Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Visa Running in Laos

On Sunday (5/27/12) I went on a visa run to Savannakhet, Laos to convert my visitor’s visa to a non-immigrant B visa, which will allow me to work legally in Thailand (hooray for not being deported!). The trip was short—just two nights—but it was SO COOL to experience another place in Southeast Asia!

Savannakhet is the second largest city in Laos, but you would never guess it. The city does not have big buildings or the typical city bustle; most notably, there is very little traffic, and the traffic that does exist ambles along at a relaxed pace. I was thankful for this, because after I applied for my visa conversion on Monday morning, I biked around the city to see some of the sights it had to offer, and not once did I feel like I was going to get run-over!

I began my bike ride with the intention of visiting a dinosaur museum—from what I understand, Savannakhet is the only place in Laos where dinosaur bones have been found. However, upon arriving at the museum, I decided to just keep on biking instead. The afternoon turned into a slow-paced, aimless wander around the city. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves:

The [open-air!] Royal Thai Consulate. Thankfully, all went smoothly.

The mighty Mekong River, as seen from the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge connecting Mukdahan, Thailand, to Savannakhet, Laos.

My sweet ride around the city, borrowed from one of my student's extremely friendly and welcoming aunts who lives in Savannakhet. It was a tad small for me, but that seems to be a general truth around here. There aren't many women my height in Southeast Asia.

There's me blocking the view of the Mekong. For those who don't know, I have a very, very poor sense of direction. But! I did not get lost on this trip, thanks to the Mekong river, which boarders the entire eastern side of Savannakhet. This made my wandering particularly carefree, because I knew that if I could find the river, I could find my way back to my hotel.

A market along the Mekong.
I huge tree on the banks of the Mekong. I'm still trying to figure out why people in Southeast Asia tie colorful scarves around really large trees.

One of the many beautiful temples I biked by. Notice the vibrant blue tiled background on the temple. Also notice the new vs old towers. The wear of the older tower (black and white, on the right-hand side) reminded me of some of the ruins I've seen in the caribbean, which has the same climate as Thailand and Laos--tropical. i.e. HOT and HUMID. 

Unlike Thailand, which was never colonized, Laos was colonized by the French. I spent most of my time biking around the older parts of the city, which had a classic French/Western look to them that you cannot find in Thailand. Many of the buildings are slowly being destroyed by time and climate, but time has also given them a sort of rustic beauty. I loved the colors of this particular building.
A Catholic church--a rare sight in this part of the world. This is the first one I've seen. 

Yet another temple, but this one's different--it's Chinese! Notice the difference in architecture, and of course, the dragons on top.
I don't think I'll ever get sick of looking at temples. They're SO beautiful!
Not totally sure if I should be taking pictures of legal documents, but check it out! My visa as a *non-immigrant* to The Kingdom of Thailand. 'Cause I live here. Booya.

There's the Friendship Bridge, looking westward from Laos towards Thailand. I headed back to Ubon on Tuesday afternoon, after picking up my passport and visa from the Thai consulate.

And to end the trip, a beautiful Thai sunset on the way back to Ubon Tuesday evening.

And so went my visa run to Laos. I definitely plan to go back, especially because my student's aunt (who I borrowed the bike from) has promised to take me to a monkey forest if I do!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Teaching Challenges

It’s about time I wrote something about my experience as a teacher thus far. Overall, it’s been hectic, but for the most part it’s going well. I learn a tremendous amount during each and every class I teach. The two most challenging things so far have been learning how to teach students who don’t really speak English, and learning how to assess the learning of said students. But first, here’s what my schedule looks like:

I teach:

5th-grade math and science
6th-grade math and English
9th-grade English

I lucked out with my schedule, in that I have the fewest amount of teaching periods out of everyone in my department; this is because I have to prepare for five totally different classes. There are a total of thirty-five 50-minute periods every week, and I teach during 17 of them.

Anyways, back to my challenges as a teacher. Challenge #1: teaching students who don’t really speak my language, paired with the fact that I don’t speak theirs (yet!). Wow, this has taken a lot of getting used-to! I continuously have to monitor myself in the classroom as far as my vocabulary and the speed at which I speak, not to mention attention to worksheets I design and assignments I give. I am getting better at reading levels of student understanding, but much of the time I’m still painfully aware that what I’m saying is not coming across. I need to work on being more patient with myself and with the students in my classroom, and also not being afraid to take time to explain things multiple times in multiple ways. After all, this is what I’d do in a classroom full of students who did speak my language! Also, thankfully, I have a “team teacher” in each of my classes—another person who can speak Thai and English. So helpful!

Challenge #2: assessing student learning. I know this is an issue that all teachers struggle with continuously throughout their careers, so I don’t feel totally depressed that I’m not very good at this yet, and I’m trying my darndest to figure it out. Quickly. I feel this challenge is particularly difficult because of the language barrier. Questions that constantly run through my head: Am I wording this question in an understandable way? If a student doesn’t understand a question to begin with, are they responsible for writing a wrong answer? Are the students lazy, or incapable of doing what I assign? Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

However, given this and more, I’m happy to report that overall I have not felt completely overwhelmed. I take things day by day as I can, and if I’m feeling down, all I have to remember is, I’m living in Thailand!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Holy Mango!

