Friday, March 6, 2015

Coming Full Circle

A little more than two years ago I wrote about an experience I had while riding through the rice paddies of Suphan Buri. I was riding after a long day of PST had finished when I was overcome with amazement at my situation at the time. I was in Thailand, I was somewhere doing something I never thought I would be doing. It was great. I wrote about how I would think back to that moment many times over the course of my service, use that moment to relax myself when I was ever overcome with stress. Well, I did think about that moment many times over the course of my service. It did provide me comfort and enabled me to refresh when need be.

As I write this I have one week left until I say goodbye to site and head to Bangkok for the final swearing out process. I’m surrounded by 50 third graders playing during lunch in the air conditioned meeting room where we’re conducting my final camp. Last night I was suddenly struck with that same feeling of amazement I had experienced two years ago.

We were driving along on our way to Phung’s birthday dinner when we passed through a small village. As we drove along the dusty road lined with small shops and restaurants I suddenly remembered that I was in Thailand. I had lived here for two years. Two years. This place had become my home. It was the same incredible feeling as before only this time it was tinged with a hint of sadness. I would never again drive through that village. It was then that I realized my “last times” had begun.

With one week left I’ll have many “last times” in the next few days. I’m looking forward to them because of that sense of bittersweet amazement I’ll have. In my final days here in Tha Mai I’ll see things again as I had seen them when I first arrived. Everything is new again, everything is exotic, everything beautiful. But now when I marvel at all the things that first caught my eye I’ll be doing so with two years of experience and understanding informing how I perceive them. All that was once delightfully different, that eventually became everyday and even boring, is once again intriguing. Bittersweetly so.

I’ve come full circle since I first truly realized how special my time in Thailand would be. I now know just how amazing it has been. And even though I’ll be saying goodbye to Tha Mai and my time in the Peace Corps, I’ll be starting a new adventure. Next month I’ll be moving to the south of Thailand to live closer to Ryan. We’ll have another year in Thailand full of adventures and explorations. So I’m not saying goodbye to Thailand entirely, just goodbye to the home and life I’ve established here in Tha Mai.

It's nice to see you again, Tha Mai. 

P.S.  Here's the original blog post I wrote two years ago.  http://joelgarceau.blogspot.com/2013/02/im-in-thailand.html

Friday, February 13, 2015

One Last Dance (Farewell to Site)

In one month I'll be leaving my site for the last time.  I made one last dancing video to help remember my crazy students, Phung, and my site: Tha Mai, Chanthaburi.   


Friday, February 6, 2015

Closing My Service, My Way

Today, as I realized just how little time I have left here in Tha Mai, I was bombarded with emails from Peace Corps. Emails detailing the joint swearing out/swearing in ceremony of the outgoing 125 volunteers and the incoming 127s. During a Volunteer Advisory Council meeting I had last week we discussed this ceremony and it struck me as planning ones own funeral. As the only RPCV (not including staff) present who had actually COSed I had a hard time feeling any sort of vested interest in it. How could some large ceremony recognize what I've done here in Thailand? How could it appropriately and satisfyingly conclude 27 months?  Answer: It cant. 

While I like the idea of recognizing everyone’s accomplishments. I feel weird about it. My service was just that, mine own. It was a personal journey that only Phung and I went on. I understand the need to recognize her incredible contributions to all our successes, but I’ll only be attending for her sake. I have zero intention to highlight my service at some ceremony. To share it any more than necessary before I’ve had time to fully process it for myself. I came into this service alone, I did it alone, and I intend to leave alone. The same way I left China alone.

There’s a poetic beauty in the loneliness of my China goodbye. Something felt right about it, perhaps its just me hating goodbyes, but I wish I had the chance to do it the same way here. 

The ceremony itself won’t mean all that much to me. I’ll be there smiling, enjoying myself, and honoring all the good that my friends have achieved. But I’ll spend the evenings with the very same friends, joking and laughing. Drinking and celebrating the end of our services. What I’ll look back on in the future, what I’ll remember as the true close of service celebrations will be those intimate conversations with my friends, the jokes and well meaning ribbing we’ll give each other.

My time with the Peace Corps is almost over. In 43 days I’ll close the book on the most transformative 4.5 years of my life. Years that will inform and define me as a man for the rest of my days. While this is the beginning of the end for my time with Peace Corps, it is also the beginning of my life after Peace Corps. I’m looking forward to what that life holds in store.

