Thursday, June 25, 2009

Same Same but Different

There is a funny expression here in Thailand, that a lot of Thai people know how to say in English, there are even T-shirts in Bangkok with this expression on it: same, same but different. Now this expression doesn't really make sense at all, but somedays I start to think that I understand it...

On Tuesday I went on a study trip with two workers from the hospital and my counterpart. We rode for about an hour in the ambulance to our provincial capital where we hopped on a bus with the rest of the folks from around our province attending the visit to a hospital about 3 hours away. I settled into the bus (pink and purple peacock themed) and cranked up my Ipod, in the hopes of drowning out the Thai karaoke. Thai music isn't all that bad, but the karaoke songs are TERRIBLE and LOUD and NONSTOP, all of which lead to a headache and a grumpy Sarah. It's no secret that I loathe these bus rides as I haven't been able to hide my true feelings for them from my co-workers. 
We finally arrive at the hospital for a good study of the rape crisis center that they have there and were able to talk with the police officers and counselors associated with the program. It was one of the more productive field trips that I have been on. 
There's a hitch though! When we arrived everyone rushed to the bathroom after being on the bus for so long, including yours truly who had chugged a Pepsi in anticipation of sleepiness during the bureaucratic Thai speeches (sorry if that's too much information, but the story is indeed about the bathroom). Arriving in line, I see that everyone has taken their shoes off. This is a pretty common thing to do before entering a Thai house and even at some government offices and health stations...but I have never seen it at a bathroom. Not really thinking, I take my sneakers off and stand in line in my white tennis socks. It's finally my turn, thank god, and my co-worker points to some slip-on plastic shoes for me to wear while in the bathroom. We all know that I have incredibly large feet, even in America, but these flops were made for a five year old! The bridge of my foot would not even fit in them. At least I had my socks on right? Not so, the bathroom floor was soaking wet from the Thai method of flushing, which is dumping water from a bucket down the drain. Since the toilet is a shallow, squat toilet the water gets everywhere. So, cursing under my breath, I removed my socks and went into this hospital, wet, public bathroom barefoot. It was probably fine, but part of me couldn't help but to wonder what was water and what was eerr not; you see with a squat toilet there is room for error in hmm let's say aiming. Sorry if this is disgusting or graphic to some of you, but just so you know I felt the same way. I was so grumpy from the bus ride and put out by the inconvenience of having to go to the bathroom the Thai way...same same but different no?

Emerging from bathroom hell, promptly sat down on the ground to put my socks and shoes on. The Thai's around me were appalled. Though Thai people sit on the floor to eat at their own home, sitting on the ground in public is considered very dirty. I was just so grumpy and angry that I did it anyway and as I did, I smiled and said, "I am American, same same but different, right?"

The rest of the day was fine, and I am glad I went. I was able to learn lots of new Thai words related to healthcare and get to know my hospital workers better. The bus ride home took 4 hours and the karaoke was again non-stop. Our car to take us back to the village was late picking us up and we didn't get on the road until 8 pm. When we stopped for dinner at a road side noodle stand, the man from my hospital basically played 20 questions with me on what the heck I was doing living in our village for two years. I explained about Peace Corps and my personal motivation for being here and seemed to appreciate it and understand. Then he asked, "Aren't you scared?" and I said, "Scared of what?" He answered, "You know of evil spirits, snakes, Thai bad boys, that kind of thing..." I jokingly replied, "aren't they all the same?" He chuckled and said I would survive Thailand just fine. As we drove on into the night I couldn't help but wonder will Thailand really be that hard to survive?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Land of Legend

I visited our provincial capital this week for a meet and greet with the governor. While I was there he gave me a brochure about the province I now call home. Since I am here to work, and there aren't many touristy things to do around these parts, I have neglected learning about the history of the province. It's not extremely interesting, but the legends and folk tales surrounding that history sure are. Posted below is an excerpt from the materials I got; it's about the legends surrounding the name of our province, Sisaket:

