Tongue-Twisted in Thailand

My father was born and raised in Peru, so you would probably make the incorrect assumption that I can speak some Spanish. I tried, I really did. No matter how many classes I took during middle and high school it just wouldn’t stick. I became discouraged and gave up after the tenth grade. Speaking another language was just not in the cards for me.

By the time I went to teach English in Thailand, I had already been telling myself for six years that English was going to be the only language I would ever be able to communicate with. I had already determined that the foreign language part of my brain was not very active. Before coming to Thailand I learned that Thai has five different tones which means that one word can be said five different ways and each way means something completely different. For someone who couldn’t even learn Spanish and is more than slightly tone deaf, I didn’t see speaking Thai as a skill I would develop any time soon.

So there I was in Khon Kaen, Thailand not speaking a word of Thai other than hello. Khon Kaen is not commonly visited by foreigners, so moving there not knowing anything about Thai was like a Thai person going to Omaha without speaking a word of English. My first few days of work were spent with a Thai teacher making me repeat words over and over again until my tongue felt like it was going to fall out. My face, tongue, and teeth were never in the correct position and therefore consistently produced the wrong sound according to my teacher.

I was afraid to eat alone at restaurants because I might ask for my food to be spicy and accidentally say no duck instead, which would result in me eating a dish that makes me cry and sweat my all of my water weight out, but be duck free. I have a low tolerance for spicy food, so this seemed like a disastrous scenario. Eating in the Issan region of Thailand was dangerous. They frequently say that if it isn’t spicy then it’s not delicious. By frequently I mean about ten times a meal while they are blotting their eyes and foreheads with tiny pink napkins. You can often measure how delicious a meal was by the size of the pile of pink tissues next to their plate. My solution during my first few meals alone was to go to the 7-11 where the food was not spicy and no Thai language skills were necessary.

About two weeks into my stay in Thailand I attended a yoga class with a fellow American friend who had lived in Thailand for three years. The class started in the evening before dinner and was fine except for the fact that it was all in Thai. I had been doing yoga for five years already, so I was able to figure out what was going on, but what I couldn’t understand was why the instructor kept talking about rice. Rice (khow) was one of the few vocabulary words I’d managed to absorb at that point and it seemed to me that the instructor said it in every other sentence. I know rice is important in Asian culture, but how the hell does it relate to yoga??

I walked out of the class very hungry and immediately asked my friend why the teacher was so obsessed with food. It turns out that my tone-deaf ears couldn’t pick up the fact that she was using two different tones, neither of which was the right tone for rice. She was actually telling us to inhale and or do something with our knees every time she said it.

The tones are what make Thai difficult to learn. Without them it would actually be an easy language to master since you don’t have to worry about conjugating verbs which was one of the things that made Spanish so difficult for me to grasp. By the time I had properly conjugated the verb I wanted to use, the listener would have already given up on me. One of the most annoying parts about learning Thai though, is that no matter how many times you say the word you want to use, if you don’t say it in the right tone nobody is going to help you out and guess what you are trying to communicate. They will just smile or ignore you.

It used to almost anger me that I was trying so hard and nobody would make even a little bit of effort to think about the context of the conversation and the word that was coming out of my mouth. They would just say they didn’t understand. When somebody tries to speak English I go out of my way to guess what they are trying to say, but nobody would take the effort to do the same with me. I finally came to realize that people who speak tonal languages don’t think about words in the same way that I do. When I hear a word I hear the word and the tone separately. I remember that khow can be used for rice, knee, and inhale and that each have a different tone. A native Thai speaker thinks of each of these words completely separate from each other. So when I would forget the tone that goes with the word I wanted to say and I would naively say the word in five different tones, it just sounded like five different random words to the listener. I suppose if I was having a conversation with a beginner in English and they started listing off five random words in the middle of a sentence I would think they were nuts as well.

While living in Khon Kaen, one of the Thai teachers continuously compared me to her five year old child. She said that I didn’t eat spicy food, I got swarmed by mosquitoes, and my Thai verbal skills were on par or worse than her kid. This comparison bugged me for a while since I was really trying to learn and fit in. Then I started to accept that Thai people are very honest and aren’t overly polite about feelings like we are. I figured this out when one of the teachers singled out the fat kid in class and made him stand up and proceeded to joke about how big he was. A few months later when my very good Thai friend said I looked fat that day, I was a bit appalled but understood that it wasn’t said in a malicious way. In her eyes she was just being observant.

