Cold cities are all alike; every hot city is sweltering in its own way

20191108_154806Some thoughts after my first 24 hours in Medellin

Human brains are pattern-seeking, so it’s pretty common for travelers to form initial comparisons to places they know. Thus Medellin initially struck me as part Brisbane and part Mandalay, a sprawling palm tree-laden city built on hills ….

This is just a list of first impressions, mind, so small sample sizes abound and all opinions are subject to change.

It’s humid here but not sweltering, not anything on Asian heat. The traffic likewise is pretty chill–there are motorbikes but it usually comes in the direction you’d expect. I’ve seen more Volkswagon bugs here in one day than in the last couple years elsewhere.

Looking at the map of the area, I saw there was a Hooters. I pointed it out and Zulia laughed knowingly. “Have you been?” I asked her. “No,” she said, pausing. “But I think you’ll find just walking on the street is pretty much the same as going to Hooters.” And do you know what? She was not wrong!

It’s kind of cliche to describe the residents of a country, especially a developing country, as kind or generous but in this case it does seem to be true. I’ve already seen several random acts of kindness on the metro or in the streets

It’s a mix of the developing and developed world; fruit cart vendors push overladen carts past a modern metro station.

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Speaking of fruit, there are lots of great fruits here, some that I’ve never seen before. Giant avocados and guavas and passionfruit, something called lulo, a kind of soursop called Guanábana and goji berries all abound, but so far my favorite is pithaya. It looks like dragonfruit but whereas dragonfruit tastes rather tropically and peppery, pithaya tastes more like vanilla pudding.

Many countries have a lower rung of immigrants/refugees that make up a lower rung of the work force. The Burmese do it in Thailand, the Kazaks did it in Uzbekistan, and the Swedes do it in Norway. Here it is Venezuelan refugees, many of whom are forced to roam and beg or work in menial jobs. I’ve noticed that the poorer the country, the better their English and it rings true here. Venezuelans speak excellent English! Which I’m not claiming is a good thing, but it is definitely a thing.

That’s it for first impressions! I’m looking forward to learning a bit more about the area.

The 5th Continent

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Colorful Streets

I’m a fast walker but a slow traveler. Despite having been on the road for most of my adult life, I haven’t been to that many countries. I’m not someone who feels I’ve “crossed-out” a country after visiting it for a week or three or eight (though fair play to those who do.) A lot of my trips involve returning to countries I’ve been to previously. Thus I’ve been to Nepal 4 times, Japan 4 times, Thailand and Malaysia 10+ times.

Thus I’ve not been to many countries relative to the amount of time I’ve spent on the road. Nor have I been to that many continents; this week I’ll visit my 5th continent. Which technically is, as you’ll note, most of them, but considering many people get to 6 or 7 on a year round-the-world-trip, isn’t that much for someone who’s largely lived abroad since 2005.

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Viva Colombia

Where Am I Going?

I’m going to South America. Specifically: Medellin, Colombia.

I was finishing up my first contract in Korea in 2009, when I started this blog and when things like #rtw and BootsnAll and the Matador Network were becoming a big deal, Around then, the travel blogosphere was going crazy over Medellin.  Digital nomads flocked there, touting what an amazing place it was. It hadn’t been on my radar at all previously.

It’s been high on my wishlist ever since then. Probably not the number one place on the continent–that could be a hike in Torres Del Paine, or the Bolivian salt flats, or hiking the Inca Trail, probably, but it’s definitely in the top three (depending on the street).

When Zulia suggested traveling to South America, we agreed that Medellin would be the perfect place to base our travels. I’m pretty excited–the last time I went to a new country for the first time was when I went to Scandinavia in 2014. That was 5 years ago but feels more like 35!

Where Else? How Long?

The more I’ve traveled, the more I try to resist planning too much in advance. I’ll know much more in a few weeks than I do now. and see no reason to lock in itineraries or hotel rooms. And I don’t fear a blank schedule; I know there is always plenty to do, even if it’s nothing. So there’s not much set in stone, but I do think I’d love to have a quick visit to Peru as well.

