Monday, January 28, 2013

My retreat

Now that the fight is over, my hardest applications are in, and I can clear my mind, I decided to take a trip. Well I didn’t really decide. I needed to renew my visa because the Philippines only gave me 3 months on a work visa, and I needed it to last until the end of March. So I had to take a trip to the border to get a visa extension. P’Sonya knows I don’t like to miss classes, so she told me I could go during midterm exams when I don’t have to teach, but then there would be no teachers available to help me (because the Thai teachers have to proctor exams- teachers can’t miss days when they need to proctor, but if it was a normal teaching day, they could easily skip class to take me, haha). No problem! I can speak Thai and take a bus by myself and just do it on my own. Knowing I needed to make the trip early in January, I didn’t mind that I hadn’t traveled at all for the King’s birthday or for New Years. I wanted to make this visa run into my own trip. And it couldn’t be at a better time.

I left on Saturday morning for Tak, the province East of Sukhothai that borders Myanmar. As is always the case, my first obstacle was getting OUT of Sukhothai bus terminal. I took the bus there from Sawankhalok, and upon my arrival, my old friend/stalker P’Pin was there. It had been almost a year since I had talked to P’Pin, and I didn’t miss him one bit. He supposedly works at the bus station, but he is the least helpful person there. Every time I go, he tells me the wrong bus information, tells me I don’t need a ticket, and tells me to just sit with him while I wait. The people at the bus station love me, so the three hours that P’Pin made me wait went by quickly as I caught up with all the folks I hadn’t seen in a long time. But I was really annoyed because I kept seeing buses that were definitely going to pass through Tak and I wasn’t getting on any of them, because P’Pin said that it wasn’t my bus yet, or that one was full already, or it was going in the wrong direction. Whatever, P’Pin. So I escaped to go to the bathroom, and found a new friend to help me get a ticket and get me on a bus, which happened in 15 minutes. I think I’m at the point where I speak just enough Thai that I’m not completely hopeless so people know I can get around on my own okay, but not enough to understand everything that’s going on around me. Hence my 3 hour delay to Tak. But one hour bus ride later, and I was in the main city of Tak. I called a teacher from the Philippines that I had met at a competition months ago that lived in the city and asked her how to get around from the bus station. She said, “Can you wait there? I’ll be right there.” I insisted all I needed was the name of a hotel downtown and I could get around from there, but in half an hour she was at the bus station with her Thai friend and one motorcycle. So the three of us spent the afternoon riding around the city crammed on her little motorcycle, seeing everything that Tak has to offer. Vanessa, the Filipino girl, has been living in Tak for 6 years now, and Fern, the Thai girl, her whole life. But both of them had never been to a lot of the places they took me to. We started with lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant with NAM NUENG! I was in heaven; then to the biggest swamp in the city, which is poorly maintained and kind of an eye sore now, but has so much potential to be awesome; to the Shrine for Taksin the Great, who was the King of Thailand known for protecting Thailand from the Burmese way back when (not Taksin Shinawatra, the ex-Prime Minister who is exiled from the country…not that Taksin the Great, haha); then to the oldest bridge in Tak in the middle of a rice field; then to the burial site of people who were sacrificed alive…really eerie and kind of odd; then to a temple that is also kind of odd because there is a drum that if you rub a certain way will make a high pitched whistling sound- if you can make the drum hum like that, your wish will come true but we tried several times until a monk had to step in to show it how it was done, then asked me to continue the humming, which I couldn’t do; then to the suspended bridge over the Ping River in the middle of Tak’s beautiful waterfront- which is Tak City’s one and only famed tourist attraction- to watch the sunset; then finally to dinner at an American restaurant where we feasted on pizza, buffalo wings and a salad. It’s a good thing I got to Tak three hours later than I planned. I was exhausted by our non-stop sprint through every last inch of Tak. So we took some last pictures by the bridge, and I headed back to my hotel to get ready for my next adventure.

Early in the morning, I headed to the bus station to catch a van to Taksin Maharat National Park. The van on the way to Mae Sot dropped me off at the road to the park, where I walked 2km to the entrance gate at 7:30 in the morning. The guards were delighted to see this little farang girl walk up to the gate by herself. I asked for a tent, a sleeping bag, and paid the discounted entrance fee, which went from 200 bhat to 40 bhat for being able to speak Thai, hopped on the back of a guard’s motorcycle, and he took me to the campsite. It was PACKED! The sun was still rising, and whiskey bottles were still out and the campsite was alive with teens, families, and groups of friends around my age. The guard plopped me down in the middle of the chaos with a front-row view of the rising sun over the distant mountains separated from me by a deep valley. He helped me set up my tent, and then I immediately retreated away from the mass of scary Thai people that might talk to me. I think normally I would be excited to be able to meet Thai people and practice Thai, but there were so many Thai people and I was the only farang, and a GIRL farang at that, and the prospect of having to talk to so many people seemed exhausting. In these situations, I usually get several offerings for marriage, or at least am forced to promise to bring some girls from America for them to marry. I usually get a stalker or two that gets my phone number and calls me non-stop for weeks, and MOST DEFINITELY, I get sucked into having to teach someone English on the weekends. To avoid all of these, particularly the last one, I retreated into the forest as quickly as possible. I started on the only trail at the park, which was a 2km hike to a big tree, then a 1km hike to a waterfall. This park is famous for this big tree, the Krabak tree which is the biggest in Thailand. The hike was along the river, and was really beautiful. It was super peaceful too because I was the only one on the trail since there is an alternative route that you can drive to then walk down stairs to get to the tree. The biggest Krabak tree in Thailand wasn’t very appealing to me, having been to the Redwood Forest in Northern California which I think is more impressive, so I moved on to the waterfall. Again, another quiet hike. And this attraction doesn’t have a parking lot, so there was no one at the waterfall. I’ve been to many waterfalls in Thailand, more than I can count by now, but this one was the most beautiful one I’ve ever been to.

I spent an hour at the bottom of the waterfall, with lack of anything else to do really, before meandering my way back to the campsite. I had spent about three hours on the hike, and emerged from the forest around noon to a completely empty campsite. Being a Sunday afternoon, the weekend partiers had all packed up and left! Whew. What a relief. There was one couple and a group of three girls that were staying another night, and though our tents were next to each other, we never really crossed paths. I spent the afternoon finding different views of the surrounding mountains to read and nap, the only person I interacted with being the woman at the canteen. It was eerie to walk into the empty canteen. I felt like I had just missed a party, with messy plates and glasses still left behind. When I ordered food, she frowned, wanting to pack up and go home after the weekend rush. But as soon as she handed me my pathetic mixed vegetables over rice, she gave me a wide smile and asked me where I was from and why I was traveling by myself. When I went back for dinner, she smiled wider and asked me more details about what traveling I was doing. (Then she betrayed me by not opening in the morning- taking a personal holiday so I got no breakfast. The canteen is the only option for food, except for the closed mini-store, unless you have a car/motorcycle to take you to the main road and drive however many miles to the closest restaurant or store) I was worried about the evening- not out of safety, but out of boredom. I don’t know if I’ve ever had such a large span of time where I was by myself, with no cell phone service or internet, and no one to talk to. I had a great book my aunt had sent me for Christmas about a woman who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail by herself, perhaps the first woman to do so, and so I entrenched myself in the book and I became that independent, lonely woman. I also convinced myself that I should hike the Pacific Crest Trail when I finish my masters degree (if I get in?!?!) but I’ll probably forget about that dream by then. Surprisingly I didn’t get bored though! It was great to get absorbed into a book, something I haven’t done since I lived with my grandmother at the beach when I was kid, and it was nice to be alone. After the sun went down, I laid on the roof of the canteen and watched for shooting stars. I got to make three wishes before heading back to my tent and falling asleep by 8PM.
That was the first time I was able to sleep through the night in a tent. I think it was because of the adorable “I love you” pillows with hearts that the park officer gave me. I woke up 10 hours later just in time for sunrise. I opened the front of my tent and watched the sunrise over the mountain cliffs, still snuggled in my sleeping bag.

