Thursday, March 20, 2014

It's All Really Happening

Currently sitting at an Auntie Anne's at Suvarnabhumi Airport's international terminal. In less than two hours, I will be boarding a plane to Hanoi, embarking on a two-week adventure throughout Vietnam and the Philippines before my final destination, Florida.

Despite the obnoxiously large carry-on pieces surrounding me and my two Peace Corps travel buddies, it still hasn't hit me that this is it. The past month of goodbyes at my village have been a complete blur, with each attempt at writing a blog post ending in tears, frustration, binge-eating on my neighbor's generous Northern Thai meals, or a mix of all three. To complete a blog post meant to acknowledge the end, and even with the plane ticket and American passport next to me, it still doesn't feel like I'm leaving this place.

At some point - maybe when I'm on a boat exploring Halong Bay, or in between Netflix breaks at my parents' home in Fort Lauderdale - I'll be able to process all this and fill my friends and family in on the farewell parties, the goodbye presents, and the tearful reluctance to let go and move on. When I land in Hanoi, I'll get over the lack of guai dtiao and embrace the bowls of pho in Ho Chi Minh City, plates of chicken adobo in Manila, and the American breakfasts in my near future. But for now, I'm craving my host mother's nam prik ong, imagining my students' smiles, and mentally writing out a postcard to my neighbors saying how much I miss them.

I'm leaving my second home. It's all really happening.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Ahaan Thai: Red Ant Eggs

My first culinary encounter with khai mot daeng (red ant eggs) was during site visit two years ago, when I woke up to the sight of my co-worker Ying emptying a plate of red ants and their offspring into a frying pan, then topping off an egg omelette (chicken eggs, this time) with the spiced-and-salted insects. "Ruu-duu ma-muang (mango season)," Ying exclaims to me, indicating that these ant eggs are a seasonal treat that she has prepared specifically for her farang (foreigner) guest.

At the kitchen table, I remember Ying's five-year-old daughter Neung eagerly scooping up the ant eggs with balls of sticky rice, while Ying's mother laughs at me from across the table, revealing a red ant stuck between her teeth. I nervously smiled at Ying's family before quickly dipping my sticky rice into the pile of ant eggs and throwing it into my mouth. Once I overcame the fact that I was consuming insects found in the average American school's sandbox, I gave in to the lemon-like taste from the red ants' diet of mango leaves and the creamy texture of the ant eggs. Before I knew it, I was elbow-to-elbow with Neung as we gobbled up the khai mot daeng as fast as we could, abandoning our sticky rice for spoons in order to enjoy the insects in all their citrus-and-creamy glory.

A pile of red ants and eggs, fresh from my host mother's mango tree
You can run, but you can't hide from my host mother's frying pan...
Last weekend's dinner: mashed red ant eggs tossed in a pan
with soybean oil, salt, and crushed chilis *yum* 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

How Our Garden Grows

A few weeks ago, several students from the recycled jewelry club invited me over to Ban Chompoo Primary School one Saturday afternoon to check out the vegetable garden behind the school's Grades 4-6 building. I hadn't seen the school's backyard since our last clean-up back in September, so I was shocked by all the cabbages that had blossomed! Bas and Ahua wandered through the fields with knives in their hands, peeling and chopping cabbage heads to bring back home to their families. Puy, a Grade 4 student, rushed me over to a row of cabbages that she and her classmates had planted. "Kruu Saa-raa, I planted this one," Puy announces proudly and proceeds to chop one of her cabbage heads that her mother will use for dinner later that evening.

Standing amongst the rows of cabbages, it's hard to believe that six months have already elapsed between the start of this project up until now. In August, this vegetable oasis was once just an abandoned area overrun by weeds and wood scraps. I can still remember the soreness of my palms from breaking up the soil under the afternoon sun, alongside Grade 5 students swinging their gardening hoes to mix the earth and swiftly ripping out weeds with their tiny hands. I smile at the memories of me in my rolled-up work pants and ballet flats sinking into the mud, later trailing caked-up mud into the classroom with my students as we talk about the variety of seeds we will plant: mah-kua-yao (eggplant) for a green-curry lunch in the cafeteria, prik (chilies) for a batch of nam prik (chili paste) to dip sticky rice into, and dteng-gwa (cucumbers) to slice up and snack on in between classes.

As I continue to wander down the garden rows with the students, I notice Grade 5 student Anna cradling a cabbage head in her arms as she slowly peels away its dark green leaves. My mind flashes back to an image of Anna standing in that same area six months ago, only with her hands gripped around the handle of a gardening hoe almost as tall as she was, with Anna's shyness overcome by her giggles after she accidentally flung a worm in my direction while breaking up the soil. My random burst of laughter at this memory catches Anna's attention, as she looks up from her cabbage head and asks me what's so funny. "Mai bpen rai (no worries)," I tell Anna, who then giggles at me before offering me her freshly-peeled cabbage head to take home for my dinner.

August 2013: the students and I break up the soil and pick out weeds in the school's backyard in preparation for a community garden.
February 2014: Rows of cabbages fill up the school's backyard, where students can pick vegetables to share with their families for meals and market sales
Grade 5 students Anna and Nook helping with afternoon gardening in August; Anna peeling away the leaves of a cabbage head from a row her class planted in November

Friday, February 7, 2014

PCT Photo Diary: Phu Chi Fa and Doi Pha Tang

Some snapshots from last weekend's day trip to Phu Chi Fa and Doi Pha Tang with fellow PCV Kayla and her counterparts! Many of my community members kept hassling me for not visiting one of Chiang Rai's tourist attractions, roughly 1.5 hours from my site and Kayla's site by car. However, the main battle was finding people willing to go to Phu Chi Fa Mountain with me, and last weekend's narrow and bumpy ride along the mountain range validated my counterparts' hesitancy towards making the trek. Despite the carsick-inducing truck ride towards Phu Chi Fa last Saturday, the strawberry hills, beautiful weather, and scenic views of Laos made the winding pot-holed roads more than worth the trip.

