Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Now It's Your Turn

       I'm sitting at the airport, devastated to be leaving. Today, Boonma sang a gloomy Thai song about the sky crying. To fit the mood, the sky appropriately clouded over and dropped water on us.
       I always go through this period of mourning when I leave a place that has become dear to me. To fight it, I make travel plans, and you may not be surprised to know that I have already compiled a list of ten possible volunteer programs to do sometime in the future. Maybe I'll try another continent, or maybe I'll explore Asia again. It doesn't matter that I don't know where I'm going, because I know I'm going somewhere.
       I fear that people think that vacations like this are out of reach for them, and I'm going to try to convince them otherwise. Volunteer and adventure travel programs are the ideal travel situation. You are given an up close, brutally honest picture of another culture. You are incorporated into a daily life vastly different from your own. You are allowed to ride elephants, or teach English, or work with orphans. If you'd like, you could probably find a program that does all three.
       Parents, think about the last family trip you took. Add up the cost of hotels, food, and activities, and it can get frightening fairly quickly. Volunteer programs usually include all of those things in one price, and many welcome children. Other than the cost of getting there, there are very few additional expenses. That is unless you find a market like Chatuchak, and I highly recommend it anyway.
       By no means do I want you to believe that you have to jet off to Africa to do something out of the ordinary. You can save a lot of money on airfare by staying in the United States, and you can still travel in a way that you may not have ever thought of before. You could help build trails in the Appalachian Mountains or work at a nature preserve in New York. You could volunteer at a dude ranch in California. You could build houses for Habitat for Humanity or even ride in a covered wagon train in Wyoming.
       There are many ways to save money, but don't immediately write off the programs that may seem a tad pricy. The truth behind some of these volunteer participation costs is this: They keep these valuable programs running. Honestly, the mahouts can get along just fine without me, but my volunteer fee is what helps them pay for food, medicine, and necessary supplies for both themselves and their elephants. They could never keep the program running and the elephants off the busy city streets without this outside  source of income. They are incredibly grateful.
       Yesterday, as we talked about my imminent departure, Boonma asked me, "What do you get?"
       "What do you mean, 'What do I get?'"
       Because it seems that I am going home without much more than I came with (He did not see my purchases from the Chatuchak market.), he couldn't understand why I would pay what I did to do what I have done. He feels that he gains more from me participating than I do. Financially, I see his point, but I was floored, if it's possible to be floored while sitting twelve feet off the ground.
       What do I get? I get to have the adventure of a lifetime. I get to see my money put to good use instead of going to a large corporation or tourist trap. I get to see people trying to make a difference in big and small ways. If you doubt what I say, take a look at my previous blog posts and try to tell me that this is not a positive program.
       Don't ever assume that this is not possible for you. It takes a little research and a big leap of faith, but you will not regret it. I'm willing to bet all of my market purchases on it.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Denial Starts...Yesterday

       The disappointing thing about adventures is that they come to an end. I'm dreading tomorrow like you dread the trip to the dentist when you haven't been flossing properly. My flight whisks me away from Thailand at night, thankfully giving me one more day with my elephant. Still, I must go through the compulsory farewell process and face the fact that I will not be going back to the camp on Wednesday morning. If you are wondering how I am taking this, my answer is, "Not well."
       Today, I tried to ignore reality and spend my day like always, fetching grass for Boonme, hoisting myself up on her back, and eating fresh pineapple from my comfortable seat above the ground. Boonma took her for a swim in the pond, and it was like watching a log rolling contest where the log has a mind of its own. She plopped into the water, dove under the surface, and sprayed water from her trunk. It was like watching a child discover how exciting the water can be.
       Tonight, I had my last English tutoring session, and my usual student brought a friend from school to practice scripts with us. My American accent makes me very popular here, and people love to listen to me speak, even when I have nothing groundbreaking to say. My value as a teacher here stems from the fact that I was born in the United States, which hardly seems fair. When I consider the great effort it takes to learn English as an additional language, it makes me unbelievably thankful that it is my mother tongue.
       Allow me to make you grateful that it is your first language. (If it's not and you are reading this, bravo to you.) As an experiment, explain to me why the following words are pronounced the way they are: rough, through, dough, bough, and cough. When you come up with the reason, let me know so that I can re-explain it to Thai people. I don't believe the shrug I gave them was a satisfactory answer.
      Needless to say, learning to speak Thai is much more straightforward, and I will miss my daily lessons, among many other things. Now excuse me while I go floss. I have a dentist appointment later this week, and I am afraid they are going to yell at me.


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Bangkok: Not For The Claustrophobic

       The pace of daily life in Bangkok could not be more different than the pace to which I have become accustomed. Chicago and New York City are busy, sure. However, they do not begin to compare with the body-to-body, no personal space experience that is certain areas of Bangkok. It is fairly simple to navigate, as long as you know how to push your way through masses of people without tripping over the goods being sold by vendors on the sidewalks. Do you need to get to the Skytrain quickly? Too bad. You should have allowed more time. These are the lessons that Bangkok is waiting to teach you.
       Once this is taken into account, there are striking sights to be seen, for instance, the Grand Palace. It is the pride and joy of the Thai people, and if the sun is shining, prepare to be blinded by the pure reflective nature of the buildings. There is so much gold, so much sparkle, so...much. It's hard to know where to look.
       I believe I went about visiting the Grand Palace in the wrong way. The goal is to walk in through the front gate and see the sights from the inside of the protective walls. Instead, I walked around the entire complex looking for the entrance, straining to see spires or roofs from the street. I finally discovered the entrance, which I would have found much sooner had I simply walked to the left to start out with instead of the right. I discovered through this little side adventure that the Grand Palace complex is very large.
       Once inside, I wandered aimlessly and in my heat daze, may not have used all of the tickets I paid for. They were written in Thai, and honestly, my main goal was to find water, not decorative masks. I assume this is how they make money.
       My next destination was the Chatuchak market. If there was ever a place to make you want what you never knew existed, this is it. No one seems to know exactly how many stalls there are. Some claim 5,000. Some claim 8,000. Some even claim over 15,000, but no one is going to argue or put forth the effort to check. The stalls create a maze, a covered labyrinth. Don't even try to keep track of where you are. Assume that you will eventually end up where you started, and if not, just try my trick and walk around the entire circumference.
       Would you like an alligator head purse? How about a puppy? If you are not a dog person, there are plenty of kittens to choose from. If your chandelier is broken, buy a new one here, and don't tell me you don't need that life-size Buddha for your living room. If you are in the market for smaller things, choose from cookie jars shaped like Disney characters or a shadow box of nautical pins. Stock up on your African tribal instruments, or if the mood strikes, you are more than welcome to invest in books on species of trees in northern Thailand. You will need a suitcase to carry most of this home, so don't forget to purchase one of those as well.
       Do you know that feeling of regret when you can't stop thinking about an item that you wanted but didn't buy? I do, but don't worry about me. That does not apply to my trip to the Chatuchak market, because I bought everything. It was a severe case of repetitive impulse buys. I do not regret it. All I can say is thank goodness my two-hour bus ride back to the elephants was only four dollars.