Having been betrayed by my canteen lady, I left the park by 8, hungry, and ready to go to the border to get this visa thing finally taken care of (I was able to do this trip over the weekend because the immigration office is only open Monday-Friday, so I designed my trip to get me to the border by Monday). In my planning, getting the van to Mae Sod (the border) from the National Park seemed as easy as getting dropped off at the National Park from Tak. In reality, no one actually does that except for crazy farang traveling by themselves (who probably don’t even do that- I think I am the only one), and it was a lot more annoying than I thought. The vans pass through every half hour, but the first two were full already, and not willing to stop for the crazy farang on the side of the road to try to fit her in which would be easy to do. They displayed this to me by flashing their lights while I frantically waved my arms as they sped past. I sat down in the only spot of shade behind a bush, watching people go in and out of the park, staring at me. I had been on the side of the road for over an hour, really hungry, when finally a woman saved my life. She came out of the park on her motorcycle and asked me where I was going. She carefully instructed me that I cannot get into a car with any strangers and I must wait for a van. After her instructions, she was about to go, but changed her mind and told me to get onto her motorcycle and she would take me to a better place to wait. So she took me to a strawberry farm where I could stand in the shade and wait, and gave me her number to call her when I’ve made it safely to Mae Sod. The guys working on the farm one by one stopped their work to one by one ask me where I was going. Convinced this wasn’t the right place to wait, they flagged down another girl on a motorcycle to take me a bit further up the road to another place that was a better idea than the strawberry farm. This place was a police check point, where we strolled up with no helmets. That wasn’t the concern though. The concern was if I could speak Thai, which the girl on the motorcycle insisted I could. So the police took me in, and let me wait and watch TV with other police that weren’t doing anything. One of them struck up a conversation with me, asking where I’m from, where I’m going, why I’m traveling by myself, the usual. Turns out he graduated from SawanAnan 10 years ago, and was upset there was no one to help me get to Mae Sod. So he gave me his number, and insisted that I call him when I safely get to Mae Sod, and next time I go on a trip to tell him so he can make sure I have a friend to go with (this friend is him, which will probably never happen. At least he didn’t ask me for English classes) After meeting Yod the cop, I think I now have met more cops than teachers, which is pretty remarkable for never actually having a problem where I need the cops. Though if I ever do, I have plenty of cops. Even more remarkable, this is the first time I’ve met a cop and he was sober.

Having the police stop the van and insist they take me to Mae Sod is probably the only way I would have ever gotten to Mae Sod without hitchhiking on the back of random women’s motorcycles all the way. I sat in the aisle of the van for the short ride remaining to Mae Sod, and as promised called my helpers to ensure them I made it there safe. I checked into an adorable little place called Green Guesthouse, and went to FINALLY get breakfast. I had heard about this Canadian place in town that had bagels and coffee (bagels basically don’t exist in Thailand, so this was a surprise), so I went straight there. Every once in a while, I crave breakfast sandwiches, and having a bacon egg and cheese on a bagel with a coffee reminded me WHY I missed them so much. I was in farang heaven.

There’s actually a lot of farang in Mae Sod, a lot more than I thought for a small town. Many work here for NGO’s for Burmese refugees. A lot of them are missionaries, which are easy to spot cause the women wear long skirts. And there is a small population of tourists like me coming to take care of their visa, though they usually have someone to take them around, unlike me, so they don’t actually stay in the city. After finally getting food (and too much of it), I went to go take care of this visa thing. I had spent weeks getting the paperwork together with P’Sonya to make sure that everything was perfect and in order, especially since I was doing this on my own. It took me a while to figure out where to get the ride to the border, then once at the border, where the correct immigration office is, then at the immigration office why everything was closed to find out they were on their lunch break. So I wandered around to the river that borders Thailand and Myanmar, and marveled at the shallow depth that keeps the Burmese from crossing over, with a measly strip of easily hop-over-able barbed wire. And no guards. Well, I didn’t think about that for too long, because it was 1:00 already and I could go get my visa extension. Weeks of paper work and three days of (optional) travel to spend less than ten minutes in the immigration office and be awarded my visa extension. SO easy! P’Sonya prepared me well. So I spent the rest of the afternoon shopping at the border market, looking for a good gift for P’Sonya and the other teachers in the department.

I was exhausted when I came back into the town of Mae Sod from the border. After freshening up at my sad little hotel room, I took a stroll around the municipal market, which is HUGE and incredibly diverse. Mae Sod is known for its cultural diversity, having goods from Thailand, Burma, hill tribes, Muslim communities and India. As well as people from all those denominations. And their diversity of goods are scattered throughout this huge market. I unintentionally wandered around it for over an hour, trying some street Burmese food, before taking a rest at a Burmese restaurant that donates 20% of its profits to an NGO. I tried their specialties: Tea leaf salad and pumpkin curry, which were both out of this world amazing. Then I went back to the Canadian place to have a glass of wine (farang heaven) before going to back to the hotel to sleep on the last night of my adventure.

I woke up early in the morning to try the variety of breakfasts scattered throughout town. After passing some Buddhist monks receiving offerings along the street, I had curry and tea at an Islamic restaurant outside of the mosque, then walked through the market to a Burmese tea shop where I had sweet milk tea with roti and a little sampling of Burmese baked goods. Tummy full of international treats, I packed up my things and walked to the bus station. Van to Tak, bus to Sukhothai, bus to Sawankhalok, with each transfer less than 5 minutes, and I was home in less than 3 hours. Stupid Sukhothai bus terminal. Next time, I'm only speaking English.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Words of wisdom from my students

Excerpts from some holiday activities I did with my students:


To Santa,

I've been good this year because I want many friend and I'm beautiful. I'd like to have want to gift and doll. I pinki promise I will believe in santa and I have happiness family. Thank santa, and "Merry Christmas". I love you Santa

-Golfpy, M5/5

To Santa. Hello! My nickname is Sun. I am a good kid because I feed my dog and my fishs. I want gift. I want go to space. I cook for Santa in space. Thank you Santa.

-From Sun, M4/3

Dear Santa,

Christmas this year. I was good for Santa to give a gift to me. THis year, I'm getting a good job to help the school. Help parents work. And the good of society. I was not good because I had a gift, but I'm getting better with it. What I want is wings. Because I want to go wherever. I like birds. Next year I will make good by being good to parents, and a good citizen. 
Hope that Santa will read a letter.

-From Zee, M4/3

Dear Santa (Korin),

I've been a good girl because I have been studying so hard and get 4.0 grade for many term. I help my parents to take care their job. I talk more polite. I take care other feel more and I help  my town to save accident and most problem on flooding's day such as I have made emergenzy toilet for victim. Hahaha!!!
So on Christmas Day I want something cool. It may be IPhone 5, extra power, D.I.Y. gift or food. 
Next year I promise I will be better than now and I'll love you more. Especially I will not forget to wish something what I want to you. Again and Again.

