Sunday, June 18, 2017

And So, in Summary...

*Note to reader: This post is proving very difficult to write, especially to start.  Please bear in mind that this year has be transformative, life changing, and lots of other big adjectives.  It's not easy to summarize in a few paragraphs.

"Do you want this?"  Jess asks.  I look at whatever it is, then glance at the half-full suitcase.  "Nah," I reply.  This is the constant conversation going around our house these says as we consider packing all of our possessions into a few pieces of luggage.  Of course the kids want to keep everything they've acquired here, but honestly, is a broken toy worth the weight when we have a 20 kilo per person limit? I say no.

Besides packing up, we are worrying about  arriving back in Bozeman - Radd going to a new school, me without a job and a million things to do.  It seems as though our lives will pick up speed in an instant. Of course, we are so excited about seeing our friends and family again too!  And we are sad to say goodbye to our new friends and wonderful school community here in Thailand.  Suffice it to say, we are experiencing conflicting emotions.

"Reflecting" is what we're doing a lot of.  It really is hard to believe it's been a year already -  we've seen so much in a short period of time!  A few things spring immediately to mind:  monsoon rains, idyllic island and beach scenes, The Golden Triangle (Laos/Myanmar/Thailand), The Mekong River, Bangkok at night!, ancient kingdoms, the inner-workings of a "lifestyle" TV show, 5 people on one motorcycle, 1000 Golden Buddhas, 1 million kind faces, and 2 little Thai/American kids return to the country of their birth to experience what it means to be Thai and maybe what it means to be American - and that's just off the top of my head!

Today is June 19th, 2017.  It has been nearly a year since we boarded that plane to take us on this journey - across the Pacific and South.  In a few short days we will take the trip in reverse with the same luggage, but perhaps with less baggage.  We will leave Chiang Rai, Thailand with a broader view of the world and a new perspective on living. We've gained so much and will leave behind a lot, too.  

To Thailand, I think I speak for all four of us when I say ,"Thank you for the generosity, kindness, lessons, and patience with us. We know we will see you again someday."

To America, I say "Get ready, Baby!  We're coming home."

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Songkran - Part 3 of 3

After lazing on beaches and sipping smoothies for 8 days, it was time to have some more frenetic fun before our vacation came to an end.  And that meant the realization of a bucket list goal (of mine, at least):  It was time for Songkran!!  I had heard about this holiday about 10 years ago in a travel book. I think it was described as a country-wide water fight.  Well, that's a pretty spot on description, though I would add "a 3 day long" country-wide water fight.  That is how foreigners see it, of course. But Songkran is first and foremost the Thai New Year celebration.  It's a chance to "make merit" by visiting temples and feeding monks, and a chance to wash away past sins with ceremonial water purification.  Somehow along the way, it became a water fight though.  And of all the place in Thailand to celebrate this holiday, we were told that Chiang Mai was sort of the craziest, so off we went!

Chiang Mai is an ancient city.  It was founded in 1292 and was the former capital of the Lan Na Kingdom.  Throughout the old part of town, you can still see remnants of its history: massive crumbling brick walls and a moat that encircles a huge section of downtown are among the most famous.  In fact, that is where most of the action during Songkran takes place, so of course, that's where we stayed.

Almost as soon as we checked into our hotel (around 5:30 PM the night before Songkran officially began), we hit the streets to see if anyone wanted to "play water" as our taxi driver described it.  Almost immediately, we were hit by water from the back of a a passing pickup truck.  "Oh!  It's on!"  We found a street merchant selling various sized water guns and opted for 2 "medium sized" water blasters for the kids and a small plastic bucket for Jess and I to share.  We would carry water to reload the kids water guns when they ran out.  By the time we got to the moat, we were soaked from head to toe.  Water hits you from the front, as little kids jump out from behind their parents and spray you with Hello Kitty water pistols, from the back, as adults act nonchalant until you pass and then pour a bucket of ice water on your head, and from the side, as passing trucks loaded with Songkran revelers toss buckets of water into the crowds.  And through it all, everyone is smiling, laughing and cheering.  It must be the happiest holiday on earth.  And it was still the day before it began!

