right.

With the end of the rainy season, came the end of Buddhist Lent. I celebrated like I did last year. I went to the Mekong River to watch fireballs fly out of the river. Yes, you read that correctly. People come from all over—thousands of people—to this one small town on the Mekong to watch fireballs fly mysteriously out of the river. Like last year, I did not see a single fireball. I’m beginning to think this town has the biggest scam going on. The “fireballs” in question are supposedly methane gas or something, although Thais will tell you that they’re being spit out by giant mythical serpents that live in the Mekong. Will I go back again next year to spend hours staring at a river? Hmmm…. As they say: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

Regardless, it was still a fun time. The town in question happens to be the town where Goi now lives. I also have PCV friends that live there. So, there were a number of us up there and all we have a good time no matter what we’re doing. Also, it was cool: there were some monks sitting in a boat in the middle of the river who were floating candles down the river in coconut shells. It was quite a pretty sight.

Anyway, that’s about it. Lately I’ve been busy writing yet another grant—this one for my HIV Camp and Health Fair that I’ll do before I’m done here. Quiet right now because the schools are closed during October—so I can’t help out there. Otherwise, just hanging out, as always.

Until next time….

Peace and love,

For another perspective on PCThailand, check out my friend Brian’s blog: http://briankaderli.blogspot.com/.
He’s quite a funny writer. I recommend: his posts on Lao, his comments on the coup, and his comparison of PCThailand to the TV show Deadwood.
Sunday, September 17th, 2006
3:29 pm
Bangkok blues and a new perspective
Hello out there!

Yes, I'm afraid another month has slipped away from me, with no time to write a post. Apologies all around. I've actually gotten quite busy lately. Busy working! Hard to believe. Also, much of my current work requires me to be on the computer and to be constantly connected. So, a lot of my internet time is now devoted to work-related things. I will be able to keep this more regularly up-to-date though because... I'm getting a laptop! Woo-hoo! My whole life is going to change. More on that when I actually get it.

What am I so busy doing? I'm in the process of planning a totally awesome project. USAID, through PC, has made funds available for PCVs to do projects related to the 2004 Tsunami. The 3 other guys in my province and myself, have applied for a grant with the intention of taking 16 junior high students down to a Tsunami-affected area to do a community service project. We still haven't been approved, but it looks like we're going to be. This is all coming together!

We've partnered up with an NGO in Phang-Nga that works with Tsunami-orphans and Tsunami-affected children. Our kids are going to go through a leadership training and then we all head down to the beach, where our kids will plan and lead the orphans through a two-day Lifeskills and Sports Camp. It's going to be an amazing opportunity for some of our best students to get experience in leadership and volunteerism, to learn about an entirely new part of Thailand, to make new friends, and, of course, to see the beautiful beach!

This has been my first experience in grant-proposal writing. It's definitely not easy, and pretty time-consuming, but interesting nonetheless. Luckily, there's 4 of us and 4 Thai adults that we're working with, so we've been able to divide up the responsibilities. I can't write a budget to save my life, so luckily I was saved from working on that part. Also, it's been complicated getting all the different parts of this to come together: our local communities, our local government offices, our local schools, the kids' parents, our counterparts' bosses, the NGO in Phang Nga, the grant-approval committee. But, it's gonna happen. I'll write more about it once it actually occurs. I'm excited about it though--it's going to be amazing. I've got 4 really excellent kids working with me on this--and they're super-excited, so that has made it all worth it.

In August, I got stuck inside of Bangkok for over a week! Talk about the Bangkok Blues.... I just haven't found my niche in that city yet--haven't found any super-cool areas to hang out in.

What was I doing there? Man, was I busy. Work, work, work. I had a meeting of the Volunteer Action Committee, for which I am one of the elected representatives from my group. I'm the voice of my fellow PCVs in trying to change policies and practices with PC staff. Trying to get PC staff to change something is like sitting in a taxi in hot Bangkok traffic. They just won't budge! So, that was frustrating.

We also had a meeting of the Community Enterprise Committee, in which we planned out the bulk of our Conference next week. More on that after next week. It was an interesting meeting because it was the first time we opened up the Committee to members of the new group (who will ultimately inherit it after we leave).

Additionally, I had a meeting with a PC staff member from Washington who has been in-country reviewing my specific program. Remember, I'm only in the second "class" for this young program and they're looking to see if it's working or not. Essentially, it's not working, at least not in the way it was conceived. We're supposed to be teaching the local government offices how to do community development. This doesn't happen--largely due to corruption, incompetence, and lack of interest from the local government offices. This isn't to say that PCVs in the program haven't been successful--because we have. But our successes have come from other areas (health centers, schools, community groups and leaders). So, I told him all about my specific experiences and my ideas for how the program could be changed. Here's to hoping that future groups will have it easier!

The week ended with the annual Gender and Development Conference, which was awesome! It was by far the best conference that I've been to here. I brought down Ja, the health educator I work with all the time, and another nurse from the neighboring health center, Beak. The conference was all about women's health. We had the Women's Health Foundation of Thailand come lead an entire day of sessions, which they entitled the Universe of Vagina. Not only were they providing information on women's health and care, but they were also teaching the Thais how to teach about this--teach it in ways that can reach community members, ways that are fun and interesting, ultimately hoping that women will take better care of themselves. Good stuff.

At the Conference, I led a session on HIV activities and teaching HIV. Ja helped me out, as did Josh. I was impressed with myself as I was able to lead most of the session in Thai. I think I did a pretty good job with it. The entire conference was in Thai and we had translators available for PCVs, but I found myself using them much less than I thought I would.

Ja and Beak enjoyed the conference and we're planning to do a women's health fair at my site. They are two young women, both in their twenties, so they used our down-time to go shopping! In fact, they each only brought enough clothes for one day in Bangkok because they knew they were going to buy new outfits. They invited me to go shopping with them, but I politely declined.

On top of all this, my week-plus in Bangkok was spent writing the grant proposal for the Tsunami project. Of course, tons of my friends were in town as well, so each night was spent hanging out, drinking, and partying. Talk about exhausting! The week was incredibly productive. It was cool, though, because I got a chance to hang out with some of the members of the new group, and can now say that I have some close friends amongst them. They kept turning to me for advice! Crazy.... What do I know?

I told them that they're all doing fine. Then I remembered where I was at their point and compared that to where I am now. I realized that I'm in a pretty good place right now. It hasn't been easy--but I've got lots of good things going on.

Also, the end is in sight! Less than seven months now, but I think I have some good relationships and some good projects in line. I think I'll be able to leave with a legacy that I'm proud of. The experience has already been tremendously worthwhile. Somehow, a week-plus in Bangkok--in which I spent all my money, drank too much for my liver's own good, got a miserable amount of sleep, experienced some drama, and worked too hard--I got a new perspective on life and this whole experience.

So, since that week in Bangkok, I've just been chilling at my site. Working on projects, but also hanging out, and really enjoying myself. Not sure if I can fully explain it right now....

Promise I will write in here much sooner!

Peace and love,
3:05 pm
A new phone number
Hello out there!

I now have two phone numbers. If you'd like to have my new number, please email me at kevinpeterjohnson@yahoo.com.

Will post something soon!

Peace and love,
Monday, August 7th, 2006
11:58 am
Summertime and the livin' is easy....
Hello out there!

All right, it's finally time for a real post on here. Hard to believe it's been over two months since my last real one. Where has the time gone?

(Also, regarding the change in phone number. I may have spoken too soon. If I gave you my new number and it doesn't work after September 1st, go ahead and use the old one. One never knows how accurate this information is.)

