Tag Archives: teaching English in Thailand

Chonny doesn’t like Chokes

( I wrote this two weeks ago around the time that my sister was leaving. After that, life showed up and got busy when I started my online teaching prep program. When I found this today, I decided to finish it up.)

When my sister Sara came to visit me last month, we needed a way for her to travel to Mae Sariang after landing in Chiang Mai. I also wanted her to have a bike for transportation for times I would be in school and unable to drive her around. 

Enter Chonny. 

Invest has several vehicles for staff use. One of them is Jimmy, (also called Chimmy) a manual truck that is known for his temperamental behavior. Recently, a former IGo staff donated his old bike to the cause as well. This bike has now been christened Johnny, or Chonny. (PA Dutch speakers will understand the need to add the CH). I thought about calling him Eli, but my sister protested vehemently. So, instead we called him Chonny, since he made a very good partner for Chimmy.

Chonny managed to make it to Mae Sariang intact. He is aged and slightly stiff, but we took it slowly and managed to make it without mishap. Sara got along with him superbly, even with his quirks, or perhaps because of them. 

Before I begin my story, there are several things that you need to know. Chonny only starts via kickstarting. Not only that, there are times when Chonny is loathe to start on cool mornings, and then you have to choke him to start him. Chonny also has only 100 cc’s of “oomph” to get him up mountains. 

Sara drove him around in Mae Sariang for a few weeks, and then before she headed back to the States, she wanted to go back to Chiang Mai to visit our friend Amanda. Our original plans changed several times so instead of both of us driving to Chiang Mai, she took the bus to Chiang Mai and left Chonny sitting forlornly at our house. 

My friend Max was getting married in Omkoi on Saturday. Max was a police officer I had met at the station in Chiang Mai years ago when I was working as a translator. Max is also a Christian from a Karen village in Omkoi. Sara really wanted to attend a Karen wedding, so she planned to bring the bus back from Chiang Mai halfway, meet us at the Suan Son pine forest for the night and then we would drive to the wedding in the morning. We would then drive to Chiang Mai doubling up on Chonny. Sara would then board the plane on Sunday night, leaving for home. 

At first, I was leery of the plan. Driving to Chiang Mai on my well-maintained 150 cc bike is a long drive. Driving to Chiang Mai double on Chonny, who sounds like he is going to fall to pieces when you hit 80kmh sounded dubious. Not only that, I am attached to my bike and prefer to drive that. It irks me slightly to have to drive another one. (Don’t tell my sister).

But it made sense, and I needed to get Chonny back to Chiang Mai anyway. And it would be an adventure, I told my friend Abby, when trying to decide if we wanted to risk it. If you make something tedious an adventure with sisters, then it’s all good. 

Amy and I left for Suan Son after school on Friday night.  Before then, we stopped at the gas station to fill up with gas and fill our tires with air. At the air pump, a kind man offered to fill up my tires. He checked the front tire and was like, “Oh this doesn’t need any air. But…” his voice trailed off. “This tire is really worn. How far are you going?”

“Oh, to Suan Son,” I said airily. I didn’t mention Omkoi or Chiang Mai.  I tend to downplay my travel with Thai people because many people get worried when they see this farang driving that far. 

He got this funny look on his face. I thought maybe he hadn’t understood me correctly, but I was in a hurry and didn’t feel like I needed to clarify myself.

“The tire is very worn,” he said again. 

“Ok,” I said, “It’s not my bike. I will tell the owner.” Somehow I felt like I had to make sure he knew it was not my bike. 

I mulled over the meaning of the look on his face as Amy and I left for Suan Son, driving through the chilly mountains with the sun setting in resplendence on the right and a full moon rising over the mountains on the right. I was so distracted with the sun and the moon and keeping Chonny on the road that I forgot about the man with the funny look.

We arrived at our little homestay and then I left to pick up Sara at the Suan Son forest since that was where I had told the bus driver to leave her. I planned to pick her up there and drive back to our homestay.

But both Chonny and the bus driver had different plans. Just as I reached Suan Son, Chonny started limping and suddenly the look on the man’s face made sense. Chonny’s front tire was flat. Very flat.

Just like that my phone rang. It was Sara. “I don’t know where I am,” she said. “The driver didn’t let me off at the right place!”

Since Chonny was out of the running, there was no way I could go find her. And, it was rapidly getting dark. I figured out where she was and called Amy and Amy went to pick her up. 

Chonny had graciously decided to go flat right in front of the police checkpoint and the policemen just as graciously loaded up my bike on the back of the police truck and drove me to the nearest bike shop which was the only one close along miles of wilderness. I was very, very grateful.

That was episode one with Chonny. Now, with a new front tire I was a bit more confident that we would reach Chiang Mai in one piece the next day. 

