Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Singapore or Canada?

  Wednesday already? I'm starting to lose track of time because I'm so busy! This past weekend I made a day trip to Hua Hin, a beautiful beach resort two hours away from Bangkok. The annual Jazz Festival was being held that weekend, so I wanted to check it out. However, I was almost left behind by the group when I overslept. That's what I get for ignoring my alarm. When I awoke on Saturday morning and cursed myself for being late, I called all my friends going to the beach to try to catch up. Unfortunately, they all had their vans (or "wans" in Thai English) booked and ready for departure. At that point I decided to venture off by myself and find my own wan. I told the cab driver to take me to Victory Monument so I could board a wan headed for Hua Hin. The rest of the group left from a different location. The whole process was surprisingly efficient. I pulled up to the wan station, ran into the place, bought my ticket, and hopped into the vehicle just minutes before departure. After all that running around the wan ride was painfully long. If you know me, I'm also an impatient person who can't sleep in moving vehicles, so not even my dying Ipod could calm me down. I entertained myself by talking to a young Thai couple sitting next to me. Once I arrived at Hua Hin, everything seemed to happen rather quickly.

  I brought my two new Thai friends to eat with me and the Loyola gang at an Italian restaurant in the village outside the beach. After lunch, my Thai friends and I parted ways. It's difficult to describe the Hua Hin village and differentiate it from any Bangkok village, but it felt like a beach community. Sometimes when you go to a beach community you can distinguish the relaxed vibe of the people and culture from that of city life. It's always great to get away from the city, to escape from the noise, pollution and stress. All of that melts away when you recline in a chair on a tropical beach. One way I can describe the Thailand beaches is that they are very similar to the Florida Keys: palm trees, white sand, and clear warm water. The water at Hua Hin wasn't clear by any means, but felt just as warm as any other body of water I've dabbled in so far. Interestingly enough at this beach one had the option of riding a mini-horse up and down the coast for a short trot. I'm no horse expert and I don't mean to suggest a pony or mule, but some breed in between a pony and stallion. I was too relaxed to bother with mounting my noble steed. I was content to relax in my chair and chat with friends. 
  Toward dusk we all headed toward the jazz festival near the end of the beach. A massive stage was constructed along the water so everyone could sit in the sand and feel the ocean breeze while smooth jazz washed over them. When my eyes became heavy on the verge of passing out, I decided to head back to Bangkok to see what kind of mischief I could get into. Luckily, Boom was out and about with his friends so I caught up with them and had enjoyed my night out Thai style. 

  As for this school week, all of the American teachers are helping with conducting interviews and grading written exams for a school-wide scholarship competition for Canada and Singapore. The Singapore scholarship is awarded to the top students from Primary level, meanwhile the Canada scholarship is awarded to students in Secondary. First, the written tests. The questions were totally irrelevant to the nature of the two countries and also pointless to judging a student's ability to speak English in another country. It seems more like a test of random facts or useless knowledge. For example, "What is Elbus?" What do you mean, Albus Dumbledore? I guarantee that none of the students nor anyone reading this post knows what "Elbus" is. Truth be told, Elbus happens to be in fact the largest mountain in Europe. Who knew? Most of the students had no idea or wrote that Snape killed him. So, questions like this frustrated me because the students aren't even going to Europe! I'm not sure of the purpose of these questions. If the students were given the questions and answers to study before the exam, I would find that acceptable. But considering that most of the students answered incorrectly, if at all, I assume that the tests were poorly crafted. One would think that the students would be tested on the prospective country they might travel to. I just feel bad for the students who received poor test grades because it doesn't reflect their conversational English skills - something they will actually use in another country.