Well, so, out here it's August. It's starting to rain everyday. And I now have less than eight months left of this gig. Pretty unbelievable. Eight months is still plenty of time to get some things done, but I also have to start considering the fact that the end is just around the corner. I'm also coming to terms with the idea that I may not accomplish all that I originally wanted (in fact, I know I won't). However, the accomplishments that I have made, and will make, have been, and will be, worthwhile.

So, what have I been doing with the past two months? Much of June was spent rice-planting. I actually got to get out there quite a bit, spending day after day helping out with the crop.

I've continued teaching lifeskills at the school on Fridays. The kids and I are growing more comfortable with each other and we're having fun with the lessons. The teachers trust me, which is good. One day the teachers had a meeting (to watch a video) and left me alone with all the kids! Remember this is all of junior high! I said, no problem. (The teachers don't help out much anyway). They assigned me five helpers--five of the best ninth grade girls--and the day was a success.

The 60th anniversary of the King's coronation came and went. I participated in a dance-aerobics competition to mark the occassion. There was a very nice celebration to honor His Majesty. Very calm by Thai standards. In fact, there was hardly anyone drinking at all (a rarity for Thailand!). The two guys I did see chugging some rice whiskey were receiving frowns from others. The King gets respect!

Strangely though, the country has been awash in yellow. The color of the King is yellow. I'm not sure why exactly. Yellow has never been my favorite color and certainly not one I've ever worn before. But, now, I have my yellow shirt, just like everyone else in Thailand. Everywhere you go you see nothing but yellow: yellow shirts, yellow flags, yellow, yellow, yellow. It's truly bizarre.

To mark the beginning of Buddhist Lent I participated in a parade around my village. I walked with the health center. Since everyone is encouraged to abstain from vices during Lent, I was dressed up as a giant whiskey bottle with a sign on front that said "Refrain From Whiskey!" I was awesome. Regardless, the beer started flowing at 10 am. Despite my calls to "Refrain!" everyone assured me that beer was not whiskey.

Goi moved at the beginning of July. She's working for the government in the province just north of mine. That has been hard and quite a change for the both of us. However, we're getting the opportunity to see each other on weekends as she's still finishing her accounting degree down here on weekends. Also, it's given me more time to spend with other people in my village.

My friend Ja, the health educator, is applying for the Master of Public Health degree at Khon Kaen University. To get into the program she needs to pass a TOEFL exam. So, she asked me to give her private English lessons. At first, I refused. If I had a baht for every person in Thailand that's asked me for private English lessons, I would be a rich man, indeed. But, finally, I relented. Ja is, of course, my friend, not just a person who stops me in the market. Also, she has a definite goal in mind (passing the test), which gives us something to work towards. So, I told her I would do it because she was my friend. But, I told her not to tell anyone because I didn't want anyone else to know that I'm now giving private English lessons. She understood and has been quiet about it.

So, now, I'm teaching Ja English three hours a week. We're going over basic vocabulary and grammar. She already has a good command of the language (except for speaking), so it's going pretty well. I actually find it enjoyable.

July found me busy again. On the Fourth I headed down to Josh's site to help him with his final American Holiday. (Remember, I had previously helped him with Halloween and Thanksgiving. I missed Valentine's Day.) It was a great Fourth. We taught fifth graders all about the American Revolution. We had them make "tri-cornered" hats. We taught them how to make hamburgers (picture eleven year-olds elbow-deep in raw meat). We sang songs: everything from "The Star-Spangled Banner," "America, the Beautiful," "My Country 'Tis of Thee," to "America" from West Side Story and "Comin' to America" by Neil Diamond. Finally, I managed to get my hands on a number of firecrackers! I hit the jackpot at my local market. Roman candles, black cats, bottle rockets, sparklers, twirlers, whizzers, fizzers, you name it! I went nuts lighting them all off. At one point, we lined a bunch of kids up, had them hold out roman candles, and then I ran down the line lighting them one by one. We were quite the hit!

I got an opportunity to be a Resource Volunteer at the second round of training for the new group of PCVs. (Remember last July I was sent to Peace Corps Training II) That was a fun experience. I got to meet a lot more of the new group and made some friends there. I led a session with my friend Kristina on "best practices," in which we talked about our different experiences at site. I also led a gender discussion and a Gender and Development session with my friend Tara. It was a strange experience for me because I realized that some of these Volunteers were looking up to me! To me? But, I'm just like them! It helped me realize how valuable my experience has been--both the successes and the failures.

After that, I had a pleasant weekend with my friend Brad! Brad was roommate in San Francisco for about a year. He currently has an internship at Infosys in Bangalore, India. Well, it turns out that India is only about a three-hour flight from Thailand, so he headed out for a long three-day weekend. It's always great to see some familiar faces out here and it was great for us to catch up on everything. We spent two nights on the island of Ko Samet, which is only about 4 hours from Bangkok. It's a nice little island with some quiet beaches and a fun nightlife. We had relaxing days that included hiking and teaching French people how to play American football! Then, we came back to Bangkok for a night. We went to the Suan Lum Night Bazaar, where they have an excellent beer garden and a rather large market where Brad bought a number of souvenirs and I helped him bargain. On his final day, we visited the Royal Palace and the wats in that area. We had an interesting time comparing the art work of Thailand and India. Both are rather similar. It's not too surprising since Buddhism came to Thailand almost directly from India and brought a lot of culture with it. We finished off the day by wandering around Chinatown, which is now miles and miles of market and bazaar. A bit overwhelming but interesting to explore. For another perspective on the trip, check out Brad's blog: http://24thcentury.blogspot.com.

Since then I've been back at site. I currently have many things in the works! Projects are happening! Here's a brief list. Another HIV Camp. Another English Camp. Continued lifeskills teaching at the school. Continued English teaching. Teaching American football at the school. Possibly doing American Holidays at the school. A Gender and Development Conference which will hopefully turn into a Women's Health Fair at site. A Community Enterprise Conference which will hopefully turn into small business trainings at site. And... a possible opportunity to take 20 junior high students from my province down to the South to do tsunami-related volunteer work for a week (a project with the 3 other guys in my province). This last is a maybe, but it just may happen....

So, I'm determined that my last eight months out here will be busy, if nothing else.

That's all I have time for today. Feels like I had to cram a lot in here this time. I'll try to write in here on a more timely basis.

Peace and love,
Saturday, August 5th, 2006
2:42 pm
New phone number
Hello out there,

Yes, I know I'm terribly behind on this thing. I'd like to thank all my fans out there who keep wondering when the next post will be. I'm keeping you all in suspsense. And no, I won't tell you if Harry Potter dies in my next post.

So, sad to say, this isn't a real post at all. I know, cheap, isn't it?

No, what this is is just to let you all know that as of September 1st my phone number will be changing. If you'd like my new phone number, please email me at kevinpeterjohnson@yahoo.com.

That's it!

Peace and Love,

P.S. Okay, you win. Harry Potter does die in my next post. It's a terribly gruesome incident involving rats.

Some food for thought:

"There is a real role today for a movement that could advance the agenda of how we globalize--not whether we globalize.... What the world doesn't need now is for the antiglobalization movement to go away. We just need it to grow up. This movement had a lot of energy and a lot of mobilizing capacity. What it lacked was a coherent agenda for assisting the poor by collaborating with them in a way that could actually help them. The activist groups that are helping alleviate poverty the most are those working at the local village level in places like rural India, Africa, and China to spotlight and fight corruption and to promote accountability, transparency, education, and property rights. You don't help the world's poor by dressing up in a turtle outfit and throwing a stone through McDonald's window. You help them by getting them the tools and insitutions to help themselves. It may not be as sexy as protesting against world leaders on the streets of Washington and Genoa, and getting lots of attention on CNN, but it is a lot more important. Just ask any Indian villager."

-Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, 2005
Saturday, June 3rd, 2006
2:43 pm
Rain, rice, mushrooms, the King, and more rats
Hello out there!

Well, the rainy season has officially begun and we are now in the thick of it. It rains everyday and every night. Luckily, it cools off when it rains (usually down into the 70s), but more than once already I've found myself completely soaked--an all-too-familiar predicament, having lived through this once before. Fortunately, since last year, my sub-district has paved most of the roads around (though not all), so I won't be pedaling through mud and getting spattered, like I did a lot of last time.

With the rains, of course, comes the rice season. I told P Mee that I want to observe and help out with the entire process this year. I've been out once already. We were throwing the first seed. Next week, we'll start to do some serious planting and transplanting. So, once again, I donned a funny hat and headed out to the paddies. It's all old hat at this point so I rolled up my jeans, kicked off my sandals, and jumped right into the mud. We waded around until sundown throwing seed around, distributing it evenly through the field. All in a good day's work.

On another occassion, I headed out into the forest with Ja and another worker from the health center to pick mushrooms. Most of the time was spent looking for the illusive fungi. I had a long stick that I used to brush aside leaves and investigage at the bottom of trees. After some fruitless searching, I started to find a good deal of them. The guy we were with knew which were edible and which weren't (although all the ones we found were edible). So, we picked them all and then took them back to make some soup.

I've started teaching at the junior high school every Friday afternoon. I have a whole book of life-skills activities that was developed by the Red Cross. All the activities are in Thai and English. So, I brought the book to the school and asked the teachers if they'd be interested in doing these with me and the kids. Of course, they said yes, so now I'll be doing that every Friday. The kids are great. They're my favorite. The activites include everything ranging from drugs and stds, to friendships and relationships. Some of them are quite fun. I just like the idea of getting the kids out of their daily routine and engaging them in activities where they're doing their own thinking instead of just repeating what the teacher's tell them. I did my first class yesterday and it was tons of fun, both for me and the kids.

A couple of weeks ago was the Buddhist holiday Wisaka Bucha, to celebrate the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha. I went into the provincial capital with my friend Chris and people from his site. We participated in the same ceremony we did last year. Everyone dresses up in all white, then walks around the city with candles, and it ends when everyone reaches the wat. It was the same as it was last year, so we were less enthused about it. It was then that we realized what "hardened veterans" we've become and how much more cynical about some things we are now then when Thailand was all still new to us. We also reflected how last year, it seemed that we had been at site for forever, when we'd really only been there for less than two months. We realized then that the remaning ten months are really gonna fly by. Anyway, we had fun at the ceremony regardless, and afterwards spent the night at Chris' house.

Last weekend I had a group of guys come up to my house for a Community Enterprise Committee meeting. We're still working on developing small-business trainings to do in our communities, as well as other things. I don't get visitors in my out-of-the-way village very often. This was only the fifth time I've had other PCVs spend the night! So, I made my famous spaghetti and we stayed up all night playing cards. It was a productive and fun evening.

Next week is the 60th anniversary of the King of Thailand's coronation. He is currently the longest-reigning monarch in the world. (He is, however, not the longest reigning monarch in history: that honor goes to Ramses II, who reigned for something like 66+ years. Also, the Thai King is not the oldest monarch in the world right now, despite being in his 80s: both the Queen of England and the King of Cambodia are older.) The entire country is gearing up for what will be a nation-wide celebration. Dignitaries from all over the globe will come to Bangkok to see the King float down the Chaopraya River in his Royal Barge. Here, we're having a local celebration on Thursday, and a larger celebration in the district-town on Friday, where I'll be participating in a dance with the health center and the junior-high students. I also have my yellow shirt ready (yellow being the color of the King) and a new yellow King flag flying outside my house. It will definitely be an interesting occassion.

In other news, since I last wrote, I have killed a large number of rats inside my house! This has been an ongoing drama. Turns out I had an entire infestation of the disgusting creatures! I must have killed 10 to 20 of them. They all seem to be gone now or perhaps they alerted the local rat population. I have found a great--if disgusting--way of killing them. They sell this wonderfully sticky stuff, it sticks to everything. I smear this goo all over a tray. Then, in the middle of the tray, I put a ball of sticky rice, which rats love. The rats come to steal the sticky rice and get stuck in the goo. Then they squeal bloody murder! Then I come and break their necks with a machete. Before I kill them they squeal something awful out of sheer fright. Then I have to pull their dead bodies out of the ridiculously-sticky goo and dispose of them. It's still pretty awful, although somewhere around rat #15 I started to grow disensitized to the process....

Anyway, not much else going on. Just enjoying the rain before I get tired of it.

Peace and love,
Sunday, May 7th, 2006
2:09 pm
Warning! Today's blog is not for the squeamish!
Hello out there!

There's quite a bit to report this time. First of all, a scary story. Don't worry though, everyone's all right. We just had one awful night in Bangkok.

We were in town for our group's Mid-Service Conference. One night I was on Kao San Road with my friends Chris and Dave. The bars all close at 1 am. But, there's a place nearby where they lay down mats on the sidewalk and sell drinks out of a truck. I'd been there before. It's a chill spot to drink with falangs and Thais, or so I thought. Also, it's after-hours and, I guess, illegal, so someone's paying off the cops to be there.

Anyway, one Thai girl who worked there was really drunk and, for whatever reason, didn't like the three of us. I don't know what her problem was. I think she didn't like the Thai girls we were talking to or maybe she was mad that we weren't paying attention to her, who knows. Anyway, she got even drunker and started saying things in our direction. We ignored her.

It was late. There was this British dude playing the guitar. The girl came over and yelled at him to stop playing. Chis (one of the nicest, chillest guys) laughed and said, in Thai, "He's just playing for fun, we're all just having a good time, let him keep playing." She got really pissed off, some more words were said, and she kicked him in the head! (She had been standing, he had been sitting)

In Thailand, the head is sacred and the foot is considered dirty, so insult was added to injury. Chris and I stood up. We were both calm and asked "Why did she kick him in the head? What's going on?"

She ran and grabbed two of the guys who ran the place. I don't know what she told them. Maybe she told them that Chris hit her. Anyway, neither of us made any threatening or physical movements. One guy ran up and punched Chris in the face! The second guy, out of nowhere, beat him in the head with a wooden club! Chris was down on the ground, his glasses broken, his head bleeding, stunned. I helped him up and said, "We've gotta get out of here now." We both took off running in the direction of the nearest police station.

While we were running, we passed a gang of guys running in the opposite direction. They were all carrying more clubs and one had a foot-long machete! They were obviously part of the same gang and had been called in for backup.

We found some police. We explained what happened and I brought two of them back to the scene. I pointed out the girl and the two guys. The police did absolutely nothing. Welcome to the third world. They're obviously on the payroll of these guys.

The police took us and the girl back to the station. We were calm and collected. We explained that we were Volunteers here doing development work in Thailand. We said we weren't tourists and that we didn't want any trouble and had never before had any problems. We told our story over and over again. I must say though our Thai was on that night--maybe it was adrenaline, but we were almost fluent. The girl's story kept changing. Still, the police did nothing.

