Friday, September 25, 2015

Group Exercise Experimentation, Taking Candy from Babies, and Cross-dressing Jungle Runners

Forgive me for being absent on here for so long. There is a reason, I promise, but it's long, complicated, and I'm not quite ready to write about it yet, so I'm just going to leave you with the following advice: avoid all surgeries that may involve any sort of drainage tube temporarily coming out of your head. If you can't avoid it, then prepare yourself for the horror that is having it extracted. 

Before I launch into the body of my post, I'd just like to announce to all who don't already know, though I was originally planning on returning home to the PNW in October, a year has passed and I'm just not ready to come back yet. I love my students and my Songkhla community, and the eternal summer really has it's benefits. Also, it's rather satisfying to scroll through the angry political posts my facebook page and realize that Thailand's got 99 problems but Trump a'int one. I know temporarily denying my US citizenship doesn't grant me the special privilege of ignoring what's happening there or relieve me of responsibility, but it sure is a weight off one's shoulders to at least pretend for a while. So, I've renewed my contract, and I'll be finishing out the school year, leaving Songkhla in March, and traveling for a month or two before returning. All this really means for you all is that you now have an extension on when you can take holiday in Thailand with the prospect of a learned guide and resident excited to assist you. The clock is ticking, folks!

I bring to you today a collection in four segments inspired by events of the past few weeks. There is no common thread between them, so read one while you're waiting for your microwavable popcorn to be ready, another while you're on your smoke break, so on and so forth. Or, if you actually have the time and energy, go ahead! Read them all in one sitting. Here goes!

Zumba on Speed

First off, I'd like to say that while I enjoy making a fool out of myself in many ways, group exercise classes outside of yoga are not typically my cup of tea. I dance very well alone and my coordination strengths lie mainly in my fingers, thanks to playing clarinet for 14 years. There's also something about the combination of wearing spandex, moving rhythmically in mass, and following an energetic super human that makes me a little queasy. Therefore, until recently, I had never participated in a zumba, jazzercise, aerobics, or otherwise exotically-named group workout routine until this month. Enter, Thai aerobics.

While I love running along the beach road less than a mile from my apartment, sometimes you've got to spice up your exercising habits. All over Thailand, outdoor aerobics classes congregate in empty lots, basketball courts, and parks at either 5:30 in the morning or 5:30 in the evening for an hour of high energy movement. I don't know the technical name for what they do, but I've always passed the groups of 40-70 women bouncing about and been intrigued. So, after finding a friend to brave the adventure with me, I sheepishly snuck to the back of one of these classes a few Mondays ago.

You pay 5 baht to get into the class., That's 14 US cents. Could you imagine how many classes you would take if they were all that reasonable? Even on a Thai pay grade, that is stupid cheap. So you put your coin out in front of you after choosing your spot, and check out the competition. It's not terrible - it's a lot of middle aged women, moms whose kids sit off to the side on their ipads, college girls giggling together in their matching sweatpants, and a couple of women in spandex and baseball caps who look really fit. Try not to stand behind them because then you're going to be looking at their well-toned ass the whole time and feeling sorry for yourself. On the other hand, you don't want to be in front of them either, because lord knows they will judge you, seeing as you are a young foreigner. Probably best if you just avoid them altogether.

At 5:30, Thai techno and pop music starts to blast out of the giant speakers on either side of a black stage. Everyone takes their places, and the first instructor climbs the stairs onto the stage. There is typically a rotation of 5 instructors over the course of the hour. At first you may wonder, why bother? Then you realize it's not humanly possible to keep up your energy for an hour straight with one 30-second break throughout all this nonsense. Hence, the switching every ten minutes for the optimal example.

I refer to the instructors as Leg-kick Girl, White-faced Body Builder, Smiley Soccer Mom, The One I Always Forget, and Apron Woman. My favorite is Smiley Soccer Mom because she always looks so happy and encouraging, like she's rooting for you even when you can't possibly grapevine back and forth while doing that motion with your arms and upper body. Apron Woman is fun, though, too because she wears, well, a full-body apron and just looks super intense.

My friend described this class, after experiencing it for the first time, as "zumba on speed," and I think that's a fairly accurate description. Imagine moves that change every 8-12 seconds so that as soon as you get a motion down, you've changed again. Your eyes have to stay glued to the instructor because of how quickly the motions are altered. And for the less than coordinated, these motions are not a piece of cake. You are either jumping or moving side to side or forward and backwards, sometimes with leg kicks, double steps, cross-overs, and heel taps while waving your arms, punching, flexing, and doing all sorts of arm and hand motions I can't even begin to describe effectively. There are some moves I definitely have never seen anywhere else, my favorite of which I refer to as the "Tangoing Super Villain" move. This consists of alternating lunges to the left and then right while keeping the rest of your body centered. When you lunge, you bring the hand opposite the leg you're lunging towards in front of your face and dramatically sweep it down towards your chest to reveal your cool, unwavering forward gaze. Do that eight times in a row and I guarantee it'll determine whether or not you have an inner thespian.

The break only comes at 6:00 when everyone is required to stop and stand while the Thai flag is lowered to the King's Song, played on the loud speakers. Never do I appreciate this tradition more. But as soon as it's over (it's only about 30 seconds long), the pop music is pumped back up, and everyone gets back to it. I always make it to the end - it's not like one of those 30 minute Insanity videos that practically kills you to get you in shape - but I definitely am tired physically when we finish. More than anything, though, I'm mentally fried from focusing so hard on trying to do the right moves. That's really what keeps me going back - not only are Thai aerobics an effective cardio workout, these classes keep you extremely engaged by constantly switching up the routine. The older women in the class actually end up being the best at it because you know they've been doing these workouts for years and years, so they know all the moves. But for someone who is completely unfamiliar with how this art form works, it's always a mental challenge, and it's always entertaining.

