Friday, March 14, 2014


A Chapter ends: Ubon

I have a few hours left in what has truly become my home: the small, quiet city of Ubon Ratchathani. Last Thursday was the last day of school, and it was just as difficult as I though it would be to say goodbye to my students, particularly my 11th-graders who I’ve been teaching for the past two years and have gotten to know very well. At the end of the day, after the last final exam, I was standing in their classroom, listening to their homeroom teacher give a goodbye speech. After she finished, the students turned their already-teary eyes towards me expectantly, and ushered me to the front of the room to say my own goodbyes. The homeroom teacher was a hard act to follow, as she had already been tearing up throughout her speech, and as soon as I was standing in front of my students, I couldn’t help but do the same. It was a heartfelt goodbye. These students have helped me grow both as a teacher and as a person, and I do not lie when I say I’ll remember them forever.

Not only was it difficult to say goodbye to my students, but it will also be difficult to say goodbye to my friends, my home, and my life here. I know Ubon; the people, the places, the pace, the paths. And now I will say goodbye, maybe forever, to this place that has watched over me and has witnessed me grow over the past two years. It is a bittersweet departure, for I will never have this again. Each experience we have is specific to a place, a time, a mindset and the company we’re with, and once we’ve moved on from an experience, we’ll never be able to go back to it, as it was, again. Of course, this is the way of life, and is one of the many beautiful amalgamations of pleasure and pain that there is in this world. I embrace the ending of my Ubon chapter with a little heartache and a lot of contentment, as well as excited anticipation of the future.

My 11th graders. I'll miss you guys!!

A Chapter begins: Costa Rica.

In July, I’ll be moving to the outskirts of San Jose, Costa Rica, to teach chemistry at an international school, which I’m very excited about. First of all, I’m very much looking forward to teaching chemistry. This has been my goal since I graduated with my masters two years ago, and it’ll be great to get back into the subject that I love so much. Second of all, I’m excited to move into a new culture, learn Spanish, and have the opportunity to travel to new places, both in and around Costa Rica. Let the adventure continue!

In the meantime: SCUBA and sailing.

Beginning tonight, two overnight trains and a ferry will bring me from Ubon, through Bangkok, to Koh Tao, an island on the eastern side of the Malay Peninsula in southern Thailand. There, I’ll get my SCUBA certification and spend a few days relaxing on the beach. After that, I’ll take another train south, across the boarder into Malaysia, ending up in Penang, where I’ll climb aboard the Historic Vessel Vega. The Vega is a sailing ship whose owners are on a non-stop humanitarian mission to collect and deliver donated medical and educational supplies to poor and isolated communities in Indonesia and East Timor. I’ll be a volunteer on the ship, and will be helping with the sailing, daily chores, and deliveries. I’m pretty damn excited :)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Springtime in Ubon

The feeling of springtime was something that I thought was unique to certain climates in the world, namely climates like the northeast US. Every spring in New England brings a sense of rejuvenation, hope, and excitement for more beautiful weather to come; it’s a mixing and meshing of feelings that’s hard to describe, but one that every New Englander knows well.

I’ve come to realize that I was wrong about the feeling of spring being unique to 4-season climates.  Last year, in Ubon, I didn’t feel spring. I think I missed it because I was still so new to Thailand and was not really looking for parallels to back home. This year—my second living abroad—has been different, in a really good way. I’ve become a whole lot more comfortable in my own skin, and all that blindingly shiny novelty of being in a new place and constantly experiencing new things has dulled down to a subtler glow. Because of this, I’ve begun to notice things—a lot of them—in climate and culture that are not so foreign after all.

One thing that I’ve been enjoying immensely since the end of October is the feeling of spring in the air. I used to define spring as the beautiful time of year when the weather begins to warm after a long winter, when the days grow longer, and when the color green starts to squeeze its way back into the world.

Spring in Thailand is different on the surface, but the underlying thing that truly makes spring is the same: the transformation from yucky, barely bearable weather to more comfortable, more beautiful weather. It is essentially a transformation of the out-of-doors from place if discomfort to a place of comfort, and one that draws you out of your indoor hiding places back into the light. In 4-season climates, this is the transformation from cold weather to warm weather. Here in Ubon, it’s the transformation from the hot, constantly wet rainy season to the beautiful, dry cool season.

Upon returning to Thailand from my travels to Cambodia and Vietnam in October, I was immediately hit by this change of weather, and the resulting change of feeling. Spring was in the air! No more rain meant no more wading and bicycling through flooded streets: opaque, brown soups of trash, dirt, and doggy doo on my way to work. Cooler days meant no more sweat-soaked shirts after 5 minutes of biking. Breezy, bordering-on-cold nights meant the opportunity to enjoy something seldom felt in Thailand: coziness (in the hot season, I don’t sleep with any cover at all—not even a sheet. Lately, I’ve been enjoying nights with a sheet and a blanket over that to keep me warm. What a wonderful thing!). I even did some spring-cleaning in light of all this springiness, sorting through clothing, getting rid of un-worn items, and scrubbing the ubiquitous rainy-season mold out of the nooks and crannies of my room.

