Tuesday, December 7, 2010

This is not just a job, this is life...

So much has happened in the past few weeks. I have experienced a range of emotions, life-changing events, and milestones. On November 24th my host father, Sub-Lieutenant Kusol Kongsri, passed away at the age of 74. The experience of his death, the grief, and the funeral were the hardest part of my Peace Corps experience to date. In all honesty it has been one of the hardest experiences of my life.

It is hard to explain all of this through writing but I believe that it is important to share. My host father had been suffering from diabetes for quite some time, but he was extremely active, smart and engaged during my time here. In the past couple of months his health took a downturn as he began to suffer from what eventually would become kidney failure. The last time we chatted was when I arrived home from a friend’s wedding and he was heading out to a check-up at the hospital in Ubon. He seemed weak but in good spirits so I simply told him good luck and that I would see him later that day. He did not end up returning that afternoon and spent the following week in the hospital until he was finally admitted to the ICU. My co-workers and I couldn’t gauge the situation from our small village so we went to visit. I did not recognize the man I saw lying in the hospital bed. He was on oxygen, couldn’t talk or really open his eyes and he seemed thinner than a person ever should be. I fought back tears as we left to return to the village.

The following afternoon, I was biking to meet some Thai friends to explain the situation and see what I should do, how I should be acting, etc. when the neighbors arrived and started clearing out our house; I knew then that they were preparing the home for a funeral. Some other neighbors and a bunch of old ladies and I headed to the hospital that night to visit and pay our respects. I knew I would be saying goodbye to my host dad that evening.

When we arrived, my host sister, rushed into my arms sobbing. It caught me off guard. We had never embraced before, and I had certainly never seen her cry. Thai people do not share their emotions as Americans do and rarely “hug” like we do. As I went into the hospital room, I fought the urge to cry. My friend told me that if my host dad saw, heard, or felt my tears then his spirit would not leave peacefully since he would be worried about me. Though my host dad was not breathing on his own or lucid, I respected this belief and slowly approached to say goodbye. I began my goodbye in Thai but told him I would switch to English as we often spoke English together. I thanked him for giving me a home and a family. I thanked him for teaching me about Thailand, dragging me to community events, for explaining agriculture to me. Lastly I thanked him for being my Thai father. I hope he heard me.

That night at about 10:30 pm the neighbors got the call that my host dad had passed. He was only off the machines for about two hours, so I truly believe that it was his time to go. I know that he would have hated to live on machines. He was such a strong-spirited man and had so much pride. In fact he had probably been feeling ill or down for quite some time but never would have admitted it. By midnight relatives began to arrive, the house was cleared, and the body was placed in the living room in an ornate casket. By noon the next day the whole place was covered with candles, wreaths and flowers.

The funeral lasted five days. The outpouring of community support was phenomenal. I could never see anything like that happening in America. Neighbors set up a makeshift kitchen. Family members slept in tents throughout the yard. My office donated dishes, tables, chairs and big tents. The girls from my youth group came to help serve food and wash dishes. For every meal there were at least 40 people at the house. The body remained in the living room of our house this whole time. At first I was uncomfortable about this. I never got fully used to the idea, but it’s the Thai belief that they body needs to be in its home and near loved ones so the spirit can safely pass. A large photograph of my host father was placed next to the casket and we burned incense and prayed daily next to it. All of this is done on the floor, on the knees and by bowing the head to the floor. The monks from the local temple came every night for more praying and chanting. During these nights there were usually close to 80 people at our house.

I wore black for five days and did my part to help with all the work. It was during this time that I realized that I was considered part of the family. In the funeral announcement I was listed as a daughter. I was expected to fulfill the same roles as my host sister during ceremonies. This realization caused an array of emotions that I’m not sure I can express.

In the afternoon of the fifth days, the casket was loaded into a pick-up truck. My sister’s husband shaved his head and eyebrows and donned the orange robes of a monk and ordained for the day. I put on my $50 polyester black suit jacket that I had bought for the occasion. The monks led the procession, with the pick-up at the rear, to the watt or temple. The family and community members filled the space between all hanging on to a single rope connecting the front with the back. I assume that this represents all of us carrying the body to the temple. It’s a lovely idea. The speakers on top of the truck played the most eerie, dramatic, dirge I have ever heard. It was hard not to appear upset.

At the temple, the “VIP” monk as he was called, delivered a sermon on treating your parents with respect. I guess he was taking advantage of speaking to such a large group of people. Then there was a eulogy given by another important layperson. It detailed my host father’s life, family, and his illness leading to his death. It was interesting; the man shared every medical detail during that speech. Again, something you would never see or hear in America.

After making merit, giving the monks dishes, pillows and fans it was time for the cremation. Each person in attendance walked up the casket and placed a white paper flower on top and bowed in the Thai fashion of the “wai”. The people included a large number of the servicemen that my host father had served with in the Thai military. Their solidarity was quite moving. It seemed that my host mom was the most emotional when talking with these men. The service was extremely important to my host father and his legacy. When it was time for the cremation, the top of the casket was removed and the family members could have one last look at the body as they poured coconut water over the face and hands. I did not participate. I was too emotional and the cultural differences at this point were too much to handle. I wanted to remember my host father as the strong, plucky man that I had gotten to know over the past 20 or so months. All of my host father’s belongings except for his military jacket, hat and sword were burned as well. The photograph that was carried along now hangs in a prominent spot in our living room.

During all this, my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers were gathering in Bangkok for a Mexican Thanksgiving dinner and preparing for our Close of Service Conference. After the ceremony at the temple, I boarded an eight-hour bus to join them. I arrived in the early morning just in time to take my final language exam. I got the level of advanced low speaker. Following a career panel and lovely dinner at the embassy we all boarded a bus to the nearby beach town of Cha-am for our two-day conference.

