Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Tops

My life has taken a turn for the more convenient now that I’ve discovered a Tops Super in the mall next to the night market. Now I can get all the things that are comforting to me and whose appeal confuses Thai people: cereal, milk, peanut butter (crunchy only though) and of course, Tim Tams. Also, I don’t know why I haven’t gone yet, but there’s a Swensen’s ice cream shop in that building. I think it’s because of the logistics – I go to the night market to get dinner, but I take it home to eat (because of the mosquitoes), so why would I then go back to get ice cream? I mean, it wouldn’t be impossible, just inconvenient.

Editor's note: A few days later I actually ate at the Swensen's before dinner because I had an ice cream craving and I didn't want to walk back there after dinner to get it. This girl manages.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Soup

They sell these do-it-yourself tom yum kits at the market for like 5 baht (15 cents). It comes with a few stalks of lemongrass, a few stems of kaffir lime leaves, and a small piece of galangal root – all together enough to make a family-size pot of tom yum soup, and then some.

Tom yum kung is a Thai hot and sour soup with shrimp. My co-worker gave me the recipe a few days ago. It was DEE licious, just like what you get at restaurants here. I sent some pictures of my food to Brady because he’s in Sudan, where there’s talk of a famine.

“Oh my God!” he said. “I’m licking my computer screen.”

Here's what you put in it, if you're a real Thai:

Kaffir lime leaves
Galangal root
Fresh chili
Lime juice
Soup stock (pork is preferred here)
Meat of choice: shrimp, chicken, beef, pork, fish or anything else you feel like throwing in

Also, I've been getting friendly with the mangosteen again. They're expensive considering how much of it is just fibrous gristle. Forty baht per kilo is the market price these days - more than a dollar.

There's this quirk though: Ants live under the leaves, so when you break the mangosteen open they rush out onto the flesh of the fruit to gulp down the sweet juice before you become an unsuspecting anteater. Because if you eat a mangosteen, one day you'll eat an ant.

I had these mangosteens in the fridge for two days, and when I went to fetch them tonight, the ants were still there, tearing around waiting for me to break open the fruit.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Lazy Saturday

Woke up this morning very slowly. The weather outside was gorgeous – overcast and cool, for this place anyway. I haven’t needed to turn on the AC yet this morning. I had a hard time getting out of bed because I didn’t really know what to do all day.

From my living room balcony, I can see the corner of a shimmering aqua blue swimming pool in someone’s back yard. I look at it every day, to see if anyone is using it, because there’s nothing I’d like better than to live in a swimming pool for the next six months. This is surely the hottest country in the world.

As far as I can tell, this neighbor of mine with the swimming pool has never used it. It’s gotten to the point that I’m no longer convinced that it’s a swimming pool, except that I can see the house reflected in its surface, and when the sun shines in the afternoon I can see its ripples reflected off the house. It’s torture. I want to scale their wall, jump in and start splashing around. In this picture you can see it in the lower left corner. I'll try to take a better picture on the next clear day.

Oay called me this afternoon with a phone number for her friend, Mary, who might be willing to be my Thai teacher. This has been a source of constant debate for the last week: Where can I take Thai classes?

Oay suggested that I take a Thai class with Burmese migrants, because there are plenty of schools in Mahachai that teach that crowd.

“But I don’t understand Burmese,” I said.

“No problem!” Oay said. “Teacher speak Thai!”

Well, I insisted that if I was going to pay good money to learn Thai, my teacher was going to at least speak English well enough to explain Thai to me.

“Maybe I have neice,” she said. “She in high school. Maybe she teach you.”

Just because someone is actively studying English in school doesn’t mean they speak it any better than an adult.

“I ask her make time teach you.”

I told Oay that I wanted a real teacher, not some poor teenager who got her arm twisted by her aunt.

So this afternoon, at Oay’s urging, I called the mysterious Mary, who was expecting my call.

“Hello?” I said. “May I speak to Mary?”

A man’s voice on the other end said, “Thai thai thai thai.”

“Mary,” I said.

“Thai thai thai,” he said. “Thai?”

“Mary, please,” I said.

“Mary?” he said.

“Yes, Mary.”

“Hallo?” said a woman’s voice.



“Are you Mary? I am Justina. Friend of Oay.”

“I don’t know.”

“You are Mary? I am friend of Oay.”

“Sorry. Don’t know.”


The man came back on. “Thai thai thai. Sorry. Thai thai thai. I don’t know you.”


All I can say is that Thai people are really nice about wrong numbers. In the U.S. it would’ve been, “You got the wrong number, lady.” *click*

This poor couple actually tried to conjure up some English to explain to me that I had the wrong number. They were probably smiling the whole time, too.

The Phone Call

At lunch today, Caroline was telling me about her place in Bangkok. She rents a room for 1,500 baht, which explains why Noreen was so appalled that I pay 6,000 baht for my place. Unlike most Burmese migrants Caroline has mostly Thai neighbors.

“So I have a lot of privacy,” she said. “Thais don’t care what you do. My people, they’re so nosy, always come to see what you do, see a man come visit and talk who is this man, is he good, just talk talk.

“I think Thai people, they are higher developed than Burmese.”

I thought of yesterday’s dinner in the Burmese hood with all the neighbors sitting in the doorway staring at me while I ate.

This morning I started regretting giving my phone number to Lad and Bot. Someone kept calling at 7:30 this morning. I picked up, thinking maybe it was Caroline since we had arranged to meet up this morning and go to her drop-in center together.

“Hulloooh?” I said, trying not to sound sleepy.

I heard a bunch of Burmese chattering on the other end and occasionally, the word “English.”

“Nnghh…” I said. “Hullo?”

More Burmese chattering, probably about how they didn’t know any English and couldn’t communicate with me, which didn’t occur to them before they dialed.

I hung up on them and tried to go back to sleep, but they called three more times, and I hit “ignore” three more times. It was too early for me to find any humor in the situation. In their hands, my phone number had turned into a toy that they were determined to break before 9am on Christmas morning.

When I saw Caroline later she said she had met those guys at the market on her way to town. They told her they had tried to call me this morning but didn’t know how to speak to me in English.

No. Kidding.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Burmese Dinner

Caroline let me tag along on one of her community outreaches this afternoon. She organizes informal small-group meetings where she and a few health volunteers she has trained lead discussions about family planning, condoms, dengue fever and STIs. Most of the people who attended were migrant women, although there were a few men.

After the session she took me into one of the housing communities where Burmese migrants live. She introduced me to a bunch of guys playing takraw, that popular kickball-volleyball game played with a bamboo ball. Some other people were loitering around and started getting interested in me after they noticed me fumbling with the one Burmese greeting I know. There was the usual confusion about where I come from and why I look Burmese. I’m pretty convinced that people in Southeast Asia can’t tell their own people apart from any other ethnic group.

A couple of the guys who were watching the takraw game started getting chatty. Through Caroline, they fired questions about where I come from, what I do, if I’m going to give them money, if I can take them back to America, and if I’ll marry one of them. The conversation alternated between tiresome and engaging.

Lad, Mr. Super Chatty, invited us to have a look inside his house because Caroline had explained that I’m a total dumbass and have no idea how Burmese migrants live. I felt like I was intruding on them, but they all seemed eager to share their world with me. Lad was actually complaining that I hadn’t brought my camera.

The housing block is a bunch of small rooms in a row much like the one we went to for the mobile clinic. Each room serves as the place where a family eats, sleeps and cooks.