I’ve been practicing and learning Thai for about nine months now and although I feel comfortable with the basics of the language, I still make many mistakes and have to work around my limited vocabulary. When my friend asked where I was going the other day, I nonchalantly said to get a massage. Somehow I managed to screw it up enough that I ended up saying to go get high which confused her and shocked her mother who was standing close by. I had no idea what I’d said and I’m happy they corrected me even though it was embarrassing. Now I have a new vocabulary word. Just yesterday I thought I was saying that a toddler was scared (glooa) and instead the word banana (glooai) kept coming out of my mouth. Nobody corrected me, but the folks around me must have thought I was a very confused farang (foreigner).

I’ve successfully proven myself wrong. I am fully capable of learning another language. My brain wasn’t the problem when I was trying to learn Spanish; the problem was the setting. Some people are textbook and classroom savvy when it comes to learning a language, but immersion is the best way for me. I’m not fluent, but I’m happy just being able to communicate. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll learn Spanish.

If you are traveling to Thailand, here are a few basic phrases that you might need.

Hello: Sawadee ka/kraap*

Thank you: Khap koon ka/kraap*

How much is this?: Tao rai ka/kraap*?

Where is the bathroom?: Hong naam tee nai ka/kraap*?

*Ka and kraap are said at the end of a sentence to be polite. If you are a female you say ka at the end of your sentences and if you are male you say kraap.

This post was originally written for www.diwyy.com. Check it out at http://www.diwyy.com/new-blog/reader-perspective-tongue-twisted-in-thailand/.

I’m Lovin’ It

This one is from the archives. I nearly finished this post over a year ago, but before posting it I came down with extreme food poisoning. I’m nearly positive that my food poisoning didn’t come from this dining experience, but from some bad pork in my dinner later that day. Despite that fact, I never returned to this piece until today because it still made my stomach turn just thinking about the events of that evening. That being said, bon appétit!

There have been several meals throughout my life that I remember vividly and recall with not just a sense of nostalgia, but with a passion for how delicious and perfect they were. The classically perfect Coq au Vin in Paris. The tempura battered and fried cinnamon ice cream drizzled with chocolate and raspberry sauce in San Diego. Kobe beef that melted in my mouth complemented perfectly by thinly sliced crunchy pieces of fried garlic. And lastly, the mind blowing shrimp burger at a McDonalds in Japan.

Which of these doesn’t fit in?

If you know me at all, you know that I’m a bit of a food snob. My mother was a chef and is a fantastic cook, so how could I not grow up to be a food snob?! Seeing an item on my list of most memorable and mouthwatering meals from a fast food chain, especially one like McDonald’s, should baffle you. But I must put this on my list and I’m sure if you would agree if you tried it.

The burger patty was made from whole shrimp, not ground shrimp, which instantly gave it more points, perhaps because you knew you were eating real shrimp, not some fake McDonalds shrimp concoction. The shrimp were arranged into a patty form, which was then battered, rolled in panko and fried. The patty was put between a hamburger bun and we enjoyed it with some classic McDonald’s French fries.

This was consumed after a few drinks, mind you, which may have added to the tastiness of it, but I remember that I couldn’t have been more satisfied with it. Not only that, I was completely fascinated by the fact that something so wonderful came out of a McDonald’s! I have spent my entire life avoiding those golden arches and by chance happened upon what may be one of the best things they’ve ever sold.

Ever since that night, I have always hoped that I might encounter that magical Mickey Dee’s Ebi Fillet-O (AKA shrimp burger) again. I even looked for it during a late night French fries run to a McDonald’s on Koh Samui in Thailand, but it wasn’t there. I had given up hope.

But this past weekend fate tapped me on the shoulder and my dream of eating another shrimp burger without having to go to Japan was renewed! I was sitting on a fairly empty skyline train in Bangkok allowing me to have a perfect view of one of the TVs where a commercial for the new KFC shrimp burger was played. It was a sign. I knew I had to go to a KFC and investigate.

