Thursday, May 29, 2008

Intense host family day

I love host family days where you have no idea what's in store for you... and that's what Sunday was. We left the house at 9am, and didn't get home until 9:30pm. The only stop in our itinerary that we knew about was the first one. We never knew how long we'd stay, what we'd need with us, what we'd be doing, and our family's English didn't allow for those questions to be answered accurately anyway, so we were just along for the ride!

Our first stop was Doi Tung, which is the queen mother's summer house. She passed away in 1994, so the house is more of a museum now, and has beautiful gardens and an orchid breeding/ research lab. The flowers and plants and fountains were all spectacular. Because Thai culture is very reserved about clothing, when you entered the queen mother's home, you had to be wearing long pants and shirts with sleeves to the elbow. If you didn't arrive in that, you were given a shirt and pants to wear over your clothing! I'll have Scottie post some pics of my sweet outfit.

After Doi Tung, we spent the afternoon at a teacher friend of hostmom's, in a traditional Thai style house (which is mostly open, all hardwood, where sit on mats, eat on the floor around a short table)... delicious food, lots of fruit and fun things to try. We played puzzle games and relaxed on the patio/ deck outdoor area for a few hours. They took us to the campus of Mae Fa Luang University, which is very lovely, and all the instruction is in English. We visited the statue of the Queen Mother there, and also the Chinese Institute.

Sunday evening we met the rest of the host fam at the Night Bazaar downtown Chiang Rai for dinner, more Thai dancing, and a little shopping.

This blog must be cut short, because it is definitely gonna rain in the next few minutes and I have to try to beat it home!

Regional Learning

Sightseeing in Up with People is all part of the experience, so we call it "regional learning". This past Saturday was the prime example of a successful and truly wonderful regional learning day. First, we rode flat little boats with funny outboard motors on the back down the Mae Kok river, which flows on the north side of Chiang Rai. The boats only held 6-7 people plus the driver, so we were a long trail winding down the river. The scenery was gorgeous, and as we approach our destination, the cast realizes that what we are looking at is about 20 elephants standing in the river. The best part: they were waiting to give us a ride!

You can ride an elephant two ways: you can sit on its head, which is actually quite comfortable and sturdy compared to the second way, riding on a bench which is perched on its back. It feels very precarious to be up so high, and you wobble with every step. We rode for about an hour, during which I tried both ways of riding, and we ended our ride by coming back through the river that we had just arrived on.

After lunch, we had a surprise endurance hike for two hours up a mountain through hill tribe villages to a waterfall. Granted, we knew it was a hike that would last two hours and that we should wear "comfortable walking shoes". For some cast members that choice was flipflops, which they regretted about a fourth of the way up the mountain. It was incredibly hot and very steep, and a great experience to push yourself to your limit. The reward was an impressive waterfall called Houykeaw, where we swam and slid on the rocks, before hiking back down the short way, to get rides back into town.

The day ended at a delicious restaurant in Chiang Rai, where there was a two-man acoustic band who played top 40 hits with a little Thai flair. We also had guest performers: the arts and culture group from the clay house, most of whom are from the Akra tribes in northern Thailand, performed traditional song and dance for us. It was a picture perfect regional learning day, and something that the whole group will not soon forget.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Let me tell you story about kindness. I am not sure why it surprises me when people are so kind and generous, but I was so totally floored by the kind hearts that we encountered today. I’ll start from the beginning…

As we were in the midst of our super-long travel day to Thailand (scheduled to be over 50 hours of traveling), one of our students lost his passport somewhere between clearing customs in Los Angeles and boarding our connecting flight in Hong Kong. Now, losing your passport is freaky enough as it is, but what makes this even scarier is that you cannot leave the airport without a passport. If you’ve seen “The Terminal” with Tom Hanks, it felt a lot like that. So while the rest of the cast boarded the plane, this student and I sat there in disbelief in the Hong Kong airport and tried to think of what to do next. Not a super way to start up our last month of touring eh?

Before we could even wonder what to do, the airline found the phone number for the consulate and let us talk to them. We were then escorted around the airport by a delightful woman who not only helped us navigate the red tape, but also made sure that we had a map and all of the information that we needed to get as quickly as possible to the consulate. Getting into Hong Kong was a snap and there we continued to find people who really wanted to make sure that we got things sorted out as quickly as possible. Much to our shock, we had a new passport in hand by 3:30 that same day.

Without wasting a moment, we raced back to the airport in hopes of getting on a new flight. Now, we fully expected to have to pay a change fee, but with a kind woman at the Cathay Pacific desk, she spoke with her manager and had the fees waived. She put us on the next flight that left in 45 minutes and wished us well. With no plans of what we were going to do once we arrived in Bangkok, we felt that at least we would be in the correct country and timezone and we could figure everything else out. Upon arrival though, an alumna from Up with People was waiting for us to take to a hotel that had already been booked with plane tickets in hand that were to take us up north the next morning.

So here I write from the humid, tropical paradise of northern Thailand still in awe of the kindness shown to us by strangers. I know that this has set my journey here off on the right foot so that I can do my best to give back to this place that has already earned my heart and gratitude.