Finally, we called Peace Corps and our Security Officer and Program Manager arrived to help translate. They added a little weight to the situation and also added that we're US Government and connected to the Embassy. In the end, they had Chris file a police report.

The girl's final story was that Chris hit her twice and that she hit him with her flip-flop in self-defense and that it was her flip-flop that caused his wounds.

While we were waiting there (for hours and hours) we saw two falang tourists come in who were bleeding. After seeing them, we realized that these cops probably see bleeding falangs come in every single day.

So, will the police do anything? No. They know who these people are. The guy runs a gang and an all-night illegal bar, also he was pointed out to the police by myself. PC could lean on the Embassy to lean on the police, but it's all doubtful.

There were a number of witnesses. The falangs all took off . Dave ran into two Thai girls when he was getting coffee next to the police station. They saw the whole thing. He asked them to come in and help but they said they were too scared of getting hurt. They also said that the girl does this sort of thing all the time.

So, nothing will come of it. Chris is all right by the way. It was really scary and we were pretty shooken up. I will never go back to Kao San and don't even want to go back to Bangkok. Thailand lost a bit of its luster that night. In the end, though, we had the rest of the week to talk about it and shake it off.

So, that happened.
On a completely different note, here's a disgusting story!

While I was in Bangkok, a rat had burrowed a nest inside my mattress! Pretty gross, huh? What's grosser than that? Read on....

Not only did she burrow a nest, but she then had babies inside the nest! Grossed out yet? Oh, there's more....

Not only were there baby rats living inside my mattress, I failed to notice them for 4 days! This morning I woke up to the sound of scratching and discovered 5 baby rats inside my bed....

I jumped out and screamed and ran around my house a few times in utter disgust. There are few things I hate more than rats. Then, of course, I had to kill the baby rats, which I did not enjoy one iota. I also set out a trap for the mother rat.

People laugh at Peace Corps Thailand and our cell phones and internet and running water and electricity and paved roads, but I think I earned my stripes when I woke up in a bed full of baby rats.
*********************************************************************************************************Okay, that's it. I have nothing else shocking, scary, or squeamish. Everything else is run-of-the-mill. Yes, I'm sadistic for putting the normal stuff at the bottom.

Mid-Service Conference. We're past the halfway mark and this was an opportunity to bring our group together one more time before our Close-of-Service Conference in December. Hard to believe that there's only ten months left. The Conference was fun and it was great to see everyone again and catch up.

My group nominated and elected me as their representative to the Volunteer Advisory Committee! The VAC is a body of PCVs who meet regularly with the Country Director and other key staff to discuss PCThailand policies and PCV issues. I'm the voice of the PCVs. I'm excited about the opportunity, as it's something different for me (politics, what?). Unfortunately, it also means more trips to Bangkok, just when I decided I was done with the place, but so it goes.

The Conference was also a good chance to discuss work with the rest of the group. The Community Enterprise Committee, which I'm a part of, gave a presentation which sparked a lively discussion. Everyone seems pretty jazzed about what we've been doing and the resources we've created (surveys, trainings, etc.). I got some good ideas from the discussion. Hopefully, I'll be able to implement them at site. Also, the CEC got to town a few days early and visited some NGOs in Bangkok. We made some good connections. For example, we found one NGO that does small-business trainings in rural Thailand, exactly what we've been looking for! Of course, they don't have any money, and neither do we, but they were excited about working with us.

Oddly enough, also in Bangkok were a couple of other PCVs from Mongolia and Kirgizstan. Bangkok is the medical hub for PCVs in Asia. Anyway, the guy from Mongolia, Sean, happened to be at my going-away party in San Francisco back in 2004! Ironically, he was there looking at my soon-to-be-vacated room. Talk about a small world! It was cool to talk to some PCVs from other areas. The girl from Kirgizstan said she cried in the taxi from the airport when she saw how developed Bangkok was. We assured her that Bangkok is nothing like the rest of Thailand. But, on the other hand, we have cell phones and she doesn't even have water. I wonder if she's ever had rats in her bed.... Also, my friend Josh had a friend in town who was a PCV in Ukraine. She said when she was there they also referred to the Ukraine as the Posh Corps. But, now she realized that Ukraine is not the Posh Corps, it is Thailand....

I got my yearly check-up and I'm healthy. I've lost four pounds since I arrived in Thailand. Also, I had a cavity, which I got filled (love the PC medical benefits). We all agreed that our dental cleanings were ridiculous! Seriously, I felt that there was a bar-fight in my mouth. I've never had a cleaning that rough, that painful. Everyone walked out clutching their jaws. Scrapings, pokings, strange noises, bleeding gums.... Beware dentists in Thailand....

Otherwise, I'm now back at site, broke and staying put for a while. It's good to be back where life is simple. The hot season is ending (slowly) and the rainy season is beginning. People are already out in the rice fields plowing the earth and laying the first seeds. I hope to be out there myself within the next couple of weeks. I'll tell you all about it. Until then,

Much peace and love,
Friday, April 21st, 2006
3:07 pm
Sickness, corruption, football, lots of water, and much, much more
Hello out there!

Well, it's been less than a month this time, but still a few weeks. It feels like I actually have a lot to report.

One thing I forgot to mention in my last post was the junior high graduation I attended. Right now it's summer vacation (this is the hottest month in Thailand and it is hot!) and the school year just ended. The junior high kids were the ones I worked with on both my HIV Camp and my English Camp, so they're the ones I know best. Junior high graduation is a big deal in Thailand, because not everyone continues their education. School's free up to about 9th grade, then you have to pay for it. Also 15 is a good age for kids to start working so many poor families opt for their kids to work and raise money for the family, instead of continuing to go to school. Most of these families, of course, have little other choice. So, the event was rather sad, especially since I knew them all.

Like all Thai ceremonies and all graduations, there were lots of boring speeches (the usual pomp and circumstance). These speeches were particularly awful. The principal, the teachers, the village leaders all got up and tried to pass on their "worldly" advice to these kids. It was awful. The 15-year-olds, of course, were rolling their eyes, yawning, passing notes, giggling. The principal actually told them "Don't drive motorcycles fast!" I rolled my eyes at that one. Then, they asked me to give a speech. I politely declined, but that never seems to work in Thailand. So, I gave a speech.

I knew these kids didn't want to hear anymore "adult" advice. In fact, that was the last thing they wanted to hear. So, I got up there, and I said: "I'm not worried about you guys at all. I've worked with you guys, I know you guys. You guys are smart. You're all gonna be fine." I think the kids appreciated that. As for the teachers... oh well.

Then, we had the typical Isan ceremony (tying white string around wrists), which gave me an opportunity to ask each student personally what they were going to do. Some are going to the fancy high school, some are going to the regular high school, some are going to the tech high school, some are going to other tech schools around the province, one girl is going to a private school in Khon Kaen. However, half of the kids, boys and girls, are going off to work in Bangkok to raise money for the family. Some will be working in factories, some have older siblings already there who will help them find work, some of them are the oldest sibling and they don't know what they're going to do there. It was heart-breaking. 15 years old and off to work, alone, in Bangkok. I'm worried about all of them, especially the girls....

A girl in my village, Nee, 15, who went off to Bangkok last year, is currently home for Thai New Year. I asked her Bangkok was and she said it was fun and she loved it. She also looked healthy and has some really nice new clothes. So, there you go. I suppose if I was 15 and I lived in the middle of nowhere, I'd want to go to Bangkok too.

