My Last Blog Post

[Important Side Note: If you have enjoyed reading about my Peace Corps life through this blog, please let me know.  Feel free to send an email, post a comment or whatnot.  I would like to know who all has been following me on this adventure.  Here’s to beginning a new chapter!]

The 26 months of Peace Corps service is coming to an end.  I am about to leave what I have grown to love during the past two years.  Bittersweet doesn’t even begin to cover it.  There are many things I am going to miss…and then there are things that I am not.  For instance, waiting 3  1/2 hours for the tessaban cheer practice to start when I could have been more productive packing! Back to the good things.  Here are some of the people who have made this experience, for which I am eternally thankful. 

The New Neighbors

In the beginning of January, a young, new couple moved into the house next to mine.  These people are the neighbors I have always wanted.  They are some of the cutest people in Thailand, eager to learn and so welcoming.   Since January I have vacationed, watched movies at their house, and gone over and out for dinner with them.  The conversation is about any and everything, from ice skating, to presidents on dollar bills, to religion, to baby names.  Talking with them just brings a smile to my face.  Oh, and did I mention they let me use their high speed internet for free?!

Wanida, P’Prem, and Power Star

Power Star is the name my Thai Youth Theater club gave themselves….an awesome name in my opinion.  We did so much together in just three months and the memories will a last a lifetime.  It is one of the experiences I feel beyond blessed to have been a part of.  Talking with anyone from this group brightens my whole day.  (Also, I have had numerous goodbye parties with these people.  Why stop an amazing thing early?  Let’s stretch it out as long as possible; let the good times roll.) 

Fern

I met Fern randomly in October  during Thailand’s Vegetarian Festival.   There was a food tent a short bike ride away with free, delicious vegetarian (“jeh”) food.  I decided to check it out.  One thing led to another, I ended up giving Fern  my phone number (something I don’t usually do with Thais I have just met) so she could call me to go biking together.  Since then, we have become best bike buddies.  She cracks me up.  The other day she asked me if vampires were real.  It is never too late to make a friend. 

A handful of the people at the tessaban

I know I will always have someone to eat lunch with here.  They are always willing to help and let me feel a part of group. 

My host family

If I am feeling down, here is one place I will always feel welcomed.  I don’t need to try to be anyone around them.  I can just be myself.  In a country full of greng jai and fake smiles, knowing you can be yourself is such a relief.   I feel like one of the family. 

Suwana

Suwana has been there since the very beginning.  She is my counterpart, my host sister, and one of my best friends here.  I owe her everything.  To put it simply, I love and am going to miss her. 

These are the people I want to be with  during my last days.  They make me feel loved, and they are going to be the people I miss most. 

…Oh! And I forgot, anyone who said hi or waved at me.–aka pretty much the whole town.  Fern calls me a superstar when we go biking because it seems like everyone knows me.  

[Note: Here are their pictures.  They follow the same order as I have listed them on this blog.]

ImageImageImageImageImageImage

Advertisements

The Story Behind Footloose, Part 2

IMG_0474DSCN3368DSCN3361DSCN3436DSCN3460DSCN3381

[Note: If you have not already read “The Story Behind Footloose, Part 1” or seen the Youtube video, please do so now]

After the Thai Youth Theater Festival

The van ride home was what cemented my idea that the TYT Footloose experience was a huge success.

If your high school experience was like mine and you can remember those amazing bus rides home from speech or show choir competitions where the whole bus is laughing or singing Disney/Broadway songs, picture that and you have a pretty good idea of our van’s atmosphere driving home after the theater festival.   There was so much laughter all the way home, it was as if the air was infected with laughing gas.  [Remember, just a few months ago these students hardly knew each other].  On top of that, the kids were already planning what play they were going to do and what songs they were going to dance to for TYT festival next year…when I am not even here!  Score for the concept of Sustainability and the Peace Corps Volunteer! [The Peace Corps emphasizes implementing projects that will be sustained once the Volunteer has gone.]

On the van ride home, we stopped halfway for a group dinner together at KFC; it just felt like one big family.  One of my students made the comment, “We will have to eat lunch together at least once a week to keep this up”. …*Amy’s proud sigh*.   Yes that is what theater can do.  You work really hard so that by the end, you have something to be proud of, something you did as a family…. and you want to experience it again.

