About Me


Monday, June 29, 2009

Sanook Samui

Hey everyone! So I guess it's been a while since I last wrote (relatively, at least)- missed you guys. You probably didn't even recognize my blog- hope I didn't throw you all off too much with the curve-ball color scheme. But hey, it's a summer of change...

So before I get into last week, this happens to be a big week for me. Saturday, of course, is the big 7-4 (I'll be heading over to the American Consulate here in Chiang Mai for some hot dogs, fireworks, and watermelon-eating contests). Friday actually marks the half-way point of my time here in Thailand, which is kinda crazy. And today marks my tenth visit to this coffee shop, meaning I just got a free banana smoothie. Nice.

Ok, so just after I wrote last week, Molly and Ari arrived for their stay in Chiang Mai. I had a really amazing time with them the whole week- it was a pretty strange feeling though, having a conversation about Hall High and West Hartford with other people in Chiang Mai. Monday night we went out for some legit northern Thai food and headed to the jazz bar I talked about a couple of weeks ago for some live music. Tuesday was actually a very interesting night- we went out to the Night Bazaar area (and then actually back to the jazz bar for their 'Open Jam' night)- the cool thing though was that we went out with a guy they had met in Bangkok who had been an interrogator in the U.S. military. One of the most fascinating people I've ever met- he had some amazing stories from his time in Iraq. Molly and Ari had told me ahead of time about him and his incredible ability to read a person through their subtlest body language, which made me pretty much self-conscious about every time I blinked, flinched, averted my eyes, etc. Of course this just made blink, flinch, and avert my eyes more...he probably thought I had ties to the Iraqi insurgency...

Anyways, Thursday we had a really fun night out at a club called "Warm Up"- warming up for our weekend of warming up on the beach (sorry, too lame?). It was kinda Liz's last night (last night that I would see her) so we had the whole house + CCT crew out. Anyways, to sum up the night, the next morning in the Chiang Mai airport we had this random Thai guy come up and sit down next to us. He said something we didn't understand and received awkward looks for it, and then said "I met you last night! Did you finish the bottle?"...You know it's a good night when...

Anyways, so rewind to Friday morning, meeting Molly and Ari to go to the airport. Molly informs me about Michael Jackson's death. There's plenty being said about that already, but real quick: regardless of how creepy he got in his later years, the guy is an absolute legend and a once-in-a-lifetime talent. His "Dangerous" album was actually the first CD I ever owned.

Ok, so moment you've all been waiting for- finally arrived in Ko Samui after waiting for it all week, and it truly lived up to expectations. First of all, our guest house ("Penzy Guest House") was perfect- half of my Friday on the beach was spent just looking forward to sleeping in an air-conditioned room. I'm usually pretty easily amused anyways, but I was so pumped just for the simple pleasure of sleeping under a comforter. The house was pretty much right across the street from the beach, so between the ridiculous location and my short weekend there, I actually didn't really get to see a whole lot of the island. Friday afternoon, though, I went on a wicked long walk down the beach and found that where it looked like the beach ended from our original spot, it actually just curved around into another cove and just kept going. I actually wanted to keep exploring even further (I had walked for probably an hour and a half one direction) but storm clouds started coming in, and yeah, I was an hour and a half's walk from the guest house. That picture to the left is of the storm clouds coming in- pretty wild actually there was just this distinct divide between perfectly clear skies to the left of that crazy puffy cloud, and dark thunder clouds to the right.

We actually were very fortunate, though, in terms of the weather. Unfortunately it rained during all three nights (the worst on Saturday night, of course the night when we wanted to go out the most), but the days were perfectly clear the whole weekend. The only real bummer about this weather pattern was that it effectively killed any sunset photo opps. But I did get (what I think are) some pretty cool pics of crazy storm clouds. Speaking of Saturday and rain, we tried to go out that night to a reggae bar where we heard had live music and was supposed to be one of the hotspots on the island. But because of the downpour (we drove through several main roads that were flooded under 6 inches of water), we ended up being the only 3 people on the dance floor, dancing awkwardly to Shaggy (even the band had stopped playing). At least I had room to bust out my breakdancing?

So yeah, I pretty much laid out on the beach all day, every day. Actually, believe it or not, I even managed to not really get sun-burnt. It wasn't too impressive though- I'd say I got tanner, but probably not straight up tan. It's progress though. Anyways, there were some cool-looking tours that I would have liked to try out had I had more time, but a whole weekend on the beach was just what the doctor ordered. And the beach really was spectacular. Bleach-white and pillow-soft sand, and water like liquid glass. No waves, which of course are a ton of fun, but no complaints with being able to see the ocean floor standing in 3 foot water. Actually, the water stayed really shallow for a surprisingly long time, and even had some little sandbars scattered down the beach, so that I would have to go pretty far out just to get into water that was waist-deep. With some of my pictures, where it looks like they're taken from the middle of the ocean, I was likely standing in water that was barely knee-deep (at high-tide)

I actually was looking forward to getting back to Chiang Mai in one respect- to get away from all the taxi drivers/tailors/ anyone selling anything in Ko Samui. Tailors or guys working at restaurants along the main road would literally step in front of me and physically try to stop me as we were walking down the sidewalk to try to get me to buy a suit or a lobster or a ticket to a muay thai fight. No, friend, I don't want to buy a three-piece suit at midnight, nor do I want the Thai seafood at your restaurant after you just saw me sidestep 3 guys offering me the same thing at their restaurants. But you, Mr. Taxi Driver- I get weaker than Odysseus with your sirenically incessant calls of "taxi?! taxi?!".

