Monday, December 16, 2013

But I don't dance!

As I wrote this, the long table in the Foreign Language office, with it’s plastic flowery table cloth, was splattered with a feast of spicy papaya salad (Som Tum), sticky rice (Kao Nee-ow), fried chicken, curries, coconut milk treats and other delicious Thai foods. Usually once or twice a week there is some large shared feast between the 8-10 English teachers that populate this office. My belly was full and my mouth was on fire from the spicy chilies as I began to write this post.

Today is Day 81. Eighty-one days ago, on an early Thursday morning I finished packing my bags and headed out on this journey, mom & dad in tow, giving me big hugs in the Logan airport. Anxious, but excited I arrived with an open heart ready to take this adventure by the horns and learn as much as I could throughout this amazing opportunity.

Happiness is a choice, but it also comes from accepting love and acceptance for oneself and the rest of the world. This is something I have finally come to accept and realize as I grow more into myself and discover new aspects of my identity; and additionally recognize that I am always growing and learning. I am eager to live. Really live. Live each day to the absolute fullest.

Never in all my life have I felt happier and more of a purpose than I do now. Each day is an adventure that I am open to, each evening as I lay my back against my brick mattress I am reeling with new Thai vocab, new ideas, for classes, my future, life, philosophies, beliefs – new findings of my day or week run through my head as I try to relax and sleep. My days and evenings have left me with ample time for self-reflection, philosophical musings and goal setting. Though, despite the amount of ‘free time’ I still manage to have a lengthy to-do list that is ever-growing and is never complete. My days are different; yet follow a semi-distinct routine.

I'm on a staff board!

An Average (Week) Day of Jessye in Thailand

6:03am: The loud rooster fights outside my window awaken me as they squawk their morning
               tunes. This also occurs at 1:00am & 4:00am approximately. I doze back to sleep.
7:15am: My favorite Ghanaian hiplife songs rudely awakens me from my sleep in the post- 
               rooster rouse mood. Wake-up routine begins.
7:50am: Walk the 2 minutes from my house in the back of campus to the English office, drop off   
               school bag and go downstairs to the morning assembly, until 8:30am.
8:30am: Teach first class.
9:30am: Teach second class.
10:30am: Read book/write in journal/lesson plan/talk with Thai teachers/practice Thai
11:30am: Lunch time! Sometimes complete with coconut ice cream with black beans. A time of  
                 great fun and laughter. My favorite time of day to get to know the other teachers.
12:30pm: Teach third class.
1:30pm: Shadow other classes/edit worksheets/lesson plan/talk with Thai teachers/edit friends
               essays back home/read books/online class work/philosophize with another Westerner
3:30pm: Teach 4th class! TEACHER CLASS (Tutoring 5-6 Thai teachers)
4:30pm: Drop off bag at home, change out of work clothes and into exercise clothes
4:45pm: Play badminton/volleyball with my host teacher or students
5:30pm: Either catch bus (sorngtaew) or a ride 3 miles into Maejo area (a university near me).
               Walk around, interact with my local friends & make new local friends
6:15pm: Decide on something to eat, pay about $1.50 for a full meal, sometimes only $1.00.
6:35pm: Catch a bus back to my house
6:43pm: Confront the guard dogs that guard me from entering my own house.
6:49pm: Safely in the house, lock the door, turn off the lights downstairs, grab a bottle of water
                and head upstairs.
7:00pm:  Shower
7:30pm: Get in bed, read/surf internet/talk to friends/online school work/research Phd
               programs.../watch a movie (rarely)/meditate
9:30-10pm: Asleep.

Life is pretty wonderful. Though through this ‘average’ day schedule, it is important to recognize that Thailand is anything but average. There have been days that finished with impromptu trips to the city to see a friend, or markets or parades or festivals or dinner parties at friends houses or being ‘thai-napped’ to rooftop restaurants and other such crazy adventures. Each day something new happens. Each day I challenge myself to further analyze the world in its’ complexity and discover my purpose, goals and desires. Each day I learn something new.

But, I don’t dance...I don’t even KNOW the dance!

Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the day before I flew to Bangkok, I had the afternoon free and was fully planning on relaxing, packing and getting myself ready for the Thanksgiving adventure with Fulbright friends. Around 2pm, my friend P’Jan told me “Jessye, dance rehearsal at 3pm.” Thinking we would rehearse the dance we had minimally learned the week before at an hour long rehearsal, I happily brought my school bag to the dance room to rehearse for an hour and calculated I would be in my room by 4pm, happily eating peanut butter sandwiches for dinner. P’Jan was a bit late, having to attend a teacher meeting, so I practiced once with the dance teacher and then read my book.
            “Jessye!! We put on your make-up and costume!! Okay???” The dance teacher, Kru Jum announced to me around 3:45pm, when I was ready to go home and shower & pack.
            “Huh?” was my tactful response.
            “We perform the dance tonight!! It is the Assistant Director’s going away party! So we dress up and put make up and then perform the dance, okay?”

My heart rate quickened instantly and my palms became sweaty. I like dancing in front of the mirror and occasionally at a party/bar, but dancing in front of a crowd, on a stage? Not my thing. Not to mention, I DID NOT KNOW THE DANCE. I had practiced all of three times and am possibly the most uncoordinated person alive. I panicked.

I scolded myself internally: Jessye, you are here to experience new things and go outside your comfort zone! With a deep breath, drying my palms on my skirt, I smiled at Kru Jum and said “Great, what time do we perform and what am I wearing?”

In the following three hours I had: two fake eyelashes, three inches of make-up, flowers in my hair, a traditional Thai costume, borrowed jewelry, and done three dance run throughs. I was anything but ready, but that did not matter as I was escorted to the large assembly hall where all the teachers were seated around large white circle tables feasting.

“Oh Jesssyeeeee!!! So beautiful today!” the teachers oohed and ahhed, several taking selfies with me or pictures of me. I nervously picked at some som-tum (spicy papaya salad) and drank a bottle of water before P’Jan tapped me and said, “it’s time!”