In other news, I got sick for the first time. It was awful. It was right after my friend Julian left (see the last post). He had been here for less than a week so we were go-go-go the whole time. Partying a lot and sleeping very little. I think it finally caught up with me. Anyway, I got a bad case of the flu and was in my bed for a week. Had a fever of 103, which is really awful in this heat with no air-conditioner. Being sick sucks! Especially in the Peace Corps. I pretty much laid in bed with the fan on me, pouring cold water onto myself. I did get a housecall from Ja, my friend at the healthcenter, who brought me medicine when I ran out. A housecall! How about that....

So, yes, Thai New Year was last week, here called Songkran. If you remember from last year, this is the Thai holiday where everyone gets really drunk and dances around. No, wait, that's every Thai occasion. But, what sets Songkran off is the water. For an entire week everyone splashes themselves silly with tons of water. There's also lots of baby powder involved. This is continuous. The holiday is really a fun time. I hope to God I never spend another Songkran in Thailand.

Fun, yes, but also the most annoying holiday ever conceived by the minds of man. The problem is, everyone's drunk so they naturally assume that you want to be drenched in water. Why wouldn't you? Even at times when you're trying to go about your business and have papers in your hands or your wallet or your cell phone or something expensive or you just changed clothes for the third time that day. It's awesome if you're out there splashing around, but sometimes you just need a break. Especially after seven days of the same.

So, this year, I took a break. I went to the island of Ko Chang. The great thing about Songkran is that you get a 4-day weekend! So, I took advantage of it. Ko Chang immediately became one of my favorite places in Thailand. It is absolutely beautiful. The island (southeast of Bangkok, close to Cambodia) is over 70% rainforest and is the second largest island in Thailand (after Phuket). It looks like a giant lush green mountain sitting in the middle of the ocean. The only developed areas are the gorgeous beaches. The entire interior of the island is jungle that you can really get lost in. We took some nice hiking trails and found an amazing waterfall. Most of the time we just laid on the beach. It wasn't overly touristy at all and we were at one of the more out-of-the-way beaches. The island was packed so we ended staying in a cheap bungalow, which was literally a bamboo thatch hut with a matress on the floor and a mosquito net. It was awesome. We spent 4 nights on the island. I definitely hope to make it back soon.

So, what's been going on workwise? Same as always: not much. I've started working on the Gender and Development website. We just received a grant to build a PCThailand website with resources from all the different committees. I think we're one of the first PC countries to do this (since we're one of the most wired), so hopefully this could set a standard that other countries could follow and eventually we'll all be hooked up with one another. So, I went down to my friend Brian's site for a couple of days where he taught me how to use the Dreamweaver program. He had an old laptop that he had spilled coffee on that he let me borrow. I haven't gotten the damn thing to work once. But, I did get started on the site at his house. I'll get a chance to work on it soon and will let you know when it's up and running.

I did some surveys at my site this week! Wow, productive. For the Community Enterprise Committee, we're trying to collect info on everyone's sites and compile it. I surveyed my most successful groups (the bamboo furniture and P. Mee's spa) and collected all the information on them I could. The compilation will be a resource for us in case these successful groups are interested in training others, or if we have groups that are interested in learning their skills. It's a way for the Thais to network and share knowledge.

The interesting thing about my specific Peace Corps program is the learning curve. The program is still new as my group is only the second group in the program. The first group didn't have a clue and some of them accomplished little. However, they told us everything they had learned. We're already accomplishing more than they did, and quicker. Now, we've started creating resources (like surveys and questionaires) that we gave to the new group. Now, they're new at site and they're already way ahead of where we were in the same time. For instance, we also created "to-do lists" for them such as: people to get to know, questions to ask, "how to spend your first three months," etc. By the time the 4th group gets here, maybe they'll have their act together.

What else is going on? We're gonna teach Thai kids how to play Football! No, not soccer, American Football! Last November, when we were teaching Thanksgiving at Josh's site, we started tossing the ol' pigskin around and the kids were getting into it. Then, Thailand won the World Cup for Youth Flag Football. Josh started teaching kids how to play and they were enjoying it. So, he wrote a letter to some groups in America and got a response from the American Athletic Union. They're gonna donate balls, flags, uniforms, and equipment! Another PCV, Dom, who used to coach Little League Football in America, is gonna train us all on how to be coaches! Then, we'll teach the kids and have them play against each other. It's gonna be awesome. How hilarious is that? I'm gonna be a football coach. It's just shy of my lifelong dream to be a quarterback.

Goi is going to be moving. She got a job in a neighboring province, working for a local government office (like the one I "work" at). I asked her why she wanted to work for such a corrupt, inept organization, especially after hearing me and all my friends complain about it. Well, it is a good job, with good pay, good benefits, and even loans for employees to continue their educations. She passed all her tests which qualified her to be a supplies officer (higher than a clerk). Once she gets her BA, she'll be eligible for higher positions. Then, she had her interview, which consists solely of presenting her qualifications and bribing the mayor. Her job-search consisted of looking for offices that had openings and bribes cheap enough for her to pay. Apparently the amount the mayor wants is common knowledge. I wonder if he puts the amount in the classifieds? That's Thailand corruption for ya.

Lucky for her, her office is right next to the office of two PCV friends of mine, AJ and Mike, a married couple. They've met on a number of occassions and are friends, so it's good for the three of them to have people nearby that are the same age. However, it's going to change my life considerably. Not only will my Thai lessons end, but Goi is also my best friend at site and we always eat dinner together. So, it's a good opportunity for her, but sad for me. I'll just have to find some new folks to hang out with.

Don't know if you've been keeping up with Thai politics, but here's what happened since last I wrote. You'll remember that the Bangkok intellectual elite were calling for the removal of Prime Minister Thaksin based on the fact that they think he's inept and corrupt. Thaksin holds the support of the majority of the country and won the last election. So, Thaksin called a snap election which he, and his party, won easily. However, the King decided to step in (which he does rarely, but when he does, everyone listens) and asked Thaksin to step down to restore peace to the country, which he did (step down, I mean, whether or not peace has been restored remains to be seen). The country is currently without a Prime Minister or a working Parliament. They just had an election two days ago, but I haven't heard the results yet. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, my opinion on all of this is, of course, neutral. I will ask this though: does any of the above sound like the definition of "democracy?"

And, so, life goes on. I'm still not doing a lot at site, but that's the life of the Peace Corps Volunteer. I participate in everything I can and hang out with people, doing whatever they're doing. Songkran actually got off to a nice start with a ceremony at the office where we all poured water onto the hands of the village elders. One day I taught the office workers how to work their scanner. (Why did they have a scanner that nobody knew how to use?) The mayor was particularly impressed. Hey, I do what I can.

I leave my house everyday, which is the best advice for a Volunteer. I still have tons of sparetime. I've been reading a ton lately. I'm flying through books, of all different sorts. Pretty much reading whatever I can get my hands on. Here's a list of some of the authors I've read in the past two months alone: Salman Rushdie, Thomas Friedman, Hermann Hess, WEB DuBois, Irvine Welsh, Hemingway, Toni Morrison, Elmore Leonard, Thomas Mann, and Dave Barry. Yesterday I started reading Harry Potter in Thai! It's slow-going as there's a lot of new vocabulary, but I'm already making progress on it and its already getting easier.

Anyway, I've rambled on long enough. Until next time....

Peace and love,

Just in case you were wondering, there are currently (as of winter of this year) 7,810 PCVs worldwide, serving in 75 countries. 96% have at least a BA, 13% have an MA. 58% are women. 6% are 50 and over. The average age is 28.
Tuesday, March 28th, 2006
2:16 pm
One year, enterprise, and lots of parties
Hello out there!