We went inside Lad’s house and he and his sidekick, Bot, started pulling out food for us to eat. It was odd that they had all this food already prepared for us, but it turned out that everyone had already eaten, so these were leftovers.

We sat on the ground, barefoot of course, and suddenly a grand spread materialized in front of us. Fried fish, fried "cockroach shrimp" pancakes, raw vegetables, various chili sauces, rice, lily flower fish soup, steamed cockles…mm mm.

The extended family and neighbors gathered at the door to see if I could eat Burmese food, which reminded me of the slack jaws and zoo-animal prodding from my first day in the village in Kenya. (“You know how to use flip flop? Then show us.”)

I was a little thrown off because I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to eat with my hands or not. (The answer: No hands. Spoons and forks.) They brought a basin of water for us to wash our hands in, which we shared and which was subsequently used to rinse off spoons before we ate. I see a health education session right there.

While Caroline and I ate, Lad, Bot and the Peanut Gallery neighbors peppered me with questions. How old am I? Am I married? What kind of work do I do? Do I have siblings? My stomach is still on fire a bit from the chili fish paste sauce.

Most migrants in Mahachai live in pretty basic quarters like Lad and his family. But they also have a lot of modern amenities. Lad’s house had electricity, a large TV, a pretty fancy stereo system with big speakers, and a fridge. He and his family have been in Thailand for more than ten years, so they’ve had some time to save a little money.

By the end of the meal, Lad and his wife were inviting me to stay the night. Their room was a bit small for guests, and even though Lad speaks Thai, I don’t. Plus, Bot had been much too interested in my marital status for my taste. Caroline had to catch a bus back to Bangkok so we made a hasty getaway, but not until Lad had put me on the spot and taken my phone number. It will be interesting to see what the Burmese version of phone stalking looks like. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Migrant Hood

Today was the first time since I arrived here that I was reminded that some parts of Thailand aren’t like Bangkok, or even idyllic Thai villages.

We hold a mobile clinic every Wednesday with the help of some staff from Samut Sakhon Hospital, the provincial hospital in Mahachai. Today we went into a migrant neighborhood with rows of low concrete buildings divided into small rooms by thin plywood. Dr. Khin and some nurses set up shop in one of the hallways.

I didn't get photos of the row houses, but one family stays in each room, and although you can close and lock your door, there’s not a lot of privacy from your neighbors’ prying ears. However, some families had TVs and refrigerators.

Other houses in the neighborhood were corrugated tin boxes on bamboo stilts, sitting over a black, fetid marsh full of garbage and toxic waste. The smell got worse once it started to rain.

Even without Lake Trash, the constant smell of fish drying in discarded fan cages is unmistakeable.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Translators

I forgot my list of interview questions at home. I was at one of the Child Learning Centers run by my organization, located in a neighborhood called Krok Krak Nai. I wanted to interview some teachers for a report I'm writing about the child centers.

It turned out that I didn't need my list of questions. The interviews ended up being one big exercise in how to lose everything in translation.

The original plan was to conduct structured interviews with each teacher, and turn the data into a well-researched document about how the child center intervention model is being used to achieve the project objectives.

I love how grad school brainwashes you into thinking that systematic, analytical approaches to problem solving work.

I interviewed Yi first, a Burmese woman who taught high school before coming to Thailand. I was accompanied by a small team of interpreters. Oay translated my English into Thai, and then a ten-year-old Burmese kid tried to translate her Thai into Burmese.

My first question was very simple: In your opinion, what are the objectives of the child center?

I knew we weren’t going to get very far. When I was ten, I don’t think I knew the word “objective.” Oay and the kid discussed it for awhile, then he translated it into Burmese. There was only confusion on the other side.

I tried again, trying to use simpler language. What are the problems that the child center tries to help with?

The question was passed down the line like a bucket of water down a row of firefighters, a little bit of meaning sloshing out with each new person handling it.

A light bulb seemed to go off on Yi’s side, and she sent her reply back down the line.

“She says…” Oay began. “Sometimes kids fight, and the teachers try to talk to them, teach them not to fight, or they talk to the parents to try to help the problem.

“I think maybe she didn’t understand the question,” Oay added.

No kidding. Our Thai-to-Burmese interpreter is a 10-year-old.

Oay picked up her phone. “I call someone else to come translate.” A grown-up, I hope.

While we waited, I tried to ask the question again, simplifying even more. How does the child center help the kids?

“We teach the kids how to brush their teeth, how to eat, to clean themselves,” came the answer.

A little closer, but not quite the big picture response I was looking for. To provide free day care services and teach basic language and life skills to children of Burmese migrant workers in the Krok Krak Nai community. That sort of thing.

Man, three days into this project and I could already invent objectives without interviewing the teachers, and be right. But that wouldn’t be a systematic or scientific approach, would it?

The new interpreter, a grownup, arrived and the poor kid was excused. We fared a little better, but the question about objectives just wasn’t surviving the gauntlet of translation.

It made me think of some of my professors who go into complex emergency situations in Africa or Eastern Europe and do rapid assessments. They interview people who not only speak a different language, but people who in many cases have just run for their lives, are sick and hungry, and have lost homes, livelihoods and family members.

And I was sitting barefoot on the floor of an air-conditioned office, ants zipping circles around me, feeling extremely awkward and reflecting on the absurdity of my situation, which was not so bad compared to what it could have been.

Again I'm struck by how silly it is that my organization agreed to take on an intern who doesn’t speak Thai. I’m sure they know something I don’t. They have a steady stream of foreign interns who don’t speak Thai. There must be a secret to this somewhere.

I’ve discovered the ancient Thai secret to eating – buy more than one meal. I see people at the market carrying at least five bags stuffed full of food. It’s possible that they’re feeding their whole family, but still, there’s no way that people can survive on the tiny portions that they serve here. I think most people snack throughout the day, but my variation is just to eat two servings at every meal.

There’s a reason my tribal name in Kenya meant “the girl who is always hungry.” Gobble gobble.

The Mundane Monday

Back to work today after a long holiday weekend that included a successful excursion to Khao Yai National Park and an impromptu visit to Ayutthaya, one of the many former capitals of the kingdom that was burnt down by roving Burmese armies.

I really hate when people experience something like a sunset or a national park and instead of appreciating it at face value, write it off by saying, “Whatever. Such-and-such place had a better one.” But, I’m going to do it anyway.

Khao Yai is quite nice. But the Masai Mara had tons more animals.

Of course the two parks weren’t designed for comparison. Khao Yai is more about monkeys, birds, vibrant teal-colored scorpions, and a handful of elephants. Nevertheless, jungle foliage and leeches seem to be a good deterrent for crowds of shopping, eating people, and that was what I needed.

The leeches in Khao Yai were tiny. Borneo had bigger, thirstier ones.

Ayutthaya is popular on the tourist route because of its historical significance as well as its easy access from Bangkok, but one of the most notable landmarks in the town, in my opinion, is a rather unremarkable bridge with a very remarkable name: Pridi Damrong.

See photos in the sidebar there, including the Pridi Damrong bridge -->.

Language is a gateway to so many things that I’ve always taken for granted. I went to the night market to get dinner last night, and even though it was nice to walk among the light Sunday night crowd listening to the night market sounds, I felt like an outsider. I didn’t understand a word anyone was saying. It’s weird blending in and knowing that everyone sees you and assumes you’re the same as them, but feeling completely different, and alone.