  Now, the interviews. For the Primary kids we are to ask them simple questions about their favorite school subjects, or favorite foods so as to dance around the topic at hand before asking them about Singapore. A seven or eight-year-old kid can barely decide what he wants to eat for lunch; how can he decide if he wants to go to Singapore for a few weeks without Mommy? If the kid actually knows what he wants, then good for him. To me, it just seems like a difficult concept for a child to understand the future outcome of their decision and the impact it will have on them. The Secondary students are asked more logical questions about the climate and culture of Canada. I've had some interesting conversations with students who have already been to Canada, or have very eloquently expressed their desire to travel there to improve their English skills. Most of the time it is difficult for the students to express how badly they would like to go because of limited vocabulary. So, I naturally want to send the more fluent students, but the less fluent students are the ones who really need the experience. I try to get a feel for what students are actually interested versus those who are just applying because they have to. All students are required to apply because there were few applicants last year. I respect the students who are honest about how they feel about the scholarship. One student told me that he is not particularly interested in going to Canada, but if he is accepted he will go because his mother wants him to. However, he said he will still enjoy the experience even though he is not passionate or interested in the country. I wonder if I will make a difference in the selection process. It's a great opportunity for these students to live and study abroad for a short period of time. Like I've said before, even a month abroad makes a noticeable improvement in a student's English skills. 
Song of the Day: Same Same But Different
  Flashback all the way to 1965 when the Rolling Stones released their song, "Satisfaction". Fun fact: Keith Richards wrote the intro guitar riff and the words "I can't get no satisfaction" when he awoke during the middle of the night. He quickly recorded them and fell back asleep. That's Keith Richards for you. 
As wacky as these exams and interviews are, "I can't get no satisfaction".

Rolling Stones - 'Satisfaction'

Rolling Stones - 'Satisfaction' (Discotech Remix) <<<Download

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

So Many Germans, So Little Time

  Even a brief amount of time spent on Khao San Road can influence the rest of your night. Keep in mind that this road itself attracts foreign travelers from all over the world. I'm sure I'll encounter my blonde haired, blue eyed Scandinavian wife one day soon. A guy can dream, right? It certainly seems like a possibility considering the constant flow of European travelers through Bangkok. Somehow I always meet German people when I'm out and about. I find it curious that I naturally meet them by coincidence as opposed to other Europeans, but I'm sure that will change in time. I'm always happy to meet Germans! It gives me a chance to learn more about their culture and practice my language skills, even if it's only for one night. Now to the recap.

  My purpose for going to Khao San early Saturday night with a Loyola friend was to watch the Arsenal v. Liverpool game. We visited the same bar that projects the matches onto the side of the adjacent building for everyone to watch. After a few drinks two German guys my age sat down at the table next to us. Before long a conversation developed about football and my curiosity for German culture. I can't even remember all the topics we discussed; from European chicks, to the state of the American economy, and to the possibility of someone like me teaching English in Germany one day. Although I'll surely need a Master's degree if I want to teach my whole life, there are ways of getting around it for now. Sometimes the most direct route is a detour. It all depends on what teaching programs I can find. Maybe my detour will take me through Asia or even to Australia, but my goal is to live in Germany and teach there so I can pursue my travels and my interest in the language. I hope to become fluent one day and I was reassured by my new German friends, Phillip and Julian, that my background knowledge of German is good enough that I could perfect the language in no time. With that in mind, I'll have my eyes on the prize while I enjoy my tour of southeast Asia. 

  When the game ended I decided to stay with Phillip and Julian to see where the night would take me. We took our time on Khao San Road, enjoying our drinks and conversation until I received an unexpected message from my long lost friend Max. He was back on Khao San after returning from a trip to Hong Kong. Soon enough the four of us wandered together off of Khao San Road to Rambutree Road, the next street over. This street has a vastly different feel to it that comes as a refreshing break from the loud and crowded Khao San. Once you step onto Rambutree there are no clubs or bars blasting club songs. It's lined with restaurants completely laid back with low lighting, comfortable chairs and chilled out lounge music. My plan was to take them to a one of my favorite restaurants to get a few drinks, but more importantly to show them what a local Thai bar was like. I guess the stars were aligning that night or something because on the way my Thai friend, Boom, called me to see what I was up to. He just happened to be relaxing at the same bar we were going toward! How convenient! I was sure that the Germans had never interacted or partied with Thai people, so I was happy to bring everyone together. As you can see from the picture below, the atmosphere of Rambutree is great for drinks and conversation. This is one of my favorite places to go in Bangkok. 
  It was pretty cool to be sitting at a table with Thais and Germans while intermittently speaking three different languages. We spent a good amount of time there talking, drinking and puffing a giant hookah in the candlelight. With the end of our night in sight, the only logical thing left to do was invade The Club. Unfortunately, Boom couldn't join us because his girlfriend had to model for a television commercial the next day. So, the Germans and I took The Club by storm. Not really. We just floated around the dance floor and hit on British girls, but The Club is always good times. It's a curious night when you make friends on Khao San - the people you befriend may be gone the next day never to be seen or heard from again, but for one night you live it up like you'll surely meet again one day. 

