Life in Pictures

It started with quarantine over 6 weeks ago. For two weeks, this was my view. I was in Thailand, yet not in it, suspended in some third world, caught between a two realities.
After two weeks, I was released from quarantine. I took a taxi to the Hua Lompong train station. While waiting on my train, I heard this for the first time. The Thai national anthem is played in public places every day at 8:00 and 18:00. Everybody stands in place until the song is finished.
I took the train to Chiang Mai, still feeling like I was suspended between two worlds, except this one was a world with seats full of other people, hurtling along tracks between acres and acres of green rice fields. Sometimes I would go into the bathroom to stick my nose out the open window and inhale the scent of the rice fields. I found it interesting that a sign in the train bathroom said in Thai, “Do not use the bathroom while the train is parked at the station.” Hmmmm…..
Chiang Mai greeted me warmly via friends who met me at the station. There were snacks in the fridge and a group of them had cleaned up parts of the house before I got there. I was grateful and worn out. The next day I began working on setting the house to rights. It had been empty for about 3 months since all of us had gone home over the Covid lockdown. I felt strangely like a refugee in my own house, scrounging around to see what food was there and what was still good to eat. The rats and geckoes and ants had wreaked havoc. My friend came over one day and helped me clean. While cleaning, we found a rat and Diego the ever brave dog killed it.

My days consist mostly of teaching, studying, and volunteer translation work. Life has fallen into a somewhat normal pattern.

The first Saturday I was home, my friend and I went to the San Patong buffalo market. There is nothing like this market that makes me feel at home. 🙂
Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays I head to Payap for classes. I am only taking 4 courses, so I only have one or two classes a day. Another class I do online since the instructor is currently in Hawaii.
Saturday mornings I teach at White Elephant Club, our team’s outreach ministry in San Kamphaeng.
Two mornings a week, I drop in at Wisdom Tree Home and teach a Kindergarten 2 class and a Pre K class.
On Wednesday afternoons, Saturday afternoons and whenever needed, I head to the Mueng Chiang Mai police station where I work as a volunteer translator between foreigners and the police.
On Sundays sometimes I attend services in English and sometimes in Thai.
Often on my way home from the station in the evening, I will stop at a local food market or drop in at the food court at Maya Mall and grab some Thai food. My favorite thing is to top off the spice with some ice cream from 7-11 or Dairy Queen.
I like hanging out with this girl every now and then. W is the daughter of migrant worker parents, and attends church and WE Club on occasion.
Sometimes after a long week, I need a “mountain village fix.” I get that by riding my motorbike up Doi Suthep mountain, which I always feel is the most beautiful in the rain.
In the evenings, I let my dog in for company.
I do not let this creature in, though.
A few Wednesday evenings per month, I join in with cell group from our church.
I went to court to translate, once.
Every now and then, I visit one of my favorite coffee shops and work on homework, writing, or translation.
Sometimes, I feel a spurt of joy as I drive along a very normal road on my bike. It’s just good to be home.

9 New Words About Quarantine and Travel You Never Knew Existed (maybe because they didn’t)

A year ago, I blogged about new words I had coined about life in Southeast Asia. At that time, we had never heard of coronavirus. The idea of quarantine and wearing masks was foreign to us. We were blissfully ignorant.

Now we have all been highly educated. Not only that, but with my recent travel to Thailand, I acquired a whole new set of vocabulary, including words such as ASQ, CoE, Fit to Fly, BioFire, and more.

In addition to this, here are 9 new words pertaining to travel during the Covid19 outbreak! While this is coming from the perspective of a traveler who traveled to Thailand, it may be relevant for those traveling elsewhere. Travel anywhere has become synonymous with quarantine. Thus, the words to be revealed are all related to travel and quarantine.

Plussle—the rustle of the plastic of the Personal Protection Equipment that the quarantine hotel staff wears when interacting with hotel detainees. Can also be used as “plussle-plussle.” Sample sentence: I always knew when one of the hotel staff was coming with my food because I could hear the plussle-plussle of their plastic coverings as they walked.

Certivaniphobia– A common disorder experienced in travelers, especially those who are traveling abroad for the first time, or in unnatural conditions, such as during a pandemic.  This is the fear that while the traveler was not looking, the traveler’s passport or other important papers may have jumped out of the said traveler’s backpack in an unprecedented move. A common symptom of this phobia is frequent checking and rechecking of the traveler’s backpack, often checking up to 10 times within a minute. No cure is known for this disorder.

Glunge– the smudges left on the windows of a quarantine room, left by either the hands or the forehead of the inmate of the room while gazing outside.

Pasaphilia—The delight experienced by a traveler upon hearing a foreign language being spoken after being stranded in one’s home country for an extended period of time.