I haven’t seen another foreigner in town, except the one woman who was waiting for a minivan to Bangkok. Good call, lady.

Actually, that’s not true. I met this Indian dude who lives in my building. He’s the guy I call the Dude on the Internet, because he’s permanently attached to the computer in the lobby, always checking his email. He was there the afternoon I moved in, he’s there most evenings, and he was there yesterday when I went to drop off my laundry. And of course he was there two hours later, when I went to pick it up. This time, though, he stopped me.

“Excuse me,” he said. Do I hear English? “Were you at Victory Monument this afternoon?”

Why, yes I was. I had a deceptively simple task there: to transfer minivans. I was coming from Ayutthaya and trying to get on a van back to Mahachai.

It turned out that somewhere in the big mess of people at Victory Monument, I walked past the Dude on the Internet, and he recognized me but couldn’t place my face right away. What a very bizarre coincidence. That place was a total madhouse yesterday. I suppose that’s a dumb thing to say. It’s a total madhouse everyday. In fact, most places in Bangkok are a crowded disaster, especially if they’re designed for shopping or eating. And everything in Bangkok is designed for shopping or eating.

Bangkok, like New York, has too many people. In fact, Bangkok has even more people than the five boroughs: 9 million here, compared to 8 million in New York. That is about 7.25 million too many people.

Anyway, I’m not sure if all the stands are set up at Victory Monument everyday, on Sunday afternoons hundreds of stands selling clothes, watches, jewelry, makeup, bags, food, food and food pop up all around the Monument.

It turns out that the guy, my neighbor and new English-speaking friend, has been living in Thailand for three years, working for an American seafood company. He started out in India but was transferred here. I was curious to know what exactly he does for his company, since my organization works with the migrant laborers that these companies hire in droves. His card says "quality assurance." Is that IT-related or shrimp-related?

As I was checking out of my hotel in Ayutthaya yesterday morning, I started chatting with another guest at the reception desk, also an Indian dude. He was also heading for Bangkok, but was going to have breakfast before boarding his minivan. I said, oh, okay, well good luck finding the minivan station, I’m headed there now. And I left, grateful for the only 35 mph English conversation I’d had in 24 hours.

In Bangkok a couple hours later, after circling Victory Monument at least twice on foot with a heavy backpack and no more bottled water, I finally found my minivan station. I stopped at one of those fruit carts that always look like a gift from God on a hot day. The fruit was flying off the vendor’s stand, everyone was so hot and thirsty. I stood and waited for the fruit man to slice a new watermelon, and noticed the guy from Ayutthaya standing next to me, also waiting for fruit.

I don’t know how to capture exactly how random it is to run into someone at Victory Monument. This place is massive and chaotic, and people bustle around like ants. Not a small, orderly place. I wonder what the probability is of crossing paths there with two people I know on the same day, especially given that I know about four people in the entire country.

Lunch was a little embarrassing today. I ordered rice with duck, and the portion was so small that I was still hungry after licking my plate clean. Oay encouraged me to order a second meal, and offered to wait for me to eat. No one else was having seconds, even though they had all each eaten only a tiny bowl of noodle soup. But if I didn’t eat something else, I knew I’d still be hungry. So that’s me, Two-Lunch Justina. No one made fun of me or even seemed to think it was odd that I ate twice as much as they did. But then again, no one’s English is good enough to say, “Wow, fat lady, you sure can pack it away.”

I usually try to learn one or two new Thai phrases a day, so I asked Oay how to say “rice with duck.” I probably should have asked her how to say, “two orders of rice with duck.”

There was a hair salon in the shopping center where we were eating called “Porn Saloon.” First, why is it that so many countries refer to hair salons as saloons?

I asked Oay what “Porn” meant in Thai, because I see it a lot. She said it’s just a name, and doesn’t mean anything in particular, which is no fun. I wonder if there was actually someone named Pridi Damrong?

“Hi, my name is Pridi. Pridi Damrong.”

“Yes, you are, in my opinion.”

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Tones

Greenleaf Guesthouse and Tours, Pak Chong. So I managed to find my way here, which was an unexpectedly arduous feat. This may seem obvious, but EVERYTHING IN THIS COUNTRY IS WRITTEN IN THAI.

The northern bus terminal in Bangkok is massive, with several floors of ticket windows going to all northerly corners of the country. There were about three windows with destinations written in English, and luckily Pak Chong was one of them, presumably because foreign tourists like me travel there to get to Khao Yai National Park.

The bus to Pak Chong was standing room only. It was the Thai version of the Latin American chicken buses or the rattletrap Kenyan matatu-buses, which means it had a little rotating fan buzzing from the ceiling, passengers with all sorts of food in their laps, and ticket takers in tight uniforms droning in Thai. I got stuck sitting on the stairs, which wasn't so bad because I got to sit down, especially after I discovered that my Lonely Planet guide put just enough distance between my butt and the scalding metal steps.

For some reason I assumed that if Pak Chong was written in English at the bus terminal, then it would be written in English somewhere in the actual town. So I didn't bother to ask where we were when we pulled into a town and some people got off the bus. After all, there was no sign anywhere that said, “Pak Chong.”

An hour later I looked at my watch and realized that I was three hours into a 1.5 hour bus ride. I tapped the guy next to me.

"Where is Pak Chong?" I said in Thai.

Blank stare. Thai is a tonal language so if you use the wrong tone people don't know what you're talking about.

"PAK Chong," I said, trying a different variation on the tones. "PAK CHONG?"

More blank stares.

"Bok Jong?" I said. "BOK Jong? Bok CHONG. Bak JONG. BAK Chong."

"Buck CHONG?" he said, his face lighting up. "Buck CHONG! Buck CHONG!"

I nodded vigorously.

"Buck CHONG!" he said, pointing behind the bus. "Pass already."

My standing-room-only neighbor started discussing my predicament with three other men, and after every head had managed to turn and stare at the idiot foreigner cleverly disguised as a Thai lady, they decided that I needed to stay on the bus until the next stop on the route, a city called Khorat (in Thai, goh-LAHD, if you ever want to find out if you’ve passed Buck CHONG). There I could catch a bus going back to Pak Chong.

Well, Khorat was another hour away. By the time I got there, found the right bus with the help of my kind and generous new friend, and took it back to Pak Chong, my 2-hour trip from Bangkok had become a 7-hour trip into the heart of Northeastern Thailand.

I think trying to get around in a country and culture and language I don't understand makes me realize how well I knew Kenya, and how comfortable I was getting around after living there for so long. It was really helpful to know Swahili, but I also knew how everything worked, and I could predict how people were going to behave. And because of that I knew how to navigate my environment to get what I needed. If I wanted to wash my underwear? Ask for a basin. If I wanted a hot bath? Ask the guide to boil water. The matatu tout will always remember to tell you where to alight if you ask him to. As much as Kenya infuriated me, it was very familiar place and I'd never be lost there.

So, thumbs down on the people’s bus in Thailand. Yesterday evening I took a minivan into Bangkok with Dr. Khin, who makes the 1-hour commute to Mahachai everyday. Thumbs up on minivans. They are new, clean, air-conditioned, and only one person is allowed to sit in each seat. The entire vehicle still has all its original parts from the factory, instead of being a Frankenstein vehicle created by welding together the remains of four or five different dead cars harvested from accidents that happened 20 years ago in more developed countries. There are no rattling windows, no missing rearview mirrors, no touts hanging out the window trying to recruit more people to stuff inside, no passengers with teargas-grade body odor reading your book over your shoulder and holding your wrist to stop you from turning the page because they’re not done yet, no drivers falling asleep at the wheel, no rusty door sliding off its rails and clunking onto the ground while unemployed men on the street leap from their drunken stupor and run over to try to force it back into place.