There are three legends describing the derivation of entitling "Sisaket". The first one is the legend of Princess Si, a daughter of Lao's king. Her husband, Phraya Kraek, was the governor of Khmer (Cambodia). When Phraya Kraek went to Khmer, Princess Si was left behind in her own country-Lao. Despite being pregnant she traveled to Khmer with her love and longing for her husband. It was unexpected that she had her baby during the trip. It is believed that a pond where she and her baby took a bath is nowadays "Sisaket". The second legend talking about a powerful Khmer's ruler - Phraya Si Kote Tabongpetch, the founder of Lan Chaang who had equipped with diamond club. Once he was defeated by a holyman, he gave his Lan Chaang to that man and trooped back to Khmer. During the way back to his hometown, he and his fellows dropped by a pond. The pond where his wife rinsed her hair became the derivation of entitling "Sisaket" (saket means rinsing). The last one is about Princess Si Payaktom who left Pimai City to Nakorn Thom. During the way to her destination, she traveled pass through a pond in an ancient ruined castle. She decided to stay over night there. While she was taking off the pond after her evening bath, villagers came by and stunned at her beauty. Thus, assuming that Princess Si Payakthom's hair rinsing in the pond was an auspicious omen of founding the city, villager's entitled their city "Sisaket".

These legends contain some reasonability in entitling "Sisaket" which relate to hair rinse. Still, there is no apparent confirmation since there is some source claiming that "Sisaket" might be derived from "ket tree", trees those overwhelming Sisaket in previous days. 

Please note: This document was translated to English and I wrote it the exact way it was published. This is why some of the grammar or word order might seem a bit strange. 

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Interesting Points

Several interesting things have been happening lately...

1. I was feeling kind of empty or unsure of my feeling during my last post, and I suddenly snapped out of it yesterday. I guess I am sort of on an emotional rollercoaster and am still going through different phases of cultural adjustment. But you should be happy to hear that I am not homesick! Thai people ask me everyday and I explain that yes, I miss home but I am not homesick. It is possible to miss something without being sad or "sick". I guess that means you appreciate whatever it is that you are missing. I know that I must be on some sort of emotional ride as I have started writing in my journal and even wrote a poem!
2. Today at lunch, a co-worker asked if I really was going to stay here for two years, and when I said yes, he exclaimed, "you will be so bored, this village is so boring, and what work can you do for two whole years!?" Before I had a chance to answer my counterpart jumped in and said, "Don't worry, she will have work. We are going to do all kinds of projects!". I'm not sure what exactly was going on with this exchange, but it was reassuring to an extent, though my counterpart may have just been answering out of pride. 
3. One of the villages in our jurisdiction is officially to become an alcohol-free zone. I am surprised as drinking is one of the most popular activities in Thailand. I asked about how it was decided and there was village vote to ban alcohol from the area. I'm not sure if this means that alcohol cannot be sold or if it is illegal completely. 
4. Peace Corps is putting on a youth leadership conference in September and I will be putting in an application for several of the members of the girls' group to attend. I am excited about the opportunity and feel like my group has a big chance of going.
5. The village is abuzz with talk of the upcoming mayoral elections. I listen in an attempt to understand, but definitely intend to refrain from commentary and want to stay out of it all together. The mayor is technically my boss, but it seems I should remain neutral. 
6. I am so excited for our second round of training. I am leaving for it in about a week and think it will be a good opportunity to recharge my batteries, really communicate with my counterpart about potential projects, and to reconnect with ALL my fellow volunteers.

Monday, June 15, 2009


I suppose most of you have noticed that I have not updated in awhile. It's because I really don't feel like I have that much to say. When I spoke to my mother a few minutes ago she said I sounded blase. I am not. I think I have reached a point where I am starting to settle in and things are feeling routine. This is a good and bad thing. While the novelty of Thai culture has begun to wear off, usually something shocks me or makes me think everyday. Some parts of Thai culture have just been flat out annoying me now and some parts have become normal. Work is still coming along slowly, but that's okay. My co-workers know I have an assignment for our second bit of training and are holding off on really getting started on any projects with me until after that...or at least that's what they tell me. My assignment preparations have been going really well. No complaints. I feel like I should probably be a little more attentive to my language learning as I have just been coasting the past couple of weeks. I need to pick up with my studies. 
This past weekend I had the chance to get together with 5 other volunteers in Ubon (one of the region's biggest cities and very close to me) to do "Western" things. We went bowling, swimming, grocery shopping, ate out, relaxed and chatted in the hotel, got beers, went was good. As always it was good to return to my village, though it has been HOT lately. 
Things are fine, things are good. Not extraordinary, not terrible, it's just life.
We had another volunteer from out group return to the US, which is always hard to hear about. There is no reason to judge these volunteers and I totally support their decisions. Peace Corps is hard and filled with ups and downs. I guess I am at an equilibrium at this point, which I guess is a pretty good place to be. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Article from the LA Times

