Why would you do that?

It was around April when a girl at my gym asked me this question. She asked it with absolute shock, disbelief, and a hint of scorn. I had clearly, in her eyes, made a stupid decision- one that I would regret, sooner probably, rather than later. And fair enough, quitting your extremely stable, reasonably well paying job at a lovely school with wonderful teachers, understanding leadership and seriously great students does sound pretty extreme… but, to be honest, extreme was what I was going for.

6 months ago, I waved goodbye to freezing cold Melbourne, Australia- home of my heart and soul- and moved to the hot, wet embrace of Chiang Mai, Thailand. I had all sorts of reasons for doing so- I needed to get out of my comfort zone, test my ability to trust God, give myself a chance to heal from my clean eating and exercise obsession, do something different, get out of Melbourne winter… the list goes on. But one of the most important driving factors which forced me to buy an (initially) one way ticket to Thailand was my passion for refugees.

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This is not the blog post for discussing the human rights abuses my government is currently committing in my name- if you want to talk with me about that, we can do so at another time- but their actions, or sometimes lack thereof, made me want to do something real related to the refugee crisis. I’ve always donated food and money to local refugee organisations, participated in online and physical protests, incorporated refugee narratives into my classes (in a remarkably unbiased manner, I’m proud to say), and voted with my feet and money by visiting and using organisations, enterprises, restaurants, businesses etc which support, educate and employ refugees who come to my beloved nation. I’ve tried to make them feel welcome, even when media rhetoric spews out bile indicating that they are not.

But it didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to do something long term, sustainable and helpful- and I still want to do this when I get home. Combine this passion with all my other reasons for flying the nest, and you come to the answer to the above question:

I couldn’t NOT do it.

But the story started much earlier than that encounter, obviously, and even earlier than I’m going to go into here (again, not the purpose of this piece), but my journey tangibly began when I first started researching what was then a mere pipe dream. I spent hours, stolen in between feverish marking, exam supervising (sorry…), workouts, brunch dates, and episodes of Masterchef and Doctor Who, googling the different opportunities there were to teach English in Thailand.

Spoiler alert: There are LOTS.

Many of them are paid jobs in either local or international schools, some of them place you as a live in tutor in a (very) rich family, some of them are more like an agency which sets you up as a substitute teacher in different schools. I decided I didn’t want a paid position- it wasn’t my purpose in coming to Thailand.

So, I narrowed my search: “volunteer English teaching in Thailand”.

Again, lots of results. All over the country. Lots of very short term placements came up, with beautifully curated websites with lots of pictures of happy children being hugged by happier westerners. These looked promising… but as I looked more into it, delving into google to try to find blogs about the experiences of people on these programs, I started to realise that these were also not the sort of organisations I wanted to support. They were often quite new, geared toward people with no teaching experience who they expected (it seemed from blog posts) to come up with lessons on the spot with no training, resulting in a lot of games being played and not a lot of learning. They were geared toward one or two week placements… not something long term like what I wanted.

So I thought about what I really wanted, where I wanted to go, prayed a lot, and found myself googling:

“volunteer english teaching + chiang mai + refugees”

And there it was. Maybe 5th or 6th on the first page of results:

“Thai Freedom House: No one is free while others are oppressed”

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I clicked. I read. I knew, instantly, this was going to be the place for me.

The volunteer information listed on the website was detailed and thorough- there was clearly a precedent for long term volunteers, and they weren’t going to mess around with just anyone. You could tell that this was a place that valued commitment and was not just a halfway house for privileged white travelers (of which I am totally one) to get their happy snaps with kids before moving on to the next party. This was a place that had existed for 12 years (10 years when I first started researching it) and was clearly doing incredible work. They also had a vegetarian (now vegan) healthy cafe and didn’t just teach English, but provided a space for Burmese (specifically but not exclusively; Shan or Tai Yai) refugees to call their own, feel safe and express themselves authentically. They  provided art, Thai, Burmese, and Shan classes so students of all ages could be creative, exist more harmoniously in the place they were currently living, be able to communicate with government officials if they ever returned to Burma, and most importantly- stay connected with their heritage and learn their mother tongue. They also had Shan dance and cultural classes. I knew I wanted to be a part of this experience.

I favourited the page, downloaded the application, and set myself a date in about 6 months for when I would complete it- roughly a year before I was intending to depart.

That date came quickly and I sent off my application. Emails to and from Lisa Nesser (the founder of Thai Freedom House and Free Bird Cafe) followed and we finally decided on a start date- 6 months later than I initially intended- but which ended up being perfect as it meant I was absent for the low, smokey season, but present in the busy lead up to the dry, high season. I will forever be grateful to Lisa for looking out for me in my planning.

In that time, I bought my tickets, roughly planned the other parts of my travel which I’m doing post-placement, wrapped up my school year, started another couple of jobs to tide me over and provide me with a bit more spending money, and paid my dues to TFH. I decided that I would go with the option to be hosted by them, meaning that I paid a flat rate and they would provide me with accommodation, lunch every work day, the placement, a bike, a sim card on arrival, in country orientation, pick up from the airport/train/bus station, some Thai language materials and other handy bits and pieces. I’m so glad I did this- my apartment is awesome, close to everything, has a beautiful view and I didn’t have to think about it at all, so good for me, as you sure as hell know I would over think it in a major way.

