Thursday, April 30, 2009

What the heck am I doing here?

Some things I have learned about my community so far:
- Most of the area is agricultural, though the land is very dry and the soil is sandy and very poor
- There are 2, 166 families in the area, 8,189 people total. Now it is 8,190 if you count me!
- Careers: farmer, shopkeeper, seasonal planter, teacher, government worker. 
- There is one bank (no atm), 14 gas stations, 21 rice mills, 57 stores, 9 schools, and 12 restaurants. 
- There is a post office and one cell phone store, along with 19 swamps/marshes. 
- There is a EMS group but no fire station or fire truck. 
- Each village (there are 20) has a community income generation group.
- Most people here speak Lao (from Laos) during daily activities. They can understand and speak Central Thai but prefer to speak Lao. 
- Most people do not eat regular rice, but gluttonous sticky rice everyday. They rolls into little balls in the their hands and then dip into whatever mush they are eating (I stay away from the unknown mush!)

Since it's hard to explain exactly what I'm doing here and I'm not exactly sure myself, I did some reading on the Peace Corps definition of what a development volunteer should do. An excerpt is posted below:

There is a tendency by all of us from industrialized nations to view devlopment as a finite project that addresses specific needs such as health, education, housing, income and so on. Certain inputs are supposed to produce quantifiable results during a specific time frame. Often we assume the beneficiaries cannot achieve these objectives on their own and therefore we do it for them. We build their schools and houses, and think that getting them material goods (computers, construction supplies, machinery, transportation means) will improve their lives. What we fail to realize is that development is a process, not a project.  It is a learning process in which the people involved are developing skills, knowhow, confidence, and the ability to identify and address their own issues. As a process, development sometimes move painfully slow and goes through different phases leading to higher levels of skills, efforts, and achievements over time. When it is working well, it expands opportunities for people to fulfill their basic needs and achieve their aspiration for a better life.

Your role as a Volunteer, then, is to join your community in its learning process, serving as teacher and student, facilitator and participant. As you assist others in building their capacity, you will strengthen your own abilities in ways you perhaps never imagined possible. 
                               - Roles of the Volunteer in Development

I like this definition a lot and it is helping me to maintain focus. Of course I would like to jump in and start some type of project immediately, but as you can see there is more to it than that. This morning for example, I was planning on studying Thai and researching recycling in Thailand. Instead I was whisked away to an early morning wedding, in which I stomped through mud to get a good view of. I went with co-workers and some neighbors and made a few new friends. This may not sound productive, but according the definition of development, it most certainly is. I am "joining" my community. I was also able to recycle some empty Coke bottle laying around on the way out!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Pizza and Snakes

So things are going pretty well so far since being at site. I hope you all have gotten all caught up on my last few posts. Since being in the office for the week I have mostly just played on the internet and started learning to read Thai. You will be happy to hear that I am good at both of these things. Reading Thai is difficult; it can take me 30 minutes to read one page about someone buying fruit at the market. Also when I am in the office I try and talk to all the employees. They are all really friendly and I like their personalties, not sure about their level of work though. I haven't found anyone who is not enthusiastic about me being here but I am still not sure who my main counterpart will be. They all seem too busy right now to take me around the community. As for this, my tentative plan is to visit each community group (there are 20) and do some participatory community mapping with each. This mapping method is a community entry tool. Instead of me biking around and making the map myself, this method allows me to meet the group members, work on a small project together, learn what is important about the community to them by how they draw the map, learn what areas are dangerous, and hopefully learn a little Thai and local dialect to boot. It also gives me a chance to explain what the heck I am doing here for two years. Alas all this is easier said than done. 
In other news my homestay is going fabulously and I have started making friends with the neighbors. Also my wonderful host sister, Pi Ni, brought be two pieces of pizza from the city last night! It was Hawaiian style from 7-11 but it still tasted pretty good. Right now my family is working on building a mushroom hut. Did I mention that they are an organic and self-sufficient household? Pretty cool not so cool stuff, I came precariously close to a snake as I stopped to make a turn on the way into work today and last night I saw the biggest spider I have ever seen in my shower! Not sure if either of these guys were dangerous, ie POISONOUS!, but my co-workers and family think it's no big deal, you know "just let them do their thing, and you do yours"...I tried to explain that in America we kill the animals that get in our house...they thought this was crazy. Also sighted, an enormous toad, and rat (well it might have been a mouse, not sure). 