Solivance – The feeling of being in one’s own world, in a vacuum or a capsule in which time is static while the world continues to revolve outside. This is a kind of “wood between worlds” that C.S Lewis describes in the book, The Magician’s Nephew. This is often experienced by travelers in quarantine, especially if they are able to see outside during their incarceration.

The Squaneeze – a sneeze that is muffled to the lowest degree possible. This kind of sneeze is usually observed in areas of high security and Covid19 health monitoring of travelers. Some people who emit squaneezes try to disguise them in the form of a guffaw or the sudden clearing of the throat.

Chimeracination – Entire imagined scenes of things that could possibly go wrong from the beginning of travel to the end. These are usually experienced at 2:00 AM in the week before traveling in tense conditions due to a Covid19 pandemic.

Stickeression – this is a rare disorder occurring mostly in quarantined travelers. Signs of this disorder usually occur in the window of time between the 5th and 14th day of quarantine. Symptoms are usually seen most in Line users (Line is a popular messaging app used by many in Southeast Asia). Described in basic terms, it is an over-usage of stickers sent in the app in an attempt to release extreme feelings of restlessness.

Selfationism – the realization that you are the only one to blame for anything that occurs while being isolated in quarantine. Meaning, if there is no toilet paper on the toilet paper dispenser, it means that YOU and not someone else have not replaced it. Or if you have mislaid your favorite pen, it means that YOU were the one who mislaid it.

What You’ll Need to Get to Thailand During the COVID19 Pandemic

There are thousands of people still waiting to be able to reenter Thailand after the country closed its borders last March. I am one of those who managed to reenter on a student visa.

Since coming back was far from easy, I told myself over and over as I sorted through documents, sent off emails, and made hundreds of phone calls that I would do all in my power to help those coming behind me. I was grateful for all the help I received from those ahead of me and wanted to do the same for those coming behind. Keep in mind that circumstances change. What I experienced may not be what you will experience. Also, I applied for my return with the Chicago Royal Thai consulate . Each embassy operates slightly different, so what worked for me may not work for you. This post is geared towards Americans. However, if what I have to share is helpful, then my mission is accomplished.

The post will mostly be of links to documents and helpful websites. Following that, I’ll throw in a few tips that were helpful for me. If you want to read a more detailed experience of what it actually was like, check out my post here.

While this may be old information for some of you, here are the requirements for anyone entering Thailand as of August 11, 2020.

  1. A Certificate of Entry (CoE) from your embassy or consulate granting permission for you to return
  2. A Declaration form filled out and signed 
  3. Fit to Fly health certificate, issued within 72 hours before departure 
  4. Medical certificate with a laboratory result indicating that COVID -19 is not detected (COVID test must be by RT-PCR method), issued within 72 hours before departure
  5. Copy of an insurance policy which covers COVID and no less than 100,000 USD 
  6. Copy of your confirmed booking at an Alternative State Quarantine (ASQ) hotel in Thailand
  7. T.8 form (while I took a T.8 form along, I was also given one on the plane)

Here is a page for FAQ’s for people wishing to return from the states. This is from the embassy in Washington DC. Read this first.

These are the visa types that are currently allowed to enter Thailand. It has been announced that four other types will be allowed, but it takes a while for the announcements to become reality.

Some of the consulates in the states (not all) allow you to fill out the application form for the CoE online. This is available on the Washington DC Royal Thai Embassy’s site here. It will automatically be diverted to the consulate that is in charge of your individual state.

For people in the US, technically you must book or reserve a repatriation flight before you can apply for the CoE. (This can be avoided at times. Talk to your embassy if you run into problems with this, like not being able to see next month’s flights). This can be done at three different booking agencies. The agency I used and would recommend is Hanatour of Philadelphia. They are professional, helpful and efficient. They allow you to reserve the flight without paying for it and give you a letter to submit to your consulate when you apply for your CoE. Below is a picture from the Thai embassy with other booking agencies. They may be just as professional and helpful as well.

Book your ASQ as soon as possible. While each week more ASQs are added to the list, they rapidly fill up and some are booked ahead for months in advance. In order to book an ASQ you need to have a flight. This can be a problem if you do not yet have a repatriation flight or are wary of getting one before you know for sure that you have permission to enter the country. What I did was reserve a flight without paying for it and then use that to book my ASQ. Be sure to check with the ASQ what their policy is on changing dates and times, or even canceling the entire thing. In the end, I only switched my dates to one day earlier than what I had originally planned. Here is a site that keeps on adding the hotels as they become certified by the government.