Those days are a blur. I tried to fully engage with my friends, well my family, the other volunteers, as it would be the last time we would all be together as a group in country. It was hard to concentrate on learning about flying back to America, bank accounts closing etc. My mind was truly in two different worlds, one with my Thai family in the village and the other with my Peace Corps family as we prepare to end our service. Again emotions abound. The time away from my village was the first time that I truly missed everyone there. It is clear that this village in Sisaket really is my home away from home.

Life in that village will be very different now. I have no idea if and how the family dynamics will change. I know that I am closer to the neighbors, my co-workers and my host mom and sister as a result of going through the death of my host father. I know that he is and will be missed. He was a unique, strong, prideful man. He was a teacher, a solider, an elected official, and gave all he could to the community. He was a father and grandfather as of six months ago. And he was a man that transcended cultural and national boundaries. He gave me, a silly, young American girl, a home in Thailand, and made this experience more than I could have ever hoped for. His spirit will definitely live on.

Project and a Video!

In early October, a good friend and a member of the ICT (Information Communications and Technology) group came to my site to film one of my projects, the recycling bank.

One day of filming brought out skits from the girls (the participants), a Thai explanation of the project and youth group from Pi Jam and my silly English version.

Here is the link to the English version as seen on YouTube:


Enjoy!

Monday, November 22, 2010

A PCV Wedding

video
Here is a video of a Thai wedding parade that took place last weekend. Note the music and dancing style, with a few awkward Americans thrown in.

This past weekend I attended the wedding of a fellow volunteer. It was an amazing and surreal time. Lynda, the bride, is a PCV in Isaan, the same region as me. The groom is her boyfriend from before she became a volunteer. He had been to visit several times and the couple felt both at home and loved by the village, so they elected to have a wedding Thai style.

This means several things. It means that the ceremony would be conducted by monks, no English, and that all the planning would be taken completely out of their hands. It means Thai food, Thai music, Thai dance and even a couple of elephants.

The wedding was an amazing experience to be apart of. Spending time with the other volunteers from my group reaffirmed my love for them and the family that we are. Spending time being a part of a Thai wedding revitalized my love for Thai culture, custom and tradition and how I can be at home in it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

We Need Your Help!

As you may know I have been working with the local HIV/AIDS group in my community for over a year now. After many trainings, meetings, and research we are getting a huge project off the ground. And you can help!

By making a donation, you will help one of the 13 families living with HIV/AIDS to start a small agricultural business to be run out of their home. Ten or twenty dollars could go a long way to help in this worth cause.

Here is a description of the project and the link to make donations:

https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=493-162

Business Development for those Living with HIV/AIDS

The summary below was provided by the Peace Corps Volunteer and the community administering this project.

Map of THAILAND

Map of THAILAND

Members of the Non Khun Person’s Having HIV/AIDS (PHA) Group, “Friends of Non Khun” aspire to start small agricultural-based businesses to operate out of their homes, in order to supplement incomes used to support their families. As adults living with HIV/AIDS, group members face the reality of maintaining good health while combating local social stigmas, spreading awareness, and caring for their families all the while. While recognizing daily responsibilities and obstacles, the group often discusses financial shortcomings, only exacerbated by having HIV/AIDS. In rural Thailand, where livelihood is still commonly labor intensive, the financial burdens of PHA’s are particularly harsh. Since HIV/AIDS persistently weakens the immune system, PHA’s are often not well enough to perform the hard labor of planting, farming and harvesting rice. Therefore, supplemental income through alternate business ventures is necessary for most PHA’s in rural Thailand to subsist and support their families. With additional income provided from small-scale businesses, the PHA’s will able to make a valuable contribution to their families while engaging in relatively simple labor, thus preserving their health.

Participants have chosen their business ideas, written preliminary budgets that were then finalized by the agricultural office, and done the related market research on their products. Businesses will include raising crickets, catfish, and ducks for local sale in the community. All of these businesses can be conducted out of the home and products will be easy to sell in this largely agricultural based community.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Feelings

It's a Monday here in Thailand and I'm feeling sort of weird and anxious. I can't shake the feeling that I have something to do, but in reality all my work is done, for today at least. This feeling probably has something to do with the fact that I am leaving at the crack of dawn on Wednesday morning to go to Bangkok to take the GRE for the second time on Thursday. I took the test last month and my performance was pretty disappointing. I'm this time goes a little better as I am taking the test in the afternoon, by myself, I already know where it is and exactly what to expect. I spent so much time studying before the last test and doing practice problems that I am kind of burnt out. This time around I have been focusing on concepts I need to pay particular attention rather than spending hours and hours doing practice problems.
In addition to taking the standardized test for graduate schools I have been working on applications. As of now I applying to a variety of programs all relating to international development. My first choice seems to change on a daily basis and its really all I can think about at the moment. Again, feeling anxious. I have done all my parts of the applications and am just waiting on transcripts, test score and recommendations. I know I won't feel free from it all until everything is turned in. I need to relax, take a deep breath.
Now despite all of this I haven't forgotten that I am living in Thailand and that I still have work to do here. I am anxiously awaiting approval from PC Washington regarding the grant for the AIDS group. I submitted the application over a week ago so it should appear on the website at any time! Again....anxious. Once the project is up I hope to raise the money in about 10 days so we can start the project as soon as possible.
I am also feeling older these days. Yesterday was my 24th birthday. I spent the day studying, and working on applications, but the evening brought something special. Two of my best Thai friends in the village and their families threw me a great BBQ dinner. The weather has been cool and breezy lately so we were able to eat outside and talk for hours. It was the perfect celebration.
So my current situation is one full of waiting and planning. Once I check all of these things of my to-do list I hope I can sit back, relax and enjoy the ride that I know Thailand has in store for me for my last 4 months as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Story

As I pulled into the schoolyard I should have felt out of place. I was riding a road bike, wearing a helmet, sporting a both a brand name backpack and a fashionable eco-friendly bottle full of filtered, pure water. Certainly no one else my tiny Thai village had any of these things and even if they did have a helmet, it was certainly way too hot to be wearing one.