The next morning came the test. It was cold so Sara offered to start Chonny up while I went to pay for the homestay. And then we started off for the wedding in Omkoi which was 55 kilometers away, with Sara riding behind me on Chonny and Amy driving behind us. The first hill we came to, Chonny groaned. 

I did too. 

If it took us this long to get up one hill, it was going to be a long drive to Chiang Mai.

We turned off towards Omkoi and I experienced a sinking feeling that sunk lower and lower the further and higher we went. Just before we got to a major pass, Chonny started going slower and slower. It felt like the more gas I gave him, the slower he went. Finally, I stopped. There was no way that we could make it up that hill in this condition. Sara jumped on the back of Amy’s bike and I decided to go up with Chonny by myself, but as I started off, I realized something was majorly wrong. Even with one rider, Chonny was struggling. 

The wedding was supposed to start at 10. This was a little before 9. What on earth should we do?

We went back and looked for a bike shop. The first person said, “That way,” so we went “that way” and the next one said, “that way,” too so we went “that way”, and then the next one said, “this way.” 

Our heads were spinning. I messaged P Tob, one of Max’s police officer friends who was coming to the wedding. 

“How far  have you come yet?” I asked. “If we leave the bike here, can you pick us up?” 

“Send me a location,” he said. I will, as soon as I have one. The last guy sent us up over the hill, saying there should be an open shop past the hill. I held my breath and gave Chonny as much gas as I could and even put my feet on the ground to help him up. We got over, just like the little engine that could.

“Hmm, “ I thought to myself. Maybe we could get to the wedding. If we would just drive slowly and at least make it to Omkoi, we could leave the bike there at a shop and at least attend the wedding. 

So, I told P Tob that he didn’t need to stop and pick us up after all. “But,” I said, “Just keep an eye out if you see us beside the road somewhere.” 

About 2 hills later, I changed my mind. Saying “I think I can, I think I can,” may work in certain circumstances, but not in this one. We were not going to make it like this. It seemed every time I stopped Chonny, he did a bit better, but not for long. We decided that Amy and Sara would drive on. I would get Chonny checked out and then get P Tob to pick me up and  try to at least come for the last part of the wedding. I drove him back to the shop. 

As I drove in, there was the usual fearful apprehension about a foreigner coming into the shop. I spoke in Thai to one of the little Karen boys sitting in front and tried to explain what was wrong. I didn’t know how to say it, other than that it seemed Chonny had no power. He called the head guy. I went off to the side to figure out where I was and send the location to P Tob. 

The man came over. He went to start the bike, and then said, “Oh, the choke’s on!”

The little Karen boys in front of the shop went into spasms of laughter. 

I looked and couldn’t believe my eyes. I guess when Sara went out to start him in the morning, she forgot to turn off the choke and I never thought to check since the only thing I have ever driven with a choke was a lawn mower. It seemed like magic. Chonny was fixed. And I was escalating the embarrassment scale rapidly. I

I didn’t look at the Karen boys, who I am sure were absolutely splitting their sides with laughter. Instead, I got on the bike and raced away with surprising rapidity, howling and screaming with laughter myself. For the next 10 kilometers, I laughed out loud. And laughed and laughed. 

We made it to the wedding a little late, but it was fine. And after the wedding, we drove to Chiang Mai on Chonny without incident, making chokes about Chonny not enjoying chokes. 

And I am sure that evening several little boys went home and regaled their families around the supper table about the foreigner who came with the bike that “didn’t work.”

Above: Chonny safely in Chiang Mai

Kawthoolei Christmas

December 14, 2022

Dawn slips over the river, sending silver light over the glassy surface of the River Salawin*. We walk down to the shore in the half-light, while another row of unrecognizable shapes moves down the bank a few hundred meters ahead. The boats are waiting. A few people wave their hands in a good morning, but for the most part we move silently. We climb carefully onto the boats. The three of us with long noses and white skin and lighter hair deck ourselves with long sleeves and hats and facial coverings.

The gray silence is broken by the roar of a boat starting. A man nimbly climbs from the front of the boat to the back, walking alongside the edge of the boat. The prow of the boat cuts through the water to middle of the river, going against the current of the water that used to be a frozen glacier in Tibet.

A ten-minute ride and we are there on the other side, the side that I have heard so much about, but never visited. Kawthoolei**, which in Karen means “the land without darkness.” The place where villages are looted and plundered day after day even now after decades of fighting and unrest.

There, on the other side, we are told to not take any pictures of immediate checkpoint. We climb the steep bluff. A Karen soldier is sweeping the ground around the checkpoint. He nods to us.

“Ghaw luh a ghay,” he greets us with the traditional Karen greeting.

We walk on, past a small hospital which currently has no patients. The patients are in a house closer to caves for when evacuations are needed when the Burma army flies overhead with planes, bombing the area. Recently, we are told, there were drones scouting in the area, which means that the residents of the area need to be extra careful.