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Behind the Scenes

As per request of a friend I have decided to write a entry based on a more behind the scenes look at my experiences. Instead of writing about what I have been doing I will include some interesting observations and experiences:
1. First, if you were ever a dog lover it would be hard to continue those feelings here in Thailand. Dogs are not treated very well. This is not the case everywhere, but even when a dog has a loving family, in the small villlages, the dogs are rarely bathed and their health needs are not addressed. Dogs are also rarely spayed or neutered so there are dogs everywhere! And there are some really mean ones. In the states I had never really had a good luck at a dog's set of teeth, these dudes have some intense fangs. The only time I have been confronted with a set of these pearly whites, was on bike rides. If a dog does not hear you coming or they are just plain mean, they will chase you, fangs out, barking and growling visciously. I almost think they want to take a chunk out of my sneakers or worse my leg! Luckily, on my first such encounter I was feeling quite agressive and screamed at the dogs in Thai, barked back at them (yes, this is true) and rang my bike bell violently! It all worked out fine. My second experience with these mangy animals happened yesterday, my first day at work, at lunch. Since Thai's are Buddhist they would never put a dog down or leave them to die, thus we have an ugly, sick dog living at our office. My co-workers feed him our leftover chicken bones, sometimes say his name in a friendly way and this is the love he gets. I imagine he is pretty happy. Yesterday another dog sauntered up to our lunch table and as soon as our resident dog noticed, he commenced trying to rip the other's dog's head off. The fight only lasted about 3 minutes, but it felt like forever. Our lunch group was just women but we remained calm and tried throwing water on the fighting dogs, I mean I definitely did not want to get a dog bite, but also wanted the fight to stop. It was kind of scary. The fight finally ended after a friend intervened with a broom. Later I saw our office dog, wandering around, wagging his tail, but also bleeding on his back. Needless to say I will probably never pet him or feed him again. 
2. Thai food is known for being particularly delicious, and it something that this culture takes a lot of pride in. In fact Thais' are also talking about what they just ate and what they are going to eat next. This topic of conversation suits me just fine. While I think that Thai is pretty good, I have also eaten some pretty weird things, not to mention some insanely spicy things! A favorite dish here in Issan is spicy papaya salad and sticky rice. This "salad" includes a little papaya, a lot of fermented fish sauce, some green beans, sometimes crab legs, tomatoes, and tons of peppers and chili. It is seriously spicy, luckily last time I sampled this cuisine I had some warm sour milk to wash it down with! Other things include your typical unknown soups, meats, or chicken served with feet still attached. The fruit here is amazing though! never do you get a bad watermelon or bitter pineapple, all delicious. People here eat mangoes that are not yet ripe. This bitter snack is one of my favorites. My last host family said if you eat these mangoes when you are drinking (alcohol, that is) then you won't get a headache the next day. I eagerly tested the theory with some Peace Corps friends, and the result is, you guessed it....NOT TRUE!
3. My favorite Thai phrase is "mai ben rai", this means no problem, you are welcome, i don't care, it didn't hurt that bad, etc, etc, etc. It can be used in all kinds of ways. 
4. I haven't really seen any weird animals yet, but species of bugs abound! Every night I find a different kind buzzing around my room. In the pursuit of scientific education, I say YAY! In the pursuit of cleanliness and uninterrupted sleep, I have to say NAY. In my last homestay we had the frequent visitors of frogs, fire ants, regular ants, flying ants, mice, large lizards, and small house lizards. There are tons of the small house lizards (jing jokes). They aren't dangerous or gross, but are sometimes loud, but they eat bugs, especially mosquitoes. (Note: all Peace Corps volunteers sleep under mosquito nets). Buffalo are prevalent at my new site!
5. A note about transportation: Most Thai's travel by scooter or motorcycle (without a helmet!) There are tons of accidents, and people that are as young as eight drive these things. I once saw a family on 5, including an infant breezing through town on a motorcycle, no helmets of course. The most popular car in Thailand seems to be the pickup truck, and many many people ride in the back the trucks. It so happens that Peace Corps volunteers are supposed to avoid riding in the back of trucks and are strictly forbidden to ride a motorcycle. This makes getting around quite difficult sometimes. The worse was at my last homestay, when my 65 year host mom climbed in the back of the truck, while I got the front seat with AC. At my new site, it's just me and my bike, which isn't nearly as cool now that I put a basket on the front; it is practical though. I am also allowed to ride in cars with co-workers and friends. 
6. In case you weren't aware, Thailand has three seasons: hot, hotter and hottest. Right now we are in the midst of hottest...I think...I would assume...I would hope it does not get any hotter than this. Temperatures during the day are over 100 degrees. Last night when I went to bed at 10 pm, the temp. read 94 degrees, I finally put my blanket on at 5 am when it got all the way down to 88. Surprisingly, one adjusts to these temps. I can be quite comfortable reading a book in front of a small house fan when its 100 degrees in the room, remember "mai ben rai"!

I think that's enough interesting point to give you all a glimpse of Thailand for now. Don't want to overwhelm you! Please let me know if there are other things you want to know about! This is a great opportunity for me to write my experiences down. 

Monday, April 20, 2009

Time to get down to business!