Last week, they threw me a going away party.  It was so sweet that I just about cried.  Facebook has been littered with pictures and posts about how much they loved TYT/Footloose.  We even sang the song they learned at the camp to two of our students at the graduation ceremony.  These kids have caught my enthusiasm and have flown with it.  TYT impacted these kids’ lives on a big scale.  Footloose (like all of my high school plays and show choir performances) is a memory that will last a lifetime.

Indianola Shout Outs:

  1.       All my kids know the name of our great town because I made it the name of the town in the skit.
  2.       Remember how exhausting show choir choreography sessions were?  Well, I can now tell you that they are even more exhausting when you are thinking in two languages.
  3.       Also, remember the flip in “It’s too Darn Hot” [one of our Show Choir songs]? I made sure to use it.  Thais need some spark like that in their lives.  (Plus, it was one of my life’s goals since I never got to do it).
  4.       We did do a shakedown–that was a great day!
  5.       I can still fit into my orange capris I wore for the musical “Honk” in my freshman year of high school…yes, PCVs those were the same orange pants I was dancing in Saturday night.
  6.      Coming home from the festival, we stopped for dinner at KFC in a big department store.  Does that sound like post-play “Sports Page “[an Indianola restaurant,] anyone?  Yep, we pushed all the tables at KFC together; everyone was glowing with happiness. [Note: this was followed by random bowling on the top floor with some of my students.  Who thinks of going bowling?!  It makes about as much sense as a group of Thais voluntarily choosing to do a show that they have never heard of before but will have to dance.]
  7.      There were many hugs given (mostly by me) after their performance…It’s a tradition for me.
  8.      A round of applause and big thank you to Mr. Stone (high school drama director), Mrs. Steger (high school show choir/musical director), Mrs. Hagener (high school show choir director), and Mrs. Schnieders (high school show choir/musical director).  I learned it all from you.  Now I know what it feels like to be in your shoes–exhausted but totally worth it.
  9.      It doesn’t matter where you are or what language you speak.  Practicing super hard to get your show the best it can be and then being able to perform it brings out something special in everyone.

The Story Behind Footloose

Every year, Peace Corps holds a huge event called the Thai Youth Theater (TYT) Festival. Volunteers organize theater clubs at their schools months before to diligently practice a skit in English. Then, in the middle of February, all the volunteers who have groups come together at a central location to participate in the festival. The students attend fun drama workshops and perform the plays in front of each other. In other words, it’s an ABSOLUTE BLAST with some of the most amazing people and empowering/uplifting experiences!!!!!!!!   This year there were 13 different groups with skits such as Snow White, the Ugly Duckling, and some Thai fables.   I was fortunate enough to bring a group of 11 students to perform Footloose (click to watch it on Youtube)….We BROUGHT. THE.HOUSE. DOWN!  But in order to really understand Footloose, you need to be informed of the whole back-story behind the skit.  It will be  rather long explanation, so brace yourself. In fact, I divided it in half: 1) Leading up to the skit and performing it , and 2) After the performance.

How we choose Footloose

At the TYT Festival, everyone was asking me how I decided on Footloose.  My reply, I didn’t….the kids decided. In fact, for a long time I didn’t think I would be able to attend due to the fact that I didn’t have a set group of students.  Right before the application was due, however, the head high school English teacher called saying she was interested and would organize volunteers.  HOORAY!  Now just what skit are we going to perform, I asked myself.  Since it is always more fun doing a skit you want, I prepared a list of 13 possible skit ideas I thought do-able to have the students vote on their favorites.  I presented these options with a short explanation for each and the head English teacher translated.   The list included everything from Sleeping Beauty to Little Red Riding Hood to Spider Man to a Thai fable. There were seven students present. Their vote results: Harry Potter 2, Titanic 1, Cinderella 2, Footloose ALL 7….WHAT?! I was certainly surprised at the results.  What Thai voluntarily chooses Footloose, knowing nothing about the play except a two-sentence summary and the fact that they are going to have to dance!?  Plus, Footloose was more of an afterthought, being one of the last options added to my list.  I had remembered during my high school sophomore year at the state Thespian Festival (a yearly statewide high school drama festival comparable to TYT) a high school performed Footloose and I had really enjoyed it. Coincidently, my mom had sent me the new, $32011 remake DVD as part of a birthday care package in May.  Perfect!  We were able to watch it the next day. 