The transformation has been rejuvenating, and has taught me a comforting lesson: that there are more similarities between home and abroad—between here and there—than initially meet the eye. They may be wrapped up in a different package, and may at first appear to be totally different, but inside they are just the same.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Killing Caves

The bellies of the clouds sagged low and heavy with water, and a steady rain fell on Hannah, Jeb and I as we dragged our tired feet up the wet road to the top of Phnom Sampeau, a hill in central Cambodia. Rivulets of water ran down the mountain, trying weakly to wash us back down from the muddy road where we’d begun the climb. The little light that the sun offered at that early hour was swallowed up by the thickness of the clouds, leaving us in a dark twilight.

Informational signage was non-existent along the way, but coming upon an offshoot of the road, we decided to see where it would take us. Eventually, a temple rose out of the damp, dreary forest. At first there didn’t seem to be anyone around, but then we spotted a young monk, clad in a deep maroon robe, with a smoldering cigarette hanging off his lower lip. He was sweeping the porch of a small building, and glanced up at us through the rain.

“Killing Caves?” we asked shyly, not knowing if our presence at the temple was intrusive. He gave a curt nod and pointed to his right, then lowered his head and continued with his work. We uncertainly began to walk in the direction in which he had gestured, and came to a narrow path. Is this the way? we kept asking ourselves, looking around and trying to find some remnants of a sign indicating that we had indeed arrived at the Killing Caves.

I was looking about, surveying the drenched greenery around me, when I heard a grunting sound behind me. I turned to see another monk who had come forward to reaffirm that we were heading in the right direction. He, too, was adorned in that a maroon robe, but was older than the first monk we’d seen. At first I could barely make out his features, but as my eyes focused in the dim light, I could see that his face was disfigured: his black beady eyes were dwarfed by his bulbous nose that spread wide across his cheeks, rippling and protruding like a small mountain range down his long face. His ears were small but inflated with small balloons of flesh.

He grunted again, gesturing for us to continue down the narrow path. I turned, not wanting to stare at his deformities for fear of offending him, and followed behind Hannah and Jeb as we continued. Soon we came upon a slippery flight of metal stairs, leading down into the Killing Caves themselves. The black walls of the cave loomed eerily over us, soaking up the little light that made it through the dark clouds. We could barely see as we slowly descended into the cave and landed on a white tiled floor. The cave swallowed up all sound, except for a strong, steady drip, drip, drip of lone drops of water, falling into a metal funnel from the roof of the cave high above. Like a drumming metronome, the drips seemed to be meting out eternity for the bones that call the cave home.

The Killing Caves earn their name from their horrific past. The Khmer Rouge, who brutally ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, liberally murdered innocent people in fear that someone, somewhere, was trying to oust their regime. In less than four years, about 2 million people—roughly a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time—died due to starvation, disease, and exhaustion at forced labor camps, and by torture and murder at the hands of the government. The Killing Caves, located just outside Battambang, Cambodia, are one of many sites where innocent people were brought to die after they had been tortured into false confessions. Thousands of men, women, and children were bludgeoned to death, and their bodies were tossed down into the cave, creating a mass grave.

Inside the cave was so dim that I wouldn’t have known what was encased in the large, glass-enclosed shrine, save for the research I’d done beforehand. Piled in the temple-like glass house were the countless bones and skulls of some of the Cambodians that had been brutally murdered above, and carelessly dumped below. Although I couldn’t see the contents of that shrine, the knowledge of what rested before my eyes was more than enough to have a tremendous impact upon my psyche. Emotion rushed through me as I tried to comprehend the terror of the atrocities committed a few short decades ago upon that very ground. I thought about the victims and their families, and the killers and their families too. What would it have been like, to be on either end of the jagged edges of the sugar palm leaves sometimes used to slit throats? My mind was trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. Unable to speak or make comment, I stood in silence, listening to the loud, metallic drip of falling water.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Angkor Wat

Rising out of the misty jungle surrounding Siem Reap, Cambodia, three immense arched towers dominate the immediate landscape. The towers of Angkor Wat are imposing, mysterious and awe-inspiring.

Having done some research, I figured I knew more-or-less what I would come upon when I visited Angkor. As I imagine is often the case when visiting a wonder of the world, my expectations were blown away.

Walking from the road to the Wat itself took a good 20 minutes of meandering along an immense, half-mile-long stone corridor that crossed a huge man-made moat and passed under the thick wall surrounding the perimeter of the temple. And this was just the walkway!

