Tag Archives: travel

Vietnam

Whoa. I don’t even know where to begin. I kept so busy in Vietnam that I couldn’t find a single free moment to sit down and write about it all. Right now I’m on a layover in Malaysia on my way to Bali, so I want to try to get a post in before the mayhem continues!

Vietnam was absolutely amazing. I’ll start from the beginning.

I didn’t do a whole lot of research before going to Vietnam. I booked my flight into Ho Chi Minh City in the south, and out of Hanoi in the north, so I had ten days to make it all the way up the coast. While I was traveling, I felt ridiculous for making that kind of itinerary for myself, but now that it’s said and done, I’m glad that I did.

I landed in HCMC in the afternoon and it took me over an hour to get through customs. There weren’t a lot of people, but the visa process in Vietnam isn’t as streamlined for tourists as it is in Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia. Before going to Vietnam, I had to get a letter granting permission to enter. There are tons of companies online to secure the letter, I just went with the cheapest one with good reviews. It cost $20.  I had to print the letter and an entry form to show at the airport in Bangkok before I was able to get my boarding pass. It’s unnecessarily complicated. Anyhow, upon arrival, I gave my passport and approval letter for them to process my visa. It cost another $20, and I was waiting for them to do it for about 45 minutes. For an extra $20, they could do it in 5, but I wasn’t in a rush.

I exchanged my currency right in the airport. I was shocked to see that their exchange rate was higher than when I searched on Google, and there wasn’t a fee to exchange it. I was happy about that.

The taxi to my first hostel cost about $15 for an hour or so ride, which is expensive by backpackers standards but pretty cheap compared to the United States. Within the first minute of leaving the airport, the mayhem that is HCMC traffic became a reality. Lines on the road are not observed, and I think it’s safe to say it was crazier than Thailand. It was organized chaos, though. Everyone was honking their horn the entire time, which is the complete opposite from Thailand.

When I got to my hostel I was really scared to cross the street. There was an intersection nearby without a stoplight where cars and motorbikes just had a free for all, and it somehow all worked out. I watched an elderly woman cross the street and noticed if you’re walking, you just have to trust that the cars and motorbikes will go around you. I met a few people from the hostel that showed me how to walk right into moving traffic and not get hit. It’s completely against all human instincts, but it’s absolutely nuts. The only option for crossing the street there was to walk confidently across and to not pause. The most accidents happen when someone doesn’t continue their pace, I guess. I found it pretty interesting.

My first meal in Vietnam was Pho, a traditional Vietnamese soup. I’ve had it before in Seattle, but trying the real thing was out of this world. The broth tasted about the same, but the noodles were incredible. They served it with a huge variety of condiments, and everything was delicious.

I only stayed in HCMC for 2 nights, as I was in a rush to make it up to Hanoi. I got a chance to visit the War Remnants Museum, which was so fascinating and depressing. It was all about the American War (what we call the War in Vietnam). The majority of the displays were photographs, but they had really detailed captions with lots of interesting information. There was a whole exhibit on how the war was protested all over the world. The most interesting exhibit to me was the Agent Orange Exhibit, because it was the most information I’ve ever learned about Agent Orange. I remember learning about it in high school, where they basically told us, “yeah, we used chemical warfare and it was bad…” but seeing the actual impacts of the chemical (that is still affecting Vietnamese people today) was pretty intense.

They had deformed fetuses preserved in formaldehyde, and that was probably the worst part for me. After spending a good amount of time there, I was pretty depressed but I’m glad I went.

My friend told me that I had to check out a city called “Dalat” on my way up north, so that was my first stop after HCMC. When I was planning the trip I made a note that tickets can be purchased online for the bus website, but because I didn’t actually buy the ticket I didn’t realize that they don’t accept foreign credit cards. I spent a good hour in the hostel trying to figure out why my card wouldn’t process, and I was frustrated once I found out why.

HCMC is pretty touristy, and they have a lot of little shops around the area I was staying in that offered bus tickets. The guy at the first shop that I went into wanted to charge me 2x the price that was listed on the website. When I told him about my dilemma with the credit card, he was nice and honest with me and told me that the bus company’s office was right around the corner. It took a total of 5 minutes, and I had my ticket booked and paid for with cash.

The bus ride to Dalat was really nice! The sleeper busses have two levels of reclining “beds,” and they weren’t too shabby!

Because I’d only been in Vietnam for 1 full day, I was pretty excited to get to relax and enjoy the scenery. The bus attendant was incredibly friendly. The bus was really cold, so he gave me a blanket, then he tucked me in like a burrito! He was really sweet and accommodating throughout the trip, and in hindsight I know now that a lot of Vietnamese people are like that.

Dalat was my favorite part of Vietnam, and I’m pretty sure it’s because of the climate and the hostel that I stayed in. The altitude of Dalat is about the same as Fort Collins, so it was a lot cooler. It’s the coldest I’ve felt since I left Colorado in September. When I say cold, I mean it was like 75 degrees, but it still felt incredible.

The hostel that I stayed in was called “Mr. Peace Backpackers Hostel,” and I picked it because of the incredible reviews online. I was greeted at the door by a Vietnamese guy about my age (“Mr. Peace”) who ran up and gave me a big hug and a cold water. As I got to know him more, he opened up into a pretty outrageous personality, and quite possibly one of the best hostel owners I’ve ever stayed with.

He convinced me to take the “Mr Peace Secret Tour” and I am so glad that I did. It started at 8am and didn’t end until 6:30pm. We went to see everything that is an absolute “must” in Dalat, which included: a silk spinning factory, an incense factory, a broom factory, a rice wine distillery, two waterfalls, a rural town, a gerber daisy farm, a rose farm, and a coffee plantation. The whole tour was done by motorbike, so I was on the back of one of the guides’ bikes. He had a real motorcycle, so it was nice and comfortable compared to the standard motorbike. They also gave me a legitimate helmet, and not the garbage cheap ones that usually come with motorbike rentals.

There were only 4 of us who signed up for the tour, so we had 4 bikes with 8 people. The cost of the tour was $40, but it was absolutely worth every penny.

We drove past a dog butcher, but Mr. Peace was gagging so much that he could hardly tell us about it. He basically muttered that people in Vietnam eat dogs. It was really sad and disturbing to see, so I’m not going to go into the details.

 

Aside from the tour being amazing, I found that I got along very well with everyone else that was staying at the hostel. I made friends with people from Mexico, Germany, Canada, and Switzerland, and we had the best time getting to know each other. I feel like I’ve known them for much longer than the short 3 days.

I ended up having such a great time in Dalat that I got distracted and didn’t get my bus/train combo ticket booked in time for the following day. I was planning on going up to Hoi An, which is about 18 hours to the north. I had booked a homestay for the following night (and had already paid for it) so I was upset with myself for not handling it before the offices had closed. Mr. Peace helped me book a combo bus ticket that left at noon that would get me to Hoi An at 6am the following morning at 6am. I was bummed that I had already paid for the homestay and was going to miss a night, but I couldn’t do much about it.

The bus ride up was pretty miserable, I’m not going to lie. The beds weren’t as spacious as the bus I had taken before. My backpack goes absolutely everywhere that I go because it has my laptop in it, so I was sharing the tiny bed with my backpack. Every two hours or so they would pull over to let everyone out to go to the bathroom, and it was impossible to get a solid sleep because they would turn all of the lights on and yell at everyone to go to the bathroom.   I arrived at my homestay at 6am and I was exhausted.

The homestay is the only homestay I’ve booked since I’ve been traveling around. They had great reviews online and I thought it would be nice to have a room to myself after weeks of shared dorm rooms. It was really rejuvenating to be able to rest up, and they gave me a pedal bike to ride around Hoi An.

Hoi An is an ancient city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main reason that I fell in love with the place is that you can get custom made clothing for CHEAP. I was immediately suckered in by a lady who started talking to me on the street. Hoi An was probably the pushiest place I’ve been to so far. The people on the street will not accept no for an answer, and they follow you. This lady helped me find an ATM, then asked if I would at least take a look in her shop.  She had tons of photo albums of dress designs that she could do, and rows upon rows of different colors of fabric. I ended up picking out a dress and fabric (even though I don’t really have room for a dress…) and she made me a dress in just FOUR HOURS!!! She quoted me $20, and I was way too tired to try to bargain with her. I agreed because, let’s face it, a custom made dress for $20 is quite alright. I felt duped because I know that they would’ve taken half of that, but I’m not going to dwell on it.

She had me try it on when I went to go pick it up, and I have to say, it’s my new favorite dress! The sewing is very quality, and the material is soft. It fits me like a glove. I’d call it a “win.”

I also went to see the ancient ruins of “My Son” the Hindu temple outside of Hoi An, but honestly I’m starting to feel a little burnt out of temples. Also it was like 105 degrees.

I tried my new favorite Vietnamese food while I was in Hoi An. It’s called Bahn Xeo, and they were kind of like tacos. They take a savory pancake and fill it with bean sprouts, green onions, and pork/shrimp/tofu (depending on your preference) and then they deep fry them. To eat them, you soak a piece of egg roll wrapper in water and roll them into it with mint leaves and cucumber, and then they’re dipped in peanut sauce. They were incredible, and I’m going to have to find a recipe when I get home!

From Hoi An I had a flight to Hanoi because another 18 hours in a bus just wasn’t practical. I bought the ticket a month in advance and it cost me $30, so it seemed worth it to have more time in Hanoi and less time in a bus.