Sorry, random rant, but overall it was an amazing weekend. This little guy in the picture to the right pretty much sums up my weekend/vision of the dream life.

So Monday was a bit rough; woke up at 4am to catch my flight back to Chiang Mai (which this time included a straight up sprint to my connecting gate in Bangkok, Home Alone style), and headed straight to work when I got back to Chiang Mai. But on the subject of work, we started up the Burmese intern program since I last wrote, contrary to what I was expecting. We have 7 really cool interns this summer in the office. They come from 6 different ethnic groups and regions of Burma, which makes for some really interesting and diverse cultural perspectives. They have varying levels of English, but with the exception of one (who does the translating) they pretty much range from very basic to very very basic. It's all good though, we get by with the translator and who knows, they might pick up some more by the end of the summer. Anyways, last week we started out light and basically talked about some cultural/pop cultural issues. I gave a presentation on music and dance in America (the day before Michael Jackson died) so got the go-ahead to basically search through Youtube videos last Thursday morning. It's actually pretty funny to hear the things that they are interested in learning about America- they were fascinated by the concept of online dating, and apparently there's some myth floating around Burma that Americans don't really like to wear clothes. Sometimes I feel like I'm just on an episode of Mythbusters...

This week we've gotten into some more substantive topics (to be continued next week- the Burmese interns are leaving tomorrow for some training sessions). Anyways, they're fascinated by the U.S. Constitution, the Revolution, etc. (which is of course understandable- consider hearing the story of the American Revolution if you were in such an oppressed nation on the verge of revolution itself). It's also been pretty amazing just talking to them outside of our little daily lessons- one girl (who speaks better English than most) was telling me how she found out about HREIB through these underground pro-democracy groups that she used to attend in Burma, about how she wants to go back home to teach her community the human rights and pro-democracy lessons she learns this summer, and how she has friends who are currently in jail just for printing pro-democracy pamphlets (in response to my question of how dangerous it would be for her to hold such lessons in her community).

Anyways, I'll have more updates after this weekend- hope everyone back home has a great 4th of July! I'm getting off now to try to do a little research for my senior thesis- just got an email a couple days ago saying that we need a 5 page proposal and a thesis advisor 3 weeks into the school year, after I've been thinking this whole time that we had till spring to find a topic to write on. Any other PPL folk as surprised by this, or was I just out of the loop?

Pop gan mai =)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Thailand, Huck-Finn Style

Alright, so I promised you all that this week's post would be more fun than last week's. I came through on my promise of more photos, and hopefully that correlates to more fun for you all. So for starters, nothing really too eventful at work yet- Dustin left to Bangkok for half of last week and all of this coming week, so we're probably going to hold off on the Burmese intern plan that I mentioned last week. Friday was a big day, though, for the Burmese community. It was Aung San Suu Kyi's birthday, so there were various events going on around the city largely in honor of her, but also as an opportunity to raise awareness about the situation in Burma. This turned out to be a nice little break from work for me on Friday afternoon- Terry and I left the office around noon and headed over to Chiang Mai University where they were having a series of panel speakers and open discussion about Burma and Suu Kyi. The talks were pretty interesting- going in I didn't think of the likelihood that everyone would be speaking Thai, but the University hooked us up U.N.-style and gave English speakers headphones with a live translation. The only problem was it got a bit awkward when the speakers would make a funny comment here and there, because I would chuckle a minute after everyone else had by the time the translator finally got to the comment, and the speaker had usually moved on to the less-funny topics of burning villages and arbitrary imprisonment...Anyways, one kinda cool part about the afternoon was that I got to meet the three English-speaking panelists: Parliament members from Singapore and Malaysia, and a Congresswoman from the Phillipines (sorry Adrian, can't remember her name). Very interesting to hear them talk, but at the same time a bit frustrating because a lot of their time was spent skirting the issue of taking direct action. When talking doesn't work with Burma...why not try more talking?

Anyways, after the talks, Terry and I headed over to Tha Pae gate where the Burmese community had organized food, music performances, and speakers to celebrate and demonstrate for Suu Kyi. It was a pretty cool scene- didn't stay too long, to be honest, but I did stick around long enough to see the re-enactment of the American swimming across the lake (moat) to Suu Kyi's house. I thought it was interesting that they made it almost comical- I guess maybe making fun of the American(s) specifically, maybe because it was a birthday celebration after all and they didn't want to make it too somber, but the humorous mood of the whole thing did just sort of strike me.