-From Miw,  3/01


-I promise to love the world; Mod, 4/2

-I want to taller than you (Kru Korin). I’m very low;  Frame, 4/1

-I will love my girlfriend forever;  Pooh, 5/5

-I will calm down;  Pear, 4/01

-I will be eating vegetables but I don’t like it;  Ice, 4/1

1.       play games
2.       travel
3.       eat eat eat and eat
4.       get up late
5.       loose the weight
Mo, 4/1

-Look for real love in Korea;  Kanphiram, 4/1

-I’m going to sleep to speed things up; Nan, 5/5

-I will play computer games all day all night;  Boat, 5/5

-Stop drink coke. (ToT) (noooo!) <<+ (-- ) (lose weight!!!);  Ing, 4/1

-I do not fear anyone; Boss, 5/5

-I want to go to the space in the future;  New, 5/5

-forget someone;  Miew, 4/1

-I will not copy your homework;  Kik, 4/1

-I will use money economizely;  Bow, 4/1

-I will have a girlfriend everyday;  Big, 5/5

-Visit Kru Korin at America;  Nine, 4/2

-I want to eat cake;  Kae, 5/5

FROM MIDTERMS: the prompt was "Why is it important to protect the environment?" I was worried about this exam, because it's a hard topic for them to write about without dictionaries or notes. But this girl rocked it:

Once upon a time, the world is very beautiful and freshy. in the ocean have many sea animal, fish, and colorful sea flowers. In green forest they have long trees. The animal love the world. Suddenly, the god make 1 man and 1 woman. The god said to little humans "Please protect and love your world, it's a last thing that I can do". The god smile and flying to the heaven in blue sky. Little human smile and said "Yes, I will love this world every day!"
But 10 years later from 2 people before 100 people. Many people cut the trees, catching the fish and kill many animal for them fur clothes, them shows, bags and hats. People forgot the god.
Sooner or later the world will be fulled of pollution. People will dead. But 1 little people think "Nowaday we destroy our world, I'm sorry..." He said and cry. "I promise, I will take care and protect you, my world"

So! I think, I want to protect my world. Because the world will be with me forever! haha! =D

-Gam, 4/1

This midterm was following a debate I had set up in my M4 classes about global warming. I split them into four groups: 
-Scientists that don't believe in global warming, 
-Scientists that say humans cause global warming, 
-Average Jo who doesn't know what global warming is, and

4/01 did an amazing job with this. After two hours of debate and everyone decided the we should all love penguins and let them live in our refrigerators if necessary, the closing comments from the scientists were "Penguins, all of us are trying to save you. Now what are you going to do for help us?" Average Jo chimed in and said, "Yeah Penguins, you do nothing, you just go around and eat fish. You don't plant trees!" The Penguins replied, "If another life is true, I will born to be humans like you. เราเจอกัน" 

Monday, January 7, 2013

A New Year

I made several New Year’s resolutions this year. This first was to update my blog!!! Another one was to take a picture every day (which is easy, I usually take several) and create a photo album of a picture a day to see what changes happen in my life over the course of this year. A friend of mine did something like this a few years ago, and I think this is a good year for me to do it, because 1. this will hopefully be a big year for me if I get into graduate school for the fall, and 2. I think 13 is a lucky number thus 2013 is a good year to try this out. Of course getting into grad school was on my resolutions list. We’ll see how that goes. I’ve been pouring my heart into these applications, and as of today I have sent my heart to Berkeley, MIT and Pratt, with University of Washington and Tufts in the works.

My last resolution was to fight in a real Muay Thai fight. This resolution was easy to fulfill, because I had promised my Muay Thai trainers that I would fight on New Year’s Day, though the whole time I was crossing my fingers it wouldn’t happen. I was still scared to actually fight. I had backed out of my first fight, it having been scheduled 3 days before my application to Berkeley was due. But I couldn’t back out of my next fight, which was actually scheduled two days before my MIT application was due. So New Year’s Day. I fought in my first Muay Thai fight. It required a ton of training. I was running about 7 miles every morning I had time to, and training every afternoon I had time to train. Leading up to my fight on January 1st, I was a mental wreck. I was spending every last brain cell worrying about either my physical preparedness to fight, or my mental preparedness to finish the MIT application. Both were wearing me down. On top of that, I had broken up with my newly acquired Thai boyfriend, and so I was also an emotional wreck. It was a holiday from school, Bryan’s family was visiting from the Philippines and went on a trip to Chiang Mai for New Years, and I was all alone in our house for four days…training like mad for the fight and spending every minute in between writing essays. It was not a fun time in my life.

For New Year’s Eve, the night before my debut as a Muay Thai fighter, I went back to some old friends. I had spent the afternoon helping my first friend in Sawankhalok, Mint, get away from her crazy family. We took an impulsive road trip to the national park, over an hour away, just to turn around and drive back because she was worried her parents would get mad she was gone for so long. So we came back to Sawankhalok and had Khao Soi for dinner.
Then I went to see P’Chompu, and P’Dii, friends I haven’t had time to visit in way too long. I made up with my boyfriend, though things aren’t the same and never will be with him. And I spent the passing of New Years with my best ever friend in Sawankhalok- BaNee. When I knew I wouldn’t be spending New Years with my boyfriend, and that Bryan would be away, I went to BaNee. She saved my New Years by inviting me to go to a temple with her for the passing of the New Year. She picked me up, and three of us, BaNee, her sister and myself, went to Wat SawangAram around 10PM. Everyone dressed in white, I saw many of my students and acquaintances from Sawankhalok, and immediately felt welcome.

 We picked up the evening’s prayer books, sat down with me in between my two aunts, and started chanting. I didn’t realize we would make it through all 40 pages of the book, but we chanted through the whole thing, BaNee’s fingers tracing almost every word for me so I could keep up with the quick Thai. After an hour, I really couldn’t read the Thai anymore, but that didn’t stop BaNee from leading me through the whole session. The chanting escalated as it approached midnight. The sounds of the fireworks, the birds chirping in the trees, and the monk’s echoing voice became almost deafening. Just after midnight, we were supposed to go into meditation- but I was so distracted by everything happening around me, plus I didn’t exactly notice it was supposed to be meditation time because I was busy watching the fireworks and listening to the birds go wild. After our last set of chants, BaNee rushed me into the temple to go pick up a gift from the monks, and finally we went home around 1. That was definitely a New Year’s I’ll never forget.

Then came January 1st, 2013. Another day I’ll never forget. I didn’t tell many people I was going to fight- I didn’t tell any of my students. I didn’t really want anyone to come watch because I was scared I would get into the Muay Thai ring and have no idea what I was doing. That was partially true. I got into the ring, and looked around, then turned back to P’Sua, my trainer, and asked with pleading eyes to instruct me. In my training, I never actually fought. I never actually blocked. I learned how to kick and punch and kick and punch, and I could do those things in my sleep now. But without someone commanding “punch 1, 2, elbow, punch 1, 2, kick”, I had no idea what to do. But it was okay, because I’m farang. I had all of Thailand on my side, because I was a farang girl, fighting a Thai girl, in the middle of a small town in rural Thailand with only 3 months of training. I could hear the announcers going wild over me and my Thai name, Mali, as I performed my “wai kru”, the dance to intimidate your opponent before the match. Singh, one of my trainers, taught it to me only a few hours before the match. Learning the “wai kru” was one of the most important parts of the Muay Thai fight for me, particularly as a dancer. There is a set of versions of the dance, and your trainer usually picks one that represents you best. They all take after an animal, and mine was a bird. And I performed the shit out of it. I didn’t care if I lost the match as long as I got my “wai kru” down. And the whole town of Sri Satchanalai (that’s literally how it felt- I think there were hundreds watching) was on my side. They went wild over my dance, and my confidence grew when my opponent didn’t have a dance to return (not everyone does the “wai kru”, especially if you’re new). P’Sua put my mouth guard in my mouth, and told me- just 5 rounds. You’ve won already- everyone is behind you. I felt bad for my opponent. I’ve gotten several versions of her story- that she’s 16 and fought once before. That she’s seventeen and has fought many times and won every time. Or that this is her first fight. Whatever her story, she was bigger than me, prettier than me, and way more experienced. That was obvious in the first two rounds. I came off the first round exhausted, but exclaimed to P’Sua, this is so easy! I know she’s winning, but I can do this! I can fight. I was amazed- even though she was punching me probably with all her strength, nothing hurt. Punches to the face, knees in the gut- I felt nothing. At the end of each round, even though she was clearly winning, as soon as the bell rung P’Sua held his arms up in triumph, turned to his friends and shout “mali’s got this” (but in Thai) and would run onto the ring to stretch me out. Entering the third round, I was so tired, more physically tired than when I sprint the end of a 7 mile run. But she was more tired, and I was starting to figure out how to fight. She could punch, but my knees and kicks, thanks to my 15 years of ballet training, are better. In the 4th round, she surrendered, too exhausted to continue to fight. I ran to P’Sua and gave him a huge hug before the referee took my arm and lifted it in victory and walked me around the ring. I came off the stage to hundreds of cheering fans, my biggest fans being Kirk and Bryan. People came up to shake my hand, or had their kids shake my hand. Drunk teenagers wanted pictures with me. And avid Muay Thai followers asked me to fight at another festival the next night. I was famous. Maybe only for one night. Maybe only in this small town in Sukhothai. But I was famous.
My Muay Thai family, and our New Years party after New Years