Friday, May 23, 2008

white temple

On Sunday my family took me to visit the White Temple. It is modern Buddhist art in-progress... the nationally acclaimed artist has dedicated the rest of his life to building the nine building temple complex. He knows it won't be finished in his lifetime (he is 55) so he has trained disciples of his work, one group aged 16 and the other aged 24, to help complete it.

It is intricate mirror mosaic set into cement, in the curving, ornate shapes of the traditional Buddhist temple. There's also definitely some odd modern flair- the mural inside (which unfortunately I couldn't take photos of) includes Keanu Reeve's character from the Matrix, along with other memorabilia from the movie- the electronic bugs and cables of the matrix, all painted alongside Golden Buddhas, and three-headed snake dragons, etc. Wild.

We walked among the workers who were putting together future pieces of the temple, whose mosaic cement shop was set up under a large tent at the back of the grounds. The dream of the artist is for it to be a modern Buddhist masterpiece, his gift to his country. The white temple is treated like a temple inside, though there were way more tourists than monks visiting the day I was there. Fascinating, and a bit bizarre.

playing in the mud

Our first Community Impact day in Chiang Rai! We are helping to build a clay house at the Arts & Culture Learning Center, which is on the grounds of the temple we slept at the cast’s first night here. It is a center that supports the abolition of human trafficking, and the girls that come there are from hill tribes in the northern region of Thailand that are at risk to enter the sex trade to raise money for their families.

This center houses a few of the girls, who travel to tribes to educate other young people. They also create art in workshops, and the traditional clay house that we are helping to build will be used as an art gallery.

Today we chopped down bamboo, split it into eighths lengthwise, and wove it to make a grid that will be the infrastructure of the clay walls. Then we helped to break up the dense chunks of clay mud, mixing it with water and grain to make it the correct consistency for building the walls.

Stomping in the mud, on a tropical May day. Does it get much better than this?

Maybe… we’re riding elephants and hiking to a waterfall tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Buddha's Birthday Party

So Monday night my family took me to the temple to celebrate Buddha's birthday. Before we went, host grandma taught me to fold flowers.

Imagine an enormous, durable rosebud, the size of my fist, with white petals. We peeled each petal back, folded it into itself once, and then into a point. We did this with all the outer layers until the center showed.

Each of us carried one flower, along with three sticks of incense and a lit candle. We gathered in front of one of the Buddhist temples in Chiang Rai, along with hundreds of our Thai neighbors. We listened to a loudspeaker of what was going on inside, which I was told was the head monk of the temple speaking, followed by the governor of Chiang Rai Province. Then they came out and led a procession around the temple. The older men monks led, followed by two rows of young boy monks, all dressed in the bright orange robes that wrap over one shoulder. Then the governor, his wife and party, and then the crowd of people. We all walked around the temple three times. There was a mix of chanting and singing, and people bowed towards every Buddha statue that we passed on our route.

The air was full of candlelight and a strong smell of incense. It was so surreal to be walking in this large crowd of Thai people, at Buddha's birthday party, and I couldn't help thinking, "how on earth did I get here?" Its one of my favorite things about these crazy cultural experiences... something I would never know to put on my life list, but was so glad I was here to live it.

We finished the walk by putting our still burning incense in large clay pots, pulled our candles out of their holders and melted wax to stick them standing up on the tables on either side of the temple entrance, and added our flowers to the large piles... our birthday presents for Buddha.

We went inside to pay our respects, and then went home to have some dragonfruit. It was a birthday party like no other I've been to!

Steamy Thailand

So I've been in Thailand for a week now, and it is definitely the muggiest place I've spent an extended length of time. I came ahead of the cast to help the advance team ready the Community Impact projects... so I've spent the week in meetings, confirming times and details.

The cast finally arrives tonight, and today we've been making copies of memos, buying toilet paper and water, and now we're headed to the temple, where they will spend their first night in Thailand sleeping on mats just like the monks!

They are scheduled to get in around midnight, so we will have them meet their host families tomorrow.

I bike about 20 minutes every morning to our beautiful tropical office, where I sit on a steamy patio, and have to weigh all my papers down with mugs and water bottles, because where the Thai people lack in AC they make up for in fans.

My host family is wonderful- my actual host mom and her husband live across the street. She brought me home and across the road to the house where her mother and two sisters live, along with their two daughters. Five Thai women and me, and they are excited to host Scottie too, starting tomorrow.

They don't speak very much English, but we have fun communicating.

Their favorite game is to buy Thai fruit, and have me try it...
Mangosteens, Durian, Dragonfruit, and something that sounds like "naw". Some are delicious, and one - Durian, the king of fruit, was terrible-- mushy and rotten tasting... I gagged, which they thought was hilarious.