Waiting behind the stage, I could hear the beginning of our song playing. Mind over matter, I told myself and willed myself to remember the moves. Six teachers in matching costumes, myself included, stepped carefully onto the stage in line with our formation. Quietly moving our hands and fingers to the allotted dance routine. When I began to forget a move, I would quickly glance to my left at what the others were doing and copy with a semi-seamless transition. In the back of the large hall I could see my host teacher, Kru Toi, smiling and dancing along to the dance. I willed my nervous heartbeat to slow as I looked around the familiar and unfamiliar faces around the room and silently prayed that the dozens of clicks of the camera in front of me would not end up on Facebook (they did, of course).

Within a few minutes, our dance was done and I sashayed off the stage (on the wrong side I might add) and breathed a sigh of relief. Yet, at the same time I was happy and grinning. I cheered with my group of dancers and we all took a group picture once outside. I did it.

Sometimes, you just have to do it and the result will be better than you hoped. This dance story is how much of my life here in Thailand is, taking chances and becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. I am not always in charge of the plans, I might get to bed to late or miss a Skype date or have a class canceled that I’ve been laboring over a lesson plan for, but in return there is excitement, culture and experiences that are unforgettable. Let your guard down and live a little. 

With a student dancer

With P'Jan, my girl!

Teaching Teachers and Big Changes

Most recently I started a teacher’s class where I teach Thai teachers who have signed up for my course for an hour a week, (I teach three sections). I quite enjoy the different pace of adult learners and small circle style learning. The class period goes by quickly and I enjoy it immensely.

My partner, Ryan has just arrived to Thailand and this will definitely change the alone time I’ve happily breezed through in the past 80 days, but I look forward to the new change and challenges that will arise as a result.

Thanksgiving in Bangkok was a blast and two weekends ago I went to Chiang Rai to see my friend Francesca and we visited this strange Narnia-esque Temple with underworld undertones... very strange.

Narnia aka White Temple

Strange hell images?

Real sweet turkey 

Me & the Exec Director of Fulbright @ Thanksgiving in BKK

Hope everyone has a very happy holiday season and is booking their tickets to Thailand as soon as possible! :)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Learning how to walk again: Sansai, Chiang Mai

Existing in Sansai, Chiang Mai 
840+ nametags made. 21 introduction lessons.  12 additional lessons. 200 Hand turkeys made with “I’m thankful for” written neatly. 40 hours of teaching. 4 lessons with the Director of the school. What is it? The first 2.5 weeks of teaching at Sansai Wittaykom school. This, coupled with numerous dinner parties, mistakes, laughter, bugs, games of badminton, volleyball and ping pong, trips to Chiang Mai city, festivals, parades, several Skype dates, informal Thai lessons, new friends, fabulous students, minor frustrations and way too much food, has been my life these past two weeks. This has been my life. Sometimes as I start to fall asleep, while the little beetles are crawling on me, I have these strange moments of confusion and then clarity. The first of confusion: am I really here? In Thailand? For a year? The second, that follows is a moment of clarity: yes, I am and not only that, I am meant to be here. It feels right. 

Humans are complex. We contemplate our existence. As a fellow foreign teacher reminded me the other day, this fact sets us apart from other species. We contemplate our existence. What is my purpose for living? Is it to learn? To get rich? To have babies? To get to heaven? To achieve enlightenment? For me, my purpose is to serve & help others primarily. Secondly, to grow and learn continuously until the day I depart from what I know as earth, and third to make meaningful, lastingly relationships and share my existence with people. Our lives are often a series of decisions, some that take longer than others, some that are a split second. One decision can change the course of someone’s life for a lifetime. One application. One plane ticket. One summer. Singular actions, days, even minutes – can change the course of someone’s life forever.

My first trip to Africa was life changing, the others that followed life-changing in different ways. Thailand too, although perhaps not in the same way, definitely has its life changing ways. I’ve already noticed my ability to laugh more at my mistakes, take my time doing things, not rush, try foods I do not want to try, and generally become comfortable with being constantly uncomfortable – both physically (heat, bugs etc) and culturally. My teaching schedule changes? No problem. Bugs in my bed? No problem. Dogs chasing me? No problem. Printer broken? No problem. This is Thailand, as we were told, and as ethnocentric as I first thought that was, the phrase helps me remember to remove my American perspective and to be as open, adaptable and loving as possible. Sometimes I don’t have to remind myself to do this, and other times I notice frustration bubbling and I need to remind myself to be calm. Be calm. Jai yen yen. Keep a cool heart.

I am slowly learning how to walk again. It is a slow dance of mistakes and learning experiences and keeping a smile on.

To Teach, My new favorite sport
The classroom has always been a place of comfort for me. The classroom has varied from a place to expand my own mind and feed my love for learning, to my minimal experiences in teaching non-formally and semi-formally in Ghana and the US, to now my first formal teaching job (although still quite different than what a US teaching job would entail). I have a set schedule, a roster of students, grades to assign and a curriculum to design. Exciting, overwhelming and exceedingly rewarding (though exhausting & challenging at times) teaching these two-plus weeks has been the highlight of life in Sansai for me. My class size varies from 30-42 students. I teach grades 7-12, some once every two weeks for an hour and others twice a week (3 classes). I question my curriculum, my teaching style and am constantly trying to perfect, a non-perfectable technique.  

The hand turkeys I had my students create really put a smile on my face and teaching about Thanksgiving was wonderful; it remains my favorite holiday. Not because of the history, but because of family, love and thankfulness.

Those moments of pure joy with students

The English Office
The English office is a place of comfort, where I sit at a desk of my own, write in my notebook, read, lesson plan, make posters/teaching aids and most importantly practice Thai with the teachers / they practice their English. The relationships I've been creating here are, as always, the most important to me. There are those I connected with immediately and others whom I'm getting to know. All in all, a wonderful experience day to day - very festive. I've yet to buy lunch for myself, because someone always wants me to try something they've gotten!

Kru Toi, my host teacher/mom

P'Jan! Also an English Teacher, we get along great! :)

Let’s light 1,000s of flaming lanterns and set them into the sky! It will be the most beautiful thing in the world, really!
Loy Loy Krathong was this past weekend. Words and pictures cannot truly capture the essence of this stunningly spiritual and beautiful celebration. Camping out on mats for several hours, thousands of people crowded onto a large field. We sat on our mats and waited for darkness to fall. We listened to Buddhist prayers and eventually, after much waiting, we set ablaze a tissue paper and wire lantern (in the right place, on the fuse) and watched as they filled with hot air and rose hundreds of feet in the air. The night was magical, ablaze with lanterns, the sight truly unreal.

