Monday, January 25, 2010

VIM for the VIP

Oh the outrage! How can we have neglected the blog for nearly two weeks? Mai Pen Rai. No worries in Thai. No excuse, no reason, just never got around to it, I guess. Anyway, that's our story and we are sticking to it, unless a better reason comes forth.

The previous two weekends have been pretty quiet. We went back to our favorite little oasis, Kanchanaburi, and spent a couple of days by the pool. Last weekend we stayed in Dan Chang or the DC as Deb refers to it. On Sunday we headed over to Sam Chuk and the 100 year old Chinese market where we shopped for a few souvenirs to distribute amongst family and friends on our return. On Tuesday the school asked us to stick around for a very important meeting and dinner with visiting teachers from all over Thailand, it would take place Friday night. Lucky they added the dinner part or we would have been outta the DC in no time.

“VIM's” or very important meetings are pretty common place in Thailand and usually have littlereason to be. So when our principal asked us to spend Friday evening at the VIM and dinner, we were not too excited. It was Wednesday when we began to notice some significant changes were being made around the school, landscaping and cobweb removal topping the list over curriculum development and actual learning. Image is everything here. The students spent most of their day's cleaning rooms, planting trees and even laying sod on the barren patch of dirt around our office. We wondered if the King was coming, he did not. Flowers, plants and rock gardens sprung up around campus in no time. Why? Because a group of 25 teachers from around the country were coming for a VIM and dinner, of course! On the big day, Friday, the school was a frenzy of last second shaping up and then believe it or not, the announcement came over the loud speaker that dismissal time would be moved up to avoid the campus being dirtied. How to impress teachers in Thailand? Remove the students early and leave no trace of their presence or capabilities as students for anyone to see. It all made sense when the group arrived at our school at 7pm in the pitch black of night. I am sure it was the language barrier that kept me from hearing all the comments about the beautiful plants, flowers, rock gardens and lack of cobwebs coming from the VIP's for the VIM...Sorry for the brute force sarcasm, but really?

Needless to say, the evening was pleasant. There was not VIM or even a trace of actual school business being discussed. Our children did a wonderful job putting on 3 Thai cultural dances for the guests and in serving dinner to everyone. Deb and I sat on the floor, everyone was, and tried to avoid the odor of my feet seeping up from under the table. We were not really noticed and would have escaped, but the maniac with the microphone asked us to say a few words. A few words is all we got buddy...So in our broken Thai we said hello, thanked them for coming to our school and asked if anyone saw the new sod. No one did.

We have a pretty standard week ahead of us. Teaching and paper-rock-scissors games will occupy the majority of our time. The weekend plans call for a trip to Bangkok for some touring and possibly an adventure to a floating market.

Re-reading this I realize the bitter pill I swallowed while watching the Vikings throw away a trip to the Superbowl has now affected the blog. I apologize for this and assure you that future blog posts will be more in tune with our readers desires. Like me suffering, oh wait, did I mention there is another VIM this afternoon?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Thai Immigration versus Chicago DMV

Here it is. Deb and I were told on Tuesday that we would need to go to immigration and get our work permit and VISA extension on Wednesday. No worries, could a Thai immigration office be any worse than the Chicago DMV? Yes. Much worse.

If I had the ability to TWEET on my phone, it would have looked like this.


7:30a.m. Arranged pick up time. Coordinator was emphatic Tuesday night we be ready at this time.

8:00a.m. Coordinator picks us up and apologizes for being so early, did we miss something?

8:18a.m. Nearly dissolve a dog on the highway as we near warp speed in a pickup truck designed for slow going in the jungle. Our coordinator comments about the need for more traffic safety and driving instruction. Hello Kettle.

9:25a.m. Arrive at the District Administrative and Bureaucracy building (this is not made up) and immediately regret not bringing a camera to pose near the sign. Questions begin to arise as to whether the Chicago DMV might have some competition.

9:31a.m. Summit a massive staircase instead of taking the elevator that was obviously made for circus clown midgets. You know something is small when only 3 Thai people can fit in it. I mean, this is the country that on any given road you can see 3-5 people on a Vespa scooter with room to spare.

9:35a.m. Ascertain that we are in correct place from giant flow chart that depicts everyone's position in the building, from the District Manager to the elderly lady selling noodles in the lobby. We find our appropriate room and are beckoned to a desk by a friendly enough looking woman. At this point the Chi-town DMV is crushing the competition as there are not even numbers being called out and most people are smiling.

9:39a.m. All hell breaks loose in the office as the one and apparently only fax machine runs out of ink. Friendly looking woman (lets call her Janis) gets game face on and goes to join the 23 other people huddled around the fax. If ever a time for camera phone, this is it! I imagine the conversation was like this. “Tom, you call Jeff from IS and tell him to bring up ink.” “Screw that Janis, I am a man, I got this.” Janis returns to us and hands us a stack of forms, asks for our passports and then kicks Tom as she walks to copier.