Random note: On the way to the airport I saw a dead guy. There was a motorcycle accident where the guy was dead but they just put a little piece of cardboard to cover part of his body.  It was on a highway and the police were just directing traffic around him. It was intense.

I be honest about my time in Hanoi, I didn’t find anything particularly charming about it. It was chaotic and congested, and I was just passing through on my way to the airport. I was only there for one full day, but I made the best of it and did a walking tour. I met some new friends from London and Romania, and we spent the day exploring together.

It’s so unbelievable how easy it is to meet people while traveling. Now that I’m thinking about it in the 10 days I was in Vietnam, I’ve somehow acquired 15 new friends on Facebook. Traveling alone is the best way to meet a lot of new international friends. While I was exploring with my new friends in Hanoi I remembered why I travel alone. It is fun to have people to talk to and explore with, but traveling with people really slows down the whole experience. We ended up with a crew of about 6, and moving around the city took forever because it seemed like everyone needed to stop for something at different times. Even coordinating dinner took a solid 2 hours because we were waiting for everyone to finish doing what they were doing, then we waited for everyone to get ready, and then finding a restaurant we all agreed on took forever, and then finding a restaurant that we all agreed on that could accommodate 6 people was nearly impossible.

My final dinner in Vietnam was amazing, though. Between 6 of us we ordered 10 different things off of the menu and shared them all. I had the most incredible spring rolls that I’ve ever eaten! I am definitely going to miss the food in Vietnam.

Now that I’m gone, I realize how much I wish I would’ve just traveled in Vietnam for the whole five weeks of travel. Although I love moving around and seeing new things, Vietnam was so beautiful and diverse that I wish I would’ve had a lot more time to explore. Usually when I travel through countries I consider it my last time, because each time I plan a trip I want to see a country that I haven’t seen before. Vietnam was the first country that I’ve traveled to that I decided that I will definitely be going back. I absolutely loved it there!

Well, I started writing this post when I was the airport in Malaysia but I didn’t quite have enough time to finish. I’m in Bali now and I’m completely worn out. I will be moving pretty fast through Bali as well, but I’ll have 26 hours of travel on my way home to post an update about Bali.

I also wish I could’ve uploaded some pictures to go with this post, but the wifi at my current hostel in Bali is impossibly slow. I’ll be doing a mass upload when I get home!!

It doesn’t seem real that I’m going to be going home in just a short 9 days!! It’s a bittersweet mix of feelings between excitement and sadness.

Thanks for reading!

 

 

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Expat Life in Phuket

As I’ve settled into Thailand, the blog posts have inevitably become less frequent.There is a lack of motivation to write, but it’s also the fact that I’ve become comfortable in my surroundings. There are still plenty of elements to Thai culture that shock me, but it’s not a “one post per day” sort of experience that I’d had in the beginning.

In order to avoid a boring dialogue of my daily routine, I’ve decided to let you in on my favorite parts of Thailand (so far), and what I’m still truly missing about home.

Here’s what I love about life in Thailand:

The Food. I can’t seem to get enough Thai food. After I’d spent some time in Central and South America, I hated rice and beans. After returning from Panama, I don’t think I ate

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I found the cheapest pizza in Thailand. The chef/owner is pictured on the menu. 

rice for almost a year. Here in Thailand, I eat rice daily. I eat rice with anything from curry to ice cream. There is such a diversity in the spices of the food that it’s easy to lose track of how much plain steamed rice is actually being consumed.  Sure, I have cravings for food from back home (cough bagels cough cough cheese), but I’ve learned that everything is available for a price. Especially in Phuket, which is pretty much the epicenter of tourism. I’ve been able to find just about every food I could possibly crave. The other night I ate Mexican food, and ate real homemade tortilla chips for the first time in what seems like ages. The whole meal cost me about $14, which felt like a slap in the face. $14 for gorging on Mexican food (margaritas included)… What has happened to me?

The best part about Thai food is that it’s always fresh, and healthy options are always  available. My apartment doesn’t have a stove or even an oven. Once in a blue moon I will cook on a hot plate at home, but the majority of the time I’m going out to eat.

The prices. As accustomed as I’ve gotten to Thai prices, going back to the States is going to be culture shock all over again. Because Phuket is a developed tourist city, the prices are all over the board.  I’ve gotten accustomed to paying $1-$3 per meal. Whoa, converting it to dollars really puts it into perspective for me. $14 was a lot for me to spend on Mexican food, but it was a 3 course meal with 2 margaritas!

Tourist accommodation ranges from a $6/night bunk at a hostel to $850/night bungalow on a private island. It’s easy to spend a lot of money here, but it’s also easy to save. I live in a (really nice) studio apartment for $250/month, and that includes air conditioning, internet, and access to a gym and an amazing swimming pool.  For just $250/month, I’m pretty spoiled.

My transportation costs are also incredibly low compared to what they  were in the States. I spend less than $60/month renting my (really nice) motorbike, and only about $7/month in gas.

I think it’s important to add that by Thai standards, I have pretty expensive taste. It’s definitely possible to get by here on much, much less.

Speaking of motorbikes…

The Motorbikes.  I have a love/hate relationship with them. If you’ve read any of my posts from the beginning, you know that I started out absolutely terrified to even ride on the back of a motorbike taxi. Here I am today, about to tell you why I’m in love with mine as a mode of transportation here. They’re undeniably fuel efficient. The majority of the people here drive them, and it makes sense why. Traffic (especially in Phuket) can be disastrous, *unless* you are able to zip in between the cars on a moped. There’s an intense satisfaction that comes with scooting onto the shoulder of the road during stopped traffic and bypassing 15 cars.  It’s also awesome to be able to pull up and park anywhere on the sidewalk.

The “hate” part of the relationship comes from the limitations of driving in the rain, and the harsh reality that they’re pretty dangerous to drive around.

Another favorite of living in Thailand… you could probably already guess.

The Beaches. It may be the fact that I was born and raised in landlocked Colorado, or it could be that these beaches are world-class. I cannot get enough of the beaches here. I’m

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This is where I saw my first sea urchin in the wild!

almost mad at myself for living here, because I don’t think I will be able to appreciate any other beach as much as I will the beaches of the Andaman Sea.

I wish I could say that my apartment is right on the beach. I would’ve loved that, but it just wasn’t practical. Any apartment on the beach here is going to run at a Western price. I am situated right in the middle of the island, so I have to drive about 20 minutes to get to the beach. I am still incredibly spoiled to be able to pick a beach and just go. Even if I want to go to the world-class dive and snorkel sites, it’s only an hour and a half ferry ride there.

Ok, now that I’ve started listing out everything that I love about Thailand, I’m about 1,000 words in and not even close to saying all that I want to. I’d be sitting here all night if I were going to make an exhaustive list of everything that I love.

Here is a quick list of things I miss from home:

Family. They’re irreplaceable, no matter how hard I try. 🙂

Wine and craft beer. They’re both available, but super expensive. Not just by Thai standards. They’re imports.

Cheese and bread. It is pretty eye-opening to see how much of these I consumed back at home. They’re just not in the Thai diet, which probably explains how I’ve lost 15 POUNDS since I got here. The lack of the aforementioned wine and craft beer definitely plays a part in that.

Hockey. I think the Avs’ #1 spot in the wildcard has something to do with me being out of the country.

Safety standards. You know, like building codes, restaurant health inspections, and traffic safety.

The Rocky Mountains. I am a Colorado girl, after all.

Well, that pretty much sums it up for this post. I hope I haven’t bored you to death! I’ll try to post again soon.

 

Here’s a quick random note to leave you with:

imageLast weekend I drove my bike up to the Big Buddha – a 148ft statue that sits on a hill looking over town. I had initially gone up to watch the sunset, but had the awesome treat of watching the full moon rise at the same time. It was unforgettable!

 

 

 

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Happy New Year from Chiang Mai!

School was closed on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, so I was able to take a four day weekend and head up to Thailand’s 2nd largest city- Chiang Mai. I hadn’t heard much about it, but knew that it was a desirable destination for tourists and expats. One thing I knew for sure was that they have elephants and New Year’s sky lanterns in the North, and I definitely wanted to be a part of it.

Before I left, I was able to sneak in a last minute reservation to spend a day with elephants at one of the most reputable ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand- Elephant Nature Park. There are hundreds of elephant camps in Thailand, but this particular park is known for their extraordinary treatment of the elephants.

I flew into Chaing Mai at 9:00pm, and the tour left the following morning at 8am. We took a minibus ride about an hour outside of the city and up into the mountains. I was overjoyed to be back in a mountainous landscape- even though they’re only about 3,000 feet above sea level. The temperature was significantly colder at about 70 degrees, and I think it was the first time in 4 months that I’ve been without a ” sweat goatee”.

When we started getting closer to the camp, we saw surrounding camps which offered elephant rides to tourists. Initially when I came to Thailand I thought I was going to be one of those tourists- it’s such an appealing thought to be able to sit on top of one of them and trek through the jimageungle. During my time here I’ve learned that the treatment of the elephants in those types of camps are pretty dismal. Our minivan passed by several tourists on elephants, and each one of the elephants had a Thai man sitting on its neck with a spear pushed into its head to direct them where to go. It was pretty depressing to see.

When we pulled around the hill into the Elephant Nature Park, I was
surprised to see tons of animals. The sanctuary is not only home to elephants, but also cats, dogs, goats, and water buffalo. I got really excited when I saw the first elephant. It was the first time outside of a zoo that I’ve seen an elephant, and I got to be incredibly close to it.