Catch Up

To fill in the blanks on what’s been going on in my life since I went to the Philippines last October, here is a quick update.

I’ve been living with Bryan since the start of the new term, which has been the best thing ever. I love Bryan and he’s been one of the best friends I’ve ever had. We tell each other everything, and even though I get annoyed with how irresponsible he can be, he is the closest thing to a younger sibling I’ve ever had, and I love having him as a housemate. Bryan and I started to acquire a bit of a family when the new semester started. The first addition to the family was my boyfriend. I met BenTen through Kirk. I finally got to meet Kirk’s Thai roommate, P’Rong, whom I absolutely love, and their group of friends. BenTen, P’Rong’s closest friend, is my age, single, and cute- qualities that NEVER exist in boys in Sawankhalok. By default, we hit it off right away. Within two weeks, we were boyfriend and girlfriend, and he was spending every evening with Bryan and I.

I think Bryan and BenTen loved each other more than BenTen and myself. I loved going on trips, just the three of us. BenTen can’t speak English, and Bryan is still working on his Thai, so their broken exchanges were hilarious. Every night, if it was getting late and BenTen still hadn’t come over, Bryan would come downstairs and ask where BenTen was. Usually he was working or with his friends, and Bryan would always ask “but he’s coming over, right?” I felt like Bryan’s mom, and BenTen was his new beloved step dad. Then no matter how late, BenTen always came over, marched upstairs and knocked on Bryan's door, yelling "Bryannnnnn! Pom kittueng kun!!! (I missed you)" but he never said those words to me! BenTen showed us a lot of places around Sukhothai, always ready to be the tour guide. We went to Sri Satchanalai Historical Park, he met me at the Loy Krathong festival in Sukhothai, and took me to the Sri Satchanalai ancient times festival.

But the best part about BenTen is his HOUSE! He works for the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Thailand (which he kept telling me about, but I didn’t believe until I met the guy myself). BenTen is the radio DJ for the government radio station or something weird that I can’t really translate- but he has his own radio station on the grounds of the Minister of Foreign affair’s home, as well as his own little cabin house.
BenTen's home
the radio station
 In addition to his DJ job, which I’ve watched him do and is the easiest job known to man, he does a lot of upkeep for the Minister dude and little projects here and there- like hanging up 18 billboards throughout all of Sukhothai with a picture of the Minister’s son wishing everyone a Happy New Year. To me, things like this still seem weird, but everyone else in Thailand thinks it’s normal. I also got to meet the dude’s little brother, who is a big hot-shot that lives in Sawankhalok and loves to watch rugby. He was excited to meet me and have someone to watch rugby with, but I’m still waiting for him to call to invite me to watch a game. It’s been great hanging out with these really important people! They all speak to me in Thai (though I KNOW they can speak English. It’s the Minister of Foreign Affairs! He HAS to speak English). And they are very involved with the King’s projects. When the Minister dude found out I was working on my graduate application and it involved researching the floods in Thailand, he excitedly promised to take me to visit a “Monkey Cheeks” project, which is one of the King’s famous projects to help prevent flooding. Like his little brother’s rugby promise, I’m still waiting for this to happen…it will happen.

Anyway, this guy’s house is a tropical PARADISE on the outskirts of Sawankhalok. I was spending every weekend there, writing my grad applications in the middle of a bamboo forest next to a lake, being served papaya salad or BenTen’s homemade Sukhothai noodles which are better than any noodles in Sawankhalok. The downside to this paradise, is everyone loves this paradise, and by 3P.M., someone would show up with a bottle of whiskey and all work would stop to make way for the whiskey. Either I’d try to be polite and sit with them while they drink while secretly still typing away at my essays, or I’d hide in the radio station to continue working. But usually, my escape was Muay Thai, so I would secretly run away to go to train.
som tam lunch

A usual afternoon at BenTen's house
My daughter, nong Ploy, helping me teach
making Krathong for Loy Krathong at my house,
with Kirk, Bryan and nong Ploy
Around the same time I started dating BenTen, I met nong Ploy, an 11 year old girl that lives close to my Muay Thai training center. The first day she met me at Muay Thai, she started calling me P’Suay (Suay means beautiful, and P is used to address someone older than you, whereas nong is for someone younger) and followed me to Kirk’s house. The next night, she wandered to Kirk’s house on her own (she lives close to him), and requested he call P’Suay to come over. The next day, a Monday, she showed up at my school, asking students on campus where P’Suay was. She ran into the French exchange student, who was the only one at school that knew me by my new nickname, and he showed her where the English office was. And that’s where she came every day after school. Then we rode back to my house together, and I would either go to Muay Thai or do some grading. And then we would go out to dinner and I would ride her to the other side of Sawankhalok to her home. After a few weeks of this, I was exhausted trying to balance my time with nong Ploy, my new boyfriend (they hated each other by the way- nong Ploy didn’t think he was handsome enough for me, and BenTen hated that I was spending my time taking care of nong Ploy instead of getting my grading done), training for Muay Thai, working on grad applications, and getting my lessons planned and work graded. It didn’t really help either that Ploy’s family kind of gave her to me. Every night when I took her home, her mother said, nong Suay, you can just let her sleep at your house so you don’t have to bring her home at night! They also requested I take her on the weekends to teach her special English classes. I told them, just hanging out with the farang all the time is basically a 24 hour special class. But after weeks of being her mother, the only words she got down in English were "Ready Freddy? Ready Eddy!" (kudos to Dad), "Come On! Come On!" and "I love you". (My Thai got remarkably better between having a Thai boyfriend and a Thai daughter, who's only words they could say in English were "I love you")

