Thursday, October 31, 2013

the blonde farang in a faraway land.



I am a Sagittarius, through and through. Restless, independent, adventurous, and straightforward.  I will eternally be in the archer’s stance, targeting my arrow on a future dream and ready to let go. I welcome change as that is how we evolve. So once again I have released my arrow and am being launched into a new adventure in the Far East: Thailand. 

 

A two-day journey has brought me 9,000 miles and 11 hours away from home. Dirty, sleep deprived, and fighting my internal body clock’s relentless alarm, I arrived in Bangkok all set to dive right in. I met my boss in the airport and her driver took us an hour away from the capital into the ‘suburb’ of Chonburi.

The next 48 hours was a whirlwind of information, sights, smells, and people. I feel caught up in the Thai tornado, reveling in the novelty.

It is nightfall by 6pm so driving through Chonburi all I see are restaurants and shops that light up the streets and spirit houses that shine peacefully in front of homes. After a few pit-stops and meet and greets with fellow teachers, I arrive in my new home: a townhouse in a very, very Thai neighborhood. I met my housekeeper, Aor, who I can only communicate with through charades and smiles. After dropping my bags in my room, Helen, a retired teacher and my tour guide, brought me to the night market for a sneak peak of Chonburi and my first Thai meal.  A 5 minute walk leads me to a large, bustling night market that is filled with food trucks, vendors, and people. The Nasaan buzzes with energy and engulfs you with exotic smells from exotic dishes. It is not common to have a kitchen in your home here so everyone eats out for every meal. I am blown away by how cheap the fare is – from 80¢ to $1.20 you can have a full, delicious meal. The vendors display the fresh ingredients in front of you and welcome you to sit at the table and chairs behind their stall.  Helen kindly orders me pad Thai from the Cowboy Pad Thai Man and we sit and wait as it is freshly prepared in the sizzling wok. I have a million and one questions for her but my brain is fried from travel and shutting down from overload. Helen is patient, reassuring, and very kind as she explains the basics and outlines my weekend plans. She walks me home, checking to see if I have my bearings, and leaves me to rest and settle in.


First order of business was a much needed shower.  The Thai bathroom is what I expected, but very different from home. Bathrooms are BYOTS – bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer! A squatter toilet is a common find in homes and public places here; however, thankfully our apartment has regular flushing toilets! The bathroom is simply a wet-room where tile covers floor to ceiling.  There is no separate stall from the shower so once you go under the shower head, everything gets soaked - but when you return 10 minutes later everything is dry from the heat! Afterwards I unpacked a few things and crashed, entering a dreamy sleep.

Jet Lag woke me up at 4am. I lounged in bed, watching the sky lighten and waiting until it was a normal hour to go outdoors. My mouth cried thirst. You cannot drink the tap water here; however it is okay to brush your teeth with and shower in. There are water jug filling stations everywhere that allow you to fill up a liter of water for 1 baht (.03 cents…not even a penny!). Also, the Thais love 7-11 and you can find one on every block.  So between the refill stations, 7-11s, bodegas, markets, and kids selling water bottles from a cooler on the corner, I’ll never go thirsty again!

 
That morning I wandered around my area of Chon Buri. I live a couple side roads off the main street; it is very Thai and very charming. Our alley is home to small bodegas, families, a temple, and farm animals. One house is a gated mansion, the next is a shanty shack on stilts; some are made stone, others only wood and tin.  Children play games in the street, while chickens and stray dogs mosey around passersby. The Thais understand their heat so they stay inside most of the day, busying themselves with housework or tinkering with machines.  Even to go around the corner they will take their scooter rather than walk.  If I thought Italy had a lot of scooters, I was extremely wrong. The roads are congested with motorbikes and songtaews.  No helmets, no seatbelts, no problem.


The Gulf of Thailand is a half mile away from my house. A main road intersects with the coastline and greets the bay. Unfortunately, you should not swim in this part of the sea – but that is okay, because if I could I doubt I would go to work.  Children play on the rocks and fishing traps line the horizon. As I walked back to my apartment, enjoying the sun on my skin, I noticed I was the only one choosing to be in the sun. Everyone was indoors or in the shade. I figured it was due to the 90+ degree heat and humidity but later was told that the Thais do not want a suntan.  Here in Thailand the color of your skin reflects your class. If you have tanned skin you most likely work in the fields or outdoors. If you are lucky to have milky fair skin, you represent wealth since you can lounge indoors all day. Well, I love being bronzed so I will continue being the silly blonde farang (foreigner) with tan skin. 

