Archive for October, 2012

Personal Questions

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

What’s your country?
Where are you going?
Are you a Christian?
How old are you?
Are you married?
Why not?

I often get asked these questions by complete strangers. Even before they ask my name.

Personal questions are asked a lot in Asia. Partly because the English is easy. Partly because personal privacy doesn’t exist to the same extent here and mostly because I’m foreign and different and an unknown quantity.

And I mostly don’t mind. Except for the question about not being married (or not having a boyfriend). This one is hard.

I usually smile my cheekiest smile and say “I am too young to get married! I am only 36!”. (In these cultures 36 is almost a decade too old for a woman to get married.)

Cue much laughter.

Sometimes my new friends ask me this sincerely and I’m really not sure how to answer it.

I’ve thought of lying and claiming that there is a Mr Kath pining away at home (wherever home is) waiting for me to exhaust my wanderlust and bring him back a fridge magnet or a monkey carved out of a coconut. (Though I suspect that if I did have a Mr Kath he would not pine nor would he want (or get) a monkey carved out of a coconut.)

I don’t want to lie. (I already lie too much out here – mostly in an attempt to skip meals – yes, I’ve had lunch already (the food is amazingly tasty but Sri Lankan hospitality is so generous that I’m often given far too much food).)

But more importantly, I don’t want to have to lie. Why can’t I just be single? Why do I have to have a reason? And given that sometimes it can be lonely being single why can’t people understand that it might not be something I want to answer?

Sometimes a voice inside my head shouts “because he’s already got a girlfriend”, “because he turned me down”, “because he lives on a different continent”, “because he’s not interested in women”, “because he’s not interested in me”, “because he just wants to be friends”. Fortunately it usually stops before it gets to “because I’m obviously not good enough” or “because there must be something wrong with me”. These aren’t things I believe, but it’s hard not to consider them when most people around you seem to be in relationships and there seems to be an accusation on behalf of society that women are only single because they hate men or have something really wrong with them. Again, not something I believe.

It’s not that I particularly want to be single. It’s just that finding a good partner isn’t always easy. And yes, I probably make life a bit difficult for myself by travelling a lot. But I’m not going to stop doing that just so I stand a theoretically better chance of meeting someone.

Nor will I grow my hair, start wearing colourful clothing, wear skirts and dresses (except when teaching or weddings dictate), wear high heels, wear jewellery, wear make-up, be less independent, be more feminine (whatever that means), etc.

What I will do is to continue to be as true to myself as I can be. I’ll continue to travel. And I’ll continue to meet some really amazing men.

Here’s hoping I find one who I fancy, who fancies me, who is single and who is looking for the same type of relationship that I am. But if I can’t find one of them at least I know that my Christmas card list (if I had one, which I don’t) is very long and very distinguished. It has some truly amazing men on it and some equally amazing women.

I may not have a partner at the moment. And sometimes that makes me feel lonely. But I do have a really great collection of friends. And I wouldn’t trade a single one of them or my current lifestyle for a boyfriend.

And I still don’t know what the answer to the question is.


Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Caution: this blog post is about toilets. You probably guessed from the title. But I thought it best to make it perfectly clear before you continue. 🙂

Toilets in parts of Asia are a bit different from those generally found in the west. And they’re a bit different in Sri Lanka and India from Thailand.

They are generally squat toilets. They are a hole in the ground (a porcelain, plumbed hole in the ground usually). In Thailand they tend to be raised on a little platform. In Sri Lanka and India they are usually flush (pardon the pun) with the ground. I find the Thai ones a bit worrying, I keep having images of me trying to step onto (or off of) the platform (it’s not very high, just one step) and slipping on the wet porcelain and ending up in a very, very unfortunate position. I am pleased to say that this has not happened yet. I did wobble a little bit on one occasion but found that doing it barefoot rather than in sandals was easier (I then wash my feet with lots of water).

Now when I was in Thailand, I discovered that several of the volunteers hadn’t used squat toilets before and were somewhat apprehensive about them. I found myself, on a few occasions demonstrating how to use them. In bedrooms, staff rooms, the hotel foyer.

The German Bakery is a restaurant in Kovalam in India. It has a sign up that explains about how to use them. Here is a picture of the sign. I think it’s a pretty cool description. Though it does leave out a few essential points.

So here are Kath’s instructions for using a squat toilet.