Song of the Day: Same Same But Different
  It's that time again, where I post two different versions of the same song back to back. This time the spotlight is on Animal Collective. Although they are originally natives of Baltimore, the group currently resides at its home base in New York. Today's post focuses on their most popular song, 'My Girls'. Maybe you can think of these two versions as the Rabutree version and the Khao San remix. 
Animal Collective - 'My Girls'

Animal Collective - 'My Girls' (Gigamesh Remix) <<<Download

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Khao Yai Trail Blazin'

  Welcome to the jungle, we've got mud and rain. Khao Yai National Park, located in a mountainous province outside of Bangkok, is the second largest park in Thailand that covers over 2,000 square kilometers. I ventured through the park in a group of seven guys from Loyola, but it wasn't long before we befriended two other travelers and expanded our fellowship. The fellowship of what exactly? The Fellowship of the Farang. 

  Our first additional member became part of the group when we arrived at the park. He sat near us for the entirety of the bus ride and I knew he was a European backpacker after seeing so many of them travel through Bangkok. Somehow our group starting chatting with him when we got off the bus and invited him to join our jungle excursion. I was pleased to learn that our new friend Max was from Munich. He just finished high school and decided to travel with the money he saved up and received after graduation. I always enjoy practicing my German with native speakers and learning more about the culture. He spoke English very well, but it was more fun to make simple jokes or conversation in German while the rest of the group remained unaware. Trying to speak three different languages (English, German and Thai) in one weekend can make your head spin; especially when you have a sleepless night in the wild. More on that soon. 

  We piled in the back of a truck to ascend the mountain to an information center. Along the way we passed jaw-dropping views of the vivid green canopy below. I immediately thought of the jungle terrain camera shots one might see on Planet Earth where the camera slowly surveys the tree tops from the belly of a cruising plane. It would be pretty cool to have Richard Atinborough narrate my journey through a tropical forest. Once we made it to the information center to find a map of the park we realized that we didn't have enough daylight left to complete a hike. We decided to head for the campground to find a place to stay before dark. After paying for numerous truck rides to get around the park we realized that we could hitchhike with passing cars. During the ride to the campground we almost ran into a group of monkeys (gibbons) that were littered across the road. That's something you don't see every day, especially signs that say "Cobra Crossing" and "Beware of Crocodiles". The driver showed no signs of slowing down even as we all yelled "Look out, monkey!" to give them a fair chance. They could've cared less. I was more concerned about the little baby monkeys. 

  Leaches. Everywhere. I constantly checked my legs for the little parasites. These bloodsuckers are different than the ones back home. They sneak up on you when you least expect it. Rather than attacking from the water, they latch onto your shoes as you walk the trails and inch their way up your legs. If you feel a pinch you better give it a look. On the first night of exploring the camp area I walked onto a trail for no more than thirty seconds, turned around and headed back to camp when I found one on my ankle. When I went to the bathroom to check it out under the light I found two crawling on me. Thankfully they weren’t attached so I flicked them off. As I frantically cursed and checked my legs I encountered the second addition to our group, a young guy from Maine. It was refreshing to meet an American traveler and learn his perspective on Thailand. It turned out that he had actually taught English in Nepal with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps for nearly a year before coming to Thailand. I’m sure he could navigate Thailand with ease after living in Nepal for some time. He was traveling by himself, so I invited him to join us in our jungle antics.