For what its worth this is what my COVID19 test results looked like and my Fit to Fly. I also was given the details of the test here to take along since the actual results did not specify that it was done by RT-PCR method. I was still petrified that they wouldn’t take it since even then it only said PCR, not RT/PCR so I copied something off the BioFire website that stated it was an RT/PCR test. My Fit to Fly I designed using the logo of the clinic that issued it and a template shared by others else who had traveled over. Most clinics in the states do not have their own Fit to Fly certificates. There are also other types of templates that have passed, but I chose this since it seemed slightly more professional. Be sure to add a phone number and address of the clinic on the header as well. Here is a template I used from a friend to design my own.

The T8 form can be gotten here. My declaration form was a part of my online application but it is also available here.

Once you are pretty sure your visa type will be accepted its a good idea to start working on insurance as soon as possible. I used AA Insurance Brokers in Thailand and got their cheapest insurance which was about $220 for one year. They were very good to work with. I would advise to start working on it soon since with the influx of people needing insurance, it can take a while for your application to be processed.

A few tips…

Try to contact your embassy about what all you need and if they have any advice for you. This is easier said than done since some consulates/embassies are notorious for not answering. Also, they are extremely busy during this time.

Start looking around for places to get your Covid19 test NOW! These can be extremely hard to find if you are not symptomatic and you need the results at a certain time. There has been some confusion on whether or not the test itself needs to be done within 72 hours or if just the results need to be issued. Others have confirmed that it is the results that need to be issued. (Or this has been the experience of some in the USA. Check with your embassy if possible. However, they did not answer my email with this question.) I was able, to my surprise, to get a Rapid BioFire test done which gave me the results in less than 2 hours. One encouraging bit of news that I heard was that some airlines will begin to require a lot of people to get a Covid test done before any kind of travel, so in the future Covid tests for travel may be much easier to get.

One thing you might want to consider is getting your own personal doctor. I did not have a doctor and in my area it is extremely difficult to get in to see a doctor if it is not an emergency or you do not have a personal care physician. Line one up now for your Fit to Fly certificate. Also, you may need a doctor’s order to get your Covid test done. These are just some considerations.

Any more questions? Feel free to ask.

All the Way Home

March 23, 2020 found me at the Suvarnabhumi Airport trying to process the realization that I was leaving my home in Thailand for 4 1/2 months and going to my home in America. I knew this was the right thing to do at the time. What I didn’t know at that time was how hard it was going to be to get back. I naively thought that surely by the time August came around, travel would be back to normal. When June arrived and international travelers were still not able to return to Thailand, I started worrying. I’m sad to say it, but I did. A lot. Below is a summary of my journey back and some of the hurdles that needed to be cleared before I was allowed back. For those unfamiliar with any of the process of returning to Thailand, those who wish to return need to accomplish a checklist of things, mainly get a special insurance that covers Covid 19, reserve a special certified hotel for quarantine, get on a chartered repatriation flight, get full permission from the Embassy (CoE), submit a Fit to Fly Certificate and results of a Covid 19 test upon check in at the airport (Especially for readers who are planning their return to Thailand: stay tuned for another post that gives links to helpful websites and examples of documents needed). 

June 9—I call the Thai Chicago Consulate for the first time and am able to talk with someone. No Americans currently allowed back in, he says. But next month there’s sure to be good news. I hang up feeling strangely elated that I get to talk Thai to someone.

June 17, 2020: Journal Entry “Father, my prayer this morning again is let me get back into Thailand in August, on my ticket date. Perhaps I should have searched your will more when I bought that ticket. I don’t know. Father I pray that you would open the doors to let me back in. Your will be done.”

June 18: Journal Entry “Still no definite news on getting back to Thailand. I’m glad my departure date isn’t until August because hopefully by then the bottleneck of people reentering will have eased a bit. Father, I pray let me get back in time. Without spending thousands of dollars. Zachariah 8.”

June 21, 2020: Journal Entry “About 3 months ago already that I decided to come home. In some ways it’s gone so slowly, in other ways so fast. Jesus, getting back into Thailand looks harder and harder. Help me, Father, to wait for news. I think I should write a letter to the embassy but I don’t know what the best timing is. Lord, these things are in the future, yet you already know. At least Aug 9 gives me something to work for, even though I know it might change. ‘No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn.’” Isaiah 54:17

June 23: I email Payap, my university, about my dilemma, asking for advice. Not much advice comes.

June 26: Journal Entry: “Coming into Thailand looks slightly more hopeful, except for the possibility of the extension of the emergency decree. But I have seen students listed as possibilities to come back in.” I finish my letter to the embassy in Thai and send it to a Thai friend to edit.

June 29: I receive word that students were to be let into the country.

June 30: I receive the letter back from the friend. Send it to the Washington DC embassy. Main problem—what kind of documents do I need to apply for a Certificate of Entry (CoE, a special document required to enter Thailand during the Covid pandemic) as a student?