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I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous when I was arriving in Chiang Mai, as I knew Lisa was still in the States herself (our skype interview had taken place the week prior) and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I really needn’t have worried. I was met by one of the past students and then staff of Thai Freedom House who is now studying at university in Chiang Mai! He took me first to my apartment, then took me to Free Bird Cafe where I met the staff of the cafe- all of whom welcomed me warmly and made me feel part of the Freedom House Family immediately. I was given a tour of the market, shown where a chemist, post office, and 7/11 was, along with some Thai lessons and a lesson on Thai culture and etiquette.

This feeling of family only increased when Lisa arrived. She and I sat down together to first discuss the goals of the organisation, the history of both TFH and Burma’s issues with its ethnic minorities, and her personal history which led her to this point. This orientation was so appreciated, important and worthwhile; it placed me in a headspace of respect for the work of TFH and made me place immense importance on what I do here.

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As we talked, we sorted out what needs TFH had and what I could do to meet those needs. We decided that I would work on developing a 12 week curriculum for the beginner and intermediate English classes, along with a partnering curriculum for students looking to go into further study- known as “The Pathways” curriculum. I would also help with the Hospitality Training program as both a tutor for the cafe’s amazing waitress, and a contributor to lesson plans, activities and resources. In addition to this, I would also be teaching English one night a week to a class of students ranging from 8 to adults. My hours would be 10-2 on Monday and Friday, 10-8 on Tuesday and 10-6 on Wednesday and Thursday. I would have a lunch break at 1 where I would receive the lunch the chef made for me (best. part. of. the. day) and could grab a tea in the morning when I came in.

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This structure and the obvious needs I would be fulfilling warmed my heart and continues to do so today. Lisa is so encouraging and direct about her expectations that I was always sure of what I would be doing and how it would be used- there was never a point where I felt like I was doing busy work- every thing- whether it be a lesson plan or finding the right picture for a flashcard- had a purpose and a point and this became a trend as I started completing tasks and still is, even now, with less than a week left. My time is valued by Lisa and by our students, and because of that, it’s extremely easy to value theirs and live up to the expectations set by Lisa’s example.

While my days are structured and consistent, they’re also varied and exciting! On Mondays, I teach and chat to our server about the different things she needs to know as a waitress. I’ve even had to teach some very basic maths (bye, bye comfort zone!)! After class, we have lunch together as a family- a highlight of my week, one which really emphasises the power of this organisation and the way it empowers those who pass through its doors.

Tuesday nights, I get to spend my evening with a group of crazy kids who love John Cena, Harry Potter and GOT7 and who are SO eager to learn that they come to TFH after already spending the day at school.

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Wednesdays, I get to host a lunch which invites the women of Chiang Mai- every nationality, creed, colour, religion, class, career- to meet new people, make new friends and connect in a city which could be quite isolating if you let it. I’ve met so many people through this lunch and I’m so grateful for the chance to host it and help other women find their tribe-for-a-time.

My days are never dull, never boring, never repetitive (except for that stage when I was making flashcards…) and most importantly, never worthless. I know, for certain, that the work I do here has lasting consequences, lasting impact and lasting worth.

 

Thank you to Lisa for making me feel so at home in this place and giving me so much responsibility. You are an inspiration to all who meet you and to many more who never will. Thank you for the hope that you spread, the education you freely provide (and not only to the students, but to all those who come to Free Bird Cafe), and the example that your life displays that one person can choose to make a difference- regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.

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If you’re considering volunteering in Chiang Mai- or anywhere, really- I urge you to find a place that will make you feel the same way. Not just for a moment, but for good.

Because that’s why we do it- that’s “why I would do that” random girl from gym…

For good.

(And if you are coming to Chiang Mai, come and visit Free Bird Cafe. If you’re looking to volunteer somewhere and want a truly worthwhile, work based volunteer placement, check out Thai Freedom House.)

 

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Cycles of Life – Penang P2

After my ill fated but still highly recommended food tour, I fell into a total food coma, hoping to wake up hungry before my long awaited cycling tour the next day.

While I did wake up with plenty of time for a street food breakfast, my stomach was having none of it. I wasn’t hungry at all and the smells I experienced as I wandered around, trying fruitlessly to work up some sort of grumbling in my stomach just made me feel slightly nauseous. Super annoying on any day, but on the day of a cycling trip? Downright disruptive! Anyway, I wandered, empty handed and empty stomached back to my Airbnb to await my pick up by Matahari Cycles. They were on time, the van was super comfortable and I actually really enjoyed being one of the first pick ups as it meant I got to see some of the other areas of Penang- and see how the other half travel!! The hotel that we stopped at first was like something out of Getaway or Luxury Escapes and while I do love my flashpacker lifestyle, there were certainly some hints of envy tugging at my heart.

It also gave me a hint to the route I could take to my mum’s old house and I got extremely excited as we passed by the old swimming pools she used to train at. It seemed relatively easy to find and navigate to, so I knew I would find it the next day.