Minivans here are a lovely ride. Still, my other car is a matatu.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Recovery

I’m feeling a lot better today. At Dr. Khin’s suggestion I took a second day off from work. My coworkers have been great. Dr. Khin and Noreen just stopped by again, and of course the good doctor came with food--a brilliant four-part loaf of bread, to be exact. Each part has something different embedded inside. It goes, prosciutto (or its Thai equivalent), pork sung, hot dog, and raisins. It’s such genius, especially the hot dog. I love being in such a food-obsessed country.

Earlier this morning Jaep and Ahn stopped by. I was still wearing my glasses and padding around in sleepwear - wee boxer shorts and a shrunken t-shirt. I still don't know what's considered modest here, but they were polite enough not to stare or seem bothered. They didn’t stay long though. Maybe the shorts were like, “Go away! Go away!”

Dr. Khin is fond of asking about my poo. The first thing she said when I opened the door today was, “So how many times did you have diarrhea today?” And this morning she called to ask if it was watery or solid.

Other than that, I’m planning an excursion to Khao Yai National Park for the four-day Big Buddha weekend that starts tomorrow. Fortunately there are more public restrooms in Thailand than in New York City.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Sick Day

I felt a lot better yesterday morning so I went into the office. Oay took me to see the drop-in center at Tha Chalom, a neighborhood a 30-second ferry ride across the river from the market. The site also houses a child center, so I wanted to see what they do as well.

Noreen is a Burmese nurse who manages the drop-in center at Tha Chalom and sees clients seeking basic health care. We chatted a little about the child centers, since my primary project is to compile a report to donors and partners about them. I found it more interesting to ask Noreen about Burma, though, and I have a feeling I’ll be collecting bits and pieces of people’s personal stories throughout my time here. For a country whose government restricts contact with the outside world with such a heavy hand, there’s a lot of information that gets out. For that matter, there are a lot of Burmese people that get out – millions in Thailand alone.

After a couple hours of trying to have a coherent conversation in a hot room with a fan blowing on me, I was starting to feel a little feverish again. Noreen laid a thin comforter and pillow on the ground and told me to take a nap.

I decided that being instructed to take a nap at work yesterday was reason enough to stay home today and try to get a little better.

Dr. Khin visited me this afternoon and came bearing ORS and fish. I really think the Asian obsession with food is a bit much; she asked me literally six times if I had food to eat. I told her, each time, that I had some rice and some vegetables - and now some fish. She also asked me all about my diarrhea, which was sweet. I like talking about my poo.

It was really a day of trying to get better. I laid in bed, then on the couch, then on my bed, checked some email, turned the AC on and off, turned the fan on and off.

I finally ventured out to the night market around 6:30. I must have been really thirsty because all I wanted was fruit or juice. I got three trays of pre-sliced fruit – some papaya, pomelo and mango, the last of which may not be great for a funky tummy, but it looked pretty tasty. When I got home, I could only eat a bit of papaya and a slice of pomelo. The idea of fragrant rice and fish just didn’t appeal to me.

Oay came by to see how I was doing, and said she was a little worried about me. While she was here, the HR director in Bangkok called me to make sure I was feeling better. I have to say that everyone has been so wonderful with making sure I’m okay. It’s nice that there’s a doctor and several nurses in my organization. I definitely feel like I’m well looked after here.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Barfies

My coworkers Ahn, Oay, Muu and Arom were kind enough to plan a day of sightseeing for me, with a stop at a human rights workshop that Raks Thai was hosting for migrants at a wat (temple) in Mae Khlong, aka Samut Songkhram, the next province over from Mahachai.

We got a late start on our trip to the floating markets at Damnoen Sanduak, which is in Mae Khlong. Guide books recommend getting there as early as 6am to avoid the masses of tourists, but we didn’t arrive until nearly noon. By that time there were more tourists than fruit vendors on the river, and they were stuck in a floating gridlock because there was no room for the scores of boats to pass each other in the narrow waterway. My recommendation: heed the guide book, get there early.

We had lunch at the Raks Thai office in Mae Khlong. Muu and some of the Mae Khlong staff ordered an elaborate meal including tom yum soup, som tum (green papaya salad), and fried rice with eggs. They spread newspapers on the floor of the office and we sat around it picnic style and barefoot.

I’m sure the food was delicious, but my stomach was starting to get angry with me about breakfast.

“I didn’t like those eggs you ate this morning,” it said.

“Justina,” Oay said, pointing to my food. “Delicious?”

“Yes,” I said.

Muu looked at my half-empty plate, then at her own, licked clean. “If delicious, you plate like this,” she said.

“It’s delicious, really,” I said. “But stomach feel bad. I think eat bad eggs for breakfast.” I’ve started to speak in simple English to get fewer non-comprehending stares.

Sure enough, two hours later, as we were parked in town and waiting for Oay to run some errands, the eggs staged an uprising and evacuated themselves onto a small plot of grass in front of someone’s shop.

Muu had followed me out of the car and was murmuring and patting me on the back. “Okay,” she said, handing me a tissue. “Feel better?”

Everyone was so great. Oay came back with some medicine and put me back in the car, directing Ahn to take me to his house. I was still dizzy and faint so I barely remember walking through a small jungle with wooden planks spanning across a marsh to get to his house.

Ahn’s mom padded out to greet us as Oay and Muu helped me through the house. No one had said anything about Ahn living in a wooden stilt house on the river, a common style of housing in this area. It was a small and simple wood structure, but picturesque and breezy.

We walked through the house to the back porch, which looked out across the river. Their boat was docked at the foot of the porch. Ahn’s mom laid a blanket and pillow on the floor and everyone encouraged me to sleep. No problem. I was on my back and snoring 30 seconds later.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Oddball Photos, Volume 1

Branding That Wouldn't Fly In the US. Darlie Toothpaste, originally made by a Taiwanese (some sources say Hong Kong) company that was bought by Colgate in the mid 1980s. At the time, the toothpaste was called "Darkie," and today the Chinese name still translates as "Black Man Toothpaste."

This brand was also popular and widely available in Kenya.

I bought this mop at Tesco and didn't notice the branding until I got home. And nothing says "Black Man" better than stereotypical Chinese fortune cookie lettering.

Too Much Exoskeleton. I went to the market here in Mahachai to buy shrimp, and this being one of the biggest seafood markets in the country, I was presented with about 15 different kinds of fresh shrimp to choose from. There were several different species, further separated into various price tiers based on size and, I'm guessing, freshness. There was one stand selling live shrimp out of basins being pumped with a constant supply of water. The shrimp were moving around, blowing bubbles and looking pissed off about being there. These guys were the most expensive - 180 baht per kilo.

I usually buy the greyish shrimp that we're used to seeing in the States. Today I saw some big blue shrimp with long claws. What ARE those things??? There was only one way to find out. The verdict: Stick with the familiar shrimp, unless you like eating the head. The claws were a lot of work for tiny morsels of meat.

(below) Blue shrimp with long claws from the market lined up on my counter for inspection.

