17 January 2005


this is a partial reprint of an email i just sent to my beloved Crazy Aunt Laurel. she had asked me how the tsunami had disrupted my classes, and i unintentionally started meandering down a winding pathway of my own design. i apologize for broaching the topic of the tsunami again and hope you will forgive the indulgence into recent memory. here goes:

to answer your question about school, there was eerily little disruption with school as a result of the 26th. i thought i was pretty well over culture shock for thailand until i witnessed the reaction to the tsunami. students were making jokes just a few days after the wave hit. one teacher asked her class what they were doing for the weekend, and a rather precocious student said he was going to phuket and then laughed. the teacher, who had just been to the hospital and had talked to some of the victims, got upset and told the student in no uncertain terms that it was not appropriate to make jokes when other people have lost families and friends and livelihoods. she asked him again where he was going, and he again said (though with much more serious a face) that he had to go to phuket with his family for his uncle's memorial. his uncle had died in the tsunami. the teacher felt awful, of course, but i think many of the foreign teachers have been trying to discern mere jest from the thai way of dealing with death. the thai and western traditions of demonstrating grief are so incredibly different. students are not shielded from it at all. some of my M4 students went to the hospital to act as translators for foreign patients, and they received no orientation or counselling for what they saw (and some of it was GRIM, i can tell you). a wonderful new friend (whom you would just love) spent two weeks working at the crisis center in krabi, which was a chinese temple converted to an office inside and an open-air morgue outside. students from krabi town were asked to help people search for and identify the bodies of loved ones. alfy's student was on koh phi phi during the tsunami and saw people washed away near her, and dead bodies littered the ground after the wave receded. when she told the story to the class, she just giggled and shrugged.

i still don't know how to approach the subject with people i know because our customs of demonstrating grief are so very dissimilar. one friend had a number of sisters on phuket and koh phi phi, and i stopped by a few days after the event to inquire after her sisters. she got quite flustered and replied that three of them were still missing, then quickly tried to change the subject by offering me clothes (i have never been the best dresser). i left feeling very bad at having asked and therefore reminding her of her worries. (the story has a happy ending in that her 3 sisters called her the next day).

i felt the best way to discuss the matter with my students was via a blood donation discussion. i felt it was pretty nonthreatening, and indeed they had never learned about it before and asked a lot of great questions, and they were much more focussed and serious than when the tsunami itself was brought up in conversation. we talked about what happens and how it effects the body and how it can help people and why it is important to do, even if you are a little afraid of needles. when i gave blood, two of my M4 students came with me, so i asked them to help me talk about it when we discussed it in their class. i felt it was really valuable, and it was the only time i felt i was really communicating freely with my students about the issue.

golly, that was a lot longer than i had intended. sorry! if you don't mind, i might actually put that on my online journal. cultural customs are so interesting, aren't they?

10 January 2005

monkeying around

ao railay was the destination of our most recent escapade. the group defining "our" in the previous sentence consisted of neil and bridget visiting from south africa and ajarns bruce, jane, judy, giselle and i. bruce and judy both taught at suratthani school a few years back and have kept in contact with each other since then - bruce from suratthani and judy from krabi. i had not formally met judy prior to this weekend, though i knew her by reputation as a free spirit and very consciencious teacher. she has been volunteering for the tsunami response networks in krabi for two weeks. two weeks of working around the clock within sight/smell distance of exposed corpses in psychologically exhausting conditions would be enough to drive most to distraction, but when we met judy on saturday she seemed imbued with more spunk than most show on their best days. her demeanor was due doubtless to the cocktail of her indomitable spirit and bruce's sagacious presence. with the addition of judy to our suratthani entourage, we were ready to explore whatever awaited us on ao railay.

and good heavens, what a shock! giselle, jane and i were just on ao railay one month ago, and the place has been transformed by its lack of tourists. the beach itself has not seen much obvious damage, mostly stripped vegetation along the beach and limited bungalow damage. but we were struck by the ghost-town ambience. there were so few visitors that bungalows were forced to cut their prices by 50% in some cases during its high season. one month ago it was difficult to find a place at the bar. but saturday three waiters came up simultaneously and asked where we would like to sit. if you are in the area and wondering where to travel next, GO TO KRABI!! it's beautiful and bungalows hurt by the tsunami need your business.

not that we weren't grateful for the beautiful high-season weather, seclusion and sub-low-season room rates! we immediately headed for the beach after checking in to our previously unaffordable rooms. on the way, a number of us bought drinks and chips. this was to prove a futile purchase. a few yards down the path, one monkey appeared into view. everyone stopped to look and bless our good fortune at seeing a monkey so close. then another monkey came. and another and another until they had us surrounded. one monkey started towards dtom and her potato chips. when our hairy cousin got within biting distance, dtom yelped and dropped her bag of chips. the monkey grabbed the chips, and the whole gang bounded up to the treetops. amazing.