Eventually, we had picked everyone up and were soon winding our away around the hills of Penang, avoiding the cyclists for whom this must have been a regular pilgrimage. I became very glad that we were being driven for this section as it went on for quite a while. We soon arrived at a tiny village, in the middle of nowhere really, on the other side of Penang Island. We seemed to be in a different world entirely than that of Georgetown and its heritage listed street art. This was proper, rural living- a world away from the city life I was so used to. I love nature and so was thrilled by the opportunity to escape.

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It wasn’t a total escape, however… there was still a 7/11 and so, even though I wasn’t hungry I knew I needed to eat something or my body just wouldn’t do well on the ride. Dried chickpeas were my friend for the morning. We met up with our awesome guides and after receiving the run down on the bikes (amazing, Giant brand, mountain bikes with everything a girl could want except a padded seat) which had been set for our heights which we had sent through earlier. It was so smooth, organised and it filled me with confidence for the rest of the day.

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The ride itself was incredible, we rode through the back streets of villages, past schools (closed for the holiday), farms and canals; through palm plantations, mangroves and over rice paddies. The riding was mostly flat and therefore really easy, although riding through the rice fields was mildly terrifying and a few people did fall- they weren’t hurt and Matahari dealt with it fine- but still, if you’re not confident on a bike- take the longer way around (which they did tell us to do!).

The highlights of the day were the stops we made- first, an unplanned one at a local Mosque where they were marking a Holy Day which marks the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son and the mercy of God in providing a lamb instead. Vegans or vegos may want to stop reading now as the way they marked this particular day was by slaughtering livestock and dividing the meat into three portions- one as a sacrifice to Allah, one to give to the poor and one to feed themselves. We were lucky enough to see the portioning process and be invited to learn more about it, take photos etc. It was incredible to see and I felt really lucky to experience it.

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The next was a planned stop at a local goat farm where we got to try goat’s milk ice cream (which my stomach actually totally appreciated by this stage), pat adorable goats and also learn about some of the local farming methods and plants they cultivated in the area, such as rubber.

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Our next stop was tea and kaya toast (and curry puffs) at a local fishing village. Again, my stomach appreciated these tasty treats (though I don’t think I’ll be indulging in kaya much in the future- it was very sweet and I was grateful for the blandness of the toast itself to balance it out). We also saw how the fishermen sorted their “subcatch” from the nets. While a catch might be mainly large fish, the nets also pick up much smaller fish- destined for pet food or those fish ball things depending on quality-, prawns and other crustaceans and, I was pleased to see not too much, litter. So, these men and women would squat down and pick out the debris and subcatch from their nets, separating and sorting it as they went. It was a long process and by the time we were there at around 11, they were almost finished, starting the job in the wee hours of the morning.

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We cycled for another hour and a half or so before we came to our lunch spot- overlooking rice fields which stretched out to the horizon was a little bamboo hut- loaded with, glasses of nutmeg juice, bowls of laksa and plates of fresh fruit. It was a welcome sight and a beautiful one, at that. I could only eat a few mouthfuls of laksa- I think partly due to the fishy-ness of the dish of which I’m not a fan, and also because of my stomach issues that day. I think I was still full from my toast- ridiculously. The fruit and nutmeg juice was very welcome, however, and I felt ready to take on the final stage.

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Now, I had booked “The Twist”- an optional ending to the tour which was billed as a challenging climb. I’m fine with climbs as long as I have gears but I realised on the tour that this wasn’t a road climb, it was a mountain bike climb on very rough tracks which often got quite skinny and were always extremely bumpy. I’m certainly no wimp, but I’ve never mountain biked before and I was also very aware of the fact that what climbs up must also climb down. One of the guys in our group had done this ride in reverse and said the climb required you to carry your bike part of the way and there were sections that he had to focus entirely on controlling his bike so he didn’t fall.

And he was experienced.

Scared for my limbs, I spoke to our guide and he suggested that we turn it into a hike for me and the other girl who was now having second thoughts. Our reverse ride friend was fine to ride himself and we would meet him on the other side. I was overjoyed and excited. I love, love, love hiking and was totally pumped to be able to incorporate my two great loves on one trip.

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I’ve never been so thankful in all my life- the climb was steep, yes, but more than that, it was treacherous. AND the views were magnificent- something I wouldn’t have seen if I had been on my bike as I would have been staring at the track in front of me the entire time.

This section of the tour was cool too- we stopped in front of cacao tree (as in CHOCOLATE) and there was a ripe pod which our guide picked and beat open for us to taste. Cacao fruit is DELICIOUS- similar to mangosteen in texture and taste- and not at all like I was envisaging.

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The climb ended and we started heading down and it’s then that I really became grateful- this wouldn’t have been any fun for nervous little me. Plus, the other girl and I were chatting away about all sorts of things which again, would NOT have happened had we been on bikes. I feel like my vocab would have been limited to grunting, swallowed screams and muttered unmentionables as I toppled over on what I’m sure would have been regular occasions.

When we reached the bottom, we were both so glad that we hadn’t skipped “The Twist” entirely- the views of the beaches were stunning during the hike, but the beach itself was so chilled out. There was a hammock, a restaurant with drinks waiting for us and a plate of noodles too. I had a few mouthfuls but again, my stomach betrayed me and resisted the deliciousness despite the amount of energy I had exerted that day.