But I wasn’t out of place. The schoolchildren all screamed greetings and rushed along beside me to head into the schoolroom; one of my favorite places in the village that I had called home for the past eighteen months during my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer. About twenty children and I gathered for our weekly after-school reading club. As I gave my young readers a drawing assignment, I noticed a teacher, members of the youth group, and local government officials meeting on the other side of the room. I eagerly listened in on their conversation, as I had been working with this youth group and teacher for the duration of my service on various projects. Putting my Thai listening comprehension skills to the test, I deduced that the government officials were finally starting to take notice of the good work of the group, and were interested in providing some funding for a small agricultural project to be managed by the group. Those officials were also congratulating some of the youth on a presentation that they made at the provincial level the day before and the award they had won for their recycling initiative that I had helped them start. A wave of feelings rushed over me. I thought, this is great; the group is finally getting the recognition and support that they deserve. But I also felt like I should have been included in that meeting. I wondered why I didn’t know about the presentation and award and why I had not been consulted on the new project idea. For the first time since my beginning months in the village, I felt my identity as an outsider, as a temporary presence seeping through.

As I pedaled home, I tried to sort through my mix of emotions. I was happy for my friends, those involved in the youth group, but I was sad for myself. Finally, I realized that to dwell on that sadness would be a mistake. I realized that the group was standing on their own. They had needed me when they started out. They had needed me to help them write grants to start projects. But they had not needed me to accompany them to an awards ceremony and they had not needed me to consult with the government officials. That work could be done without me. The group was making a transition. They were becoming sustainable. My feelings of sadness were replaced with feelings of accomplishment. In that afternoon I had seen the goals of development come to fruition. I saw a group of disadvantaged people that I had helped, trained, and empowered become a viable and sustainable entity.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Latest Project

If you are interested in what I have been up to lately in terms of projects, please read on!

I have helped another group of villagers to be featured on Appropriate Projects website in order to obtain funding to complete the bathrooms located at the community meeting hall.

To donate, please visit: http://appropriateprojects.com/node/387

Here is the project description:

Lom Yen Community Hall Bathroom Project - Thailand

Lom Yen Community Hall Bathroom Project - ThailandLocation
Lom Yen, Non Khun District, Sisaket Province, Thailand

Community Description
Lom Yen is one of the larger villages in the heart of Non Khun District, Sisaket Province, Northeastern Thailand. The majority of villagers in the community are rice farmers, deriving their income from the harvest once a year and other small business endeavors such as growing and selling fruits and vegetables. The older villagers that have retired from farming spend their days making products such as grass mats, brooms or even weaving silk. The community is close and takes great pride in their work.

The Central Community Meeting Hall in the village is used for a variety of activities including a meeting spot for groups, such as the local youth group and as a place to prepare for important religious activities and festivals. Currently there are no toilets or sinks for people to use.

Lom Yen Community Hall Bathroom Project - ThailandProject Description
This project is to build bathrooms to serve the Central Community Meeting Hall.

Project funds will be used to purchase materials, such as pipes, toilets, electrical wiring, lighting, and a sink.

Local villagers and health volunteers have taken the steps to complete the plan, collect donations, and construct the free-standing structure next to the hall. They will work together to provide the labor to complete the bathrooms.

Project Impact
The bathrooms at Lom Yen meeting hall will serve all 407 people of Lom Yen village.

Peace Corps Volunteer Directing Project
Sarah Brooks

Sarah Brooks - Lom Yen Community Hall Bathroom Project - ThailandComments
This project arose from the community and proceeded to construction based on community support. Our help will allow the villagers to see the project through to completion, providing sanitation facilities at the hall, serving the entire community.

Peace Corps Volunteer Sarah Brooks has previously undertaken two projects, Non Khun School Water Project - Thailand and Ban Village Meeting Hall Bathroom Project - Thailand. The villagers were inspired by those projects, which led them to undertake the current project.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Summer to Fall

Sorry for the lack of posts recently. There has been stuff going on but it's not super exciting.

Summer 2010 is officially over now that's September and that leaves me with about 6 or 7 months left in my service. I can hardly believe it! The time has flown by and I am finally feeling like I really "live" here. It's hard to explain what I mean by that, but since I have been here for so long, everything seems completely normal to me now. I'm sure I will have a real culture shock when I return to America.

Life at site has been perfectly fine lately. I have been able to see friends every two or three weeks and also spend a lot of time at home in my village. Lately I have been completely focused on studying for the GRE or the test needed to get into graduate school. Since I am thinking about the test I have also been researching schools and degrees. Thus my body is in Thailand, but my mind is in America as I think about whether I want a degree in development practice or international development or whether I want to be in New York or D.C. or maybe even the West Coast or Colorado. Who knows???

In a effort to get my mind re-focused on site and my work here I have set up some meetings with community members and leave time in my schedule that is dominated by studying for writing project plans and grant proposals.

This morning I stopped by the site of the bathroom project mentioned in my previous post. The project has been completely funded and construction is under-way! It should be finished and ready for use by next week. I have two more villages interested in similar projects and will try and get those funded within the next few weeks.

The HIV group and I have been brainstorming even more about their secondary income projects. There are nine families that wish to start a business from their home either raising crickets, ducks, or fish for selling. We have created a preliminary budget and I have a meeting with the group's doctor tomorrow to get more statistics needed for the the project proposal. Hopefully I will have a final draft ready to submit to Peace Corps next week. After Peace Corps approves the project, it will most likely either be submitting to a Thai institution for funding or posted on the Peace Corps website and be funded by donations from America. The project will probably cost just under $2000. I really hope it works out.

Other than that, I am busy planning for this fall. I will continue to teach reading, study Thai and maybe help with a library resource center being built in my community. I have a meeting in Bangkok in a few weeks, then the GRE in Bangkok on October 8. I don't plan on traveling too much after that because I need to save up for the Christmas vacation I am taking for 10 days in December and January! I am headed to the beaches and islands with three friends for some mountain biking, sea kayaking, and of course tanning on the beach.

Will hope to have more updates concerning these projects soon!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Bathroom Project

One of my latest projects was just approved to be a part of a great initiative called Water Charity. Check it out and/or make a donation at: http://appropriateprojects.com/node/317.


Village Meeting Hall Bathroom Project - Thailand

Village Meeting Hall Bathroom Project - ThailandLocation
Non Khun District, Sisaket, Thailand

Community Description
Ban Phrong Village is located in the district of Non Khun in Sisaket Province of Northeastern Thailand.

The village has a community meeting hall, which is often used for a variety of events including health talks, government meetings, meetings to prepare for local festivals, and senior group meetings. Most villagers attend a function at the meeting hall at least monthly.

Currently there are no bathrooms in the meeting hall, and people must use the toilets in the surrounding homes, if available.

Village Meeting Hall Bathroom Project - ThailandProject Description
This project will provide two bathrooms, one for men and one for women, in the community meeting hall.

The project will be carried out under the direction of the Non Kor Sub-District Administration Office.

Local villagers and health volunteers have already completed a plan for creating the bathrooms and will work together on the construction.

Project funds will be used for purchasing materials, as the villagers have agreed to undertake the labor themselves.

Village Meeting Hall Bathroom Project - ThailandProject Impact
There are 429 people in the village that will benefit from the project.

Peace Corps Volunteer Directing Project
Sarah Brooks

Comments
With the bathrooms installed, community groups, including those groups making local products, will be able to meet and work in a clean and safe environment.

This project follows up on the prior project successfully completed by PCV Sarah Brooks, the Non Khun School Water Project – Thailand. The villagers of Ban Phrong were inspired by that project, and decided start one of their own.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

In-Depth into PC Work

For those of you that are curious about what I actually do here, then this is the post for you!

Once I find motivated people to work with, we assess the current situation of their school, village, etc. and brainstorm ideas to make things better. Oftentimes, after that I end up working with those people on grants to receive funding to turn our ideas into a reality. This work is tedious and a little risky, as you are never sure if you will be funded or not. You never know, unless you try though!

Here is an example of a project from a grant that we just wrote and applied for. Fingers crossed our idea is funded!

Project Name: SOI (Sisters of Isan) Environmental Awareness and Activism Campaign

Start Date: October 2010 Finish Date: January 2011

Funding Amount Requested: $1,988.43

Applicant Organization Name: SOI (Sisters of Isan) est. 2006

Main Organizational Activities:

1. SOI promotes leadership and personal development in young women, through instilling a sense of social responsibility in its members towards the local community.

2. SOI members work to expand their knowledge about the environment through trainings, research, and practice of specific eco-friendly skills in daily life, while having fun and working with other like-minded and highly motivated young women.

3. SOI works to spread awareness and inspire activism amongst youth and adults of the Non Khun District, specifically concerning eco-friendly living and thinking as well as recycling.

Background:

The youth group Sisters of Isaan or SOI is an all girls’ youth group that was started by two Teacher Collaboration and Community Outreach (TCCO) Peace Corps Volunteers during their service from 2006-2008. The group’s name, Sisters of Issan derives from the Northeastern Region of Thailand known as Isaan. Isaan is the agricultural center of Thailand wherein Lao traditions passed down from generation to generation largely influence the culture and language. Though it is the poorest region of the country, Isaan’s people take great pride in their culture and work, specifically concerning agriculture and farming. This is evident in the group’s name, SOI—young women bound by sisterhood and culture in Issan.

As the poorest region, the average household income of villagers in Issan, level of education, and overall opportunities available are considerably low according to the National Average[1]. Therefore, due to economic and educational shortcoming, youth in Issan are at a disadvantage as compared to their peers in the rest of the country. Despite hardship and lack off opportunity, SOI continues to thrive with students from the local high school (25 members) who are eager to collaborate with their peers in attaining leadership skills and personal development. They are also very committed to community service. Since the departure of the Peace Corps Volunteers in 2008, the girls’ former teacher, Mrs. Thichaya Wongyai, has managed the group. Upon arriving in Non Khun during April 2009, the current Peace Corps Volunteer Sarah Brooks of the Community Based Organizational Development sector has attended meetings for the group and engaged the girls in activities such as community mapping and goal setting.

In September of 2009, two SOI members, Mrs. Wongyai, and Sarah attended the annual Peace Corps Thailand Youth Conference. During this conference, attendees were given the opportunity to discuss their communities and formulate methods through which local issues could be addressed. During this activity, the girls decided that pollution is a major issue in the local community and they would like to pursue a project focused on how to take better care of the environment. The two SOI members were quick to point out the multitude of environmental problems in Thailand (and indeed the world) that people seemed to be unaware of. Together, they recognized that if community members remain unaware and unchanged by the environmental degradation around them, they would not be equipped to address the issues, therefore causing more severe environmental problems. Both Mrs. Wongyai and Sarah, the Peace Corps Volunteer, were impressed and inspired by the girls’ acute sense of their surrounding environment and motivation to improve it.

This awareness is particularly impressive since environmental studies are not taught in schools, and even though the society is mostly agrarian the majority of Thais do not consider the environment and important issue. Since the conference, the SOI leaders have set many goals for the group and outlined a project dealing with cleaning up the community and leading a recycling initiative. Following a Peace Corps development model, SOI members and Sarah conducted a community assessment, to make sure that the community would likely support the project. The group found that many teachers, village headmen, and other community members had heard of the recycling initiatives in Thailand and were excited about the possibility of starting a recycling project in this community.

Subsequently, SOI has built, opened, and now operates a recycling center based out of the primary school. Construction of this center was funded by the local hospital, in-kind donations via labor from community members, and a grant awarded by the Thai government. Students and teachers alike are now recycling waste from the school and more and more students have been bringing recyclables from home. In June 2010, SOI hosted their first community clean up day, in which more 200 villagers gathered to clean the streets of the six surrounding villages. During this time, SOI was inspired to start an environmental campaign and expand their recycling initiative.