  • Make sure your mobile phone (or anything else of value) is not in your back pocket.
  • Roll your trousers up as well as down (it is easier to clean your legs if there is any splashing than to clean your trousers).
  • I usually run the tap so that the bucket fills up (so that there’s enough water for flushing) and so that the sound of the running water can mask any other sounds (like my singing) that might be happening.
  • I tend to put one foot slightly in front of the other (left in front since my left hand is used for cleaning). I then sit back on my right foot. My right foot isn’t flat on the floor (my ankles are not that good), my weight is going through my right leg and I’m not hovering or asking too much from my thighs. But I suspect that position is a matter of style and personal preference.
  • In Sri Lanka and India toilet paper is rare. In Thailand there is often paper on sale at public toilets.
  • In most cases in all three countries, you shouldn’t flush paper down the toilet. In Thailand there will probably be a bin that you can put it in.
  • Since you use the water (spray gun or bucket) to clean yourself, the toilet paper (if you use any) will be for drying purposes. So the toilet paper will be wet but clean (ish). So you may wish to take a ziploc bag that you can put the toilet paper in and then dispose of both bag and paper as soon as you next find a bin. Wet wipes can also be useful things to have to make you feel that you are adequately clean and refreshed.
  • You may not use toilet paper at all. This may leave you feeling somewhat damp (you will be clean). But given the heat and humidity, dampness is a given anyway and may not be noticed.
  • Talcum powder can help with dampness if it is a problem.
  • The water supply: bucket, tap, spray gun, etc will be useful for cleaning the whole place. I use some of it to pour over my hands to clean my hands (the first cleaning) and to flush the toilet. Use lots of water. You can wash down the whole area. If you are a bit worried about the cleanliness of the toilet when you go in to use it, then you can slosh several buckets of water around to ensure things are clean before you start.
  • I then find a tap with soap and wash my hands thoroughly.
  • I then use antibacterial alcohol gel to clean my hands again.

What you shouldn’t do is avoid drinking or avoid using the toilet. Neither of these things are very healthy. You should make use of ‘nice’ toilets whenever you find them since you may not know what the next one will be like.

Note: for all of my friends who have used squat toilets before, please add any comments to this if you have a different approach, other tips or other strategies. Thanks! 🙂


Nights Out

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

We had a few nights out in Thailand. This was a bit of a new experience for me. Sure, I’ve had nights out when I was a bit younger and sure, I’ve been in Asia a few times. What I haven’t done is a night out in Asia. So that was interesting. The first one of these was in Chiang Rai, the next in Chiang Mai.

I don’t drink. But I do like pubs. Nightclubs I don’t like. I have never liked nightclubs. Even the strawberry smoke at the Chevron back in Melbourne in the 90s couldn’t make me like them. But, when one hangs around with university students (mostly in the early 20s) then a certain amount of going out is to be expected.

The nights out were great fun. Particularly the chatting in bars bit. But having now done a nightclub in Chiang Rai till 4am I can safely cross nightclubs off my list of things to do this decade.

I was with a great bunch of people and that is after all what good nights out are all about. And spending so much time out in Asia on my own or with only one or two others, it was a nice change to be out in a big group.

I have a lot of sympathy for ex-pats, wherever they are, and them wanting to hang out together at times. I thought it was very useful and very interesting to be able to hang around with people from my culture who understood a lot of the cultural dissonances and who could laugh and joke about the same sorts of things. It was great sharing experiences with them. Experiences from the UK, from Thailand and from other travelling that we’d all done.


Doi Chang

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Doi Chang is up in the hills between Chiang Rai and Chaing Mai. It’s near a place called Mae Suai (which means beautiful). Doi Chang means elephant mountain. It’s the Akha people who live there and there are a lot of refugees from Burma. It’s not an affluent area at all. The cultures are mixed, the languages are mixed. It’s a very different type of place to some of the other places in Thailand where we’d sent volunteers.

The scenery is amazing! We had to get four-wheel-drive trucks to take us up because the road isn’t good enough for normal cars. The hills are covered in coffee and macadamias. It’s quite a bit cooler and wetter up there.

There were volunteers in two schools in Doi Chang. It was great to visit both of them. Quite disadvantaged areas and the living facilities for the volunteers were rather basic. Cold showers seem like a great idea when you’re thinking of going out to Thailand, but they’re not so nice when it has been raining constantly for several days and when it is not particularly hot outside.