So Friday night I got home and randomly decided with the Irish girls to take on a three-part adventure on Saturday- I'll take you through the day one adventure at a time- basically yesterday was the highlight of my trip so far.

We woke pretty early Saturday morning and got picked up by the company we booked with. After about an hour and a half drive out into the middle of nowhere in the Thailand jungle, we got dropped off at a river bank and got suited up for the first part of our day- a 10k mountain bike ride. I guess it wasn't your crazy intense mountain bike ride where we were like hopping over logs and cliffs, but there were mountains (hills at least) and we were on bikes, so...As you can see from the pictures though, we were cruising through some gorgeous dirt roads along the Mae Kaeng river. Not gonna lie, I was huffing and puffing a bit after a few of the hills (plus, let me tell you, after a month or more of the rainy season, those 'roads' were not helpin me out at all) but all in all it was good to get a bit of a workout, and it was really great to just be back on a bike feeling like you're in the middle of nowhere- highly recommended, even if it means just taking a trip to the Bugbee woods...

Alright so, we finally got off the bikes, sweaty and gross (and a bit sore), and headed down to the launching site for our next event: elephant riding! Yes, I finally had my first experience with elephants in Thailand. They really are amazing creatures. First of all, you can't really get a sense of their size from just seeing them from afar in a zoo or something. These beasts are seriously massive. Actually, Kiera and Naomi's ride was especially massive- they got the Hummer of the group, I got the Porsche. Once again, we had about an hour-long trip through unbelievable terrain along the river banks. One of the things I was most amazed about with these animals was how they were so...nimble (for lack of a better word). Seriously, we were climbing up some pretty steep, very narrow, and very slippery paths, and these elephants never missed a step. I'm talkin about up-hill paths that are no wider than the elephant's foot (singular) and are straight up mud (again, after a month or so of the Thai rainy season). Kinda random, but really impressive. The other striking thing is how much of a personality these elephants had. One of them was pretty stubborn and kept wanting to eat leaves and branches and other elephant delicacies from the side of the paths. We actually had (prepare yourselves) a little baby elephant walking along next to us the whole time (no one was riding him, he just came along for the company I guess) and as would be expected he was the cutest thing ever. At one point he was carrying a branch in his trunk and just kept smacking the ground with it as he walked along. Cuteness factor peaked when we stopped to let the elephants have a water break at the river, and the baby elephant looked up at me and kinda started tapping me with its trunk to say hello. Side note about the elephants- Naomi had been taking pictures of me on my elephant, but somehow all the pictures she took yesterday got wiped from her camera. Hopefully she'll figure it out, but otherwise I'll have pictures of me on an elephant later in the summer after my next elephant riding experience. Anways, amazing, amazing time, but still not the best part of the day...

Got off the elephants (not as sweaty but a little more sore) and had about a half-hour of the bumpiest ride I've ever taken (basically in one of those songthaew-type of trucks) up-river to our lunch spot. Mingled with a group of Polish and Scottish tourists for a bit, had some lunch and delicious fruit, and got a little training sesh for the day's main event: white water rafting. Yes, I was extremely extremely excited. I've been wanting to go white water rafting for as long as I can remember. This was really an amazing introduction to the sport- luckily no injuries or mishaps, but thrilling enough to make me really want to do it again (perhaps the Colorado River on my trip out west?) A lot of the rapids we were riding were level 4 (out of 6)- the brochure said levels 4 and 5, but to be honest I kinda doubt any of the rapids we were doing were level 5, but who knows. Our timing was perfect- the company is actually shutting down the rafting after next week because the rainy season is making the waters too rough, so we squeezed it in just in time for peak excitement (actually, the company's name was Peak Adventures...so...there ya go). Our total distance travelled was over 10k on the river, so we were out there for a good amount of time- another good workout, this time for my arms/back- to be honest the position you have to sit in is a bit awkward/uncomfortable, but the whole experience is so active and exciting because you have the skipper in the back yelling to you for when to row, when to hold on, when to "get in" (for the most intense rapids), etc. I was sitting in the front seat the whole time, which was the wettest and the most fun. We actually ended up swimming in the river for a few minutes at one calm part- tried not to think about what could be brushing up against my legs in the brown river in the Asian jungle, but it was nice to cool off a bit. Again, really an amazing amazing experience- completely lived up to all the hype (that had built up in my own mind...) and is another highly recommended activity if you haven't already experienced it and ever get the opportunity.

So I think I'll leave it there for this week- short and hopefully sweet. Molly and Ari get here tomorrow which I am super psyched about. Ko Samui next weekend, which I am super super psyched about- next week I should for sure return with some more fun pics and stories (but you all might have to wait until after next weekend- I know I'm throwin a monkey wrench into the whole Saturday-Saturday routine). A couple of random things real quick though- I put the link to my webshots in the 'About Me' section on the side of the page for easier access- some more pics are up, and the album is new and improved with captions for all the pictures that are currently in it. But for some reason, webshots refuses to actually upload all the photos that it says it has uploaded. Still working on this- I promise I have a bunch more photos of everything I'm doing than what's actually up on webshots, but for now at least you got a sampling.