After relaxing at the beach for a while, Matahari drove us home again, dropping me at my door where I looked forward to scrubbing myself clean in my lovely shower before exploring Georgetown and its festival! The day was already so great that I was a little skeptical that it could get much better.

I can’t emphasise enough how excellently run and organised Matahari was and I HIGHLY recommend them to anyone who likes cycling. It’s such a great way to see Penang and you really do get off the tourist track. I can’t encourage you enough to give them go if you’re heading to Malaysia- it was an incredible day.

 

Revisiting a shared memory…

I’ve never been to Malaysia before. I’ve never even had a layover there. I’ve never had reason to use my tiny amount of Bahasa Indonesian which is leftover from years 3-8 and so very similar to Bahasa Malay…

But sometimes I feel like I have.

Not so much because so many of my closest friends have their ancestral roots in Malaysia and so when they travel to visit their families I see lots of photos and hear lots of tales of the malls of KL and the splashes of the theme park there.

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More because of my own family history. Despite the fact that I am as white bread as they come, I have my own roots laid down in Malaysian soil. My granddad was in the RAAF and as you may be aware, there is an Australian Air Force base situated in Penang which he was stationed at for about 2 and a half years. My grandmother, mother and two uncles joined him and lived there, in the humidity and the heat and exotic haze- a family of five forever intertwined with the cultural heritage of that tiny island which is already so culturally diverse.

So, when I set foot there and hopped on a bus across the island- I didn’t feel so much like a foreigner, but more like someone who was returning to a dream. I’d heard so much about this place of fresh seafood straight from street vendors who didn’t just pass on their wares, but also the dirtiest words of their language to my infant uncle; this land of Chinese Swimming Clubs and monsoonal rains; this land of murtabak and chilli and curries and the call to prayer. I was prepared for the experience of revisiting this new/old place to feel strange but I don’t think I was quite as prepared as I originally thought.

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Walking through Georgetown- with it’s heritage listed status and therefore it’s unchangedness- was like walking through a faded postcard. The houses were colourful, magical… an explosion of nostalgia and history which ticked every box I have. Cycling through the relatively quiet streets- especially on a cool Sunday morning- to explore and discover the street art before the hordes of tourists with selfie sticks descended only enhanced the feeling that I shared more than I knew with this old-new-familiar-foreign place. When I rode through the city to a hipster filled market, I knew that Penang knew me better than I ever thought it could.

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When I booked my flights to Penang, I wanted- more than anything- to visit the house, or at least the area, my family lived in. I love and miss everyone who lived there very much at the moment and my granddad passed away 5 years ago now. I thought by visiting their old neighbourhood, I’d feel their presence so strongly and while I was hoping for this- I didn’t really expect it.

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But when I arrived at the address and the trees were large and the house looked old- foreign- amongst the redone and renovated town houses surrounding it, I could feel the ghosts surrounding me. This was more than I hoped for. This was authentic and this road was the one my uncles and mum walked along everyday on their way to school. This tree which was once small, now shades the window of my mum’s old bedroom. This home housed my Grandma and Granddad, protecting them against the lashings of monsoonal rain- the cool tiles providing some comfort from the tropical heat. My uncle had a paddling pool in the front yard where there is now a motorbike. This house, this place, was a part of my history- despite the fact that my skin was now, after riding there in the hot morning sun, bright red- a feature that belies my EnglishIrishScottish blood.

The illusion of belonging was broken a little when a lady peeked out of the curtains- reminding me that this is not just mine and I am very much an outsider in this street, city, island, country, continent- but belonging is more than skin, it’s more than blood, it’s about where you feel you belong and where the people accept you.

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After my journey to the past, I rode to the aforementioned hipster market and got talking to a lady selling kefir (because of course I did). She asked what I had been doing in Penang and I told her that I had just visited my mother’s old house. She smiled wide and said she remembered fondly the Australian officers who worked in Penang and Butterworth, remembered the makeshift bars and remembered the RAAF school which my mum and uncle attended. She said- honestly and genuinely- that I should bring my mother and grandmother back with me next time, that she would take us to the places they would know, they would remember. She said “welcome back” to me.

Belonging is about how you feel, where you feel accepted, where you feel a part of a shared past.

And Penang- against all odds- held that for me.

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//

Also- I wish Identity and Belonging was still a part of the English curriculum because dayum, sample piece for Mind of a Thief for days…

I’ll post more about what I actually DID in Penang soon. I just felt like writing something other than what would essentially be a review post.

Recent happenings…

I’m currently on my way to Mae Sai to do a border run, necessary to keep my visa valid. I could have done a 30 day extension in town, but that’s 1900 baht, plus the cost it takes to get there and back (unknown but red trucks aren’t always super honest about places beyond the old city) and it’s super unpredictable in terms of wait time etc. 

I decided instead to just commit to being out for the day, do a border run (the tickets cost less than 500 baht return) to the Burmese border, pay my (hopefully) $10 to go into Burma (or 500baht- but the USD is a bit cheaper… but not always accepted so we’ll see!) have some lunch and a bit of an explore around the border town before hopping back on the bus. Yes, it takes longer but in the end, I think it’ll be a much better experience than sitting in an immigration office surrounded by other expats! Plus the drive is offering up some beautiful views!