This morning I was told that I didn’t need to come to school, so I went to the mall in hopes of sitting in some air conditioning for a few hours and to eat lunch at KFC. Yes my friends, I sought out a fast food restaurant, a completely uncharacteristic decision.

I strolled up to the KFC timidly, not wanting to commit myself to eating there until I was sure they had my elusive deep fried goodness. Once I found the picture on the Thai menu above the cash register I then had to determine how to order it. I haven’t ordered a burger in Thailand and wasn’t sure what to say, so through a combination of pointing and repeating the word goong (prawn) to the two of the five cashiers, I was able to successfully order my burger. I decided to go all out and order the burger, Pepsi, and fries combo meal, which set me back 95 Baht (~$2.70). When in Rome, right?

It was ready in no time since there were at least fifteen people working in the restaurant, which was about as many customers in the KFC at the time. I went to the ketchup and sweet chili sauce dispenser where there was a girl who pumped some Ketchup for me into a little plastic cup. After giving me my ketchup, she took my tray from me and asked me where I would like to sit. I was shocked, what a luxurious dining experience at KFC! I give the service a 10.

The burger did not qualify as a 10 unfortunately. But I guess when you have such high standards, how could it? The patty was greasier than the one I had in Japan and just didn’t have the same flavor. It just wasn’t what I had hoped it would be. Maybe if I had had a few drinks it would have been better, but I’m pretty convinced that the McDonalds version was superior whether you are drunk or sober. I guess I’ll just have to wait until I go to Japan again to eat my tasty fast food.

Neither of the photos in this post were taken by me. I can’t remember who took them though…

Koh Tao Underwater Festival 2010

A couple weeks ago we had the annual Underwater Festival on Koh Tao to raise money for Save Koh Tao and to increase awareness of the issues facing the island. Here are a few pictures from the festival.

Caroline painting signs to inform girls to cover up when they leave the beach and to keep their tops on while they are on the beach. The Thai kids can't go swimming at their own beaches because there are too many topless women. We also made a No Speedos sign because foreigners and Thai people both are uncomfortable with the speedo especially when it is encountered off the beach in a restaurant or a shop.
My volunteers and I made this poster out of cigarette butts found in less than an hour on the beach. Smoking litter has become a huge pet peeve of mine.
Another cigarette butt litter poster we made.
A manta ray swimming through the trees. All of the giant decorations around the festival were made from paper and bamboo. The Thai and Burmese are incredibly creative.
The giant manta ray and turtle lit up at night.
The giant turtle made from bamboo and paper that I helped paint.
This is the making of a giant fish that went above the festival stage and sprayed water out of it's mouth onto the crowd.
Bamboo and paper boats floating amongst the trees and jelly fish swimming in the sky.
The jelly fish were made from straws, cratepaper, and the plastic food covers that you use to keep the flies off food. I was a little disappointed with the use of so many straws because it's not super eco-friendly, but it is very creative and cool looking.
The bar which was made from bamboo and white fabric.
These fish lined the bamboo and dried grass tunnel leading in and out of the festival. The fish are made from plastic water bottles.
Shrimp! Another giant sea creaure.
Caroline and the finished say no to speedo's sign.
My friend Lyn and me in the shopping area.
A giant sea horse.
There was a Mr and Miss Koh Tao competition. The competitors had to make outfits using recycled materials. This guy made a warrior out of beer boxes. I thought he should have won.
The only ladyboy in the entire competition. Her dress was entirely made out of paper. It was pretty incredible.
A man with swim trunks, a snorkel, and mask made from cardboard and a girl with a dress made from water bottle labels and waterbottles under the skirt to make it stick out.
Another warrior. His outfit was made from cardboard and bottle caps. He won one of the titles.
This guy also won one of the titles.
The competitors on stage. The girl in yellow was wearing an outfit made from organic corn husks. It was beautiful, as was she, so she won two of the titles.
The competitors on stage.
Cute little sea turtles!!!! These guys were released into the sea at the festival.

Shark Bay

There is a place on Koh Tao unofficially named Shark Bay because you are pretty much guaranteed to see sharks if you snorkel or dive there. About a month ago I went snorkeling there for the first time without knowing that it was called Shark Bay and that there were sharks in the water. I was there to see one of the underwater projects the marine conservation branch was doing. The water visibility was so poor that I really couldn’t see much and gave up and tanned on the beach instead. At the time I had no idea I had just been snorkeling in shark infested waters.