We were given a short safety briefing about how to interact with them- don’t walk behind them, don’t stand where they can’t see you, don’t tease them, and don’t use flash photography. My tour group had about seven people, and we were told to grab a basket of food and head out to feed one of the older elephants. She was over 80 years old! We fed her mashed up pumpkin with rice, and it was adorable. I was unbelievably nervous around her. The guide had reassured us that they’re trained like dogs, but it’s a wild animal nonetheless. image

All of the adult elephants had horrible backstories. Most of them had come from the logging industry in Myanmar, or were used as street entertainers as babies in downtown Chiang Mai. There was one particularly awful story that resonated with me:

One of the elephants was blind. She was being used to carry logs in the mountains of Myanmar, and she became pregnant. The loggers did not let her slow down during her pregnancy, and she gave birth on a hill in bad conditions, and the baby did not survive. After that, she refused to work. To force her to work, her owner shot her in the eye. After she kept refusing, he shot her in her other eye. She ended up blind, and the owner of Elephant Nature Park bought her for $2,000 USD.

It was amazing to get to see that she has now made new friends, and she doesn’t go anywhere without them.

imageThe highlight of my tour was being able to see the elephants bathe. We watched a family of them dunk into the river, and they splashed around like dogs. Afterwards, they sprayed themselves with mud to keep cool. We saw a baby elephant rolling around in the mud- a sight which the tour guide said we were very lucky to see. Click here to see the 2 year-old Yindee! We were also able to go with the older elephants and bathe them with buckets of water. I can’t stress enough how simultaneously terrifying and awesome of an experience it was.

One of the elephants started to growl, and the tour guide said it was because she was warning us that she was about to poop. I started to video the growl because I thought it was hilarious, but then got super freaked out when she turned around and made the trumpet noise. I’m sure there’s a better word for it than “the trumpet noise,” but you get the idea. Click here for the video!

After my day with the elephants, I went back to my hostel and rested up for the New Year’s Eve festivities. By 5pm, they were already starting to sell paper lanterns on the street. At around 8, the first groups of people went into the middle of the street to start sending them off.

Looking up from the hostel window, I could see hundreds of them floating imageoff. It was a truly magical sight. They looked like stars. I went out with some new friends from Australia, and we light off some of our own. We were soon after informed by the locals that you’re not supposed to light them upside down-haha. We also made the mistake of letting one go too soon, and we had to imagechase after it before it hit anything or anyone. There was definitely some amount of guilt when pondering the environmental fate of the lanterns, but I tried to push it aside for a cultural reasons.. haha.

There were tons of fireworks let off at midnight, and the only word that even gets close to summing up the experience is magical. I might have to say that it was the best New Year’s Eve experience I’ve ever had.

For the remainder of my trip I spent the days wandering without plans. I visimageited over 10 Buddhist temples without trying. Some of the temples in Chiang Mai did not allow women, which was a new experience for me. Women are not supposed to look monks in the eye, talk to them, or offer them gifts. These temples were very strict about it, so I admired from the outside. There were others that allowed visitors to sit and observe the monks making candles, and that was cool to see.

I had the most awkward experience outside one of the temples on New

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Note: I was so shocked by the lady with the birds that I didn’t notice the man in the wheelchair going down the stairs heading straight toward that dog! 

Year’s Day when I approached a woman who was sitting with cages full of birds. I asked her about them, and she said I could pay 100 baht (~3USD) to open a cage for good luck in the new year. I’m all for good luck, but I couldn’t help but be kind of shocked by the situation. I ended up buying a cage because I felt bad for the birds. The lady placed it in my hand, and they pooped all down my arm. We opened it up and they flew away, and then it was over. I am still a little confused by the ordeal.

On Sunday I spent the day killing time before my 9pm flight. I’m not sure why I booked such a late flight when my hostel check out was at 11am. Luckily the lady at the hostel let me leave my backpack, so I went out wandering again. I found a museum of arts and culture in the middle of the old city, and spent about 45 minutes inside. The museum was mostly dioramas of the old Chiang Mai, but had a few cases of artifacts. I’m not sure if it was just lost in translation, but the English captions on the artifacts only said things like, “pots put together after cracks” and “a part of the building before restored the building.” I wasn’t able to find any dates or geographical information, so the experience was kind of lackluster.

When I went to seek out a place for lunch, I stumbled into a women’s prison. There was a cafe that was open to the public, and I decided to step in. As it turns out, the location is used as a vocational training center for imageinmates that were within 6 months of release. They also had a spa and a gift shop with “prison crafts.” All of the women were great! Most of them had come from extreme poverty, and were locked up for drug offenses. My lunch was delicious.

By 6pm, I did a Google search to see how far the airport was from my hostel. It took about 15 minutes with the traffic in a tuk tuk, but I realized it was only 3 miles away. I’m not sure if it was the temperature in Chiang Mai or just curiosity, but I decided to walk to the airport. It was the most random and hilarious journey. I had enough time, so I figured why not? I ended up wandering through the Sunday Night Market, and saw some great sights along the way. I was getting fatigued by the time I’d reached the airport, but I was so excited that I caught myself whistling the Thai National Anthem for the last 5 minutes of my walk. I might have been a little delirious, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I’ve found that I get quite a bit of satisfaction from walking.

Well, that’s about all there is for now. Today I was informed that this weekend I will be joining 6 teachers and 11 students on a trip to Trang (about 3 and 1/2 hours to the south) to show a school how great our kindergartners can speak English. I’m still really confused about the details. I guess the founder of the English company that I work for has a little side project she’s working on and is trying to convince this school that the program is really good. I can’t stop thinking about the nightmare of taking eleven 6 year-olds on an overnight without their parents. Also the fact that it’s going to consume my entire weekend. It’s all about the adventure though, right?

I hope everyone enjoyed their holiday!!!

 

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Merry Christmas from Thailand!

Merry Christmas, everyone! I have to apologize for the lack of posts lately.

My school decided against giving us the time off for the holidays. Monday through Thursday of last week was chaotic, as we were all covering the classes for the Thai teachers.

I’ve felt a lot of sentiment from my friends in the U.S. that teaching imagekindergarten is “a walk in the park.” I’d like to point out that it’s not only having to play mind games with 30 EFL five and six year old kids, but the Thai curriculum is intense compared to U.S. standards. These kids aren’t really allowed to stay kids for very long. Most of the day they are going through lectures and book work. They have tests every other week. It is possible to fail kindergarten here. When I have to find new worksheets for math (err.. “Maths”), I have to search the web for 2nd grade level.

The Thai teachers are the actual homeroom teachers at our school. They have the desks in the classrooms, and hold the majority of the responsibility for the children. They are in charge of greeting them in the morning, taking them down to mid morning break, lunch, and nap. As an English teacher, my only real job is to teach them their 3 English classes per day. Last week all of the Thai teachers were sent on a trip to different parts of Thailand to observe in other schools. I have to be honest, it wasn’t until they were all gone until I realized how incredibly good I have it to be an English teacher.

I’m actually feeling pretty guilty. Foreign teachers are paid at least twice the salary  of the Thai teachers, and we are doing half of the work that they do. Additionally, the Thai staff is required to work on Saturdays. I work at a government school, and the Thai labor standards only require one day off of work per week.

Before I saw firsthand what the Thai staff had to go through, I was griping a little about having to work overtime. The principal agreed to give the English Department the day off on Christmas day for covering the Thai staff. I selfishly thought it wasn’t fair, but then I realized how fair my situation actually is in comparison to the other teachers. Honestly, I feel pretty guilty about the situation.

Well now that I’ve gone off on a tangent about the school, I’ll try to get back on track.

Covering for the Thai teachers wasn’t that bad, really. The kids had a half-day, so we were only in charge of taking care of them in the morning. We were able to do a lot of fun Christmas crafts. I had suggested we include something about Hanukkah or Kwanza, but we were given very strict guidelines to keep all bits of religion out of it. It’s a Buddhist school, after all.

I had read online that if you freeze shaving foam that it looks and acts just like snow. My co-teacher and I decided to try it out, and it was wildly successful. The kids had such a great time playing with it, and only a couple of the kids noticed the strong aftershave scent of the snow. They said it smelled like soap, and we told them it was because that is what Santa smells like.  imageI was really excited to teach the kids about Santa and what not. I got really excited because I’d downloaded a few of my favorite Christmas songs onto my computer and I was going to share them with my students. My favorite Christmas music as a kid was the Beach Boys Christmas album, and I was so pumped to play it for them.

I dusted off a pair of speakers and brought them to my classroom, and promised the kids that if they were good throughout the class then we would have a dance party at the end. I plugged in my computer with so much joy and anticipation. I started to play the first Beach Boys song on the album, “Little Saint Nick” and was dancing like a madwoman. I was having so much fun dancing, and then I looked up to watch my kids not even moved. THEY LIKE DANCING SO MUCH. They hated the Beach Boys. I was crushed.

On the day of Christmas Eve, the English contractor that controls the English Program (separate from the school, but still paid by the government) put on a Christmas party for the kids. They had games and prizes, and lots of candy. The kids were free to wear whatever they wanted. Quite a lot of them dressed up in Christmas gear, and a lot of the imagelittle girls decided to be princesses.  I was asked at the last minute if I would be able to dress up as Mrs. Clause. I was pretty excited at the opportunity. When I was getting ready with “Santa” (the British science teacher), they handed me a sweater and a skirt, and that was it. I dug around the office and found a wig, some jingle bells, and some tinsel. I ended up being the younger, more hip version of Mrs. Clause. The kids went absolutely nuts. Because I had a British Mr. Clause, I decided to adopt a high pitch British accent. We had so much fun.

