Tuesday, August 20, 2013


After a day that lasted 36 hours - literally I just kept setting the watch back - I greeted the nice customs man with a "glad to be home" smile. And Bob with loud squeal and crushing hug. It's all good.

I preached on Sunday. At 9am I did OK but I have absolutely no recollection of 10:30 worship at all. But there are no rotten tomato stains on my robe so I assume it was comprehensible if not memorable. I bet Luther had days like that....

The 500+ photos are on the computer and I'll start enhancing the blog - let you know when it is Show and Tell ready!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Teaching chaos

My school has conferences so I was traded to another team for the last day of teaching. I think for athird  round draft choice next week and an undisclosed sum. The director seeing an opportunity for 3 Americans planted up on the playground and bought out classes, 3 rooms with 30 kids each grade, grades 1-6, and we were to "do something in English" for an indeterminate amount of time.  The first group was little kids who liked Old Mac Donald and Hokey Pokey. So the director request we do that for everyone. We made it look perky through about Grade 5 who were twitchy but cooperative. But Grade 6 almost went into open rebellion. By then we were so Hokied and Pokied out we contemplating 99 bottles of beer on the wall.

They fed us good - if unclassified - food so we survived.

Toilet Criteria

From most essential to "what we expect at home but are surprised to find" :

1 Lock on door - sometimes door
2 Western not squat - the locals will cue up at the squats and leave the western open
3 Flush toilet, not one you slosh out with bucket of water
4 Spray hose, method of cleaning in lieu of paper
5 Real paper, bonus point if on a covered roll, not sitting on floor
6 Waste basket with lid, no paper ever goes in toilet anywhere
7 Sink
8 Soap, bonus if it is pump liquid and not ancient bar
9 Community Cloth towel, bonus is one with a clean dry spot
10  Paper towel and waste basket

First one in the group announces the rating to general ooooooo's and resigned sighs of the others. Believe me I have been all the way down below number 1 and never passed up an opportunity. Part of the experience.

Plant sale

Everything seems to be larger and more intense here. But I forget that - again - when we went to a plant sale yesterday. Think Home Depot times about 10 only with everything crammed as tightly as possible and vans continually driving down the 1 narrow lane between stalls. That was just house plants. The next row was orchids - simply spectacular plants 3 for 100 baht - about $3.50! Then we went through every kind of fruit and vegetable bearing plant.

But turning the corner I thought we entered a forest. The Tree Asile was not saplings, but full grown 8 ft tall palm trees and large bushes and banana trees with bunches already on them and some ferns and various unidntifyied flowing tress over 15 feet tall! All were uprooted and ready to carry home on the back of a bus.....

Absolutely everything was super green and lush and then I remembered: we are living in the hothouse zone. Think three weeks at the jungle wing of the Chicago Botanical - the effort to dry off after a shower leaves you sweating!

But the plants are doing really well!


Little observations

Dogs and cats - there are lots and lots of dogs here, many locked behind gates for protection and way more simply roaming, apparently fed by someone, and sleeping everywhere in the sun. The Wats are a sanctuary for all beings so a dog who wanders in can stay will be fed, but not taken to the vet. There're a few groomed little puff ball dogs but most are rugged looked street dogs who don't even wake up when you step over them.

Cats are working cats, mainly in the Food district to keep down the rat population. No pampered kitties here!

Language - Thai is very tonal, almost melodious, and lovely to hear. Even arguments have a nice lilting quality, although I have heard no yelling or arguing over traffic or shopping prices. It is a very quiet, respectful city for so many jammed together.

English camp - we did a full day of activities at one school as an English Camp and to the American eyes things went smoothly, kids were engaged and if we were tired it was the tired of people who have done a good day's work. One Thai teacher, however, did not like to depart from the traditional method of children just repeating orally and then copying in the notebook. So the coordinator had to do a survey of everyone to justify having it again! People are the same everywhere!

Chicago - Most of the teachers do not speak much English, but when I told the lunchroom crowd that I was from Chicago, one man said, "I know Chicago. I see movie Al Capone." Sigh.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Big C

Today is the Queens Birthday - a national holiday and Mother's Day. So what better way to celebrate than shopping? I hit the local WalMart/KFC/Finally Me Bakery. Hard to find anything made in Thailand. But I found a couple of books and some cookies for my teachers since tomorrow is actually my last day of teaching at the school. They have conference days the rest of the week so I will go to some other school and help.

Anyway fireworks are going off in the neighborhood and downtown Bangkok is covered with Twinkie lights and gazillions are gathering for a candlelight ceremony at the grand palace. Maybe you will see it on TV!