Moral of the story: You! Get off your butt and go try something new and potentially embarrassing! It may be fun, and if nothing else, it should at least leave you with a good story. 

When I say, "now it's mine," I mean it

If I ever find myself teaching in an elementary school in the United States, I'm anticipating that the first few months will consist of me second-guessing every disciplinary move I make. Sometimes I look at myself and think, have I completely lost my moral compass? Would I be getting sued tomorrow if I was doing this in the states? And the answer is usually, "Eh, probably not," but the adjustment certainly has taken some getting used to.

Thailand is a country where corporal punishment is acceptable and expected in schools. All the teachers at my school keep a ruler on hand at all times and make students open their palms to receive a hearty wack when they're misbehaving. It's not particularly painful, and even my youngest students pretend hit their friends with rulers in imitation of their teachers, smiles on their faces, because it is the act of reprimanding rather than the pain that makes the punishment effective. However, the ruler is for misdemeanors only. Once you really piss off a teacher, you get slapped with their hand, and let me tell you, most of them are not gentle. My homeroom teacher, who is one of the most terrifying and intimidating people I have ever met, will hit students HARD on the back of the head and neck, and if you're foolish enough to be goofing off while standing during morning assembly, she'll kick your legs hard enough to make you almost fall over. Though it makes me wince, I cannot deny that it is extremely effective. My Thai co-teachers and best students will always try and hand me a metal ruler when the class is particularly rowdy, but I never take it. I've slapped a couple kids lightly, and more out of annoyance and to get their attention than out of anger (I'm heavily applauded by the rest of the class each time I do this). My wrath has always been more effective in my speech, and it still is here, even though my power is so severely diminished by the language barrier. But here, physical punishment is almost always coupled with verbal shaming. I'm scared witless of my homeroom teacher because between slaps, she stands over a student, berating them with the most shrill, cutting voice I have ever heard until they are crying, and I don't even understand 90% of what she's saying. That is power. It's uncomfortable for me to watch my students undergo this treatment, but I have to remember 1) I am typically blissfully unaware of the severity of the student's crime 2) I don't know what my homeroom teacher is saying and 3) I view this with an entirely different set of cultural values. I guess it's no wonder my students love me but also have so little respect for me.

I should add the fact that there is no "higher power" a student can be sent to when he/she misbehaves. There is no principal, there are no suspensions, there is no phone call made to a student's parents. Everything is dealt with in the classroom, by the teachers themselves. This is one of the most maddening aspects of discipline for me, because there is no way I can communicate expectations to a student the way a teacher of their native language can, and I have no way of contacting parents to insure serious disciplinary problems receive attention at home. So, I've had to get creative.

What does Teacher Mel do to discipline her classes, you ask? I do raise my voice, and yell much more than I would in an American classroom, but when your options are limited, it is a very effective way to express anger and command attention. The class I teach right before lunch has a tendency to misbehave, so I just keep track of how many minutes they keep me waiting when they talk, and then they have to be completely silent for that many minutes past when they would typically leave for lunch. They have lost 15 minutes of lunch on a couple of occasions because I was so annoyed with them. When it comes to punishing individuals, it gets a little more exciting. If a kid is playing with money, I take it. Oh, and I don't give it back. That 10 baht coin that could have bought them some cookies or a soft drink is now mine. For my first grade class, which loves playing with coins, I've found that swiping one from them while teaching and sticking it to the top of the whiteboard with sticky tack is very effective. The short little buggers can see it but they can't reach it, and they have to stare at it for the rest of class, knowing very well they may not be getting it back. I've also taken to rifling through naughty students' bags, finding their candy, and eating it in front of them. I take their books, their drawings, their eraser collections, whatever is distracting them, and if they're very good or I'm feeling generous, they get their possessions back. If not...something new for my collection. My more orthodox methods include locking students out of the classroom, assigning extra homework, giving pop quizzes, and bringing my fist down on desks right next to sleeping heads. It can be enormously fun, and next week I'm planning on bringing in my hash socks that are covered in grass seeds for bad students to pick out. But it will be nice when I once again am able to put my fine-tuned verbal skills to use. Until that day comes, I will be enjoying eating a lot of chocolate wafers and fruit chews. 

"I'm going to hit you with my f**king handbag!" 

The Songkhla Hash has to be the most unique group of individuals I have ever fraternized with regularly. You simply never know what to expect with those people, except mischief, and the sort of company you enjoy but wouldn't want to enjoy with civilized folks, in-laws, or evangelical Christians. I think it's safe to say that Saturday evenings are typically the most entertaining part of my week.

For those of you who need a refresher or haven't been following my blog since the beginning, the Hash House Harriers is a sort of beer-drinking runner's club which has chapters all over the world. I highly suggest you find and join your local hash, but am going to warn you now that it won't be as cool as the Songkhla Hash. First off, we run through the jungle. Through rivers, over mountains, avoiding snakes, slogging through monsoons, tripping over coconuts and pineapple plants, and squeezing between devil-worshipping plants. Secondly, no where else in the world will you find a more welcoming, eccentric collection of people and dogs to spend your weekend with. Thirdly, we have John Cleese's face photoshopped onto a runner in one of the pictures on our poster advertisement. Finally, we do things like have cross-dressing runs that people take very seriously, and this is what I am going to discuss today.