The area is a medical training center where trainees come for 6 months and then leave. It is small, carved from the growth of the jungle, with a few spaces wide enough for a game of Takraw (a game similar to volleyball, using only feet and heads, and a smaller ball).  Passersby on the river would scarcely know that it exists. Surrounded by mountains on either side, we walk down to the makeshift church for the Christmas service.

The simplicity, not of the service or the church or even the hospital area, stuns me. What stuns me is how simple the line is that the River Salawin draws between two countries. Karen people inhabit both sides of the river. On the one side, they live in constant tension, not knowing when the airplanes might choose to sweep overhead, dropping their lethal cargo, or when a troupe of Burmese soldiers might come looting and raping and burning. Perhaps the worst of it is the not knowing. On the other side of the river, in the village Thatafang, they live in peace, under the protection of the Thai government. They travel freely without travel passes. When planes pass overhead, they may watch, but they do not run. They have identification and citizenship and rights.

None of the people on either side chose what side they wanted to be born on. None of them even chose to be born.

The River Salawin flows on serenely through the middle, unchanging in the conflict over the past seventy-three years, ten months and three days.***

Then in that slice of clearing, shaped uncannily like a slice of pie, we celebrate the coming of a Savior who left his life in heaven to be born in a stable, to become flesh among a tribe of people who were caught under the tyranny of foreign rule. Our worship rises in the early morning air, up from the campfires and forests of the Burmese jungle, calling out to the God who became man and lived among us. The God who was light who came to give light to us who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.

The God who is Immanuel. The God who is with us.

*There are two common spellings for the Salawin River, Salawin and Salween. I prefer Salawin, to match with the Thai pronunciation.

**Kawthoolei is the name that Karen people call their own country, hopefully named “land without darkness.” However, it is more commonly known as Karen State, Myanmar.

***According to Wikipedia (take it with a grain of salt) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_conflict

The Road from Chiang Mai

Bright as the day through darkest night

From valleys low to mountains high

You go before me, you go behind me

Untroubled under a troubled sky

Through clouds that unleash stinging rain

On roads under sunfire in aching blue

Where fog shrouds the road in wraithing white

Yet still, still, I am with you.

Only a sojourner in a transient world

Weary on a road ever so long

Only a speck on a river passing,

Only an echo, a fragment of song

Yet your heart yearns for me from the brooding sky

As I crest the mountain in rain-washed hue

All through the winding journey home

Still, oh still, I am with you.

I am not sure how often and how long I have tried to write this poem, but each time, my words failed me. (This is the Purple Poem I wrote about in an earlier blog post). How to explain that feeling of God hand cupping over me as I do the monthly trip from Mae Sariang to Chiang Mai and back on my bike? How to weave into a poem the different emotions of the ride, the different scenes and backdrops? Finally, this morning I was able to somewhat put a tongue to it. Besides the obvious inspiration of those drives, Psalms 139 and James 4:5 were also inspirations for the poem.

I am also currently working on a new book of poetry and essays. I think it’s far enough along that I can say it’s going to happen, but it’s impossible to give any release date right now. I do, however, want to get it finished before I start my online course for my teacher’s license in January, which will take up all my spare time.

Stay tuned! 🙂

Gold and Green

A unique thing about life is the various shades that seem to color different periods of life. Some seasons in life are gray and blue, misty and melancholy. Others, for instance the last month I spent in Saohin, are characterized by browns and reds. This past season has been a rich mix of golds and greens, framed with wild blue skies and crimson sunsets.

October 7 was officially my last day of work before school break, although I took on some tutoring over our time off. On the evening of the 12th, on one a day when the air held a crisp hint of autumn, I set off for Chiang Mai where I met up with Amy and the rest of our INVEST team for our annual retreat as a team. Amy’s parents, Paul and Dorcas, served as speakers for our retreat. I felt like our activities and input at retreat were like a well-rounded meal, with a good amount of personal growth mixed with relaxation. It was an easily digestible meal: some meat, a lot of vegetables and light food, with a little bit of sweetness added.

This is our INVEST team, a ministry under IGo. INVEST stands for Igo Network of Volunteer Educators Serving Thailand. Missing in the photo is our team leader Phil’s wife, Jolene, and their sons, Chris and Clark, since they were sick with Covid.