Friday, January 23, 2015

What Have I Achieved? (A Love Letter to Phung)

Not going to lie, going into the last two months of my service has been a bit rough. I’ve been struggling with the creeping question of what I’ve actually accomplished? I’ve pretty much finished teaching already, so many classes of mine have been cancelled. I’ve felt pretty useless, like I was just treading water until COS. Then when I found out that two weeks of classes had been cancelled so student teachers could practice with my kids, I all but threw in the towel on this service. I was totally fine with floating here until March.

That is until today. Yesterday, Phung asked me to come into school this morning to help with the student teachers. They, she had decided, needed to be given some pointers on ways to improve their classes. Since I’ve done nothing all week I jumped at the chance to be useful. Here I was, sitting at my desk, bright and early ready to help out my student teachers. That’s when it happened.

Phung took the reins. She started out by complementing the student teachers on this weeks lessons, but, perhaps there were a few things that could be improved. Maybe perhaps, she and I would be able to give a few thoughts. “Yes, please!” exclaimed the student teachers, obviously aware they were basking in Phung’s greatness. And with that she shot off.

“Here are some games you could use!” Phung rattled off a list of games that I had taught her. “What topics are you teaching next week?” “Oh! Here’s how you can change the games to work with that!” Phung then listed all the different variations we’ve used on the games these past two years. Things we had done that I had forgotten about she recalled with perfect clarity!

“Oh also! You shouldn’t translate so much!” What?! All Thai teachers do in class is translate! How else should the students learn the vocabulary? “Try to use more pictures of the vocabulary, or even actions, to help the students learn. Not every student can learn just from writing translations.” Here Phung was teaching the next generation of teachers things that I had tried to teach her. I sat back shocked at it all. Phung was on a roll. “Let me see your lesson plans. Oh those are so long! Here look at how Joel and I have done it.” She grabbed the binder we’ve filled with enough lessons to fit a year. “Look how simple and easy these are. What will you do to motivate the students?”"Joel, could you make some copies of these?" She asked, handing me an empty lesson plan template. 

Finally when we were discussing teaching occupations I mentioned how I like to switch up the traditional gender jobs. Doctor would have a woman pictured, teacher would have a man. “And have a picture of a woman soldier!” Phung added. “Last year Joel and I taught a lesson his friend Carly made about men and women soldiers!” Phung then proceeded to brag about this lesson Carly had made and we had taught in our class.

Finally after an hour and a half of wonder, Phung was finished. The two student teachers having filled up pages of notes with all her ideas. She looked at me and said “I’m getting coffee!” And scuttled off into the distance.

Basically this morning was any volunteers’ wet dream. I received instant proof that what I’ve been doing here for the past two years has meant something. I’ve managed to help in my little way. I watched as my little Phung spread her wings and soared! (Let’s be real: she’s been the one who’s lead all the work we’ve done.) I’m sitting here with a giant goofy ass grin plastered on my face, happy as a clam. I’m definitely heading into the twilight of my service on a high note. I don’t know what I did to make the universe like me so, but I’m incredibly lucky to have Phung in my life.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Thai’ve Been Ruined!

There comes a day in every Peace Corps service when the volunteer begrudgingly realizes that they're a different person than they came in as. Dirtier, weirder, cheaper, increasingly culturally irrelevant and a terrible failure at the English language. Peace Corps ruins the standards you once held yourself to. Absolutely destroys them. Here’s how Peace Corps ruined me:

Dirtier:
I teach barefoot. I constantly sweat. I’m regularly without water for extended periods of time. Basically I’m a hot mess. Google it, you’ll find my picture. I literally, and this is no joke, have only one pair of work pants. I wear them 4 days a week. They’ve shrunk so I’m permanently prepared for a flood and they’re fading out of existence. Will I buy more? No way in hell.

Weirder:
I am the slapstick king! There’s only so much humor I can express with a second language when no one can understand me. Cue the crazy faces. Eyes bulging, tongue out, cheeks puffed, and tiny dinosaur arms. That’s me! Someone once asked my co-teacher what her biggest problem with me was, “His face!” She said with no delay.