The Environmental Activism and Awareness Campaign Project Description:

The Environmental Activism and Awareness Campaign will serve to further train and educate the members of SOI and enable them to expand their recycling program.

Phase 1 Training

Through a seminar led by the local hospital, SOI members have learned to make several products from recycled waste, such as purses, tote bags, wallets, key chains, and recycled paper notebooks. However, at present SOI lacks the proper knowledge needed to market and sell these products. Peace Corps Thailand fosters a global initiative group known as the Community Enterprise Committee. This Committee is comprised of 3 individual Peace Corps Volunteers holding degrees relating to business and or applicable experience. These committee members generate a business manual, updated annually, that consists of a curriculum and activities pertaining to the aspects of business—specifically, as related to the way business is conducted in Thailand and generally, worldwide. For instance, some topics include: Accounting, Group Administration, Marketing, Label and Logo Creating, Formulating a Business Plan, Group Dynamics & Responsibilities for Small Income-Generating Groups, and Re-investment. With the help of Peace Corps Thailand’s Community Enterprise Committee (CEC) in conjunction with a two-day seminar, SOI members would receive the proper training in relevant aspects of business needed to start a small business. In order to hold such an event, funding is needed for the transportation of three CEC members to the community of Non Khun, as well as for all materials that are required. This training will give the girls the opportunity to strengthen their business plan, interact and interface with well-trained, passionate Peace Corps Volunteers, and learn skills that would valuably serve their futures.

Phase 2 Training

A second training will focus on the group’s ongoing vision to promote educational understanding and activism. This specific activity will allow members to expand their knowledge of environmental conservation and protection techniques. For this training, members will travel on a field-study trip to

Khon Kaen University, Isaan’s oldest university. At the University, the girls will learn from professors about making organic fertilizer, new uses for recycled material, building and installing biogas generators (an alternate, natural source for propane). This trip will not only teach the girls important concepts for the environmental campaign, but also provides a visit to a University, inevitably inspiring them to set higher educational goals for themselves.

Phase 3 Training

A third training will synthesize the new knowledge of business skills and environmental preservation techniques as the girls prepare to lead their own seminars to all youth of the six surrounding villages (100 people). Meeting with 2-3 Peace Corps Volunteers from nearby sites, members of SOI will work together with the volunteers to plan activities and information sessions for the youth seminars. Specifically, the Peace Corps volunteers will train SOI in activities specific to environmental issues in Thailand. This training will be modeled on the training that the Volunteers received upon their arrival in Thailand, and will include how to search for resources, games for younger students, and how to teach youth to think critically about the environment. Since this training will take place after the business skills training and field-study trip, the Volunteers will also help the girls to synthesize the new concepts. After coming up with a comprehensive plan the members of SOI will lead six seminars on there own, one in each village. Funding is necessary for the transportation of volunteers and for the implementation of the seminars (materials and food). Working in small group, the girls will plan their activities, put together a materials list, and be given a certain amount of money in order to implement their plans. This will teach them the valuable skills of planning and working within a confined budget.

Phase 4: Implementation

The final component of the campaign concerns the implementation of a recycling collection and pick-up program for the six villages. After talking with community members and village headman, SOI has strategically mapped out locations where recycling bins are needed and will be used. Funding is needed for the construction of 21 such bins and SOI has received a donation from the local hospital that will cover some but not all of these costs. SOI has designed a model for the bins and created a prototype. SOI members will be responsible for all construction. As part of the pick-up program, SOI will purchase a motorcycle side cart, which will enable the girls to travel from village to village and pick up the waste on their own, without relying on an adult with a car to do so. Funding is needed for the purchase of such a cart.

Sustainability:

All aspects of this project lead to increased confidence among a group of smart and motivated young women. Though women, especially young women, are traditionally not as respected as much as men in Thai culture, SOI is already gaining the skills they will need to be leaders of this community in the future. What is more, they are setting an example for females young and old by proving their ability to initiate and start something overwhelmingly important and positive in the community.

Given the nature of the business training, the girls will be able to apply these new skills not only through their work with SOI but also to any business endeavor in their future. They will be learning concepts not taught in school and thus are gaining advantageous knowledge. In a world where basic business concepts are extremely practical in everyday life, there is no doubt that this business training will give SOI members a head start in their adult careers.

The series of “Environmental Camps” will teach youth to think about the environment in new ways and spark changes in the everyday lifestyles of these youth. They can take what they learn back to their homes and share with family, friends and neighbors. Additionally, the presence of recycling bins at important places in the community will serve as a reminder to those villagers to recycle and to be more eco-friendly citizens.

Working with Mrs. Wongyai and Peace Corps Volunteer Sarah Brooks, SOI has created an action plan to monitor and evaluate all activities should their project be funded.



[1] According to the National Statistics Office, Kingdom of Thailand (2007) Household Socio Economic Report. Available at: http://web.nso.go.th/en/survey/house_seco/socio.htm

Saturday, August 7, 2010

critters

I was running out the door this afternoon to meet Pi Jam to go over the latest copy of a project budget that we have been writing, but as I grabbed my flip flops I noticed something squirming underneath them. "Oh, it's just an old worm I thought", but then remembered there is a lot more than worms that squirm around when you are living in Thailand; it had to be a baby snake or one of those weird millipede things.

I bet you are hoping it was the latter. Turns out that those weird millipede things are way more poisonous than the little snakes around here, of course I was left face to face with its squirming body and its hundreds of legs.

I had seen my host mom kill one before. She chopped it in two with a butcher knife. Now, the knife would be found in the kitchen and I was in my bedroom. Also I'm not too fond of chopping living organisms into tiny pieces. A simple beating would have to do. I grabbed my broom and set to work.

After about 10 swift blows that millipede finally died. I felt pretty proud as I swept his body outside. I had conquered a poisonous animal! Then about two seconds later a chicken came by and gobbled him up. Ah, the circle of life....guess it's not poisonous for chickens???

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

FINALLY!

Wow, I have tons of catching up to do. I’m ready to write….are you ready to read?