I went back the second time with the intention to see sharks with an Italian friend, who I sometimes had trouble understanding. When I asked him how big the sharks were he held up his hands showing about two or three feet long and mumbled something I didn’t understand. What I understood from his answer was that they weren’t that big, so I was completely comfortable with snorkeling around and looking for them. The water visibility was even worse the second time around and I couldn’t even see a foot in front of myself, so we retreated to the beach again.

The third time I went snorkeling in Shark Bay I brought one of my volunteers along. This time the visibility was perfect, but unfortunately the snorkel my volunteer was using was leaking and she decided to go back to the beach and wait for my return so she could use my snorkel. I wanted to see these mini sharks my Italian friend had talked about, so I continued along on my own.

I was swimming around looking at the little fish and then I saw a shark about five feet long swim under me. I was shocked. These were supposed to be toy size sharks, not Danielle size sharks. After I saw the first one I started to make a U-turn back to the beach and then saw about ten more. I stopped when I found a huge rock with sea anemones and clown fish which I found soothing so I was able to calm down a bit. I didn’t want the sharks to know how nervous I was so I thought it was important to try to slow down my heartbeat. Once I regained some composure, I continued back in the direction of the beach, but it seemed like no matter which way I tried to swim there was another shark. I was too nervous and distracted to keep track of how many I saw, but I must have seen at least twenty in total.

I probably would have been more relaxed if I had been with someone else. I really didn’t like being alone with a lot of sharks that are my size. I also would have felt more comfortable if I had worn my fins. I felt vulnerable and almost naked without them. It seemed like fins would have made me look bigger and given me something to fight back with if need be.

When I returned to the dive shop, I found out the sharks have never attacked anyone on the island and that they were probably sleeping when I saw them. They swim in a big circle while they are sleeping, so I must have swam right into their ring. They are called black tip reef sharks and I didn’t get any pictures the first time I saw them, so I went back a fourth and fifth time with other people to photograph them. Here are a few of the pictures I took in Shark Bay.

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Destination Details: Koh Tao, Thailand

Many people stop by Koh Tao, Thailand on their way to or from its neighboring island, Koh Phangnan, where the infamous full moon parties take place. Koh Tao is not just a beautiful island to soak up the rays on, it happens to be one of the most popular destinations in the world to learn how to scuba dive, luring 400,000 people to the island every year.

Getting There: You can get to Koh Tao from the mainland, Koh Phangnan, or Koh Samui by one of the three ferryboat companies. Joint bus and boat tickets are available and can be booked through Lomprayah if you are coming from Bangkok. If you are already in the south of Thailand, then you can get to the island by ferry from Chumpon.

Where to stay: Once you arrive it can be a little overwhelming at the pier with many taxi drivers ready to acquire as many passengers as they possibly can snag, so it’s best to choose what part of the island you would like to stay in before you arrive. Sairee is the northernmost village and is the busiest. If you want to party, this is the best place for you. Mae Haad is the port town and is also quite happening. I prefer to stay in the southernmost village called Chalok Baan Kao, which is smaller and more low key.

Each village has a great beach, but if you want to stay somewhere more secluded than one of the villages, I recommend getting a taxi boat to Sai Nuan Beach and staying in the Sai Thong Resort. It’s only accessible by foot on a jungle path or by boat, so this is not a great place for you if you are going to want to stay up until the wee hours in a bar.

Getting around: I go everywhere on the island by foot because I’m too much of a spaz to drive a motorcycle. Most people rent motorcycles while they are here because they are cheap, easy, and when you get to your destination you are not drenched in sweat. If you decide to rent a motorbike, take pictures of it before you drive out of the shop. I’ve heard too many stories of people being charged insane amounts for the tiniest bit of damage. If there is a scratch on your bike before you rent it, then make sure to document its existence. One way to avoid this problem is to rent the oldest and most beaten up motorbike in the shop because they won’t care as much about it and won’t be able to notice scratches as easily.