This past weekend I got to experience a few local sites, including the local market. On Saturday my boss and good friend, Ms. B, had a few of the other teachers and me over to her house for dinner. Upon request, she taught me how to cook a typical Thai dinner-Massaman curry! This included an ingredient-buying trip to one of the local markets, which was quite a sight to behold. The market exists inside a large, roofed structure, and there are a tremendous amount of stalls all jammed together where people sell just about everything you could imagine, and all of it fresh. 

As I walked through the market, my senses were overwhelmed, and my eyes feasted on the variety of items and people there: butchers hauling around large hunks of meat and then deftly chopping them up into more manageable pieces with intimidating knives; bowls containing enormous, perfectly rounded mounds of dark, rich spice pastes; a machine that noisily produced fresh coconut milk on the spot from pieces of coconut shell that were fed into it; fruits galore from surrounding farms (mangos, mangosteen, durian, bananas, rambutan, rose apples, watermelon, papaya, and more that I don’t know the names of in English); and fresh vegetables, including morning glory greens, which we also had at dinner cooked with my new favorite kind of sausage—goon chiung, a delectable sweet sausage. I could have easily spent the entire afternoon there just looking. I felt shiny-new, like a toddler, both because I felt in awe of everything I looked at, and because Ms. B kept showing me off to all the stall owners, who were clearly pretty curious about a “farang” (Western foreigner) visiting the market.

At the market, I realized another large difference between Thailand and the US: the availability of fresh and local-made products, i.e. things that are not pre-packaged. Example: coconut milk for our Massaman curry. We got this from the market, freshly pressed and handed to us in a bag, hot, fresh, and naturally separated into fatty and watery layers. Woa! I had never seen coconut milk anywhere but in a can. Same goes for spices—it took me a minute to realize what I was looking at when we were buying our Massaman curry paste; I had never seen great mounds of spice pastes before, only spices in little plastic bottles or tear-the-top-off packages.

However, while on one hand I can go to the market and buy stuff that I would only find pre-packaged on the shelves of a grocery store in the US, on the other everything that people buy from street vendors comes excessively bagged: each piece of food or bit of condiment is bagged, and then all of it is put in another bag. So much plastic! I’ve been getting odd looks from people if I buy something and then try to get them to put it into my tote bag. It seems that the concept of re-usable bags (and water bottles) has not been adopted here yet. Or maybe it’s just my 5 years at UVM that’s made me sensitive to all this.

Anyway, speaking of markets and fresh food, mangos are in season in Thailand, and they are cheap and delicious. I got four large, ripe mangos from the market for 80 baht ($2.50—take that, PriceChopper!). I have mangos for breakfast, a mango in the afternoon if the mood strikes, and even mangos with sticky rice from a street vendor for dinner (see picture). Holy mango!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sa wat dee kah!

Sa wat dee kah! I arrived safely in Ubon on Monday morning, and have now been “living Thai” for about four days. Initial impressions: fantastic! It’s true: the people here are some of the friendliest I’ve met; they’re incredibly welcoming, are eager to help me in any way they can, and what I’ve found most striking is that they truly want to befriend me, through language barriers and all. At this time in my journey, I am hugely thankful for this, because although I have just moved to a foreign country and do not speak the language, I don’t feel alone.

Probably my favorite thing I’ve done so far is touring the city on the back of a motorbike. I felt like I was in a movie, and then I kept remembering that it was real life, and I was totally blown away. One of my fellow teachers took me all around the city, including driving through street markets (complete with unrefrigerated raw meat sitting out on big platters and large bowls of insects), past a few of the multitude of temples that pepper the city, along the slow-moving Mun River (pronounced “moon”), and through China town, with our final destination being this fantastic outdoor food-cart plaza. There were dozens of carts just finishing setting up by the time we arrived for dinner, with culinary delights from the region. I had chicken satay with peanut sauce (my new favorite food) and a traditional Lao sausage, which is a pork sausage containing sticky rice that is allowed to age or ferment, making it a bit sour. We ended the night by going to a local ex-pat hangout, owned by an Australian, to have a Thai beer. I have to say—so far, Thai food has been unbelievable, but man, I’m going to miss my dark Vermont microbrews! 

Other foods I’ve tried so far: frog (a whole, but very small, frog fried up so it’s like a fishy french-fry), crocodile meat, lotus root, dragon fruit, and guava. Not a bad start, eh?

Today was the first day of school, which I’ll post more about later. One thing I will share, is that I’m going to have to get a heck of a lot better at teaching people who don’t really speak English. Challenge: accepted. (PS Thai 5th and 6th graders are ADORABLE)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

On the eve of my travels...

Here I sit, at Logan international airpot on the eve of my travels to Thailand, with thoughts of excitement, eagerness, and a little bit of nervousness. Mainly, I feel ready to go--I've been talking about this trip with friends, family, and just about everyone I've interacted with in the past two weeks, and I'm ready to stop talking about it and start actually experiencing it! It's going to be quite a trip just to get there--28 hours of travel time to get to Bangkok via San Francisco and Beijing, and then a final flight over to Ubon Ratchathani on Monday morning. Total trip mileage: 10,641 miles (it seems unbelievable, doesn't it?). And once I arrive, then the real adventure begins. I feel incredibly lucky and blessed to be able to do what I'm doing, and I am so thankful to everyone for your excitement and support of my trip, especially my parents.

I'll give another update soon, and by then I'll be in Ubon! In case you're curious about it, here's a link: Ubon Ratchathani