Given the amount of time that has passed since my last update, and the amount of information that I have to share, I will divide all my commentary into categories in attempt to explain everything in an organized manner.

Work:

I guess, it’s not really work because I am technically a volunteer, but I definitely consider my time, duties, and activities here as a real, live, job.

Towards the end of May and all through June I spent the majority of my time at what I call “camps”. These include teaching English through games for two days, teacher trainings or supervising students leading their own camps. I worked with my amazing friend and counterpart, Pi Jam on all these activities and we completed 5 such camps in 5 weeks. It was exhausting, but in a good way. These activities are not always super productive, but always fun, as is life in Thailand. It seems I am finally starting to understand and accept this concept that is so important to Thais: fun comes before work, and if people are having fun then that is the true test of productivity.

Now I have to tell you about my favorite of these camps. You may remember that I started a reading club at the elementary school to teach motivated students to read the English books that my mom sent from America and those donated by Books for Thailand. The group is a success and they actually learned to read 6 simple books ranging in topics from birthday cupcakes to bees on a bus to dressing to play in the snow. To test their skills and let the students develop some leadership capacity, Pi Jam and I let the students plan a two-day camp in which they would lead 6 stations about the 6 books in order to teach the younger students some reading and some new words in English. Those older students that are not a part of the reading club were asked to act as supervisors and mentors for each group, leading them from station to station and helping them with activities; they were also in charge of time-keeping and handing out snacks and drinks. Thus everything seemed organized and we had all the students involved.

The actual days of the camp were pure chaos. Imagine 35 fourth, fifth and sixth graders in charge of about 70 first, second and third graders. It was crazy, adorable, and amazing to see. Most stations were a success at least on the part of the student trainers. This activity had them in a leadership role, employing creative teaching methods and games, and reinforcing what they had already learned. I’m sure some of the little ones also learned a few English words and I’m sure everyone had fun. Again that’s what really matters.

In July, I hit a lull with projects of my own. I spent a week in Central Thailand at a friend’s site helping her with two English camps. I guess I’m developing a reputation as the volunteer who is always up for these types of activities.

Pi Jam and I traveled to Bangkok to present our recycling bank operated by the girls’ group to a large group of teachers with similar, innovative projects.

I also spent time writing letters in Thai to send to various members of the community about my ideas and hopes for the next 8 to 9 months.

Now that we have reached the first week of August, those letters are starting to pay off. I am busy helping people organize their ideas and writing proposals. I am working to secure funding to build two bathrooms at the community hall for one of the larger villages. The HIV group has finally decided that the four families who are open about their status will raise crickets as a secondary income. I have an idea for a funding source, but we are still in the planning stages and need to write the budget for such an endeavor. This is proving to be quite difficult, as I know absolutely nothing about raising crickets. Any advice would be appreciated!

SOI (the girls’ group) is looking to expand our recycling project and I have several leads on funding. They have also caught the eye of an outside research team that is doing a study in our community. The research team has asked SOI to develop skits about youth health, drug/drinking issues, and sex education to present at the local village meetings. The girls are honored and excited to help this team out.

Social:

I am still loving living in Thailand and have had the chance to travel around recently. Of course there were several trips to Bangkok, a city that I love more and more each time I visit. While there, we discovered new restaurants, new areas of town and spent time dancing until sunrise on more than one occasion.

At the end of July, in accordance with moon, Thai people have a holiday that marks the beginning of Buddhist lent. This meant a four-day weekend for us non-Buddhist volunteers. About 15 of us headed to the island of Koh Samet for some fun in the sun. Though it rained everyday, we made the most of it, and I enjoyed the sand and sea everyday we were there. I even managed to get out on boat for a few hours one day.

Mental/emotional status:

Though I tend to report on the great trips that I take, the wonderful projects that I work on and the funny happenings of living in Thailand, not everyday is a walk in the park. There were definitely some bad days thrown in there, combined with a mid-service crisis or two.

As always, its hard when people don’t listen to your ideas, or when you can barely communicate your thoughts. The weather has been stifling hot and I’m really starting to miss having a car, iced tea, and air conditioning.

Today is a good day. That’s probably why I’m blogging right now. This week has been full of project developments. I’m pumped for the next 8 months.

Yup, only 8 months left. Though I miss home, friends and family, I can’t believe that I will be leaving so soon. Even though I have lots to work on right now, I can’t help but to think about/stress about the future. Right now I am considering graduate school, possibly a Master’s in Development Practice or International Development. I’m taking the dreaded GRE in October and spend much of my spare time studying. Of course, I’m exploring other options as well. I’m considering working in development abroad in Thailand or elsewhere, or extending for up to another year with Peace Corps to stay and work on more projects here in my community. We’ll see. Nothing for sure yet.

That’s about it. I’m fully aware that I should write more often, include more details, anecdotes, etc. and I will try to do just that.

Until then…..

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Ways I have Changed since living in Thailand

Prompted by an email from a friend, I starting thinking about the ways that life in Thailand has affected me and how much I have probably changed. Most of these changes are for the better, some are probably weird, and some are probably just funny.

1. I am more patient and have a go with the flow attitude. These are characteristics seemed to be instilled in all Thai people and they have all kinds of phrases to encourage others to act the same way. Most are equivalient to "chill out". This has been hard to adjust and been a huge learning experience for me. I definitely think that I have chilled out a lot and know that I am more patient.

2. Anything 9-100 degrees, really is not that hot. As long as you have a fan and some water you can stay pretty comfortable. And if you get too hot to handle, it's perfectly acceptable to take 2 or 3 showers a day.

3. You don't have to kill bugs/animals/critters just to get rid of them. You can kindly escort them outside, sweep them away, or trap them and then set them free.

4. Any trip in a car or bus that is four hours or less, seems short to me now.

5. I can actually ride a bike like a semi-normal person. I will admit that growing up, I was not the most graceful on a bike. Oh, and I can change tires now!

6. I can entertain myself on the computer without using the internet. This happens when your connection depends on how many clouds are around.