Cheaper:
I haven’t paid for toilet paper in almost a year. I am oddly proud of this fact. It’s become a challenge for me to finish my service without buying another roll. Deal with it. Get on my level.

Cultural Relevance:
The last time I was fully caught up on American culture was June 2010.  I briefly almost got back into the swing of things between China and now, but not really.  I couldn't turn on the space phones.  Now I've lost all hopes of understanding what anyone is talking about.  Instead I've retreated back into my cultural irrelevant ways.  Speaking of irrelevant, I just downloaded a Christina remix that I've been rocking out to all day.  No shame in my game.  

English:
I “teach” English. Really I just tumble my way through it and hope no one notices my astounding number of mistakes and misspells. I frequently forget the simplest of words. “You know, where busses sleep!” Station. “Face hole.” Mouth. I frequently, and many can attest to this point, refer to things as “diggly woops” or “squiggly squigs.” I’m an English teacher.

It’s a good thing I’m not going right back to America. My year teaching at a private school will help ease me back into being a normal human being. I’ll be cleaner. I might have more than one pair of work pants. I’ll most likely still take left over toilet paper from the hotel, but I’ll consider paying for it sometimes. And I’ll be able to practice my English with others, hopefully I can drag them down with me.

Cheers to you Peace Corps!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Bangkok Marathon

It was 4 in the morning.  I was chugging along in the dark on a raised freeway, making my way back towards the Bangkok city lights.  The moon was high in the sky, throwing it’s yellowish light over the scene.  My biggest worry, the mantra that had been running through my head for the last 40 minutes was simple. 

“Don’t poo yourself Joel, don’t pee yourself.”   “You’re almost there. You can see it!”  “It’s so close! Please make it in time!” 

I did.  That bus of toilets was the the only thing that had been on my mind for 40 minutes.  I had been running for about two hours already at that point, slamming water at every station I passed.  Something was off, though.  Maybe it was the rich thanksgiving foods I had nibbled on hours before, or maybe the water or ice was bad.  Who knows.  Many a runner was struck with tongsia (guess what that means?) that day, I was a lucky one who survived.  Barely. 

A little less than a month ago I did something I never thought I would be able to.  I finished my first marathon.  I did pretty good for my first time.  4:23:42!  My only two goals were 1) to finish and 2) to break four and a half hours.  Hizzah!  I did both!  I ended up placing 50th out of 280 in my age group.  A pretty solid first showing, if you ask me. 

What lessons did I learn from my first marathon? First, it hurts!  Like really.  My ankles and hips aged 50 years within 3 hours.  Second, porta-potties are an amazing and wonderful resource, it would have been nice to have more of them along the route.  Third, I start to go a bit crazy when I’ve run for 4 hours without any sleep the night before.  And forth, there is no greater feeling (and consequently, no greater display of unnecessary emotion) when you round the corner are confronted with a large crowd of people who are there to cheer you on to the finish just up the road. 

It was an awesome experience, one that I will be repeating soon enough.  In the mean time, I’m enjoying a little break from the training.  Going for runs when I want to, not when I have to.  I suspect that I’ll be challenging the Bangkok Marathon again next year.  We have unfinished business.

[Update] Here's a link to a review of the race written by my friend and fellow finisher Ashley.                    5 Things You Should Know When Running A Race Abroad

Photo credits to Meredith, Ryan, and Carly.  Love y'all!

Peace Corps representing!
Preparing to cheer us on!

Face of pain or ugly cry?

So tired! 

Relief!

No nipple chafing!  A major victory in itself.
Weeeeee!

We did it! 

All the runners!  Jes, Mamie, Ashely, me, Bridgette, and Tricia.

Mlerh!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Boa

Let me tell you about Boa. Boa is one of my sweetest students. She's 11 years old, stands about 4 feet high, has dark hair cut to her chin, and the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. Boa also happens to be one of my “inclusive” students, meaning she is one of the special education students at my school. Boa is awesome. I can’t say it enough.

When I first came here to Tha Mai all the students were scared of me. “Who is this ghostly pale rando?” They must have thought. They were shy around me and spoke very quietly whenever I was around. Boa included. I live along a 6 lane freeway. There are two villages (the twin villages, I call them) that split my community up. My school and nearly every student’s house are in one village and my house and everywhere that I frequent are in the other. Despite being so close to each other there isn’t a great deal of overlap between the villages, people stick to their own. Why? That 6 lane freeway.