At the highest of the two schools the volunteers had to walk up the hill to find the spot where they could get phone reception. So most of our communicating with them was done by text message, with a reply coming the next day.

But, as usual, the hosts were wonderful. The schools loved having us. The teachers were fantastic and looked after our volunteers very well.

I went to visit Doi Chang with a few of the project leaders. It was great to get up to see what things were like up in the hills.

And one of the things up in the hills was the government coffee shop. It’s in a coffee plantation. The coffee is free but they have all sorts of things you can buy if you like (and they appreciate a donation to cover the costs of the milk and sugar). The coffee we got was a normal sized cup of strong coffee (not an espresso, but strong). I had milk and sugar in mine (I drink my tea with no sugar but need sugar in coffee). I don’t drink much coffee normally. I tend to avoid caffeine generally (though I love a decent cup of tea). A couple of the other project leaders don’t drink much coffee either. You should have seen the looks the three of us gave each other after that first sip of coffee. My heart started racing. My eyes were wide. My hands were shaking. Wow! It was strong stuff! I drank about half of the cup: I would have felt rude leaving more than that but didn’t feel like it was a good idea to drink any more. As it was, I was up and working till about 4 in the morning!

Wow, that’s powerful stuff!

Also, while we were in Doi Chang there was an English Camp being run by some local English teachers for other local English teachers. It was a two day workshop. The locals had prepared some activities but were keen for us to help out too.

So we did. There were seven of us. We had an awful lot of fun doing games, songs, tongue twisters and various other activities that the teachers could use with their students in school.

The song ‘Chester’ and the game ‘Anyone Who’ were particularly entertaining!


Sunday, October 21st, 2012

When in Thailand I had the honour and privilege of visiting different volunteers on project. Most of VESL’s work in Thailand is based in Chiang Rai province. But this year we ran some projects in Phayao which borders Chiang Rai to the south.

One of the project leaders came with me and we navigated Thai buses quite successfully. Though we did nearly miss both our stops because we were too busy talking (this will come as no surprise to those of you who know me). 🙂

Phayao is a little flatter, a little hotter and a little drier than Chiang Rai. It has more of a country town feel to it. A really lovely community feeling.

There were six volunteers from one university working down in Phayao. Four of them were staying together in a little flat that was in the garden of a local health office. They had a tab with a local restaurant where they could buy food for dinner. Sometimes the school coordinator (who lived across the road) would take them out for dinner. The health workers and the school coordinator and some of the other teaching staff would bring them bananas, eggs, water, bread and other things they needed. They had a set-up that I almost envied. They were very well looked after and had very close connections with the school and the community and yet they had some independence and space for themselves. They did however, miss out on lots of the experiences of living in a host family.

The other two were a little further away and lived with a host family.

I was very pleased to be able to see all six of them teach. It was amazing to see how well they all did. Some had had no teaching experience, others were trainee teachers, one had done voluntary teaching work previously. They all had such a wonderful rapport with the students (and with the teachers).

We didn’t get to do too much sightseeing while we were there, but we did get taken out for dinner a few times. We got to meet the school directors for the three schools. We visited each school. We spent lots of time chatting and sharing experiences.

It was a fantastic few days!

The White Temple

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

There’s a Buddhist temple in Chiang Rai in Thailand called the White Temple. I saw photos from another volunteer and decided that this was one place I had to see. I’ve been twice and I have no doubt that I will go again.

It is a modern construction, in fact, it isn’t finished yet. It is largely funded by the artist himself and he wanted to build a temple that would bring together modern art and symbolism with traditional worship of the Buddha.

The main structure is white with tiny mirrors embedded in the walls and statuary. To enter you have to cross over hell – a pond full of grasping hands reaching up. One hand showing its middle finger (complete with red nailpolish) in a rather cheeky act of defiance. The path takes you up over hell and towards heaven. The inside of the main temple is still being finished. But there is a beautiful Buddha painted on the back wall with a Buddha statue in front and a very lifelike wax (?) statue of a monk seated on the floor. So lifelike that I thought it was alive at first and would not be the least surprised if someone were to tell me that it actually is a person.

The inner walls seem to show (again) the rise from hell towards heaven. But the symbolism here is not traditional at all. Superman, Spiderman, the Hulk, Harry Potter, Keanu Reeves from the Matrix, amongst others. Perhaps the most striking of all is that of the Twin Towers burning with the hose of a petrol pump coiled around them.