The next morning, we could barely keep the kids at the breakfast table, so we ate quickly, dressed in swim suits, loaded the water guns, and headed back to the main road.  We found some early-rising celebrators and decided to hang out with them in a bank parking lot for a while.  They had a garbage can filled with water, and floating in it was a giant block of ice.  This was where we learned that splashing people with ice water was really the way to go.  It got a much better reaction than simple tap water. So we joined forces and learned the ropes from the experts:  aim for open car windows, if a songthaew stops in front of you, it is OK to walk to the back and spray the riders inside the truck,  and if someone walking by raises his hand as a signal not to spray him - spray him anyway.

Armed with this new knowledge and fresh ice water, we walked down the streets, from water source to water source, refilling and spraying, refilling and spraying.  Occasionally we would stop and join a large group or aim at unsuspecting people on balconies.  It was like a time machine - transporting everyone back to their carefree youth and hosting a party to celebrate it.  It was also exhausting.

Jess and I spied a chalk board outside a tiny cafe that advertised 80 baht mojitos, so we stopped in to make sure they were authentic, and found to our astonishment, they were fantastic!  So were had another.

On and on the day went and into the night.  We were wet all day and happier for it.  But the next morning we had to rise early for a songthaew for the bus station.  We were told that if we left before 9, no one would be on the streets spraying water and we might arrive at the bus station dry and comfortable, so we left at 8.  However, just before we reached the station, a giant splash of water came through the window and exploded on us.  The man responsible gave Jess a sheepish grin and a shrug of his shoulders.  No worries, mate.  In fact, good on ya for getting out early and hitting people unaware!

The memory of Songkran in Chiang Mai will stay with us forever.  It was a beautiful celebration of life in a childish display of mutual splashing and spraying.  It seems the status of "favorite memory" of this year in Thailand continues to be replaced each week we continue to stay here.  But really, what could possibly top this???      

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Island Living - Part 2 of 3

After we boarded the overnight train in Bangkok, we settled into our chairs and wondered, "How does this chair turn into a bed?"  There seemed to be no way there would be enough beds for the four of us to sleep on this 12 hour trip.  But of course, as with all traveling in Thailand, as soon as you start to fret, the situation seems to resolve immediately.  For just then, a man came along with a small device to unlock the top bunks from the ceiling and magically transform our chairs into beds.  Worry not - he seemed to say.  So we settled in again and before we knew it, we arrived in Surat thani.  Then it was breakfast, a bus ride, a ferry ride, a songthaew ride, and we were at our hotel on Kho Phangan.
All that and only about 12:00 in the afternoon!  Unfortunately for us, a freak monsoon was hovering over the island and we arrived in the pouring rain.  Even worse, it hovered for the next 4 days. However, even in a monsoon, tropical paradises are tropical paradises, I always say.  So we made the best of it, first by upgrading hotels.  I don't know about you, but when I enter my hotel room and it looks like a 1980s Chuck Norris POW movie, I want out!  So we walked down the beach a few hundred meters and found a place that was actually beautiful, had a pool, included a great breakfast, and had customer service - for the same price.  Magic

Now again, you have to make the best of it when it's raining on vacation, but when you feel sick, that's pretty hard to do.  Almost as soon as we arrive, Jess started feeling bad.  A few days later when she was fully recovered, I went down and stayed down for like 6 days.  But as I said, we made the best of it and this next little story is pretty much what made our Kho Phangan trip so great:

So, let me take you back 5 1/2 years when we met Suni for the first time.  We met her foster mom at a hotel with Suni so that they could say good bye to each other.  It was very sad of course, but one of the bright spots (besides us getting to take Suni home) was meeting Suni's foster sister "Guitar".  She was about a year younger than Suni, and just the cutest thing ever.  Apparently, they lived together for just over a year with Yai Jah.  Well, when we were visiting Yai Jah in Bangkok this time, we inquired about Guitar, where is she?  Is she well?  If you think about it, she could have been adopted by any one of millions of people from the U.S. or throughout Europe, so we were curious.  Get ready for this....She was adopted by a family that lived in Washington state, but that's not the crazy part.  We asked for their email address so we could inquire further and maybe someday have Suni meet Guitar again.  A few days later, when we were on Kho Phangan, we got their email address and sent off a message.  You better sit down now, I'll wait.......
Guitar and her family were living in Thailand! They were living in Surat Province!  They were living on Kho Phangan!  They were living 10 minutes from our hotel. And yes, they wanted to meet!  Long story short, Suni and her long lost foster sister met and played together for 4 or 5 straight days, Radd played with her older brothers, whom he had a lot in common with, and we hung out with their super cool parents.  I. Shit. You. Negative.  That's the universe doing what it does, I guess.