Escaping the madness of crowds post the lantern take off was nearly impossible. We climbed through fences, jumped over barbed wire and were stuck not moving in the midst of sweaty people pushing and shoving. Eventually, with the help of my host teacher we made it through and got home safely. It was a truly fantastic evening. (By we, I mean a few other Fulbrighters who came together for the event).

The Lighter Ablaze

Words cannot describe how incredible this was to see.

Setting it off!

Post Take off in the field.

And with that,
Here are some more pictures of my various experiences thus far. This is my life here. Life is beautiful. As I posted recently on Facebook, life is too short to not find happiness in your life. Enjoy things. Positivity will bring about more change than negativity.

Student Smoke Lanterns for Loy Krathong


Wat Phra Singh - Stunning!

Loy Krathong Parade!

Adorable Child Photographer

Jessye Kass in Thai! Written at the Temple !

Love you all.
Jessye Kass  

Friday, November 1, 2013

Sabai Sabai: It will all be fine...

Despite my general enjoyment of writing, the daunting task of writing this next blog post has had my stomach in knots for over a week. I began writing the night before my departure into the unknown, but with last minute packing and an early wake up, the blog describing the last two weeks in Bangkok did not happen. On Wednesday morning at 4:15am (Tuesday 5pm  EST) I departed my beloved Krit Thai Mansion in Bangkok for the airport with the two other Chiang Mai Fulbrighters.

Bangkok, though not my favorite city, will definitely be missed in these few weeks of adjustment to my new home at Sansai Wittayakom School. The past two weeks included meeting my host teachers at a dinner, a dance performance with elaborate, sparkling costumes and hard to follow stories, massages, a brief Shabbos dinner at the Chabad in Bangkok (yes, there are Orthodox Israeli Jews in Bangkok...I guess I missed Brandeis) a week of practice teaching with 'volunteer' students, and lots of Western food to fill our bellies in preparation for the unknown access in Chiang Mai (I will sometimes refer to this as CM). Now I am in Sansai, slowly acclimating to my new surroundings and home for the next eleven months. 

Trekking into the Unknown
Just a few days ago I was sitting in my hiso (high society) hotel room with AC and hot water. In preparation for the unknown lands of Sansai. I tried to remind myself: be patient, be adaptable, keep smiling - I told myself I would be fine and could handle anything. PTip, the executive director of Fulbright Thailand had told us to accept that with our expectations we should expect to be disappointed. Bangkok did not bombard me with too much culture shock, in fact it did not feel so different to other cities I've inhabited. I was surrounded by 19 other Americans, speaking my language and understanding my cultural references. Now...for something entirely different...

Arrival to Sansai Wittayakom School
Sansai Wittayakom lies on a busy road. My little two-story white house is in the back next to the rice paddy fields. Which apparently I am helping harvest when the time comes. School grounds are fairly large for a high school, but smaller than my university. Not the dirt roads I imagined in my mind, but busy streets that terrify me when crossing. Despite busy roads, there is not a great deal of shops or food around. Though a 25-30 minute walk gets to me to a populated area with open-air food places, street vendors and various shops. Yet, on Thursdays there is a sprawling market place across the road from my home/the school, laden with dozens of delicious looking treats and other slightly less appetizing items that I'm sure I will be talked into testing at some point. I've already been forced to eat fish stomach and congealed pig's blood. I suppose I'm not the intrepid adventurer I thought I was for these foods had me desperately wishing for Annie's Mac N' Cheese.

Kru Toi, my host teacher and Kru Dang, the head of the foreign language department, and truly a second host teacher, picked me up from the airport. P'Noi, a Fulbright staff, came with me the first day and took me around to different shops to get the various things I needed for my house. Though the entry was overwhelming, I'm excited to be here, excited to explore and am slowly acclimating to life in the province (or highway school near a small town?).

Thai Kindness
Already I've been given several free meals, been invited to dinners at teachers homes (and attended one already), been to an English competition at another school, and been checked in on constantly. My host teacher(s) are kind, wonderful women and treat me as their daughter - helping me with every question, qualm and issue to the best of their ability.

Lizards, Flying Ants and Construction
Stepping into my new home on Wednesday I was greeted by several men inside my home as nails hammered and drills drilled. It was not quite the peaceful entry I had hoped for, but I supposed better that they were still renovating the house than giving up on screen doors and such. The house has four rooms - two downstairs & two upstairs. One room upstairs is empty except for a dresser and my room has a twin bed, two desks, a dresser and a mirror table. It is the largest room I have ever lived in and the largest living space I have ever lived in - alone or with 7 other people.

At night, lizards roam my ceiling and keep me company in the eerie quiet with the songs of bugs outside my window wanting to join the lizard party on my ceiling. Small bugs flood to my fluorescent light & small flying ants and beetles share my bed with me, as well as making their way onto my arms and legs, and even in my hair. Some may say, how are you living there? Well, sabai sabai - just go with it, as they say here in Thailand. This is an adventure. Though hard the first day, I am getting used to my amenities (or lack there of). My blue fan sits close to my face and the cold water showers wake me up! Put a smile on - and fake it 'til you make it.

Oh Thailand
There may be language barriers, I may be overwhelmed and my house may not be the house I imagined. But at the end of the day, I have 17 hours of teaching a week, lesson plans to write, free online courses to take, places around the country to explore, friends near and far, in Thailand and abroad, growing and learning to do, a new language to learn and a smile on my face - life is wonderful and I am excited to take each day one day at a time - facing new challenges each day.

Maybe I will even like sleeping with ants by the end of the year. Who knows. Anything could happen. :)
More on teaching Thai students next time.

Sabai Sabai - just go with it, it's fine. :)


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Bangkok: Language, Waterfalls, Pad Thai, Goals and of course Hospitals.

My year in Thailand has officially begun...
After 32 hours of painful plane travel I finally arrived in hot, sweaty Bangkok around midnight on Friday, September 27th. It's been a spectacular 18 days thus far.