Here is an interesting article about Peace Corps as seen in the LA Times:

More Americans turning to Peace Corps

With President Obama extolling the volunteer agency as an exemplar of public service and U.S. diplomacy, applications have jumped. The idealism is tinged with pragmatism, amid joblessness at home.
By Chris Kraul 
June 2, 2009
Reporting from Santa Fe, Panama -- Peace Corps volunteer Alexandra Hodgkins couldn't be farther from her comfort zone here in Panama's Darien jungle: coral snakes, sauna-like heat and, just a few miles east up the Pan-American Highway, marauding Colombian rebels.

But the 25-year-old New Hampshire native wants a career in international development, and she figures a couple of years helping this poor community find permits and financing for a medicinal soap business will be invaluable experience. It also feeds her passion for public service and projecting a positive U.S. image.

"This is a good way to test whether this is what I want to do," said Hodgkins, who was a community organizer in Boston before she joined the Peace Corps in October. "I like the Peace Corps approach of working with communities, not just giving out presents right and left."

With a mix of idealism and pragmatism, increasing numbers of Americans are turning to the Peace Corps. Some, like Hodgkins, see it as a training opportunity at a time when job prospects at home are bleak. Others have been inspired by President Obama's campaign call to public service, and his frequent mention of the Peace Corps as a good vehicle for volunteerism.

At his commencement address at Arizona State University last month, Obama said the Peace Corps was an American institution that shows "our commitment to working with other nations to pursue the ideals of opportunity, equality and freedom that have made us who we are." 

Peace Corps officials credit the "Obama effect" for most of the 25,000 Internet requests so far this year for "starter applications," up 40% from last year. 

That's on top of a 16% increase in completed applications submitted in 2008. A new wrinkle to the flood of application requests is that 7% of them are coming from people 50 or older, up from the typical 4%, says the Washington-based organization.

Even as some government programs are being scaled back because of the global financial crisis, the Peace Corps' budget is getting a boost from Obama. If Congress approves the proposed 9% increase in the agency's 2010 budget, the number of Peace Corps volunteers, now at 7,876, is expected to rise.

"We are just skyrocketing in applications," said Peace Corps acting director Jody Olsen, who expects the volunteer ranks to grow significantly this year. "Obama represents what Americans really want to be asked to do. We want to hear how important service is, whether it is domestic or international." 

These are good times for the Peace Corps, which was founded by President Kennedy in 1961. It has had its ups and downs, peaking at 15,000 volunteers in 1966 and hitting a low of fewer than 5,000 in 1982. 

"It's refreshing and uplifting to witness this sort of outpouring of American idealism again, particularly after the U.S. reputation has suffered such setbacks as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo," said Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami political science professor and a Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia in the late 1960s.

Olsen said 20 countries that have no Peace Corps presence have asked for volunteers, with specialists in farming, English teaching, and HIV/AIDS and hygiene awareness the most in demand. The requests reflect the agency's proven effectiveness, she said. But budget and logistical restrictions mean that most requests will not be met. 

On a positive note, the Peace Corps is returning to Rwanda, Liberia and Ethiopia for the first time in a decade or more. Here in Panama, the number of volunteers has steadily increased to 160 from 100 five years ago, said country director Peter Redmond. He said the upturn was due in large part to the fact that the country values and seeks volunteers.

But the final number of volunteers the U.S. sends out will depend on whether Congress passes Obama's $380-million budget request for the next fiscal year.

It's not a slam dunk. The program's cost-effectiveness has been a source of debate over its 48-year history, with some critics contending that the Peace Corps is a form of "developmental tourism" and that some volunteers at times drift aimlessly in their communities during their two-year tours.