almost as amazing, in fact, as the two battered ships awaiting us at the beach. they were two beautiful antique-looking boats docked as annexed restaurants to the audaciously-priced resort nearby. both of the ships' masts and mainsails fell victim to the tsunami and were to be found sticking out of the water some way down. the deck dressings were smashed up ashore, and one of the hulls was topside. given the ready evidence of the tsunami, bruce asked if there had been any casualties or fatalities. amazingly, there was only one fatality, a tourist who was caught in a cave temple along the beach. apparently the guard and three of his coworkers saw the approaching tsunami and blew their whistles, giving everyone enough warning to reach higher ground.

after a quick swim, we headed back for a lovely dinner before heading to the other side of the isthmus for a nightcap. as we were wandering along the boardwalk checking out our bar options, a rather redfaced foreigner sauntered over to us and kindly informed judy and myself that the food around here is good, it's just that the tiramisu (this is what we believe to be his mangling of the word) scared everyone away. we hope he was just very, very drunk. either that, or that's one hell of a frightening dessert menu.

sunday was our pre-appointed day to check out the notorious lagoon which happens to be bruce's favorite place in thailand (and for someone who has lived here for 14 years, that's saying something). we had been warned that the climb was sporadically arduous, but no one managed to tell my legs (they still hurt 24 hours later, by the way). it was the closest thing to rock climbing i had ever experienced, and i might have turned back if it hadn't been for the others. there are three vertical portions of the trail, though there is a rope to help steady oneself.

but can i just say how very WORTH IT the hike was! we emerged into a lagoon shore entirely encircled by cliffs. the lagoon is tidal, so we hit it at the perfect time. the water is just deep enough to swim and float in, and looking up at an encapsulated sky is a requisite experience. i thank my aching legs for taking me into and out of such an enchanting place. i don't even mind losing a pant leg to the adventure (boy, was i a fashion statement as we walked back to the beach!).

my birthday is january 29th, which i hope will be a good enough excuse to get a group together to ao railay again. how can you beat a fantastic weekend at an unprecedented bargain that helps local economies damaged by the recent tsunami? i mean, really! all are welcome, get your bus or plane tickets today, because the 29th is coming up!

until i see all of you on the 29th at ao railay, may the world treat you right, my two devoted readers.

06 January 2005

the annual letter (1st edition)

dearly beloved,

greetings and well-wishings during this festive time!
in true Routh tradition, this will reach you all long after you have taken down your lights and sent your tree (should you have one) to be recycled. perhaps we might all consider this a perpetuation of the holiday spirit rather than mere negligence and procrastination. hmm? what do you say to that?

as many of you know, i have spent the past nine months or so in Thailand after having lived in northern China for two years. The decision to move to Thailand was due, at least in part, to the fact that Alfy (my boyfriend) found a math teaching position in southern Thailand, and the thought of living in a beautiful Asian country with English bookstores sounded fine by me. i began my “Thai Period” in Sampran teaching English at a private Catholic school. while the vista was less than picturesque (our school was situated on the highway connecting Bangkok with Nakhon Pathom), my neighbors were quite exceptional. i refer (naturally!) to the elephant training ground and crocodile farm abutting the teachers’ dormitory. i hadn’t really lived before waking up to the sound of crocodiles slipping into a marsh or seeing an elephant pregnant with twins on my way to school. picture an elephant pregnant with twins in your mind right now, just for a second.

i moved to Suratthani in april to be closer to Alfy and to teach THEATRE at Suratthani Public School. the decision was not without difficulty. there is a community theatre in Bangkok, and taking the job in Surat meant relinquishing a juicy role in their Fringe Festival and being unavailable for a Gilbert & Sullivan (always wanted to do G&S out of silliness) production. luckily the decision to go onto greener pastures (literally and figuratively) was punctuated by a trip to new york to witness the jeff/amber union. this ceremony should be the precedent by which all marriage ceremonies should be judged - it was informal and meaningful and a galloping good time. a toast to you, pioneers in covalent love!

eight months later, we Thai residents hailing from temperate climates have had to trust that the calendar is not lying in saying that Christmas is just around the corner, because the weather certainly doesn’t recommend the fact. ten days before Christmas day, i was sunburned after kayaking on Ton Sai with two other teachers during a week break. the vacation leading up to Christmas week was shorter for me than for other teachers because Jason and i were still preparing for our school productions of "Peter Pan" and "Alice in Wonderland", performed on December 20th.