We get an English paper here and the US news that makes it through besides business and sports has been Swiss apologizing to Opera and US reassessing relations with Russia.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Back in time: 1300

The original city of Ayttuhaya was Capitol of Thailand in the 1350 until it was burned by the Burmese in 1767. It was  - from the ruins left - a massive complex, similar to Rome in the house foundations and Wat structures left.

Every Buddha statue is headless - beheaded by the Burmese - and bricks have burned marks. One Wat had been restored and the next one was in the originally ruins so it was fascinating to see how it might have been and how it was left.

 The Capitol was rebuilt on the Bangkok site.

How great kingdoms rise and fall.


Many gods

Another river boat ride to the Artist's House where we watched a puppet show. That sounds like story time at the library but these were detailed full body puppets run by 2-3 puppeteers with long stickes, a little like Kermit and the muppets, but the dancers move with the puppets so when the puppet kicks the dancers do too. It was a simple story of two of the gods, but magical to see the puppets take on emotion and action and this is becoming a lost art here so I was glad to see it.

Speaking of gods, the Buddists do not have them - just the Buddha as a teacher, not to be served or honored. All the statues and bowing and gifts Might not have been in his original vision. But because Thailand is such a crossroads of cultures the Hindu gods are welcome and worshiped as well. So the typical Wat will be surrounded by statues of monkey gods and warriors but inside is a gold Buddah.

Also present are many Chinese statues, warriors, animals, not at all attached to any religion but everywhere! It seems the Thai used to send large shipments of rice and other goods to China. On the way home they did not bring as much so they needed ballast. China had lots of extra statues hanging around so they threw in a few on each trip. And populated the entrance of every temple with them!

Life passages

New baby - no showers ahead of time but relatives bring gift sit the hospital and much help is given in the home until the 1 month birthday when a huge party is held.

Wedding - there is no religious ceremony, just the registrar. At the party the couple kneels and friends put drops of weather on the joined hands for good wishes.

Funeral - the body is not embalmed but lies in the temple for a period of time for the family to honor before cremation. In the case of royalty that can be a year or more.  After cremation, the ashes are divided, with some going into the water, some to the earth and some to shrines near the local Wat. The family asks the local priest to say prayers at the death, and regularly honor the deceased with food offerings to the Wat on the death anniversary.



The 5 of us in Group A will be hard to replace. We all arrived and jet lagged and sweat together. People come and go all the time. I'll miss that team. Thank goodness for Facebook.


Group A has departed and Group B has arrive in force. There are 12 new people, 10 from Lily, 2 teachers from New York and a CCS staffer.

The Lily gang is an international Gathering from a Brazil,  Japan, Puerto Rica, Panama, Croatia via Canada, and some Midwesterners. Including a guy from my hometown, Peoria, IL. Some researchers, some support staff, many sales persons who liven things up considerably. Lily provides time (at least) for 2500 staff to volunteer abroad. Each year there is a lottery and if you can go, you might!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Buddha to the Max

The King is not in residence in Bangkok now. He is out of the hospital and at the palace in the south where they "have trees." That made no sense until we visited the Royal Palace. It is a huge area of  concrete sidewalks and glittering temples and hardly a single tree anywhere for blocks. And there is a dress code: covered shoulders and neck, long pants.

So of course there is security who look at our pants and shoulders and cleavage but never checked bags for weapons! I could be packing a fully automatic anything but if my knees are covered it is OK. The concern is more for reverence than for security.

Each king has added some building to the grounds so it was fun to see how royal tastes change, here a European influence, there a splash of China or Japan.

The Emerald Buddha was originally discovered covered in cement and assumed to be simply be another Buddha, then as the monk cleaned it he knocked a chip off the nose and saw it was green! He assumed green was emerald so he named it then. The Buddha is actually jade, but the name stuck. It is small and perched very high up surrounded by masses of gold.

Which did not at all prepare us for the Reclining Buddha. It was the end of the day, and we were about Buddha-Ed-out but gasped as we came into the temple. It is 50 feet high by 143 feet long.

There are 108 bronze bowls for offerings, but you cannot just drop in a $20. You need to change it for tiny little coins so you can drop in one per bowl. The effect is a tinkling like rainfall that goes on constantly.


Flowers grow anywhere

There are 3200 wats or temples in Bangkok. Each owns considerable Land around it which they use for a school and housing. I wandered the area around my teaching site, and it was rougher than where the volunteer house is, with tin roofs, sagging unpainted walls, dirt yards. However in the glimpses I had showed me that no place was too poor not to have a framed portrait of the Queen. And lovely flowers grow wherever they can, regardless of the riches of the houses.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Breakfast of Teachers

As I walked to school yesterday the teachers I work with we're grabbing breakfast at a stall. I joined them having a drink that was liquid chocolate over ice, but skipped the main course: white bread toast with butter, sugar and colored sprinkles, cut into 8 pieces and eaten with a toothpick. Hummingbird energy!