U.S. diplomat Dale Maki disagrees vigorously. Maki is a former Peace Corps volunteer in Chile and is now an agriculture advisor at the U.S. Embassy in Panama. He said volunteering benefits the United States because it "develops leadership and puts a good face on the U.S. out there."

In addition to scores of former volunteers who, like Maki, have gone on to join the U.S. foreign service, five are members of Congress, including Democratic Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut. 

Charles Goodsell, a Virginia Tech professor emeritus who is writing a book on the Peace Corps and other government institutions, said the critics are wrong.

"The Peace Corps is very hard work. It takes a lot of creativity to be effective in often lonely circumstances and where the tasks are not perfectly outlined," Goodsell said. "In fact, the whole idea is that individual volunteers not show up with prepackaged plans but find out what the locals really need."

Santa Fe resident Marcelina Noriega says that's what Hodgkins did, helping her cooperative cut through red tape and the application process to get a $20,000 United Nations grant. 

Now the cooperative has its sights set on setting up an iguana farm to sell the skins and meat. "She has helped us do things we had no idea about," Noriega said.

Yemiymah Yisrael, a 26-year-old volunteer from Chicago who has spent three years in Santa Fe teaching composting techniques, extended her stay partly because of the lousy economy back home.

"Several volunteers who have gone home have advised me not to because it's so difficult to find a job," said Yisrael, who has her eye on a career in international health. Before the Peace Corps, she did carpentry work with Habitat for Humanity rebuilding hurricane victims' homes.

Not that the Peace Corps is lucrative: Hodgkins and Yisrael are paid about $320 a month, just above Panama's minimum wage. 

Hodgkins said she gets discouraged at times by the delays and paperwork required by the Panamanian government.

"But if you keep an open mind and try to understand the culture," she said, "then you can do what you came to do."

Kraul is a special correspondent.

Monday, June 1, 2009


I seem to have a habit of posting a new blog immediately after posting another, but I just can't help it. As soon as I stopped typing my last update my main-co-worker burst into the room with tape measure ready to record my measurements. Of course, in usual American fashion, I asked why. She said "it's because we have to report our weights and measurements to the provincial office"...again I asked but why? "It's the health project, we can't have fat government workers! They want to make sure we aren't too fat."

Of course, I thought to myself. 

The Day Stops (literal translation of weekend in Thai)

Many Peace Corps volunteers gathered this weekend for an annual bowling tournament and general volunteer debauchery. I was unable to attend. I am realizing more and more how far I am from certain volunteers and certain locations. Luckily, I love my site and my village and the only downfall is that I will really have to pick and choose which of these weekends I can make it to. 
I attempted to stay busy, so I wouldn't think about my friends reuniting in Central Thailand or those reuniting in Richmond. And stay busy I did!
Friday was an interesting day. Of course it started out like any other at the office, studying Thai and reading the news. Then I was presented with a jersey for our office, the SAO. We all loaded up in several pick-up trucks and headed to the capital of the province for what I deemed to be a parade at a sporting event. I was semi-correct but our group arrived late, and my sign-holding duties in the parade only lasted about 5 minutes. During this time I noticed another volunteer in the stands watching the proceedings. It was my friend Heidi! She live about 3 hours away from me and we have only seen each twice since training ended. It was so good to see her. Heidi is one of my favorite volunteers as she always has a smile on her face and is so optimistic about our time her. We always have a great time swapping crazy stories as well. Turns out the sporting event was a soccer game between students from Thailand and Laos. The Thai team was from Heidi's village so we got seats right on the sideline. There were young Thai children dancing for the opening ceremonies and then the game started. I didn't stay more than 20 minutes as my co-workers were anxious to hit the road. Or so I thought...
I rode back in a karaoke van with a chandelier with a built in bar. Not much more to say about that. Just use your imagination. Anyway we completely by-passed the village and headed on towards Ubon (the big city near us) and ended up at Big C (kind of like Target or Wal-Mart). I took the opportunity to load up on Diet Coke, soy milk and some accessories for my room. I thought the van was just going to be driving around the block while we were in the store but when I ran across the highway with my purchases to hop back in I found it to be full of toddlers. Pretty alarming, pretty much the cutest kids I had ever seen. Needless to say they didn't understand why I was there (they were terrified of me) and I did not understand why they were there. I finally gathered that the kids were from our village and the driver had offered to pick them up from daycare. Karaoke set aside for cartoons and we were on our way. 
Next thing I know we are pulled over on the side of the highway to drop one boy off as his father waits in a car on the other side. Not sure if this is their normal pick-up drop-off spot or what, but at this point I was just along for the ride. Finally we made it back to the village (in time for a huge thunderstorm) and dropped off the other five children at their homes. 
Saturday: I slept in until 9! Ate breakfast and then biked to a nearby school where I had plans to meet with a teacher and a girls group that she is in charge of. Once at the school I realized that my teacher friend is in the midst of a full-on English Camp. These camps are very popular in Thailand and occur on weekends so that students can practice their English even more. They usually have a theme, often involving lots of energetic games. I pitched in and even gave a little talk on careers and tried to explain community development. Next the girls' group showed up and we loaded up in the teacher's husband's truck and headed to the outskirts of the village. The event was to be a rocket festival. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about said event:
The Rocket Festival is a merit-making ceremony traditionally practiced throughout much of northeast Thailand and Laos, by numerous villages and municipalities near the beginning of the rainy season. Celebrations typically include preliminary music and dance performances, competitive processions of floats, dancers and musicians on the second day, and culminating on the third day in competitive firings of home-made rockets. Local participants and sponsors use the occasion to enhance their social prestige, as is customary in traditional Buddhist folk festivals throughout Southeast Asia.