And I would probably be remiss if I didn't mention one other fun aspect of living on Kho Phagnan for 8 days.  We rented scooters and cruised around and around and around feeling like eagles soaring through the ether.  We snorkled till our fingers were pruned, sipped fruit smoothies at all hours of the day, and got massaged beach side.  We also found a restaurant on a long skinny point that had a little cliff diving area teeming with tropical fish.  The kids spent over an hour jumping off, floating around, gazing at the fish while the sun was setting...It was pretty magical, I must say.  Something I could get used to...

But all good things must come to an end, so we got back into that songthaew, the ferry, the bus, an airplane and then a taxi and found ourselves in Chiang Mai, ready to experience our first, though I desperately hope not our last, Songkran!

Sunday, April 16, 2017


Thailand's megalopolis capitol city is but a 1 hour flight from the bucolic streets of Chiang Rai, but once you land there, it might as well be a different planet.  Where most large cities have a defined skyline consisting of the largest buildings clustered together, Bangkok has several skylines, depending on where you are and in which direction you turn.  Skyscrapers abound and beneath them lie countless smaller, but still large buildings that seem to stretch out in an endless sea of humanity.  For most Montana guys it may represent the 5th level of hell, but somehow I find myself in love with Bangkok.  Perhaps because it's in Thailand and full of Thai people.

We landed there on a Friday afternoon and grabbed a taxi to our centrally located hotel, where we took a quick dip in the pool and then hit the streets looking for action.  With the exception on Suni spying a rat and having a major freak out right in the street, there wasn't much action to be found.  We ate and returned to the room to relax.  But Saturday was our day to party!

On Saturday it was shop till you drop, but since we tire easily of shopping that was about 4 hours.  We found an area that is famous for inexpensive clothing and tried our best to find something that we couldn't live without, but had limited success.  The one thing we apparently couldn't live without was a giant box of scarves which we purchased and mailed home - so check your doorsteps Montana peeps.  We didn't send it to ourselves, so one of you will have to look out for it for a month or two (Thanks in advance).

Saturday night we met our dear Bangkokian friends for a memorable evening at Asiatique - a fancy shopping/dining/fun park on the waterfront.  Here we boarded a huge yacht that brought us up and down the Chao Phraya River as we sat on the top deck and ate a variety of delectable dishes while grooving to the musical stylings of a duo of top 40 Karaoke-like singers.  The multiple skylines of Bangkok glided past, lit up in technicolor glory.  Bow and Ake were lovely tour guides, pointing out the major temples, hotels, government buildings and other attractions as we stuffed our faces.  Over dinner they asked, "So, what do you guys want to do tomorrow?"  "What!?" I thought.  "You want to do more cool stuff with us?"  We decided to take a drive up to Ayutthaya, the old capital of Thailand. Awesome - we couldn't wait.

Sunday arrived early when Bow and Ake pulled up at the hotel with their little angel of a daughter and Bow's dear sweet mom.  In just over and hour we were out of the new and into the old.  Ayutthaya is a step back into the past - like 700 years into the past, when it was founded.  You can see the remains of an early kingdom many miles up the Chao Phraya river away from the Gulf of Thailand that traded with merchants from India, Japan, Indonesia and even as far away as Portugal all when the U.S.A. was still a colony of the British.  The old kings were forward thinking pragmatists who respected all religions and cultures, so long as they wanted to trade. Here, Buddha's wisdom was practiced and his images worshiped.  As you walk along the crumbling remains of ancient temples and palaces, you can almost still feel the vibrations left by the centuries of chanting and meditation that took place here.  It all amounted to the contrast of the millennium with the place where we ate dinner that evening:  An entire little German town recreated to host and feed a parade of tour buses filled with Chinese tourists, though, to be fair, the food was excellent.