7. I now prefer to drink with ice and whisky with soda water.

8. I can eat anything for breakfast. Even if it includes meat, vegetables, and plenty of spiciness to boot.

9. I can fit all my earthly possessions into two....well maybe three suitcases.

10. I am perfectly comfortable performing songs well out of my range to a room full of strangers, along with dancing and making speeches.

11. I can handle being around little kids and actually enjoy it.

12. I can sit around waiting for someone for two hours or more and not be THAT pissed.

13. I can watch any episode of Seinfeld any day and never be sick of it.



I'm sure there are so many more to be added to this list, but that's what I am noticing right now. I am thankful to have been given the time to change and hope that those changes that have made me a better person will be returning to America with me.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Over a year, and more culture shock?

Last year, in my third month of service, I traveled about two hours away with my host dad and my host sister’s husband to visit a country school. It so happens that my host father’s father was the headmaster of this school about 60 years ago and each year my family visits the school to make donations and speak with the students in his honor. I loved the concept and it struck me as something that my family in America might do. I was happy to be apart of it. I remember the day as long, hot and confusing. My Thai speaking and comprehension skills were not excellent and I felt like I was sticking out like a sore thumb. I did not understand the ceremonies or really what was going on at all. I smiled when I was supposed to, bowed when others bowed, and remained quiet and tried to take it all in.

Since that visit I have learned a lot more Thai and a lot more about ceremonies and official meetings at schools. Most importantly, I have learned how I am viewed as a foreigner and how I fit into these situations.

Last week, a year to the day, we set off again to visit this country school. I woke up early for coffee and breakfast for my host mom and set about ironing my khaki pants and dress shirt for the day. I dressed and spoke with my host father as I promised I would be ready to go right on time. Then not five minutes before we were to walk out the door, he turned to me said that I needed to change clothes….I needed to wear a skirt. Now, during training we wore skirts everyday and I wear them for very formal occasions at site. But honestly, all the women around here were pants…teachers, nurses, government workers, all of us. I wore nice pants last year….why I couldn’t I wear them again this year…I was sure to be climbing in out of the pick-up truck and sitting on the floor. I diligently went to my room to change, much to my disappointment. You may be asking, “why didn’t you just explain that you prefer to wear pants?” Well, maybe I have been here too long, maybe I’m too complacent or maybe I just know how to pick my battles, but the thought did not enter my head. My father had asked me to change, so I did. I am a female, so I must wear a skirt, so I did. I was going along on this trip to honor my family and make my host dad happy, so I did.

I was sort of in a bad mood and had cultural differences on my mind. I have lived here over a year and knew what to expect of the event and what the day had in store. Still, the cultural implications and my feelings took me by surprise as the day went on. I was treated as an honored guest, forced to make a speech, was seated in front of the entire school and watched as the students crawled on their hands and knees to present flowers and blessings to me, my host dad, the principal and the other teachers. Basically I was being treated as royalty or as a celebrity. You might think it sounds nice. The fan was pointed directly on me all day and students rushed to bring me cool water. I was highly uncomfortable. I had not earned their respect…they had just met me! This happens a lot in Thailand. I am a foreigner and oftentimes I am presented as a teacher or mentor. This gives me instant VIP status. This day it really bothered me. I kept thinking of the American ideal of equality and how we have nothing like this system of hierarchy and how much I appreciated that. In America we do things for ourselves. If I had needed a cup of coffee or glass of water, I would have asked where or how to get some and done it myself. Yes, we are hospitable but never in a million years, would a student be forced to present that glass to you while crawling and kneeling with their head down balancing the full glass on a tray. It seems preposterous to imagine such a scenario at home.

We ended up with some extra time before lunch so I was asked to teach the kids English. This happens and lot and sort of bugs me every time. But up I went, to the front of the room, microphone in hand and led a basic conversation. Anything more than that would have been fruitless. Most of these kids had never seen a foreigner, let alone practiced English with one. I tried to get them to relax a bit by suggested that they ask me questions about America, using Thai. They looked at me in terror. Not a single student raised their hand. I was starting to get annoyed. I thought, if they want to learn English so bad and talk with foreigners, why aren’t they trying??

Then it hit me. They had been forced to wait me for the past three hours, kneeling and crawling all the while barely looking at me…no wonder they were intimidated!

I felt terrible for them and wished I could make them comfortable. I wished I could share the American culture of student/teacher relationship or even the casual and comfortable relationship between new friends. I wanted them to know that I thought of them as being on the same level as me, that we were equal and that we could be friends and communicate. I was not a VIP, I am not better than them because I am a foreigner and speak English.

It was hard dealing with all this at the time and it’s hard to verbalize it now. I hope that you understand a bit of what I was and am going through. I thought it was a good story to share and hope it reminds everyone not to take our culture of relationship and lack of hierarchy and notions of equality for granted.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Closer Look Into Isaan

I live in the Northeast Region of Thailand, also known as Isan. This is a large region of Thailand with important cultural traditions and it also contributes to the agriculture of Thailand in a big way. When thinking of Thailand most people think of the beach, Bangkok and a certain Roger's and Hammerstein film. There is much more to be learned about. Here is some information from Wikipedia on the place that I now call home, Isan:

Isan's culture is predominantly Lao, and has much in common with that of the neighbouring country of Laos. This affinity is shown in the region's cuisine, dress,temple architecture, festivals and arts.

Isan food is distinct from Thai and Lao cuisines, but has elements in common with each. The most obvious characteristics are the use of sticky rice that accompanies almost every meal rather than plain rice, as well as fiery chiles. Popular dishes include tam mak hung, or in central Thai, som tam (papaya salad),larb (meat salad) and gai yang (grilled chicken). These have all spread to other parts of Thailand, but normally in versions which temper the extreme heat andsourness favoured in Isan for the more moderate Central Thai palate.