Some things which have been happening recently: 

  • I organised a trip to and hiked through Doi Inthanon national park! It was an adventure from the moment I posted the notice asking if anyone wanted to join, but definitely worth it! In the end there were 7 of us who took the plunge and went on the tour, ably led by our guide “Mr P”. Throughout the trek, he told us about and showed us various herbal medicines, bush tucker (Thai style) and tools which could be found in the jungle. The hike itself was really chilled, gently undulating with some pretty intense downhills at points. There were a few slippages here and there but no one was seriously injured… despite the threat of mudfoot/bootmud/wetboot… all the names we came up with when trying to remember what trench foot was called after falling into a waterfall and soaking our socks and shoes. One highlight of the day was finding out about Mr P’s life- he was a monk for 12 years as a teenager and went into the service because it offered free education, food and accommodation. I found this really interesting and wonder how many monks do the same for the same reasons and if this has ever been a consideration for Christian ministry in the past- particularly in places like Ireland etc. Another highlight was the food. Mr P and our two porters cooked us up a true feast of chicken and tofu roasted over the open fire, sticky rice and the most amazing vegetables which were wrapped in a banana leaf pouch and steamed over the fire also. They were amazing. We ate our fill of this, and beautiful fresh fruit under the canopy of the jungle, waterfall in the background, while sitting on a tarp of banana leaves. It was pretty magical. If you’re ever in Chiang Mai, I highly recommend doing a tour with Pooh’s Eco Trekking. They’re absolutely wonderful. 
  • At work, we’ve farewelled Jack but welcomed a new face to the team! Jing, who used to work in the kitchen is now back in Thailand so her little boy can go to school here! She’s so lovely and it’s been great getting to know her. P ohn, our current chef and my student, will be leaving us soon 😞 but Jing is super great so I’ll recover.
  • I went to an amazing dance performance which I understand less than half of. But it was very cool and I loved seeing the different styles of story telling they utilised 
  • I’ve been tutoring P ohn and Yim for the last two weeks, going over the menu and looking at our vocab words- linking verbs like slicing and dicing to the dishes they’re used in. We’ve also watched some videos which they narrated- naming the ingredients and actions of the chefs. 
  • It’s been really good to start getting to know Yim and P ohn a bit more- Yim showed me a video of her presenting her mum with a Mother’s Day present and P ohn told me how she was spoilt this weekend too. I showed them some pictures of my parents and am reliably informed that I look like them- a cross between, which is a good thing!
  • My bike tyres go flat very quickly which can make it very hard to ride with confidence. 
  • I’ve met some amazing people over here- the latest being a documentary film maker whose new project sounds so amazing I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re seeing it nominated for awards in the very near future
  • Speaking of documentaries, if you haven’t seen “I am not your negro” then you definitely should. Important and beautifully made and devastating film. I wish it weren’t so relevant. 
  • We’ve had some groups come through recently and it’s been cool to meet people who are so invested in helping grassroots organisations like FBC. If you’re coming to Chiang Mai with a school group or similar, please consider booking a visit with us! You get lunch, a talk and a q and a session. I also got to hear Seng Lao’s story for the first time. She’s one of our ex students who then worked in the cafe, kitchen and then in the office while preparing for uni- which is where she is now! The adversity which she has had to overcome makes me feel exceptionally guilty for any complaints I made about my own education experience and her gratitude and maturity are well beyond her years- though she’s lived through more than most of us ever will. 
  • I used this service called wash drop to wash my sheets and it was the greatest thing ever. I love clean sheets. 
  • Waxing is still an adventure every single time.
  • Thai massages are the best way to recover from hiking- but be prepared for tiny ladies to dig their elbows into your calves and hamstrings because they’re “so tight”. 
  • Only seen 4 rats. Heard more but walked into the road to avoid any chance of seeing them. Good life choice. 
  • Booked my River Kwai trip! I finally got the hotels.com issue sorted after a lot of (reasonably) calm but clearly pissed off interactions. I have decided I’m just doing it myself because then I can decide what I want to see and when. Accomodation is all sorted too! I’m staying in a bungalow on the river (not a hostel!)
  • Almost finished creating resources at work! I wish I was able to use existing stuff but I’m much too much of a control freak for that
  • Finally got to talk to my bestie this week. Makes a huge difference, even if it’s just a short burst 🙂 
  • Said goodbye to my new friend Jennifer on Sunday 😦 I’ll miss our foodie adventures and shared outrage over old white men being gross
  • Have slightly fallen in love with 10baht bags of chia seeds, collagen jelly (both with no sugar) filled up with hot soy milk. It’s so lovely- especially after getting caught in the rain! 
  • I’m getting better at avoiding/being prepared for the rain
  • I bought a cactus for my room! Well, it’s a family of cacti. I’ll introduce them soon. 
  • I have a watch tan. 
  • I’m constantly shocked by the smallness of the world. I visited a new church on Sunday (which I think will become my church) and I met a couple there who knows the Conibear family really well and hosts the group from Maranartha which comes everywhere- which I went to a trivia night to support when I was back in Melbourne! This is the second time I’ve met people with intimate connections to students. What even. 
  • It’s hard to update your voting details while overseas. Regardless, I’m trying! Voting is a right people died for and even in a non binding, non compulsory, totally unnecessary plebiscite, I intend to honour the responsibility that it is to vote. 
  • I have two sets of little dumbbells! Along with my TRX and resistance band, they’re making workouts a lot more fun!  
  • I did the fish spa thing. It was very weird and my friend Larissa and I were very giggly the whole time. 