Hoping to balance out this awkward farmer's tan I got going next week,

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Bpaet pad pet

Sawatdee khrap! Man, another week down- I guess I'll just jump right in to my week since the last I posted...I think I mentioned this in my last post, but on Sunday I headed off to the ruins of an ancient city called Wiang Kum Kam with Hitomi and Sofia. Last week I also mentioned how the current provinces in Thailand each used to be their own kingdoms back in the day- well Wiang Kum Kam used to be the capital of the Lanna province before Chiang Mai took the title. It's actually a pretty amazing site- the reason they moved the capital to Chiang Mai was because Wiang Kum Kam was highly prone to floods. Turned out to be a smart idea to move, because back around the 15th century (I think...) there was an enormous flood that not only wiped out the city, but also brought in so much soil and earth with it that it left the city pretty much buried for the next 500 years. If you can tell from some of my pictures, the ruins look like they're in a sort of pit almost, like a mini-Mad Bowl if you will...basically just the visual evidence that once the excavators dug the buildings out (which was only about 30-40 years ago), they found the original ground level to be about 8 feet below what it is today. Anyways, that took up most of our Sunda- the different structures that you see in my pictures were all spread out (it was literally a whole ancient city), so we rented some bikes and just rode around the area for a few hours.

Not much else in terms of site-seeing this week. Tuesday night we had a big group go out to this jazz club type of bar inside the moat. It happened to be a sort of open-mic night, where they let anyone who wanted to get up on stage and jam with the band. Luckily everyone who got up was pretty legit, and they had some actual musicians there jamming with them. It was a pretty eclectic scene, and a lot of fun to just sorta chill and jam out to the jazz improv. I had literally just finished "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac (great book by the way, thanks for the recommendation Ric), and all I could think of were the scenes from that book where Sal and Dean are jamming out to jazz musicians in 1940's bars across the U.S. Speaking of "On the Road", after reading that book I've decided I'm taking a cross-country road trip at some point when I get back to the States. It's getting kinda old taking to foreigners and having to admit that I've never even been to the Grand Canyon or California. Who knew that most people in the world have never even heard of Connecticut? So yeah, if anyone is interested, I'm taking applications for co-pilot.

So this week we've had a bit of turn-over in the volunteer house. After Suzy and Dermot left last week, we had a group of five more volunteers come in. Liz from Scotland, Naomi and Kiera from Ireland, Verena from Germany, Katie from Alabama. They're all really nice and it's good to meet some new and interesting people from all over the world (though I gotta say, it's kinda nice having another American in the house- I don't think the Fourth of July is really big over here, but maybe we'll go wild and make some burgers or something).

Speaking of burgers, a lot of you have been asking about the food over here. I've been true to the experience and have had Thai food for literally every single meal since I've been here. What that means, though, is that I've basically had rice with every single meal since I've been here. It all really is delicious (and I'm developing a taste for spicy food- but man can Thai food be spicy- I bit into a chili last week and my mouth was on fire for a good 10-15 minutes...it wasn't just uncomfortable, it was seriously painful), but I gotta say I'm kinda starting to crave a good burger or steak. I guess I'm a bit of a carnivore, but all this tofu sometimes just doesn't stack up to a double stack. So for anyone in WeHa reading this, go to Max Burger, order the Fatty Melt, and appreciate it for all its glory.

More things American, I've had some pretty amusing conversations with the guys in the office this week. We've come to learn that Aaron (from Georgetown) is pretty much neurotic/paranoid about everything under the sun, but in a really funny way. He comes up with some conspiracy theory for every thing out there, and we had a pretty funny lunch the other day when we found out that he refuses to "open his mouth in the shower" because he's scared of getting some sort of disease. He's a really good sport about it though, and keeps us entertained. Oh and really random fun fact- yesterday at lunch we spent about an hour (gotta love working for free) debating whether the word "forte" (as in 'Singing is not really my forte') is properly pronounced "fort" or "fortay". Turns out, to our surprise and probably to yours, that "forte" when used in that context is actually supposed to be pronounced "fort". Does that blow your mind or what?

Sad note- Sofia left this week- she's off to travel the world some more (going to Malaysia, Spain, then eventually London- apparently Australia has some amazing vacation deals in their employment contracts).

Happy note- I just found out yesterday that in two weeks I'm going to be taking a long weekend to travel to Ko Samui! Yeah Google Image that one- I am unbelievably excited, especially since I'm actually going to be travelling with some (A)WeHa peeps (Molly and Ari, if you're reading this I seriously cannot wait). So yeah, I should have some gorgeous pics in a couple weeks from that trip.