But parting is such sweet sorrow!  We had to say good bye to Bow and Ake for the last time in Thailand (at least for this trip).  Thanks for everything guys!  We had a blast!  Off to bed because the next day was sure to be just as eventful - or more so.

Monday morning and it was to be another special day - this time a very emotional one.  We had made plans weeks earlier to meet Suni's foster mother, with whom she lived for about 2 years before we adopted her.  Since Radd had already reunited with his foster mother on the trip where we adopted Suni, we thought we'd just give Suni the same opportunity.  That's what we thought....

When we made our way to the adoption agency, we met with a social worker and a liaison who would translate and take photos for us.  Then we all packed into a minibus and headed off to meet Yai Jah (Grandmother, in Thai).  But when the van pulled up to a row of old houses and we got out, the first person my eyes focused on was Radd's foster mom.  My jaw dropped.  What are the odds???  She just happened to be walking by in the neighborhood, on this day, at this time?  Well, no.  The agency decided that they would arrange for Radd to meet her again too.  Except they forgot to tell us, I guess.

 Oh well.  So we didn't have a gift for her, which is traditional, and we weren't mentally or emotionally prepared, which is normal for us.  We still had a nice time catching up with her and got to meet her husband for the first time.  He was rather emotional - this being the first time he'd seen Radd in over 9 years.  Radd is a pretty special guy, so I could understand how he felt.

Then it was back in the van and off to Grandmother's house we went.  Yai Jah was also emotional to see her little Teng Mo (Watermelon, in Thai - and Suni's nickname).  We looked at old pictures and told stories and had a Coke.  It was just like a commercial.  But we wanted to see the house where Suni lived when she was young, as we were visiting Yai Jah at her son's house.

So....back in the van!  A few minutes later we met Yai Jah's grown daughters who also helped care for Suni, and even met their little kids.  We walked around the house as Yai Jah told us about how Suni liked to swim in the river as it reached flood stage and hide among the plants in her nursery.  It was all very touching.  But finally it was time to leave them as well.  There are so many good byes when you meet so many good people.

Our last stop of the day brought us to the subway, which we took to the end of the line, which was the big old Bangkok Train Station.  And here, finally, we boarded an overnight southbound train for phase two of our summer vacation:  8 days on Koh Phangan.


Sunday, March 26, 2017

Last Day of School!!!!

On today, the last day of school, I am reminded just how different my reality is from those "back home."  First of all, it is, as I said, the last day of the school year.  We are celebrating with the kids, having special in-class games, foods, parties etc. and tomorrow we will have a graduation ceremony for the 6th graders who are moving on to other schools.  The children are running around unsure of how to act because their excitement has taken control of their normally semi-rational minds.  Second, almost every day lately the temperature has flirted with the 100 degree Fahrenheit mark (about 38 degrees Celsius).  It's HOT!!!! Yesterday, when I left my air conditioned library to fetch something from the copier in the front office, I felt like I had taken a wrong turn and walked into a pizza over, only it didn't smell as good.  There is almost zero fluctuations in the weather.  Everyday is sunny, bright and dry as a bone.  Funny how you can miss rain so much.  I should say though, that I am not complaining.  It's hot, but it's OK because the humidity has also fallen as the temperature has risen.  That, and most places have A/C, so.....

Back in Montana, students are in the middle of the spring semester with not even a fleeting thought about summer vacation yet, while little, wet piles of snow sit under the leafless trees.  The gray skies of late winter are chilly and gloomy.  And the kids of Montana may be skiing powder on the weekends, but we Rabinsky
s will soon be beach combing on the islands in the Gulf of Thailand!

Our upcoming holiday will start with a few days in Bangkok.  We will brave the legendary April heat to have a reunion with Suni's foster mom, Yai Jah.  It's been about 6 years since they've seen each other and Suni has lost all her memories of this special lady who cared for her for so long.  But it is sure to be emotional.

Then we will take an overnight southbound train to Surat Thani, where we will catch the high speed ferry to paradise.  After about 12 days of snorkeling and shell collecting, we head back north to celebrate Songkran in Chiang Mai.  If you haven't heard of Songkran, you should do yourself a favor and look it up.  Officially it is Thai New Years, but practically it's a country-wide water fight that lasts for up to a week, and Chiang Mai is party central.  Radd and Suni are humming with excitement for the holiday and Jess and I can't wait to celebrate with them.