Currently, I am betwixt and between my intrepid adventure time in the Northern province of Thailand - as I'm currently staying in a Motel 66 type location, ironically called the Krit Thai Mansion, (it's really perfectly nice, just doesn't live up to the name). This month (I leave Oct. 30th for Chiang Mai, San Sai District) is an 'intensive' orientation that includes safety lessons, cross-cultural training, Thai language classes (my favorite!) and practice teaching. Though some days are ridiculously repetitive or common sense, others have provided me with some useful knowledge or a lens I had not yet acquired. Meeting the old batch of ETAs (English Teaching Assistants) who are outgoing has been the most useful thus far, as seeing their journey completed gave me both hope and excitement to get my own year really started. Additionally, it provided very useful information and was perhaps the most realistic toward preparing us - as best prepared as we can be. Truly, there is no way to prepare for the adventures, trials and challenges this year will bring, but each day I become more excited to truly dive into this adventure, more than I already have. 

Weekdays are 9am-4pm orientation activities and weekends are up to our leisure. Which I've spent a balance of cultural activities with new friends and 'Jessye time' where I read, write, draw, walk and get foot massages for $4. Also a bit of weekend traveling most recently (which was awesome). As per usual, I found myself in the hospital already - but I'll explain later.

Consistently I find myself comparing things to Ghana. Which, although useful for me, is frustratingly obnoxious for my peers. This is Thailand and I need to learn it outside the perimeters of Ghana. Let Ghana be Ghana, but be in Thailand and learn it - as best I can. I will do my best. Though comparisons can help when it comes to cultural differences/frustrations, overall I need to let go of preconceived understandings of similarities across 'developing' places and let myself learn a new place and be open to its newness.

Finding my footing in this new place has been challenging, though despite my need to not compare I believe the experiences in Ghana (and Kenya) have helped me adjust. I have not struggled nearly as much as I did on my first trip to Ghana. My cultural relativism skills are fine-tuned and I am able to have a bit of mai pen rai (don't worry/it's okay) about most things that occur in this bustling city.

Coconut Ice Cream with Corn & Peanuts

My first 18 days in Thailand: 
Bangkok in 13 semi-coherent thoughts...

1. Bangkok: The City of...: It's difficult to describe Bangkok. At first glance, it looks almost like parts of NYC with a hint of Ghana. When you look deeper, and go to SkyTrain (subway) stops off the main areas you can find less NYC type places, with more culture embedded. Whether it be a sprawling market place, a water taxi, the Grand Palace or other landmarks in Thailand, Bangkok has differences, culture and things to observe, but if you just watch the surface you might be simply overwhelmed by the busy atmosphere and rush hour at all hours.

2. Thai Massages: Painful - and somewhat similar to partner yoga. Have not decided if I will get another full body one. Last time I felt slightly better and slightly in pain. My masseur kept slapping me and saying "relax!" and when she danced across my back holding onto the pole on the ceiling I felt faintly as though a small wheelbarrow was going across my back.

3. Learning Thai: There is a reason I was never in an a cappella group in college - I'm tone deaf. Therefore, attempting to learn a tonal language has thus far proved to be very difficult. However, I will continue to practice. The dips in tone, both high and low, are confusing and I find myself often hearing the same word when in a different tone the words mean something different. I'm looking forward to getting some flashcards and really digging into the language. Language is such a critical aspect of communication, culture and understanding. Without learning enough Thai, this year will be much less enriching and I will not be able to contribute as much.
This is what Thai looks like: ภาษาไทย -- that means the language of Thai I think...
Most recently I learned how to say (not write): "my parents are psychologists" I think that about says it all, ;-)

4. Lack of English: Having spent much of my undergraduate career and nearly all of my traveling in Ghana and Kenya, I naively (and perhaps ethnocentrically?) assumed that Thai English would be at the level that Ghanaian and Kenyan English was. I was wrong. Though I do not believe that English NEEDS to be spoken by everyone, I understand that it does assist in offering opportunities. Despite the industrialized city of Bangkok, complete with subways and Starbucks, English speaking and comprehension ability even in the capital city with tons of 'farang' (foreign) the English is often limited to saying the price in Roman numerals and not a whole lot else. Though I had not expected this, it makes it that much more important for me to master Thai in order to be able to communicate with my community. The level of English spoken by my students will also be significantly lower than I expected, but that is why it is important for me to let go of my expectations and just let come what may!

5. Hospitals! Duh. It would not be my blog without a mention of some sticky situation regarding my health. On Oct 2nd, after being here less than a week I had to go to the hospital. I was well taken care of, but it was painful ear problem (I won't go into details, it's rather disturbing). Luckily I got lots of heavy painkillers and got to have stuff removed from my ears while watching it on the television screen above me that was connected to the microscope! Fevers and three times to the hospital put a damper on my first week, but my fellow Fulbrighters were very kind - especially my roommate who accompanied me twice. Doing much better now but still not supposed to get my ears wet...

6. Thai Food is My Food: The food here is incredible. Lots of times I do not know what I am eating. From fried coconut milk balls with corn in them to grilled squid balls stuffed in bean paste all varies. I try most things. Some unidentifiable items leave me feeling ill, but I try it anyways. Though already missing cheese, hummus and fresh veggies, I am immensely enjoying the Thai staples (as well as learning how to order them... in Thai!) 
     Things I've tried: fried orchids, green tea brownies, jellied bean candies, pork buns, fried balls      of octopus, sticky rice with mango, fried rose petals, litchi, jackfruit, fish cakes, pad thai for real!! ... and so much more! 

Vegetarian Festival in Chinatown!! Fried Orchid on left.

7. Temples & Grand Palaces!: I legitimately can not describe the beauty, serenity or detail in the temples and the Grand Palace that I have visited. It was a surreal (and hot & sweaty) experience as we walked around the grounds of Wat Pho temple and Grand Palace on my second weekend here. Truly incredibly. Here are some pictures, but it only scratches the surface at the beauty. I plan to learn more about Buddhism and architecture before my year has ended here.

The Grand Palace

Wat Pho Temple & Buddha from Grand Palace

Grand Palace & Wat Pho

8. Lessons from old ETAS: As I mentioned, seeing the old ETAs was the best part of orientation. It was exciting to see them at the end, some excited to go home and others moving to Thailand and others traveling around for awhile. I enjoyed watching them interact and hearing their stories. It made me incredibly excited for the year ahead. Right now I feel so eager for the year to begin and feel as though the adventure has only just barely begun.