Has it really been over a month since I posted on here? I guess time flies when you're having fun. I've been doing some more travelling, some for fun and some for work, so I haven't had much time to sit down and post. Also, life at site, is growing, well, rather commonplace. I guess you can get used to anything. It's been a year, after all. That's right, today marks the one-year anniversary of my life at site! Woo-hoo! To mark the occassion, I'm throwing a party. I dropped a bunch of baht and booked a restaurant in my district town. There's gonna be fish with garlic and chilis (my favorite), lots of booze, and karaoke. I've invited the entire office staff, the health center staff, P. Mee, and Goi. It's gonna be awesome. It's also the first party I've thrown for my Thai friends.

So, yes, one year at site. That means I'm halfway done. I'm not panicking yet. I'm happy with my first-year accomplishments and there's enough stuff in the works to have a successful second year. The second year is always filled with more work than the first anyway. It's been one jam-packed year and I don't expect this coming one to be any less so.

So, what am I working on? Some PCV guys in my group and myself started a Community Enterprise Committee. This is so we can help each other and other PCVs, work with our community groups on such areas as income generation, small business, accounting, marketing, distribution, networking, etc. This seems to be the area where most of us will be doing our work in the next year. We're creating a bunch of surveys for PCVs to use in work in their communities. We're also developing trainings to teach community groups about various things, like accounting practices for instance (none of us know any local groups that keep any books on anything). We're also identifying funding sources and NGOs around Thailand to help us in these endeavors. Basically, we've got a bunch of good things in the works. Now to start implementing them at our prospective sites!

Also, all the PC groups in Thailand are building a mass website, filled with various resources. It's time for everything to go online. Currently, all our resources for our work are in hard-copy in the office in Bangkok. They remodelled the office this past year, so everything is currently in boxes. This is a huge detriment to our work, as most of us don't even know what resources are available. My part in the website is building the page for the Gender and Development group (which I'm the Lifeskills Coordinator for). Our site will contain curriculums for trainings as well as lifeskills programs for PCVs to use at site, mostly gender-related, but not all so. Soon, I'll need to do a Lifeskills Camp at my own site, as well.

My friend Josh had a successful weeklong HIV Camp, which I went and helped him with. He did three days with the kids and then two days for adult volunteers. I helped out for two days. Working with the kids is always awesome and they responded well to everything. We had done Halloween with them last year and they loved Bobbing for Apples, so Josh was sure to include Bobbing for Apples at the HIV Camp. I suggested Bobbing for Condoms, but we decided that was too gross. They ended the camp by creating HIV Awareness posters to hang around their area. The training for the adult volunteers went fine, except for the fact that almost all of the men had left by the end of the first half of the first day. All the women stuck around and were participating. That's pretty typical for things in Thailand. The women do all the work and all the learning. But, his camp was good.

A couple of weekends ago I went to a crazy festival with my PCV Chris. The festival was in my district, but was actually closer to his site, and he knew a lot of people there. This was probably one of the funnest festivals I've been to in Thailand. For 48 hours straight, non-stop, this entire village drank constantly and danced around the entire village beating on giant drums. They did not sleep. It was insane. We were all pretty drunk. Chris and I got to beat on the drums and we danced our fair share. At one point we took a nap (sometime around 4 am), though it was hard to sleep with the constant drum-pounding. It was pretty awesome and Chris and I agreed it was one of the best days ever. I got propositioned for sex three times: once from a middle-aged woman, once from a drunk man in a dress, and once from an attractive young woman. As for the last, well, this was my home-district after all. Don't shit where you sleep. Sigh... breaking hearts in Thailand....

Chris and I also spent part of the day with Scott, an ex-Navy American who has settled down in the area with his Thai wife and their three children. I've met him before but this was one of the first chances I got to sit down and talk with him. He's pretty cool, a lot different than most of the old falangs who live out here with their Thai wives. He's an organic rice farmer and every year he tries to do something different with his rice crop. Most falangs I meet just lie around drinking, but Scott takes farming pretty seriously. He also has a beautiful house made of teak that he designed himself. His wife made us an incredible lunch of bbq ribs, mashed potatoes, and garlic bread. It's a tough life.

I had another visitor last week, my old college buddy Julian, who came out for a week with his friend Marco. We didn't have much time, so we did Bangkok and Chiang Mai. It was good to see him and I always love having visitors. It was nice to visit Chiang Mai again. That's really one of my favorite places in Thailand and would like to go back there more often. We also spent time exploring the infamous Bangkok nightlife. We saw the seedy side of things. We also want to some really fancy nightclubs (Julian and Marco are from LA, after all). These clubs were what the Thais call "high-so" (meaning "high society"). They wouldn't even let me in with sandals on! I had to rent a pair of shoes! There were also high covers and expensive drinks, but lots of beautiful people. Don't know if I'll be going back to them anytime soon, but I'm glad I checked them out.

Julian is Nicaraguan and his friend Marco is Filipino. The funny thing was that everyone thought they were Thai! Marco, okay, maybe a little. But Julian does not look Thai, whatsoever. People would come up to them and start rattling away in fast Thai, then get totally confused when I would start translating. It was pretty amusing. It was also interesting to see the different treatment we got. Girls at clubs wouldn't even talk to them, because they thought they were Thai! On the other hand, girls would come right up to me (yes, the white man lives like a rockstar in Thailand). I would try to introduce them to my friends, but they weren't interested. Once they started speaking English, the girls finally figured it out, but they still didn't believe it. They asked them for their IDs! It was only when they saw the American passports that they finally became interested. Thai women are shallow.

I'm sure you've seen the political situation that's going on here in Thailand. I was restricted from even going to certain parts of Bangkok because of the volitility of it all. To sum it up: Prime Minister Thaksin is incredibly corrupt and has come under fire for some recent shady business deals, although he maintains that they were legit. Along with the corruption charges, he's unpopular for some other reasons as well: human rights violations in regards to the war on drugs, his mishandling of the violence in the south, etc. So, the opposition wants him out, they want him to resign or for the King to kick him out. Thaksin is calling for democracy and called a snap election for April 2, to see what the people want. Everyone's calling for constitutional reform (the current constitution is less than 10 years old). All this has sparked huge rallies, protests, and even bombings. As for Thaksin, well, the opposition is loud, certainly, but out here in the poor rural provinces, support for him is strong. They're the ones that voted for him and they represent the majority of voters. It will be interesting to see if he survives this. As a PCV, my opinion is neutral and I'm not supposed to talk about it. I will ask this though: what does it say for democracy when you can kick-out your democratically elected Prime Minister anytime you want to, no matter how corrupt he may be? It reminds me of the California Recall election three years ago.

Anyway, that's about it in the world of Kevin. Life at site is slow and relaxed, as usual. The hot season is here. Yesterday it broke 100 and it's promising to do the same today. I'll try to write in here more often. Until next time:

Peace and love,
Sunday, February 26th, 2006
2:49 pm
Death and taxes
Hello out there!

Well, the cold season is over. Every day now it's back into the 90s. It's taking some getting used to, all over again. I had gotten used to the "cool" weather (meaning 80s). It's only gonna get hotter. I must say, having lived in this crazy country for over a year, my favorite month has to be December. No rain and temps ranging from the 50s to the 70s. Now, back to the tropics.