Public Transport

Last night we took the Bangkok version of a water taxi, but it operated more like a high speed subway.  We walked through a Wat (temple - there are 3200 in Bangkok) and onto a very shaky pier via a construction site. Pretty much everything in Bangkok is via a construction site. When the boat arrived the passengers were all ready to step off and we wobbled our way on. Any delay caused the conductor to shout his only English words: move move move move. He could get 25 people on the boat in less than 30 seconds. It was very much like a train whose doors malfunction to allow only seconds to get on and off only without the benefit of the recorded voice saying "the doors are closing".

But the ride was gorgeous. The dinner boats are framed with lights and watching them sail past is magical.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Cover shot

A picture on the front of the Bangkok Post shows yesterday's demonstration: 3000 strong, most wearing shirts and ties! Apparently the weekend has possibilities for more demonstrations, but we are nowhere near it.

Salt, pepper and...

CHILI POWDER are condiments, not spices for Thai cooking. So even if you ask for your dish to not be spicy, the cook still would not think of skipping the chili powder. To ask for a dish without that would be like asking for food in a restaurant in US to be salt free. I have found it all delicious!


We visited a Chinese temple yesterday and were able to hear 90 minutes of chanting by the youngest novice monks. Sitting on the floor for that long - not criss cross applesauce but either on the knees or with the legs both to one side - was...um...numbing. The chanting was wonderful, but since it did not have any connection to my experience I drifted into watching the baby monks adjust robes, twitch, be corrected to stand up straight, shove each other into place and generally behave like preteen boys.

In Thai all men become monks at one point in life, usually right before marriage. They take 3-4 months government paid time off, go to a monestaries, having given all possessions to family, and learn to know themselves and selfless living. There is no failure in leaving after 3 months or 30 years and returning to life. It is simply a stage. Some, of course, stay forever, but to be ordained a monk is not a response to a call as much as training for a pure and simplified way which hopefully will carry into the rest of life. If after 30 more years they want to come back, they simply give away everything again and retreat. Thai monks cannot even touch or stand near women and must eat only what they beg, all before noon. No food then until dawn the next day.

In the South currently there is no ordination or monestary for women. No comment.



In 2015 there is a huge ecnomic agreement coming for most of the southern countries in Asia called ASEAN. Besides new departments and policies the official ecnomic language will be English. So there is a renewed emphasis on teaching English in all the schools. China and Japan will be included in the  group later.

Most of the Englsih teachers are form the Phillippines where instruction begins in the home or at preschool.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

In case this made the news....

We drove past the cement barricades and police lines last night in the taxi. It was quiet. The teaches say the out of towners are arriving today to start serious demonstrations against the government coinciding with the end of Ramadan. BUT  Monday is a national holiday - the Queen's birthday/Mother's Day so many many people leave to go honor mother or her memory in the outlining areas.

We are nowhere near that part of town and the staff is very aware of any danger. Plus we have never been out when the traffic logjams would not stop the most determined demonstrator from reaching the goal.

Heck, I few Asiana Air getting here!

Two beer downpour

We went to a cultural museum for our activity yesterday and then via many modes of transport met up with another volunteer for a trip to Chinatown for dinner. That sounds very civilized to the poimt of boring! But anything 1) in Bangkok tuk tuks and 2) chaperoned by a 19 year old U of Chicago student is bound to be an adventure.

As soon as we entered the Chintown area, the way people drove was distinctly Chinese, not Thai. Thai drivers virtually never honk, always slow and stop for pedestrians, and in general are exceedingly polite. Chinese drivers - as seen in Shanghai in 2008 - go as fast as possible, hate the brakes, will calculate the pace  of the pedestrian and plan to miss them but if the walker freaks and stops they honk and are annoyed that you stopped their trajectory. It takes a great deal of courage to know that when headlights are speeding at you!

We were dropped off at Point A and started asking questions about a certain cafe that as written up and nightly endorsed on several travel websites. We walked, and tuktuked, we walked more and tuktuked more. At the end of all that we were dropped off at Point A. Finally a very nice local man headed us in the right direction and our guide recognized the area and found our cafe - that term used strictly because they served food. We sat 1/2 way out in the street at the usually plastic table and stools and he ordered the house speciality: oysters. I am not normally a big oyster fan, but when in Bangkok...

