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.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Shocking Moment

This month, I’ve been teaching an after-school intensive course to my 7th grade students. The course is supposed to be for students who are behind their peers in their English skills, so that they can work towards catching up.

There’s a student in one of my 7th-grade class who I’ll call Henry. He’s adorable, new to the school, and very shy. He has made some friends, but in class he’s very quiet and does not like to open his mouth whatsoever. I believe this is mostly because his English skills are very poor. Reading, writing, listening, speaking—they’re all extremely basic, so he has a lot of trouble keeping up in class.

But luckily, Henry’s taking the intensive course I’m teaching, so my hope, within reason, is to bring him up to speed with some of his peers. Throughout the course so far, I’ve seen him gaining some confidence in his speaking skills, which is very exciting. And the other day I jumped at the opportunity when I got a chance to work with him individually: the students were working on a word-search, and everyone in the class (perhaps with some help from peers) was capable of completing it. They were having fun and had naturally formed small groups to work in. However, I noticed Henry struggling, and knew the word search was too difficult for him. So I called him over to some empty seats towards the back of the room and sat with him for a little bit of one-on-one time. I had been looking for a chance to do this, since it’s a very rare opportunity (between all the classes I have, I teach roughly 200 students!).

I started with basics.

“What’s your name?”


“How old are you?”

That one was a little more difficult. I tried in Thai:

“Ayu tao rai?”


I thought, ok, perfect. He can recognize some basic questions. I’ll write down the English translation to a few basic things like this, and then ask him to write the Thai translation next to the English, so he can remember. So I said,

“Write, “How old are you?” in Thai in your notebook.”

Oops, forgot. He doesn’t speak English. I try again, this time in Thai:

“Kian “ayu tao rai” ti ni” (write “how old are you” here)

He jotted down a few Thai letters, but even though I can’t read Thai well, I could see clearly didn’t complete the sentence. I tried again, as clear as I could be:

“Kiaan “ayu tao rai” ti nii”

He looked at me, seemingly not understanding what to do. But the funny thing was, I was sure I that what I had said was a correct and clear sentence in Thai. I start thinking to myself, what’s the problem here?

Ok. He wrote a few letters...but not the whole sentence. He looked like he wanted to write something down, but just wasn’t doing it. I’m thinking, I’m thinking...wait at second...could it be?

“Kian pasaa tai dai mai?” (Can you write Thai?)

He bashfully shakes his head. “Mai” (no)

“An pasaa tai dia mai?” (Can you read Thai?)

Again, he shakes his head.

Oh my god, I think to myself, while trying to suppress a look of shock and disbelief on my face. Henry doesn’t only struggle in English. He’s illiterate in his own language. And he’s in 7th grade. And he just started going to one of the better schools in town. And he’s illiterate. Holy crap.

It took me a while to conceptualize this. It’s not something I thought I’d run into where I work. To be honest, I didn’t ever really think about it at all. So, what can I do? Well, a wise teacher told me that you have to meet your students where they’re at, not where you wish they were. So, as much as I can, I’ll start with the only thing I can—the basics. Since I found out Henry is illiterate, I’ve been working slowly with him on English letters (which he knows the names of) and the sounds that they make (which he doesn’t know yet). Slowly, one tiny step at a time, I hope to get him reading some basic English words. And I will also get him help with learning to read and write his own language. My greatest hope is that he begins 8th grade in a very different place than where he began 7th. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Travels, Travels

So, as I wrote in my previous post, I did some traveling this summer. I ended up spending three weeks in India, about a month in Nepal, and then topped it off with a week at the beach in southern Thailand. I had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad time.

Just kidding. It was absolutely amazing. I cannot relay all of my experiences in a single post, but I’ll try to give some anecdotes over time that sum up the experiences I had.

Montfort School in Jongla, Meghalaya
I’ll begin at the beginning—India. My friend and coworker Emma and I taught at a school in a very small village in the northeast part of India. I originally thought I’d be teaching there for about three weeks, but due to timing and holidays, I unfortunately only got to teach for a week and a half. Nonetheless, I was totally blown away by the experience.

I ended up teaching quite a smattering of classes—English, health education, general knowledge, and chemistry. In English I played some fun, 

never-before-seen games both inside and outside of the classroom, including one in which, to the students’ great amusement, the short, stout school director stood in front of the classroom and tried to mime being a giraffe. In health education, I got to shock the 9th-graders a bit by giving an impromptu lesson on safe sex (while I was really supposed to be teaching a bit of a rigid curriculum about “body changes” during puberty). It was good fun to see eyes popping out of the 14-year-olds’ skulls, but I have to say my favorite class was chemistry. And I was lucky to be teaching the same topic as I had taught during my student teaching days—chemical reactions. I was reinvigorated by teaching something I know so well and love so much
Although I only taught for a week and a half, I became comfortable with the students quickly and developed quite a fondness towards them. What wonderful kids. Wonderful. It occupied a lot of cognitive space during my stay there, knowing how different these kids’ lives were from the life I led growing up. Shoddy electricity, little money, very basic amenities, virtually no motorized road transportation, no travel... Yet, here they were everyday, filling their brains with some hopefully useful information, skills and habits. For this, I had a tremendous amount of respect for them.