Though exhausted, nong Ploy was just filled of so much love and happiness that I couldn’t help but take her in every opportunity I had. Eventually nong Ploy and BenTen got over their hatred for each other, and the four of us: Bryan, nong Ploy, BenTen and I were an adorable family. But par usual, I got stressed out over my work (and mostly my grad applications), so as the deadline for Berkeley was approaching, and nong Ploy was constantly on my computer playing games so I couldn’t get work done when I had the time to, I had to break up my new family. I told nong Ploy she needed to go home and help her mother. And I broke up with BenTen. Recently, I found out that nong Ploy got caught stealing from a gold shop in town. I don’t know the details, because I heard about this from my Muay Thai trainers when they were drunk on their after New Year’s party, which was a blast by the way. We all agreed that we saw this coming though. Nong Ploy is always wandering the streets with other kids whose parents’ work late, and is an experienced liar and conniver. Despite her loving laughter, nong Ploy had a dark side, and I wanted so much to keep her away from it. That’s why I let her take up every ounce of free space in my life during some of my most stressful weeks. But nong Ploy’s upbringing is stronger than the few weeks she was my daughter, and I haven’t seen her since that day I told her to go home and help her mother, except for occasionally when she stops by the Muay Thai center to say hello.
Thanksgiving at my house with Kirk, the French guy and nong Ploy

floating my Krathong
the light and sound show at Loy Krathong
To complement the stresses of this semester, I’m thankful that this is the semester of holidays, class trips, and not really teaching. That’s been a relief for me in the midst of my grad applications. I went to the Loy Krathong festival with the Thai teachers, got to see our students win in the longest-parade-ever, and was met by BenTen and his friends later in the evening for the midnight fireworks show. The King’s birthday on Dec 5th ended up being a 6 day holiday from school because of other random disruptions to the rigorous school calendar. I joined my M4 students, a.k.a. the loves of my lives, to a trip to Chaing Rai and Mae Sai. Mae Sai is the northern most point of Thailand and borders Myanmar. The students crossed into Myanmar to go shopping, but I couldn’t because of my visa, so I stayed in Thailand and bought the same things on our side.
My M4 students in MaeSai

Nine, Pop, ME! and the French exchange student
 Then we went to the White Temple, which I had visited with Dave last year (wow….so long ago). Though I don’t particularly like this temple, I love its history and I admire the architect for being so ballsy. Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple is a one hundred year long project in the making. The architect wanted to create a large attraction to bring more attention to Chiang Rai, which often gets forgotten being next to Chaing Mai. He wanted it to be something like the Taj Mahal, that it would be a reason for tourists to come to Thailand- to see the White Temple. Some say it is the most beautiful temple in the world. I disagree, but I think it is the most interesting. The architect makes it a point to never take money from any organizations or government, so he can keep the temple in his own vision and doesn't have to uphold any one else's input. He also vows that this temple will always be free so that anyone can come to visit. So, I have a lot of respect for the guy, I just don't like the temple, which made up the last stop of our Chaing Rai trip. '

My farang loves, Kirk and Antoine

The trip was super quick, less than 24 hours long, more than half of which were spent on a bus. But I had so much fun with my students and will sacrifice any number of uncomfortable nights on a bus to go on a trip like this with them again.
M4/01 and M4/1 on the bus ride home

Another great thing that happened this term was that my older cousin, P’Aut came to visit me. Over a year, and no one from America had come to visit. So when I found out P’Aut was coming to Thailand for a few weeks, I convinced him he had to make a stop in Sawanakhalok. And I think he fell in love. (Not with a person!! Just with my town). One of the teachers took us to both historical parks, which was exhausting to do in one day, and then at night we hung out with P’Rong and the gang, who at that time I was just getting to know myself. The night before P’Aut left for Phuket, we went to P’Rong and Kirk’s house after the bar and hung out on his roof until the wee hours of the night. It was so cool to have someone from home visit me, even though I’m not very close with P’Aut. Since his visit though, I feel like we’re real cousins now, and we talk all the time. And now I talk more and more with his parents too. Coming to Thailand, I had really wanted to learn more about and be closer to my family. It hasn’t worked in a lot of ways, but at least in this way it has.

Around the holidays, I was starting to get my first real bout of homesickness. I was jealous that Bryan’s family came to visit him from the Philippines (his mother, his younger sister and her boyfriend were visiting), and I was mad at myself for not letting anyone close to me. As I always do when I’m stressed, I had pushed away everyone I was close to: I pushed nong Ploy away, I pushed BenTen away, and I got annoyed with Bryan, my best friend, for having his family come to live with us for a month without properly taking care of them, leaving me to do it on top of the other things I was doing. I love them all from when I visited the Philippines in October, and I spent every free minute I had making sure they got to see the best parts of Sawankhalok. As we have learned, Bryan is not the best tour guide, so it was up to me to take them around, which was frustrating, time consuming, and made me really wish MY family would visit so I could show them how cool Sawankhalok is. So as the holidays came around and I had pushed everyone away, I felt really lonely. But my students saved me. I had to choreograph a dance to show for Christmas Day, which was just another thing I didn’t have time to do in the midst of everything else that was going on. I only had about two hours with each class to put it together, but we put on, I thought, an awesome show. I had three of M4 classes dance to “All I Want for Christmas is You” which was wild and had a total of about 120 students in it.

Then my M3/02 class, which is one my worst-behaved classes, requested to perform break dancing. So I put together a short dance to “That Girl is Poison” and my break dancing boys soloed while the rest of the class did an easy dance in the background.

Those performances were the best Christmas presents ever. Though I grumbled through all the practices, watching it come together was awesome, and reminded me that I love what I’m doing (and I love teaching dance!)

Then New Years came. We had another holiday from school that I was reluctant to travel for so I could focus on my applications, I was getting worried about my Muay Thai fight, and BenTen was making me cry. But my students came to the rescue. My M4/2 students wanted to countdown to the New Year with me, but I figured that they didn’t ACTUALLY want to do that, so we settled on a New Year’s party at my house instead, the weekend before New Year’s. I spent an entire day not on my MIT application, but instead on decorating my house and making pasta (they requested pasta, which I tried to make as accurately foreign as possible, but then had to add some hot dogs to make it a little appealing to Thais) with three of my students helping. At three in the afternoon on Saturday December 29th, the New Year’s party commenced, and my students rolled into my driveway on their motorcycles, with gifts and snacks in hand. We had a gift exchange, a balloon popping contest (where you rubber band a balloon to your foot and you try to pop each others’ balloons by stepping on them), some other games, and of course some dancing. As the party trickled down, I was left with 6 or 7 students that didn’t want to leave my house, so we played apples-to-apples and listened to music for an hour until I shooed them out of my house so I could train for Muay Thai. It was, I think, the coolest thing I have ever done in Thailand. Training Muay Thai, hiking mountains, crystal clear beaches, have nothing on these students. I never thought I would be a teacher, but apparently I’m really enjoying it!


Monday, October 22, 2012

It’s more fun in the Philippines.

Kinda cheesy, but it’s kinda true too. Spending a week in the Philippines was a perfect vacation. For our one month holiday from school, the F team took a week to go to the Philippines to visit Bryan’s family and do some touring.

When we got off the plane on Luzon Island, Bryan’s mother picked us up and took us to his home town, Cabanatuan City. And what’s the first thing that we do when we get there? Well, after going to the mall, because that’s what people in the Philippines…and all of Asia do, I impulsively decided to dye my hair dark brown. Which sounds fine, and sounded like a great idea to me at the time- I haven’t dyed my hair, gotten any piercings or tattoos in a long time, so I’ve been itching to do something different. So I thought dark brown would be harmless…until Bryan’s friend that was dying my hair decided to go shopping right after she put the dye in, so she left me in her hair studio for over an hour while she went to buy a dress. By the time she got back to wash out the dye, my hair was BLACK. I kind of don’t like it at all, but I’m gonna make it work. So day one in the Philippines, and I have black hair. (by the way, one week later, I found out the woman who was dying my hair is not just a slightly masculine woman, but is actually a transvestite, and I can’t believe it took me a week to realize that) Yup, it’s more fun in the Philippines.

Day 2!! Turns out that Bryan is a baller. When we turned down the street into his neighborhood, we were passing little tin shacks, some with grass roofs, none with electricity. Some with goats! All with chickens and kids. I got worried, hoping they wouldn’t have to accommodate three more guests in those crowded little shacks. Then the driver stopped in front of three big mansions, smack dab in the middle of the shacks. His and his cousins’ houses are huge, comfortable, tasteful and beautiful. And they have a baby pig!!