They were amazing wonderful! I saw scallions and some kind of Breaded Egg under it and the oysters had stewed in some combination of spices. I know you can't see my mouth watering remembering it! As we finished eating and were enjoying our Thai beers, the rain started. Sprinkled Rain in Bangkok is only to let folks know to take cover. It never just sprinkles! The gusher began seconds later. The staff hurried us under the awning and we had to choose between using the one umbrella for three of us or getting a second beer. That was the easiest decision we made all day! It turns out Thai downpours are just about 2 beers long!

We took a very peaceful cab ride home and can say we have eaten the best Bankok Chinatown has!

More about the school

School yesterday was a lot of meetings - just like school everywhere! But the kids did spend time with a monk who was brilliant with them. Never raised his voice but had them actively engaged. He was teaching - gently - prayer positions and words. It will be while before
they acquire "stillness" but they loved the experience.

That got my asking questions again about the school. It is "private" in that it is owned by the local Wat, or temple. The land the temple is on,  the school and all the surrounding "slums" (the word the teacher used) is all Wat property, but the school itself is funded by the government. So it is there for the children who live in the area. I need to see the housing area to say for sure, but the rooftops look like the kind I have seen in more needy areas. The children however are neat and clean, always.

So the monks can come speak whenever they like, although if they usually send this one the kids do not mind religious instruction at all.

Monday, August 5, 2013


I am teaching in a private school that is pretty typical for Bangkok. Grades P-6 on 2 campuses across the alley from each other. There is the typical mix of new and veteran teachers, a male director and female administrator.

English is started in grade 1, with a "native speaker" 1 hour a week, so we are busy all day and and a central part of the program. Imagine if we offered Chinese or Spanish that way! Teaching is primarily the typical Asian model of lecture and rote repetition without meaning, but there is an effort to be more experiential and conversational at the upper levels. Missing are the typical ways of teaching rhyming words like say, day, way, but perhaps that requires conversation ability that our kids have when they begin to read.

There is a Thai alphabet song but it takes about 7 minutes to sing! If you are washing hands to it you will be really clean.

Everything in Thailand is very clean, partly because the rain keeps it washed and because the Thai are personally very clean people. So the children's uniforms are spotless but wrinkle proof and shoes come off before entering any room.

Bathrooms, sidewalks, public areas are clean and people of all ages are modestly dressed in Western clothes. In Bangkok, there are 10M people but relatively little shoving or bumping. They tend to be small so lots of us can get into one train. But the taller volunteers do feel a bit Gulliver!

Temple Visit

I am having to go back and recapture stuff that just came so thick and fast I could not get it blogged.

Last week we went to a Temple and were honored to meet the director monk. He was educated in America and was the most gracious and sincere man I have ever met.

He gave us the basics of Buddism, but the fascinating part was how Buddism has changed in Southern Asia as opposed to Northern Asia. Case in point is the absence of women in the monestaries.

Buddha originally taught that man and women were no different in ability to follow the path and join monestaries. Various (male) cultural issues arose even before the Buddah had died, but they laste after he did. Centuries past and with the influence of the west, women began to apply. The North being more progressive agreed to set up separate monestaries and ordain women. The South being more "by the book" will not ordain and does not welcome women monks should want to establish femal monestaries. So it goes.

Whatever the training is, I have heard no loud argements or honking horns!

It's a jungle!

The weather is beyond the hot and humid of the tropics because of all the greenery that is growing in every possible space that is not concrete. And in some cement it is breaking through. The  house yards are not  tidy grass space, but crammed with voluntary lush plants with huge leaves and gorgeous flowers. The earth steams after a rain and the green holds the moisture until The air can try to absorb it. As dry as Morocco was, I found the water it needs. About 50 years without human interference would be all Bangkok needs for the dense jungle to reclaim it..

Redefines humidity as we know it in Chicago!

English Camp and Cultural Event

Today the whole CCS volunteers staff when to my school for an all school English Camp. We each had an assigned topic and detailed instructions from the local teachers, but 8 groups of 40 kids per group!

I did storytelling for grades 4-6 which meant a lot of time with The Boy Who Cried Wolf. By time #7 I was not sure if the wolf would show up or not. It would be faster if the villagers just chased him off or got smarter sheep. But the kids had a great time and all the teachers were grateful.

Then we had a cultural experience. The planned event was a visit to Jim Thompson house who was a private American who took 6 regular Thai houses, moved them all to his property and designed one house in the Thai style from them.  He also collected some astonishing Chinese and Thai art which was wonderfully displayed. The house made the most of the wonderful garden. In th way it reminded me of Frank Lloyd Wright with the windows and vistas bringing nature in. Except here there is no need for windows!

The unplanned part was the taffic and rain. The 40 minute tour took 1.5 hours to get to and 2 more to get home. We ended up taking a van, sky train, subway, tuktuk, golf cart and splashing through puddles.