Monday after retreat Amy and I headed off for Doi Chang with three other friends, Abby, Nancy and Glenda. We drove our motorbikes up the soaring heights of Doi Chang and among Akha villages, sipped coffee at coffee shops way up in the mountains, ate pizza while watching the sun set over a pond, woke up early to see the glory of the sunrise and feel the wind blow in our hair, and then made our way down again.

coffee beans

I left the others and headed to Chiang Dao to stay the night at my friend Louie’s house, taking the road through Doi Ang Khang National Park. I had been to this park years ago with Louie, but I had never come in from the east side. The heights were stunning. While Doi Chang had roads that were built high above patchworked fields, Doi Ang Khang was full of hairpin curves on roads that hugged cliffs and required me to drive in first gear. Every now and then, I stopped to savor the view and listen to the absolute silence of the mountain.

I spent the night with Louie and her hilarious sister in Baan Mai Samakkhi (which I wrote about visiting here 4 years ago), laughing over old jokes from bygone school days and making new ones. We talked about the time our instructor forgot to close the zipper on his pants and how I once accidentally hit a stranger over the head with a sweatshirt. Louie and her sister needed to leave early in the morning for a youth camp, so I spent the next morning with her mom and her younger brother. Louie’s younger brother, who reminded me of my high school students, took me to buy coffee, and to get the chain on my bike fixed. Her mom then loaded me up with avocados and a vegetable I don’t know the name for, then off I headed for Pai and Pang Mapha. I had already reserved a room in Pang Mapha since I knew if I took that way back to Mae Sariang, I wouldn’t be able to make it back to in one day without exhausting myself.

A blurry photo of Louie cooking. I chose a blurry one because she would prefer it.
The temple in Arunothai, the Chinese village right next to Louie’s and right next to the border. I wrote about Arunothai here
Nadech, the cat named after a movie star

The road from Chiang Mai to Pai and from then on to Mae Hong Son is renowned for curves, steep slopes, and the foreign, accident-prone tourists that drive them. I drove behind a motorbike with the typical long-legged, white foreigner look for a while, and thought to myself that it looked like one I might later see in the ditch. I stopped for lunch and about 45 minutes later I rounded a curve and encountered this very bike in a ditch with two bewildered foreigners standing beside it. I stopped, and we examined the situation, and I poured water over the young, excited man’s cuts. Whereupon, he sat down on a mile marker and then promptly pitched backwards into the ditch in a dead faint while I frantically tried to call 191. He then awoke and lifted one of the aforementioned long white legs and gravely stared at it as if trying to figure out how it was attached to him.

“Pound sign,” he blustered. “Exclamation mark, percent sign, pound sign, asterisk, pound sign!” I ignored the language and upon examining him further, we decided we didn’t need an ambulance after all.

He then asked for something sugary to eat and I was grateful to be able to pull from my backpack mentos that had been gifted to us on retreat. He gulped them down like a starving man.

I ended up going with them and a helpful Thai guy to the next police checkpoint to look at the wounds a bit more, and then went with them to the hospital and stayed until they were looked at by a doctor and feeling less emotionally traumatized. Then I headed on to Pang Maphaa, racing the sun in order to get to my guesthouse before dark.

The last time I had made this trip, I drove through chilling rain and mist. The wet road had made me very nervous then, but I remembered the thrill of cresting a hill and the gorgeous views below. This time the road was half as treacherous, and I made good time, even stopping now and then to snap a picture. The sun was dying, shafting gleams of golden light over the mountains, nectar for the soul.

I feel like this picture and the two above it characterize the entire trip the most.

My guesthouse was adorable, and its price just as adorable at less than 8 dollars USD. There was one window and I kept it closed since it didn’t have a screen, so when I woke up to a dark room the next morning, I figured it was about 6:30. It wasn’t until I looked at my phone that I realized it was close to 9 instead.

As I sipped my coffee, I Googled Pang Maphaa and started looking at my maps in anticipation of the route home. As I studied the maps, I realized there was a road leading to the border, and that the border was only about 30 kilometers from my location. It didn’t take long to make my decision, and about half an hour later, I was at Baan JaBo on my way to the border. JaBo is a small tribal village, known for its restaurant where people can eat noodles while dangling their feet over the side of the mountain. (I thought it was a Lisu village, but I am seeing other sources saying Lahu)

Several times past Ja Bow, as I drove on towards the border, I was tempted to turn back. With the roads I have traveled on in the past, you would think I would have no fear of driving, but somehow the unknown road ahead struck a deep fear in me. They might be incredibly steep and stony, for all I knew. I kept on telling myself that I had driven worse than this, and that this was my only chance in a long time to do this. I knew if I turned back, I would always live with a feeling of regret.

About 3 kilometers away from the border, I came onto a lookout. I stopped to take a picture and ended up talking a while with the old man there. His gray hair was wild and unkempt, and he chewed on red betelnut as we talked, but he told me a lot about the village and surrounding areas. He pointed out a mountain in the distance. That’s Myanmar, he said.

I started off for the border checkpoint. The road ahead looked steep again, and I stopped again and almost turned back. No, I told myself. I won’t. Surprisingly, it wasn’t nearly as steep as I thought at first.