One of our lovely hash families moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which was very sad for all of us. However, it did provide an excuse for throwing a big party, which is really what Hashers live for. I know I make this sound like a cult, and I guess it is a little bit like one, minus the charismatic leader. In fact, Songkhla Hashers are so devoid of responsibility that there was one year in which the general manager of the hash was something called The Cube which was essentially a die with 6 different members' names written on it, and it was rolled each week to determine who would have to take charge of the following run. So don't worry; we're not going to be taking over the world very effectively any time soon.

Anyways. Eric and Duan decided that the final run they would set and the party that followed was going to be themed "His and Hers," which meant each man had to wear at least one item typically adorning a female body and vice versa. In the states, I would show up to a party like this and expect a lot of girls in men's dress shirts posing as dresses and cute skinny ties and men either completely ignoring the dress code or, if they were type-cast as "the funny guy," perhaps wearing a wig or a skirt over their jeans. Maybe I never found my people in the states, because I take costume parties very seriously and go all out, but high school and college never really provided me with enough comrades who were willing to go as far as I was. Not a problem in Songkhla. There's such a culture of fear in the US surrounding dressing outside of confined gendered expectations, especially for heterosexual men. This is one reason I love Thailand. Thai's don't think it's weird, don't think it's shameful, don't think it questions anyone's manhood to wear a dress to a theme party, and women don't have to feminize men's clothing if that's what they want to wear. As to Hashers who aren't Thai, they don't give a damn what anyone thinks of them, most of them are too old for that, and the rest of us just want to have a good time. Needless to say, it was a truly excellent turnout.

Some runners came in full costume for the hash itself - including a couple that dressed as Wonder Woman and Super Man, capes and all - but most of us just stuck to drawn-on facial hair or lipstick and rouge before we started off. Once everyone went home, showered, and turned up at the restaurant an hour later, though, we were definitely transformed. My friend Tim lent me some shorts, a dress shirt, and by far the best accessory, flip flops that have a bottle opener on the bottom of each shoe. So I got to be the bro who opened beers with my feet and I felt cool. I also acquired a black baseball cap early in the evening which really added to my look. There were wigs, fake boobs, heels, skin-tight dresses you wished weren't so skin-tight, slacks, sleazy goatees, ties, and all sorts of attitude. It was thoroughly impressive, and I wish I had more photos, but I think some have been banned from the internet for good reason. Everyone who came without a costume had to get up on the stage in the restaurant and dance to the "gai" (chicken) song, which involves tucking your hands behind your head and flapping your elbows about while singing, "gai, gai, gai," over and over again. After this, karaoke took over, because despite our best efforts, you can't stop Thailand from being Thailand, and that means terrible karaoke.

There was of course incredible Thai food, as well, which I could try to describe to you, but it's a little difficult seeing as I know the dishes only by their Thai names. It really does no justice, but basically there was a lot of amazing fish, seafood soup, spicy mango salad, fried rice, and fruit. The best part, though, was the dessert made by Duan: grasshopper pie and Turkish Delight cheesecake. That immediately gives the night an extra 10 point advantage over anything else I could have been doing.

I've included a couple pictures below - hopefully my friends won't kill me, but I tried choosing ones that are already out in cyberspace on the hash website or Facebook. I hope you all get to experience what it's like to interact with such a wild, diverse group of individuals at least for a short time in your life. And if you get the chance to switch clothes with them, well, even better.

The man on the left is a particularly sassy New Zealander named Bart who is responsible for the quote I made the title of this segment. Do not cross him.

Words from the wise and weird

Though my students are fairly limited in their ability to tell me things, it certainly doesn't keep them from trying. Their desire to interact with me usually results in them hanging around my desk, digging through my things, asking me to do google images searches of random things on my phone, hugging me, and asking me what things are or what I am doing. There are a few students, however, who know enough to be extremely chatty, and like to remind me. Phufa, who I wrote about a few posts ago, is one, and Nattha, or Nut, is another. Nut and Phufa are an interesting duo: both are extremely talented in English, enough so that they often talk to each other in English instead of Thai outside of my classes, but Phufa gets easily annoyed by Nut. I think this is mainly due to the fact that Nut adores Phufa and is a little clingy, and Phufa is a bit of a lone wolf who doesn't like his status as Best English Speaker to be threatened. Nut is pretty oblivious, though, so everything usually works out between the two of them. The biggest difference between the two is that Phufa is perceptive, while Nut is anything but. Phufa knows when to shut up, and he knows what will get him in trouble. Nut has no clue what shutting up means and is constantly getting in trouble for talking out of turn, distracting others, goofing off, and being generally destructive with school supplies. He's the kind of kid that can drive you insane in class, but when you're grading his science workbook and you see that he's drawn a whole army of little people climbing into and inside the beaker images in the book, you have to just laugh and shake your head.

Hearing and watching him talk is half of what is so entertaining about Nut, so the quotes I've included really don't do him justice, but I still think they're pretty funny. Also featured below is a very short but effective video which displays Nut's unique ability which he has claimed is his "best move." Anyways, enjoy these tidbits.

The greatest thing about Nut's move is that usually when Thai pop music is playing and everyone else is dancing, Nut is just jumping up and down and doing this over and over again (see the picture below).

[Nut gave drew me out the Thai numeral system so that I could memorize them and be able to read numbers in Thai. He told me he'd be writing a test for me the next day]
Nut: Have you studied the paper I gave you?
Me: Well, a bit.
N: How many hours?
M: Like maybe 2 (definitely a lie, maybe 15 minutes tops)
N: Oh.
M: I should probably study more, shouldn't I.
N: Yeah, you should.
M: How many hours do you think?
N: 24. 24 is always the number it takes to really learn something.