So here it is:  March 16th, 2017 and we are planning our return to America.  Only about 3 months left before our flight, which we have purchased tickets for...It's a bizarre mix of feelings that swirl through my body.  Excitement to see my beloved family, friends and mountains again, fear on the verge of panic for finding employment.  It may well be time to start that business that Jess and I have talked about for ages.  I'll let you know.


Monday, February 13, 2017

Camping Trip (Part 2)

Camping with almost 40 kids and 11 teachers in a Thai National Park...check that off the list of things we'd never done.  It was a fun 28 hours, filled with activity, ceremony, music, dancing, ceremony, food, and ceremony.  This is the second part of the 2 part post:

After the campers had set up their tents, had a packed lunch and oriented themselves to the campground, it was time for activity stations.  4 activities were set up at different corners of the park and staffed by at least 2 teachers each (usually a Thai teacher and a foreign teacher).  The stations were designed to get the students to work together as a team to accomplish some kind of task.  My station was called "The Bomb and the Web."  10 students had to stretch a rubber band by pulling on attached strings and then place the band on an open bottle of foul smelling dirty water.  They then had to bring the bottle up a small hill and place it on a path - all without spilling or touching the bottle itself.  Then, they had to navigate The Web, which was an interconnected series of strings tied about a foot and a half above the ground and loaded with small bells hung at different heights.  If the teachers heard even the slightest ring, all kids had to return to the beginning and try again.  This was harder than it looked, apparently, because all 4 groups struggled to make it through.  However, when they did (and they all did, eventually) they hugged and cheered and felt the comradery that the task was designed to create.

One crazy thing that happened while the last group was trying to get through the web was a strange sound of popping and crackling began to become more and more noticeable.  It soon became a distraction.  We all began looking at each other, wondering "what the hell is that?  Did Kru Name start the camp fire already?"  Alas, it was fire, but not our own.  Smoke started to rise above the hill across the river and flames flickered on the ridge.  It was a fire set by local farmers to clear the land, but it was huge.  The only thing that saved us from it was the river that flowed between it and us.  It only lasted about 30 minutes, but there were some scared kids and some slightly nervous adults too.

After stations, it was time to shower, prep dinner, cook, eat and clean up.  The students had to cook for themselves, which turned out great, especially when they came around to the teacher's kitchen area to drool over the food we made!  I was delegated the task of deep frying pork strips.  Deep frying is something I had never done while camping, but when in Rome....

After dinner, Kru Name and I went over the songs that we were to perform for the night ceremony.  He had given me some mp3s of Thai songs to learn earlier in the week but we hadn't had time to get together to practice.  One teacher's husband was there with his guitar too and he told me that "Kru Name likes to change the keys of the songs to suit his voice."  I said that was fine.  We could transpose the songs because they were quite simple.  But then he said, "He likes to change keys in the middle of the song and you never know when or to which key he'll go."  I said, "OK.  I'll follow you."

The younger kids and some parents who had decided to join the party gathered around the raging campfire for the festivities.  Kru Name began to play the first song on the drums and Kru James called out the key "D minor!"  And we were off!  After two or three songs, it was really Go Time.  The upper elementary boys danced their way into the fire circle wearing leopard print loin cloths and toting huge flaming torches dripping some kind of petroleum-based fire starter, dipping and leaping to a Zulu song and chant.  Halfway around the first lap around the fire, one boy dropped his torch, setting the grass on fire and almost causing the boy behind him to step on it.  He then dropped his torch and set off running and screaming out of the circle for fear of being burned.  Hilarious, but also worrisome for the foreigners.  For some reason, the Thai parents and teachers seemed unfazed.  The other boys just picked up the torch and continued the dance and completed the 3 laps around the fire. No big deal.  

Later, it was almost time for bed.  Just one last event: story time.  And I was the designated story teller for the night!  I had selected a camp fire story I found on the interGoogle called The Purple Gorilla.  I grabbed the mic and started walking around the fire, spinning my yarn about seeking refuge at a farm house after my truck broke down.  The farmer brought me to his underground tunnel system, through 3 high-security doors to show me a purple gorilla in a cage.  Well, I won't spoil it for you, but I think the kids enjoyed the story.