9:59a.m. Janis returns from copier, kicking Tom on the way. Still no ink for the fax machine, but the consensus decision seems to be that if you shake the old ink cartridge enough, it will magically refill. Not a chance folks, I have been where you are, shaking just increases chance of wardrobe wrecking.

10:08a.m. Janis informs us that our forms are complete and the necessary copies have been made. She just needs to get one more signature, stamp our work permit and we are set. The DMV has no rival it seems.

10:11a.m. Janis returns with a smile on her face and like any good government employee, she blames the following on her leader. “Sorry, we cannot stamp because rule has changed. You must get Visa extension within in 4 days of expiration not the 5 days that it used to be. Please go to Ayyuthaya (85 kilometers away) and get Super District Commander General to sign temporary work permit.” That was the condensed version. With that, the fax machine became the center of attention again as it made a beeping sound when someone turned it on. Chicago DMV is up a field goal at this point.

11:45a.m. Arrive in Ayyuthaya and enter mini-mart of bureaucracy. Janis' twin sister greeted us at the door and asked us what we needed. Taking our forms and making good time getting through them was promising. Then 12pm flashed across the clock and the table we were sitting at quickly transformed into a buffet line. Janis II told us curtly that it was now the lunch hour and we would have to come back at 1pm. Not really wanting to get between a government employee and their federally mandated lunch break we left the office without the needed stamp and an hour to kill. Its a tie ball game now Chicago DMV.

12:15p.m. Pizza Hut in Ayyuthaya will make it all better, right? Right! The first thing that has gone our way today comes in the form of a small pan pizza with extra cheese. Life is good.

1:15p.m. Back to the fiefdom that Janis II is obviously the ice queen of. Our process starts over again, apparently lunch erases any memory of past visitors to the office. Seriously, every form she had already looked at was scrutinized again, most of the forms listed our birthday and former addresses, riveting... DMV is now down a touchdown.

2:00p.m. 8 people have been completely processed since we arrived here the second time. It smells like fish in here and the secretary is starting to pass out coffee cups to the employees. I spy a cake in the back and pray that we are not shuffled out the door for an inter-office birthday party.

2:30p.m. The coffee is being poured and Janis II looks ready to burn our paperwork to avoid missing the cake that is also being dolled out. Thankfully, our coordinator graciously asks her to keep working or maybe she threatened her with a severe scalding if Janis II does not finish, as the discussion was in Thai we dont know what was said.Janis II completes our forms, two stamps and a signature in just under 3 hours. WTF! DMV is total Junior Varsity.

2:45pm Traffic! I swear to God if its those damn elephants or a procession of monks, its going to get nasty. Of course! Why wouldn't every driver in the city slow down to look at the freshly painted “Welcome To Ayyuthaya” sign being unveiled, its not everyday you can smell new paint! DRIVE!

4:00pm Arrive back at the District Administrative and Bureaucracy building and scamper up the steps to make sure we catch the first Janis before she bails on the day. Not only is Janis there, but the whole damn office is now sitting around a table for the end of the day staff meeting or more likely they are reviewing the game tape from the fax machine SNAFU in the morning. Either way, we are welcomed like the plague in Europe. It literally took 5 minutes and a best of 5 in Rock, Paper, Scissors to decide who would help us.

4:45pm 6 copies of all forms are made and then stamped 8 times by two people, 3 others are called out of the meeting to review the forms and sign, a candle is lit and I am pretty sure we need to give a DNA sample now. Oh wait, they just want 1500 baht. Paid.

4:47pm Slowly backing out of the office in hopes that by staying big...oh wait that is for bears, run!

5:30pm Stunned, shocked, discombobulated and maybe a bit punch drunk with bureaucracy we hurtle back home. But wait, one more stop.

6:50pm Our coordinator dropped us off an hour ago at a restaurant and still has not returned. Her last word, “surprise!” I promise a swift and painful end if I do not get home in the next 20 minutes.

8:08pm Coordinator returns, orders us dinner. Silence ensues for next two hours...

10:00pm Home. Work permit in hand and with enough stamps and signatures to ratify the drilling of of ANWR.

This has been a presentation of our life in Thailand. Consider it a Christmas present.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


Here is an update on the teaching side of things. We experience the joys and frustrations of being a foreign language teacher everyday. The mornings are our favorite, as we enter the school grounds on our bicycles and are greeted by hundreds of student screeching “good morning teacher Deb and Joe” or “shake hand” or better yet “rock, paper, scissors”. We equate our attraction with the students to that of a Liger (you know, a tiger and lion cross breed),they exist, but until you see one in person it never really seems real. Many of our students have never seen white people in person, therefore they feel the need to shake our hands to ensure we are not a figment of their imagination. Needless to say, we go through lots of hand sanitizer as most of the kids leave a pile of dirt or the bird bath they are playing to run over and touch us...Joy!