Work is getting busier and busier, but more interesting every week. This week I got underway with the trafficked children project I mentioned last week. It's really fascinating reading through all these case studies, reports, etc. but at the same time it's a bit mentally reading about so many tragic stories. I really don't think I could have fully comprehended the fortune of living an American/Western life before reading study after study about the thousands of children from India, Southeast Asia, Africa, etc. who are abducted every year and trafficked into the sex industry or extremely hazardous working conditions. Even in the 'not-as-bad' cases, children sometimes 'voluntarily' leave their home before their 12th birthday, travel across a near-by border and work in a factory or on a farm because because their parents can't support them back home...

Apart from my individual projects, it's really an amazing time to be at HREIB this summer, surrounded by all the Burmese staff and activists while some really significant things are going on in Burma as we speak. One thing that some of you may have heard about is the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, which is about to take place in Burma (supposedly in the next couple of weeks). Suu Kyi was the 1991 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the daughter of General Aung San, who was the revered leader of Burma after the British gave up their colonial rule (and still is revered to this day). As a little side note, the country of Burma is made of seven different 'states', each with its own ethnic group, language, and culture. General Aung San had promised these states a sort of federalist system of government in Burma once the country gained independence, under which each state would maintain some degree of autocracy. He was soon assassinated, though, allowing the ruling military junta came into power. Calls for democracy eventually increased to the point where the nations students came together and organized huge peaceful protests in 1988, to which the government responded violently and killed thousands of demonstrators. In 1990 Burma held free elections, in which Aung San Suu Kyi won an overwhelming majority of the votes as the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), but the military junta ignored the results and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest where she has been ever since (for almost the past 20 years). Fast forward to this year, an American just very recently (in May) swam across a lake in front of Suu Kyi's house and stayed for a couple of days- the military government claimed she violated the terms of her house arrest and thus gave them the tiniest excuse they needed to put her on trial and sentence her to an actual prison term. If convicted, she would serve time in Insein Prison- without going into too much details, I can honestly tell you that I felt physically ill after reading a book about what they do to political prisoners in Insein and the living conditions inside the prison.

While I'm usually highly skeptical about any sort of conspiracy theory, I've actually been fairly receptive to people who've argued that the Burmese junta actually put the American guy up to swimming to Suu Kyi's house. First of all, you'd think that all the guards they have at her place would notice a guy swimming across a lake...The biggest factor, though, and the other reason why it's so exciting to be at HREIB this summer, is that Burma is due for an election next year, in 2010. If Suu Kyi is behind bars, she can't be put on the ballot. Not that it would really matter if she's on the ballot anyways, I guess. No one is expecting a democratic victory, much less the junta stepping down if the vote did indeed turn out against them. What will happen, though, is that the Burmese people will mysteriously vote to keep the existing government (reallistically out of fear for their own lives), and the government will turn to the international community and say "See? We're a legitimate government..." Part of the work that people in the office are doing right now is trying to develop a case and uncover actual hard evidence that these elections will be illegitimate. It's kinda sad, but without this actual hard proof the international community wouldn't really be able to do much about the election results, no matter how obviously illegitimate they are. It's amazing the type of corruption that really does go on- the trial was actually supposed to start last Friday, but Suu Kyi is appealing the court's decision to disallow one of her defense witnesses (out of the two witnesses they're allowing her anyways). To be honest, I would be shocked if she's not convicted- if nothing else, though, hopefully this raises some awareness when Burma imprisons a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

If you're wondering why the international community hasn't put more pressure on Burma, you're not alone. The crimes against Burma could literally be tried in the International Criminal Court (ICC) as genocide or crimes against humanity- this stuff is no joke, just the other day there were over 3,000 people (some reports say closer to 5 or 6,000) fleeing into Thailand because their villages in Burma were being ransacked by the military. At the least, you'd think that Burma might cave under some economic or political pressure. This is one of the most frustrating topics for people in the office, and anyone working for the Burmese cause. On the one hand, from everything I've read and heard, there's just too much red tape at the U.N. On the other hand, indvidual countries have gotten in the way of successful pressure. China is making use of its veto power as a permanent member of the Security Counsel to prevent Burma from being brought up on charges before the ICC, saying that the issues in Burma are merely an "internal affair." China and Thailand have also made it a bit easier for Burma to withstand any economic sanctions by continuing to buy from Burma's rich supply of natural gas (resource curse, IR majors?). Not trying to say that China is causing all the frustration...but actually yeah, it's all China. I still say those drummers from the Olympics were creepy...

Alright off my soap box- On a related note, the Burmese interns who I mentioned last week have slowly started to arrive, and I think all of them should be here by next week. I'm actually really excited about this program. Mike and Aung Myo Minh (the director of HREIB) really want us volunteers to interact a lot with the Burmese interns, so they've set up a program where pretty much every day for the rest of the summer, we're going to have two hours of exchange with them. Basically, for one hour, the three of us will teach them something "American" (really anything we want to teach or anything they want to learn about, from the Bill of Rights to MTV), and for the second hour they'll teach us something "Burmese" (again, same flexibility applies). Not only is this going to really break up the day's work haha, but I think it will be really fascinating to interact so much with a group of six Burmese people, and get to know them and their culture in a much more in-depth way than I was anticipating coming in to this experience. I think it's really cool of my supervisors to leave the program so open and flexible- I think both sides will learn a whole lot of interesting stuff that way. I'll share some of the things I learn throughout the rest of the summer.