On Sunday morning, we woke up at 4AM to go for a crazy hike to a waterfall in a mountain a couple hours from Bryan’s home. For two dollars, we hired a tour guide with a machete to clear the path to the waterfall for us. We were struggling to keep up with his slowed pace (though Bryan did surprisingly well, considering last time I went hiking with him I had to carry him half way down the mountain cause his legs were shaking) and had to climb some crazy walls to get to the top of the three-tiered waterfall. It was a short but pleasant and challenging hike. I know I say this a lot, but it was the most real hike I’ve been on, in that there were no man made aids, we had to use tree roots to pull ourselves across the cliff walls, and the man had to hack half of the trail with his machete for us to pass through. I like the Philippines.
This dinosaur definitely needed a hug-- at the resort at the base of the mountain
In the afternoon, we went back to the mall we had been in the day before to watch Bryan’s younger sister in her first modeling gig. It was really cheesy, poorly put together, poorly judged and an overall disappointment. Bryan’s sister is a beautiful girl, but she didn’t have the terrible bounce all the other models have, because she walked like a real model. But they like the stupid fake bounce walk here in the Philippines, so the judges didn’t score her favorably. Apparently this comes from the booming gay population in the Philippines, and they love the bounce walk, so that’s what all the models do now. Anyway, we spent the entire afternoon in the mall and made me sick for the rest of the trip because my fragile little body can’t handle that much air conditioning after an overnight bus followed by a flight.

Day 3!! Monday! To Manila, the capital of the Philippines. I spent the entire morning in the Thai embassy applying for my work visa, then the entire afternoon in ANOTHER mall. P’Tara has a Filipino cousin that works at one of the huge malls in Manila, so we went to meet her (P’Tara’s first time meeting her ever!) and she is adorable. She got us free tickets for the cinema and a ton of free popcorn, so we watched this hilarious film about a transvestite who is trying to steal “her” ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend by going back to being a boy, so that “she” can get “her” ex-boyfriend back. Gay culture is seriously taking over, and it’s hysterical. Then more embassy bullshit, blah blah blah. The embassy there really wanted to keep me in the Philippines. But after hours of phone calls and emails, they permitted me to return to Thailand. Thought I was going to get stuck in the Philippines!

To end our only day in the capital, we met up with Bryan’s friends on the Manila Bay where we went to an all you can eat buffet with WINE. I was so happy to have “unlimited” wine (they call things “unlimited in the Philippines. Maybe that’s not so weird, but I still laugh every time I hear it). Bryan’s friends all know each other from doing theatre together, particularly improv, and are quite possibly the funniest people I’ve ever met. And their names are Divine, Moon and Rein. And this is their real, given-at-birth names, not nicknames or anything. Then there’s Bryan. It was awesome talking to them to realize that Bryan is as clueless and unfocused with his Filipino friends as he is with his American friends. He answers their questions wrong, doesn’t listen, and doesn’t follow simple instructions whether it’s in English, Tagolog, or Taglish. So now I don’t feel bad and think that sometimes Bryan has a hard time understanding us when we speak English. Although his Filipino friends speak English better than he does, and make fun of him for his Filipino accent, and it’s kind of funny that he’s the English teacher. But we all love Bryan anyway.

 We ended the evening with a ride on what Bryan claims is the largest ferris wheel in Asia, which I told him was wrong because I went on the tallest one in Asia when I was in Japan. Turns out it’s just the largest in the Philippines. And it’s actually quite small.

Then we were on the road, ready for our big road trip around Luzon Island! We picked up a friend of Bryan’s on the way. But of course Bryan doesn’t tell us this. We stop on the side of the road in ghetto Manila, some guy hops into our van, and we continue driving. After a few minutes, I ask Bryan, is he coming with us? Bryan just says “yup”, casually as ever. Another long awkward pause. “So, nice to meet you, I’m Korin. What’s your name?” And so Martin, Bryan’s friend from University was coming on our trip as we were heading for rice terraces, island hopping, volcano hiking and a day on the beach over the course of four days before retrieving my passport from Manila on Friday. Gora! (that means “let’s go” in gay Tagalog)

But before we go, I want to lay out some interesting differences between Thailand and the Philippines. I know you shouldn’t compare places but I’m going to do it anyway. (Of course these are complete generalizations that were gathered over the course of a one week visit). You can skip this part if you don’t care =P

Everyone in the Philippines smiles. I know people call Thailand the “Land of Smiles”, but that’s not true. People smile more and are much more polite in the Philippines. Every gas station, restaurant, even pulis (police) officer brightly smiled at me and said good-morninnng maam! And yes, I was maam for a full week. And this wasn’t even because I was a tourist- because with black hair I actually got mistaken for Filipino a couple times!

Tricycle totally wins. Sorry Thailand.
There is also this thing called the “Jeepney” all over the Philippines. They’re old U.S. military jeeps from WWII that have been converted into a flashy, brightly colored mode of transportation used mostly in the form of a taxi service. They’re outrageously awesome.

Filipinos are crazier drivers. Being in a car downtown for the first time, I felt like I was in a movie in a large Indian city- it felt that hectic, crowded and chaotic. But it seems like there’s more accidents in Thailand. I think Thai's just don't pay attention when they drive. But then later in the trip I found out that the driver we hired used to be a racecar driver, which definitely explains the videogame feel every time we were on the road, and the multiple times we almost died or killed innocent pedestrians. But I did feel totally safe with him- he was in complete control weaving in and out of traffic at insane speeds and overtaking a car while it was overtaking a motorcycle.

Holy crap what a difference it makes. So quick history lesson of things I hope you know already (but I didn’t before I met Bryan) is that the Philippines was colonized by Spain, then America, then we gave it to Japan, then took it back from Japan. And I, being anti-colonization, am quick to point out that Filipinos have been robbed of their heritage and are stuck in an awkward balance of colony vs. tradition, but they have to deal with it three fold from Spain, America and Japan. It makes for a very interesting country full of Spanish, American and Japanese products, and also a lot of Korean things for a reason I haven’t figured out yet. Their blends of Spanish and American art-deco architecture is awesome, but has NOT EVER been maintained and all their buildings look vacant and sad. Then you walk into this rusted, unlit building and you’re in the middle of a mall. Again, a poorly maintained, dimly lit, smelly mall, but the building is in fact not vacant! I think they were doing well economically in the 60’s and 70’s when these styles of buildings were cool and they must have developed massively back then, and then stopped doing anything when their economy went downhill.

This is the most fascinating thing about their whole colonization deal. Tagalog is hilarious. Though it’s the national language, it’s really only spoken on a small part of Luzon island. Tagalog is a mix of Spanish, English and native words. Sometimes they count in Spanish, usually it’s done in English, and Bryan doesn’t even know how to count in Tagalog. It’s so funny to listen to them speak, especially if you know Spanish. I can tell what their talking about most of the time because there is so much Spanish and English. Or the driver will be on the phone with Bryan and I will hear him say “you talk to the Americans” in the middle of his Tagalog sentence. So funny. Then when Bryan doesn’t want us to know what he’s talking about, he switches to gay Tagalog. It’s the new language of the Philippines that they gays are making up, but a lot of gays aren’t fluent in. Though “real men” can sometimes speak gay Tagalog too. Pure Tagalog is seriously dying out. Even the ATMs offer only “English” or “Taglish” as their language choices. And in the provinces, kids learn their dialect first, English second and Tagalog last.

The squatter toilets don’t happen in the Philippines. Instead, all of their toilet bowls don’t have the cover seat thing that you sit on, so it’s just like having a squatter toilet cause I don’t want to sit right on the bowl, but its more awkward because of the height and it’s just weird plus they all have the tanks so they can flush, but then they’re almost universally all broken so you have to bucket water in anyway. They should just stick with the squatter toilet and skip all the potential upkeep since they don’t do it anyway.