There are ponds, trees and lawns. So peaceful and so beautiful despite some of the rather disturbing imagery inside.

There’s a wishing well and, for want of a better term, message trees. You can buy a flat metal ornament that you can write on. Each one is hung on rails creating beautiful silvery trees. A wonderful, collaborative piece of artwork.

The toilets also deserve special mention. The main toilet block is ornate and golden. It could hold its own among many temples I’ve seen for its architectural beauty.

But neither words nor pictures can do this place justice. It is three dimensional. It is intricate. You can take a photo of the whole temple and get it all in the photo. But in doing so you miss all of it. And it is a place not to be missed.


Buddhist Prayer Service

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

At the school in Thailand there were assemblies every morning.

I went to morning assembly on Tuesday expecting it to be much the same as Monday’s. Just in the canteen, out of the rain.

It started off much as was to be expected. Some standing, some singing, some praying, some sitting, some speeches. But the speeches seemed to go for a very long time and there were people beavering away at the front with candles and flowers and a little shrine.

It wasn’t until the first monk came in that I started to guess what might be going on. It was only then that I realised the ball of string that I’d seen the maintenance guys playing with earlier on was probably the string for the Pirith chanting.

(I’ve seen it in Sri Lanka when one monk holds one end of the string and the rest is passed to the other monks and then into the crowd. It seems the vibrations of the chanting pass through the string. At the end, the string is cut into strips and the monks tie a piece around the wrist of each person present as a blessing. In this case the people weren’t holding the string, it went from the monks out of the building.)

There were 9 monks. They were sitting on red mats on the stage. They chanted in Pali (I recognised some of it from Sri Lanka).

In Thailand it is not appropriate to compare Thailand unfavourably with other countries. So let me compare it favourably instead. I was struck by the religious freedom and tolerance that was shown during this ceremony in that while the monks were chanting I could hear a lot of people chatting, including some of the teachers. In other countries this would not be tolerated.

After the chanting one of the monks spoke. I don’t know what he said but some parts were apparently rather funny. Though none of the other monks so much as smiled never mind laughed. Perhaps they’d heard the jokes before, or perhaps the jokes weren’t very funny.

At the end we all paraded out (following some guys with drums and gongs) on to the playground where a temporary canopy was set up. People collected a wax disc and wrote a wish on it. The discs were then dropped into a vat of melted wax. Each person took a cup full of wax (the cup was on a bamboo pole) and poured the wax into several moulds. Casting a candle for the monks.

I tried to escape from this candle casting bit. I’m not a Buddhist. I don’t believe in ceremony generally. I didn’t feel comfortable being in the middle of it. So I beat a hasty and discreet (well, as discreet as it is possible to be when you are the only white foreigner in a school full of people) retreat. Very interesting.


Sunday, October 21st, 2012

I was told by the in-country manager in Thailand that female teachers should wear a long skirt while teaching.

Dammit. Number one: I don’t have any skirts. Number two: I hate wearing skirts. Number three: I hate teaching in a skirt (heads, shoulders, knees and toes becomes more difficult when one’s knees are obscured and lifting one’s foot to show one’s toes runs the serious risk of exposing large quantities of exceptionally white skin).

Number one is easily solved. After the induction session for the new volunteers who arrived on Sunday we went to a street market, followed by the night bazaar. So I bought a skirt. Urgghh. Anyway, it’s a long, loose, skirt. It’s not too fancy, it’s a dark colour (not black – black is worn at funerals), it’ll do. I figure I can alternate between it and the trousers and hopefully not upset too many people. If required I guess I can always buy another skirt. I shall be leaving any and all skirts here. I hope my host sister likes skirts!

Today I am wearing the skirt. And it is not nearly as pleasant as some might think. I know other people like wearing skirts, so I am willing to put this down to user-error. But nonetheless skirt-wearing just doesn’t do it for me.

I have nearly tripped over it several times while walking up and down the steps from my bedroom (upstairs) to the living area (including dining, kitchen, bathroom). I’ve stood on the end of it twice and almost made myself indecent while walking up steps here at school.

I’ve discovered that going to the toilet (squat toilet) in a skirt requires more hoisting and hitching and folding than with trousers.