Angkor Wat is the most impressive structure I’ve ever seen, and my awe only increases when I think about how it was constructed hundreds of years ago, by hand. The temple is covered inside and out by intricate, beautiful carvings, and the architecture is awesome. It blows me away to think that humans are capable of such incredible feats.

Walking through the second wall and into the temple, I climbed the stairs up to the heart of the temple from which jut the three towers of Angkor that loom ominously, powerfully above visitors who are dwarfed by their size. Their effect was made more dramatic by the fact that it was a drizzly day; the towers appeared almost black against the wet gray sky, the contrast adding to their formidable appearance.

The final stone staircase to the tippity top of the Wat was slick and impossibly steep. Clutching the rickity handrail, I dragged myself to the pinnacle of Angkor. The view was incredible. Looking out over the misty forest, I tried to imagine how the surrounding land would’ve looked like hundreds of years ago when Angkor was surrounded by a thriving city, and what it would have felt like to be the god-king of such a civilization. No wonder he felt like a god, keeping an eye on his kingdom from such a staggeringly impressive structure (that was, no less, covered in gold leaf at the time of his rule). I let the humming strength of the structure wash over me as I leaned out of a stone window, breathing in the cool fresh air, soaking in awe.


Monday, September 2, 2013

Bread and Butter

[Note: when I use the term “foreigner,” I mean people from outside of Thailand who speak English fluently]

My daily life has changed significantly from what it was when I first came to Ubon. In my first two months, I didn’t have my own transportation, I was nervous to go around on my own, I didn’t have any young foreign friends to talk to or hang out with, and I essentially spent a lot of time getting comfortable being on my own and finding entertainment in the very, very little things in life (example: going to Tesco to get groceries or doing laundry was labeled “weekend activity” as opposed to “errand” or “chore”).

I am so thankful that I was on my own for my first few months, because it really forced me to push back against the boundaries of my comfort zone. I pushed myself to make friends with Thai people, I learned some of the language, and I gained a lot of confidence in simply going out and making things happen for myself that I wanted to have happen. After all, I chose to come to Ubon—as opposed to a foreigner hub like Bangkok or Chiang Mai—so I would be forced to get out on my own and figure things out for myself. At first, I even shunned other young foreigners and felt a bit territorial about Ubon. I didn’t want others to come, let alone a slew of other young women who graduated from UVM just like me. I wanted to avoid falling into that hole of only hanging out with people who only looked and sounded like me. I used to think, Why do people go abroad only to hang out with people who are from the same country as themselves? Doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose of living abroad?

On a weekend trip to Ayutthaya
Now, I understand. No, it does not defeat the purpose of living abroad. No, it’s not “cheating” somehow. The reason people do it is simple: in many countries—Thailand being Exhibit A—if you didn’t interact with people who spoke your language, you wouldn’t be able to have a deep conversation with anyone. Imagine, living without the bread and butter of daily interaction! I did it for a while, and definitely grew in some ways because of it, but luckily this is no longer a problem I face. After my first few months, I was joined by a few other young foreigners, then some more, and now there’s an awesome group of about 7 young foreigners that I hang out with, and I absolutely love it.

It happens...
Having close friends to go to a coffee shop with, to share dinner with, and to go out on the town with has been awesome and refreshing. However, it goes beyond that; being able to share an experience such as living abroad with people who I can identify with on multiple levels has helped me process a lot of things about what I see and experience in this culture, and also a lot of things about myself and how I, as an individual, see and experience the world around me. I still highly value the friendships I maintain with local folks, but it makes a big difference to be able to converse with people who grew up in the same culture as I did. I can react to discovering a boiled chicken foot in my soup or being served pig colon, and people understand where I’m coming from; I can sympathize with the exasperation of my vegetarian friends at being offered shrimp or fish balls, again, as an appropriate alternative to meat; and, importantly, I can express my frustration with things in the Thai school system, and be perfectly understood.

I have come to see that it’s important to interact with everyone, whether they’re from your culture or not, and anyone can help you to broaden your worldview, not just people from the other side of the world. Sharing an experience like living abroad only serves to broaden and deepen it, and I am so thankful for those who have shared, and will continue to share, this experience with me.

What a great group! Here, at a floating restaurant on
a Saturday afternoon trip to a lake nearby Ubon. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Glimpse of My Journey to the Bottom of the Top of the World

My trek to the base camp of Mount Everest was a long, amazing, difficult, and un-matchable journey. I’ve been trying to figure out communicate it, and I’ve decided to share about the final climb of the trek, up a mountain called Kala Patthar.