After the kids went to bed, Jess and I soon followed because we had a 1:00 - 2:30 AM shift at the campfire where we had to be available to walk kids to the bathroom, should they awake - or talk kids down from bad dreams, should they not see the humor in the Purple Gorilla story.  Fortunately, no one woke up during our shift and we passed the time pleasantly watching the moon rise and the stars move across the sky.  At 2:30 we went to bed in anticipation of the 5:00 AM whistle for camp exercises.  In reality, we didn't hear any such whistle.  We were actually woken up by Radd at 5:45 saying, "I woke up first and went bow and arrow fishing by flashlight with Kru Name.  We shot a crab!"

Friday was a blur of eating, cleaning and co-leading a station about tree bark.  We left the camp around 11:30 that morning and went home to lay around the house. It was an incredible few days of inspiring young minds and having my own mind blown wide open.  Jess and I cannot believe the frequency at which the mind blowing has been occurring here.  The kids take it in stride, but we sometimes feel like astronauts blasting off the launch pad, our faces pushed into smiles by the g-force, the blood pooling in our toes.  It's overwhelming at times...but it's a hell of a ride.

 Lining up for some more ceremony!

                                                                      Nothing like a lazy river to stand next to and chat.

 Did I mention there were hot springs at the park?  Too hot to swim in, but if you brought your own eggs, you could boil them and have a snack.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Camping Trip (part 1)

The experiences continue!  The memories continue to be made.  This time, 28 hours-in-a-row's worth of experience.  You see, we went a-campin'.  But not by our lonesome selves.  We went camping with 35 kids and 11 teachers.  It was the great annual Scouts Camping Trip! (Thailand Edition)  And I have to say, it was a beautiful thing.
Normally, what happens at Scouts Camp, stays at Scouts Camp! But if you are a farang with a blog, I think you get a pass.  So I'm going to let you in on the adventure...

This whole thing started out weeks ago in the planning stage.  There were meetings upon meetings to delegate responsibilities, explain scenarios, clarify confusion and then change things around again.  Unfortunately, I didn't attend one of those meetings because I have to teach a class at 3:00 (when the meetings usually occur) so I got all my info second hand through Jess.  But in the last few days before camp, I can tell you that teachers were as busy as bees preparing lesson and gathering materials.  The students couldn't think of anything else either.  They had looked forward to this all year.
The morning of Scouts Camp arrive on Thursday.  We packed in the car and drove to a National Park not too far from our house actually - only about a 25 minute drive away.  Situated on the banks of the Kok River, the land is heavily shaded by huge Teak, Eucalyptus, and other tropical trees.  We dropped off our car and got a ride back down the road to an elephant camp that was to serve as the start of the kids 4 kilometer walk to camp.  When all the kids were accounted for, the ceremonies began with some of the teachers, myself included, dipping our fingers in colorful dyes and painting the students faces in fun designs.  Then we set off, single file, down the road.  It took us about 50 minutes to cover the distance, only stopping once on a bridge to snap a group photo.  I was in charge of the upper elementary boys who were walking at the front of the pack, so it was us who heard the drums beating first, calling us toward the camp and guiding us towards Kru Name, the real leader of the camp.

Kru Name is the P.E. teacher at Pitisuksa, and also the Scouts Leader there.  Being the Scouts Leader means he was also the mastermind behind the camp activities and the guys who set up most of the infrastructure of the camp, including the stage (yes, there was a stage) with lighting and sound system, the lights strung around the tent area, the little oil lamps made out of glass energy drink bottles that lined the walkway into and out of camp, and the signs telling the campers where to go and what to do.  But I digress...

When all the campers were assembled into 4 rows, there was some singing and more ceremony (complete with drumming and guitar playing) and then the campers had to crawl, one by one, through a tunnel of bamboo branches to signify their real arrival into Scouts Camp.  Then even more ceremony, as the flag was raised, the National Anthem was sung, and the director of the school officially welcomed everyone and started Scouts Camp.  Finally, campers were given a few hours to set up their tens, cook, eat and clean up from lunch and assemble again for the beginning of the teacher's activities.
In the next entry, I will give all the details and stories of the rest of the camping trip.  There's just too much fun to put in one entry!