 The changes I saw in the students leading up to the festival

                From the beginning, I wanted Footloose to be spectacular.  Some of my best high school memories come from being on stage with my friends.  I wanted to replicate those experiences for my students.  (Also if I was going to dedicate as much time as I expected to this skit, it had better be amazing!)  When I first handed out the script I had written, an 11th grader objected saying, “Oh! There is no way we can memorize this!  We are just going to have to read it.”   My response, “Oh yes you are going to have these lines memorized!  Last year there were 5th graders who had their scripts memorized.  No way are we going to be outdone by fifth graders!”  I mean, come on.  There was still about 2 1/2 months to go.  We began meeting 4 times a week (Mon, Tues, Thurs, & Fri) during the lunch hour from 12:30-1.   This was serious.   I wanted my students to be the best they could be, and I think they could tell that I really cared despite the language barrier. 

One interesting dynamic of our group was age range of the students.  We had three 7th graders, two 8th graders, two 9th graders, two 10th graders and two 11th graders who didn’t really know each other before they were put in this group. One 8th grader confided afterwards that the first day when she was looking around at all the older students she thought to herself, “What do I have to offer?”  Well, the truth is a lot.  Everyone has something to offer.  As practices went on, I began to see them getting closer and closer.   Same as my high school experiences — theater brings people together no matter what differences they have. Something about working really hard together to achieve a common goal brings out the best in people.  The head English teacher whom I was working with even commented on this growing relationship – as if it was surprising to her.  Then one day, about the end of January, my students began bringing their lunches to the classroom we practiced in and eating together!  (They wanted to begin practices earlier.)  You have no idea how proud this made me feel. Having lunches together continued throughout the remainder of the practices.  They were becoming best friends. 

 I taught the choreography to the final song the first Sunday in February.  In my show choir alumni opinion, it was not that hard (a lot of box steps, spins and toe-heels).  But for some of my students, who normally don’t get the opportunity to dance, I think it blew their minds a little bit.   They were determined to get it down however…meaning practices afterschool and on weekends.  A bit tiring…no, actually really tiring on my part, but it made me smile on the inside.  This is how I remember spending a lot of my afterschool and weekend time in high school.  If my students wanted to put in the time to make it perfect, I was not going to stop them.  [Note: My students were the ones that requested I choreograph partners for this song and that it be guy-girl.  I was surprised.  This is not normal Thai shyness.]

 As the festival got nearer and nearer, the students’ enthusiasm in Footloose grew and grew.  Towards the end, the students were practicing on their own without me, filling in for people who were gone, and giving each other suggestions.   If this TYT process was a race, at the beginning I was pushing them, but by the final practices they were running really fast on their own.   By the end it wasn’t me trying, it was all them.  Footloose was good, and the kids knew it.  They had something to be proud of. 

 Proud moments at the festival

By the time it got to the festival, everyone was excited.  Footloose was good, and my students knew it.  Now it came time for Amy’s worries to escalate.  Was the festival going to be everything I had hyped it up to be?  Would everyone appreciate all the hard work and long hours my students and I had put into Footloose?  After a huge dress rehearsal, the TYT committee members picked our show to go first.  “What!  I hate going first!” was my reaction.  I was freaking out, but all the kids were fine.  “Hey Amy, we got this,” they seemed to say “You have been a great director and we’ve practiced a ton”….I didn’t even need to worry.  The show was a jaw-dropper.  One other PCV said she could just see the inspiration on her kids faces as they watched us…maybe that’s why the committee put us in the first spot.  After the show, I was overflowing with pride.  They nailed it.  Way to go. In my counterpart’s opinion, we were the best skit.  It seemed that the only outlet for all the joy bubbling up inside me was to give everyone hugs.  I didn’t even care that I was in Thailand (where they don’t typically hug).  Throughout the whole festival my kids were all smiles.  They loved it.

  What really made me happy was on Saturday night, there was an activity where all 200 hundred people attending were in a big circle.  The person in the center of the circle had to dance and everyone else had to follow.  My kids, voluntarily, were some of the first people in the center of the circle! (You have to remember, Thai students are typically VERY shy.)    Theater is a confidence builder!