I’ll only have 5 weeks or so. Not even enough time to see a region properly, let alone a country, let alone a continent.  But for me, a key part of a successful trip is managing my expectations–i.e, having as few as possible before leaving for the trip. But I am hoping to do some trekking, to see some new cities and new cultures and to eat a whole lot o’ plantains.

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Rainbow HIlls of Peru

After this trip I’ll desperately need to get a job. Getting work in Portland, as has been the case my whole life, is pretty much the hardest thing ever. So I’ll teach abroad again. I have some leads on jobs in Asia, but if I find something awesome in South America, well, so much the better.

 

Viva Colombia

That’s about it for now. Do you have anywhere to recommend in Colombia? Or elsewhere?

 

LOLS around the world

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Personally I don’t like to type LOL. I’m old enough to think it’s unnatural and I prefer to use hahahaha or heh or even deign to stoop to a smiley face emoji. I’ve told my friends that if I ever text or message them and use LOL they’ll know I’ve been kidnapped or assimilated by alien invaders.

But it terms of utility, I have to admit it’s up there with OK and WTF.

Varieties of Hahaha.

In many countries, the standard “lol” or “hahaha” is simply the local form of hahaha. The simplest way to do this is to simply write “Ha3.” Or you go regional with things like:

ARABIC SPEAKING COUNTRIES

هاهاهاهاها (loud laugh) or ههههههه (giggle)

GREECE

χαχαχα

ISRAEL

חחחחחחח

RUSSIA

xaxaxa or gggg or ))))))))

SPANISH SPEAKING COUNTRIES

jajaja

lol

Alternates to hahaha.

Other places go their own way. This leads to a whole variety of expressions and letters and even numbers.

BRAZIL

rsrsrsrsrs

The more rs you add, the funnier it is. From the Portuguese word “to laugh” (risos).

FRANCE

mdr

If you’re texting your friends in Paris about how you dropped your baguette in the Seine, use this expression. It’s short for mort de rire (dying of laughter).

GERMANY

gg

Germans actually aren’t legally allowed to have a sense of humor, but they think it’s alright to grinsen (grin) when other people are laughing out loud.

JAPAN

wwwww

As with Brazil, use more of these as things get funnier. “w” is an abbreviation  of warai (laughing).

KOREA

ㅋㅋㅋㅋ

ㅋ is the Hangul for the sound K. Laughing sounds like someone say kihkihkihkihkih. Which, if you think about it, is about as close to actual laughing as hahahahaha. Koreans who come to North America and use KKK as an expression of laughter are often surprised at the reactions they get.

SWEDEN

asg

Cool Swedes use asg when they are roaring with laughter. It’s short for asgarv (roars of laughter). Because of course the descendants of Vikings roar.

THAILAND

555

In Thailand, you can use 555 instead of “lol.” Why? Just look at their number system and you’ll get it.

0 Sun 1 Nueng 2 Song 3 Sam 4 Si 5 Ha

=

Best of 2018 (in photos)

Previous years: 2009, 2010, 2011,  2012201320142015, 2016 and 2017.

 

2018

As last year was split between Korea and the US, so was this year split between Thailand and the US. My time in Thailand came to an unexpected end, but I had a pretty awesome time and I’m really glad I spent 6 months there.

These photos are all from my janky phone camera but I have a new digital camera now and 2019 should be pretty legit.

 

January 2018

1 jan 20

January – You know I love board games (and this one has the best meeples I’ve ever seen) but this picture represents a January trip to Salem Oregon to visit my friends Craig and Martina. I got to explore Salem, which despite being the state capital is not a place I know very well. We bopped into the bookstore, rambled along the river front, and played a bounty of boardgames. Great start to the year!


February 2018

2 feb 21

February – A late snowstorm blanketed Portland and I spent a couple days walking around the winter wonderland. I have been up Mt. Tabor probably a hundred times but this snowy vista was one of the best.