9. 16 people in a 12 person mini-bus that is breaking down: So...we had a three day weekend and took a little trip to Kanchanaburi!! It was 15 of us, which was overwhelming for me size-wise, but still exciting. On the way to the waterfalls (see number 12) we took a mini-bus. With broken AC and two people sitting on top of feet on the floor, as well as slipping down hills with the rusty stick shift van... it was certainly cause for an adventure. But, it got us to the falls and back in one piece, so I really can't complain. It was definitely humorous and cause for some laughs...and screams of terror too.

10. World War II in Thailand - The Bridge over River Kwai: This is a picture on the beautiful bridge over the river Kwai. The bridge/railway track was constructed during WWII and was built by prisoners of war of the Japanese. Though beautiful, the history was a bit horrific and we learned about it more in the Thai-Burma Railway museum later on.

11. WWII Museum: Perhaps the strangest museum I've ever entered ... - though that may not be culturally relative of me, it was hard to follow the winding paths and dripping locations, as well as an organization model that was hard to process. The museum itself was about as run-down as the artifacts themselves, yet this gave it a rather 'real' feeling, yet a slightly creepy one at that. It documented the Japanese-Thai relationship during WWII (among other things).

a showing of the PoWs working on the Thai-Burma railway

Some interesting buildings in this museum

12. WATERFALLS!: On our little trip to Kanchanaburi, after our amazing mini-bus ride, we hiked a (small) but beautiful mountain and saw the most incredible waterfalls. Seven tiers of waterfalls, with the 7th being the most breathtaking by far. From the 5th-7th it was a bit more challenging (and much more slippery) as we walked through water and up slanted, slippery steps or climbed up some rocks. Pictures nor words do it justice - but here are a few!
Mountain View Point - 4th fall

The 7th waterfall. Stunning
7th, 2nd and 5th

13. Projects & Internships & Career Paths & Goals: 
Throughout the past few weeks, as I have attempted to develop friendships with other Fulbrighters, learn Thai, think about lesson plan ideas and ultimately decide what I want to get out of this year - I have made many lists. Monthly goals, yearly goals, letters to myself, internship ideas, career ideas for the future, potential projects to accomplish at my school - and several more. This year is more than teaching English or learning Thai, more than learning a new culture or teaching about my own - though these are the things outlined by my cultural ambassador position, it is more than simply that (of course!). This year is about exploration beyond these things, (though those goals are important, critical even) it is time for me to let myself relax and accept that I do not have my entire life figured out, that I am young and have many passions and intellectual threads that can take me anywhere. This is my time to shine and to develop ideas for my future, to think critically, open up my mind and somehow keep my brain active. It is the time to learn about a new culture with new lens is a way I have not yet done. My main goal this year is to grow as much as possible emotionally, intellectually and beyond. 

Thank you all for supporting me.
With love,


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Kenya: Re-learning, re-living, re-loving.

Three years ago I arrived in Kenya, fresh-faced, overly talkative and unsure of myself or of the complications of voluntourism as a whole. I arrived in the small town of Kitengela, Kenya, having traveled several times already to Ghana - but this time instead of teaching I was placed in a clinic where I worked as medical assistant...Now, in so many ways this goes against everything I believe in. Being a fake nurse with no credentials - yet I was trained to give injections, take blood pressure, do HIV testing and counseling and so much more. Now, I have arrived back to visit for 12 days. It has been truly incredible. (Though, I forgot how cold August was. Especially in comparison to Ghana. I have a thin sweater and some leggings...but I could easily wear a fleece and jeans and boots.) We shall see how I manage...enjoy reading! :)

Small Veggie Market near work

Fire in the Airport
Due to the fire in the Nairobi International airport, when we arrived we walked through tents to customs and for visas. Our baggage was outside in a line and we had to walk around to find it. Then we walked to find the people waiting for us. Mama Lucy, who is 23 years old, my host mother and dear friend, was there waiting for me at the airport. It's been 3 years but she is still the same sweet, goofy woman. I spent that first day re-adjusting and doing errands.

Ghana v. Kenya
On the ride home to Kitengela (also referred to as Kitengesh) I was reminded of the familiarity yet differences between Ghana and Kenya. Kenyans drive on the opposite side of the road as US and Ghana, which surprises me every time. ( I often think a car is driving with no driver and then I realize I'm looking at the wrong side). I watched the sprawling market places whiz by as there was a grey-ness to the morning from smog and dust. Colorful, yet falling apart in places, the motor bikes zooming in and out of traffic - it is quite an experience to visit Kenya - or Ghana.

Though in many ways the two sub-Saharan countries are similar there are distinctive differences between the two countries (at least in what I have observed and in places I have been). Where Ghana has a handle on 'pure' water sachets (clean drinking water), they have mostly open gutters, public toilets and going to the toilet in public is acceptable (not to say this is wrong, just different) - Kenyan's mostly drink tap water, though there is bottled water for mzungus  (whites/foreigners) and others who choose to drink it, but essentially have a good sewer system and I have yet to see an open gutter anywhere in Kenya. (Though I've heard that in the Kibera slums it is present in some forms/ mounds of feces everywhere). Additionally, going to the bathroom in public is not done that I have seen here.

Both countries have many areas with colored shops that stick out against the grey or red-copper dirt roads. The little shops selling various items look very similar and the areas are similarly crowded in the market places. Open produce markets, like a Farmers Market, dominate both Ghana and Kenya in where people buy all of their food.

In Kenya there are dozens of butcheries around with skinned cows (full sized, but missing the head) hanging in the glass windows. It is quite a jarring site at first.  
The cow corpse hanging in the window

Faux Nurse Jessye at St. Therese Dispensary
After a wonderfully warm welcome by the staff at St. Therese Dispensary, especially those who knew me 3 years ago, I was immediately back in the baby clinic (which has now been separated from the maternal clinic because of high demand) and I was working alongside Faith, my previous supervisor once again.

In breaks, we would chat about our lives, me about my love life, school and Thailand, her about her husband, her new son and her daughter. I showed her pictures from Ghana and Brandeis, and she showed me pictures of her kids.