July 2: I call the Thai Consulate in Chicago. At first, I am told again, No Americans are allowed to reenter. But I have a student visa, I say. Oh! Well, then, go to the DC Thai Embassy website and go to the application for a CoE. Once I am able to check the website, there is no spot open yet for students to apply. The only visas types still able to apply are non-immigrant O and B, even if technically students are allowed.

July 6: I begin the arduous process of calling around to find a Covid19 testing center and a place to get my Fit to Fly issued. Within the course of the week I make close to 30 phone calls trying to find a place to get tested without symptoms and receive the results within 72 hours.

July 7: I receive an email reply from the Thai embassy saying that while students are now allowed into the country, the embassy is still waiting for the policy from Bangkok on how to proceed. Would I please continue to check the website for updates?

July 8: I contact AAinsure about getting my Covid19 insurance policy covering 100,000 USD.

July 13: I hear that people need to mail in their passport in order to get a COE stamp put into the passport after getting their Covid 19 test and Fit to Fly. How on earth am I to do that and get it back in the 72 hour time?

July 14: Desperate for information, I contact the embassy again, asking if they could give me a list of what students need. I find information later on other Thai Embassy websites. Jumping the gun, I contact my university, asking for the correct papers. The problem seems to be that it is not clear if the specifications on those websites are for students who already had visas or just for those without. Exactly what do I need? Worry and fear continue to circle my heart. It seems like a giant fist is clenched around me. I start contacting hotels about ASQ. I am now aiming to leave July 7 instead of July 9. This makes sense to me since I would have 4 working days before my departure, rather than leaving on a weekend and risking not having Covid testing places open or sending back results. ASQ hotels are getting full, fast. If I want one for those dates, I need to get it, even if I don’t like the price.

July 15: Frustration. I need to know what papers I need from Payap. When I try to contact the embassy, they only reply saying I need to apply for a CoE. I KNOW that. Could you tell me what I need to have in order to apply? The application for CoE is not yet up for students, but I need to prepare my papers. The date I was hoping to apply by was July 17. My insurance is not finished yet. I contact them to see where it is. The company is overloaded with requests and is working on it as fast as possible. I contact my travel agency. Rather than change my Eva air Flight to match the dates I need my Alternative State Quarantine (ASQ), I get my travel agency to reserve a Qatar flight without paying for it. I can now reserve my ASQ for arriving in Thailand August 9, leaving August 7. Now the decision remains—to I try to keep this ticket? Will commercial flights be allowed? Or should I let it go and get a repatriation flight. No repatriation flights are scheduled yet for August. I stay up late, communicating with the ASQ hotels about payment details.

July 16: Relief. I am able to talk with a live man at the Chicago consulate. He refers me to another number, a man who is extremely helpful and friendly. He is surprised that I got his phone number, since it is usually for emergencies.  I ask him what papers I need. He says if I already have a visa, all I need is a letter of confirmation from my university. Nothing else. He says to call him any time I have any questions. I am comforted beyond words. Later that day, I’m struggling again, feeling heaviness, fear, worry. I cry out to God. Five minutes later, my phone rings. Its my boss. It seems I mislaid the keys for a company van and they can’t find them. I rake my brain for any clue where they might be. It seems like one more thing on top of everything I’m wrestling with. God, why this now? Can’t you tell me where they might be?! Something as small as this—if you could just tell me where I left those keys, I feel like I could trust you more with this whole Thailand thing.

July 17: Still struggling with a cold/allergies/cough that started way back in June. Praying for healing. Waiting for insurance papers, papers from my university, and for the application to be available for students. We go camping at the lake overnight and I take the night to relax and try to forget everything.

July 18: I suddenly remember where I probably put the keys. I text my boss and tell him. They are found! It feels like confirmation that God really does care!

July 20: Early in the morning I receive the certificate of enrollment from my university. The application for the CoE is up and ready for me to apply, but I do not have a repatriation flight. Now they are saying, buy a repat flight, and get your ASQ before applying. After you get the CoE, you can then get your Covid test done and fit to fly. Also, the CoE is emailed to you. No stamp in the passport. Things are being streamlined.

July 21: I call the Consulate in Chicago about applying since I have no repatriation flight yet and no August flights are available. He tells me to go ahead and put in any flight itinerary when it asks for a repat flight. This way, he says, I would be in the system. I apply that afternoon. I do not have my insurance letter yet, but there is nothing on the application that asks for it. After submitting, I feel a tremendous relief. Finally, something is done. I do receive an email a few hours later, telling me I needed to submit proof of insurance. I contact the insurance company again to see what is happening.