Hopefully that’s a bit of an update on life in Chiang Mai! Miss you all- although apparently it was Parent Teacher Interviews recently so… not that much 😂 

Love you! 😘😘

Thai Tidbits

I thought I should do a quick little post. I haven’t done anything “special” recently- I’m going to Pai this weekend which will warrant a blog post soon- but every day is filled with something cool! Here are 5 little things which have happened in the last MONTH I’ve been here which aren’t particularly of note but which characterise my time in Chiang Mai.

  1. I finally decided that I needed to wax my hippy-vegan-femme-tacular legs (they were starting to bother me a little bit, but to be honest, I never felt particularly self conscious about the hair. A nice change from home when a tiny bit of stubble caused me to wear tights on beautiful days…) and so went into a little salon that looked clean and reasonably priced… I managed to convey I wanted a half leg wax and so the lady motioned for me to sit on the low couch and stick my leg out. In the main shop. Just in the open. Now, I’m assuming (hoping) it would have been different for a full wax or God forbid, a brazilian, but for a half leg it was fine, if not a little amusing. I was given a free bottle of water and LOTS of compliments that I was “SO WHITE”. It was the smoothest and most pain free wax I’ve ever had so will be back next time.
  2. There are plenty of Facebook expat groups which people update pretty regularly with questions, local events, services, recommendations for cafes, inane banter, bitcoin advice and requests for meetups! I love these groups because it means I have a social life and it keeps me up to date with what’s on around town, even if I can’t go this particular week- it’s pretty likely that it will be on again. In one of these groups, a man (who I later learn is SPOILER ALERT lovely) posted asking for volunteers for a special kind of Thai massage as he is currently training and needs to practice on people as much as possible. This sounded a) amazing [yay! Free!] but b) suss as hell. So, I messaged him and asked:
    Where is the massage located?
    What parts of the body are massaged? and
    What would I be wearing?
    He responded quickly that it was in a public temple training school, it was full body apart from the normal areas avoided in FBM and that I would be fisherman pants and a loose top. I quickly responded that I would LOVE to be a guinea pig for this massage practice and I WAS NOT disappointed. Simon was LOVELY and I’ll definitely be back to help him out again. I know it’s a sacrifice and even I’m shocked at how altruistic I am, but sometimes you just have to give back.
  3. During my cooking class, we went to a market (like most classes) and the lady took us to a stall with- according to her- over 50 kinds of garlic. It was all I could do not to just DIE in happiness. The love that Thai’s have for garlic in their food knows no bounds and one of my favourite things is the regularity of getting raw slices of garlic on the side to add to my curry or soup or stir fry. Honestly, SO delicious. Speaking of delicious things, one of my most favourite street food snacks has become whole roasted sweet potato- cooked over the grill. A bag of them will set you back 20baht or so and it’s literally just sweet potato. Makes a nice change of carb from rice- though I do love that too.
  4. I did a boxing class recently which  was SUPER awesome and I need to go back (I literally have something on every night this week which means I can’t do this week) but I was struck (heh) by how different it was from boxing back home… mainly in the physicality of the instructor! I don’t think I’ve ever been slapped so much. “Power from HERE (slaps thigh) and  HERE (slaps shoulder)” “Hands Up! (lightly hits me on the JAW!)” It was definitely an experience and one which taught me to a) loosen up- (I never felt unsafe or anything! It was just the style of teaching) and b) keep my guard up!
  5. I know I keep posting about this but OMG the rain. Rainy season is not a misnomer in any way. It rains at least once a day and  when it rains, it pours. It can be beautiful in the morning and then pour in the afternoon, or vice versa, or just threaten all day, or something else entirely. I’ve become better at bringing my gorman around with me everywhere but I’ve also just started to embrace it at times. It does sometimes suck when you’re on the bike, at night, though. Not a fan of riding in the dark and the rain. It makes me feel like my travel insurance is being voided, haha. But if you stay in because of the rain then you’re not going to get anything done so you just need to BE PREPARED and also, be prepared to change your plans- something I’m learning to accept 🙂

There’s lots more of course, from my tutoring of the chef at Free Bird Cafe to my adventures in trying to find sugar free bread to becoming lost almost every Sunday morning getting to church, to my weekly runs which have been different every week so far, to my daily workouts/sweatfests, to my attendance at zumba/aerobics thing… every day is slightly different and it’s been so wonderful to have a casual routine but to also have let go of control and instead just trusted that I’m going to be ok, whatever happens.

Cool things coming up:

  • I’m going to Pai this weekend (literally the most spontaneous thing I’ve ever done) for the Jazz festival!
  • I have a church BBQ on Friday night
  • My visa run to Penang in September! I’ve booked a food tour for my first night there and a cycle tour for the Saturday. I CANNOT wait. It looks so beautiful.
  • think I’m going to go trekking in Doi Inthanon in August… it depends how many people I can recruit.
  • Class starting on the 4th of September!!