WOW, where should I even begin! There is tons to report! I will start with the last bit of training. As training was winding down, we found ourselves with more and more work. We had our language exam, with official testers in from Bangkok. I got just the score I needed, but was disappointed that I did not get a higher score. I really have learned a lot of Thai though. The day before our language exam, my technical work group presented all of our research and potential project suggestions to the local administration, in THAI! I had invited my host family and many of our friends from the community were there. Somehow everything turned emotional as the community thanked us and we thanked them. There were a few tears and lots of smiles. Our presentation was successful and we were able to present several possible projects to the community. The next week was spent doing evaluations, learning about self-directed language study, safety and security procedures and planning a thank you party for our families and communities. For this party I was part of the American performance group. Our group decided to perform different American dances from different decades. For the 50s, Mike and Charlotte did swing dancing, for the 60s we had some volunteers play a Bob Dylan song on guitar, for the 70s, we did disco and the YMCA (I was in this group), the 80s included Michael Jackson's Thriller, for the 90s I was in the Macarena group, and then finally for  2000 and on we led the whole party in the Cupid Shuffle. The whole party turned out great, with thank you speeches and a slide show. After the party, all the volunteers moved back into the hotel for our last 4 days. Seeing a chance to spend time together, the beer drinking and jam sessions ensued every night for that week. Our days were spent at another hotel, where we had a conference with our counterparts from site. This conference was fairly productive if not a bit stressful. I found my counterparts to be cooperative and to be on the same wave length as me in terms of projects. 
Thursday morning was the start of a big day. All the volunteers got dressed up for our swearing in ceremony with the US Ambassador to Thailand, all the Peace Corps staff and our counterparts. We took an oath, the same oath that the US President takes, and then were official volunteers! It was quite exciting but a bit anti-climatic as we soon loading our co-workers cars with our belongings and bikes and then hitting the road before lunchtime! The ride to my site took just about 9 hours. I was exhausted and spent a lot of time sleeping or listening to my Ipod. There was just too much to think about, to talk in Thai for the whole time! I arrived at my site to find another wonderful host family and a new room waiting for me.
The next day I spent time unpacking and getting to know my new home. I have a real bed, desk, chair, and shelves. There is a western toilet and hot water shower. The TV even gets American sports! My host father is a retired army officer and his wife is a school teacher. They both speak English to varying degrees! They have a daughter who is recently married that has a cottage on the property. Her cottage is completely modern with AC and a really great bathroom; I can use the cottage to relax in when she is not there and she had stocked the fridge with snacks and drinks for me! She only comes home on the weekends. 
The Sunday after arrival, the family's daughter, Ni and her husband, brought me some things for my room, toiletries and food from the big city. This included peanut butter and jelly and Diet Coke!
Sunday night I was whisked into with my family to learn some traditional dancing. I soon found out that I would be performing in a parade the next day and would have to wake up at 4am to get my hair and make up done. All this turned out to be true and on the first day of the Thai New Year's festival, Songkran, I was dancing in the streets! This was fun and I wasn't half bad. I also got very sunburned as was exhausted by the end of the day. The next day, I headed to a local school to take part in some more New Year's activities; this included serving noodles to old villagers and making a speech in Thai. The next morning I headed to the Wat (the temple) to pray with the villagers. After all these activities I was feeling worn out and overwhelmed. I would have some time to relax before starting work the next day. 
Because of protests and violence in Bangkok, the prime minister extended the holiday for the rest of the week. Thus boredom ensued. I was to have the next four days with absolutely nothing to do and no Internet. I couldn't really hang out in the community, because it was too hot to ride my bike for fun, lots of people were traveling, and lots of people were drunk. I read books, studied Thai, biked a bit, sat around outside talking to neighbors, and tried to make a map to my house. I was really, really, really bored!
I am now at my first day of work. I biked in at about 8 this morning and have been using the Internet ever since. It's great! Though I will probably get bored soon enough. We are told not to expect too much work in the first few months. I will be using this time to integrate into the community, keep learning Thai and the local dialect, and to do community assessments. For this first week I will be mostly be in the office, setting up a bank account, and creating a six month plan with my co-workers. It will be slow, I will have to remember to remain upbeat and motivated, most current volunteers say this is the hardest time. At least I have a great house and family to keep me happy. As of now I am ready to take everything in and start building some relationships. 
I am also looking forward to a long weekend in Bangkok in Mid-May. This will be the first time we are allowed to travel. I was elected to represent my fellow volunteers on a volunteer action committee and we will have our first meeting in Bangkok with Peace Corps staff on a Monday. The other member of the group and I plan to meet up on Saturday and sightsee and chill in Bangkok until our meeting on Monday morning. I really am so excited to travel some and will be very glad to see the other volunteers come May. 
As always, thanks for reading, and keep the emails coming! I have much more access to internet now, so will update more often and be able to write more emails!