Our time in the classroom continues to be some of funniest experiences we have had, as well as, some of our most frustrating. We are now 8 weeks out from the last day of school and the “books” we were given to teach from have been completed. (“books” are the quasi form of curriculum we can follow, if we so choose). We are now on a constant hunt for worksheets, games and activities to do with the kids yet have no curriculum to base these searches on. I never thought I had it in me, but I have officially found my “scary” voice in attempts to get the students attention when their noise reaches that of a jet airplane. Although it isn't as scary as Joe's I think I do a pretty good job.

The kids continue to amaze us though as they practice their English skills with us outside the classroom. We often have visitors in our office looking to get a little one-on-one tutoring session in between classes. Often pointing to objects in the office in search of the English word, or asking to see pictures of our friends, family and city in the states. Our nightly run to the market for dinner usually results in a few students or kids from other schools saying hello and the really brave ones asking how we are.

This week there is an outside chance that we will be making a border run, not to Taco Bell, but to Laos for our passports to stay valid. Our work permits have not been cleared yet and in order to remain “legal” we need to get another 90 day stamp. So, teaching may take a backseat as we have to travel to two distant towns in hopes of receiving our work permits and then on to immigration to extend our 90 day stay....If not Laos here we come!

We are already in the beginning stages of planning for our travels through Southeast Asia in March and our month in Europe in April. The past three months have been filled with incredible experiences and memories to last us multiple lifetimes. We are blessed with another three months of travel and look forward to whatever awaits us!

Monday, January 4, 2010

New Year 2010

If you did not make a resolution this New Year or want to switch from the normal“I am going to lose ten pounds” that usually lasts until SuperBowl Sunday, resolve to take a trip somewhere beautiful or somewhere you have always wanted to visit. We stuck to our 09' resolution and were rewarded beyond our imagination! There it was, glimmering on the horizon, a beacon for those seeking the ultimate New Year party. A two hour ferry from the port city of Phuket brought us to Phi Phi Island and it did not disappoint. We arrived on the 30th and could not have asked for a more spectacular setting to ring in the New Year. Phi Phi (pronounced Pee-Pee) is postcard beautiful with white sand beaches and crystal clear water that is always the perfect temperature supplied by the Andaman Sea. Our last days of 09' and the first few of the new decade were filled with swimming, snorkeling, wandering and general revelry.New Years eve was F-U-N, fun, fun, fun! We started the evening with a great dinner at a Seafood restaurant that is located right on the water and specializes in seafood. It was win-win for the both of us. We were joined at dinner by 8 friends who are also teaching here and made the trek south. By the time dinner ended and our billed was paid, we had put a good dent into the evening. Making the move to an Irish pub for a “bucket” was next. A “bucket” is a sand pal that is filled with ice and your choice of adult beverage and a mixer, total price $3. A couple of those guys put everyone in good spirits and the party moved onto the beach at a bar called Bora Bora. At this point the night gets a bit hazy for Joe, but Deb documented most of it with the camera and pictures do not lie. Basically it went down like this. There were fire dancers everywhere on the beach, people juggling, jump roping and even spitting fire could be found all around. Then the ring of fire came out and for the highly confident party goers you were welcome to jump through it. Joe did, three times.

As the clock ticked toward midnight, the tide began to come in further and soon we were dancing in the waves. Dancing soon gave way to swimming under a full-moon and when the clock struck 12 the fireworks exploded all over the island and we enjoyed the show while floating on our backs. The hip-hop and classic rap blaring over the speakers carried us deep into the first morning of 2010.

We spent New Years Day recouping in the morning and then went on snorkeling tour and sunset cruise in the afternoon. Phi Phi is close to a number of other islands and we were able to snorkel, visit the famed “The Beach” movie setting and even see a native group of people that live in a giant cave on one island. The cruise ended as
we silently drifted in the ocean watching a beautiful sunset.

On our last day we hired a long-tail boat taxi to take us to Bamboo Island. It was hands down the most beautiful beach either of us have ever seen. We spent the day relaxing in the sun and snorkeling in the aqua green water. It was a great way to wrap up
our trip to and to celebrate the New Year. Our suggestion to anyone looking for a spring break destination, winter getaway or just a vacation is that you head to Phi Phi Island in Thailand, a breathtaking place that will not disappoint. We hope everyone had a wonderful New Year and are now settling for remainder of
the winter. We officially crossed our half-way mark as teachers today, only 8 weeks to get the little critters speaking English. Better get to work! Happy New Year.