Hope you guys are enjoying the blog- if you have any questions about anything, every day life or otherwise, feel free to comment 🙂

Love and miss you all,

Amy xx

 

South East Amy So Far…

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It’s been 5 days that I’ve been in this country and it already feels like I belong here. Yes, I can’t read any signs and I definitely miss the grid system of Lovely Melbourne and I can’t speak the language and I’ve probably been over charged and I’ve probably unwittingly offended people but this place is just beyond what I thought it would be. The spirit of the people is as intense as the damp heat and the sense of possibility is as sweet as the fruit I’ve been eating off street stalls. I know it will be a challenge at times (I’ve just realised my wifi in my apartment only allows one device to be connected at a time which is fine, I just have to get used to it) but it’s hard to get used to for someone who’s used to being connected to everything, all of the time. Other challenges I forsee:

  • Cycling on these roads.

When I went on my cycling tour of Bangkok (post to come) I was struck by how quiet the back streets were… but how narrow and scary they also were. Chiang Mai- as far as I can see doesn’t have the latter issue. The back streets seem nice and wide and easy to get around, but the main streets are just as busy and mildly terrifying, I’m not going to lie. Although, I have mastered (that term has never been used more loosely) merging across a 3 lane road to turn right or do a u-turn. People are actually super tolerant of cyclists so I think I’ll end up ok… it’ll just take some getting used to, I suppose! I’ll come back fearless!

 

  • Managing my thermostat.

I don’t like sleeping with the air conditioner on. At all. But, if I leave my doors open, the carnival/night market across the road is really loud AND I’m paranoid about insects coming in. Not because I’m scared of insects… I’m just scared of the blood borne diseases they carry.

So, I tend to turn the aircon on, wake up freezing, turn it off, wake up boiling, turn it on… and it continues ad nauseum.

 

  • Cold showers.

My ex-personal trainer will be thrilled to know that I’ll be adopting his fat burning recommendation of cold showers while I’m in CM as it seems my shower has two settings- cold and slightly less cold. Which, to be honest, I don’t mind. It’s actually really refreshing and I don’t really want a hot shower at this point in time. But… it’s still a shock to the system, no matter how hot and sweaty you are post in-room workout.

 

  • Making decisions.

For anyone who has ever dined with me, you know decisions are hardly my strong point. It is why I love chef’s menus which don’t give you any choice, combination plates which let you try a little of everything and fro yo bars which let you put as many flavours and toppings into your cup as your heart so desires. It’s why I love HIIT hybrid workouts so I can practice my lifting while also getting my cardio in. It’s why I’m a “plan in advance” person so I can know precisely what I’m going to do and when I’m going to do it. This is a bit harder when I purposely did not plan much for this portion of my trip… which means I need to decide what I’m going to do each day. This has been interesting thus far but I’ve sort of settled into a routine-

 

  • Wake up around 6:30
  • Do an in room HIIT workout- either self run or using Fitness Blender
  • Have breakfast (this either involves having some fruit and yoghurt [I found a tiny little fresh yoghurt place that sells tubs of homemade, pro biotic, natural yoghurt w. NO SUGAR! Win!], and vegemite on these cracker things I found which are sort of like saladas OR strolling down to the wet market and getting a traditional Thai breakfast of egg, rice and some sort of stirfried dish.) and do my quiet time.
  • Linger over the beautiful Nancy Chandler map of Chiang Mai and decide what incredible thing I’m going to do this morning.
  • Ride bike/walk in general direction of that thing hoping for the best.
  • Find thing (it’s closed)
  • Ride/walk around aimlessly, taking note of cool looking places to visit. Meander like the locals
  • Head to TFH by 10am if I’m not teaching that night…
  • And to be honest, I’m not sure what I do there. Today is my first day so it’s still v early stages- I’m basically learning where things go.
  • Have a delicious lunch. I’m going to work my way through their menu, it all looks so divine.
  • Back to work…
  • Ride home around 5- if I’m not teaching that night…
  • Chill for a bit while I decide what to do that night… I’m not really a massive party animal so I need to be sure that I get my sleep. I also don’t want to spend loads on red trucks and tuk tuks, so I want to be able to walk/ride to most places myself… but I’m still not very confident on the roads. So… we shall see. I would like to go to documentary screening tonight about the Burmese Civil War which is still affecting many of our students, but I think I’ll take a red truck there as I’m not 100% confident in riding to the location… or rather, riding back in the dark. Most nights I’m envisaging heading over to the night market or one of the many vendors/restaurants in the area, grabbing some food and enjoying it while people watching or reading my book.
  • Have an earlyish night and fight with the air conditioning as to ensure a good nights sleep, ready for another day tomorrow.

 

The freedom is divine and actually really challenging for me, so it’s been a good learning experience ALREADY, and it’s only week 1! I think it’ll get easier, or just be different, when there’s another volunteer who I might be able to do things with. Someone is starting tomorrow (Friday!)