I still feel disappointment when I think about what happened next. When I came to the checkpoint, the soldiers came out. I stopped my bike to talk to them and see if I could cross. I was a bit flustered, not having rehearsed what I should say, so I asked, “This road goes to Myanmar, right?” The soldier, looking equally flustered at having to talk with this strange foreigner who came chugging along, said, “Umm you can’t go.”

It was one of those moments where I looked back later and wished I had asked for more clarification. Did he mean the road didn’t lead to Myanmar? Did he mean, I as a foreigner couldn’t get across? Did he realize that I wasn’t going over to stay, but only to hop across to say I was in Myanmar? I still don’t know, and I should have asked, but I am someone who hates to cause a fuss or make a scene, so instead, I swallowed my bitter disappointment and meekly turned around with an odd, heavy feeling in my stomach, even shedding a tear as I left.

View of the checkpoint

The heavy feeling had lifted by the time I got to JaBo. I ate some noodles like a good tourist, and then faced the long drive to Mae Sariang.

About 6 hours later, by the time I crested the bridge over the Yuam River in Mae Sariang, the last of the pink sky behind the mountains was rapidly disappearing into pitch darkness.

I was home. And I had this odd feeling that God had given me a tour package designed especially for me.

*A note of clarification in case you are thinking I am crazy in even attempting to cross the border: in many parts of western and northern Thailand, it is possible to cross over into Myanmar by simply leaving your identification card at the border checkpoint as proof that you will come back. I did this in Saohin with Thai friends the first time I visited. However, I think it is easier for Thai people to do than foreigners.

**Secondly, as I looked at the map later, I noticed that the road doesn’t really seem to connect to other roads within Myanmar, but instead runs along the border, twisting in and out of the border line. It does lead to another village in Thailand, though, eventually. I am still unsure of the exact meaning of the soldier’s words and if I could have crossed if I would have argued my case.

An Oddly Restful Week

Life is strange nowadays, but strange in a nice twisty kind of way.

It is nice to meet Amy’s mom and dad again when they come to see her and we go together on Monday night to eat dinner at the church so that they can meet our Thai pastor and his delightful family.  We eat crabs and talk about jobs and places to visit in Mae Hong Son. Later that evening, I find out that some IGo friends are traveling through on their way to the border and stop in to say hi to them and chat for a while.

The next day we go out to eat again with Amy’s parents. Amy and I need some photos for the IGo newsletter so we take shots in a rice field as the sun goes down. Coming home, I find a nice, jolly toad posing perfectly in front of the house.

Wednesday is quite normal. Amy’s dad goes to Chiang Mai. In the evening, I check out the walking street that is open because of the Aukwa festival that is just starting in Mae Sariang and then go home to enjoy my supper with Amy and her mom.

The next morning, I wake up to a message from Amy, who has gone over to where her mom is staying, “My parents both have Covid.”

I try to shake the sleep from my eyes. Surely, she must be kidding. “I wish,” she replies.

And so begins another Covid whirlwind. Thankfully, the restrictions are not nearly what they were a year ago. Amy and I isolate, but we still leave the house for supplies. Amy brings food to her mom in her rooms and buys a huge box of Covid tests. We make plans and then change them, and make them again and then change them. Finally, Amy and her mom leave on Saturday for Chiang Mai to see a doctor there.

In the meantime, I bake and read and study Karen and play my ocarina and watch the moon rise over the valley and call my mom and watch the ants climb up the papaya tree behind the house and eat pumpkin pie for breakfast since I made two and I am the only one who eats them. Is there something like eating too much pumpkin pie, I wonder?

Isolating can be difficult, but it can also be just what the doctor ordered. Especially when it includes pumpkin pie.  

On Sunday, after taking my 4th Covid test, I go to church. This too, is just what the Doctor ordered. We sing worship songs in Thai that were some of the first songs I learned in Thailand and the words cut to my heart and pull tears from an aching part inside of me. Our pastor preaches on Matthew 11:28 and 29, “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” He talks about different kinds of burdens and the need to rest. I feel God speaking to that aching part of my soul again and the words I hear are beautiful.

In the evening, I don my mask and go to see what Aukwa is like by now. Aukwa is a festival celebrating the end of Buddhist Lent, but it is uniquely Mae Sariang. During Aukwa, the streets are lit up with lanterns, hundreds of small shops selling food and other items pop up beside the road, and there are musical competitions, shows and dances, a mini marathon and hundreds of other activities. It is sort of like Yoder Heritage Day at home. But different. Aukwa lasts for about 9 days, with the main activities happening the last three days.

It is colorful and bright and sparkling.

One of my students, Happy, sings in the competition, so I sit on the front steps of the police station beside another student, Achira, and wait for Happy’s song. Achira’s dad has a big bag of peanuts. Here, he says, holding out the bag. Have some.