[Random advice completely out of the blue]: When you're sick, you need to put onions in your socks when you go to bed [Has anyone else heard of this or is this kid just crazy?]

[Nut was telling me about a computer game called Animal Jam run by National Geographic Kids. I've discovered that kids don't always realize adults also understand how technology works]: You type in "" - are you writing this down? Good. But you have to have a password to get in, and you can't forget it, so make sure it's going to be something you remember.

Phufa: Mel, I got glue on my pants and I don't know how to get it off
Nut: I have a great idea! *opens his water bottle, fills his mouth with water, and prepares to spit it in Phufa's lap*
Phufa: NO! *shakes his head in exasperation* There has GOT to be a better way!

Nut: Do you know how to control the mind?Me: No, can't say I do.Nut: I know!Me: How?N: With candy!M: Really?N: Yeah! If I wave a piece of candy in front of someone and say I love them, and they see the candy, they'll love me too because I'll give them candy.M: Ah, I see. That works with money too, doesn't it.N: No, not really. Money isn't very interesting.

[Phufa looking at one of Nut's drawings]: What the hell?? That looks like something on acid!

[MEP 2 had to draw pictures of a sandwich, label each ingredients, and explain how each is healthy. Nut showed me his picture.] Look! I drew a shoe in the middle! [He starts snickering and points to a little speech bubble coming from the shoe] See? I wrote "ha ha" because it's funny.

Phufa, me, and Nut. I'm afraid I have no normal pictures of Nut. But who ever liked normal, anyways?

Monday, May 11, 2015

Part I of the Epic March/April Travel Saga

So, I think the last two months have taught me that I should never be a travel blogger because I am really terrible at blogging while traveling. I’m excellent at blogging post-travel, but in the moment, the last thing I want to do is sit down at a computer when I could be out experiencing something. The best I can do is to be that person who’s like, “Hold on a second, I have to make a note in my phone about this moment so I won’t forget to blog about it.” And that can be a bit of a buzz kill. However, I’m back in Songkhla and have two weeks before private lessons fill up my evenings, so I no longer have an excuse. So, I shall embark upon the overwhelming task of recounting the past month and a half.

Don’t worry – I know we all have attention spans of toddlers these days, so I’m going to break it up into three or four posts, and I’ll try to be as entertaining/informative/inspiring as possible. This first post should be easy on those of you ruined by the age of technology and distraction because it is broken up into six stories, so if ya get bored you can skip around. They range from serious to outright silly, so read what you’re in the mood for. Alrighty, here we go…

Singapore: The Place where Everything is Shiny
Singapore is one of those rare places—like Dubai—which doesn’t seem to be of this world because of its ultramodern atmosphere and architecture. Marina Bay at night is one multicolored light show after another, reflecting along the canal and ricocheting off the obsidian skyscrapers that surround the city. There are 16-story-high “super trees” which look like they’re straight out of Avatar and a Ferris Wheel that was the tallest in the world until Las Vegas stepped up their game in 2014. There’s also a frickin’ boat on top of hotel. Like, a big boat. It also happens to hold a restaurant and bar.

My friend Taylor and I only had 14 hours in Singapore (long layover between Thailand and Bali), but that was long enough to make quite the first impression. I was unconvinced I had actually landed in a country in Southeast Asia until I found a 7/11 in the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands. Yeah, it was really dressed up with a sign embedded into marble, but it was still a 7/11. Singapore was absolutely stunning, and it was kind of nice to feel like I was in such a luxurious, Westernized country for a change, but everything was so…untouchable. I think I would be terrified living there because everything is so orderly, rich, and, well, spotless.

Some of you may have heard of Singapore’s reputation for being the cleanest place on Earth. Since I cannot take you to Singapore to see it for yourself, let me just list a few of their laws so you can perhaps understand exactly how far this country will go for cleanliness:
  • ·       You can get fined as much as $1,000 for littering and additionally have to do community service for your crime.
  • ·         You can get fined $20 on the spot and up to $1,000 as well as a three-month jail sentence for jaywalking. God forbid you’re a repeat offender, that fine goes up to $2,000 and the jail sentence up to six-months. Just think about telling your fellow inmates that – “What’re you here for?” “Jaywalking.” “Ah, man, that sucks, bru.” “What’d they get you for?” “Ah, you know, selling chewing gum.” Which brings me to my next bullet point.
  • ·         Selling and possessing chewing gum is also a punishable offence. To be honest, I don’t actually know if they’ll send you to jail for selling gum, but I do know you can get fined $500 for spitting gum out on the street. I think my favorite thing about this law though is that if you receive a note from your doctor, you can chew certain medicinal gums. Wanna know who’s responsible for ramming that down Singapore’s throat? You guessed it: the good old US of A. Wrigley’s threw a fit ten years ago.
  • ·         You can get fined $150 for not flushing public toilets.
  • ·         It is illegal to walk around your house naked because it is considered a form of pornography. Kinda hard to regulate that one, though.
  • ·         My personal favorite: it is illegal to pee in elevators. Might sound reasonable, but Singapore takes it to the next level. Installed in some elevators are Urine Detection Devices which, upon detecting the odor, will promptly set off an alarm and close the doors of the elevator until the police arrive and arrest the culprit.
  • ·         As I was reminded on the back of my immigration form upon entering the airport, the use of most drugs results in the death sentence for the offender (not too far-fetched in Southeast Asia, but still unsettling). 