After the exhausting week of school, I sent off to spend my three day weekend on Ko Lanta- or Lanta Island. The trip is about a 3 hour boat ride from Phuket to the east.

I didn’t really have any concrete plans for the island. I’d heard it was a beautiful place to go, and so I booked a cheap hostel and that was all I’d known. When I got there on Friday afternoon, it started to rain right as I got to the beach. I got an hour long massage, and spent the afternoon relaxing. After the rain stopped,  I drank a cocktail and watched the sunset, which was spectacular. image

On Saturday I decided to take a snorkeling tour. It left at 8:00am and returned at 6:00pm, and cost about $20USD (lunch included). The tour started on a longtail boat- the classic boat of Thailand that you’d see if you googled a Thai boat. It was a windy morning and the waves were rough. There was a British guy in the back of the boat who was throwing up during the first half hour. After about an hour of cruising, the boat slowed down to a stop. We weren’t near any of the islands, and the two men in charge of the boat started to fiddle with the engine. They hardly spoke any English.

One of the men came up to the front of the boat and said, “smoking.. no worries…big boat come… no problem.”

imageApparently the engine had died. After about 15 minutes, we were met by a larger tour boat. They transferred us on, and tied up the longtail to the back. We soon found out that we were joining a tour- a much more expensive tour, but “no worries.” It was a huuuge upgrade with complimentary snacks, nice seats, and the option for air conditioning. It was great!

I hadn’t ever been snorkeling before I came to Thailand, but now I’m in love. I wish I had an underwater camera. It is so amazing to be able to see in nature what you’ve only seen in aquariums in doctors offices. I saw sea urchins, puffer fish, parrot fish, angel fish, and tons of crazy coral. image

The last stop of the tour was Emerald Cave, and it falls within the top 5 coolest things I’ve ever seen… ever. Despite it being extremely crowded, it was an amazing experience. It’s basically an island within a cave within a cliff.

The boat pulled up at the side of a tall cliff and let us out of the boat. We swam underneath the bottom of the cliff, and through a magnificent limestone cave. At the entry there was a little bit of sunlight, so you could see the height of the cave and all of the intense shades of pink and green inside. After swimming farther, the sunlight was gone and it was pitch black. Because the cave is so tall, there is plenty of room to stay above the water to swim. The tour required that we all wore life jackets. Thankfully one of the tour guides had a flashlight, so we could see which direction to swim. image

I have to say that up to that point, I was terrified of caves. I think I’ve conquered my fear now, because it was simultaneously the most awesome and horrifying experience. When it went black I thought of turning back. I wasn’t sure I could go much farther, because I was legitimately scared. I went in a little more, and then I saw light on the other side.

Once I got to the other side, I realized that the water was so shallow that I could stand up. The cave opened up to a beach, which was enclosed 360 degrees by limestone cliff and lush jungle. It was breathtaking. It’s hard for me to describe… but basically the island was like a doughnut that you had to swim through a cave to get to the middle. Again, I wish I had a waterproof camera.

Anyhow.

That’s about all I have in me for today. I have two more days of class, and then I have New Years Eve and New Years Day off for a holiday. I’ve decided to buy a plane ticket to head up north and check out Chiang Mai. I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things, and I’m pretty excited. I promise I will write about it as soon as I can!!!

I hope everyone had a fantastic Christmas, and I hope that you have a great New Year! Despite my tales of how I am spending my holidays in paradise, there’s still a big part of me that is missing home.

 

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Some General Updates…

I can’t overstate how fast time has been flying. I cannot believe I have been in Thailand for 3 and 1/2 months already.

I haven’t learned much Thai yet. It’s especially hard to learn because I am not allowed to even attempt to speak Thai with my students at school. My friends outside of school don’t speak Thai either, so that doesn’t help. I’ve been making strides in my Thai lessons, but it’s only reading and writing. After about 7 lessons, I’ve learned to write 30 consonants and 15 vowels. There are 5 different tones that I am familiar with, but it’s still so hard. Lately I haven’t had a lot of drive to study in my free time. My Thai tutor is getting a little frustrated with me because we’re not really progressing. In hindsight, I wish I would’ve chosen a tutor that would teach me how to speak first and write later. It’s not very useful to be able to read Thai when you have no idea what you’re saying.

I’ve been trying to force myself to learn a few new words in Thai per day, just by using Google and whatnot. I have been choosing words that relate to food, as ordering food is really the only chance I get to practice (which sounds pretty pathetic, haha). I learned how to say “delicious,” “I can eat spicy,” “I like spicy,” and “very very spicy.”

Before I learned these words, I was being served food that had a little bit of a kick to it, but was pretty tame. I was starting to think that either “Thai hot” was a myth, or that I had just eaten so much spicy food that I wasn’t able to taste it anymore. All of that changed once I learned how to order spicy food in Thai.

The first time I ordered in Thai, I was a little nervous that I was going to say the wrong tone and everyone was going to laugh at me.  I was given a polite smile, a huge discount, and some seriously spicy food. I ordered a  spicy papaya salad that was so hot it turned my lips dark red/purplish. It was so ridiculously hot that about 30 minutes after eating it, I felt the same burn going on in my stomach. I have officially experienced “Thai hot.”

Another word that I learned in Thai that I probably should’ve learned earlier is the word for teacher. In Phuket especially, it is important to establish yourself as an expat and not a tourist. It comes with a larger amount of respect, and seriously cheaper prices.

For example, last weekend I wanted to check out a place called “Paradise Beach.” It’s a private stretch of beach that charges an entry fee to let people access the beach, beach chairs/umbrellas, snorkeling gear, kayaks, stand up paddle boards, and beach volleyball. The standard entry fee is 500 baht (~$15USD) to enter. I smiled politely at the woman at the counter, and told her I was a teacher. One of the employees at the beach has a student at my school, and they immediately treated me like royalty. They let me in for free! I’m not usually one to try to use status for extra perks, but in Phuket it’s necessary. Almost all prices are negotiable here, and it’s critical to distinguish that my salary is paid in Thai Baht and not USD.

That was one of three beaches that I went to last weekend. December has been a little crazy with days off and holidays.

Last week I had a 5 day weekend due to the visa run and the extra day off for Father’s Day on the 7th. Father’s Day in Thailand is set on the king’s birthday, and Mother’s Day is on the queen’s. Everyone wears yellow on Father’s Day because it is the king’s color. Typically at school, we wear yellow on Mondays to honor the king. This year, there was a decree sent out that all government employees must wear yellow the entire month of December. I was a little upset when I got the news, but only because I look horrible in the color yellow!

Anyhow.

Teaching has been going great. My students have really started to grow on me. It is amazing how much psychology goes into teaching. I’m finally getting behavior management under control, but it’s taken a lot of mind games. All of my actions have to be really dramatic- super enthusiastic if I’m teaching a new subject, very serious if I’m trying to be strict. There’s a lot of acting involved.  I love kids so much and it hurts my heart to have to yell at them.

We have one more full week of school, and then the holiday schedule is pretty up in the air.  The Thai teachers are going on a retreat from Dec 21-24, so we will cover their classes, and then they will cover our classes for Christmas Day. After that, the school still hasn’t decided whether or not they’re going to let the English teachers have off the 28th-30th for covering the Thai teachers. the 31st and 1st are public holidays. As it stands right now, I could potentially have off the 25th-3rd, but the school hasn’t decided. It’s so frustrating! I’m trying not to get my hopes up.

Well, that’s the broad scope of updates for now. I heard that Colorado got a lot of snow today, and it’s hard to not get homesick at that! Being away from home over the holidays is definitely tough, but I know that I’ll never regret being where I am for them this year.

OH MY GOODNESS!! I ALMOST FORGOT.

I. FOUND. BAGELS. IN. THAILAND.
Click here! to check out the video I made of my experience. I had to upload it on Facebook instead of Youtube because they got cranky with the copyright issues of the song choices.

Enjoy 🙂

 

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Visa Run to Penang

Yesterday I re-entered Thailand on a Non-Immigrant B Visa (YAY!). Finally, the visa shenanigans are over (for now).

As I have previously mentioned, I was required to go to Penang, Malaysia to apply for the long-term visa, as the school had prepared the work permit paperwork specifically for that embassy. I hadn’t heard great things about Penang, but I went into it with an open mind.

The most common way for teachers here to go on the visa run to Penang is to go by bus through a company that takes care of the transportation, one night in a hotel, and three meals- all for around $125USD. I wanted to fly into Penang and do it on my own, but the cost of the visa company ended up being more attractive than the alternative. The visa itself was an extra $80 USD, and now that I’m on a Thai salary… well, I’ve got to save where I can.

I had spoken with some teachers at the school about the best company to go through. We got to talking about the bus ride down, and they started talking about horror stories.

“A guy in our bus had to slap the driver awake on more than one occasion!”

“Our bus driver was racing with another bus!”

“Did you hear about the bus that crashed and killed 4 people?”

“Seriously, Sarah, just put a blindfold on and try to fall asleep.”

The bus drivers have a horrible reputation for reckless driving. I decided I would choose a seat near the back, pop my headphones in, and try to sleep. The trip left Phuket at 9pm and had an estimated arrival time at the hotel in Penang of 8am(ish).