Thailand is a hot country. I sweat. My legs are not the slimmest of things imaginable (hmm, possibly a poor choice of words since I’m imagining that many of you are now imagining my legs and I think that none of this imagining is particularly good and it all should be discouraged). Shall we say the word “chafe” could be used appropriately, if one were to use words to discuss such matters, which perhaps us ladies of decorum shouldn’t do. (I must be a lady of decorum – I’m wearing a skirt!) Mental note: buy talcum powder.

I’ve found that mosquitoes are required to attend the morning assembly with everyone else and they hang out in the shade of the trees (sensible things). As do the teachers. A skirt does not provide sufficient / any barrier to prevent them from feasting on my ankles and calves. Mental note: spray legs with mosquito repellent before assemblies.

Oh, and this skirt has no pockets. I’m sure I have ranted about lack of pockets in skirts/saris/clothing before. Fortunately, I have a bag, else I may have to take after some of my Scottish secondary students and store my mobile phone in my bra. This certainly seems sub-optimal since the bra is another item of clothing that does not contain pockets.

I got a lift to school on the back of a motorbike this morning. (My insurance does cover me for this and I did wear a helmet so it’s not quite as reckless as it sounds.) Getting on and off the motorbike does require an amount of hitching up of skirt and some flashing of startlingly white skin at the world. Fortunately, the skirt is sufficiently baggy that once on said motorbike I am able to ensure that there is no available skin for the sun to reflect off – I could blind other motorists and be a rather serious threat to traffic otherwise.

But apart from the risk to life, limb and decency; the logistical hassle; the mosquito issue and the heads, shoulders, knees and toes handicap, skirts seem to be a plan with no drawbacks.

Ah well, at least tomorrow is a trousers day.

My Role in Thailand

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

I was in Thailand for three weeks with about 50 other volunteers.

Most of the volunteers had come through the university programmes that VESL runs in conjunction with some UK universities. Project leaders are recruited from the universities (usually students who have volunteered with VESL previously). Each project leader then has to find several volunteers. The project leaders train the volunteers and help with fundraising in the UK. They then go out to Thailand with them, visit them on project, help them with their teaching and help solve any problems they might have. This year there were 6 project leaders (from four universities) in country. Each group came out at different times, spaced about a week apart.

Nueng is the country manager in Thailand, he’s an English teacher with 25 years experience. And he has worked a lot with volunteers from VESL and from other organisations too.

My job was to go and support the project leaders and help Nueng.

Sounded like an awesome amount of fun to me!

I went with Nueng to collect the volunteers from the airport. I helped out with induction sessions.

I went to 13 schools and visited 29 volunteers. I saw 15 of them teach. I met with each of the project leaders (separately and together). I helped solve problems and sort out miscommunications and differences in expectations.

Most of the problems tended to be due to differences in expectations. With a lot of listening and a bit a talking things through with both parties we managed to sort things out. Communication in a culture where you don’t know the underlying rules can be a bit tricky. And when you’re feeling somewhat stressed and out of your depth, you can become somewhat defensive. So part of my role was to try to make the volunteers feel more comfortable in their surroundings and give them positive things they could try to see if they could change their situation (or at least their outlook on their situation). Also, giving volunteers an insight into the sorts of experiences that others had had helped to give them perspective. We had a couple of largish problems (which were solved to the satisfaction of all concerned), but on the whole it all went quite smoothly.

Some of the project leaders did a great job of dealing with issues in the first instance. And Nueng was amazing in his ability to move heaven and earth to keep the volunteers happy.

We also had a couple of nights out. One involved a group of 17 of us going out in Chiang Rai. Good fun, though, after some investigation, I think I can now say with certainty that nightclubs really aren’t my thing. 🙂

It was a pleasure to see so many volunteers teach and to be able to give them advice and ideas for ways in which they could improve their teaching.

It was inspiring to see so many amazing ideas being practiced in school. And I have certainly stolen several truly awesome teaching activities. Yay! 🙂

One of my school visits coincided with a local English Camp for English teachers. It was two days of work on speaking, listening, reading and writing. There were 7 VESL volunteers there and we helped out with some activities. We ran some of our own. We sang. We did tongue twisters. We had a lot of fun!

I met some great people (Europeans and Thais). I had a lot of fun. I spent some time on buses. I ate lots of tasty food. I drank some heart-stopping coffee. I met some fantastic school students. I met some great teachers.

All in all, it was an amazing three weeks. I am honoured to have been a part of it this year. And I hope to be able to do it again in future.