The Market

I don’t know what they were thinking at the pillow factory. Maybe they get paid according to how much polyester fill they can stuff into a single pillowcase. The pillows I bought at Tesco are like tall bricks, and last night my body finally rebelled.

Lying in bed this morning in a half-conscious stupor, I decided that I would cut open my pillows and remove some of the stuffing. An hour later, I had two somewhat flatter, softer pillows, and a new third “bolster” pillow that I made out of the extra stuffing.

Bed-in-a-bag sets in Thailand come with a comforter, fitted sheet, two pillowcases, and two bolster pillowcases – long, cylindrical log-shaped pillows. That’s right, no flat sheet, but two bolster pillowcases for I’m not sure what. Maybe people use them as body pillows, which sounds like bad back alignment waiting to happen. But I’m no chiropractor.

Today I decided to explore my neighborhood on foot, and apply some of the community mapping skills I learned in Peace Corps, which basically involves wandering around looking for landmarks in English so I can find my way home.

I set out for the market around noon, the perfect time of day for idiots who want to get heat stroke. My apartment is in a pretty central location. There’s a night market down the street that pops up around 5 pm everyday to feed hungry workers pouring out of their office buildings.

This morning, a Saturday, the street was lined with tarp-shaded stands full of clothes, random knick-knacks, plants, and cages full of rabbits, parakeets, gerbils, kittens and puppies for sale. As pets.

As pets.

I wandered further without purchasing anything live, and ended up at the park where Ahn took me yesterday. I had mentioned to Jaeb that I wanted to go running, so she stuck me on the back of Ahn’s motorbike after work yesterday and told him to take me to the park, where he was meeting some friends for sepak takraw, a popular game in Thailand that appears to be a combination of volleyball, soccer, and hackeysack using a loosely woven rattan ball.

<-- A sepak takraw player kicks the ball so fast that you can't see the ball. (Lumphini Park, Bangkok.)

The park here in Mahachai is a tiny spot of paved sidewalks, stray cats and manicured bushes that wind for a solid one-eighth of a mile next to a temple that seemed to be broadcasting a monk chanting over loudspeakers. Though ridiculously small, the park seems to be a popular place for runners, perhaps because it’s the only place in town that isn’t lined with shops, highways or factories.

Yesterday afternoon the air was thick, hot and still, and 15 minutes of heaving my feet one in front of the other was plenty. Half of my water content was now on the sidewalk. Amazingly, there were at least fifty women gathered around a small gazebo for a vigorous aerobics class set to loud techno, which was competing with the chanting from the temple.

My co-workers have been advising me to take motorcycle taxis everywhere, but there are a lot of places that are really accessible on foot. I don’t get the sense that people walk a lot in this city. I guess it makes sense – it’s hot as hell. Today I discovered that both the market and the temple are less than a ten minute walk from my house.

Right next to the park is a long pier where you can catch a commuter boat across the river. For 3 baht per crossing, it runs day and night ferrying migrant workers who work odd hours. You can even take your motorbike on the boat.

The river appears to become a port at this point. There are fishing boats docked all along the water’s edge, appearing to be in varying degrees of working order. The river also has tons of water hyacinth, an invasive aquatic plant that tolerates pollution really well and is known to wreak havoc on the water’s ecosystem, killing off fish, breeding mosquitos and water-borne parasites, and blocking sunlight from reaching other aquatic plants. As if the unfortunate smell and garbage floating on the surface weren’t enough.

I wandered away from the pier and into the market. It’s really quite amazing. There is so much fresh seafood – shrimp, squid, fish, eel, crabs of all sizes, lobster. And if the fresh version is too perishable for your taste, just walk a little further to find stand after stand selling the dried version. I came to the market armed with a very important phrase: thao rai. How much? Next time, I’ll also plan to be armed with its counterpart: numbers.

I wonder if most of the mamas selling seafood at the market are Burmese or Thai. I am so thrilled at the prospect of being able to get anything I could possibly want right here in my town. Need a pet turtle? Need a turtle for soup? Need a washing machine? It’s all here. I mean, except cheese and quality chocolate. I still haven’t found a supermarket nearby, only the Tesco that’s a bit of a drive from my place. I’m starting to miss bread.

People are generally pretty nice about my not knowing any Thai, despite the initial confusion. There are always some blank stares, some giggling and embarrassment, but always an attempt to help out the weird Chinese lady.

I know that my sense of urgency about needing to learn the language to avoid awkwardness is a bit unnecessary. Lots of expats live here and never bother to learn Thai. They’ve learned to manage the language gap. My brother’s high school friend, a Taiwanese American, has lived in Hong Kong for eight years and still doesn’t know Cantonese. If he’s shrugged off the constant assumptions about what language he should be speaking for this long, I’ll survive a few months while I learn some basic Thai.

The other night, over dinner with Francisco, I was marveling about the TV screens all over the Bangkok SkyTrain stations and on the train cars.

Francisco said, “Those things wouldn’t last five minutes on a subway car in New York.”

I said, “I wonder why people are so respectful of property here that they wouldn’t think to steal a TV screen.”

He said, “The question we should be asking is why people in New York aren’t respectful that they would think to steal one.”

And then we laughed at how ridiculous we are as Americans.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Motorbikes

I took a motorbike taxi to the office for the first time today. This seems to be one of the main modes of public transport here. There are also buses, and what I think are called song-thaews, buses with a large pickup truck bed in the back with two benches along either side where lucky people sit while everyone else crowds in around them.

Motorbike etiquette is still a mystery to me. When you're the passenger, what do you hold onto? There are the bars next to the seat, but they're not very ergonomically useful. If you know the driver, you could hold onto their waist, but if you're just taking a bike taxi with an old sweaty guy driving, do you really want that kind of intimacy? I'm getting a motorcycle helmet and learning to hold onto the bars really tight, even though no one really drives that fast.

Thais don't hold onto anything when they ride a motorbike. I've seen people holding babies in one arm and steering the motorbike with the other. I've also seen dogs with their hind legs in the driver's lap and their front paws on the handlebars, zipping down the street happy as can be.

Thai drivers are so laid back. I think Thais drive better than anyone else in the world. They are safe, courteous and slow. No one floors the gas. No one slams on their brakes. There’s no complete stop for traffic that has the right of way, but when a critical mass of vehicles builds up at an intersection, everyone just goes together, and the cross traffic slows down to let them pass. There’s no road rage here, either. I can't imagine Thai people raging about anything. Part of it is that expressing emotion is considered a loss of face in Thai culture.

I really think that I could ride a bicycle around town. I've seen a few people on bicycles, but it seems to be the poor man's motorbike. Also, pedaling makes you sweat, and Thai people hate to sweat, so I imagine that anyone who can afford it opts for the cool breeze that you get from zooming around on a motorbike.

My coworker said riding a bicycle might be dangerous, but she doesn’t know that I've ridden a bike in Manhattan. Nothing compares to the danger and stupidity it takes to do that. Except maybe riding a bike in Nairobi.

Ahn took me to Dr. Khin's clinic and I spent a few hours there asking questions and observing her work. She can provide basic care and medicine, and the clinic distributes condoms and family planning (pills and injections) but she has to refer patients to the hospital for more complicated procedures, including births and HIV testing. The services are 30 baht but no one is turned away if they can't pay. Sometimes if a client can't afford transportation, the clinic arranges and pays for the cost.