If you don’t want to rent a motorcycle, bicycles are for rent as well or you could do the unheard of and just hoof it. Like I said before, this is a small island, you can get everywhere you want with your own two feet and although you may be a bit sweaty afterwards, you won’t feel as guilty about indulging in ice cream sundaes and lounging on the beach all day. Taxi cars and taxi boats are also available, as you will find out the minute you step off the ferry.

Things to Do: Most people come here to dive and it can be difficult to choose a dive school since there are 43 different ones all over the island. If you are interested in diving with a school that is environmentally conscious and regularly participates in underwater clean-ups, then New Heaven, Big Bubble, Ban’s, Asia Divers, Crystal, and Big Blue are all good choices.

One of the best things I’ve done in my two months here was grabbing a few drinks at The Queens. Every night, The Queens has a cabaret show with pre and post-op lady boys lip synching their hearts out to tunes from all different parts of the world. It’s a performance that cannot be missed and is apparently for any age as there were kids no older than ten in the audience.

If that’s not your cup of tea, or maybe I should say bucket or Redbull and vodka, then go bowling. The alley is outdoors and is not automated. It’s a ridiculous experience. At the end of the alley there is a guy who waits next to the pins to roll your ball back and reset the pins. Even if you aren’t a great bowler, it’s worth going just to see the bowling process unfold, plus they don’t make you wear stinky bowling shoes.

Sometimes you just need to get away from the hustle and bustle of the villages, and the best way to do that is to take a hike! There is an incredible viewpoint called John-Suwan Rock that allows you to see Chalok Bay and Thian Og Bay (AKA Shark Bay) at the same time. This path starts by the Freedom Beach resort and is so off the beaten trail that in some parts you can’t quite tell if you are still on the hiking trail. It’s a quick hike and the view is picture perfect.

Giving Back while on vacation: Sometimes when you are traveling it can feel as if you are always taking from the travel karma bucket without a chance to ever really give anything back. You may find yourself relying on the kindness of locals and other travelers for all sorts of different reasons. If you feel like that’s the case, then stop by the New Heaven Dive School and find out what conservation projects you can help out with in and out of the water.

New Heaven also offers a Marine Conservation Course where you can learn about the reefs you are diving in and can help with restoration projects. The course can be anywhere from three days to a month or longer if you are interested in combining it with your university studies. If you don’t have time to take the course, then ask when the next Save Koh Tao beach and underwater clean-up is happening.

Koh Tao is a relaxed bit of paradise and if you are in the area then you should definitely stop by! The only thing I ask of you is to make environmentally conscious decisions while you are here. Don’t leave your cigarette butts on the beach for the fish and turtles to eventually eat and use as little plastic as you possibly can. The only way to keep Koh Tao beautiful is if the people who come here are aware and make good decisions. Enjoy Koh Tao and happy travels!

This post was originally written for www.diwyy.com and can be found on their site at http://www.diwyy.com/new-blog/destination-details-koh-tao-thailand/ .

My Pet Praying Mantis for the Day

I was in the process of removing my laundry from my clothesline the other day and found a praying mantis chilling on my shirt. She was beautiful so I took a few pictures and figured she would eventually leave, but she stayed there ALL day. When I left to go to dinner, she had moved to the ties on the bikini I had hanging up and she was making a nest. Unfortunately, I had to remove the nest the next day when it had hardened. If the hatching process was a quick one I would have left it there, but I wasn’t prepared to surrender my bikini to the praying mantis babies for a couple of months. I believe the ants got into the nest. Circle of life, right?

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The little lady shaking her tail while laying her eggs on my swimsuit.

How to Make Coconut Oil

The other day I learned how to make virgin coconut oil from one of the locals on the island. It’s a pretty neat process and it may get you all jazzed up to do it on your own at home like one of my volunteers suggested, but if coconuts aren’t grown close to you, then it’s not a very sustainable product for you to try and make. In that case, this is just an informative post for those of us who have no clue how to go about extracting the oil from a coconut.