March 2018

3 mar 31 b

March – My birthday month. And I celebrated it my favorite way–a hike in the morning, followed by an afternoon/evening of board games. (With vegan food at Sweet Hereafter for bonus points!) This picture is from the Salmon River wilderness in the foothills of Mt. Hood.


April 2018

4 april

April – I left the US and headed to Monkeytown! Lopburi is not a super exciting place to live, but the Khmer ruins are really amazing, especially at first. I’m honestly not a big fan of monkeys but seeing hundreds of them roaming around the town is pretty cool.

 


May 2018

5 may

May – Over the last decade, I have spent some quite time in Thailand, both in the north and the south. But I didn’t know central Thailand very well. Exploring the temples and ruins and lakes and towns of central Thailand, some of which are very off the beaten path, was vastly rewarding. This delicate Buddha at the end of a little train ride at Pa Sak Jolasid Dam was one of many such places.


June 2018

6 june

June – I did a lot of great things in June, saw some really nice places, but this amazing picture of all the teachers at English and I is a must-include.

However, Immigration officials who saw this “raided” our school, which involved me being sent home, twice in one day, and two other teachers being sent home from the kindy, even though our school was allegedly “legit”. Still it’s an amazing work of art.


July 2018

7 july

July – More central Thailand exploration. This giant depiction of Hanuman is a little outside Lopburi but well worth the visit. A nice temple with great views and a little climb up to the statue. At the top is a pile of pineapple and watermelon where monkeys wander up to and have a snack.


August 2018

8 aug c

August– The ancient town of Ayutthaya (อยุธยา) is only an hour train ride (1 dollar each way!) from Lopburi. I went on a scorching hot day (40 degrees C)  and walked around the ruins for several hours. Ayutthaya is one of my favorite places in Thailand, if not all of Asia.


September 2018

9 september

September – I’ve written about Buddhist Hell before, but Chonburi is an amazing destination even beyond this Hell park. The closest beach to Bangkok, it has a nice night market where I got to watch a Thai band playing 90s rock anthems. This was probably the highlight of my entire time in Thailand.


October 2018

10 october

October – I wasn’t in Lopburi long enough to see the sunflowers, but these fields of wildflowers on the way to the Peacock temple are my favorite part of the Lopburi area.


November 2018

11 nov

November – Back in Portland! My sister and I hiked the Cape Horn trail in November, late fall, and it instantly became our favorite day hike in the Portland area. We each took a hundred photos but this view of the gorge was overwhelmingly nice.


December 2018

12 dec

December – I made it to my first Crafty Wonderland, where my mom and I crafted our own felt Yeti. You can tell how excited we are from our own yeti smiles.

 

 

To (Buddhist) Hell & Back (NSFW)

About a month ago, I was in a market in a small town in central Thailand and I stumbled across some crazy statues. Bizarre, grotesque, and morbid, they were exactly my jam. I can’t really explain how or why they got my synapses firing but I was utterly absorbed by them. It turned out they were depictions of Thai Hell, that which is called Naraka.

I’d seen a little bit of the hell atmosphere at the White Temple (which I think is on par with the Taj Mahal) but I had no idea of either the breadth or the scope of a proper Hell garden. (This article has a good assortment from around the country.)


You can’t start talking about Buddhist hell parks in Thailand for long without mentioning The Wang Saen Suk Hell Garden. Of all the Hell parks, it’s the biggest and the bestest, and the only one with English translations. (For an detailed account of it specifically, this article is pretty well-written.)

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I’ve now been to three Hell Parks and there are some commonalities. You are usually greeted by giant ghosts, which are monstrous spirits of hunger called Preta. These are creatures I wasn’t previously aware of but they’re basically the spirits of those people who were too greedy. They have swollen bellies and long tongues and are doomed to always be hungry.

My first thought was that perhaps it was a relic of the christian missionaries who have been doing their best to sandpaper down all other cultures and mores. That may be true, but some scholars believe that Jews and then Christians got torture-hell from Buddhists.