When the bus showed up, I realized it was less ‘bus’ and more ‘van.’ The van had three rows of three seats. I was the last to be picked up, so I had to sit in the front row, middle seat. There wasn’t any room for my backpack except for beneath my feet. There wasn’t much room between my seat and the center console, so I settled in for the 10 hour bus ride with my legs crossed on top of my backpack.

The driver didn’t waste any time living up to his reputation. Just watching him speed through the roads that I normally drive on made my stomach a little sick. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.

I didn’t end up getting much sleep because a) the foot room situation, b) the driver and c) we stopped every 2 hours for 15 minutes so that people could get out. There wasn’t an aisle in the van, so anyone who had to get out was climbing on top of one another to reach the exit. Did I mention there weren’t any seat belts?

We made it to the border by 4:45am, and everyone was pretty groggy. The border didn’t open until 5, and it took about an hour for everyone to get through. There were about 20 vans full of people on visa runs, and they all arrived at the same time. I was one of the last people to make it through immigration, because the guy in front of me was causing some problems. He had overstayed his tourist visa by 3 weeks, and he had to pay a fine of 500baht ($15 USD) per day- so about $280. I actually got a huge laugh out of watching the whole situation unfold. Possibly one of the worst things you can do in public in Thailand is lose your cool. Upon hearing the fine that this guy had to pay, he slammed his fists on the glass and started screaming , “What the F#*$!!! How can you even do that! Why is this happening to me?! You all are f#*!@($ racists! I don’t have that money to pay you!”

I don’t know what happened from there. He didn’t get to cross the border, though.

After the border, we got into a new bus with a Malaysian driver. It was 6am, and he was blasting Indian music for the 2 and 1/2 hr drive to the hotel. He seemed to be a more cautious driver, though, and I somehow ended up in a deep sleep for the rest of the drive.

When we got to the hotel, they had everyone turn in the paperwork for the embassy. I have to say, this is the major perk of going with a company. They go to the embassy and do the dirty work while you sit back and do whatever you want. My hotel room was really cute! It had a TV with a lot of English channels, so I was able to relax and watch  some TV. Unfortunately, the news of the San Bernardino shooting was on every channel. I felt sick about the news.  I turned off the TV and decided to go wander the city. After hearing about the 355th mass shooting in the United States this year, I found myself in a Muslim country worrying about my friends and family back in the States. I’m not trying to start a debate. Just sayin’.

I went into Penang with a few goals. Don’t die on the bus ride there, secure a B visa, and eat my body weight in Indian food. The hotel I was staying at was about a 5 minute walk from Little India, and so I went to check it out.   I found a little Indian vegetarian place to eat lunch, and my experience was hilarious. They had a bunch of different “thalis” on the menu, which I learned are a bunch of different dishes served in little bowls around a plate of rice. I had no idea what I was doing. I knew that the place was vegetarian, so I couldn’t go wrong and order any crazy mystery meat. I ended up ordering “the MAHARAJA” because, well, come on guys, who wouldn’t order the MAHARAJA?! It was the only dish on the menu that was spelled in all capital letters,  and was the most expensive- coming in at a whopping $3USD. image

I was the only foreigner in the place, and so I thought everyone was staring at me because I was a foreigner. I looked at everyone else’s plates, and they had dumped out the mini bowls, and  were eating everything with their hands. I was sitting in the middle of the restaurant eating the MAHARAJA from each individual bowl with a spoon. I caught some people staring at me, and I started laughing with them. One of them said, “It’s okay, girl! You have the freedom to eat however you want!”

I’ll never forget that.

imageI had a nice time looking through the traditional Indian shops of Little India, but the heat of the city was absolutely unbearable.  I went back to my hotel and fell asleep for 4 hours. When I woke up, I set out for round 2 of Indian food.

 

I made it about a block from the hotel when a short and round Indian woman with a warm smile asked me if I was hungry. She was quite a character. I didn’t really look at the menu, because she convinced me that she could make a really good red curry chicken. She wasn’t kidding.image She brought me out some cheesy garlic naan and papadum to go with it all. It’s safe to say that it was the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten. I know I said that about the food in Kuala Lumpur, but this was so much more. She fed me until I had to beg her to take the food away.

Ok, ok, I need to stop rambling about Indian food now.

Thursday was the only full day I got to spend in Penang, and I think I spent it well. I woke up at 7am on Friday to a call from the front desk, saying that check out is at 8 and the passports would be there soon. We all piled back into the bus and were back on the road. Indian music and all.

The trip back home was miserable. I hate to be a whiner about it, but it was bad. This weekend is a holiday weekend for the king’s birthday, and we hit some really bad traffic. Going through immigration back into Thailand was hell. We spent an extra hour at the Thai border because we had arrived 5 minutes after a massive tour bus, and also because we had a Turkish man in our group. They pulled him aside and did who knows what with him, just because Turkey is on a list of suspicious countries. We all had to put 200 baht (~$6USD) in our passports to bribe the immigration officers. It wasn’t even by choice. The driver of our van basically didn’t let us get out of the van without doing it. He said that it would cause major problems if we didn’t. Gotta love Thailand.

When we got back into the Thai van, a Swedish girl asked me to trade seats because she felt sick. I didn’t have a problem with it, and gladly switched seats with her. I was filled with instant regret. Not only was the seat in the back of the bus, but it was right next 2 Russian dudes that wouldn’t stop talking. The one who was sitting directly next to me was 50 shades of repulsive. I didn’t care to ask his name, so I’ll just refer to him as Vladimir.

Vladimir was the most obnoxious person I think I’ve ever seen in public. There were 9 exhausted passengers in the bus, and he was talking louder than I talk to a classroom of 30 kindergartners during heavy construction. When his friend didn’t want to talk to him anymore, he made phone calls. He took his shoes and socks off and rested his feet on the headrest of the poor lady in front of him. He elbowed me so many times that I started to anticipate the next one.   I quickly understood why the Swedish girl wanted to move up front. Every time we stopped for a rest break, he went into the 7/11 and came out with handfuls of junk food. Not chips and candy, but 7/11 “hot meals.” Keep in mind this is SE Asia. He hobbled into the bus with mincemeat sandwiches, shrimp burgers, and pork meatballs. Remember Augustus Gloop from Willy Wonka? Vladimir was the Russian version of that kid. I really wanted to discreetly take a picture of him for the blog, but didn’t dare look in his direction with all of the nasty burps he was letting out.

Sheesh. I hate to be so negative about the whole thing, but the trip back was seriously miserable.

Needless to say, I was overjoyed to arrive back at my apartment. Now I have a three day weekend, and all I want to do is sleep. That trip was exhausting. I realized that I really only saved about $40 by doing the bus trip. If I ever have to do another Thai visa run, I am going by plane!!!

 

 

 

 

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Loy Krathong in Phuket

I won’t lie, the holidays are hitting me right in the feels, and I am homesick. Luckily, the Loy Krathong Festival happened to be the day before Thanksgiving this year, so I was given a nice distraction from being far away from my family.

I had read up on a few holidays before coming to Thailand, and Loy Krathong was one I had flagged as  “not to miss.” I saw pictures on Google and in guide books that showed thousands of paper lanterns floating up into the night sky. That was basically my idea of what it was supposed to be.  You would think I’d know by now that I need to stop drawing expectations from what I see online. The total number of lanterns I saw? One.

Loy Krathong (important note here that the “h” is silent) is an annual tradition of creating floating vessels (krathongs) and sending them off into a body of water to send away the bad energy, wish for good luck, and pay respect to the water gods. It is also a bit of a romantic holiday. I’ve read so many different interpretations of the holiday, so any information I’m going to provide here is based solely off of observation and imageinformation from my coworkers.

On Wednesday morning, my Thai teacher insisted I be in her classroom at
1pm. It’s normally my planning period, but she told me she wanted my help with making krathongs with the students. I was excited about the opportunity, because I didn’t really know what they were traditionally made from, let alone how to make one. Making krathongs with the kids ended up being a blast, as I think they helped me more than I helped them.

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This is Silmee! (Pronounced “Simee”)

The base is traditionally made from a stump of a banana tree. It is wrapped with banana leaves that are pinned into place with little metal pins. It is decorated with flowers (and lettuce, and whatever else you can find), and 3 incense sticks and a candle for good luck. Something that really caught my attention was everyone’s willingness to share materials. Each kid brought in their own grocery bag full of tree stumps, banana leaves, flowers, and pins. I was amazed to see kids walk over to each other and reach into their classmate’s bag to find a flower they needed, and nobody cared. I don’t think I’ve seen children interact in such a collective manner. Since I didn’t have any materials  to make my krathong, they insisted I use theirs. Some of the kids’ krathongs came out much better than mine, but I think it was okay for my first try!

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This is Nudee- probably my most artistically inclined student.

After the sun sets, the krathongs are taken to a body of water, where the candles and incense are lit and the little boats are floated away. Some of the teachers invited me to go with them to Saphan Hin- a park in Phuket Town with the biggest celebration of Loy Krathong on the island. The park is on the eastern coast with ocean access, and also has a lake in the middle. The water in the ocean was choppy, so everyone was floating them in the lake. At first I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t release mine into the ocean, and then I realized that in the excitement of the holiday, I hadn’t realized how horrible the festival is for the environment.