So, I painstakingly crack open boiled peanuts and munch on them as I wait. Soon they move on, kindly leaving the bag of peanuts with me. An hour later, I see a friend I haven’t seen for over a year. He is with another friend and has moved back to the area after living in Chiang Mai for a year. They sit down and we try to chat for a while over the blare of the singing.

I don’t get home until close to 11. This is a Mae Sariang that I have never seen before. The quiet, sleepy town nestled in the valley has suddenly become a buzz of activity and late-night revelry. Even from my home 3 kilometers away from the city center, I can hear the music throbbing into the wee hours.

The next day I munch on more pumpkin pie before leaving to tutor some students.

I feel rested and at peace. Rest for me isn’t always just flopping down on a bed and doing nothing. Sometimes it means doing something different for a while. Sometimes it means fleeing into the mountains for a time to savor the silence and the cool air. Sometimes it might mean walking aimlessly by yourself through crowds or finding a seat and watching the throngs of people around you. Sometimes it means squatting down and watching ants for a while, or baking something just for fun.

Especially when its pumpkin pie.

Fried mush with sorghum molasses. This is NOT cultural Thai food, in case you are wondering. More like redneck Kansas food
geckoes on the screen door

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

Now I lay me down to sleep…

Sparrows in their nests lie down

Their heads beneath their wings

The night around them deepens, crouches

Oh Lord, the evil darkness brings!

I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep….

Lord, we have seen your sparrows falling

They have fallen from their nest

Limp and torn, with tattered wings

No heartbeat flutters in their breast

If I should die before I wake…

This shadow of death groans dark with fear

These tiny ones are walking through

God of the Valley, Father of Sparrows,

Bring these little ones home to You

I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take…

Gather these fledglings close to your heart

Gather them to You, drive fear away

Give them a wide, green, sweet meadow

And new wings to fly in a brighter day

 Lord, we have seen your sparrows falling,

And we cannot bear the pain.

Our hearts are numbed by the news of the shootings yesterday in Nong Bua Lomphuu province. A man walked into a nursery and using guns and a knife, killed over 20 children as they lay sleeping during their afternoon nap time. Having once worked at a daycare in Chiang Mai, I can easily visualize everything, and tears have pushed my eyelids all day. Our hearts are heavy with grief at this senseless murder of children, not to mention all the adults that were killed as well.

Lord, have mercy.

Feeding Myself

Recently someone asked me what I would say if I were accused of having a “White-Savior” complex. I told them I would reply by saying that I have received much more from Thai people than I have ever given. I have also learned much more from Thai people than I have ever taught them.

I have no way of measuring it, but living in another culture is an education in itself. I have learned hundreds of things over the past 8 years, not even counting the Thai language.

This includes things like learning how to wash dishes Thai style, eating with your spoon and your fork in each hand, cutting things with the knife turned outward (ok, I am not very good at that) and learning the nuances of communication outside of spoken word. (And I am still learning that too).

And then if you count language, I have learned even more. One thing I was reminded of recently when talking with Amy, is how much space language can take up in your brain. We were talking about how we tend to forget some of the simplest English words when speaking Thai. I remember learning about some bilingual theories at Payap from dry Dr. Saber at whose name was horribly mangled by us in both Thai and English. The theories were about bilingual children and whether or not the brain can absorb both languages at once, or if one language is absorbed at the expense of the other, or if you go into modes, like using an English mode and a Thai one.

I can’t remember which theory won out in the end, but if I examine my own brain, I would say that I have several modes. One is English. One is Thai. One is Pennsylvania Dutch. When I am in one mode, it is hard for me to switch to other modes. For example, I might be teaching a low-level English class, so I am speaking Thai. When a student asks me in Thai how to say a certain sentence in English, sometimes my brain freezes and it takes me a bit to think of how to say it in English, if I can think of it at all.

Other times when I am speaking a lot of English, my Thai starts coming out stilted. It seems as if once I am in one mode or the other, it’s hard to immediately switch. This is tremendously exhausting when you are translating for two parties in both languages. More than once, I have caught myself speaking the wrong language to the wrong person.

While I have gained so much and learned so much, a constant battle remains. That battle is to feed myself mentally from quality sources in the English language. I am not talking about a spiritual battle of making sure I get my spiritual food, but more of a battle of reading good literature. Books are scarce here, and although I have a Kindle, I do need to pay for books. Libby doesn’t work for me to borrow books since my home library does not participate. Not only that, coming home tired from a day of school, it takes discipline and energy to read. If I want to learn to write well, I must also feed myself well.