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Then you walk around and see the various punishments doled out to those who transgress morally. Though it seems morbid, people bring their kids to these places. From what I’ve seen, none of the children at the parks seem particularly horrified.

Though it’s fair to say they can be pretty disturbing. See below.

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20180908_142547This is how Naraka works. When you die, the first stop is to go visit Phya Yom (the Death king). Though he has a morbid name and sometimes appearance, he’s an impartial judge and he has four buddies who check the record of your deeds. The good deeds are on a gold plate, and the bad deeds are on a piece of dog skin. If you were cool, rejoice, but if you’re bad, a nigh-eternity of hell awakes.

It’s not actually forever though. Unlike other hells, you aren’t in Naraka for eternity, just until the end of the Buddhist era (until a new Buddha is born on earth). Which as Alan Watts says, maybe isn’t literally 10 million years, but it’s quite long.

What kind of bad things get you into Naraka? Specific bad behaviors will turn you into certain kind of animals. For instance, if you harm plants or herbs you will change into a goat head. If you steal from others, you get a monkey head. If your mischief is just general hooliganism, you get a crocodile head. The worst sin you can do is to hurt your parents or monks and then you go to the bottom of hell.

It is very patriarchal and petty, which isn’t a shock for a religion that still considers it an offense for women to touch monks. Women are doomed for cheating on their husbands or getting abortions.

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The punishment for liars

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She cheated on her husband

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Suitable punishment for a rapist

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(Nearly) Eternal fate for those who get abortions

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Classic cutting off a thief’s hands

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A warning against those who drink too much alcohol

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You don’t want to know what she did

So despite being didactic and patriarchal there’s an amazing sense of otherness and wonder in these warning statues. They’re definitely worth a visit for those who appreciate the morbid, the ghoulish and the macabre.

 

English and I and me

When I was considering taking the job at English and I, I googled but couldn’t find much. There are a few videos on youtube and one post from 2012 (back when it was still called Fun English) but little else. No black lists and nothing on the forums.

Now that I’ve been here for 4 months I’m happy to go into more detail for anyone else in a similar boat. I’ll do my best to keep it as neutral as I can, but full disclosure is that none of the foreign teachers are all that happy with the school these days. (Perhaps not the Thai teachers either, but I’m less familiar with their feelings.)

The Good

The school pays on time, always, and in full. In the ESL world, that’s not nothing.

The campus is pretty, well-manicured, and there is aircon in all the classrooms and teachers’ room.

There are tons of hammers and sticky balls and pre-made game supplies at our disposal.

The manager is a Westerner and an English speaker. He’s on the side of the teachers, which again is a real treat in the ESL world. When you get here, he gives you a tour of the city and even took me to Big C to shop for household options.

We get sick days, and can go home early if we’re not feeling well.

I haven’t ever eaten there, but lunches are free at the canteen.

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The Mediocre

Lopburi

There are some benefits to living in Lopburi. The cost of living is pretty low, which is probably the biggest. The ruins are nice. The surrounding area, nature and temples, is nice. It’s not far from Bangkok.

But still Lopburi isn’t probably a top 50 location in Thailand. It feels like a place with all the inconveniences of a big city without any of the benefits. There’s always lots of traffic and construction. Getting across the street can take forever and sidewalks are few and far between. Soi dogs are a real danger, especially after dark. I’ve seen multiple students with scars from dog bites. There’s not much to do here. It’s one of the hottest parts of Thailand too. There aren’t many foreigners here, and if you’re not into going to the bar it’s tough to make friends.

Banjongrat School

The pay isn’t bad for Thailand. It’s 32,000 Baht (about 975 usd) for the first two months and then 36,000 Baht (just under 1100 dollars) after that.  With (semi-mandatory) after-school classes, you can bring in close 1200 USD per month.

But the school has a lot of policies that affect us in strange ways. We have to wear different colour shirts on different days–red usually but yellow for king days and white for buddhist days and traditional thai for other times. The usual ESL pattern of last minute cancellations are here too, but to be honest are far better than most hagwons in South Korea.