 It’s really hard to go from Thai food to Filipino food. I don’t recommend doing that. That’s really all I have to say about Filipino food. And it’s really meat heavy. I do like their rice though. Especially in places where the rice is “unlimited” because I still think that’s a really funny word to use with food. They do eat a ridiculous amount of rice, which is weird to say because I eat rice three times a day, but for some reason it’s even more in the Philippines. Because it’s more fun?
One day old chickens is a popular dish here,
as well as boiled chicken fetus
It’s hard to say who is more developed, who is developing faster. It’s hard to evaluate and not really fair to anyway. Just some interesting things: the Philippines still harvest their rice by hand and water buffalo, whereas it’s almost all mechanized in Thailand. Costs of food, clothing and accommodation are relatively the same.

It was really strange to be in a Christian country. They’re SUPER Christian. Majority Roman Catholic I think. And there are churches splattered EVERYWHERE! On the first day, Bryan showed us the Ingelsia ng Christ, and confidently stated, “but they aren’t Christian”, to which everyone in the car, including his mother, replied, “actually Bryan, they are Christian. It’s the Church of Christ”.

Is cheaper and better in the Philippines. As much as I love and will always love Chang, Red Horse beer is rich and tasty, and is for “real men”…which is why Bryan doesn’t drink it, hahah.

Okay, enough comparisons. So Monday night at midnight, we headed on our journey. Our first stop was 10 hours north of the capital to Banaue. This town is super duper famous for its historic rice terraces, once the eighth wonder of the world, that was constructed over 2,000 years ago. Its indescribably breathtaking and humbling, to see something created by hands in almost prehistoric times, and is still functional and perfectly maintained today…unlike art deco. This was probably the hardest part of the trip, definitely for me because I had a fever and disgusting cough from all the darn air conditioning, which was only exacerbated with the two hours of traffic we encountered on side of a mountain at 3 in the morning. Where else does that happen but in Asia? But those windy, one-lane because of slow moving road construction, and unlit roads keep hordes of tourists from visiting this world wonder, and really should have deterred us too. But we sat through that traffic on the way up and way down, leaving only a couple hours to breathe in the beauty before it got too dark to head back down the mountain. Rumor has it, the Banaue villagers believe you’ll bring bad luck to the whole village if your run over a chicken, plus those roads are beyond scary even in the daytime, so it was necessary to leave…only after taking pictures with an 80 year old woman dressed in the traditional costume of the village who just happened to be walking up the mountain by herself.

Our amazing driver drove through the second night in a row to get us to Alaminos City, the port of the 100 Islands (a misnomer- it’s 122 islands during high tide, and 123 during low tide). In the morning, we rented a long-tailed boat for the day and went island hopping. You can only really access 9 or 10 of the islands, since most of them are small or too cliffy to get onto. This whole trip is remarkably close to the Ang Thong National Park in the south of Thailand, but I think it’s actually better because there’s no tourists! Ang Thong is crawling with tourists, but we only saw a couple white people, some Filipino teenagers, and I swear the singer from the Black Eyed Peas was there, but was too distracted by doing cartwheels on the beach to take a picture with him.

Also, our boatmen were very sweet, quiet and let us do whatever we want, charging about a quarter of the price I had to pay in Thailand to go island hopping. Our first two islands also had caves! which I don’t think Ang Thong had. From one island, you enter a cave that you can jump down into and land in a pool of water. I was ecstatic when the tour guide told us about it, then I got there and said no freakin way, too scary. Then 15 seconds later I convinced P’Be we should do it, and we did and it was awesome! The jump isn’t that far down, and you can just swim out of the cave and the beach was right there. I probably would have down it five times over if there wasn’t snorkeling to be done.
So that was our next stop. A lot of the many islands of the Philippines have great diving and snorkeling. Unfortunately its super evident how damaged the coral reef is here (I’ll blame global warming- the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere affects the oceans the most, because oceans like to absorb CO2, which changes the pH of the water and makes coral die) and it seemed like 80% of the coral reef was dead. There were also lots of dead giant clams! Which was kind of cool, and also sad. I also found Nemo and his family, which is also kind of funny because they are incredibly territorial nasty little fishes but I still find them so cute because of that movie. And there were plenty of Dad’s favorite- angel fishes, which are now my favorite because they’re my Dad’s favorite.

Enough about fish and dying habitats! The whole day was a dream. It was relaxing, interesting, not too hot, full of natural beauty and spent with wonderful people.We spent a few hours on the biggest island, Quezon Island, and slowly ate lunch, played on the beach, and I climbed a mountain (without my camera, darn it!) to get a sweeping view of the entire archipelago. I also got to know Martin a lot better, and he is such a wonderful person (don’t worry Mom, I’m not falling in love. He’s also gay.) He is quiet most of the time, but always has positive energy and LOVES to take pictures of everyone, especially himself. And for some reason it’s adorable. When Bryan takes a million pictures of himself, we call him vain. When Martin does it, we all go aww, Martin you’re so cute! He was a wonderful addition to our trip, and I’m really glad he was there! It’s hard to tell, but I think that was the day I fell in love with the Philippines. The Filipinos’ bubbly attitude, the natural beauty, and the lack of tourists make it an incredible hidden haven. I’m almost hesitant to share my experiences, because I don’t want people to go there and ruin it! I hope that it stays under the radar so it can hold on to its natural landscapes and not get overtaken by greedy tourism.
hehehe Bryan was hung over =)
But then all of those sentiments were lost the next day when we visited our next tourist destination. After island hopping, we stopped over in Manila to rest at Martin’s house for the night before heading to Tagaytay, home of Taal volcano, the Philippine’s most treasured tourist attraction. Taal volcano is fondly referred to as “a lake with a volcano with a lake within and an island in the middle of that small lake”. Upon learning about this unique geological phenomenon, this became a must-see on the itinerary. Taal volcano erupted in 1911 in the middle of Taal Lake, which itself is surrounded by dead volcanoes. After the eruption, Taal volcano collapsed, leaving room for a small lake at the top of the volcano to form. It’s been a feisty volcano, particularly in recent geological history, it’s last eruption happening in 1965. Of course I heard about this and think these people are crazy- obviously this volcano is still active, why are there hundreds of tourists here. But we totally went anyway. The problem is, it’s a total rip off. The resort that rents boats to the base of the volcano wanted to charge us 5 times what we paid for an entire day of island hopping, for a 15 minute boat ride. We managed to get them to lower their price, and got to the base of the volcano for the SAME PRICE we paid for island hopping.
Then the next obstacle arose. At the base of the volcano, some genius thought it would be a great idea to have horses and ploy tourists into paying to ride horses to the top of the volcano. Except they’re not horses. They’re ponies and should not be carrying grown people on their backs. I told the manager we would rather just walk to the top, to which he smirked and said “too far”. So after much debate and halving the price he was asking for, we agreed to take the ponies up, and were forced to pay for a tour guide per person to manage the pony for us. Ridiculous. And at this point for the boat and horses, we were paying twice what we had paid the day before for a full day of heaven, for a measly two hour activity just to see a natural phenomenon. So we headed to the ponies, where one tour guide had kept his eye on me and told all his friends to take the other tourists so he could be my tour guide. Though a total creep, he was really funny. He immediately jumped on the back of my pony with me, and left my friends in the dust.

He had his repertoire of English answers quickly at the ready, whether or not he understood what I was actually asking.

Me: What’s the horses name?
Tour guide: Jericho.
Me: What’s your name?
Tour guide: Jomas.
Me: How old is our horse?
Jomas: 4 years old maam.
Me: Hm. How long do horses usually live?
Jomas: Two years maam.
Me: So what do you feed the horses?
Jomas: Feed
Me: Oh, where does it come from?
Jomas: ….what, maam?
Me: So do you have many tourists from America?
Jomas: No maam.
Me: Where do most tourists come from?
Jomas: Korea. And many from Australia and USA.