I am hungry. I am hungry to sit in a library surrounded by shelves and shelves of books, books and books. Big fat books with collections of short stories and poems. Books you can touch. I would give almost anything to study at summer term or winter term at Faith Builders and discuss what I am learning with like-minded people. I would love to join in on a book club and attend discussions from knowledgeable people fluent in English. I want to talk about the beautiful things we have read. I love my Thai friends, but our tastes in literature are as far apart as the North and South Pole and few, if any, are fluent enough in English.

But in the meantime, I make do. I read from some high school readers I brought over with me. I find books of poetry on Kindle, some of which are free. I recently discovered Spotify (yes, yes, I am wayyyy behind the times) and discovered that you can listen to poetry on Spotify. I try to follow blogs that stimulate the mind.

This hunger is one reason I like the Curator so much. The Curator is, in their own words, “an organization dedicated to developing a literary conversation with values sourced in the Christian worldview, particularly as Christianity has historically been understood by Anabaptists (but not confined to the Anabaptist community). We want to build a community of writers and readers who inform each other, a culture that recognizes quality and strives to create things of value. Our mission is to provide good content to engage in and to train writers and readers to be able to engage in it.”

I often find myself out of my league here, but I look forward to each Thursday morning when the Curator releases their weekly poem. Not only this, but they also provide the occasional short story or essay, and an annual collection of art, poetry and stories called The Leaf. Last year they had some Zoom seminars, which I actually managed to attend several times, despite the time difference.

Do you have any suggestions for ways to keep my brain mentally stimulated in English, and my mind cultivated when it comes to the arts? Any resources, books, or websites you would suggest? Let me know in the comments!

Just Some Pictures

I realize that I haven’t been writing a lot lately.

My dad had open heart surgery on June 16 and it was excruciating to be so far away from home. During that time, I wrestled with 2 different urges. One was the urge to dump it all out, the other the urge to clam up and feel sorry for myself. And being pressed for time, I didn’t do the dumping out part.

But that time passed, and my dad is now safely recovering at home, although my sister reports that life at home is sort of like living in a nursing home, since my mom has also been to see the doctor several times recently, and my aunt has to go on a weekly basis for chemo.

But believe it or not, life goes on here in Thailand. And I realize that I take a lot of good pictures, or I like to think of them as good, but I don’t share them much.

And as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words” so I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

These are students from our Gifted English program that just started this year. The room is on the same floor as the teacher’s office, so some of the students like to come over in the afternoon and practice their English and play Uno. I do believe the air conditioned room is a drawing factor as well. I recently bought a tiny model house to teach vocabulary to a class, but I didn’t have time to assemble it so these students helped me. We have listened to a lot of stories during this time, such as stories about evil spirits haunting houses and the whiskey used in spirit ceremonies. (While most Karen people are Buddhist or Christian, in the past, before Christianity was introduced or before the Karen integrated more fully into Thai culture, they were mostly animistic, with practices steeped in spirit worship. This is still a huge factor today, and many nominal Karen Christians wear amulets for luck or safety.)

Some of my former Saohin students came over to make cookies after going to church with me. I found it amusing and heartwarming how they sat in front of the oven to watch their cookies bake as if they were watching a movie.

There are times I wonder about my cat…..

Our pastor finished his doctor in theology and we had a celebration at the church. Taking pictures with each other at celebrations is an important thing in Thai culture.

Jiu, one of the girls at church, with Che Che (I think that’s his name).
Prayer time for our pastor

Yes, that spider is for real, and yes we found it in our kitchen. I think that might be an egg sac it was carrying underneath?

Rainy days are plentiful in July. Most days I make my afternoon coffee at school, but some days I splurge, especially if it is a particularly rainy day that calls for a hot latte.

No matter how the world might be behaving around me, I still find rest and relaxation in making a batch of good homemade chocolate chip cookies.

And enjoying cookie making is not exclusive to women either. One evening, before my birthday, several of my former Saohin students (this time the boys, not the two girls pictured earlier) called me. Can we come make cookies at your house?

The above picture is not mine, but one I found online. At the time that I found myself driving through these waters, I was too busy trying to stay upright and moving to take any photos. The picture was taken beside the Mae Chaem River between Hot and Mae Sariang on a day when various parts of Northern Thailand flooded.

Another picture that makes me shudder when I see the brown angry river to the left.

On the evening of Amy’s birthday we went to the church to practice the song we were singing with the youth group. The sky gave us an extra special display that evening.

These people make me happy. Most of the people in this picture are students who are staying at the church while they go to high school. On Thursday evenings, I have the privilege of teaching them English at the church. They are the most dedicated group of learners and laughers I have ever taught, I think I can say.

Every morning the national anthem is played at assembly and every morning the dogs at the school howl along with it.

This was not a fire, as it might look, but a random round of mosquito spraying in hopes of cutting down on dengue fever cases. I had just gotten to my class and started teaching when we were all told to evacuate and stay out of the building for about 25 minutes while they sprayed. Mae Hong Son is highest in the nation for dengue fever.