Dr. Khin was really interested in the work I did in Kenya. She asked me about the public health system there, and whether people got good health care. I didn't lie.

"It sounds like things are worse in Kenya than for migrants here in Thailand," she said.

As crappy as migrants have it here, I think she's right. In Mahachai the health infrastructure is pretty good. Nearly everyone gives birth in a hospital. Migrants are regularly referred to the provincial hospital here, and the quality of care sounds pretty decent. No rumors about disgruntled nurses in the maternity ward abandoning their patients for days, as there were at the district hospital where I lived in Kenya.

The barriers to access among migrants here are more about their legal status and language and cultural barriers than about a lack of available facilities, services or trained medical practitioners. It's a completely different level of problems than in Kenya, where systematic failures could be traced back to the inaction, incompetence or mismanagement of a few powerful people.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Office

Today was my first full day in Mahachai. Ahn the driver came to get me at 9am, as we agreed last night. He doesn’t speak any English, like about half the people in my office. But I like to remind myself of my own unique status as the only person in the office that doesn’t speak Thai.

The office is equipped as any well-funded NGO should be: AC, computers, printers and wireless internet. Of course, we are talking about Asian people so no one turns on the AC. They just run about eight fans all day long, partly for the heat and partly for the mosquitoes. Like in Bangkok, we take off our shoes at the door, which means mosquitoes bite me on the bottom of my feet. I HATE THOSE BUGGERS.

Our office is in a complex that looks like a strip shopping center. There are other organizations renting the other spaces, including an NGO called the Labour Rights Protection Network, and some seafood companies. There is also, I’m told, a pool nearby! I am planning to join, assuming it’s longer than the 20-yard joker at the campus gym back in New York.

Like almost every building I’ve seen here, ours is four stories high. Each organization's office occupies all four floors, with a stairway leading up to the other floors. In our office, the first two floors are where everyone sits. My desk is upstairs on the second floor, and I have access to a printer, photocopier, fax machine, etc. We have a conference room and some important person’s office on the third floor, and the fourth floor appears to be used for storage.

As expected, there’s nearly a full kitchen in the office. The only thing missing is a stove. But we have a rice cooker, an Asian hot water heater thing, a fridge and freezer, microwave, electric crock pot, a sink, dishes, silverware, cups, instant coffee and tea. And of course someone brings food to share nearly every day.

Ahn, Oay and Muu took me to visit a few of the drop-in centers. We went to Tha Chalom, a neighborhood across the river from the office, which has a child development center on the ground floor. It's managed by Noreen, the Burmese nurse who I met at the conference in Bangkok. The kids are really energetic, and the floor is a bit sandy with all the youthful hyperactivity. One of the teachers is a Thai guy who is always barking at the kids with his high-pitched voice. Maybe this is considered educational.

We also stopped by Talad Kung, an area of town aptly named for having perhaps the largest shrimp market in Thailand. There is another drop-in clinic here, where Dr. Khin works. She provides basic health care services in Burmese, and refers clients to the local government hospital for more complicated issues or for lab tests. There's brochures and posters in Burmese about HIV and STIs, pregnancy, family planning, dengue fever and other health information, and plenty of condoms and birth control pills. My favorite is this display with samples of unsafe "condoms." The sign is in English, Thai and Burmese.

So far the people who speak the best English are the Burmese staff – Noreen and Dr. Khin. They’ve both been in Thailand for years – Dr. Khin has been here for ten years and both her kids were born here – but their Thai is not very fluent. Like in Thailand, Burmese students study English beginning in fifth grade. I’m told that the Burmese language isn’t related to much else, including Thai. So Noreen and Dr. Khin can both speak it conversationally, but they can’t really read or write it. Migrants from Cambodia generally have an easier time learning Thai because it’s related to Khmer.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The New Apartment

I went back to the conference in the morning hoping to hear something more insightful about migrants in Thailand. It was more of the same: NGOs complaining about the poor health and employment situations of migrant workers and advocating for more tolerance and openness, and government officials patiently explaining why migrants aren’t welcome in Thailand (they’re poor, uneducated and disease-ridden), despite the fact that the economy depends on them.

I was really proud of our executive director yesterday. He was one of the two people in the room, out of several hundred, who went up to the microphone to ask a question at the end of the program. He began by saying, “This whole discourse makes me very uneasy,” and complained about how the government ministries were being intolerant and closed-minded, and that they needed to do more to help migrants.

I skipped out on the lunch that was provided at the conference because I had told Maem, the HR assistant, that I’d be back at the office by 1. I was starving by the time I got back to the office.

“Didn’t they serve lunch at the conference?” Khun P asked.

“Yes,” I said. “But I told Maem I would be back here at 1, and I was already running late.”

“Oh dear,” Khun P said. “What kind of intern are you? You should always eat a free lunch.”

A lot of places in Thailand have two names – one used by local people and one found on maps, street signs, and any official publication about the place. Even Bangkok is known as Krung Thep to Thais.

Mahachai is the local name of my town, which is officially called Samut Sakorn, or Samut Sakhon depending on who’s spelling it. The next province over, known for its winding canals and floating markets, is called Mae Khlong by locals, or Samut Songkhram by no one.

Mahachai has one of the highest concentrations of migrant workers in Thailand. Most people who know about migration to Thailand have never heard of it in that context, though. People know about Mae Sot and other border areas, but this musty fishing port, situated an hour southwest of Bangkok on the mouth of the Tha Chin river as it spills its creamy brown silt into the Gulf of Thailand, remains unrecognized for its dubious honor of attracting and hosting legions of migrants, mostly from Burma, in search of better wages and less oppression than in their homeland. These laborers usually end up working in the seafood factories or on the docks.

We packed up the car with my luggage and a lot of food and supplies for the Mahachai office. The Mahachai staff had reserved an apartment for me based on a budget and some simple requests I had given them over email, but I hadn’t seen pictures or even received a description. My biggest fear was not having a kitchen. It conjured up memories of the stunt that my worthless lying bum of a supervisor pulled on me in Kenya, where I was shown a palatial two-bedroom house on a hospital compound and told I would be living there, and when I arrived in the village they said I’d be living in a tiny room that was big enough for me to put up a bookshelf to demarcate my bed from my stove.

On the way out of Bangkok we passed several colossal, ornate temples. Each time I asked Maem if they were famous for anything.

“No, just temples,” she said each time.

“But they’re so big and fancy,” I said.

“There are many temples in Thailand,” she said. I learned later that nearly all temples are built using funds donated by the community. The government doesn’t fund the construction of temples.

So, it turns out that my apartment is much to my liking. It’s simple but has all the amenities I need – AC, hot water, a flush toilet, spartan 70s-style furniture, two balconies, and most importantly, wireless internet. There’s also a massage spa in the building, and washing machines.

A few days later I would learn that there are no dryers, however, when the woman who provides the premium laundry service (which I don’t have) handed me a pile of my clothes fresh out of the washer.

“Dryer?” I kept saying in English.

“Wash already,” she kept saying in Thai.

After a few minutes of this, I finally understood that her nodding and smiling meant that I should take my wet clothes upstairs and hang them on my balcony.


DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF you don't like hearing about other people's poo. Peace Corps friends, karibu.

So I tried out my toilet for the first time, armed with the knowledge that toilets in developing countries can have rather anemic flushing capabilities. The lesson is: put the toilet paper in the garbage can.