Alright, well I guess I've already written enough for now. Sorry this post maybe wasn't as much fun as my previous ones (cause I know those were so much fun...I guess at least they had more pictures) but I figured I had to get some more Burma info out there since it's such a big part of what I'm doing over here. About to register for the LSAT now which is kinda terrifying... Speaking of the LSAT, anyone reading this take it already? I think they already had the June test...let me know how it went if you took it.

Oh quick random info: the title of this post is really random but is from another amusing interaction I had with my driver Ben- we've gotten into a habit on the rides to and from work where he will point to something on the road, ask me how to say it in English, and tell me the word in Thai. Earlier this week we passed some goats on the side of the road, and he told me the Thai word is "pad". To me it sounded exactly like "pet" which is the word for 'spicy' (Thai "d's" sound a lot like "t's"), so I expressed my confusion- he thought this was absolutely hilarious that I couldn't distinguish the difference between the two words. Both of the words also sound just like "Bpaet," which means "eight", so he got quite a kick out of the phrase "eight spicy goat", which basically sounds like you're saying the same word 3 times.

Ending on the language note, I got a new sign off this week for you all- I just learned that the phrase "law gawn" that I used last week means "see you later" but with the connotation that it will be quite a long time before we meet again.. So, new and improved "see you later":

Jeuh gan mai!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Starting to See Why They Call It 'The Rainy Season'...

Hi everyone! So it's pretty hard to believe that it's been over two weeks since I've left the States...This past week especially has really flown by. I'm getting more and more settled each day, and starting to feel a lot more comfortable getting around the city (until I have to cross the street). Chiang Mai is a pretty unique city in terms of layout and getting around. First of all, there are basically two distinct sections to the city- the old section is a giant square surrounded by a moat, and the newer section is everything outside of and around the moat. There are two roads that circle the inner city, one on the outside of the moat and one on the inside- both are one-way roads, but each go in opposite directions from the other (this setup can sometimes require some pretty roundabout routes to get to a relatively close-by destination. I actually thought that these one-way main roads would help me out when crossing the street (I tend to forget which way to look when people drive on the left hand side of the road), but it turns out that people here yield to pedestrians about as regularly as they yield to red lights (very rarely, even at crosswalks, even at a red light). Like I said last week, I could write forever about some of the maneuvers I've seen on the road, but I don't want to get started right now.

Luckily the public transportation system here is a cheap, fun (and relatively safe) way to get around here. Apparently there are only about fifty metered taxis in the whole city- I've seen maybe one or two maybe one or two around since I’ve been here. The main forms of public transport are tuk-tuks and songthaews. Tuk-tuks are basically three wheeled motorbikes, with the driver up front and room for two passengers in the back seat, named for the noise their motors make. They're a lot of fun but relatively expensive (by Chiang Mai standards...they'll still take you basically anywhere in the city for less than $2 U.S.). The other unique thing about tuk-tuks is that you negotiate the price with the driver before getting in for the ride. This sounds good but can be annoying when drivers will sometimes try to rip off ferrangs (foreigners).

Two quick but related side-note quirks about Chiang Mai: a.) the price for pretty much everything not in a mall is negotiable. They say to start as low as half the asking price for anything you see in the markets, so I'm working on my bargaining-related Thai words/phrases (I've actually got my numbers down pretty well and can say 'Can you make it lower please?'). b.) There is always a different (higher) price for ferrangs. Many people will offer you different prices when bargaining, which I can understand, but there are even different admission prices for things like temples, parks, basically anything that would charge admission. Can you imagine a system like that in the U.S.? If anything we charge lower admission prices for 'ferrangs'- I heard its free admission for ferrangs at the Mexico border...yiiiiikes too political?

Ok sorry for the tangent, but back to getting around. So the other cool option they have here are called songthaews ('theaw' pronounced 'tao' or like 'tow' in 'tower'). The word literally means 'two rows'- basically you sit in sort of a covered bed of a pickup truck, with two rows of benches facing each other along the sides. There are different color songthaews (yellow and white ones operate on a fixed route like a bus) but the best are the red trucks, which operate basically like a taxi- they'll take you anywhere you want, but you'll be generally riding with several other people meaning you'll have to make some other stops before you reach your destination. The upside is that they cost a basically fixed rate of 20 Baht to go anywhere in the city (keep in mind throughout these posts that the exchange rate is $1= 34B, so 20B is less than 60 cents). It's going to be really hard going back to New York and paying close to $10 for a cab ride...

I didn't write anything really about the city itself last week, so before I get to my week I'll just mention a couple more little quirks that I've noticed- there are so many so I'm not going to get to all of them this week, but I'll keep adding them throughout the summer.