Within a day we had a routine. I did  the charting, weighing, nutrition counseling, birth polio droplets, vitamin A doses, and collected money. She did the injections for the babies. On days when we were really busy, I was left alone and would call her when she had to do an injection. Though seemingly mundane work, the days go by quickly. I'm exhausted by the end of them, but here, more than even in Ghana, I feel useful. I help lessen Faith's load. When it's very slow, I fill prescriptions in the pharmacy or tidy up offices.

After a few days, Faith and I were practically inseparable. Though divided by different worlds, her a mother of two, a wife and a nurse (she's 30) and me a 22 year old recent post-grad with an interest in learning and observing things (and a baby lover) - yet we get along perfectly, our conversations flow - there is little to no gap between our socioeconomic and cultural differences that impair our friendship.We spend the quiet moments trading stories or teaching each other different words in our respected languages.

The other staff, besides Faith are also extremely warm hearted and welcoming and during Tea Time (a mandatory 10am-ish break of tea and mandazi (boiled/fried bread) and lunch I interact with all the other staff. St. Therese is run by Catholic Sisters, the head sister is from South Korea. Since last time I was here they have built a new building and expanded many of their services.

Working as a fake nurse really makes me interested in medicine and nursing. Every time I leave work I want to be a doctor and a nurse. I even found myself researching post-bacc degrees in order to train to be able to do this work all over the world. Would love to open a clinic or a school in Kenya or Ghana some day.
My office station - immunizations book and weighing table

WARNING - not for the faint of heart
 Sometimes Faith and I are called to the injections and dressings room. The last time I was in the dressings room was three years ago when a young lady's heel had been cut off in a motor bike accident and with no anestheia they were trying to stitch it back together. I was tasked with keeping the young girl talking and holding her hand, but when I looked at the heel hanging off her foot... I promptly fainted and woke up 10 minutes later on a hospital bed. Oops.

Though I haven't fainted this time, we've had some very difficult wounds to deal with.
We had a 4 year old girl who was so badly burned a year ago that she still couldn't walk and from her hip to her knee on the side was ripe and bloody still. Pulling off the dressing was the most horrific part, I had to hold her as she screamed and flailed, while Faith cleaned the wound. She had been sleeping in her bed when it caught fire. She has a twin who was unharmed. The smell of burnt flesh and antiseptics left me wriggling my nose for quite some time.

Another day there was a woman with a wound on her ankle that was three inches by three inches circle and nearly a third of an inch deep. It looked like someone had taken a knife, cut a poorly done circle fairly deep and ripped it off. She was hit by a motorbike two weeks ago.

There have been others, but those two stuck out to me the most.

Welcomed into Faith's Home
This past weekend I went to Faith's house in Mlongo, about 30 minutes from Kitengela. Unlike Kitengela, which is a short 10 minute walk from the matatu (bus) station, Faith's home is a good 30 minute walk from the matatu station and parts of it are terrifying slippery and steep. It was like a small mountain at points/climbing a rock wall with mud, water and rocks. Faith went slowly to keep her energy, but I raced to the top. Eventually we got to her house, placed in the middle of nowhere, with only a few cement huts nearby. Faith has a 4.5 year old girl named Joyce and a 18 month old boy named Pius. I was immediately welcomed into the family. Joyce warmed up to me right away.

Communication - Joyce began speaking to me in Kiswahili very quickly, and assumed I understood. I often had to ask Faith to translate, but I found that despite her not knowing more than a few words of English and me no more than a 10-12 phrases in Kiswahili, we were able to communicate very well. We used sign language, pointing, gesturing - and were able to communicate. When it was time to sleep on Saturday night, Joyce refused to sleep in her bed (the bunk bed next to where I would sleep) and instead, I again, shared my bed with a 5 year old. Only this time I was urinated on in the middle of the night. But, worse things have happened. :) The best part was having to sleep in the same peed on bed the next night. When in Mlongo... :)
Joyce is an energetic, friendly young girl and as always I quickly opened my heart to her - despite her peeing on me.
Faith, Pius and Joyce using the crayons I gave them

Joyce & Pius posing on the floor

Before church in the morning

Virginiah Muthoni - My sweet sister
Outside of my 8:30am-4:30pm work day at St. Therese, I spend my remaining waking hours, from 4:30pm-9pm most often with Virginiah. Virginiah is now thirteen years old, but was ten when we met. Three years ago, we would also spend most afternoons together. Talking, teaching each other things, buying food, cooking, and watching badly dubbed Spanish soaps on the television. Now, we've gotten back into our routine.

Sadly, Virginiah's mother has been evicted from her home. Virginiah now stays with her aunt (her estranged father's sister) in a one room apartment with her aunt and two cousins. It's cramped and Virginiah's things hang in two plastic bags near the front door. She's miserable there, as her aunt does not treat her well. It's painful to see and the hours we spend talking about it cause me to cry later because I wish there was more I could do. Yet, I know that someday when I have money, I will be able to help her. She wants to be a journalist or a neurosurgeon and suggested recently she might want to be a psychologist because she said that talking to me made her feel better (that bold is for you mom & dad).

She is such a giving person. When I took her to lunch during the school day one day, we came back to eat at school. Several of her acquaintances did not have money for lunch or any lunch, and she gladly shared the lunch I bought her with all of them. Giving them sips of coke, bites of her food and plenty french fries. It made me grin to ear to ear to see how much she reminded me of myself in her selfless ways that I try to also have. 

I will miss her very much when I leave, but I've realized that all of these goodbyes are not goodbyes forever, because I know I will find a way to return to these people and places that I love.
Me and Virginiah at a fundraiser for St. Therese

Thoughts about Voluntourism - My Oxymoron Self 
 I've been struggling to separate my negative thoughts on the impact of neo-colonialism, paternalism and a lack of understanding of reciprocity in these volunteer programs. In my senior honors thesis I found that medical placements were often the most problematic, but that was mostly due to feelings of entitlement on behalf of the volunteers. I know there is no way I should be doing the injections, yet when given the opportunity to learn how to do so safely and inject the pregnant mothers with tetanus shots, I enjoyed the experience of learning. Where at first I was feeling like I was contradicting some of the work I spent the past 1.5 researching and writing, to avoid problematic problems, I think it is all about the attitude you put into it. Most days all I do is paperwork, weighing and giving vitamins or birth polio droplets to babies. For Faith, I know it lessens her load (besides from just her telling me it does) especially when we are short staffed and she is working other rooms as well. I think the most important thing about voluntourism is understanding there should be no entitlement and a clear understanding of reciprocity on both sides.