We don’t have to wear ties (ironic in this country) but we do have to wear belts and “smart trousers” and dress shoes.

Thai teachers

I’ve never taught with another teacher in the room and I was a little leery of how it would go. But for the most part, the Thai teachers at English and I are pretty awesome. There will be personality conflicts (which is why I rank this neutral) but overall the Thai contingent is a real perk of the job.

Students

This is neutral on balance as well. Some of the students are very bright and hilarious.  I look forward to three or four classes a week because we have fun together. But in general they’re pretty naughty. Going into classrooms with no desks and funny foreigners and knowing they’re playing games, it’s hard to get them to listen.

They do have awesome names. Pees and Poos aplenty, sure, but there is Singha (named after the beer), Lookpeach, Titan, Love, Hi 5, Shogun, Bonus, Soda, Boeing and her sister Runway, Wipcream and her brother Cappucino, Brandname, Google, Air Force, Army, Cartoon, Atom, Meow, Guitar, Benz, Ball, Beer, Please, Thank You, Name (naturally) and a litany of others. Also names are usually gender free, so boys are named Jennifer or Chelsea and so on.

Classes are usually around 20-25 kids, but semi-regularly are doubled. 20 kids isn’t too bad, but anything over 30 and it becomes difficult to manage.

Structure

There is a very strict structure at English and I. Classes are subdivided into 9 or 10 sections. I have been chided for not saying “good morning” at the beginning of the class. One teacher is criticized for not singing the requisite number of songs. It’s one thing to have a structure. For new teachers, it is actually super useful. But it’s so rigid that it feels very oppressive.

Work Permits,etc

Now, I had (almost) no problems with this. My permit was acquired a week before my visa expired and it was no worries. I got help setting up a bank account too. What’s more, I didn’t have any cash on me and they loaned me 1000 baht (30 USD) to deposit. BUT….

…I and 2 others were sent home one day when the immigration officials came to investigate. I’m still not sure why, because we were told we were legal. One of the new teachers (now leaving in a month) still hasn’t got his work permit! So I don’t think it’s dodgy, it could just be a case of “Thailand being Thailand,” but it’s something to be aware of.

esl-teacher

The Bad

Kindy

This is no one’s fault and unlike the others on this list doesn’t really have a “solution.” But it’s worth mentioning that for everyone, Kindy days are the worst. The kids aren’t that badly behaved, for the most part, but tears and poop are part of the day most days. I know now that I’ll never take another job where kindergarten teaching is required. Your feelings may very well be different on the matter, but since we all dread it I think it’s worth listing in the Bad section.

Workload

The expectations are high. We teach 24 classes a week (50 minutes a class so more like 27 by the usual standard.) These classes are pretty tiring–no chairs and we’re on our feet the whole class. Then there are two after-school classes a week. These are somewhat mandatory; meaning you can say no but if not enough teachers sign up then they can make you do it anyway.

When teachers quit, those who remain pick up more classes. When teachers are sick, we combine their classes with ours, leaving us with classes of 40-50 students.

Lesson planning takes a long time, especially the first few months. Then there’s grading, where we have to mark and correct tests and worksheets for 300-500 students.
Finally there’s grading. At the end of term, we have to enter 15 weeks of grades, 3 series of tests, and write comments for each of our students. This is something like an extra 25-50 hours of work.

It’s more work than anyone can do during work hours. Some teachers have to lesson plan at home. If you can’t do it at work,then you’re expected to do it at home, for free. The fact that no one can do it all during work hours doesn’t seem to change the policy.

Teacher Retention

Everywhere you go, teachers like to complain about their jobs. We always want less work and we always think we’re being overworked. So take this, all of this, with a grain of salt. But of the 9 foreign teachers here this semester, two have quit halfway through. 5 of them are leaving at the end of this term.  By next month, only one foreign teacher will have been here for longer than 9 months. The 3 new teachers hired with me who started in May are all departing or departed. 2 couldn’t sleep because of stress dreams.