  The campground, populated with large deer (and leaches), was located in a marshland next to a small river. We wanted to be real men and camp outside for the night. What a mistake. The ground was soft and saturated when we set up our tent, so when it poured for most of the night we woke up shivering in a cold puddle. I wasn't having any of that and I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep at all, so I changed clothes and stayed up the entire night with a few other guys. When we found ourselves unable to rent any more blankets or camping gear after the equipment building shut down for the night, we were left to make due with the clothes that we packed. The four of us walked around and talked for a bit before failing to sleep on wooden benches in a small pavilion next to our tent. Maybe around 4am we were visited by a massive deer that wanted to snack on leftover rice. I was hesitant to shoo the animal away, thinking that it might get angry for being disturbed during its meal. Fortunately it took what it wanted and crept away back into the night. Eventually the sun came up and I could not have been more thankful that the night was over. 

  Now for the really good stuff. No doubt I was absolutely exhausted from a sleepless night, yet somehow I found a second wind in time for our hikes to two waterfalls. First, we hitchhiked to Haew Suwat falls, made famous by the Leo DiCaprio film, The Beach. These falls were close to the main road, only a few minutes down a short trail. All of us spent some time climbing across boulders to get closer to the falls for some quality photos. There were many different groups of tourists at the falls. I think most if not all of them were Thai. One of the best parts about visiting waterfalls in Thailand is that there are no rules or area restrictions. If you want to get a closer look by climbing across a few boulders or hiking up to the top of the falls, no one is going to stop you. You can even jump if you’re brave enough. I wouldn’t condone a 25 meter jump into murky water of any kind. But if Leo DiCaprio jumped off of it, then it must be ok, right? We spent a good amount of time investigating the area around the waterfall before heading back up the trail to the main road. Across the road was a small gift shop near the trail to the next waterfall.

  Since we knew the leaches would eat us alive on a mile long jungle trek, most of us invested in leach socks to protect ourselves. What are leach socks? Probably one of the most blatant Farang accessories you can buy. They are basically white Christmas stockings with drawstrings at the top. So you put these stockings on and tuck your pant legs into them before tightly tying the drawstrings. I looked pretty ridiculous, but it kept me leach-free! Our hike through the forest was easily the best part of the trip – more fun than actually investigating the falls. The hike was exactly what I expected and I loved every minute of it! I sloshed through the mud along a crocodile-infested river, walked upon fallen trees to cross streams, followed winding trails and pushed my way through overgrown plants. I really should have bought that machete in the gift shop…only 150B. I expected to see the Temple of Doom covered in dense vegetation as we wandered deeper into the wilderness, but I suppose that’s located closer to India. I think I enjoyed the hike more than actually being at the waterfall, but it was refreshing to cool off in the water and take a break. The cascading falls crashed down three or four tiers, which was really something to behold. It was possible to climb up the tiers to the pools above; it just seemed a little too risky to try that after a sleepless night. I took the safer option and reclined on a boulder with my feet in the pool.

  While exploring the jungle, I found one of the most fascinating things to be the natural lighting through the canopy. We hiked in the shade most of the time with an overcast sky above us. When unexpected beams of light broke through the canopy I noticed the ways in which the sunlight reflected off the leaves and I was struck by the vibrant green of everything around me. These rays of light seemed to be pointing to certain features along the path as if saying, “Hey! Look at this!” I certainly became more aware of my surroundings and took note of all that I saw and felt while moving through the jungle. All of us made it through in one piece - most of us left with wounds from thirsty leaches. Although our fellowship disbanded, we made a few new friends who we may surely meet again some day.

Song of the Day: Same Same, But Different
  From the concrete jungle to the jungle...jungle here's a song by School of Seven Bells, or SVIIB for short. I've decided to start a post once a week called 'Same Same, But Different' where I post an original song and a worthy remix. The quoted phrase is a saying in Thailand when you talk about two similar things that are also different. For example, an oak tree and a palm tree are both trees, but different kinds of trees. Hence, same same, but different. You get the point. So these two songs share the same dreamy lyrics and melody, but sound a little different. Trekking through the jungle half asleep or without sleep for that matter keeps you on your toes. These songs are about dreams and sleep, which I sorely missed after that sleepless night. Seeing the sunbeams in the forest reminded me of waking up in the morning and how comfortable my bed can be when the sunlight wakes me up. Maybe these songs will remind you of a similar feeling; in a different way. 