Last few days
These last few days I will be busy at work, going back to Faith's on Friday night and headed to Nairobi on Saturday. On Saturday I will meet up with Cynthia, a friend from Brandeis who is native to Kenya and Ruth Okello, a co-worker from St. Therese from 2010 who moved. Then on Sunday I'll return to Kitengela and Monday I fly to JFK! Just 4 weeks until Thailand. Thanks so much for reading! Hope to see lots of you in Boston when I return!

More Pictures for the Visually Inclined:
Kids playing rope in the morning
Walk to work in the morning
The neighbor who visits lucy's shop

Making Pancakes


Monday, August 5, 2013

6th Trip to Ghana: Making the Familiar Strange

Ghana is such a familiar location to me now that I do not know how to create a cohesive picture of it for those who have not been here. How do I explain the colorful life of Accra, mixed with poverty, disparities, joy, music, color, food, people, familiar faces and places - and so much more? More than descriptions I am unclear as how to portray my extreme love for this country and the people I know here - though perhaps it being my 6th trip here in 4 years sort of...explains that. When I am here, I am so blissfully stuck in my own head, observing and thinking - weaving together descriptions of the life here - that I forget the majority of people reading this blog have never been to Ghana. I hope in this portraiture piece of my three week return here, you are all able to get a glimpse of the chaos, color, beauty, pain and wonder that I too see in Ghana.

Ghana is fantastically colorful, friendly and musically inclined. There is so much laughter and smiling, and general fascination with the world. There is pain and extreme poverty - and culturally things that make me feel uncomfortable - but it is such a beautiful, inviting country that I still find myself feeling at peace here. I do not know how to begin to explain the love I have for this country, nor the daily experiences I am having. From the food, to the children, to the traveling, to daily conversations - all of it is so fantastically wonderful and intensely difficult at times. It's exhausting daily.

As I walk along the reddish-brown dirt roads that weave in between small shacks and cement compounds, my mind strings together colorful sentences to attempt to describe what I am experiencing here in Ghana. My mind is constantly in motion thinking of a hundred different things at once. Processing my surroundings, as well as considering things outside the daily and bold motions of everyday Ghanaian life.

This trip is my last for a long time - though I hardly think I can stay away forever - I don't think I'll be back soon. But I am okay with this. I feel ready - ready for new adventures. Time to wrap up the NGO, say see you later and enjoy my time in this beautiful place.

Ghana: Forever a Second Home - How to Process 
Walking through the familiar customs area of the Kotoka International Airport, I weave through the crowds, eager to find Joeshmail, my closest friend in Ghana (a 21 year old preschool teacher at a school I work at). Entering the main room, Joeshmail appeared with a big smile, waving at me -- and holding her hand was none other than HOUDA! Houda, last summer was one of our (me & my friends) favorite babies, (now she is two years old!). At school, Houda was always on our laps, (especially me or Emma's). She was a bit confused to see me, but at school the next day she came running up to me and even said my name (which she had not done last year). It was a very sweet surprise.

Driving back from the airport, the familiar sites and smells of Accra greet me. The stiffly hot air, the smells of trash, feces, mixed with fruits and meat, create a familiar smell that no longer phases me.Many people are walking around with baskets, buckets, bowls on their heads - filled with various items for sale. Everything from dish rags to super glue to plantain chips and tigernuts. Joeshmail escorts me to my new place, where we are staying in the back of a large family house (a friend of her boyfriends). The walls are pink, with large purple diamonds - there is a large ceiling fan, a table, a queen mattress, a toilet and an area to bath. We do not have running water, so we fetch water down the road every day to bath and to flush the toilet. It is comfortable (ghana comfortable) and I love living with Joeshmail. We spend a lot of time together, but I also have my own independence here and can go off on my own often.

And so I'm back and the adventures begin.

Houda in my glasses

In the US - and most other 'western' places we take water for granted. Drinking and bathing. Here it is not the same. Water is drunk from plastic bags called pure water sachets - you bite the corners off and drink. Water for bathing varies. Last year, we had running water and a trickle shower. Other years, I've done bucket showers but had a tap flowing nearby. This time, no running water nearby - we travel half a mile to get buckets of water and drag them back to our house.

for three days there has been no tap running.  This has resorted to some expensive and time consuming showers. As I have taken a bucket and filled it with water sachets. Each one is about 500 ml of water. I use about 20 for a shower. Thank GOODNESS I cut my hair so short recently. I'm getting use to the hour long bucket showers that include biting 20 sachet and squeezing them into the bucket. It's almost like I EARNED my shower at the end of it. :)

So - be grateful everybody - for the things you have that you think of as necessities - because so often they are not things that other people around the world can count on, on a daily basis or even at all sometimes. This is just one example.

Watching Children Grow: Vision Seed & Home visits
Over the past four years, there is one school I have worked at for all four years: Vision Seed Academy. There I have had the pleasure of watching many children grow up. This has been such a highlight for me, seeing students whom when I first met them were barely talking, be going into Class 3 in September, now 8 years old! Isha Beauty and Naa Dromo have both consistently been special to me since 2009, the two of them have each called me when I am in the United States, (both of them are now 8 years and were 4 years when I met them) and I always end up spending the most time with them.

As I walk into the familiar grounds of Vision Seed I am greeted by the laughter and hugs of over 40 children as they all sing song my name and pull on my arms. It's a warm, yet exhausting welcome. Isha and Dromo are by the door, 'make way' Isha calls and runs into my arms, Dromo following behind her. Teachers welcome me back and ask what I've been up to the past year. I feel at home.

One of the days during this trip I took Isha and Dromo out for ice cream to celebrate and say farewell. Who knows if I will see them again? Traveling on a tro, small, clammy palms clasped in my own, Isha and Dromo chatter to one another in English (instead of Ga) about how I will take one of them to America - they are arguing over which one. I quiet them down by telling them I'm not even going to be in America next year. Wide-eyed they look at me - confused as I explain I'll be somewhere else.