"Peter Pan" deserves its own paragraph (it actually deserves a tome, but i am unambitious). this was the most frustrating and one of the most ultimately rewarding theatrical experiences i have ever had. most of my frustrations stemmed from communication and elusive keys. i felt that, just like Alice running after the White Rabbit, Jason and i were constantly seeking information, and i was always on a quest for some key or another. we spent 5 months trying to learn what our budget was, then another month (unsuccessfully) trying to see the set storage area (we found some items during clandestine adventures, but we are sure that most set pieces are hidden in some secret underground vault lined with gold). because so many students have after-school classes, we weren't allowed to have rehearsals after class. the first few weeks after receiving the budget amount, i was told i had to buy things through the school's thai staff. i won't go into the gory details, but the initial lumber purchase was harrowing! i had never seen a cutting list so unabashedly fubared. to make matters worse, two guys went to pick up my lumber without waiting for my class to finish as i had requested, so they paid for wood that in no way resembled the list i had given with money from the play budget which they then said was unreturnable and nonrefundable. after the "lumber incident", i insisted on buying everything myself to be reimbursed by the school.

so with the purchasing issue fixed, i moved onto phase 2 of production hell, Finding Space. because there is no set storage or workspace available in the english program, i moved my flats no less than 7 times during a 6-week period. i don't even have keys for our teacher's office, much less the wood shop or stage area. our first rehearsal onstage was three days before the production, which was also the first time the whole cast had a chance to rehearse together. try putting on a production with 100 non-native english speakers in a space only available three days before the performance date with no administrative help while other teachers and administrators take your actors away from backstage without notice or mention during dress rehearsals in order to "help you". oh, and don't forget the three weeks' holiday time just before the performance with one weeks' notice. i admit to crying myself to sleep more often than not. Jerry Lesch, however did you do it year after year?

despite the enormous odds and a dismal final dress rehearsal, both "Alice" and "Peter" turned into an unprecedented hit with the parents. students remembered their lines and blocking, parents were very proud of their children, and my sets actually got a shocked intake of breath and applause the first time we flipped and changed them. my kids were WONDERFUL, and they have talked about the play a lot since. and i got wine out of the deal as a thank-you from the departmental head which replaced the vodka i had been drinking copiously prior to december 20th!

in fact, the students have been the high point of my time here. i have never looked so forward to going to class as i have this year. they are helpful and funny and very quick to pick up spoken English. during the vacation preceding the play, a number of students came to paint the sets and mark the stage.

even the naughty students are naughty in such a creative way that it takes all my strength not to chuckle when i have to say things like, "Sun, now we're making costumes today which means you can't take the yellow fabric, wrap yourself like a monk, sit in the corner and chant sutras. what if everyone did that? and Taee, you should be sewing right now not enacting an indian bridal procession, i don't care how much you loved the bollywood movie you saw last night." last week i left a class to edit their papers for five minutes only to come back to class with the lights turned off and no students in sight. it took a second of staring to see a few giggling heads poking out. i was informed that class could not continue until i found ALL of the students. one managed to cram into a cabinet, so he was the last found. the list goes on and on, and i will happily relay some of the other more interesting ones if i can ever get out from under my grading burden.

Christmas in Thailand was pretty low-key, though we had a wonderful get-together with colleagues and friends a few days before. it's just not that easy to get into the Christmas spirit while wearing shorts, planning scuba diving trips and eating watermelon and pineapple.

the great shock, of course, came on Boxing Day when a tsunami hit the Andaman Coast of Thailand. we in Suratthani felt tremors in the morning, but i only discovered the extent of the catastrophe a day later. Ton Sai, where i had gotten my sunburn only two weeks before, is unrecognizably decimated. many people spent the following week trying to determine the fates of friends and family unfortunate enough to be in the affected areas. the hospitals were maelstroms of the injured transferred from kao lak and family members hoping to find their kin alive. i am sure everyone has seen the pictures and heard the stories, so i won't add to the tales. the missing pictures remind me so much of new york after 9/11 that the last two weeks have smacked of deja vu. i hope to be of some help in the next few months but right now can't help but feel useless in the midst of inconceivable destruction.

sometime after march i plan to head back to portland for an unspecified length of time to be my brother's "best person" at rob and jo's wedding. only my brother would know to dangle the undeniable temptation of wearing a tux at a wedding in order to get me home. there is another wedding shortly thereafter, so it looks like a season in america.

enough talking about myself! i hope this letter finds all of you, and finds you well. please know that at least until april you have a place to stay in Suratthani and a tour guide at your service. with joy and affection i extend my

best wishes,