This is bad for their business but worst it’s bad for the kids. From what I’ve heard, the exact same thing happened last year, where at least a few teachers quit unexpectedly. The cycle keeps repeating and the problem is that the solution is locked behind high walls.

The Bosses

One reason I took this job was I really felt like I connected with two of the owners, Bob and Lee. I didn’t realize that I wouldn’t see much of them again. When I do see them, they are very personable and kind. When I almost left two months in, one of the bosses came up from Bangkok and met with me and addressed my concerns, which was great. When they observed my classes, they were very complimentary. So the interactions I’ve had with them have been great.

But also so few. They are not absentee owners. They are policy makers and enforcers. I might be wrong about this (they must have a different perspective) but to the teachers at English and I we feel like mere numbers in a spreadsheet. One teacher, a former croupier in Vegas, said he was literally referred to by number at the Casino and it still felt more humanizing.

Recently, with teachers quitting, we all picked up more classes and have been combining classes heavily. Everyone is sick and pushing themselves. A word from the bosses, a thank-you, would have gone a long way. But we don’t hear anything from them.

Both this semester and and (from what I’ve heard) last semester, the teachers have requested to have a chat with them. My feeling is that open lanes of communication lead to healthy relationships and a healthy workplace. But they have a policy of not really talking to the teachers, preferring to funnel everything through the manager. That makes sense, as a policy, but when teachers have quit and the manager is working 2-3 jobs, it feels more like an excuse not to open lines of communication (for whatever reason.) It feels disrespectful to me, but again I’m sure they have their perspective and all the interactions I’ve had with them have been good.

In Summary

English and I isn’t a bad school. They pay relatively well and on time. Your teaching is a lot of games and many of the kids are super funny. But considering that you could work fewer hours in Vietnam or South Korea or Japan and make double the money, or work half as much for the same money and be in Bangkok or Chiang Mai or at the beach, then it’s hard to justify coming/staying here.

If I could go back, I would almost certainly choose another school. (I had an offer in Bangkok for more money and less work but ironically chose English and I because things here seemed less likely to turn sour.) But if you don’t mind working all the time, taking work home, for less than neighboring countries pay, there are a lot of good reasons to come to English and I. Great teachers, a good manager, funny (albeit naughty) kids. Just know what you’re getting into. My philosophy is if I wanted to work weekends and be stressed at work, I could be working for a bank somewhere and have benefits and a retirement and make a lot more cash. But everyone has a different threshold for this.

If you’re considering English and I, hopefully this helped a bit. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

 

Yeti Daytrips: Suphanburi

 

Suphanburi

Most tourists in Thailand either go to Chiang Mai and the north or the islands of the South. Central Thailand isn’t as enticing. I myself, when traveling through Thailand a few years ago, only stopped off at Sukothai and Ayutthaya.

To be honest, this is fair. The middle of Thailand isn’t as interesting or relaxing as the tourist hotspots.  And it’s so hot. But there are some cool places in central Thailand, with tons of history and cultural sights.

One such place is Suphanburi (just called Suphan by the locals.)

Nahia Chai (LIFESTYLE AND SPIRIT OF THAI FARMERS LEARNING CENTER)

It’s an insult to call someone a buffalo in Thai but the weird thing is that actually buffalos are super rad.  Here, you can feed or pet them and explore an open air museum, plus see all kinds of rice growing and get harvested.

Giant Mungkorn (Dragon)

Behold. The world’s biggest dragon statue. Inside is a museum, but it was too expensive so I can’t tell you if I liked it. Still with all the great statues (including the coolest horoscope statues I’ve seen in Asia) and pagodas and fish ponds and temples, I spent 2 hours here. The Dragon lights up at night too.

Hell Market at Wat Phra Loi

There is a great market here, one of the best I’ve been to in all of Thailand, scattered through the woods. But behind the market is the craziest thing you’ll see all week.

 Wat Sampa Siw aka Doraemon Temple

Adding new characters is a great idea. The murals here are like a mystery, with characters hidden amongst the traditional motifs.