You get the picture. Fascinating, right? For me, though, the most interesting thing about my short visit to Singapore was the immediate understanding it gave me of why Thais admire this country so much. Every Thai person I have spoken to about Singapore gets this starry-eyed expression every time they say its name, like it’s some sort of New World or promised land. It’s a major business hub, its management of infrastructure and environment is almost unreal, and, well, let’s just say this is not a country where people can just strip and clean their babies on the streets. It’s economically and aesthetically everything Thailand could aspire to be.

The majority of the textbooks my students use in their English courses are made in Singapore (where English is the national language) and I remember being really confused when we had a unit on road safety in health class because, let’s be honest, there’s no such thing as pedestrian laws here beyond, “try not to get killed.” I had to teach my kids all about the importance of using cross walks, never jumping a road barrier, and never crossing a street unless a walk sign is green. I was quite annoyed at how impractical it all seemed, but now it all makes a little more sense.

                                                                 Marina Bay at night.

The view from the Singapore Flier! Taylor was super scared, but I'm a good friend so I made her go :)

“Oh, don’t you just love the people?”
It really hit me in Bali how much I hate some tourists. These days, people are trying to differentiate themselves by all these terms like “backpackers” and “travelers” and “soul-searchers” but let’s admit it - we’re all tourists here. We’ve all come to see and do and experience with our cameras what we can’t seem to find back home. And that’s usually a good thing. But, as is human nature, to exoticize the comfortably unfamiliar and hate the uncomfortably different can get in the way of good intentions. Even though I’ve lived in Thailand for over 7 months now and absolutely love this country, I still have to shut off a little voice in my head that pops up every now and then that says, “Why am I not allowed to sit that way?” and “Why has no one cleaned up this decomposing dead kitten?” and “I cannot believe we’re actually stuffing another person in this van right now” which is always followed with “In the US, I’d never have this problem.” It’s a dangerous voice that I’d love to pretend I don’t have, but I think everyone possesses some form of it. It’s the people who let this voice take command of their traveling self, those who put up their blinders and look through the lens of “this is MY holiday” that are the tourists I can’t stand.

Luckily, a lot of people recognize these sorts of tourists to be highly problematic, and I met a lot of amazing people on my travels who completely agreed with me. However, there’s a sub sect of this group which, though less obviously obnoxious, are even more problematic, in my opinion. Let me attempt to explain.

One of the things a lot of people told me and a lot of bloggers have written about Bali was concerning how much they “loved Balinese people.” Obviously, this was encouraging, and built up some high expectations for me. However, as soon as I started interacting with actual Balinese people, and I didn’t quite feel as fraternal with them as I’d expected, I started thinking about what exactly I’d been prepped to expect, and I became horrified. I’ve learned that when travelers say they “love” a certain “people,” what they really mean is the locals are “hospitable,” “talkative” and “likely to wave and yell ‘hello!’” to you. It’s the tourist lens again: the expectation that the best kind of people are those that seem so na├»ve, that are pure in their desire to help you and extend friendship. It’s a romantic view that holds your needs before theirs. Of course there’s nothing wrong with liking a person for being selfless and friendly, but if that’s your reasoning behind loving a whole nation of people you don’t really know culturally or individually, that’s problematic. It’s indicative of your perceived status of “us” and “them” and the need for “them” to be submissive. While it’s better to blindly love than to blindly hate, when your reasoning is this surface level, it won’t take much to flip the tables and have that statement reversed.

When Taylor and I first got to Bali, we spent our first three nights at a wonderful home stay run by a man named Gusti and his family. He was an embodiment of everything a tourist could want. He was welcoming, funny, spoke great English, made great food, and provided any service needed. Taxi? No problem. Tour guide for the day? Absolutely. Want food when the restaurant is closed? Gotcha covered! It was awesome and I really appreciated him. It was the sort of interaction that made my inner tourist want to say, "I love Balinese people!" Then, in Tulumben, I couldn't get my bank card to work, so I was walking back and forth between two ATMs in futility and a police officer approached me. He must have thought I was acting suspicious because he started asking me lots of questions in a forward, sort of sneering manner that made me feel really uncomfortable. As he finally left, he made some comment to a restaurant hostess standing next door and the two of them laughed, clearly at me, and clearly in a not-very-nice way. That made my inner tourist want to say, "I hate Balinese people." 

It's hard, because travelers often receive the extremes of a group of people. As a tourist, either the locals are going to suck up to you or resent you, so you can’t expect your hotel staff and market barterers to be a barometer by which to judge all other citizens of the country or city you’re visiting. Genuineness is a lot harder to find when you're an outsider to a community.

Can I say I love the Balinese? Honestly, I can’t because I don’t know any of them well enough to make any sort of vast generalization like that. I know that I liked Gusti because he was so friendly and generous, which made him an excellent guesthouse owner, but I can’t say I really know him as a person outside his occupation. I know that I liked the middle-aged male taxi driver who played two full CDs of Avril Lavine on my ride from Tulumben down to Kuta because it gave me a surprising peek into his personality. I liked the woman who gave me 5 mangosteen on the day the ATMs weren’t working all over the city and told me to just come bring her money whenever I could because generosity and trust like that is so rare. But there were people I encountered I didn’t like too, people who were only interested in scamming me or shoving drugs down my throat. And would you really want me to make a judgment call about a whole population based on these interactions? 

I met multiple people (emphasis on multiple, sadly) traveling over the past seven weeks who told me, “Oh, I loved Thailand! It was absolutely beautiful! But I really didn’t like the people that much.” It hurt my SOUL. I wanted to yell at them, “You racist BASTARDS! How can you hate AN ENTIRE NATION OF PEOPLE!” But I remained civil and listened to their stories about rude bus drivers and tuk tuk drivers who laughed when they struggled with broken luggage instead of helping them. Then I would tell them stories about all my favorite experiences with Thai people until they felt sufficiently awkward.