July 22: I stay up during the night communicating with the broker of the Thai insurance company, replying to questions about my health and arranging payment. I then fall asleep and miss checking my email for one last one in which I could have received the paper I needed.

July 23: Insurance letter stating I am covered for Covid19 received and uploaded. Now waiting for the flights to be released. I contact a friend about arranging for my school tuition to be paid, since I feel like I might need a receipt of payment as proof that I am enrolled for this next semester. I upload a picture of the receipt to my application as well.

July 27: flights for August released! I reserve a flight without paying through Hanatour which coordinates the Korean Air flights.

July 28: Early morning I am able to upload the flight documents to my CoE application

July 29: Waiting all day. My imagination runs away from me and I review all sorts of scenarios in my mind. After 5 that evening, I receive my CoE, and scare my mom half to death with my yells. She thinks something is on fire somewhere. I immediately pay for my Korean flight.

Coe

July 30: One of the hardest days. I contact the place that had told me several weeks ago that they could give me a Covid 19 test. I need to make an appointment. They tell me this time it is not possible to do it there without any symptoms. I crash. After calling several places, Pratt Regional Medical Center tells me that I can do it there with a doctor’s order. But I have no doctor. After calling several clinics to see if they could take me, I am still at a dead end. Finally, I contact a friend who works as a nurse at a clinic. She tells me that they’ll take me there as an outpatient and give me the doctor’s order. Pratt says they can give me the Covid test that has results between 24-72 hours. I end the day exhausted.

July 31: I head to my friend’s clinic. The nurse practitioner there sends the doctor’s order to Pratt. She also gives me a physical for my Fit to Fly certificate. Bring the papers down next week, 72 hours before you fly, and we can finish everything up for you, she says.

August 3: Monday morning I head to Pratt. Before they test me, they ask, are you staying in town for the results? What, I ask? Doesn’t it take 24-72 hours? Oh, they say, the doctor said that you need it 72 hours before you fly, so we’ll give you the Bio-Fire test, which gives the results in about 2 hours. (This is the test usually allowed only for first responders and emergency personnel.) In that case, I say, can I come back on Wednesday? The 72 hour window is not open yet. Sure, they say. I walk out, relieved but a little shaken. This would be helpful since I would not longer have to worry about the results coming in too early or late. But how often will my plans be changed? Once I reach home, I tell my dad I am not sure what to think about, since I don’t think I have anything to worry about right now.

August 4: Another monkey wrench. The Fit to Fly certificate has to be signed by a doctor, not a nurse practitioner. There is a chance that they would let it go, but I am not about to take chances. I call around. My friend at the clinic makes an appointment with their “mother clinic” where there is a doctor. This clinic is about 45 minutes away in McPherson. My appointment is for the next day.

August 5: Covid test taken. Extremely uncomfortable and undignified. We shop at Walmart and a second hand store while waiting for results. I go back to pick up the results. They are negative, but the paper says nothing that it was done with RT PCR testing method (even though it is that method). I ask about it, and soon there are a group of people around me, discussing this. They say they can’t change it. Finally, I call the embassy and miracle of miracles, talk with a live person. He assures me its ok, that as long as I have the results in the 72 hour window I am fine. I shed tears of relief. The head lab tech is very kind and wishes me safe travels. Later in the afternoon, I go to McPherson for my Fit to Fly certificate. All goes smoothly.

August 6: Wrapping things up. Final goodbyes. No more monkey wrenches, even though I am still a little nervous about my Covid Test.

August 7: I leave home at 5 AM in the morning. I am no longer emotional at all, and although I shed tears the evening before about leaving, I am too much on edge to even realize what it means to be leaving home again. My flight out of Wichita to Chicago is on time, an answer to prayer. I get to ride first class, for the first time in my life. This is because my ticket to Chicago was bought using credit from a canceled United flight. I am very grateful for the first class seat since it doesn’t take long for me to get off and get my luggage. I wait in a long line to check in to my Korean flight. This is where my documents will be examined for the first time. I am amazingly calm at the counter. They ask me questions about my visa, and some of the other documents, but only scan the Covid test. Once I get my boarding passes, I grin all the way back to my gate. It actually WORKED! The flight to Seoul is rough with hours of turbulence. My seatmate and I become good friends. Both of us are/were students, and she is a recent new Thai believer nervous about going home to her family.