I stopped there with my questions. Then he made my poor struggling horse canter up the side of the mountain on uneven ground, and I kept saying slow down, Jericho doesn’t like this, Jericho is tired. And Jomas insisted that Jericho is a good horse, but my friends’ horses are hungry. But Jericho is not hungry. So we unfortunately won the race to the top of the volcano, where I was continuosly harassed by Jomas’ colleagues to leave a tip and buy beverages for my tour guide. I just ignored them and pet poor Jericho. Martin was the next to get to the top, tour-guide-less. He said his tour guide left him at the beginning to go clean his house, so Martin, having never ridden a horse before, had to go solo up the mountain. So much for paying for a tour guide.
Despite the disappointment in how this beautiful natural attraction has been ruined by money hungry tourist authorities, the volcano itself is gorgeous. And really hot!


 There were geysers galore spewing out hot gases, furthering my theory that this volcano is about going to blow again. I warned Jomas of this on the way down, to which he replied “yes maam” or just stayed silent. Then I lectured him on how to treat tourists, assuring him, “if you want a tip, you must have a happy tourist. To have a happy tourist, you have to go slow up the mountain. Fast is scary. See those tourists, they’re not happy. And neither is their horse”. I think he got bored of my lecture, then he told me that in the mountains, there are many snakes. Many snakes, many birds. But no monkeys, maam. Tigers, or lions? I asked. No, maam. And no zebras, maam.

So Jomas redeemed himself a little bit, for being funny and pretending to listen to me about how to make tourists happy. But I still only left him a measly tip, then got his friend in trouble by telling the manager what happened, and then continued to lecture the manager about how he is ruining the image of the Philippines by running this terrible industry. He got defensive and told me he pays his workers 400 pesos per trip up and down the mountain, which I wouldn’t have believed whether or not Jomas had told me he makes 50 pesos per trip, the equivalent of $1.20. So we got back in the boat and headed back to the resort where I went on to lecture the resort manager about this tourist package ruining tourism for the whole country. Wow, get me off my soapbox, I don’t know when I turned into such an assertive tourist. Apparently it’s something I feel very strongly about, mostly because our entire trip had been such an incredibly positive experience, and I was mad at these people for making the worst of a tourist attraction. Clearly it doesn’t have to be that way because it’s not in the rest of the country. Reminded me of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

So we left that joint to have lunch on a cliff,

then headed to our next destination- the beach in BATANGAS! We drove for a very long time to Batangas, which made me super suspicious because it was only supposed to take a couple hours. And I saw many signs that posted distances that we had far surpassed as the sun began to sink behind the mountains, and if Bryan was awake in the front seat I would have asked us where the heck he is taking us. I’m still hesitant to trust anything Bryan is doing (wonder why?), but I probably should have more faith in him at this point, because he (kind of, in an indirect Bryan way) knows exactly what he’s doing. He got us to the perfect beach spot in Batangas, a quiet beach front bungalow with video-oke (the Filipino form of karaoke), crystal blue water and stretches of beach with only a scattering of Filipino tourists. Development is sparse in Batangas, and this fisherman’s beach will hopefully stay as undisturbed and beautiful as it is now, but I am confident that this perfect beach will soon be discovered.

Before blinking an eye, we changed into our swimsuits and jumped into the moonlit water. Well, I guess P’Be had time to blink an eye, because he also had time to buy a two liter bottle of Red Horse for 70 pesos- less than 2 dollars. Even though the nighttime air wasn’t quite cool yet, it was cooler than the warm ocean water, and we kept only our heads and the bottle of beer above the water until we were too hungry to wait any longer to have dinner. Instant noodles, video-oke and some shooting stars later, it was time to call it a long day.
We attempted sunrise in the morning, but the clouds ruined the moment, so Martin and I took a long walk on the beach to soak in the cool breeze and subtle lighting. I heard the fisherman heading out at around 2 or 3 AM, and we watched their return with the sunrise. We spent the rest of the morning lying on the beach, playing on an unattended fishing boat, going to the market to get some of the fresh caught fish, and more or less living the dream. Bryan spent the morning cooking, and omelet and corned beef with rice for breakfast, and sour fish soup (like a clear Gaeng Som) and grilled squid for lunch. Awesome! I always like Bryan’s versions of Filipino food cause he adds tons of veggies.

Then we were on the road again….to Manila to pick up my visa (woo hoo!) and dinner with P’Tara’s cousin. Pizza Hut in a mall…anti-climactic, but she also had free tickets to a comedy club! So after dinner we headed to the most popular comedy club in Manila, Zirkoh. Apparently like everything else in the Philippines, the comedy industry is spearheaded by the gay community. The first act we saw were five transvestites that were not at all convincing but put on a wonderful show, followed by a trio of very flamboyant men. These guys were hilarious and somehow could improv dance moves in unison. Bryan and I do that sometimes, but it’s a lot harder with three people. Oh, in addition to being gay, to do stand up comedy, you must be able to sing and dance, and basically put on a concert in between your jokes. Though every sentence had some English, and the jokes were easy to get, the performing was definitely the best part of the show.

We left the comedy club at 3 A.M., to drive back to Bryan’s home, arriving around sunrise. The whole house was awake already and blasting music, preparing Bryan’s sister for the next round of her modeling gig. But that didn’t stop us from sleeping until noon, with just enough time to shower and make it to her show. That day’s theme was performing a talent, which was really sad. They may be beautiful, but NONE of them can dance, though many of them tried. This isn’t funny, but one of the girls accidentally knocked out her partner during a lift, and he broke his leg. While the medics were taking care of him on stage, they had a guest performer sing to distract the audience, which totally worked because she is Filipino and all Filipinos are built with an extra singing gene that makes them all sing beautifully. Martin confirmed this theory for me. I asked him. Then the second part of the show was COSPLAY!!! What a fantastic idea. Though this has nothing to do with beauty and is solely about crazy costumes, that was a genius theme and kept me content and entertained for an additional two hours.

For our last night in the Philippines, we partied like true Filipinos. It was Bryan’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s birthday, who was also a model, and we were invited to the party. Bryan’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother, who I guess I could just call Sam for short, has a huge family and a gorgeous home. There is a complex of gazebos, strung with Christmas lights, and a huge patio set up with tables and chairs and a video-oke machine. After a fabulous dinner (I guess Filipino food isn’t ALWAYS bad) of adobo and kare kare, we were not really asked but kind of forced into a game of beer pong. It didn’t take much force anyway- I was so excited to play beer pong. Which is funny really, I never really liked to play beer pong in America, but being an American playing beer pong in the Philippines seemed so exciting. But then Team Thailand lost, even with the help of an adorable little girl wearing a party hat that would stick out her tongue at the other team every time it was their turn.
Team Philippines
I spent the rest of the night bonding with Bryan’s teenage cousins and sister. They made me promise to come back in March when I’m done teaching. Sam’s girlfriend exclaimed that we can celebrate our birthdays together, because she’ll be turning 18 in March. Then I realized I’ll be turning 25 and that made me really sad and feel old. But I guess I’m not too old to pretend like I’m a teenager and drink with these high school girls until 3 in the morning. (which is also funny, because when I WAS a teenager, I never drank like that) 

But holy crap, after two nights of drinking until 3 AM after that four day sprint through the Philippines, I was exhausted and ready to go home, despite Bryan’s family’s pleas for me to stay a few more days. It was tempting to hang out with them for longer, but I need to get home to my Sawankhalok! I have grad schools to apply to! =) I am almost 25 years old, after all.

saying goodbye to Bryan's mom at the airport, with our cool new F-team shirts!