I love Thai people because (I’m generalizing here) they’re stylish, they want everyone to be happy, they’re so proud of their country, they are extremely loyal to their families, they care deeply about education, they love to dance, they sing poorly in front of multitudes because they love it, not because they’re good at it, they love to joke, they add sugar to everything, and they’ll open their doors and offer food to anyone. I don’t love every Thai just as I don’t love every American. The embodiment of particular cultural norms and expectations contribute to why I like most Thai people, but there are also norms and expectations I’ll never understand or agree with. I could never imagine saying I hated any group of people, but I have had to stop and think about what it means for me to say the opposite as well. 

I think the best thing a traveler can do is what I've been told is the best thing a writer can do: raise questions. Find the complexities, the contradictions, the things that startle you, the things that excite you, the things that disgust you, and ask why that is. Use your questions to better understand yourself and your culture. Use them to better and more genuinely love the people that come and go in your life.

Mugged by a Monkey
Alright, so ever since Hua Hin (where I did my TESOL course), I’ve not been the biggest fan of monkeys. It’s one thing to see one or two from a distance, and it’s another when you have twenty scrambling over one dropped peanut. I really do love watching monkeys because they’re clearly so smart and they’re so social, but when they are territorial and aggressive, they are absolutely terrifying. Remember that scene from Tarzan where Jane upsets the baby monkey and then they all come after her? Yeah, it’s like that. In Songkhla, you carry a stick when you go on a walk near Monkey Mountain because they WILL rob you. That being said, I was somehow convinced by my friends to go to the famous Monkey Forest in Ubud. I should have known something would go down.

Monkey Forest is a lush, gorgeous, jungle sanctuary for macaques that winds around a temple in the cultural capital of Bali. It’s a hotspot for photographers, animal enthusiasts, and little kids who have a very good chance of developing a phobia by the end of the day. Okay, I know I’m being dramatic, but these animals are in a dangerous limbo between domestication and wildness. Every single day they have people try and interact with them, touch them, feed them, try and pick them up (whyyyyyyy??) and yet, at the end of the day, they’re still wild. But they’re clever and they’ve become fearless, and that’s what little kids with idiot parents don’t realize until it’s too late.

I was rather cautious upon entering the park, grasping my two-liter 7/11 water bottle tightly as we descended into the jungle. But I eventually loosened up. I’d put my sunglasses in my backpack (beware of the shiny things) and I didn’t have any food out, so the monkeys were pretty much ignoring me and I was able to take some nice photos. I was talking casually with one of my friends when all of a sudden I felt an impact on my back, and before I had any real time to react, I felt something clamber up and over my shoulder, along my outstretched arm, and—while hanging upside-down on my wrist from his back legs—reach out to grab my water bottle. I was really too shocked to do anything more than stand there gawking at the monkey as he pierced the bottom of my bottle with his teeth and started sucking up the water while dangling off my arm. When I regained consciousness and my friends started taking pictures, I realized this guy wasn’t exactly interested in leaving. I shook him vigorously until he jumped off and sat on the ground under the bottle, looking a bit ashamed as I squirted him in the face with the water leak he’d sprung. But he was a persistent bugger and jumped back on me again and at this point I decided to surrender and I just gave him the bottle, which, mind you, was about the same size as he was. So he dragged it off and that was the end of my very short relationship with that water bottle.

The rest of my time in Monkey Forest was a bit tainted by my renewed paranoia that the monkeys are out to get me, but, you know, it was still nice. As soon as you acknowledge that nothing is sacred with these creatures, you’re probably all good to go.  

                                There was no third monkey so we substituted Taylor.
       This is a brave monkey and a benevolent deer who miraculously coexisted for all of one minute.

 The monkey that climbed on Taylor was quite a bit nicer (this is also at a different park - longs story)

Biking the Rice Fields
One thing Bali is known for is its gorgeous terraced rice fields. Taylor gets credit for convincing me to book a cycling tour with her of the fields outside Ubud, and it was definitely a highlight of the trip.
We were a bit concerned when we woke up the morning of our excursion and found it to be pouring down rain. But, being a true Portlander, there was no way I was going to let rain ruin our fun. We ran to a Mini Mart and got a couple ponchos just in case, but we got lucky and ended up not needing them, as the sky soon cleared.

Our group consisted of Taylor and me and one large, jolly Australian family. The couple had brought their four kids—ages five to eleven, I think—and both of their mothers. We immediately got along.
After we all made it to the site and were fitted with bikes and helmets, we headed off with the grandmas following behind in the van. We really lucked out with the weather because the sun appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and graced us with beautiful reflections in the flooded fields. There really is no color more vibrant and surreal as that of a rice plant in the rainy season. What it made me think of are those Haribo gummy frogs - it’s a color of green that just doesn’t seem natural to be coming out of the ground unless you’re in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Yet, there it was.

We rode through the town, got rained on for one short stint, and then spent most of the ride on the winding rice field roads. It was definitely the most beautiful bike ride I’ve ever been on. It also really made me miss my bike, but there’s no way I’m getting one in Songkhla unless it’s motorized. Oh well.

We eventually ended up at a tea and coffee plantation of sorts where we all got free samples. The rosella tea and coconut coffee won for me until the chocolate samples were introduced. Poor Taylor, who’s allergic to chocolate, was taunted by two of the Australian children until the youngest one was laughing so hard he literally couldn’t stop. Like, we were all concerned for a few minutes because even after his mom got down next to him and told him very sternly to stop, he couldn’t. I thought it was hilarious. Taylor was dramatically pretending to be wounded by their words, but I think she secretly enjoyed it.  