School of Seven Bells - "Half Asleep" <<<Download

School of Seven Bells - "Half Asleep" (Lusine Remix) <<<Download

Monday, August 8, 2011


  After sifting through the thousands of letters from the competition, I've narrowed it down to three winners! They're not ranked by any standards; only by the first three entries that I read. Now, don't be dismayed if your name isn't included in the list. There could be something traveling across to the world to you maybe you should continue to follow the blog and send me a letter during the next round of competition! Here are the winners:
1. Josh Tarini
2. Emily Barbo
3. Frank Bevilacqua
Congrats to all the lucky winners! You'll be receiving some lovely souvenirs in the mail. Who knows how long it will take to travel around the world? Depends on when I finally get around to actually shipping the packages off. I've been so busy doing various tasks during and after school. 

  I showed up to work on Monday this week prepared to get back into the usual routine of teaching English classes when I find a note on the office door that says I'm to teach basketball in PE class. This place is so wacky! Let it be known that I do not know (or care to know) anything about the sport and I have never played an organized game of basketball in my life. Yet I found myself clumsily teaching 10th graders how to shoot layups and free throws when I can't even make a basket. After letting the kids run wild and shoot the ball for a bit I taught them some basic terms and rules of the game (like I know what I'm doing). I explained dribbling, layups, traveling and some other definitions as best I could, then asked them a few questions about how to score points and whatnot. The students took notes on all the terminology and questions and proceeded to have me grade them on the spot; all 90 of them. Luckily I had another American co-teacher to help me out. I only had to check their work for completion, write a brief comment and sign it. I felt like I was signing autographs for all my fans, so I wrote silly comments like "Slam Dunk!" and "Space Jam!" before signing my name. I have to teach basketball on Monday and Tuesday for the next few weeks (I think). This week I'll only teach English on Wednesday and Thursday because Friday is Mother's Day / the Queen's birthday, so it's considered a national holiday. Since there are no classes on Friday, the Americans are planning a weekend trip to another province. I'm looking into a national forest adventure. Stay tuned! 

  Song of the Day:
I spent some time looking for some chill out lounge music and found some groovy tunes. I found this song by looking through similar artists on Itunes. I started with Thievery Corporation and sifted through artists that listeners also bought, which led me to Hird, a Scandinavian electronic jazz group. Searching for music can lead to some interesting results. This music is great for lounging outside and enjoying those warm summer nights. 
Hird - 'Keep You Kimi'

Friday, August 5, 2011

Football Fanaticism: Part 2

  It's rainy season. You know the monsoon scene in Jumanji? Yeah, it's kind of like that - with plants that fire poisonous barb projectiles and all. 

  I just can't get enough football action here! A few Fridays ago the teacher footballers organized a match between Foreign and Thai teachers that was held in the gym. There were three bottles of whisky marked as the prize, so it got pretty competitive. Plenty of students and the other American teachers spectated from the stands to cheer us on. The foreigners were off to a rough start while the Thai teachers passed the ball around us with ease. I felt like I was in a pinball machine for a few minutes, just watching the ball zip by me between the teachers. We must have been behind by at least five goals by half time. Somehow we managed to redeem ourselves by catching up by the end of the match and only fell short by one goal! The final score was 11-12. Sure, we lost, but we all ended up sharing the whisky later that night at Karaoke. After the match the Thai teachers invited the foreign players to go out with them for a private Karaoke party. We had no idea where we were going, but it's always fun to party with them and good times are a guarantee. So, that night we split into groups to take cabs to the Karaoke place. As the driver took us away from the city and into some dimly lit rural neighborhoods infested with wild soi (street) dogs, we were a little nervous. To our pleasant surprise we arrived at a really nice resort area on the side of a canal. I can't remember if the place is entirely dedicated for Karaoke parties. The stone path walled with exotic plants led me past flowing waterfall fountains and peaceful ponds to our Karaoke room. I need to find some pictures of this place. The Thai teachers were waiting for us, so we gathered around the table and passed around the food and whisky. Side note: each glass contained a shot of whisky and was then filled with soda water. We weren't in any hurry. I think everyone sang at least one song and we all had a great time making fools of ourselves. Football fanatic sighting: one of the Thai teachers is obsessed with Manchester United; a lot of Thai people are. But I didn't realize the extent of his fanaticism until Karaoke night. He was sporting a red Manu U polo and watch, however, that's not all. I learned the pinnacle of his dedication is that he is naming his unborn daughter after one of the newest talents on team! Now that is a fan!