Step 1
Step 1: First you need to get the coconuts down from the tree. Monkeys are trained to do this here on Koh Tao. They are tied to a string and sent up the tree to pull off ripe coconuts.
Step 2
Step 2: Remove the husk of the coconut. This is done by jamming the coconut onto a dull spear sticking out of the ground. Once the husk is lodged onto it, push until the husk breaks off. Rotate the coconut and repeat until the husk is entirely removed. The husks can be put in the ground to help with water absorption.
Step 3
Step 3: Cut the coconut in two with a machete!
Step 4
Step 4: Remove the fleshy white part of the coconut by shredding it. The discarded shells can be made into handicrafts and sold or can be turned into activated charcoal.
Step 5
Step 5: Weigh 1 kilo of shredded coconut in a large bowl.
Step 6
Step 6: Add one liter of water to the bowl of shredded coconut.
Step 7
Step 7: Mix the coconut and water and squeeze the bits of coconut with your hands.
Step 8
Step 8: Remove all solids from the coconut milk you have just made and compost them.
Step 9
Step 9: Pour the liquid into a clear pitcher and seal with plastic wrap for 30-35 hours.
Step 10
Step 10: The small clear middle layer is the coconut oil! After 35 hours (or 40 in our case) the oil, solids, and milk separate. The oil can then be removed and used in your hair, on your skin, to cook or you can even drink a little bit every day to help with a range of things from weight management to your immune system!

The Future of Koh Tao

It’s 5:50 on a Wednesday morning and I have been awoken by a “Dance for Peace” party up the road. As I laid in bed staring into the darkness, I began contemplating why I travel. I travel for adventure, excitement, food, new cultures, and to see beautiful or interesting places. I typically don’t stay too long in tourist destinations or hang out with groups of other foreigners. Meeting other foreigners along the way is definitely part of the experience, but I don’t want to see foreigners all the time. I want to see how the country I’m in really operates and moves, not the way the locals cater towards our different and sometimes absurd needs. I guess you could say I’m a bit of a travel purist. I’m sure none of this surprises any of you who know me though.

I’m not sure how this cacophony of idiotic European techno beats, loads of alcohol, and foreigners up the hill is supposed to help promote or further peace of any kind, but I’m pretty sure none of the proceeds go to a charity. I thought it would have been more of a hippie party by the title, but I should have known better. Where there are Europeans vacationing there will always be obnoxious techno music. Not that I have anything against Europeans of course, I just don’t agree with the techno “music” they find so amusing. The so called music barely changes for hours, it just fades, pauses, or kickbacks into a faster or slightly slower beat. That’s the music. I really don’t get it.

Since the music is this crap instead of reggae or something a little more peaceful, I’m thinking the only reason the party theme is peace is because they are either doing a lot of drugs up there or it was a way for people to justify attending a rave while in tropical paradise. It’s probably a combination of both.

All this venting is leading to a point, I promise. When I am traveling abroad I don’t get plastered. Part of it is because I’m a five foot tall girl and I would prefer having all of my faculties working so I don’t get taken advantage of. The other reason is because people usually lose money, passports, valuables, etc. when they are being stupid. And I think we all know that people are not exactly smart when they are drunk. So I prefer to stay sober when I am traveling around the world.

The other reason I have for not going out and getting hammered all the time or even just a few times, is because that’s not why I travel. I don’t travel to a faraway land because I want to party with a bunch of other foreigners. I really don’t want to spend money on events like the one going on up the road because money talks. If Thai people think that we would rather spend money on a party than going for a hike or snorkeling then they will build lots of bars and have zero incentive to keep forests or coral around the island healthy.

It’s really sad. I am sitting here listening to the crickets, song birds, and roosters competing with the music up the road and it seems like a frightening sign as to what the future has in store for this island. We all know who wins in the end. At this point I’m sure you’re thinking I’m a pessimist. But I wouldn’t be here trying to help with land conservation if I weren’t an optimist as well.

I’m just a realist. I know the fate of Koh Tao is set already. The only thing I can do is help slow down the destruction and try to protect as much of the island as possible. Koh Tao is on its way to becoming another hellish Koh Samui and although people like me will stop coming, there will still be thousands of morons who just want to party and get a tan while recovering from their hangover who would be happy to take my place. These people are not travelers. These people treat Thailand like their own personal Disneyland which is why so many people say Thailand is already ruined. I know that you the reader can’t do too much about this while you are sitting in your home reading this, this is just my strongly worded letter to the universe. Thanks for listening!