 

  • Coming home.
    It’s already dawning on me how quickly this year will go and all the things I’ll miss when I’m at home, or even while I’m travelling. I don’t want to dwell on this though as I know this year will be life changing and life at home will be so rewarding when I return and all the more richer for this experience.

 

  • Visas….
    Still scared. Don’t want to think about the border runs I need to do.

I’m certain this list will grow and expand but at the moment, this is it. Which is pretty good, so far I think!

I’ve been so struck while I’ve been here how blessed I am to be able to do what I’m doing. I’ve always known that I’m privileged to do what I’m doing but I really think this trip is such a gift and I thank God every day that I’m able to explore my world so freely, so safely and hopefully, have an impact while I’m doing it.

Thanks for following along and supporting me in your prayers and thoughts. I’ll post more about what I did in BKK soon!

Sawadee Ka!

It’s time. 

It’s now The Month That I Leave. I leave in 16 sleeps. It’s 2 weeks and 2 days before I go. I am now officially counting down the days. 
I feel ready most of the time. Every so often I absolutely freak out, but mostly in a excitement. I haven’t had an “Oh God, help me! What have I done?!” moment yet (I’m sure it will come though!). But generally, I feel ready and willing to get my life shaken up in all sorts of ways. 
For those of you not in the know (I don’t know how- I am literally the worst and will not slipping it into conversation) I’m about to embark on the gap year I never had- I’m going to Thailand to volunteer with Burmese refugees. I’ll be living in Chiang Mai for 6 month, working with the Thai Freedom House as a teacher and in their office. After this experience, I’ll be travelling to Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Singapore. I fly back into Australia on the 28th of March next year, into Darwin, before flying to Brisbane and then (depending on circumstances!) road tripping back to Melbourne. 
I’m going to be doing it solo- meeting people as I go and finding new things out- about myself, about my world, about this life. 
And I cannot wait. 
Why Thailand?
I’ve always loved- LOVED- Thailand- its culture, its people, its vibe. When I was 10, I went on a 5-6 week holiday to visit my uncle who, at the time, lived and worked in Thailand. It wasn’t the typical holiday you imagine when a 10 year old says they went to Thailand. My parents took me everywhere- we went up north, out to the River Kwai, down south to Phuket (of course)- taking our time on the way to each destination. Yes, it was a package tour- it made sense for us- but it wasn’t entirely sanistised. I wasn’t in a resort enclave the entire trip. I was exposed to real poverty. I was exposed to the sex tourism industry. While I didn’t totally understand, I knew that what I was seeing was wrong and that sparked a life long (thus far) passion for the marginalised and voiceless. 
And ever since, I’ve wanted to go back and do something on the ground. 
Why TFH?
When I decided to just DO this thing I’d be dreaming of forever, I started researching different options for volunteering. There was a lot of voluntourism options where it seemed like the focus was on getting through the hour or two you were with the kids so you could go travelling/drinking. Or, they were 1-2 week stop overs where you ticked the “good person” box and got the necessary Insta pics with the adorable children. 
Neither of these options appealed to me for a variety of reasons and please understand that I’m not passing judgment on either of those options, they just weren’t for me. I didn’t want something short term or easy to get. I wanted a vigorous screening and approval process. I wanted a program where I was working and helping an existing organisation who would appreciate my help and where my help would last beyond my time there. I wanted my help not to be a hindrance. 
Thai Freedom House seemed to provide all of these things. Their program looks vigorous. I look like I’ll be actually helpful. I think I’ll provide skills that they can use! I think my own skills will be nurtured and grown.

I’ll be thrust out of my comfort zone in very real ways and Thai Freedom House also gives great support to their volunteers. 

I know my money will go toward incredible work and not to advertising and brochures.
Why now?
In 2015 I had a quarter life crisis, 1 year early, and I felt like I had stagnated. So much had changed in my passions and life since school and yet I was still there. In a different role, yes but still.
I decided to look for a new church at the same time. 
A lot of my friends were getting married which not only increased the feeling of stagnation in my perpetually single life but also made me feel a little isolated because my own stupid brain told me they didn’t need me anymore- and that was purely me.
I started a uni course in desperation and unenrolled just as quickly as I enrolled when I realised I was running and not trusting God.
Then I decided that it made sense to finish another year at school- but in a slightly smaller role to allow myself to rest a bit more and not fall into my highly perfectionist trap I laid for myself- and then move on from my perfectly controlled life and give it to God. And what better way to do that than to go and live and work O/S- in a non English speaking, developing nation.
I didn’t have any obligations, no boyfriend, no debts, no loose ends… just an open door and a God who was whispering that He had me and I just needed to let Him take the lead. 
And so I saved like a monster. Gave my notice at work. Started the process of applying for TFH and now it’s here. 
And I’m ready, most of the time. 
If you’d like to follow my adventures and learning experiences please keep an eye on Facebook and this blog. I’ll be posting life updates, work specific stuff, fitness posts, faith posts, personal posts and travel posts.
I look forward to going on this journey together. 
Please pray for me, if you’re the praying type. I’ll need strength, the ability to rest, friends, an escape from my obsessions with exercise and food which occasionally rear their ugly heads and help to stay focused on the one constant- my faith. 

Come with me, it’ll be one hell of a (non- elephant) ride.