20200807_084451

August 8: My flight lands in Bangkok. I am one of the last ones off the plane and herded through various checkpoints by people in full PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). My papers are inspected several times, I am given an ASQ tag, moved from place to place. There is no way I could leave if I wanted to. Soldiers are on guard, as well as immigration police. It is probably close to an hour by the time I get through all the health checkpoints and immigration and out the door where my ASQ driver waits for me. Once we reach the hotel, I am checked out thoroughly again and do some paperwork for the hospital that is in charge of my quarantine. I get to bed around 1:30 AM Sunday morning, tired but grateful. I will be in this hotel quarantine for the next 14 days. (below: waiting at the airport for inspection and the view from my quarantine hotel)

LINE_P2020810_134154

273

Tiny

The grasshoppers have come now

Gold, green, brown and bronze they fleck the barn walls

Every evening as I wash down.

Tonight, a grasshopper perches precariously beside the drain

One little nudge and he would be gone,

Washed away in a torrent of water.

 

This is my favorite part

When the cows have gone

And I wield the hose in vengeance

Scourging the dirt from the walls and concrete floors;

Giving way to some kind of rage that has built up from regulations

And uncertainties and helplessness at the way

Turmoil sweeps around me and I am tossed

From one phone call to the next,

Email after email,

Document after document.

 

The rush of water sweeps the dirt to the drain,

This is my kingdom.

This is my victory.

 

The grasshopper sits by the drain.

Only a nudge and—

I move the hose away.

 

I too am a grasshopper.

Shorn

When waves of wheat lap in the deepening glory of harvest,

I wonder if the fields that gather their ripening wheat in their embrace

Fear the coming shearing when the whisper of heavy heads

Becomes lost in the roar of teeth tearing kernels from each stalk.

 

Do these fields fear the nakedness, lying shorn under the sickle moon

Robbed of their glory, the loss of their fruit, their fruit

Or do they release with quiet hands the life they nurtured and bore

Rejoicing with the reapers come to bring home their own?

June 2020

Of Stories

I love languages. One of the fascinating things I have found about languages is how after a period of time, some languages lapse into your subconsciousness until one day they randomly poke up without being asked to.

I’ve noticed this with both Pennsylvania Dutch and Thai. At first when I move into an English-speaking only environment, my brain is alert. I speak English clearly and choose my vocabulary carefully. After a few weeks, however, my mind becomes relaxed and suddenly a PA Dutch word or a Thai word will pop out in the middle of a sentence, leaving me apologizing to my listener, especially if they cannot speak the language.

I’ve noticed this phenomenon of knowledge diving into my subconsciousness in more than one way. A few weeks ago, I moved back from Thailand on short notice for about 4 and ½ months to wait out the Covid-19 crisis until my university can open again in August. At first driving on the right side of the road was no problem. As I grew more relaxed, however, I found myself struggling with remembering which side of the road to drive, and made several mistakes because of it. Also, the longer I am home, the more I find myself randomly wanting to “wai” people when I greet them or thank them. (The wai is a greeting in Thailand done by pressing your hands together like you are praying and lifting your hands to face level). It’s like you can stuff those languages and habits into your subconsciousness for a certain amount of time until suddenly they come popping out again.

This, I think, is the same way with stories. Coming home, my world changed drastically. Now that I am back in the states, living like a “normal” American, every now and then memories coming rushing at me unexpectedly. It’s as if my brain stores snapshots of life and then in my subconscious moments flashes them across my mind. The longer I am here in the states, the more they pop up. Sometimes I come to myself, realizing that I have been staring out of the window for the past few minutes, halfway across the world. Some of those memories are hard, hard memories. Others are ones I can laugh at. But all of them bring to me the scent of a country that I love.

How do I share those stories? Stories that seem somehow sacred?

Starting last July, I began working as a volunteer translator at the Mueng Chiang Mai Police station helping with communication between foreign tourists or expats and the Thai police. One day a week of volunteering became two days a week, sometimes three or even four. My time there changed my life more than I imagined it ever would and now many of those stories are submerged in my sub-consciousness. Between this, school, and the teaching ministry on the side, the stories are abundant. Eventually, many of them burrow into my mind, becoming a part of me.

I developed friendships with many new people, some of who I admire and respect wholeheartedly, and others who I love but cannot admire because of some of the things they are involved in.

I sat across from a fourteen-year-old girl, asking her to consider not getting married the next month to her fourteen-year-old boyfriend, and instead finish at least two more years of school, which would get her at least into the 4th grade.

I sat with a man who had found his young friend dead in his bedroom of a suspected drug overdose. I listened and translated for him as his voice cracked with grief as he described the details of walking into the room and finding him dead on his bed. I listened as he talked with his friend’s girlfriend on the phone, beside herself with grief.

I communicated with a British man whose brother committed suicide in Thailand, trying to figure out the complicated details of funeral arrangements. The police report gave details of the death, but it was all in Thai. That was the saddest piece of written translation that I ever did.