I tell you this because it’s important to my standing here at school. My students, the vast majority of them at least, only ever see me at school. They don’t see me at the market, they don’t see me out for a run, they don’t see me getting a haircut. To them I am solely “school Joel”, there exists no other version of me. Such is not the case of Boa. Boa lives out in the Durian plantations beyond my house. Her parents drive her to and from school every day and during that drive she passes through my village.

At first when she saw me outside of school, Boa would stay shy. Her parents would engage me in polite conversation and she would hide behind them. Not anymore. After a few months here Boa opened up and has completely changed. She lights up whenever she sees me. I light up whenever I see her. Her smile is that infectious.

Almost every run I see her, standing in the back of her parents’ pickup. Hair blowing in the wind, having a blast, she’ll spot me and call out. Frantically waving. I always make a silly face and wave back as she laughs, passing by me. Boa is awesome. She has so much personality and joy for life.

This week, Phung and I have been showing Frozen to our students. Boa ate it up. She was laying out soaking it all up. Laughing at all the silly antics of Olaf, “singing” along with all the songs, “wow-ing” every magical vista or scene. Phung and I went the entire hour simply watching Boa watch the movie. It made me so happy to see her so happy. Something as simple as a movie brought her such joy.

Boa is awesome. She’s my favorite student here in Tha Mai and will most definitely be the one that I miss the most when I’m gone. I’m writing about Boa now to remind myself to enjoy having her around for these last few months. I won’t have her infectious smile or laugh much longer, so I better soak it up now while I still can. Boa is awesome.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

What Running Has Taught Me

For most of my life I’ve suffered from incredible self doubt when it came to my body. For as long as I can remember I’ve had body issues. Issues with how it looks, how much I weigh, the squishy bits, and the size of my clothes. My weight has fluctuated quite a bit, from average to overweight. Overweight to average. Average to verging on underweight. My body issues are something that I haven’t always been open about. If you’ve known me for quite some time, chances are you’ve heard me make a disparaging remark about something.

Body issues aren’t something that many men are comfortable discussing. They’re not really something I’m comfortable discussing. I’m aware I suffer from them, and that in all likelihood I always will. This is the most publicly I’ve ever addressed them. For quite a long time I was very unhealthy. I would eat when I was bored, when I was sad, when I was happy, when I was angry or stressed. I would eat until there was nothing left on my plate, regardless of me being hungry or not. When I liked something I would overindulge. Eat it all. Nomnomnom! :) Not surprisingly I got bigger. Which made me more self conscious. Food was my comfort blanket.

Had I been active, it wouldn’t have been such a problem. At least weight-wise. When I swam I was always a bit chunkier than everyone else, but not overly so. I was of average height and weight. I would eat a lot, but I would also swim a lot. My weight was pretty much in check. Did I have issues with my chunkiness? Of course. But when I would eat to comfort myself I would be balancing it out with exercise. When I quit swimming, that balance was thrown completely off. Thankfully I had my family to help keep my eating habits in check.

When I moved away to college, I lost that check. I ate more, got larger, ate more, got larger, ate more, and got even larger. Very large. Peace Corps, when I was applying, was concerned with my weight. Was I healthy? No. Not at all. It was an eye opener.

During my first service in China I lost a lot of weight. I went from overweight back down to average. How? Well after the shock I got during the application phase I resolved to get healthier. I cut my portion sizes, ate healthier/less processed foods, and I started to exercise when I was bored.

I came into Thailand a bit up from my China weight. Understandable. I was enjoying all the foods and booze I knew I would miss. I was bigger, but not overly so. It was here in Thailand when things really changed for me. I started running, an activity I had grudgingly pursued off and on. It was hard. It wasn’t fun. And I wasn’t very good.

“Too bad!” I told myself, “you have to start building up what you can do.” Slowly but surely I started going further and faster. I was achieving distances I never had before. I was going faster than I had in years, since my swimming days. But more importantly, I was enjoying myself. Running was actually becoming fun, which made me want to do it even more. The only issue? I was still focused on numbers.