My One-Year-Back Wish List

I am over 93% done with my service.  There is less than 50 days left.  It’s down to the bone.  For me, this is both crazy and understandable.  I have been in Thailand a long time.  Here, I have tasted some of the best pineapples and mangos ever.  The festivals, such as Loi Gratong and the Dansai Ghost festival, have been amazing cultural experiences.  Temperatures such as -5 F or -20 Celsius seem unimaginable.  But I have also missed the US and the US experiences.  Throughout my service, I have jotted down the random things I was missing.  Now is a good time to publish the list.  My goal to do/eat/achieve/complete every bullet point within a year after I get back.  You could call it my One-Year-Back Wish List.  IMPORTANT:  If you have enjoyed my blog, at all, please help me achieve my goals.  Friends and family are who I want to share these experiences with.

  • Go horseback riding
  • Go on a date
  • Go sledding (I feel cheated out of my yearly intake of snow)
  • Eat blueberries, strawberries and raspberries
  • Visit renaissance fair
  • Catch lightning bugs
  • Go to the state fair!
  • Eat pumpkin pie
  • Eat pumpkin bread
  • Carve jack-o-lanterns for Halloween
  • Drink real, hot apple cider
  • Have dinner at an authentic Mexican restaurant
  • Order pizza and eat it while watching a football game (American college football, not soccer)
  • Go to a haunted house
  • Go and get a REAL Christmas Tree
  • Make gingerbread houses
  • Roast marshmallows and make somemores
  • Assemble a 1000+ piece jigsaw puzzle
  • Have a girls night that ends in a trip to IHOP
  • Attend a wedding with good dance music at the reception

(Note: These are not in any order of importance, except for horseback riding.  I REALLY want to go horseback riding)

The American Women’s Club English Camp

In November, I partook in the American’s Women’s Club English Camp, as mentioned in my previous post.  I was a group leader of 19 students who I led around to different English learning activities, such as English jeopardy, spelling, hangman, etc.  The camp  had many fun and inspirational moments.  One particular moment stands out. 

At the beginning, when I was first assigned my girls, a Thai teacher (she helped organize the camp) pulled me aside to confide in me that  one of the girl’s mother had just hung herself a month ago .  The Thai teacher didn’t think it would be good if the girl attended the hangman station.    Good thing I wasn’t going to that station the first day!  I later discussed the situation with the main person in charge, and we decided to change the game to “Build a Man”. 

You would have never been able to guess that she had recently suffered such a tragedy.  She was the first one to answer the questions.  She had such a smile  and her enthusiasm just blossomed throughout the weekend.   Sure, she was a bit shy at the beginning, but so is every other Thai student.  By the end, she was practicing her English with me outside when we were just walking to the classes (That’s enormous for Thais).    I think a lot of times we don’t know what is going on underneath in people’s lives. 

What got me is after the closing ceremony, she came up to me and gave me a huge hug (As I have mentioned before, getting hugs from Thais is really rare and therefore has much more significance.) and she told me that that she would miss me.   Her face was shining.  Just knowing that I was able to add a little bit of light to her life…amazing.  

So it’s been awhile…

So I have been away from my blog for a while.  That is the truth.  At first, there seemed to be nothing important to blog about, and then everything was happening at once.  I guess that is the way life goes.  Here is a summary of the past few months. 

October:  During this month the schools are on break, “bit term”.  My schedule went from busy to very not busy.  Many  volunteers use this time to long vacations (Especially if are teaching in the school).  Instead, I used this time to revise my resume, contact references, and looking for jobs.  It was a productive use of the break.  The last week I took a short, 4 day vacation to Krabi.  Every day was paradise.  Highlights included watching people climb up limestone cliffs and jump into the ocean, rock climbing to the lookout point, and watching the postcard perfect sunsets on the beach. 

November: I think I was a bit over busy this month.  I resumed teaching math, English, and participating in after school activities.  In addition, it seemed that every weekend I had something going on which I had to travel a couple hours on a bus to reach .  I was so busy I actually got sick one of the weeks.  Highlights of this month included the helping with the American Women’s English Camp, the Thai festival Loi Gratong and celebrating Thanksgiving in Bangkok with other volunteers.  The month cumulated in the Peace Corps Close of Service Conference.