We then took a little jungle trail over a river and up a hill to where our lunch and a beautiful view awaited. There, we ate lots of food, learned how to properly peel mangosteen (the best fruit ever), and taught the Aussies what s’mores are. A wonderful time was had by all, and if you ever go to Bali, you absolutely have to do a bike tour. I will hunt you down and find you myself if you don’t.

                                Taylor, one of our bike guides, and two cute Australian kids

Nyepi Day
One thing Taylor and I did not know before arranging our trip to Bali is that we would be on the island on the Hindu celebration of Nyepi, or the Balinese New Year. Now, in the USA, that means partying and a countdown followed by a make-out fest, and in Thailand it means three days of water fights in the street. In Bali, it means silence, no electricity, and no food for a full 24 hours. Yippee!

This is what we were primarily told daily a week in advance by taxi drivers and hostel staff, probably in their fear that some tourist wouldn’t know and would go wailing about the street making a ruckus and calling the local authorities in anger and hysteria. What we were not prepared for was the carnival-esque celebration that proceeded the Day of Silence, which was absolutely incredible. Citizens make giant elaborate sculptures called ogoh-ogohs out of bamboo, put lights in them, and parade them through the streets the last day of the year. The ogoh-ogohs resemble demons and monsters of the old year that are then burned to make way for a pure new year. They’re really freaky but really impressive. More impressive possibly than the sculptures though are the people in charge of lifting telephone wires with bamboo poles so that the floats can fit underneath them. I have a video, but blogger is being stupid and won't let me upload it because it's too big. Message me if you want to see it - it is quite impressive.

The parade is followed by hundreds of people in traditional Balinese costume and musicians playing all sorts of percussion as well as gamelans, which I didn’t even know were portable. Then commences traditional dancing and storytelling, and though I don’t know Bahasa Bali, it was still interesting to watch. However, the floats are part of the dramatic storytelling, so with them moving back and forth rapidly between crushed crowds of hundreds, Taylor and I got pretty claustrophobic and had to abandon early.

The next day, March 21st, as promised, everything shut down for a day of silence and inactivity. The day is supposed to be a day of meditation with fasting and no worldly distractions. We weren’t allowed to leave our hostel, not that it mattered because absolutely nothing was open. ATMs didn’t even work, and they weren’t even working until around 2:00 pm the next day (which ended up causing some problems for the two of us). We had to keep our voices down all day, and in the evening, all electricity was turned off and we were required to stay in our rooms. Luckily, being stuck in a hostel with a pool on a nice day isn’t so bad. We met some really awesome Brazilians and fellow Americans (including a guy from Portland, Maine who I argued with pretty much continuously concerning whose hometown was superior) and pretty much talked, swam, and played games all day. It was definitely a relief to get out and do something the next morning, but overall, I think it was a fairly successful Nyepi day from the point of view of the foreigners at In Da Lodge hostel.

I’ve now officially celebrated 4 different New Years in the year of 2015: the traditional Western one with my friends on Koh Tao, Chinese New Year in my apartment watching Netflix (no school! Woo!), Nyepi, and then Songkran in Chiang Mai getting absolutely soaked in the most epic city-wide water fight of my life (another blog post will be covering this in the near future). I can’t say I had a favorite, but I think Nyepi was the most surprising. I was expecting boredom, not epic floats and a musical extravaganza. And I never thought I’d have a conversation about the Brazilian legal system that would be quite so interesting. So, four times over, happy 2015 everyone!

                                                                 Creepy, right?
but really impressive

If you ever want an epic place to propose to someone…
At 2:00 am the day after Taylor headed back to Thailand, I got up to climb a volcano to see the sunrise. The sort of sleep you get in a hostel is never the best sort of sleep, but four solid hours was good enough to shock my body into thinking it was just a really long power nap which I find works even better than a Red Bull for me. Five hours and my body knows I was just dumb and rebels by refusing to cooperate, but four hours and it’s too confused to know what happened and I get an odd jump start and an adrenaline high. So I felt awesome as I got in the van headed towards Mt. Batur.
Not everyone in my van was quite as pumped as I was. I found myself next to a woman from New York who would not stop complaining about how she only got two hours of sleep and she simply didn’t know if she was going to make it – would it be alright if she slept in the van and reschedule for a free trek tomorrow morning instead? Suck it up, lady, and it’s your own damn fault for not getting more sleep. Luckily, I met two really awesome Californians who were just as excited for adventure as me and we made snide comments about Fussy New Yorker together.

We started our 1,700 meter climb around 3:00 am. After griping about the lack of a refund, Fussy New Yorker decided to come despite her fatigue. She kept complaining about how steep it was and how fast we were going because, “I mean, no one’s really in a rush now, are they?” We were not going fast. And it’s a volcano! Did you really expect it to be a flat waltz through the forest? Please, please dear audience, if you’re ever in a large tour group, know that the group does not revolve around you and your every need. You will not be left behind, so just chill. And maybe enjoy the view a bit.

The neatest thing about climbing so early in the morning is that not only can you see hundreds of gorgeous stars, but you can also see the trail ahead of you marked by other hikers’ flashlights, blinking miles away. It felt like I was back with the Hash, climbing mountains and crawling up sandy cliff-sides on my hands and knees, except I was with mostly wimps and not curmudgeonly but fierce old men (no one in Songkhla tell them I called them that or I'm on the ice next week).