After the field trip I escort the two children back home, through winding roads and many greetings along the way. Everyone wants to talk to the white girl with two small Ghanaian children holding her hands. After bringing Isha home, Dromo's mother wants to cook something for me. So I am escorted into her living quarters. A small dark blue room, with a tv and wardrobe. I don't notice it until later, but there is a small bucket in the corner. I later learn this small bucket, the same kind I use for bathing, is their toilet. I notice this as Dromo hops over there and pees and then comes back to sit on my lap. I try not to squirm. This is Ghana.

Though I could take a moment here to talk about the poverty in Ghana - the way most people live on less than a dollar a day - I think it takes away from understanding what I love about this country. Often times I will take about my sicknesses or having no water or other things that would drive a million people crazy I'm sure - and they tell me 'Jessye, you are not selling Ghana very well' - Well, I'm not trying to sell it exactly, but I do want people to see the kindness. Here was someone who can barely afford to take care of her own three children, cooking my dinner - and she even paid for my cab home. Thanking me profusely for helping her daughter with English and for loving her.

I thank Dromo's mother extensively for the meal and then head home. Another one of those long days.

Isha (left) Dromo (right) and I at ice cream parlor

Sticky Fingers, Pounding Fufu and MASH: The Coming King
At The Coming King, another school I work at, I receive perhaps the warmest welcome - staff and kids alike screaming ' Auntie Jessye!!!' and hugging me into extinction.  At first it used to frighten me and I felt liked simply because I was white and therefore different, but through time I have come to accept and understand the boundaries and welcomes. I love the kids and staff at this school, and likewise I am also deeply cared about. There is a system of reciprocity we have established, both from my returns and interns and art classes - as well as from general kindness toward one another. Bouncing from classroom to classroom, everyone is asking if I will come to their class. I promise to visit everyone. I teach short lessons, explain to the teachers what is happening with the NGO and enjoy the delicious rice with tomato stew that is my favorite food in Labadi. (Seriously, last summer we made the Auntie write us a recipe we loved it so much).

Working with the babies, rice slips between my fingers with an orange oily stew staining my pale hands as I fed babies with my finger tips - the rice that does not want to ball up easily. Diapers to be changed, methodically throwing diapers away and putting new ones on, kissing cheeks and tickling bellies for the all too cute smiles. It's a routine I know.

Later, I move to my upper level classroom and we do some writing exercises. Followed by a series of MASH games (an old school matchmaker game) and several different cootie catchers. The kids greatly appreciate the game MASH and when I return a few days later, they are still playing it in their notebooks.

One of the days I was there, it was their last day before vacation so they were pounding fufu. A playdough like consistency that is sticky, and must be pounded for quite a long time until it is finished. It is made from plantain and cassava. It's one of my favorite Ghanaian foods. Uncle Nat, the headmaster, snaps a picture of me attempting to pound the fufu. Everyone is laughing.

The Coming King will forever be a special place for me. It was the place last year - where a bunch of students trampled me and broke my foot. But it is also such a special place, with wonderful teachers and students. The cement compound, across from the beach, with its falling apart walls and chipping paint, will forever be a place of warm comfort - with its loud singing and delicious rice with tomato stew.
This is the fufu process!

Playing Mom
Adelaide is 5 years old, with a bright smile, great hair and a desire to play and laugh. Her mom does not like having her around the house - apparently her mom is often sick and so Joeshmail often has Adelaide sleep at her place for a night. For two nights of my visit I played mom to Adelaide. She came home with us after a long day at her school, I would bath her and feed her dinner, read her books (I had brought two kids books for some friends who had small kids) and draw pictures with her. Around 8, I would place her in the middle of our bed and kiss her goodnight. Joeshmail and I would sit at the end of the bed talking or reading, and then would slip next to her. One time she woke up and wasn't feeling well so I held her in my arms, and we fell asleep like that entangled limbs and all.

Tomorrow morning Joeshmail, Adelaide and I are going to Kumasi (another city) for four days. Then Joeshmail, Fred (her bf) and I will go to Kokrobite (a beach town) for the weekend - then I'm off to Kenya.

This Adelaide on her ice cream trip. She was very excited.

Highlights and Lowlights
In the intrest of the skimmer reader -- here are some highlights and lowlights 
  •  delicious Ghanaian food - from fresh pineapple and mangos, to indomie, fufu, omotuo and more!
    • omotuo = balls of rice served in soup
    • indomie = kinda like ramen but served just the noodles and with eggs and vegetables
    • fufu = mashed plantain and cassava, takes a long time to make - served with soups
  • Houda surprising me at the airport (thanks to Joeshmail)
  • warm welcomes at all the schools and being reunited with students and friends
  •  traveling to Pokuase for Joeshmail's cousins graduation ceremony and seeing a new area in Ghana
  • Taking Joeshmail shopping in the central of Accra with markets piled high with everything from clothes to pots to pig hooves and live snails!
  •  having a 5 year old student sleepover for two nights (and getting to play mom) (Adelaide)
  • new hiplife music to learn and dance to!
  • dozens of babies laughing and smiling 
  • hundreds of photos taken
  • successful last lesson plans in schools I've been teaching at forever
  • good transitional conversations about the NGO
  • familiar faces and places 
  • three days of sickness (two times) both required a trip to the pharmacyone day I couldn't even get out of bed. 
  • finger slammed in a tro-tro door
  • not enough hours in the day to see everyone I want to see - not enough time to see everyone I want to see
  • not enough fufu or omutuo for my liking!! 
  • never enough time with Joeshmail, going to miss my sis so much!
  • the no water to bath was kinda a drag, but what can you do! This is Ghana. :)

Here are some more pictures for the visually inclined:
Philia classroom - exams

Vision Seed Girls (Jess, Isha, Vicki and Dromo)

Dancing day

Isha loves to dance

Houda being a goof

Michelle goofing

So now Kenya 
Leaving Ghana one week from today, I'll be traveling all this week and won't have much access to email and what not - plus I wanted to get this done. :) I'm sure I'll update you in the Kenya blog about the trip to Kumasi and Kokrobite if anything eventful should happen.

Next Monday, I head back to Kenya for two weeks - haven't been back for three years. Am very excited to see my family and friends there! 

Hope to see some of you in September.

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