One interesting thing is the people's strong desire to be as white as possible (as opposed to the U.S. obsession with tanning). I mentioned the heat last week- it will be over 90 degrees and like 1000% humidity and yet you still see people driving their motor bikes in pants, a jean jacket, gloves, a hat, and a bandana over their face (bank robber style) to protect every inch of themselves from the sun. People walk around with umbrellas not because it's raining but because they want to block the sun (this seems to be fairly common with monks who can't otherwise cover themselves with the extra clothing).

There are stray dogs literally everywhere you look, and yet it's been really interesting to me that you never ever see any of them approach humans, not even just to come say hello (for anyone who's known the dogs I've had, you can see why this would be surprising). Some of them are really gross street dogs, but some of them actually look really cute and it's been tough sometimes resisting the urge to pet some of them. But I've gotten my fill with my new buddies Murphy and Mia, who are owned by one of the directors of Cultural Canvas. Mia is a bit of a psycho, but a sweetheart nevertheless and still just a pup, and Murphy is just the coolest- he's a really chill boxer who just lets Mia jump all over him.

Some of the stereotypes about Thailand are true- it's definitely not hard to find a sketchy looking old white guy with a 20 year-old sketchy looking Thai girl on the back of his motorbike. Maybe he thought that her friendly offer for 'good time' meant companionship for a scenic drive through the city?

Apparently Korean pop/Korean boy bands are seriously HUGE here. I know, surprising right? I didn't even think Korean pop was huge in Korea...

There are food vendors literally on every street, on every corner, sometimes along the whole street itself. It seems like there aren't a whole lot of restaurants as we know them in the U.S., but the food from the street vendors is amazing. It's not like New York where all you can get on the street is a pretzel or a hotdog- these people sell every type of (Thai) food you can think of or possibly want, and it's all delicious and fresh. Not really a quirk but one of my favorite things about Chiang Mai- the other night I went out to get dinner and had a full meal from one of the street vendors for 40 Baht (see above conversion). Amazing...

One more funny little development- so I've recently started communicating a lot more with my driver, Ben. He speaks a little more English than I originally thought, and he's been teaching me some new words and phrases in Thai on the rides home from work. I'm not even sure how this started, but recently on every ride home whenever he sees some Thai girl(s) on a motorbike that he likes (which happens quite often), he goes "Ahh suay suay!" and starts hysterically laughing (suay means beautiful). He seriously thinks it's the funniest thing in the world- all I can think of when he does it is the 'shwing shwing' from Wayne's World (Kadden, if you're reading this, you know what I'm talking about). Anyways, he's a crazy cat, but I'm glad I've actually started learning some Thai from him.

Alright so I guess on to my week's activities: So last Sunday, as I mentioned in my last post, I took a trip up to a temple called Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep with three of the other volunteers in the CCT house. Just as a little background info, Chiang Mai is bordered just to the north by a gorgeous mountain range, nothing too huge but literally right next to the city. Doi Suthep is up this mountain a bit, maybe 10 kilometers outside the city (metric system...so exotic).

We got a songthaew to take us up to the base of the temple grounds, where we then climbed an enormous staircase that leads up to the temple itself. Apparently the story with this temple is that back in the 1300s, an elephant was sent out to carry a Buddhist relic to a king in a nearby kingdom (back in the day, each present-day province in Northern Thailand, including Chiang Mai, was its own kingdom). The elephant never made it to the king- it collapsed near the top of the mountain and died. The king saw it as a religious sign and ordered the temple to be built at the site of the elephant's death. Anyways, it's a beautiful temple, and still an active religious site- many people were praying at various Buddhist shrines, and there were little chapel-type rooms where people could be blessed by monks. When the clouds would move out of the way, we got some really spectacular views of Chiang Mai and the surrounding area.

After the temple, we headed a bit further up the mountain to Phu Phing, the Queen's winter palace (with our same songthaew driver- he ended up waiting for us at each of our stops and was basically our group's personal driver for the whole day, all for 150 Baht per person). The palace itself wasn't really anything special- it was pretty but built in the 1970s and basically looked like just a big house, but the grounds were beautiful. Unfortunately, my camera ran out of batteries at this point, so I don't have any pictures, but we basically just walked for a bit through the gardens and other cool areas.

After the palace, we headed back down the mountain a bit to a waterfall that we had heard was really beautiful. When we got to the waterfall (which lived up to the hype) we found out that there was a trail you could take up the mountain to see a series of about nine waterfalls- a total trek of about 9 kilometers to the top. We decided to check it out and started up the nice, well-worn path, with a make-shift hand rail and everything, to the second waterfall level. When we decided to keep going, though, the hand rail soon disappeared and before we knew it we were hiking up a very steep, very slippery 'path' through legit jungle. I'm not kidding you, I felt like I was in 'Nam or something. Even though I was in boat shoes through all of this (fratty) since it was pretty improptu, it was one of the coolest outdoorsy things I've ever done. Every waterfall was absolutely beautiful, and we actually made it pretty far up the mountain before we decided to head back. Unfortunately, like I said, my camera was dead so I don't have pictures right now, but I'm going to try to get the other people I was with to email me some of theirs, and I might even go back one of these days with a full battery to get some pictures of my own- it was that amazing.