I went to court. The first time in my life. My job was to translate for a European man who had tried to pickpocket another foreigner in broad daylight, since he was running out of money. I stood on very shaky legs and translated for him as he received his six-month sentence to a Thai prison. I also got warned twice by court police for sitting with my legs crossed.

I translated for a case in which a girl walked into a supermarket and randomly stole a fruit knife, attempting to carry it out with her as she left. The evening was filled with moments of tension, hilarious laughter, and an odd feeling of camaraderie with both her and the officer, as well as the supermarket employees.

I sat across from a fellow American from a state not too far from my own, and listened to him as in obvious shock, he told me how he found his wife lying lifeless in the kitchen. His beautiful 5 year-old daughter watched him uncomprehendingly as he sobbed. Tears flooded my own eyes when one of the older officers at the station put his hand on the American’s shoulder and tried to comfort him in a language he couldn’t understand.

I sat in the waiting room office of the prosecuting attorney with a Canadian hippie and a Russian lady and listened as they quoted poetry and waited for papers that needed to be signed.

I went with an immigration official and a foreigner who was being deported for having possession of marijuana, a grave mistake in the Kingdom of Thailand.

There are so many, many more stories, many that impacted me deeply, and some that I am not at liberty to share. Tears push my eyelids as I think of them. So many small memories, like the coffee that one officer would offer me whenever he saw me. Or the time I accidentally erased the video games off one of my “uncle’s” computer while trying to help him free up space, much to his chagrin. Or the time I joined my friends in their small flat for a delicious meal and a rousing discussion of the latest police news, the same friends who accompanied me to the airport to see me off in March.

These are the stories that God has given me, and yet they are more than stories. I share them, not to boast about my experiences, but because they so much a part of me and who I have become. They are people, lives, friends, souls. Some people I see only once, for a few fleeting minutes or hours. I have failed many times in reaching out to them, but I pray that the presence of Jesus inside of me will give them an awareness of God as they leave.

The pain of loving and losing is intense, but I am richer for it.

Souvenirs

Do not tell me, please,

That I have memories left to be my souvenirs

These are not souvenirs.

Souvenirs you put in a box on the top shelf of the closet behind the winter blankets

Where ten years later you pull them out and dust them off

To laugh over and touch and remember

And perhaps

Shed a tear or two.

 

Do not tell me, please,

To be glad for the memories.

Memories are good, but these, these!

These are not just leftover scraps of life,

But pulsing, moving, breathing

Faces and names and lives and places

Woven into the fabric of my being.

No, they cannot be boxed up

Or fitted into photos,

Slotted into albums,

And then stored away and lost

Like the postcards in the greeting card boxes

Buried behind the 4th grade A Beka math book.

 

Do not tell me, please,

To forget the past

And simply move on.

Five and a one-half years of life

Lived unstopped and unfettered

Are not just old scribbled journals

Or letters from some forgotten lover

To be conveniently shelved in the attics of memory,

Put out of harm’s way and where they can do no harm

Not even for only 5 months on this side of the Pacific.

 

No, that would be shelving me

And I am not a souvenir

Black and White (and Gray all Over)

It feels odd to be alive at a time like this. The streets continue to get emptier and emptier after an order to shut down universities and schools, large tourist markets, entertainment venues and sporting events in an effort to stop the spread of Covid19.

The city lies cloaked in gray. Smog blankets the mountains, hiding the sun that should come out in blazing heat. The Air Quality Index shows the PM 2.5 to be over 360, at dangerous levels.

Our worlds have been uprooted, our safe schedules in upheaval. The ground beneath us is shaky, the sky above us is shrouded, the road before us is blurred with confusion.

Through it all hovers a brooding heaviness. Fear. Fear, waiting to latch its teeth into us when we read the news, when we discuss the crisis with friends, when we see the city streets emptying.

In a time like this, it feels sometimes like the distinct black and white lines that we like to draw are blurred and shaky, smudged into gray, like the sky above.

Life has felt like this for me in the past week. Selfishness seems to be the norm in cases I meet at my work as a translator. Anger flares over the smallest things. Hope seems to be ebbing low. Some of the kindest people I know are said to be the most corrupt. My own future and the dreams I’ve cherished are vague and unreal and look impossible. My school and internship plans for the next 5 months have been totally changed. Sometimes the things you believe with your mind don’t feel right with your heart.

It’s easy to let these things carry into my life, to begin carrying a heaviness that was not mine to carry. It’s easy to let the unknowns and gray matters and smog of life soak into my soul.

But when I stop and think of it, I can still trace some of the lines and truths. Through the gray, I can still see color. I can still see truth.

It is still right to be kind.

It is still right to be just, even in the face of injustice and corruption.

Being humbly truthful is still the best thing.

Unselfishness still speaks as loudly as selfishness.

Prayer is still the best response to an unknown future.

Practicing generosity is still one of the kindest and unselfish things you can do.

God is still in control.

God still keeps his promises.

God still loves this world.

And donuts still taste really, really good.

The Road to Saohin

The road to Saohin is rough and steep.

Saturday, February 1, six years after my initial decision to move to Thailand, was the first time I traveled the road to Saohin. And probably not the last.

On Friday January 31, I drove to Mae Sariang, a town in Mae Hong Son 5 hours away that I am quickly learning to love. The drive there, though long, was relaxing, and there was a sense of adventure and hope and “this is a day off of school” that I felt in the air as I drove. I stopped in a pine forest and took off my shoes and enjoyed the spicy smell of pines, making me think of both Sara Teasdale’s “pines, spicy and still”(Stars), as well as the words: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep” (Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, Frost).DSC00696DSC00685DSC00711

I arrived in Mae Sariang around 5 and checked into my hotel. I left several times, once to buy food, once to go to a coffee shop, and once to chase down a song I heard wafting over loudspeakers.

The next morning I went to Saohin. They had told me the road was bad and life was rough there. Would I come look at it first before I would decide whether or not to do my 3 month college internship there? Could I come Saturday?

So I went with the teachers who had come down to the city for the day to run errands and pick up some other things besides this odd farang who wanted to live in the mountains. Aside from the fact that I spent the first two hours sniffing mentholatum in a desperate effort to keep my lunch of noodles from reappearing, I loved the trip up. After the first 61 kilometers, a rest, one little drammamine pill, and 20 children piling on the back of the truck, we tackled the final 37 kilometers. It took two hours (during rainy season it can take many more), crammed into a double cab pickup with 4 other people. I got to know them. And I like them.

DSC00734DSC00870

Saohin was small, with a school, a police station, a temple and a few houses, more like a wilderness outpost than a true village. They said a church was up the road a bit in another village. Most of the 80 plus children come from other villages to study at Saohin.

2_70

(photo credit: กรุงเทพธุระกิจ) Sometimes this even happens, according to the news.

We went to Burma on Sunday, crossing over the border passport-less about 3 kilometers from Saohin. We toured some places, ate some sweet desserts and came back.

DSC00824

S__4005896S__4014095

No phone service exists for most of the 98 kilometers from Mae Sariang to Saohin. Electricity is brought to the village via a few solar panels, but most daily work is done without the aid of electricity. Most of the cooking is done over an open fire, and washing is done by hand. No refrigerators exist.

I came back to Mae Sariang on Sunday night, mulling my experiences in my mind. Three months. Could I handle it for three months? Maybe.  More than that? I don’t know.

There are always those times when the dreams we dream start to become true, and reality hits us like the freezing splash of water of the dip shower I took on Saturday night in the teachers’ house. And odd little things start niggling at our minds. Can I give up my midnight habit of eating cornflakes each night? (no fridge= no milk.) Take cold showers? Live with no phone service?

But when I came back down, pictures of the village kept flashing through my mind. And I KNOW it sounds cliché, but a piece of my heart was left there in that dry mountain forest on the western edge of Mae Hong Son. And I knew I wanted to go back.

But the road to Saohin didn’t start on Saturday, Feb 1 when I left Mae Sariang. It didn’t even begin on Friday, when I left Chiang Mai. Or even when I started looking for an internship, searching through Google maps and finding places that became further and further away.

Perhaps it began one day under a little thatched roof when two of my friends and I were dreaming about what we would do when we would get “big.” I never thought the things we wrote down that day would actually become true.

IMG_3317

Perhaps it started the day I traveled with the CMCC youth group to a Karen village in Doi Dtao, Chiang Mai, up roads similar to those of Saohin.

Perhaps it started February 1, 2014, when I made my decision to move to Thailand. Or perhaps the day I signed up to go to IGo.

Perhaps not. Perhaps the road to Saohin began when I was in the 5th grade and listening to the speaker with the funny Carmel name talk about her experiences in South America. Perhaps it started when my teacher gave me the book Peace Child to read. Perhaps it started when I picked up my history book and started learning about far away countries with odd sounding names.

Perhaps it started one day on the sandpile underneath a bunch of green ferns when I prayed to give my life to Christ.

I don’t know. But I do know that “road leads on to road” (Frost). I know that it looks like Saohin will be my home for three months starting hopefully sometime in June, with week long trips to Mae Sariang once a month. But that doesn’t mean the road to Saohin leads to my final destination. Perhaps the road to Saohin is only a road that eventually leads to other roads.

I don’t know. But a sense of deep joy and expectation fills me as in my mind’s eye I look up that road, winding, muddy and steep, to what lies ahead.

Thank you, Jesus.

DSC00846