This shirt is special to me. One of my students who is an avid football player, asked me if I wanted a football shirt for my birthday. He then let me choose a color and gave me one of his own shirts. This young man is actually half Burmese, but lives in Thailand.

It’s not often I get to eat Mexican food, but on my last visit to Chiang Mai, some of my friends took Amy and I out for our birthdays and this is what we got. It was soooo good.

Mae Toe is a local tourist attraction about 60 kilometers from here. I have now visited there 4 times, twice just recently. In the middle of June, I went up with some students and then yesterday with some teachers. Someday, I think I should like to take a book along and simply curl up and read on top of the world.

So…. yesterday, I had thought the original plan was to park our bikes on the bottom and walk the rest of the way up, but it didn’t quite work out that way since the others in our group zoomed up before me. To make a long story short, I was trying to get up this hill like the people before me, but kept on stalling my bike. I got off and then managed to dump it on its side, and it being a heavy bike, couldn’t get it up again. With the help of Amy and this kind man, we got it to a place where we could park beside the road and then walked up. Driving on these concrete tracks is complicated because if you happen to stop, you are in trouble because there is simply no place to plant your feet to keep you from falling over. It doesn’t help if you are helplessly laughing either. I still have to giggle just to look at this picture…. and the expressions on our faces. Bless that man’s heart for stopping and helping (the others in our group were out of side beyond the next hill and curve)

The view was worth the hike, though.

We parked our bikes halfway up and walked the rest of the way….but these village boys who couldn’t be more than 12 had no such intentions.

Walking down from the 360 degree lookout.

Kaning and Mint, the two student interns, and Kru Jack, one of the Chinese teachers. Kru Jack’s method of hair control always makes me grin.

Amy on the top of the lookout, dreaming of Mr. Willoughby.

And me, probably dreaming about cookies.

Small

This is the road

It is a ribbon running through the mountains

Glistening black in the rain, fading gray in the sunlight

Checked with yellow, edged in white

Swooping and diving between and around the mountains

Like a swallow homing forever.

The road carries me down into the valley

Into the shade of forest, dusky and dark,

Curving in the lowlands, trapped and winding,

Now, suddenly it flings me arching up, up, up into the heights

Floating on a ridge on the top of the world,

A patchworked world of fields and villages

Some intricate masterpiece quilted by skillful hands;

Along the sunlit crest the road flies until we twist and turn,

Turn down dizzying curves to reach the river

The brown, brown river running swollen from the rain.

The river and the road take me away, and the sun splashes

Through the canopy of wild trees, spilling flickering light on the road

As it moves along the woodlands

Past a pregnant goat grazing by the way, and a field of buffalo,

Past smoke rising gray against the blue and green,

And mountains upholding a bluing sky until a

Sudden flood of rain; and inside my pink raincoat and visor,

I become a kingdom of myself, a muffled, moving, pink kingdom.

But the rain ceases

And a sudden orange of blossoms bursts against the sodden sky

The road is not a ribbon.

It is a gray and yellow asphalt snake, and I am a beetle riding on its back.

(Inspired by my bike trip to Mae Hong Son today (and other trips similar to it)).

A rural gas station. I love places like this to fill up since you usually can have fun conversations with the owner. Photo credit: Abby Martin
Abby Martin and I on a recent trip

Mae Sariang (#1 Vignettes of a Journey)

Dawn

The sun rises, one fiery eye

From behind the drought-scarred mountains

Wreathed with smoke

Noon

The heat whispers in the cornfields

Burning its secrets in the ground

Writhing around the withered stalks

Afternoon

The dry wind catches the fallen leaves

Pushes its heat into a dust devil and

Twirls the leaves to the tops of the trees

Twilight

Fire licks in V’s in the ridges, up and down

Fire rings the valley about

Fire on the mountains

Midnight

The Tukay laughs and calls on the porch

A confused rooster crows

And the cat sprawls on the cool tiles

Although all photos are mine, and were taken in the Mae Sariang disctrict, several of the ones with fire, as well as the Tukay were taken last year, some up at Saohin.

The next series of posts will be vignettes of a journey as I travel from Thailand to the States, Lord Willing and I don’t catch Covid, on Sunday evening. This includes a 6 hour layover in Switzerland, a day and a half in NYC, 3 days in Lancaster, PA at the Reach conference, and then home to Kansas for several weeks, and then flying back to Thailand in late April, with a 12 hour layover in Germany. If anyone comes to Reach, be sure to stop by the INVEST booth, which will be right beside IGo and MTM’s booth. I am holding all these travels in an open hand and trusting God (or trying to, I should say) to orchestrate this all ( and keep me from catching Covid before travel, since many of my acquaintances have had it recently).