Sometimes it’s not toilet paper that’s the problem. Sometimes people forget to eat a balanced diet that includes fruits and vegetables when they’re traveling in a new place. Sometimes there appears a turd that becomes a formidable challenge to the average flush toilet in the host country.

Flush again. Flush again. Flush again.

Flush again. Flush again. Flush again.

Sometimes, after digging through their garbage can for a suitable tool, people find a way to poke the turd down, but only after wishing that David Sedaris were there to commiserate.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Conference

7:24 am. I’m about to head out the door to a conference on migrant workers and health. The main attraction of this conference, of course, is that I get to scope out the big names from WHO, UNIFEM, and the Ministry of Public Health.

It’s day three here, and I’ve been trying to get my brain switched to living-in-a-developing-country mode again. Except there seems to be no evidence that this is a developing country. There are these massive, sleek, hi-tech malls that are all nicer and more carefully and artistically designed to maximize your shameless consumption than any mall in the U.S. People from Japan, China and Malaysia come here on “shopping vacations.”

I’m still reeling from the overstimulation of being in a new country and hemisphere, as well as being 11 hours ahead of New York time, but if I had to choose one message that stands out most from everything I’ve taken in so far, it’s this: JUSTINA MUST LEARN THAI, LIKE YESTERDAY.

Supposedly everyone learns English in school here, and I don’t mean just in high school. It’s taught starting in fifth grade. But much like in China and Taiwan, the emphasis is on reading and writing, not on speaking. So basically, I can’t understand a word anyone is saying to me.

Yesterday I was at an internet café and the woman at the desk kept saying, “Conserve foon.”


“Conserve foon.”






“Foon. Foon.”

Finally I figured it out. She was saying, “Computer full.” All the computers were taken and I should hang out a bit until one opened up. Thais sometimes pronounce L as N. But they also sometimes pronounce R as L, or L as R.

So how about some nooden for dinnel?

11:05 pm. I got lost trying to find my way to the Ambassador Hotel off Sukhumvit Road this morning, but I did learn how the whole Thanon-Soi thing works. A lot of thanons (roads) have side streets coming off them that are called sois, which are numbered. So Soi Sukhumvit 1 is the first side street that turns off the main Sukhumvit Road.

This is apparently a pretty large conference. It’s called the National Migrant Health Conference or something like that. There were a bunch of display tables and booths from various NGOs and government organizations that supposedly support migrant health and rights in Thailand, and some of them were giving away freebies. Mostly, though, everything was in Thai, further solidifying my resolve to learn Thai reo-reo: fast fast.

At the welcome table I got a little radio-like thing with a belt clip and earpiece. It receives a feed from the booth where two people were translating the program from Thai into English and vice-versa, which I thought was pretty cool. They could offer personal versions of these for super lazy people, where you hire someone to follow you around and keep inconspicuously out of sight while their translation of everything around you is constantly transmitted to your ear.

I met some people from Mahachai at the conference – my supervisor was there, and I met a Burmese doctor and nurse who are based at the drop-in centers. There were also a few peer educators and Burmese translators from a migration NGO in Mahachai, all youth, and some staff from the Mae Tao clinic in Mae Sot, of Dr. Cynthia fame.

One of the early speakers was the head of UNIFEM based here in Bangkok. She gave an energetic speech about migrant rights, especially for female migrants, who are more vulnerable to exploitation. The rhetoric was nothing earth-shattering, just very familiar. There were a few other speakers from NGOs around the country who said more of the same thing, but then the government officials got up and started talking about why migrants were a menace and should be stopped from coming into Thailand.

Whuuut? No one seemed to react. People just kept taking notes. During the coffee break I ran into our executive director, who said, “The ministry people said all the wrong things.” He was irritated but not surprised. It sounds like this is the standard party line every time the government is invited to talk about migrants.

For dinner I met up with a PopFam classmate, Francisco, who is doing his practicum with UNAIDS here in Bangkok. It was great to see a friendly face, one that speaks English at 35 mph instead of 2. We sat in an air-conditioned noodle shop in the mall, slurping down noodle soup and stir fried chicken with vegetables, and comparing notes on Thailand through expat eyes and non-Thai ears.

Francisco ordered an iced chrysanthemum tea, I ordered a Thai iced tea, and we made a special toast:

“To being interns in Thailand. Because you know our classmates working in Africa aren’t eating like this.”

Monday, July 7, 2008

The First Day

I’m still rusty at this blogging thing. Apologies for yesterday’s play-by-play drivel.

I reported for “work” today. But first, I was up at seven looking for breakfast in the neighborhood, and feeling inexplicably apprehensive about it. I found a couple of stands with steam coming from them in an alley, so I bought some barbecued chicken-on-a-stick and some rice. Everyone snickered about my inability to speak Thai, which is probably the last time I’ll find it amusing.

I went back to my hotel room and inhaled my lovely savory breakfast. I made a mental note to ask someone what people normally eat for breakfast here. Chicken and rice for breakfast is delicious, but a bit odd, even for someone who grew up eating leftover Domino’s Pizza for breakfast.

Just before I came to Thailand, I combed the aisles at DSW for several hours agonizing about what kind of shoes would be appropriate for working here. Flip flops were obviously out, but what about open-toe or slip-on sandals? I didn’t want to wear closed shoes without socks in the world’s hottest country, or closed shoes with socks for that matter.

It turns out that people take off their shoes before they enter the office. Barefoot is the proper footwear here. People also take off their shoes anytime they enter a temple or someone’s house, or if you go upstairs in many buildings, like at a hotel. (However, this was not true at The Palace. I guess if you pay that much money, you get to keep your shoes on.)

I met with the Director of HR, my project director, my on-site director, and the executive director of my organization. We had a meeting where half the attendees spent the first ten minutes giggling because they couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Thai. It is rather odd, I think, that the organization has agreed to take on an intern that can’t speak the local language. Would this ever happen in the States? Highly doubtful.

My organization has implemented five drop-in centers around Mahachai, just one town where an ambitious HIV prevention program for migrant workers is being implemented around Thailand, with a primary focus on laborers in the fishing industry.

The drop-in centers are basically a safe place where migrant workers can go to get culturally-appropriate information in their native language, as well as basic health care and condoms. They’re staffed by Thai and Burmese employees and volunteers who provide health services, referrals, legal advice and other information to help migrant workers understand and assert their rights, whether or not they’re registered to work legally in Thailand.

Even though Thai laws restrict illegal migrants from accessing basic services like health care and schooling, international human rights instruments protect migrants from abusive situations. This doesn’t stop employers from exploiting them, but through the outreach and education provided by drop-in center staff, migrants learn what recourse is available to them when they need it.

Four of the drop-in sites in Mahachai also have child development centers, which are basically day care centers for the children of migrants. The centers give kids a place to socialize and develop life skills among Burmese children their own age. They also attempt to prepare kids with language and cultural knowledge so that they can eventually enter Thai schools.

From what I can gather, I’ll be documenting the child development centers, including activities, best practices and lessons learned. That's a lot of nice buzzwords that make my project sound important, but so far it seems like my supervisors are much more skilled at NGO-speak than at communicating exactly what they mean by those things.

The HR director, Khun P, took me to lunch because everyone else in the office had ordered food and eaten already. We walked down the block – wearing shoes - to a small restaurant where he ordered tom yum soup, fried fish and vegetables. He also taught me one of my first Thai words ever: pet. It means spicy, and will probably be one of the more useful words I learn.