Weight and calories. I was running because it was fun, sure. But I was also running because it burned a ton of calories. Calories that I needed to burn if I wanted to lose the weight. Which I did. The pounds were falling off quickly. Two a week sometimes. That’s when I got equally as unhealthy in the opposite way I previously had. For a while I was consuming a net of only 800-1000 calories. I watched the numbers like a hawk. If I got too high I had to work them off. Go for a run. Water weight became an issue. I had to much. So I started drinking far less water than I needed. And, as a obvious result, I was getting dizzy and lightheaded. My family has always declared “Hydrate or die.” I wasn’t hydrating enough, not nearly enough. It wasn't a smart or healthy situation to put myself in.

Again, it was a shock. I shocked myself with what I was willing to do simply for the numbers. Numbers that frankly aren’t important. What really opened my eyes, and the whole point of this post, was how my unhealthy habits effected my runs. They were virtually killed. I was slower and couldn’t go as far. I was discouraged and on the verge of giving up on running.

But I didn’t want to. I wanted to continue to run. I like the way it makes me feel, I like the challenge, I like seeing myself accomplish things I never thought I could. Running helped me realize I needed a balance again in my life. If I wanted to continue running I had to shape up. Be healthier.

Running taught me that I had issues with my body, that I needed to address those issues head on in a responsible and healthy way. Running taught me that I would likely have to work on those issues for the rest of my life. But running taught me that it was worth it.

Running taught me to stop caring about the numbers, they fluctuate. Who cares? It taught me to eat healthier. Reasonable portions, balanced meals, less meat and alcohol and more plants. Running reminded me of the importance of hydrating, something that had been drilled into me since birth. Running taught me that I could do things I never thought I could. That it was hard work to achieve goals but that the hard work was worth it. So worth it. Running taught me how to be healthy. Something I always knew, something that was common sense. But something that I wasn’t prepared to do. Running taught me that I’m prepared now.

I’m excited to continue to run. I’m excited at the prospect of learning more. I’m excited because I still love running, even if I have days where I’m less than enthused to head out. Running has been such a major player in my push to be healthier in my acceptance of myself and how I look.

That’s what running has taught me.

Monday, November 3, 2014

In the Mind of a Coked Up Bob Ross

Ryan and I flew to Nepal to celebrate my birthday and spend 12 days outside of Thailand during this past bpit term (school break). It was AMAZING! We went trekking in the Annapurna Conversation Zone, doing the Ghorapani/ Poon Hill Trek. A 4 day trek that we stretched into 6, because we’re lazy assholes. Yet despite being lazy assholes, we decided to do the trek without a guide or porters, something that is apparently mind boggling to nearly every other trekker we met. So yeah, we lugged our heavy ass backpacks with us.

The entire trek felt like it took place inside the coked out head of Bob Ross. Happy little trees everywhere! Happy little clouds! Massively exaggerated happy little mountains! The trek was described to me as “walking through green screens”. It couldn’t possibly be real! It was exactly that. I used to think the mountains here at my site were majestic. Now they just look like bitchy little molehills. Thanks for that, Nepal!

We woke up early, often before 5, to watch the sunrise and get a head start on the trail. My competitive side reared its kickasstastic head, I had to be the first one to the next village. We pushed hard. Coming in an hour or two before the fastest estimates we got each day. We stopped at many tea-houses so I could indulge my budding milk tea addiction. We ate literal tons of rice and dhal baht. We (meaning mostly I) crashed out exhausted at 7. And we played an epic weeks long gin rummy battle royale.

Oh also it was cold. Like balls cold. Like my balls were cold and possibly had frostbite. After being all overheated from hours of trekking while carrying a heavy backpack we would arrive in our next village and I would proceed to succumb to a raging fit of shivers. 4 layers of pants, 6 shirts, a yak wool hat, and socks on my hands were the prescribed solution.

So I celebrated becoming an old man (isn’t it annoying when someone in their 20’s claims that?!) by going on an awesome trekking adventure with my equally awesome boyfriend. We didn’t even kill each other! We did it!

Momo fiesta feast for my birthday!
He's deliriously (frighteningly?) excited to start the trek...
Just realized how far we have to go
Oodles of noodles! (zero shame in that caption)
Too much fresh air in my ears!
I'm sad because my balls are cold.
A couple of asshats trying not to look freezing
Calm down Norman Rockwell
These two! ::shake my fist::


Gin rummy and dhal baht with a view. 
Proper napping attire (not shown: sock mittens)