Conversely Central Thai food has become popular in Isan, but the French and Vietnameseinfluences which have affected Lao cuisine are absent. The people of the region famously eat a wide variety of creatures, such as lizards, frogs and fried insects such as grasshoppers, crickets,silkworms and dung beetles. Originally forced by poverty to be creative in finding foods, Isan people now savour these animals as delicacies or snacks. Food is commonly eaten by hand using the sticky rice pressed into a ball with the fingers as a tool. Soups are a frequent element of any meal, and contain either vegetables and herbs, noodles, chunks of fish, balls of ground pork or a mixture of these. They are eaten using a spoon and chopsticks at the same time.

The traditional dress of Isan is the sarong. Women's sarongs most often have an embroideredborder at the hem, while men's are in a chequered pattern. They are worn "straight", not hitched between the legs in Central Thai style. Men also wear a pakama—a versatile length of cloth which can be used as a belt, a money and document belt, as headwear for protection from the sun, as a hammock or as a bathing garment. Isan is the main centre for the production of Thaisilk. The trade received a major boost in the post-war years, when Jim Thompson popularised Thai silk among westerners. One of the best-known types of Isan silk is mut-mee, which is tie-dyed to produce geometric patterns on the thread.

The Buddhist temple (or wat) is the major feature of most villages. These temples are used not only for religious ceremonies, but also for festivals, particularly mor lam, and as assembly halls.

They are mostly built in the Lao style, with less ornamentation than in Central Thailand. Lao style Buddha images are also prevalent.

he people of Isan celebrate many traditional festivals, such as the Bun Bungfai Rocket Festival. This fertility rite, originating in pre-Buddhist times, is celebrated in a number of locations both in Isan and in Laos, but most vigorously and most famously in Yasothon province. Other Isan festivals are the Candle Festival, which marks the start of vassa in July in Ubon and other locations; the Silk Festival in Khon Kaen, which promotes local handicrafts; the Elephant Round-up in Surin; and the bangfai phayanak or Naga fireballs of Nong Khai.

The main indigenous music of Isan is mor lam; it exists in a number of regional variants, plus modern forms.[5] Since the late 1970s it has acquired greater exposure outside the region thanks to the presence of migrant workers in Bangkok. Many mor lam singers also sing Central Thai luk thung music, and have produced the hybrid luk thung Isan form. Another form of folk music, kantrum, is popular with the Khmer minority in the south. Although there is no tradition of written secular literature in the Isan language, in the latter half of the 20th century the region produced several notable writers, such as Khamsing Srinawk (who writes in Thai) and Pira Sudham (who writes in English).

Mor lam needs a special mention as its festival-type production which is very commonplace in Isan, has not been exported to other regions. Although it is a very exciting affair, not being on the tourist trail it is largely ignored by foreign visitors. When the locals speak of mor lam (pronounced mor'ram with stress on the second syllable), one will often hear them say pai doo morram (lit. 'go see mor'ram'). They are referring to the most common form of evening entertainment in the region. Somewhere, in a village within easy reach, there will be a mor lam festival on a Friday or Saturday evening. Usually, the rock-festival sized stage is constructed either in a temple compound or on a sports field. Thousands of people will sit on mats on the ground and watch the fun-filled program of variety entertainment. The traditional music and song is accompanied by extremely colorful choreography, executed by a group of up to fifty female (and some male katoey) dancers. The fantastic costumes are changed several times throughout the program, and the transitions are bridged by often raunchy gags, slap-stick comedy, and speeches by local dignitaries. A mor lam festival is a family affair and the area is surrounded by food and drink stalls.

Isan is known for producing a large number of muay Thai boxers: as with Western boxing, kickboxing provides a rare opportunity to escape from poverty. Isan's most famous sportsman, however, is tennis player Paradorn Srichaphan, whose family is from Khon Kaen.

Marriage and courtship in Isan still mainly follows strict tradition, especially in rural areas, and most young women are married by the time they are 20 years old. Many girls, in spite of the legal requirement, marry as young as fourteen to escape poverty, as usually marriage is associated with a dowry paid by the husband to the bride's family. A dowry will not normally be less than 40,000 Thai baht, and according to the status of the bride and/or her family, can often greatly exceed 300,000 baht. Isan women rarely have boyfriends until they meet the man whom they will eventually marry, and tradition requires that the betrothal is then announced. Younger fiancées will be chaperoned, usually by a female friend, brother or sister while in the company of their future husband. The wedding ceremony usually takes place in the bride's home and is normally officiated by one or several monks or a respected village elder who has been a monk. Young couples are increasingly registering their marriages at the city hall, which they can do if they are over 17. The extended family system is still very much the traditional social structure in Isan, with newly wed couples often living with in-laws or building a home on the family compound or farmland. It is not unusual however, for many women to remain single until much later. Tradition demands that the youngest or only daughter continues to live at home to take care of her parents. They are then only free to marry when both parents are deceased. There is also the tradition that a woman should 'marry up' in status. If the woman is tied to an occupation in a rural area as a farm or business owner, teacher, or similar profession, finding a suitable husband and one who is prepared to relocate is often not easy.

Water buffalo are a regular feature, even in the suburbs, being walked to and from the fields at dawn and dusk. Although rarely used nowadays for working the land, they are considered an important status symbol. The current value (2010) of one head of buffalo is about 20,000 Thai baht (2010: USD 620).

The cultural separation from Central Thailand, combined with the region's poverty and the typically dark skin of its people, has encouraged a considerable amount of discrimination against the people of Isan from non-ethnic Thais of Chinese descent.[citation needed] Even though many Isan people now work in the cities rather than in the fields, many hold lower-status jobs such as construction workers, stall vendors and tuk-tuk taxi drivers, and discriminatory attitudes have been known to persist with many Thai-Chinese inhabitants. Nevertheless, Isan food and music have both been enthusiastically adopted and adapted to the tastes of the rest of the country.

The process of Thaification has diluted somewhat the distinctive character of Isan culture, particularly in the cities and in provinces, such as Khorat, which are closest to the Central Thai heartlands and which have been under Thai rule the longest.