Ours was a one day affair and consisted only of rockets and food. The girls and I found a safe, shady place to sit and watch. Not much watching occurred however, as they preceded to ask me anything they could think of about me and America. It was fun and we bonded. We made plans for the next two Saturdays to ride bikes around their neighborhoods and they have offered to help me with my community assessment of the area. This should be a good and effective way for me to get some work done.

Sunday I headed up to the highway  bus stop to meet two co-workers as we had made plans to go into Ubon for the day. An hour and a half later we were dropped off at a mall. The first stop, a store called the Fat Story, in hopes that they would have some clothes to fit me. I immediately cracked up at the name of the store, and taking no offense started shopping. I got a cute shirt , size small. This is the first time I have been a size small, since, well EVER! Only in Thailand. We ambled around the mall and headed to the movie theater just after noon to catch "Night at the Museum 2". The film was dubbed in Thai and I was able to understand the plot and about 40% of the dialogue. Many of the scenes with jokes or comedic dialogue were lost on me as this requires a higher understanding of the language. Many of the "american" or cultural aspects were lost on my Thai friends and they had questions about who Al Capone and Amelia Earhart were. Either way, we were all glad we went. After the film, we headed to get some pizza (always a good activity in my book). I got home around five and felt happy, but exhausted from such a good weekend. 
This weekend, in the spare time I did have, I read a great book: One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus. I highly recommend it; this is some of the best writing I have come across in a long time. 

In other notes, we have entered the rainy season. It rains every single day without fail. These rains come suddenly and are in my mind torrential. The rain lasts for 30 minutes to 3 hours. In my home there is a tin roof over the kitchen and the rain falling on it is so deafening that you cannot hear another person speak. I like the rain as when is stops I feel like there is a fresh start. Sometimes the rain is accompanied by much thunder and lightening, which is interesting watch across the very flat rice plains. 

I am constantly struck by the hospitality of Thai people. I have never experienced anything like it. I don't know if I met extremely friendly people in my time here or what, but it's truly amazing. Sometimes even a little overwhelming. Thais find it hard to believe that a person would ever want alone time. The society is 100% communal. Luckily, my host family has an understanding of my American ways and give me plenty of privacy.

I am now geared up for another week at work, hoping to learn all I can about the community in preparation for a presentation I have to give at Pre-Service Training 2 at the end of June. Apparently I will be accompanying several of my colleagues as they conduct a community survey of some of the villages in our jurisdiction. This should be helpful in my preparation, but as usual who knows if it will really happen or if its at all what I would expect a community survey to be. Will update again soon!