We reached the top just as the stars started to disappear. Since I was traveling with just a backpack for my seven-week adventure, I hadn’t bothered to pack a jacket, and that bit me in the butt at the top of the volcano. I did have long pants, luckily, and a sarong which I covered my shoulders in, so me and my new Californian friends huddled together for warmth as we awaited our breakfast. Our guide put together some banana sandwiches for us, and that’s when a few monkeys decided it would be a good idea to show up. In a panic I hid my water bottle in my bag and stuffed the whole sandwich in my face, but there were only about four little guys, and they got another group’s sandwiches so everything was alright.

Even before the sun rose, the view was breathtaking from all directions. But as the first rays of light pushed through the wispy clouds below us and reflected on the caldera lake below, I knew I was about to experience one of the most beautiful places of my life. Aaaaand this is where I’m going to stop typing and post pictures because my words cannot do this justice.

Needless to say, the young Balinese guides who take people up this mountain four to six days a week at 2:00 am have the best job in the world. I would do that job for no pay until I was broke. One of my friends once told me, “You know, after you’ve seen one beautiful white sand beach, they all sort of start looking the same, but you can never, ever have too many sunrises or sunsets. Every time it’s new and incredible.” And it is so, so true. Go out into the world and find some sunrises, people. Even if you’re a fussy New Yorker, I promise you: it will be worth it.

Part of Your World
The first thing I did after I booked my flight to Bali was book a discovery dive at the USS Liberty shipwreck off the coast of Tulumben, along the northeast coast of the island. I have wanted to go scuba diving for as long as I can remember but the Pacific Northwest, for all of its coastal beauty, really isn’t the most appealing place to learn such a skill. Southeast Asia, on the other hand, is extremely appealing. I’d been weighing my options in Thailand, but when the word “shipwreck” and “reef” came up in the same sentence as “diving” I simply couldn’t resist.

The USS Liberty was a United States Army cargo ship that was torpedoed by the Japanese in 1942 and beached on the shore of Tulumben. However, after a volcanic eruption in the 60s, the ship was pushed backwards by the force and sunk 30 meters off shore, some 50 meters from a coral garden, making it a perfect dive site.

I arrived at Baruna Dive Center in the morning and met my personal trainer for the day, a soft-spoken Belgian man named Fabian who was told I spoke French. I definitely don’t, so I’m glad he spoke English as well. Since this was a “discovery dive,” it meant I wasn’t allowed to be by myself or go more than 12 meters below the surface, but if I turned my head in the right direction I could pretend I was alone and competent.

We practiced using the gear in a pool and it was surprisingly easy. After years of snorkeling, the ability to breathe easily underwater was unexpected. Fabian said I was a natural in a rather convincing voice, so I felt good as we drove out towards the ocean.

Turns out, even more incredible than the splendor of the reefs and shipwreck, are the women who 
assist in unloading scuba gear at the beach. Our oxygen tanks plus two extras, wetsuits, and other equipment was all in crates that must have weighed at least 80 pounds each. The women came up to us with coils of fabric on their heads and then let the crates be placed ON THEIR HEADS, and then off they walked down the quarter-mile trail to the dive site. No big deal. I stared at Fabian in shock, and he just nodded and said, “I know. Crazy, right?” Women carrying things on their heads is a common sight in Bali, but this took it to a whole new level. I really am a sad, weak little creature and I would like someone to tell me how I can acquire skills like these.  

The great thing about the Liberty and the Tulumben Coral Garden is that both can be reached by simply wading into the water and swimming about 20 meters out. Our first dive was at the Coral Garden. I’m not going to give a play-by-play because it’ll just be a lot of “I saw this and it was SO AWESOME” so just check out the photos below :) cuz it was really awesome. Except I did learn I have rather sensitive ears, so it was a painful descent. It was totally and absolutely worth it though. There’s nothing better than swimming through a school of fish and being able to look up and see how far you are from the surface, from that other world you woke up in that morning.

After coming up for a short break, we went back down for our second dive: the shipwreck! My ears were killing me at this point so we had to take it really slow, but when we finally made it down about 10 meters, things got better. And, to quote Phufa, holy sweet mother of god was it epic. The wreck had all the grandeur and mystery one would expect as well as magnificent corals swaying on its bow. So many fish I don’t know the names of encircled the crusty, crumbling skeleton of the ship, but I do know enough to say with certainty that I saw a puffer fish, multiple parrot fish, a giant barracuda, seahorses, and lots of eels. It was all my Little Mermaid dreams come true. Except I didn’t find a dinglehopper or a snarfblat, which I must admit was a bit disappointing. I did get snagged by a soft coral though, which I freaked out about even though Fabian kept giving me the “OK” sign underwater. It just grazed my pinkie and ring finger on my left hand but it stung terribly and I was sure I was going to die. Of course, when we made it up to the surface and I burst out about the stinging, Fabian told me I wouldn’t feel a thing in an hour, and annoyingly, he was right.

My ears took a couple days to recover fully but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. As soon as I’m not broke, I’m absolutely diving in Thailand; I’m addicted now, and I’m not gonna stop until I dive with dolphins, a manta ray, and phosphorous plants on a night dive, so I’ve got my work cut out for me. Sorry if you never see me again, folks.

Well, that’s that. Expect the next installment on my Cambodian adventures in a week or so. Right now, I’m going to go back to writing a semester’s worth of third-grade science lesson plans before my agent realizes I’ve been slacking off and writing this instead. If anyone has any suggestions for teaching 8-year-old English Language Learners about the ethics of genetic modification, please message me.

P.S, Here are some photos that didn't really fit anywhere, but show Bali's undisputed beauty and I simply couldn't leave them out.

The view from the roof of Gusti's Homestay
 Long walks are the best because you find beautiful, unexpected gems like this.

 The view from the Uluwatu Temple.

 The temple at Tana Lot.