Chiang Rai is in the northern mountainous area, though around the city it is pretty flat, and very green. Lots of mosquitos, and gorgeous flowers. It rains almost every day, and the air feels like its going to any minute most of the time. My first gift from my host family, a long plastic raincoat that I can wear while biking... luckily I've timed my rides so I haven't had to break it out yet!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Yeehay Y'all - Welcome back to the US of A

When we came back to the US, we had a fairly uneventful border crossing (minus the student who lost his passport...oops) and found ourselves in the beautiful town of New Braunfels, Texas. It is a city just north of San Antonio and is influenced by German settlers. On our regional learning day we went to San Antonio and visited the Alamo. What fun this was as the Alamo was one of the first places that Ellen and I visited when we were dating. The last time we were there it was cloudy and rainy all day, but this time it was sunny and gorgeous with hundreds of our closest friends around. Ahhhhh....memories.

New Braunfels also has a beautiful underground cave system that is open for tours. While I usually think of caves as cold and damp, this cave system was actually hot and very humid because it was originally enclosed and they chose to keep the same climate. The formations were amazing as you can see in the pictures below.

I had a truly fantastic time with my host family there and the week was full of incredible conversation and food. It was sad having to leave, but I know that I will be in contact with this wonderful family. To top things off, my roommate and I went to the local waterpark called Schlitterbahn! Really fantastic times were had here including a rollercoaster-waterslide. If you have not been on one, please close your computer right now and go find one because it is truly an experience that everyone should have.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Blue Menace

As you can see our Mexico tour has been crazy busy AND crazy fun. What you do not yet know is the real reason why we have been so bad at updating our blog. I think that it is important for all of you to know that we have become rather heavily involved in "Lucho Libre", which is Mexican masked wrestling. I am about to divulge some very confidential information that I need your promise to not disclose to anyone, but I think that it is important that you understand. I am known as "The Blue Menace" down here in Mexico and have been involved in several matches now. You can see me below in my tag-team partner...Mystico.

We have been on the underground wrestling circuit and meet in unlisted locations to hold our bouts. Recently we met in an abandoned cock-fighting arena and let loose the thunder of pure wrestling mayhem. You can imagine the pure joy of the crowd members as the luchadors showcased their magical moves. I hope to be able to share more details with you sometime in the future.

... San Luis Potosi

... our last Mexican city! In San Luis, Scottie and I were hosted together in an ambitious family who hosted 6 of us! It was a really interesting dynamic of a bachelorpad, as the result of the mom's death about a year previous. It started off a bit rough, host dad was frustrated with host brothers for not getting things ready for us (because they went to MXC instead the weekend before our arrival to see their cousin wrestle in lucha libre).

So, Juan Pablo, older brother age 25, and Memo (real name Guillermo) who was 15, were our main hosts for 6 of us. Juan Pablo's car was an ancient navy blue Volkswagon bug (as seen in the picture looks a bit yellow, but is really blue), and he had to do two trips to be able to drive us anywhere! He ran around the first night borrowing mattresses from friends to have places for us all to sleep, and we ate dinner when pizza came around 11pm.

Needless to say, the week was an adventure, and was exhausting, but we had a good time.
The staff prepared cast appreciation for this city! We had a long staff meeting where we rehearsed and planned a fun mockery of our show, made appreciation signs, and plotted on how to pamper the cast on show day. Our show facility was an amphitheatre in a beautiful park, and we had no security for our equipment to set up the night before. The solution: we slept at the amphitheatre! We set up the stage in the evening, rehearsed our silly show, and then slept onstage and in the dressing rooms until the cast arrived the next morning. It was a lovely evening, and though the cement floor left something to be desired, it was a pleasure to do for this fabulous cast. And they were so surprised!

Puebla = gorgeous

After MXC we were in the gorgeous colonial city Puebla. We were based on the state university campus called UPAEP, and my workroom office for the days was a picnic table near the lap pool.

My favorite moments from the week:

An activity we call "World Values", where we give small groups index cards with 18 values they can choose to give the world. They need to prioritize them in order from the first thing, or most important thing, they would give, all the way to the least important. Things like: equality, wisdom, salvation, health, family security, pleasure, a world at peace, true friendship. Each group only got 20 minutes, and it was an intensive and enriching debate.

The city anniversary celebration in the main square: a perfect, warm spring evening with a symphony and fireworks... I was staying in the hotel with Yui, Wouter and Mitch, and we went and had dessert at our favorite Italian restaurant and watched the fireworks.

It didn't start off as fun, but I was proud to help (afterwards...): The last time UWP was at the university our lights damaged their gym floor, so this time they decided that we had to rig our lights to hang from the rafters. The lighting crew had to stay late to set up, but then the students needed to go home, so we hotel staffers got called in at 9:30pm to come help set up the back light truss. All I wanted to do that evening was watch a movie and go to bed, and instead I went to the facility to 1am to put up lights and learn dances for our cast appreciation! I had such a cranky attitude going in, but ended up feeling very satisfied with helping the tech team.

Hometeam Olympics planned by our awesome 2nd round interns! Silly team competitions that made a spectacle on campus, but was a really good time.

Puebla was fast and furious, and set us up well for...

lo siento, amigos!

Wow... I'm so sorry- I have totally derailed on the blog. We've been back in the USA for almost a week already... Viva La Gente already feels so long ago.

I apologize for the delay, here's a quick catch-up on the last few weeks: