Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Land of Smiles

Week 1 = Amazing. I love this country and am seriously contemplating moving here (sorry mom). The trip over was exhausting, about 30 hours in total, but definitely worth it. Once in Bangkok I met all the other students on the trip, 27 including me, and we began our orientation and touring Bangkok. This is the first study abroad I have done that is very organized and legit, and it definitely makes a difference. Usually I go through a faze where I am a bit scared at first, but I didn't experience that this time. I think it's because there were so many people, so much to do and it's a relatively safe.

But any who, a bit about the program. We spend about half of our time living in communities with Thai families. We will be living with families in villages that face eviction because their land was recently made a national park, garbage communities, urban slums, communities battling HIV/AIDS and others. We will be learning about their way of life, the challenges they face, the food they eat, the bugs they live with :( and so much more. The other half of the time we will be spending at Khon Kaen University (KKU) where we live with a Thai roommate and take classes on the issues that the local communities face.

After leaving Bangkok we went to a resort in the mountains to get "oriented," so we don't do or say stupid things (haha). We had 4 hours of Thai a day, which is very intense but sooooo interesting. Sometimes I feel like my head is about to explode, and I get the urge to just start speaking spanish (because it's a foreign language??) but I am learning a lot more then I thought I would. Prior to the program I knew we would be taking Thai, but I figured it wasn't a big part of the program, or that I just wouldn't catch on to it, but after being here I would really like to learn as much of the language as I can.

After the mountain orientation we headed to our first home stay at the village of Nong Jang. We were welcomed by the community and met our families. I had a mom, a dad, two sisters and a brother that was not there because he was studying to be a monk at the temple. Nong Jang is a community that lives with the constant threat of eviction from their land, which was deemed a national park by the Thai government, despite the fact that the villagers had lived there for generations. Twice, the villagers were forced to leave their homes, but with little work for them elsewhere they decided to return. They are now fighting to get a community land title for the right to own their land.

The villagers have very little, but they would give you the shirt off their back if you asked for it. They were rice and banana farmers, and they collected all of their food from the land and forest around them. The homes were made of wood and consisted of one or two rooms separated by sheets. Most bathrooms were outside and had a squatting toilet and then a wash bin for showers, which they tell you to take about 5 times a day. Coon Ap Nam (Go take a shower)! I think it's because they think we are not used to the heat (which we aren't).

I have never experienced such kindness and hospitality. It was truly humbling. There way of life is so very different from mine, and I learned so much in the little time I spent with them. Their sense of community and generosity was inspiring. We played with the kids, helped them cook (although they laughed at our pathetic attempts to peel pumpkins) and learned about their daily lives. They insisted that we sleep in a bed, which is a very hard mattress, while they slept on the much harder floor. In the morning we gave alms to the monks as they passed through town, which was a really cool experience. Every morning around 6:30 the monks come down from the mountain with their rice bins and walk through the town and collect rice from the people. I kneeled on the side of the road and would put a handful of sticky rice in each of their bins, careful not to touch them as they cannot be touched by a woman.

After leaving Nong Jang we headed to KKU to settle in to our dorms. I have not met my Thai roommate yet because she was away for the weekend, but I look forward to that. Tomorrow we are leaving for another community stay (5 days 4 nights) so I am really excited for that. I have only been here a week but have had some of the most memorable experiences of my life, and can only look forward to what lies ahead. The food is DELICIOUS and SPICY! The bugs are GIANT and SCARY! And I will try to fit another blog in next sunday.

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