  The next day our entire group went to a Chelsea vs Thailand game at the stadium near ABAC. There were a surprising amount of Thai Chelsea fans. You would think that Thailand would support their own country, however I heard that the Thailand team was not the true national team, so maybe they felt more inclined to support the famous footballers on Chelsea. I guess it would be a similar situation in the U.S. if a popular Premier League team played a lower ranked American team. If you're not supporting the best players who represent your country, then you might as well cheer on the foreign super stars. Nevertheless, it was pretty cool to see the Chelsea team in action and they destroyed Thailand 5-0. After the game a few Thai fans asked my friends and I for photos with them. One of them said I looked like a famous player from Barcelona which made me laugh. 

  This week I spent my time helping with the IPSLE examinations for M1 (8th grade) students. IPSLE stands for International Primary School Language Examination. Each day the testing lasted from early morning until noon and forbade us from teaching in the afternoon in order to prevent unwanted dispersal of exam information. I certainly didn't mind having the afternoons off! My role during the exam was to work with another foreign teacher to grade the students on two parts of the test: reading and conversation. The student would read a short passage aloud to us while we graded them on a scale of 1-10 for pronunciation, errors, clarity and so on. The conversation part involved unrelated personal questions. The goal was to ask a question to encourage the student to expand upon it without further assistance from us. However, we rarely had a smooth conversation with the student. Most of the students read word-by-word with many errors and had difficulty understanding our questions and formulating intelligible answers. Here are the problems with the examination structure:

1. The reading prompt and conversation questions were written in British English rather than American English. This dilemma would catch anyone off guard due to the advanced vocabulary and varied sentence structure. My exam partner is from England and has taught at St. Gabriel's for at least five years. He is familiar with the test format and he agreed that the exam language is hard for the students to comprehend because they do not speak or write British English, only American English. One question asked, "Can you tell us about an unforgettable incident that happened to you on a journey?" (or something like that). Most of the students didn't understand the question because the word "incident". We must have rephrased the question every time. If they could answer, they thought the word was "accident" and described a time when they were injured. 
2. The required English skill level is too advanced for the students. St. Gabriel's sets a high bar for the students that is beyond their skill level. Many important diplomats and royal family members have graduated from this school, so St. Gabriel's wants to maintain it's prestigious reputation. However, it is quickly deteriorating because of the IPSLE results. They expect the students to be able to read and converse at a high level, but they barely learn anything in class. Most of the students copy each other just to finish their assignments on time. The only students who excelled on the exam throughout the entire week were those who have studied abroad in England or Canada. Although they study there for only three weeks, it makes a huge difference in their English skills. If a student does not study abroad or work with a tutor they will quickly fall behind. 
It was an easy, yet tiring task to listen to the same reading and ask the same questions so many times. I pitied the students who were overwhelmed by the difficulty of the exam, even though we tried to simplify things as best we could. I could see it in their faces that they felt defeated and stressed. We tried not to grill them with too many questions that they couldn't handle. The highest total grade we gave out of the whole week was a 17 and the lowest being a 2 (out of 20). Most of the students fell in between these two scores. Based on the low scores given this week, it is possible that the Singapore education board that oversees the operation could remove St. Gabriel's from its list of testing locations, which would obviously be embarrassing for the school. We'll see what happens. 

  Song of the Day:
I found this remix this week during a search through Youtube. I looked up additional remixes from an artist that I was vaguely familiar with and I was happy to find more great remixes by the same musician. At first I was unsure of how the singing would compliment the house feel of the song, but I have been jamming to this tune all week! I hope you do the same! It's something to lift your spirits after that dismal recap of the examinations. 
Dune - Heiress of Valentina (Alesso Exclusive Mix) <<< Download