Khun P also gave me the lowdown on tipping in Thailand. It’s not expected, he says, although at “finer” establishments, especially those that serve a lot of wazungu, they give you your bill on a tray, which means “it’s okay to tip and place it in the tray.” Also, you don’t tip 15 percent of the bill. You just leave an extra 10 or 20 baht – which is often more than 15 percent. This is true at restaurants, hotels, in taxis, nearly everywhere.

I told him about the Malaysian restaurant in New York that I went to last week where the wait staff completely ignored us except to run after us as we left because we didn’t leave a tip. We hadn’t intended to stiff them; we had simply counted the money wrong. But the service was so bad that we really shouldn’t have tipped, except that tipping isn’t about rewarding good service anymore; it’s about avoiding finding your waiter’s loogie in your food.

“I hear that’s how it is in the States,” he said. “But not here. You won’t be chased for not leaving a tip. It’s just appreciated.”

Thailand is supposed to be less developed than the US?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Arrival

Look at me! I'm in Thailand! I'm spending six months in the Land of Same Same But Different working for an NGO as a requirement for my masters degree back in New York.

I arrived in Bangkok Sunday morning bright and early - like before 6am. My luggage arrived forty minutes later, on Thai time. I stepped out into the hottest country in the world, armed with a single Thai greeting and a map to my hotel.

Lesson one: Thai people have a hard time understanding that I don’t speak Thai. Ten minutes into the cab ride from the airport, the driver looked at me in the rearview mirror. He had been mumbling in Thai, and must have suddenly realized:

“You speak Thai,” he said. No, I said.

He chortled in deep embarrassment. “You tourism?” he said.

I just said, “Yes,” because I doubted that the phrase “six-month practicum” was in his English vocabulary.

We got lost. We got found. Some very friendly bellhops greeted me in the lobby of the Karmanee Palace Hotel. It was indeed a palace compared to the backpacker guesthouses that I’ve always stayed in most of my adult life. There was granite, or maybe marble. There were chandeliers, and tablecloths, and elevators. There was a complimentary breakfast buffet.

“Sawatdii khap!” they said.

Well, I know that phrase: It means hello.

Unfortunately I didn’t know what the appropriate response was, so I just smiled awkwardly and proceeded to the reception desk. Again, the women behind the counter could not register that I didn’t speak Thai. When they finally did, confusion ensued.

Name please?

I told them.

Write down, please. I did.

They read it as “Jushna.”

No reservation under Jushna, or Justina for that matter. I gave them the name of my supervisor, who had made the reservation. Nothing. I gave them the name of my host organization, Raks Thai. After more confusion, more blank looks, more staring back and forth at me and at each other, they checked me in and summoned the bellhop.

I was finally alone in my hotel room. I had no idea where I was, or how to get around. Two hours in Bangkok and I already felt trapped in my hotel. It was a tiny bit lonely, a tiny bit terrifying.

I needed to call my supervisor to let him know I had arrived, but I didn’t even know how to make a phone call. The bellhop had said to use the phone in my room – and explained it in a voice that suggested he thought I was an idiot for not knowing that there was a phone in every hotel room. But where I come from hotel phones are for people who never went on vacation with their family and watched their mom accidentally use the phone in the hotel room to make a local call and get charged $8.

So I sat on my bed, wondering how to make a phone call. I decided to ponder this question in the shower instead. Ten minutes later I was clean, and my room phone was ringing.

It was my supervisor. He was worried that I hadn’t called earlier. I told him I didn’t know where I could make a phone call. He said that I could call from my hotel room, you know, on the phone that I was using to talk to him. So, in Thailand, hotel room phones are not the world’s lamest scams. Only in America, apparently.

I finally got myself out the door of my hotel room to explore the neighborhood. But not until I had finished examining the mini wet bar, which always reminds me of that line from Blood Diamond where Leo is dancing with Jennifer Connelley and says, “How about we go check out the wet bar in your hotel room?”

And she says, “I’m a print journalist. I drank it.”

Anyway, the wet bar in The Palace only had sodas. And I’m not a print journalist, or a soda fiend. I later learned that the two bottles of water were free though.

I started walking to the Big C. The entire road along the way was lined with food carts. In case none of them offered anything you wanted to eat, there was also a pretty decent market in one of the alleys. I found rambutan! And mangosteen! Mangosteen seems not to be in season, but I made a mental note to come back for some rambutan.

There was also a meat market on the opposite side of the alley, and if you hung a right at the end, you came upon a small clothing market. Man, there’s no shortage of ways to whet your consumerist appetite here. This is a developing country?

The Big C was massive, both on the inside and out. Even if you didn’t see the giant sign that said Big C, there were stands set up selling clothes and food starting right in front of the door and continuing for several blocks. It’s comforting to know that I’ll never go hungry or naked in this country.

Big C is basically like a Walmart Superstore. Groceries, clothes, beauty supplies, electronics, home furnishings, and of course, carts with prepared food.

I needed moisturizer. I left my extra-emollient New York wintertime moisturizer at home, figuring it was probably overkill for a tropical country.

Observation: Every lotion sold in this country wants to turn you white. I really had to search hard to find one that didn’t advertise it’s magical whitening properties. All I wanted was something with sunscreen, not bleach. It’s a bit mysterious, actually, why women wouldn’t fear ending up looking like a Chinese opera singer with all the face-whitening products they’re slapping on.

I finally found one that didn’t say anything about making me look like porcelain goddess, and shelled out a whopping $9 for it. I still haven’t stopped converting prices back to dollars in my head. After all that careful perusing at the store, I got home only to find on the inside packaging: “Naturally lighten your skin.”

Next stop: Chatuchak weekend market, known to tourists as JJ market. Once off the SkyTrain, I saw a sign that said I could get to Chatuchak by cutting through a park. Anything to make time spent frying in the sun shorter and sweeter.

I was approached by a couple guys trying to sell me straw mats so I could sit on the grass next to a rather stagnant-looking pond. They were speaking Thai, obviously, so I shook my head at them and kept walking. They kept following me, speaking Thai and holding an armload of mats. This was awkward. Ignoring people doesn’t work here as well as it does in Kenya, apparently.

"I don't know what you're saying," I said to them. They stopped to let their jaws bounce off the ground a few times. I made my getaway while they looked at each other and discussed why this Thai lady couldn't speak Thai.

Chatuchak market is a bit overwhelming, full of winding stands selling a lot of handcrafted tourist goods – clothes, jewelry, home furnishings, textiles, art, books. And of course, food. Thais never miss a meal, and apparently there’s nothing wrong with having two meals during one meal time.

Note to all: Chatuchak market has tourist prices. A bowl of soup that would normally cost 25 baht cost me 40 baht, and they skimped on the noodles. It was quite disappointing, and I was still hungry.

It was only 4pm and there were still two things on my to do list that would make my day complete: getting a SIM card for my phone, and finding an internet café. My supervisor had said that I might need to go to the mall to get a SIM card, so I found my way to Siam Square.

After marveling once again at the possibility that this might be a developing country, I finally found both an internet café (called True – quite an elaborate internet café experience, and priced to match) and a SIM card. Mission accomplished.

I retreated back to my hotel, with only a pit stop for a bowl of dinner noodles – larger and cheaper than at Chatuchak. I was exhausted, and my feet hurt.

But they were still clean. This is a developing country?