Floating away the bad energy in the ocean seems so mystical, but in reality it’s kind of a mess. My krathong was made from banana leaves and imageflowers, but it also had a ton of metal pins in it. Other peoples’ boats were made with plastic, or sugary cake. Some of them were made out of fish food, which is something I can get behind, but for the most part, they were not really good for fish. I figured that releasing it into the lake had better odds of it being disposed of properly.

It is good luck to send off the krathongs with a lock of hair and money tucked into them.  I couldn’t believe that some people were swimming in the lake and picking through the krathongs to find the money in them! Nobody said anything about it. I took a picture of some of the krathongs in the water, and then a little boy popped up out of nowhere and counted the money he had found.

imageAfter about an hour of watching the festivities, I asked a coworker about the paper lanterns I’d seen in pictures on Google. I had previously seen in the news that they were banned from Phuket, but I thought it was for environmental reasons. She told me that they were banned because they were flying high enough to potentially be sucked into the engine of an airplane. Not for environmental reasons.

Loy Krathong is definitely magical, but after all is said and done, I feel bad for the environmental cost of having such a holiday. The following day, I read in the news that a mass cleanup of the park generated 14 tons of trash. WHAT!! That’s insane. For a holiday meant to give thanks to the water gods, and water as a resource, it’s pretty crazy to celebrate by polluting the waterways. Even so, the krathongs that were made from organic material are going to be sitting in a landfill and not biodegrading. It’s a pretty crazy palm-to-face realization that the celebration is magical and whatnot, but it’s coming at the cost of the environment.

At any rate, I hope you enjoy the cutesy pictures of us trashing the environment. *sigh*

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Koh Yao Noi

Despite having going to Koh Yao Noi the night before I had written my last post, I thought that the island experience deserved a story to itself. As promised, here it is:

With the chaos of school last week, I had decided that my weekend was going to be spent on a peaceful island. Instead of searching the web for the “best getaways near Phuket,” I decided to ask around to some of the teachers at my school to see what their opinion was on the best place to go. My only request was that it was a relatively short ferry ride.

I thought about going back to Phi Phi, since it’s absolutely beautiful, but I wanted to experience a new place. I love going to Phi Phi, but the ferry takes about an hour and a half. It’s also packed with tourists, advertising, and overpriced meals. Oh, that reminds me. It has been brought to my attention to note that the correct way to pronounce “Phi Phi” is “pee pee.” I’ve gotten so used to saying it that the silly factor doesn’t phase me anymore. Same with Phuket. It is pronounced “poo ket,” but it’s still a little bit funny to say it the way it looks like it should sound.

Talk about a tangent.

My teacher friends recommended I go to the island of Koh Yao Noi, as it’s a short trip away from the Phuket mainland, and is a laid back place to relax for a weekend. I didn’t fully comit to the mini-trip until it was Saturday morning. My body’s alarm clock has been set at 6:00am since I’ve been waking up for school, and doesn’t turn off for Saturdays. I took advantage of it and decided to head out early.

The best pier to leave for the island is in the north of Phuket, and it’s called Bangrong Pier. A friend had told me that you can catch certain longtail boats that will allow you to bring your motorbike with you. I found a schedule online and saw that the first longtail left at 9:15, so I set out at 8:30 to make it on time. It’s normally a 30 minute trip.

imageThe pier itself was nothing like I had expected. I have previously left for trips on Rassada Pier, which is a highly commercialized port for ferries. Bangrong Pier is a completely different story. It’s a pier in a rural northern Muslim community, with its main traffic being fishing boats. I was expecting it to be a tourist extravaganza, so of course I stood out, as I was wearing a tank top and jean shorts with flip flops. Everyone was extremely friendly though.

Traffic ended up being horrible, and I didn’t make it to the pier until 9:20. I had missed the boat that would allow me to take my bike with me, and the next one wasn’t leaving until 12:30. There was a speed boat leaving at 9:50, so I decided to leave my bike behind. Luckily there was a house with a garage nearby advertising bike security for 20TBH ($0.56 USD)/day. I dropped off the bike and got onto the speed boat.

The speed boat ride was choppy, and a little scary at that. Each wave that we hit rattled the boat and made an unsettling sound. After we had been imagegoing for about 15 minutes, we heard the captain yell something and he stopped the boat. There was a little bit of panic within the passengers on the boat (there were maybe 10 of us), and we were all looking around to see what happened. We eventually saw another boat pull up beside us, and an old man got off the front of the boat and onto ours. Everyone laughed a little bit after we saw it.

The boat ride took a little under 30 minutes, and was beautiful scenery throughout. Once we had arrived on the island, we were surrounded by a few motorbike taxi drivers who were looking for customers. I asked the driver if he knew of any bikes to rent, and he immediately showed me over to one. His price was 300baht (~$8 USD) , which is a little steep by Phuket standards, but I decided it was worth it to explore the island.  He handed over a helmet and the keys, and told me to leave it back where I found it when I was done. I was amazed that he didn’t ask to see my passport or make me sign any paperwork. Later I had explained my surprise to a local, and she said, “It’s a small island. There’s one way in and out is at that pier. He knows you’re not going anywhere.”

The immediate vibe that I got from the island was absolute tranquility. After I had driven off of the pier, I found myself driving through beautiful green shrubs and flowers on my way to my accomodation. There were more butterflies than I’ve ever seen in nature. So many butterflies that the drive through the island left me in some deep contemplation that when you’re on a bike, your face is the windshield. The sheer amount of bugs that get smashed onto the windshield while driving a car, well, that was pretty much the face cover of my bike helmet.

The island has a reputation for preserving its local feel, and frowns upon any sort of commercial development. They are huge proponents of ecological conservation, and there was only one 7-11 on the island. This is quite a feat, as 7-11s in Thailand are normally across the street from one another. The “untouched” feel of the island was a huge breather from the tourist overload of Phuket.

imageBefore I had left Phuket I had found a bungalow online that was close to the beach. I splurged a little (Note: By splurge I mean I spent $28 USD), and went for one with great reviews. I was not disappointed.

The bungalow was an uphill hike away from the main road. It was surrounded by lush jungle, and I felt totally secluded. All I could hear were the sounds of jungle. It was awesome!! There was a hammock on the little balcony, and I spent almost 2 hours just lying there enjoying the peace. It was the definition of tranquility.

The location was also killer. It was only about a 2 minute walk from the beach. The beach had an incredible view of the notorious limestone cliffs of the Andaman Sea. I think there were maybe 4 other people on the beach. I found a deserted hammock in the shade, and did about 2 more hours of relaxing in a hammock.image

The bungalow was on the eastern side of the island, and I wanted to see the sunset, so I drove all the way across to the western side to see the sunset. It took me a whopping 11 minutes. I found a seafood restaurant with a perfect view. I ordered blue crab, and watched as the chef walked down to the dock and pulled the crab out of a net in the ocean. I think it’s safe to say it was the most delicious crab I’ve ever eaten, and one of the most peaceful nights spent watching the sun set.

Although my time in Koh Yao Noi was brief, it was just the type of relaxation I needed after a crazy couple of weeks of teaching kindergarten. I am so incredibly spoiled to have paradise in my backyard.

 

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Kuala Lumpur, Baby!!!

I want to add a random note before I talk  about my trip to Malaysia. Numerous friends and family members have asked if I need them to send me money. You’re all incredible, and I am so grateful to have such a supportive team on my side. I think that in a previous post I might have given the wrong message about my financial situation. I have saved up a comfortable amount for this trip, but I have just been a total cheapskate since I’ve been here (thanks, Thailand!). While living here, it’s easy to get into the mindset that $6 is an expensive meal, $10 is an expensive pedicure, and $20 is an expensive day trip. I want everyone to know that I’m doing just fine, the only difficulty that I’m experiencing is coming to terms with being able to spend money on fun. I’m not broke, I’m just cheap!

I have spent the last 4 days and 3 nights in Malaysia, and I don’t even know how I’m going to keep this post from becoming a whole chapter of a book. I went into Kuala Lumpur (KL) with no expectations, and ended up having an amazing experience. I could try to explain the trip in a chronological order, but this post would never end.

The overarching theme of my trip was the haze from the Indonesian forest fires. It was literally overarching.

On the plane ride over, about 10 minutes after the captain had announced to prepare for arrival, I looked out the window and it didn’t seem like we were descending. All I could see were clouds, and the cabin started to smell like imagefire. Although I had anticipated the haze, I had no idea how bad it was actually going to be. Before I could even see the ground, the wheels came out from under the airplane and we landed.  I have no idea how it was possible for the captain to even see the runway. It was much worse than I thought.

I reserved an apartment through Airbnb that was right outside the downtown area. I booked the place because it’s about 1 mile from the city center, and it had stunning views of the Petronas Towers- the tallest twin towers in the world. The drive to the place took about an hour, but my taxi driver was awesome, so it went by really fast. He spoke English very well, and we mostly talked about the haze situation. I quickly realized that the Indonesian fires are not only an environmental catastrophe and a general inconvenience, but a serious human rights issue.

The driver told me that he hadn’t seen sky in two months. Apparently he was used to it, as he said it happens every imageyear, although, he said that this time was worse than any he’s ever seen. He had sores on his eyes and a lung infection. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the fires were started for slash and burn agriculture for palm oil production, but quickly grew out of control due to the dry season and the nature of the fires. They’re peat fires, so they are able to exist at 25 feet under the ground. Small, contained fires are legal, but it’s tricky to keep them contained and manageable. My driver told me that even though the Indonesian government claims to want to keep them in control, they always turn their head and give the corporations a slap on the wrist when the fires lose control. Slash and burn agriculture is much faster and cheaper than the alternative, and the corporations and government alike make some serious cash off of palm oil production. Indonesia is going through an exceptionally dry season, so there is no end in sight for the haze situation.