Things are going pretty well here. I finally had my "official" Peace Corps Site Visit. My Program Manager came up and spent the day with me. Every PCV gets visited by their PM (my direct supervisor) at least once during their service. My PM is a sweet Thai woman named Jaree who is awesome and whom I'm never had any problems with. I was informed by PC staff that my Site Visit had been pushed up to the top of the priority list. This was after my recent head-buttings with PC staff, some of whom are laboring under the misconception that I have a bad attitude. (Except for Jaree, who is perfect in every way.) Well, either way, I'm glad she had the time to come up.

We started out the day with a meeting with everyone I could think of: the mayor, his cronies, the admin officer, the councilmembers, the villageheadmen, the group leaders, the health center, the principals, basically all the community leaders. Jaree re-explained why I'm here and what my function is and what I can do. She also re-explained why the first year of PCV service is spent mostly assimilating, rather than working. Many people seemed to walk away with a clearer perception of my job. One of the headmen said he had never been informed who I was or what I was doing! And here I thought they had told everyone. And, of course, when I first got here, I could barely explain things myself. Jaree's presence was also good because it was the first time I had a translator at site and I got a chance to say some things I previously didn't know how to.

It was good to see how supportive everyone was. They realized this was my boss and they went out of their way to make both myself and themselves look good. "Kevin comes to the office every day!" I laughed at this, because it's not true, but didn't correct them. They also regaled Jaree with stories of all the funny things I've done, such as the Chinese New Year fireworks.

The rest of the day with Jaree was spent visiting the local groups and talking with them. She gave me some good ideas of how I can help them with organizing, marketing, and packaging. All in all, it was a good day.

I also learned that, this year, I don't have to file a Tax Return! Woo-hoo! I don't have to pay taxes! Yes, that is awesome. I knew I liked this Peace Corps gig. For those of you who are curious, I made a little less than $5,000 in 2005. Over half of that is my Readjustment Allowance, the money I get when I'm done, so I haven't even seen most of it yet. Yup, I am truly poor and loving it.

I've started teaching English again. When I first got here I was holding weekly English classes at the government office. The Admin Officer made the entire staff come and most of them didn't really want to be there. So, they didn't really learn anything and I stopped holding the classes. Now, there are about three or four staff members who genuinely want to learn English, so I started the class again, open to everyone. Now, it's much better, because it's usually only four of us and it's much less informal. I teach them what they want to learn and they're actually quite good. We're having fun. I invited Ja and the other health center workers, but they can't leave the health center, so I'm going to start having classes with them one day a week as well. Hey, it's something to do.

Earlier this week, I had a visit from one of the new PCVs. All of the new PCVs, during their training, get to visit one of the old, experienced PCVs to see what PCV life is really like. Last year, at this time, I visited Cristine. So, this week, I got a visit from John, from Group 118, who just arrived last month (I'm in Group 117). Of course, I enjoyed the company, and he enjoyed the respite from the awfulness of PC Training. Anyway, I told him everything I know (being the wizened PCV that I am) and took him around and introduced him to everyone and showed him what I'd been up to. He was a cool guy.

His visit had unique timing as, while he was here, an older man in the village next to mine passed away. Thus, we both got to witness our first Thai funeral! This was utterly fascinating, so I'm going to describe it in detail.

The deceased was a man of 60 who died of stomach cancer. He was a respected member of the community and I knew him as one of the health volunteers.

The day after he died was the funeral. John and I stopped by the family's house in the morning to find a party in full-swing! Everyone was wearing black (or, at least, dark blue). I never saw anyone cry, although his wife and daughter were rather solemn. Most people, though, were their usual happy-go-lucky selves. At the party, the women were cooking up tons of food and the men were throwing back bottles and bottles of rice whiskey. Also, everyone was gambling! The women included. They had pulled out cardboard crap-boards and were rolling the dice away. Money was flying everywhere! The headman told me that gambling's illegal, except at a funeral! It was too much. Anyway, John and I had plans to eat lunch with the health center, so we told them we'd come back for the wat service and the cremation (Buddhists cremate. Chinese bury. I think most Muslims bury, but I've never seen a Muslim cemetery in Thailand). They said, come to the wat at 2 pm.

So, at 2 pm, John and I pulled up to the wat. It was deserted! Where was everyone? We rode around for a while, but couldn't find anyone. Finally, we biked back into my village where we found some folks and asked them where the funeral was. They told me to head down this one tiny dirt road. I thought I misunderstood them, because there's nothing down that road. No, they assurred me, just head down that way. Okay, I shrugged, and we headed down the road. Sure enough, in no time, we were in the middle of the woods and there was nobody around. This can't be right, I thought. Luckily, two guys drove by on a motorcycle and confirmed that we were headed in the right direction.

So, we biked a little further. Then, we found it. The funeral ceremony was in the middle of the woods! This is strange, I thought, but we were late so we had to kneel down in the back of the crowd and be quiet. The monks said their thing. Then, one of the community leaders said a few words, talked about the man's life, and there was a moment of silence. It was nice. Then, it was over. Okay, I thought, now they're going to take the body (which was in a coffin in the back of a pickup truck) to the wat to the furnace. Instead, they started to drive the truck further into the woods! What is going on, I thought?

John and I made our way to the front of the crowd and followed the truck. Then, we saw it. There, in a small clearing, in the middle of the woods, was a giant funeral pyre!

Yes, a funeral pyre. We couldn't believe it. We had never seen anything like it. It was huge, made out of giant logs. Completely amazed, we stood at the front and watched the entire process. Some guys brought the coffin out of the truck and put it on top of the pyre. Then, everyone went up and cleansed the body with coconut juice. Then, a guy threw candy and coins to the entire crowd. (This is so the soul will have candy and money in the afterlife) Let it be said, here and now, at my funeral, I want someone to throw candy to the crowd. I'd also like to be cremated, but I don't require a funeral pyre. Then, the family took a bunch of pictures of themselves standing in front of the pyre. I must admit, that part was a little wacky and I couldn't help but laugh. Thais are addicted to taking pictures. Afterwards, I heard one say, "Oh, we forgot to take a picture of the falangs next to the pyre." That's quite all right.

Then, everyone came up and added, to the pyre, wood, candles, matches, incense, flammable things. Finally, they started handing out little torches. John and I were sure to grab torches. Everyone lit their torches and stuck them in the pyre. Then, we backed up. Way up. Remember, this is the dry season. John and I were ready to watch the entire forest go up in a flash. Luckily, there were guys who were constantly running around the pyre putting out flames whenever they spread.

The pyre lit up immediately and soon was engulfed in flames. A giant bonfire. It was hot, really hot. People started to leave but John and I were too awestruck and just had to watch the thing burn. It is definitely not something you see everyday. Some guys passed up some rice whiskey and we had a little toast to the deceased who was burning in front of us. With all due respect, it was awesome.

On that note, much peace and love,
Friday, February 10th, 2006
2:25 pm
Fireworks, aerobics, and patriotism
Hello out there!

Well, I'm back at my site and hard at work. Ha! Back at my site, anyway.

After travelling around Southeast Asia for two months, I came back to my village determined to stick around for a while. Not leave, reconnect, and save some money. For the most part, I've been doing that (with just one night out at the disco, but it was for a good reason, and I did it frugally). I kind of feel like when I first got here. I was feeling a little out of touch, so I've been using the past few weeks to hang out and get to know everyone, all over again. The Peace Corps has a silly acronym for this sort of thing: they call it "IRBing," which stands for "Intentional Relationship Building." I call it "chillin'."

Which is fine, that's about where I'm supposed to be right now, and I'm more or less on par with the other people in my group. It's been good to be back. The vacation was necessary, but now I feel all right just relaxing. Thai people can drive you crazy sometimes, but lately I've been getting along well with everyone. Spending time with the office staff, with Ja and the health center staff, with P. Mee, with everyone really.