To say the least, I loved working with the kids at the school, and it became clear that they loved me too when they offered me something so precious as a goodbye present.

It was my last day at the school. I was sitting in the teachers’ office, showing some of the teachers how to cut out paper snowflakes (they had never seen this before were completely enthralled with it), when the 9th-grade homeroom teacher called Emma and me into her classroom.

We stood at the front of the room, facing the students who were all standing as well. They had written a personalized goodbye song for us, and they sang it beautifully with the accompaniment of an old, beat-up guitar. I was touched. I teared up. Some of the girls in the back were crying as well. It was one of the best presents I have every received. It has become a memory that will always stick with me, and will constantly serve as a reminder for me of a very important lesson—that what I do, what we all do, makes a difference.

Big or small, we affect the world and the people around us. Sometimes we think we’re just having a good time, moving through life without much aim or intention. We pass by people in our lives and don’t think anything of it. But we make a difference. In the people we interact with, teach, learn from, lead, follow...we make a difference. It’s truly in the little things that differences occur: a short interaction; an act of kindness; a show of generosity or understanding; the giving of time. We are the sum of the people we have met, and you better believe that you are included in the sums of many people’s lives that you’ve met.

 “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” –William James

Monday, March 11, 2013

Pigs, Parties and Plans

1. Sorry for not updating this blog for such a long time! I have no excuse to offer.

2. A snapshot of village life:

Ga's aunt's house, where we stayed for the weekend

This past weekend, I went to a small village in a neighboring province, which is the hometown of a good friend, Ga. She and her husband, Orlando (also a good friend, and fellow teacher), invited me along for a big celebration that the village holds every few years, when all the townsfolk come back from working in far-away places to spend the weekend with friends, family, and a beer in hand. In short, it was awesome.
A road in the village. Hello, buffalo!

When we arrived Friday afternoon, Orlando and I moseyed down the town’s narrow dirt roads while sipping on cold Leo beers, checking out the local flora. Eventually we were beckoned by some villagers to try some of their homemade rice wine—“sato.” It’s kind of like hard lemonade, except better and significantly more dangerous. Needless to say, a good start to the weekend.

Later that evening, while relaxing after dinner, we heard a high-pitched squealing sound. Ga correctly identified the sound as a pig dying, so of course we went to check it out. After wandering around in the direction where the squealing had come from, we found the house where the little piggy had met its end. When we arrived, they were singing off its hair in preparation for the butchering. When the pig was sufficiently hairless, a few men make quick work of the body—first cutting into the neck and severing the head about halfway, then opening up the sternum and belly to remove the sac of organs contained within. After separating out the liver and pouring the blood that had filled the body cavity into a pot (nothing goes to waste), they cut the head clean off and quartered the rest of the body. Soon enough, we were sitting down to generous supply of beer and the freshest, most deliciously succulent grilled pork I’ve ever tasted.

Making breakfast. I was strongly encouraged by multiple
people to eat as much as I could, as the ensuing day would
 consist of much alcohol imbibition
(yes, that's a real word)
The next day was the real highlight of the weekend—a massive drum procession. In the middle of the day, under the glaring sun, people gathered at the village’s church to participate. When the drums struck up and the music started blaring, the procession began. The music was loud, the sun was hot, and the people were celebrating as if it was one of their final days on earth. Everyone danced with abandon and drank to their heart’s content, and the procession grew into a teeming, writhing mass of people as it moved through the village, picking up more and more people as time went on. Time and worries were forgotten, replaced with perfect happiness.

The day was topped off by a Molum concert that night (Molum is traditional Isan music, Isan being the region of Thailand where I’m living). The music was good, the backup dancers were...well...bouncy, and, true to form, the concert was interrupted several times by fights that broke out between drunken men dancing in front of the stage.

Overall, it was a very traditional celebration for a very traditional little old Isan village, and I feel super lucky to have been present to experience it all.

3. An update on my future plans:

Well, my school year ended on March 1st, and I now have a full year of teaching under my belt. Holy moley I have learned SO MUCH!—about teaching, living, being flexible, Thailand, and more. I (hopefully obviously) absolutely love living here, so I have decided to stay for at least another year.

Now I’m off for summer vacation and plan to make the most of it. In a few days I’m off to India for about three weeks. I’ll be volunteering at a very rural school in northeastern India (in a small village near a town called Resubelpara), teaching English and hopefully some chemistry. After that, I’ll make a pit stop to see the Taj Mahal, and then it’s off to Nepal for two or three weeks to trek to the base camp of Mt. Everest and hopefully travel around a bit. Wish me luck!