Schools nationwide have been cancelled for over 14 days of the month of October, and they’re not even in the same country as the fires. Children in Indonesia have died from respiratory infections resulting from the haze. I could rant and rave about this all day. It’s absolutely unbelievable. Sigh. Sorry to be super heavy, I’ll switch it up and tell you about my trip now.

imageMy taxi driver from the airport was awesome, and he was definitely an exception to the rule of taxi drivers in KL. In the city, it is illegal for a metered taxi to fix the price of a trip and not use the meter. It’s posted on signs in both Malay and English on their taxis, yet, it’s hard to find a taxi that will actually abide by the rule.

I was used to haggling prices in Phuket, so my first few taxi rides were based on negotiation. Without realizing it, I was being charged double the normal rate. In front of the place I was staying, the taxi drivers were all congregated in front of the building, and they all offered me rides by quoting a price. I had intended on using my GrabTaxi app, but it doesn’t work without cell service. Once I had the information about taxis being required to use a meter, I tried to point out to the drivers that I knew what they were doing was illegal. I was astonished at their reaction.

Each time I pointed it out, I was met with an incredibly offensive response. To put it into perspective, here is a list of things that happened when I mentioned it was illegal to forego the taxi meter:

-A man spit at my feet

-One man burped in my face

-I was told to “F off”

-I was completely ignored and shooed away

-They tried to tell me that during high traffic, the law doesn’t count,

-The law doesn’t matter after sundown,

-The law doesn’t exist in the city of KL, and

-They don’t have to use a meter on the way to tourist attractions

To humor myself, I asked a police officer if any of the things these men were saying were true. I simply asked, “hey, is there any circumstance in which a taxi doesn’t have to use a meter?” The cop looked really concerned, and said, “who said those things to you? Please show me who. This is highly illegal, and we want to tell them it’s wrong!” Considering that 90% of taxi drivers in front of tourist attractions refused to use the meter, I was extremely doubtful that this cop was being sincere. I eventually found that it was most effective to flag down a taxi that was already driving, and say “meter, please” as soon as I got into the vehicle. I only ran into 1 driver who refused to use the meter, and I simply rejected his offer and flagged down the next one.

imageThe apartment I was staying in was great, but the whole setup felt like it would’ve been a disaster if the building were to catch on fire. For starters, the building’s fire alarm was going off the entire time due to the haze. They couldn’t turn it off, so they just turned it down. There was a quiet beeping throughout the duration of my stay. Additionally, the key card that I was given was required to get through the front door of the building, into and out of the room with the elevator/stairs, to access the elevator/stairs, and to access the room I was staying in. It was great security, but I’m not sure anyone would be able to make it out of there in a hurry without their key card.

The whole purpose of my trip was to renew my Thai tourist visa for another 30 days until my work permit is approved for a 1 year visa. The night before I went into the embassy, I was double checking that I had all of my paperwork in order when I realized I didn’t quite have enough cash for the visa itself. I went down to an ATM to withdraw cash, and my card was declined. Since I’ve been out of the country, I’ve had to call my bank at least 5 times to remind them that I am not in the United States. Granted, I am glad they are keeping a close eye on my account, but it’s become quite a hassle. In Thailand I am able to call internationally with my phone, but I didn’t have service in Malaysia. If I was unable to go to the embassy the following morning, I would’ve had to wait until Monday to complete the process. Needless to say, I was in panic mode.

I had WiFi at the apartment I was staying in, but there isn’t really such thing as free international calling, even if it’s through WiFi. The internet connection was horrible, and it took an hour to download an app that promised the first 10 minutes were free. After having downloaded the app, I got a hold of my bank and explained to them my situation.  “Thank you for calling First National Bank of Omaha. My name is David, and I am happy to assist you with your inquiry today. May I please start with your full name, the last four of your social, and a good number to reach you?”

GAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!  “Yes hi, David, despite having told the bank 100 times that I now live outside of the country, you all continue to leave me without access to MY OWN MONEY!!! I’M GOING TO BE STUCK IN MALAYSIA FOREVER!!!!!”

Just kidding. I didn’t say that. Call center employees do not deserve the wrath of anyone’s frustration. I politely explained my situation, and he said “Everything appears to be okay on your card ma’am. Oh wait, I do see here… let me put you on a brief hold while I speak with another department.” After waiting on hold for 9 minutes, I watched as the free 10 minute call dwindled away. I felt hopeless at this point. To be incredibly dramatic about it, I felt like I was Rose from Titanic, letting Jack slip away into the ice cold water. DON’T GO!! I begged. I couldn’t buy another 10 minutes through the app because my account was on hold.

To make a long, winding, overly dramatic story short, I ended up finding the app “Dingtone” which gave me a free 30 minute phone call (thank you Dingtone!! I’m forever indebted). Apparently the bank decided to change my debit card to a “compromised” status, because I had “tried to use it in Thailand.” I had a wonderful 20 minute wait for them to tell me that they’ve temporarily changed the status of the card to active, and they’ve sent a new one out in the mail for me to use when I got home. I reminded them that I won’t be home for another year, there should be a note on my account, and they said, “Oh, really?” Yes, really. Someone find me a new bank.

After two and a half hours of dealing with them, it was 12:30am. I went to bed but had a hard time sleeping, wondering if my card would work at the ATM the following morning.

The Thai embassy in KL is only open from 9:30am to 11:30am, and I had been advised by multiple people to show up at 8am in order to be able to process everything on time. I left my apartment at 7:30am and had a taxi take me to an ATM to withdraw some cash. We went to 4 different ATMs before we found one that accepts Visa. A tip to anyone considering a trip to KL- bring a MasterCard.

I arrived at the embassy at 8am and there were already 9 people ahead of me in line. It’s not like you can arrive and take a number and sit down. The line is at the gate in front of the building with standing room only. This was the only time I was grateful for the haze, as the sun was merely a red dot for decoration. It was about 80 degress out, when it should have been 90+. I had brought my Kindle, and the time went by quickly.

Directly behind me in line was a Buddhist nun. She had her head shaved and was wearing a white robe. I was previously distracted by my reading, but I wish I would’ve struck up a conversation with her sooner. For the past year she has been living in a Buddhist temple in Chaing Mai, Thailand. She was born in California, but has spent the majority of her life in Japan and Australia. She was such an interesting woman! Currently, Thailand does not allow a woman to be ordained as a monk, and trying to be a female monk is considered rebellious. She continuously has to leave the country to renew her tourist visa, because the Thai government will not allow a woman to stay on a meditation visa. I was so intrigued by her story.

At 9am, two men and a woman in their twenties walked up to the front of the line at the gate. Everyone was giving them the death stare, as we had all been waiting in line for an hour already. The Buddhist nun walked right up to them and politely told them that we had all been waiting, and suggested they head to the back of the queue. I was absolutely shocked to see that these people were incredibly rude to her, and basically told her to go away. The woman walked back to her place in line and said, “Some people are just going to be that way. Don’t let it ruin your mood.” LET THIS WOMAN BE A MONK ALREADY!!!  (p.s. Once I got back to my Airbnb, I read a very interesting article about female monks in Thailand. Now that I’m back in Thailand, I can’t access the site because is blocked by the government. If you’re curious, google “female monks in Thailand” and click on the “daily mail” link. It’s incredibly interesting).

The line-cutters (Russians, go figure) got into an altercation with the woman at the visa counter, and they ended up having to wait much longer than anyone else who had been in front of them. Processing my visa only took about 15 minutes once I had got in, and I was on with my day. If you have any questions about the Thai visa process in KL I would be happy to answer any questions you may have via e-mail.

Moving on!

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Chairs made from 100% ivory

Another major part of my trip was experiencing Islamic culture. In Malaysia, roughly 50% of the people are Muslim. Coming from the U.S. (especially CO), culture shock was definitely real. I knew that Islam was dominant in Malaysia, but for some reason it didn’t really sink in until I arrived. I will admit that this trip increased my knowledge of Islamic culture 110%.

I saw on TripAdvisor KL that the Islamic Arts Museum was the #2 attraction in the city. I decided it would be a good place to learn. After having visited, I can understand why it is so popular. The museum cost about $1 to get in (I used my old CSU ID for a discount, haha), and has four floors packed full of artifacts from different Islamic Empires throughout the centuries. I learned about  everything from ancient jewelry to environmentally sustainable mosque construction.

The National Mosque of Malaysia is right across the street from the museum, so after spending 2 hours in the museum, I decided to have a look. It is open to tourists on and off throughout the day in hour and a half intervals (they close to non-Muslims to allow for prayer). I was dressed conservatively enough for a Buddhist temple, but showed up under-dressed to peek inside of the mosque.  Right when I showed up, a woman grabbed a robe for me and got me dressed. I didn’t even have time to react. I got the full on hijab.  Oh man, I was out of my element. I had a guy take my picture, and after I’d looked at it, I had to try really hard to keep from laughing. I don’t think twice about it when I see a Muslim woman dressed like that, but I felt ridiculous wearing it as a non-Muslim.  Chalk one up to the experience, I guess.