Chinese New Year passed. Nobody in my village celebrated or did anything! They laughed when I asked about it. They said, "We're not Chinese! We're Thai and Lao!" Silly me. Well, gosh-darn it, I celebrated. I went out and bought a bunch of firecrackers and started setting them off and calling out "Happy Chinese New Year!" and "Happy Year of the Dog!" I got some pretty sweet firecrackers, colorful ones, and loud black cats. I've always been a pyro.

Suddenly, everyone came running! People showed up on bicycles and motorcycles from all over the village. Apparently, they light off firecrackers whenever somebody dies. That's to let the village know that there's been a death and everyone comes to help with the body. So, everyone showed up asking "Who died? Who died?" And there's just this crazy falang saying, "Happy Chinese New Year?" We all had a good laugh about it, especially me. Anyway, they'll be talking about that one for a long time to come.

It was nothing like last year, when I was in training in Central Thailand. Down there, they lit off firecrackers at 4 am! I remember waking up with a start, thinking I was back in 'Nam. I remember going to a huge festival at the local wat. Well, there are more Chinese in Central Thailand and really none where I live.

Pondering over last year's Chinese New Year leads me to think, "Wow! I've been here for over a year already!" Which is really quite crazy, when you think about it. Yes, my life is in Thailand now. Passed the year mark. Quite an accomplishment. I'm not even the youngest group anymore. Group 118 arrived safely in January. Hopefully I'll get to meet some of them soon. The word on the street is that they're an older, more serious group, but we'll see. Of course, it's hard to get less serious than my group.

In fun news, I went to a "malawmsing" last week in my friend P. Mee's village. A "malawmsing," you may recall, is a giant country party. It's a bit hard to describe and is very "Isan." Picture, if you will, a bunch of Isanites dancing in the middle of a field, or the grounds of wat, all night long. It's quite fun. The rice whiskey never stopped flowing. It's the dry season now, so a bunch of dust was kicked up. The music was all Isan, but with a techno beat. There was also a huge stage with scantily-clad dancers (they're everywhere in Thailand). The event was momentous because not only did I have tons of fun, but I also got pretty drunk. I only mention this because it's a sign of how comfortable I've gotten in my village. Everyone goes and gets drunk. I also knew most of the people there and consider myself to be friends with all of them. Also, all the kids come as well and the kids are my favorites. There was no way I could get home so I ended up crashing at P. Mee's house. I slept on her floor. It's times like this when I really feel like I'm part of the community.

But, I really knew I was part of the village, when I was asked (told, really) to compete in the annual dance-aerobics competition. Yes, I have now competed in a dance-aerobics contest. Believe it or not. When I worked at the Y, all I could tell you about the aerobics studio was where it was located. And look at me now....

Right now, it's the cold season, and that means the sports season. The coldest it's ever gotten in my village was in the 50s at night. Lately, it's been in the 60s at night and back up to the 80s during the day. But, all the villages have been competing non-stop in soccer, volleyball, and takraw. Takraw is a Thai sport in which a hard-ball (made from rattan) is kicked around, like a hackey-sack, but without the arms, only the feet and the head. There's a net, and two on each team, like beach volleyball. So, anyway, most of my time lately has been spent at these sports competitions.

To close out the tournament, they had the aerobics competition. Each village had to come up with their own routine and perform it. I performed with the people in my village. They were crazily serious about it! More serious about this than anything else! They insisted on practicing the routine over and over again, ad nauseum. The day before the competition, they rehearsed from 9 am to 10 pm. I kept finding excuses to leave. "Uh, I have to go to work," I said (ha!).

Anyway, the competition was quite exciting. My village got kudos for having a falang dancing with them. I thought we were awesome. We had a good routine and we were all in time with each other. We all wore smart yellow shirts and white gloves. Unfortunately, we didn't win. The winning village all had matching purple shirts, black pants, and orange hats. I think it was the hats that did it. My village was a little disappointed, but I told them I thought we were the best, and that seemed to cheer them up.

In the end, it was a good chance for me to "IRB" with the people in my immediate village, meaning the village I live in. I don't know them quite as well, because most of my work tends to be in the main-village and in P. Mee's village. My village is where my house is and I tend to view my house as "sanctuary." That's where I go at the end of my day to listen to my music and read my books. So, it was good for me to bond with the neighbors a bit.

I have two PCV friends who are changing their sites! In our one year plus, my group is still intact, nobody has gone home yet. But, we do have two people moving. The people at their site (they're a married couple) were just never interested in working with them. The people who had requested a PCV to begin with had moved away before they got there. After one year of nothing, they were pretty frustrated, so PC is moving them to a new place which should be a lot better. They lived in my province, so we had a going-away party last weekend. I thought that was a good enough reason to go spend one night at the disco. Fortunately, they'll still be pretty close to me so I'll get to see them as regularly as I have.

The Country Director of Peace Corps Thailand, Dr. John Williams, came to visit me last week. Dr. John, as we call him, tries to vist all of the PCVs at least once during their service. He was in the area, finishing visiting all the PCVs from Group 116 and he said he had time to swing by and see me. I think he was checking up on me, but the visit went well. Unfortunately, he didn't stay for very long. He checked out my house, we visited the health center and the office. We talked about what I've done and what I'm doing (or not doing) at the moment. Just as I suspected, I'm a normal, "textbook" PCV. Anyway, it was a good chance to talk to the "big-boss" and get to know him a little better.

He told me some interesting stories. He was a PCV in Isan in the 1960s, in the city of Nong Khai. Of course, life was much harder back then. But, he worked directly with two other PCVs. They also had a motorcycle and a Jeep! Not fair! He told me he used to head to Udon to watch English movies just like I do. Also, there were areas he was restricted from because they were Communist! He said my district was famous for being Communist!

I asked Goi a little bit about this and she told me that a lot of the provinces in this area, near Lao (and not far from Vietnam) were Communist-controlled in the '60s and '70s. Then they were forced into hiding in the mountains. Goi's father was in the army and fought against them. Fascinating history.

So, why was Peace Corps checking up on me? I think they're concerned about me. I'm not sure why, except that I tend to be a litte outspoken. They're also worried about their image. So, in an effort to help the image of Peace Corps, let me reiterate: Peace Corps is the best damned experience in the world for everyone involved. You should join immediately. It's also the smartest thing the US Government's ever done. If my blog hasn't shown this, then I'm sorry, and I'll do better. Also, if my blog has convinced someone not to join the Peace Corps, please let me know and give me the chance to change your opinion.

As for Peace Corps staff, they're like Rodney Dangerfield, they get no respect. They've been down in the dumps. After all, they have to sit behind desks in Bangkok all day. They can't breathe fresh air and go fishing all the time like us out in the field. They work hard keeping us rascally PCVs in line. It also doesn't help their self-image when ungrateful PCVs, like yours truly, accidentally send the Office vitriolic text-messages decrying their latest boneheaded decisions. But, hey, we all make mistakes.

So, in conclusion, I love Peace Corps and everyone involved, even those who lack senses of humor. Also, in case there's any confusion, I'm proud to be an American. God bless the troops. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Communist Party. Peace Corps, this Bud's for you.

Peace and love,

"If I had a hammer
I'd hammer in the morning
I'd hammer in the evening
All over this land,
I'd hammer out danger
I'd hammer out a warning
I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land."
-Lee Hays and Pete Seeger
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