On Kala Patthar, with
Everest behind me
Of the nine trekkers and two guides that comprised our original trekking group, only three of us ended up making it to the top: myself, fellow trekker and good friend Jerome, and our guide Buddhi. The others had either succumb to altitude sickness or were too exhausted or injured to make it up to this pinnacle of the trek. The top of Kala Patthar is 5,545 meters above sea level, where oxygen levels are at about 50% of what most of us are used to breathing. And I’ve got to say, it’s a hell of a task to accomplish before breakfast! But I’m proud to say, with the help of a handful of cashew nuts and the solidarity of Jerome and Buddhi, I did it. And it was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done.

To begin, I can’t say I was feeling all that motivated to hike up 300 vertical meters at 5:30 am on a dark, blustery, sub-zero morning...but heck, I had spent eight days getting to that spot, I might as well pull it together for the last few hours. So, I forced myself out of my sleeping bag into the cold stale air of my room, yanked on my trekking clothes and boots, and descended the steep stairs of our teahouse to meet the rest of my meager crew that was climbing to the top.

The three of us made the climb virtually alone because the vast majority of the other climbers who were summiting Kala Patthar that day had left an hour or so before us in order to see sunrise from the top. Climbing without much company forced me to look to myself for motivation, and gave me a real sense of independence and drive. Up there, listening to my breathing, my heartbeat, and the wind, I felt like the mountain was mine.

At sunrise I was halfway to the top, panting like a dog on a hot day, and sat down to take a rest. I was alone, having left my fellow trekkers a little ways behind me. The moment was complete zen. There I sat, on that cold rock, watching the sun rise over the peak of Mount Everest. Holy crap, I thought. I’m doing this. I’m here. That’s Mount Everest, and I’m finally here.

It was a tremendous moment, but I've got to confess, I was 75% ready to turn around and go back down just then. I saw the sun rise over the peak of Mt. Everest--this is far enough, isn't it? my inner voice was suggesting. My bones aching, my muscles oxygen-deprived, my head pounding, the bitter cold wind...these all seemed like great reasons to call it quits and turn right back around.

But when Jerome caught up with me on my cold rock, he saved me from making that mistake. “We’re here,” he said simply. “Might as well go to the top.” And so, after splitting a small palmful of cashew nuts that I thankfully had in my pack, we did.

It was very, very difficult. We were moving at a snails pace, and were completely out of breath, but the closer we got the more real it all became. The rest of the way, I just focused my eyes on the prize. One foot, then the other, one foot, then the other, I kept thinking to myself. Just keep moving.

Our awesome guide Buddhi and myself at the top
And then, there I was. I wasn’t on top of Mount Everest--not even close--but I felt like I was on top of the world. I was on top of the world! And since we had had a relatively late start, most of the other climbers had already begun their descent by the time we arrived. Thus, we were virtually alone on this breathtaking pinnacle of the trek. Looming above us was the dark, powerful summit of Mt. Everest, and in the valley below was the tremendous Khumbu glacier and the tiny yellow speckles that marked Base Camp, where we had gone the previous day. And spreading wide to the left and right was a panorama of the majestic Himalayas surrounding us. This, I thought. This is why I came.

Jerome and myself celebrating and savoring our accomplishment

Monday, July 8, 2013

It's Why I Do This

Today, in my 6th grade science class, we were talking about ways humans hurt the environment. I had expected to cover six things, but ended up only covering two, because my students are AWESOME. We began by talking about garbage and landfills. What do you do with your trash? What happens to it after it’s thrown in the trashcan? I was keeping it pretty basic, as I have to since I teach the kids in English, and most of them speak it only very basically. But despite the language barrier I was soon being bombarded by a ton of absolutely wonderful questions about trash:

How long does trash last in a landfill? How long does metal last? How about wood? Plastic? Well, why does plastic last so long, and metal and wood don’t? What about when we burn trash? What happens then? What about the trash in the ocean? How long does that last?

Wow, amazing! The conversation we had was a mix of Thai and English (“Tenglish”), leaning towards the Thai side, with my co-teacher helping out a lot with that part.

When the questions seemed to be exhausted, we moved on to our next topic: air pollution. Again, I kept the language very basic, but the kids’ interests seemed to be insatiable. More awesome questions:

Why is driving bad? What comes out of cars? Why is CO2 so bad? What is ozone? Why are there holes in the ozone later? Where are the holes? If the hole is above Antarctica, why is it still so cold there?

Wow! More great questions! We spent the whole period in a wonderful Tenglish conversation about what humans do to hurt the environment, why those things are bad, and what we can do to make a difference. And what great questions!

This is one of my favorite things of teaching: exploring a subject that is relevant and interesting, and totally deviating from the lesson plan to make room for student interest and enthusiasm about learning. Ahh, what a wonderful feeling.

And as the lesson was wrapping up, one of my students nearly made me tear up. I was collecting the students’ papers so they wouldn’t lose them for the next class, and a student said, with a furrowed brow and a concerned but hopeful look on his face, “Miss Eliza, I want to save the Earth.” I melted.