The mosque itself wasn’t really extraordinary in terms of architecture. I wasn’t allowed to enter the prayer hall, so I really only walked up and peeked in. The whole ordeal took less than 10 minutes. I picked up some brochures to gain a little insight into the Islamic faith. Let’s be clear here, I picked them up because I wanted to know more about the unknown. I think the most interesting quote from all of the brochures was, “Women will never reach true liberation until they stop

You can tell by my face that I was definitely out of my element here.

You can tell by my face that I was definitely out of my element here.

imitating men and value the beauty of their own God-given distinctiveness.” I’m not here to condemn the religion or say what’s right or wrong, but we’ll just say that I wouldn’t last long as a Muslim.  I hope you appreciate the picture, because I really had to talk myself into posting it. I know I’m not going to live that one down.

The most awkward part of the entire ordeal was taking off the robe and headscarf once I was outside of the mosque. The men that were standing outside had an absolute field day with it. I was getting cat calls and kissing noises, and was incredibly uncomfortable. After living in Central and South America I have learned to ignore the behavior, but it was something I have yet to experience from Thai men. I’ve never been shouted at or harassed since I’ve been in Thailand. KL was an entire different story.

The majority of women in KL were dressed extremely conservatively. I was dressed very modestly by American standards. One of the days I was out walking in a sleeveless shirt and jeans, and a woman called me a prostitute. I saw many non-Muslims who were dressed less conservatively than I was. The whole thing was intense.

imageAs for the sight seeing in KL, there is a “hop on hop off” bus tour, which is like any other city’s big red bus tour. The ticket lasts for 24 hours and costs under $10. It was a great way to sight see and hit the major tourist attractions with limited time. My only problem with it was that sometimes it was faster to walk from point A to point B because the traffic was so bad. Also, as nice as it is to sit on top of a double-decker bus, the haze was burning my eyes and making me cough.

Tickets up to the sky bridge in the Petronas Twin Towers were half off because the haze was so bad you couldn’t see anything. They were booked, so I opted for the Menara KL Tower. They were doing a haze promotion that was free entry to the aquarium with purchase of tower ticket. The KL tower was completed in 1996, and I have to say, the place looks like it hasn’t been renovated since 1996. It’s not like they don’t have the money, either. It’s one of the busiest attractions in the city.

The “aquarium” was a bunch of small uncleaned fish tanks that were jam packed with fish that were way too big to imagehave 14 of them in the same tank. It smelled like someone threw up a tuna sandwich inside of a city park bathroom, but luckily the walk through it only took 5 minutes. It was hardly a consolation for paying full price for the KL tower ride up. The view would have been incredible if it weren’t for the haze. They took my picture in front of a green screen and photoshopped in the normal view in the background, then wanted me to pay $10 for the picture. It felt especially fake, because I had only seen about 1/3 of the actual view. I didn’t buy the picture.

The setup inside the tower was also rundown, and I don’t think the carpet has been changed since the building’s construction. At one point I walked by the room with the elevator and watched a man spraying an aerosol can full of fragrance onto the carpets.  Despite the haze, the view was still pretty impressive, and I think it was definitely worth the trip.

My major splurge of the trip was the 96 hour binge eating food tour of Kuala Lumpur. Because it’s a big city, I was able to eat Mexican, American, Mediterranean, French, Indian, and Japanese food. I haven’t had much for food diversity since I’ve been staying in Thailand, so I was having a hayday with international cuisine. The Indian food was the best I’ve ever eaten, and I ate a four course meal at a four star restaurant for under $15.

imageI also found a breakfast place that had a “bagel with cream cheese” on the menu. I was so excited until the waiter brought it out. There are only a few things that will make me throw a toddler tantrum on the inside, and one of them is the bagel impostor. I felt deceived. I wanted to cry.

Just kidding. It was almost representative of a bagel, but not the real thing. My least favorite part about living abroad is the lack of bagels. Cry me a river.

I haven’t nearly said all that I wanted to say about my experience in Malaysia, but I have to cut this off now. Let’s just say that KL is an incredible booming metropolis that is definitely worthy of a visit. Having only experienced the major city within the peninsula, I’m now curious to discover the rest of Malaysia.

One last thing I’ll add:

Even in a city of 1.5 million people, I hardly saw any Western tourists. I had multiple people ask me if they could take their picture with me. I felt like a movie star. I made sure to get a picture on my own camera for some of them, because they were pretty hilarious. I’ll leave you with these….

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(F)Lawless

If you asked me to sum up the first 5 days in Thailand, the answer I’d give you is “lawless.” I’m not sure if it’s really the perfect word to capture my experience so far, but I’ve used it as an adjective maybe 100 times. It’s basically like, take what you’ve learned in your 24 years on this earth and throw it out the window. This place is out of control, and I’m loving every minute of it.

Today has been exhausting! As much as I wanted to have a relaxing day and gear up for my class tomorrow, Phuket happened. I was planning on going to Kata beach to check it out and then head to the Big Buddha- a huge sculpture that sits high up in a hill overlooking Phuket. None of that actually happened.
I went for breakfast at a place across from my building. They serve scrambled eggs and toast, and let’s face it, I still turn into a diva without my American breakfast. The last time I went in I tipped the lady well. Tips aren’t expected here, but they’re appreciated. Today she remembered me, and service was awesome. I think I’ve found my go-to for breakfast.

From there I walked to the bus “station” aka a line of busses that go to the beach towns. The beach I was going to is about a 45 minute ride, and I paid 35TBH (a little over 1 dollar). It was my first time in an open-air bus, and it was kind of exciting. I’m not sure why, but even something as small as finding my way with public transportation seems like an accomplishment. On my way it started down pouring. I wasn’t too worried, as the rain here seems to cimageome and go pretty quickly.
About 40 minutes in I spotted a beach that looked awesome. I decided to just get off the bus there. The stop request on the busses here is a red button on the ceiling in the middle of the bus, it sounds like a doorbell. Karong beach is where I was, and I later found out that it’s right next door to Kata. There is a strong rip tide, so you can’t swim very far out, but I still waded in a little ways. I don’t think it matters how old you are, or if you’re by yourself or with company, there’s something about jumping over a wave that brings joy like nothing else.

I walked around the little town a bit, and found it was all made for tourists. I keep thinking “tourista,” because all my mind does here is resort to Spanish when I meet a language barrier. I didn’t stay very long because everything was overpriced, and I didn’t need a new bikini. It makes me really appreciate where I’m staying in the business district of Phuket Town, because it’s much more authentic Thai culture. If you’re ever headed to Phuket to stay in a beach resort, make sure you wander in to the actual city.

image*Side note: I did encounter my first squat toilet, and I did just fine.
I was planning on visiting the Big Buddha, but then I remembered that the temples and religious sites generally require a more conservative dress. I was in a tank top and shorts, and covered in sand. I should probably save that visit for another day. I headed back to my hotel for a much needed shower. On the bus ride home, a young Thai woman boarded the bus with an old British man. He was old. Mid 70’s is a conservative guess. They were definitely in a relationship. It’s not an uncommon site, either. I can see why old Western men come here to retire. This woman was gorgeous, and there’s no way she fell in love with him for his personality.
Anyhow, I’ve been so restless since I’ve gotten here. I can’t just aimlessly sit around at home on Facebook, even though it’s really easy to do. The instructor had mentioned a good place to buy clothes for teaching, so I decided to go check it out. I think I took a wrong turn somewhere, but I ended up in Chinatown. Everything was written in both Thai and Chinese, where it’s usually Thai/English. I walked past a few groups of kids who got wide eyed and giggly when I walked past. That’s usually a good indication that tourists don’t imagenormally roam these parts. I saw fried bugs for the first time, but I didn’t try any of them. I did buy a skewer of grilled octopus, but I took a bite and couldn’t eat the rest of it. It was cold, and not appetizing at all. I’m slowly trying to come around to trying more exotic foods, but I can only do so much at once.
As I was walking back, a guy in an air conditioned taxi asked if I’d like a ride to the weekend market. I’ve heard of the weekend market before as a must see, but I was hot and tired. He offered me a killer price, but couldn’t bring myself to do it… Until I thought of the alternative. My plan was to head back to my apartment. I can’t sit still. I’m going to the weekend market, and I’m sitting in this guys’ nice air conditioning on my way there.
The weekend market here is out of control. It would take about three hours to scale the whole thing, and even then you would probably miss a bunch of stuff. It’s like a farmer’s market on steroids. They sell everything from soaps, clothes, & electronics, to food, cocktails, and pets. The pet area was really depressing for me. They had overstuffed cages of rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters and birds. They had cages full of 5+ cats without food or water, just imagebaking in the hot sun. I wanted to be the psycho American girl who goes to jail for freeing all the animals from the weekend market. The thought of Thai jail quickly talked me out of that.

The food area of the market was out of control. I hadn’t eaten dinner yet, so I walked through the stalls and picked out random skewers of chicken. They were all under 10 cents each, and I got my fill.  I also bought a cocktail to go and drank it in the tuk tuk ride home. (F)Lawless.  Next time I go I will remember to bring smaller bills. I tried to get change for 500TBH (~$15) and it just wasn’t happening. I didn’t buy much, but I did find some legitimate polarized sunglasses for 180TBH ($5), and I consider that a win. Click here to see a video that I took of one of the aisles of food (picture this x10).

Tomorrow I start my first day of class! I’m actually excited. I am ready to get more of a solid idea of what it will be like to teach English in this wild country. Also, I really enjoy learning. I would imagine the blog posts will start to become less frequent, but I’ll try to stay on top of it the best I can.

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