December: This month was not as busy travel wise as November but just as busy nonetheless.  First, I had to finalize some job stuff.  Second, I was in charge of organizing the Thai Youth Theater (TYT) group at my high school.  We will go to and perform at the Thai Youth Theater Festival at the end of February.   It’s a lot of work, but I think it is going really well.  (There will be a future blog post describing TYT in greater detail).   Finally, my friend, Maureen, was coming all the way from America during the National Thai holiday at the end of the month to visit me.  I wanted to make sure she had a good time so I planned everything out.  We adventured through Khao Sok National Park.  Highlights for this month included being told that it takes a really special type of person to complete Peace Corps in a job interview, putting my drama skills to work in all my TYT practices, Christmas with a Thai family, visiting an awesome cave, and going on this gorgeous, turquoise lake in Khao Sok with limestone formation shooting up everywhere (some 960 meters tall!) and you feel like a pirate ship might come sailing out from hiding around the next formation so you are singing the Pirates of the Caribbean theme song in your head. 

I think you are all caught up now.  My next blog posts will be some stories for this time period and reflections.

“I leave so I can come back”

My community is the bomb.  When I ride my bike, someone always shouts, “Hello, Amy!”  I can joke with my co-workers about the superiority of sweet fruit over sour fruit.   I love the triumphant expressions on my kids faces when they master a difficult English lesson.  However, if I stay in Ban Tak for more than a month without leaving, I lose focus on the beauty of Ban Tak and concentrate on everything that annoys me.  I forget the reasons why I love this place.  Therefore, I have a saying, “I leave so I can come back.”

This was the case a few weeks. My kids were annoying me, I wasn’t looking forward to teaching, I didn’t want to interact with people, and even the weather was against my liking–a bad case of Tambon Fever. I needed to leave.

Another saying I have is that in Thailand, you make plans for them to be broken.  Two weeks previous, a friend had called asking me to help with an English camp in Chiang Rai.  “Perfect,” I thought, “this is exactly the reason to leave my town that I have been looking for!”  I was excited to visit Chiang Rai.  Usually when I leave, it’s just for a weekend, either to Bangkok or Chiang Mai, but I wanted to explore some place new.  All week I was looking forward to my little break.  Things were wrapping up in schools, and there wasn’t much going on at the tessaban, excellent time to leave.  The camp was scheduled to start on Wednesday, so I had made plans to go up to Chiang Mai for the weekend, take Monday as a vacation day, do the camp, visit Chiang Rai, and then leave for Bangkok for medical appointments the first half of the following week…I wish.  On Friday, the day before I was supposed to start my 1 1/2 week break, I get a call from my friend at 2 pm saying the camp had just been canceled by the local government.  “What?!” I exclaimed to myself, “I had been counting on the camp as an excuse to get away!”  After an initial freak out and some thinking, I decided to leave anyway and take vacation.  I had already informed my coworkers and co-teachers I would be gone, and my time away from site has been minimal throughout my service. My new plan: go to Chiang Mai, since I had already made the reservations at a guesthouse, and figure things out from there.  [Note: I prefer not to travel alone or spur of the moment, but sometimes you have just got to go for it.]

Once in Chiang Mai with a plate of comfort-food-nachos in front of me, I set to work figuring out what I was going to do with my week.   I could go anywhere!  I have been wanting to go done south to the beaches for a while.  But since I was already in Chiang Mai, I thought checking out northern Thailand would be more reasonable.  What would make me the most happy?  The answer was easy: happiness=caves.  [Random fact: I LOVE caves!  I get excited in the adventure of exploring them.  Caves seem to give me energy.]  I had heard my friends mention the place called “Cave Lodge” a couple of times.  The caves were located in Soppong, which is in the northern province of Mae Hong Song (about a 4 hour van trip from Chiang Mai).  After consulting my Lonely Planet and the internet, I hopped on a van early Monday morning to check it out.