Today, Sophia, Hitome and I went out on a little 'river cruise'- basically took a boat ride with and got a little history tour of Chiang Mai. It was a lot of fun, and pretty interesting as well. Suzie and Dermot had their last night in the house last night, which was pretty crazy to think about- I'll miss their crazy Irish accents. Four more volunteers are arriving today- haven't met them yet but I'll have updates next week. Tomorrow, I think Sophia, Hitome and I are going to venture out to some ancient city on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, and maybe do a little bit of exploring from there. I'm looking forward to it, so again next week hopefully I'll have some cool stories/pictures.

So I'm realizing that I didn't really say much about my organization last week, so here's an overview of what it's all about: Part of what HREIB does is conduct research and documentation about human rights violations in Burma, which it uses to compile reports in order to increase the international community's awareness of these violations. One of these reports is on Children Involved in Armed Conlfict, which a lot of you probably heard me talk about, as its the one that originally caught my attention about this organization. Actually, my supervisor Mike is currently preparing for a trip to New York, where he will be presenting this report's findings to a U.N. commission.

As its name suggests, though, the organization's main focus is on grassroots human rights education for Burmese people, in order to empower individuals and communities with the knowledge and tools needed for social change. The story behind the organization's founding is actually pretty interesting: its founder (a Burmese man) was working on a project related to human rights in Burma one day, when he was approached by another Burmese man and asked "What are human rights?" The simple question made him realize that calls for social change would be futile if the local people do not even know what their rights are. So he established HREIB and has since aimed to 'train the trainers' through workshops and training modules for local Burmese community leaders, so that these local leaders can return to their communities and spread awareness of human rights. Recently the organization has been looking to reach deeper into inner Burma, but this is actually a really dificult and dangerous task (so a lot of their work takes place in refugee camps along the border). A good part of the organization's inner network is actually in prison right now for their afilliation with HREIB, and even my American supervisor can no longer safely go into Burma because they are aware of his affiliation.

This all puts into perspective how brave the people I work with are- there is a whole Burmese staff working in the office, who are risking their liberty to fight for their cause- realistically it would be dangerous for them to even return to Burma to see their families. They're all amazing people and I'm really excited to continue getting to know them this summer. Actually, in the next couple of weeks the office is bringing in a group of Burmese interns to live and train in Chiang Mai at the HREIB office, so I'm excited to meet and interact with that group as well.

Couple of new developments at work this week: First, the third summer intern started in the office- his name is Aaron, another law student from the states and also a very cool guy. Second, I got started on the two main projects that I'll be working on for probably the next few weeks at least (maybe the rest of the summer depending on how in depth they want me to get). The first is working on a plan/proposal for working out a type of exchange program with other human rights institutes and centers (especially at universities) around the world. The idea is to bring in visiting scholars to HREIB to share their expertise and continue their own research, and to bring in visiting students for a sort of interactive study abroad program. The other side of the coin would be to possibly send Burmese students and activists to foreign universities to allow them to train and study to further educate them about human rights. The second project I'll be working on is doing research about the re-integration of trafficked children back into their home communities (looking at case studies, seeing what worked, what didn't, and basically overall experiences I guess). The final product, eventually, will be to put together a educational publication about re-integrating trafficked children, to be used in HREIB's training modules and educational endeavors. I'm really excited about both of these projects and I'm looking forward to making some good progress on each in the next couple of weeks, so I'll keep you updated on how those go.

Again, I still have plenty to say about HREIB, my internship, and Burma in general, but in the meantime keep doing your background reading if you're interested. For a good source of up-to-date happenings in Burma, check out www.irrawaddy.org . Also, here's a link to a report from the Harvard Law Human Rights program that gives a pretty good run-down of the situation: http://www.law.harvard.edu/programs/hrp/documents/Crimes-in-Burma.pdf

Sorry, I'm just realizing how long this post has gotten, but hey, as Billy Joel says, I am the entertainer...I'll sign off for now with more info next week. There's some sort of festival apparently going on tonight, which I think I'll check out for a bit. More photo opps hopefully. Anyways, thank you all for the messages/posts- please keep them coming, I love hearing from all of you.

Random closing note for all you Cavaliers reading this- I was sitting last night typing some of this post in my bedroom (where there is no internet access) and my little wireless connection box popped up in the bottom right corner of my screen and said that I was connected to the 'wahoo' network...Despite the signal strength being 'very low', Mr. Jefferson and his University never cease to amaze me...

Law gawn ('see you later'),

PS One last thing- After a whole lot of struggling I've finally gotten a good amount of my pictures up on the web, so check out http://community.webshots.com/user/sas3ef if you're interested. Still not all of my pics (for some reason they were uploading strangely), and titles/captions are forthcoming, but at least its a start. PZ