If you came to Chon Buri expecting Phuket, you would be sorely disappointed. This city is not a tourist destination; there are no pristine beaches, resorts, floating markets, or elephant rides here. It is a typical Thai city. There are markets, parks, stores, schools, and temples. A 5 minutes sontago ride brings you to Tesco (Thailand’s version of Walmart) and a massive mall. Chon Buri may not be postcard picturesque – but its home. It is the perfect location to serve as home base for my travels and to get an authentic experience in Thailand. 


Later that day I met my new friend Matt, a fellow teacher at Anuban Chonburi, for dinner. We enjoyed a fresh smoothie at the market and made our way to the large park close by. The park looks brand new and spacious. It mainly serves as an outdoor gym with exercise stations, a track, and stretching areas. There are plenty of benches and places to sit, relax, and enjoy friends’ company. I was baffled from seeing people work out in such heat and with so many clothes on! My body was just getting used to the crisp fall air when I left. Walking straight into a wall of hazy, hot, and humid definitely shocked my sense but I know I will adjust quickly and soon be running alongside these locals. I am so pleased there is a workout park because the thought of running in the streets, dodging stray dogs and motorbikes, does not sounds appealing.

Matt and I met up with retired teacher/tour guide Helen to head to Bang Saen, a college beach town 25 minutes away. The Songtaew, a pick-up truck with wooden benches on the back, is Thailand’s version of a bus system. You simply flag one down, hop on the back, and press the buzzer when you want to be let off. They will drive you anywhere for 10 baht (3 cents) during the day of for 25 baht at night. 

Immediately exiting the Songtaew you feel a different vibe in Bang Saen than Chonburi. The night is buzzing with young energy.  Being a college town on the beach, bars, clubs, and markets line the coastline. The Walking Street there is even bigger than our night market in Chonburi. Vendors sell food, drinks, clothing, and appliances – you can even enjoy a free rock concert while you shop. We met other farang teachers to enjoy some meat on a stick and a few Leo beers. I picked their brains about work and Thailand, trying to see if there was a consensus of experiences here. 

The night carried us to Bar 88 for live music and later to Club Burdoch to see how Thais do bottle service. All of a sudden it was 2am and time to go home. Songtaews stop running around 11:30 so you have to take a motortaxi home. Directed by fellow teachers, I hopped on the back on a motortaxi and put my life in this smiling Thai man’s hands. As we cruised away from Bang Saen, taking the scenic route through the rural outskirts, I prayed and laughed the whole way.  A smile was plastered across my face during this surreal ride. It finally hit home, I am actually in Thailand. I prayed to every God I could think of that this man was going to bring me home, while loving every minute of the ride.  

Thankfully I recognized the city lights of Chonburi up ahead and saw some familiar places. I had him drop me off on my main road and walked down my alley to finally go to sleep. That plan failed immediately. I tried to unlock my gate/front door with no success. Our housekeeper must have thought I was already asleep or not coming home because she locked it from the inside. Banging on my tin door didn’t wake her up either but it definitely startled the stray dogs that were sleeping around me.  The universe was conspiring for me at this point because my phone connected to the townhouse’s wifi from outside. I quickly messaged Matt and Helen to let them know of my SOS situation. Nightmare visions of sleeping outside with the dogs flashed in my mind, but Matt graciously came to walk me back to his place so I could crash there for the night. Two days into Thailand already with a story to tell! 

 
The following morning I returned home in the hopes of creating a system with Aor about the door at night time. Google Translate is my new best friend. She felt terrible and I felt terrible for making her feel terrible. It was pure miscommunication. I smiled and laughed it off, telling her ‘it’s okay kah’ over and over again. I retreated to my bedroom, waiting in anticipation for Laura’s arrival. Laura is my new housemate, travel buddy, and fellow novice to Asia. She is genuine, kind, and funny – the perfect person to experience South East Asia with!  We ran some errands, picked up new Thai cellphones, and organized ourselves for the next morning: our first day of work!




My first three days were a blunt ‘Welcome to Thailand’.  Contrary to my presence in Europe, I cannot blend in here. I cannot be mistaken for a local.  My 5’10” self towers over everyone to say the least. So all I can do is gracefully merge myself into the culture, keeping an open mind and heart. It is ignorant to compare one country against another. Their culture and lifestyle is unique. I am the blonde farang in this faraway land, appreciating the simple pleasures and laid back attitude of Thailand. 

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