The experience was everything and more. Here is a summary:

Day 1) I arrive at the Cave Lodge guesthouse.  It is a tree house nine kilometers from the main town, complete with a swing, hammocks, and a fire pit.   There is a general laid back, “spabai-spabai” feel.  The main cave of the area, Tham Lot Cave, is within walking distance.  That evening, I go with a few new friends, who I have just met, to see the swifts.  Every night, just before sunset, hundreds of birds renter Tam Lot Cave.  Awesome, but I am glad I had brought my umbrella.  As one person said, “I can honestly say, it was a shitty place”.

Day 2)  I went kayaking.  It was 3 hours of constant, high-level excitement.  First, we kayaked from the guesthouse to Tham Lot Cave and get out to explore cavern #2.  I don’t think I can describe how beautiful the cave was.  The guesthouse provided helmets and head lights.  Everywhere I turned, there was some kind of formation.  It was like my light wasn’t big enough to take it all in.  Then, we paddled down river and went to a smaller cave.  Again, gorgeous but it required some crawling.  These are some of the best kind of caves!  Hundreds of bats were in one section-way cool. Since it is rainy season in Thailand, the water level of the river is much higher.   It also means that the rapids are much more intense.  Normally, a person has the choice of kayaking alone or with a guide behind.  Everyone, however, is required to be accompanied by a guide in rain season…and I am so glad.  The rapids were fierce! Scary!! Thrilling!!! I loved it!!!!  People said rafting they had previously done in Thailand was nothing compared to this.  Wow is all I can say.  Fabulous day.

Day 3) Took it easy.  Me and a friend walked to go visit another part of Tham Lot Cave.  For just a hundred baht each, we got to ride a bamboo raft to the entrance and a local guide to take us around cavern #1.  Sanuk dii!  We ate lunch at a local Thai restaurant and got invited to try the nom prik….Thais are extremely nice, especially if you can speak Thai.

Day 4)  Went on 7 hour hike and cave exploration tour.  It was just my new German friend, the guide and myself.  Cave Lodge provided helmets, lights, and lunch.  The guide also gave us walking sticks.  At first I thought, “Oh this is nice, I don’t think I will really need it.”  Wrong.  Since it is rainy season, everything was wet and super slick.  The walking stick was essential to walking anywhere without falling.  Even then, it took a while getting used to walking on the path.  I did much better in the caves than just hiking to and from them.  All your concentration was needed to stay up. I couldn’t think about the itchy grass, wet socks or my energy level.  In order to progress forward and stay upright, you had to pound the walking stick into the mud path, use it as a third leg to keep your balance until you took your steps.  Think punting minus the water and the boat.  It would have been a much different experience, I’m sure, if I would have gone in the dry season.

The views were breathtaking.

DSCN2555

For reference, I am 5′ 6.25″. Is that some tall corn, or what?

The hike itself was beautiful.  It only rained while we were in the last cave.  No was no one else around.  We hiked across the mountains through brush, rice fields, pumpkin fields, peanut fields, and many corn fields where the stalks were at least twice as high as me! I was super glad we had a guide. Parts of the path were barely visible.   Once we got in the caves, we were crawling.  We were ducking. It was dirty.  It was muddy.  It was going when I didn’t think we could go any further.  In short, it was fantastic!  I loved every bit of it.  The first cave we went to was a very long, much crawling, thin cave.  The second cave I would describe as mostly cave figures, and a little bit of cave.  Everywhere you looked there was something.  The name is called Christmas Cave because it was discovered on Christmas…by this point, I felt like I was having an early Christmas

Nights at Cave Lodge were amazing too.  They consisted of a campfire, reading Charles Dickens, sitting around the table ordering delicious (slightly over priced) Thai food, talking with the other travelers (the place had a real homey, friendly feel) and listening to owner’s, John, stories life in the area 30 years ago.  John had first arrived 30 years ago where there were poppies everywhere and the area was supplying most of the world’s opium for heroin; his stories were quite interesting.  I should include that there was a hot shower included in all of this-huge benefit.

Day 5+) Sore.

If I had to plan my dream vacation, this get-away would be pretty spot on.  All the tours that I went on were organized through the lodge.  Quite convenient for a person just wanting to leave and not spend much time in transit.

The result of this whim vacation? I left Bangkok one day early (my doctor’s appointments had finished) because I missed my sight.  I am much happier at work now.  Leaving makes me want to come back.