Strawberry-picking farm on the way to Phu Chi Fa Mountain
Delicious strawberries are hard to come by at our sites, so Kayla and I each forked over 100 baht (USD $3, or 4 bowls of noodle soup) for a bag of this luxury item
The first of many bamboo-and-dirt staircases towards the top of Phu Chi Fa Mountain
At and elevation of 1,628 meters, we made it to the top!
Resting with Kayla and her counterparts before we head back down the mountain
Morning view of Laos from the top of Phu Chi Fa
Man vs. Wild: this buffalo wasn't keen on letting us pass, but we gathered up the courage to exit the vehicle and shoo it away (by "we", I mean one of Kayla's counterparts, while I took photos from inside and squealed when I thought the buffalo was going to charge at us)
General Lee Memorial Pavillion (left), honoring an army general whose victories in the 1970s secured land surrounding Doi Pha Tang Mountain for the Thai people; Buddhist statue (right) for visitors to pay their respects to General Lee

Walking up a narrow dirt pathway along Doi Pha Tang
View of the Mekong River splitting Thailand and Laos
This guy had no issues venturing away from the pathway for an awesome photo opportunity
A selection of fruit wines by a local vendor at Doi Pha Tang (due to the strawberry splurge, I settled for 30-baht bags of almonds and green tea leaves)
View of Laos from across the Mekong River; so close!
After a day of mountain adventures, making the most out of my strawberries and almonds. Oh Thai produce, how I'll miss you so...

Friday, January 31, 2014

Ahaan Thai: Frogs for Dinner

Before I began my Peace Corps service in 2012, my history with frogs didn't seem out-of-the-ordinary: listening to "The Frog Prince" as a bedtime story, watching Kermit and the Muppets embark on Saturday-morning T.V. adventures, dissecting a frog in Biology class, and watching a Disney-remake of "The Frog Prince" years later to bring my frog associations full-circle. While the Food Network Channel introduced me to frog as an exotic food option instead of a high-school science experiment, I couldn't picture myself consuming a beloved Muppet character. A high-school-freshman version of myself resolved that the chances of me kissing a frog were higher than of me cooking up a frog for dinner.

Eight years later, and my ninth-grade self would be in utter disbelief of my dietary history with Kermit's kin (sorry, Muppets). Since arriving in Thailand almost two years ago, I have dipped balls of sticky rice in frog curries, grilled frogs over a fire pit, and have gone so far as to admit that frogs taste just like chicken -- and with the right amount of spice, possibly better than chicken. 

My Peace-Corps self's verdict? Frogs dissected: meh. Frogs deep-fried and dipped in chili paste: yes, please.

From top going clockwise: geng gop (frog curry), bamboo shoots, 
nam phrik (chili paste), khao niao (sticky rice)
Grilled frog with nam phrik and fresh vegetables; one of the frogs
during a post-harvest barbecue
Battered-and-fried frogs at a local market in Mae Sai
**I actually haven't tried the fried frogs, due to imagining these poor things leaping for their lives mid-frying. As soon as I get Kermit's singing out of my head, I will attempt to try this and report back to you all.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Kwang-Hunting Season

Last September, my landlord's nephew Get invited me to hunt for kwang (beetles) with him and his uncle. According to Get, August and September mark kwang-hunting season, since the beetles are easy to locate in rotting trees as rainy season comes to an end. What Get forgets to mention, however, is that many people in Northern Thailand will wake up as early as 4 A.M. to cut open rotting trees and capture as many kwang as possible before the sun rises. Following kwang-hunting protocol, I trade in a Saturday morning of sleeping-in for being knee-deep in grass and mud at 5:30 A.M., with Get's uncle slashing through dead tree trunks with his machete and Get stripping off tree bark before handing me several black rhinoceros beetles to throw into our rice sack. By 7 A.M., I return to my house exhausted and in mud-splattered pajama pants, wondering if these hard-to-find kwang contain strong healing powers or taste delicious deep-fried.

Securing the kwang with yarn to a piece of sugar cane
After breakfast with Get's family (no deep-fried kwang included), Get and his cousin Yem spend the rest of the morning stringing up the kwang to sugar cane stalks and hanging the kwang along the ceiling of our shared backyard. Yem, who is gnawing on freshly-peeled sugar cane, hands me a piece and exclaims in between chews, "Kwang chop nam-tan!" ("Beetles love sugar!") Get then explains that the sugar will make the kwang very strong and helps them move quickly along the sugar cane stalk. When I ask Get if he collects these kwang as pets every September, he shakes his head "no" and replies that they will take care of the kwang for a week before selling them to the villagers. At our village, each kwang can sell for as much as 50 baht (USD $1.50), which guarantees Get at least three ice cream bars from the local convenience store.

The almighty kwang, fueling up on sugar and
preparing for battle
I'm still unclear about the importance of the rhinoceros kwang until my landlord Meh Kam warns me to stay away from the upcoming beetle fights in our village. Apparently, the villagers will purchase the rhino kwang and train them for beetle-fighting season, during which people will place bets on which kwang will knock over its opponent off of a wooden log. I can't help but laugh at the image of Thai farmers and village leaders gathering around a wooden stick and cheering on two beetles going head-to-head on a Friday night, but Meh Kam assures me that these fights draw in a lot of crazy nak-pah-nan (gamblers), causing people to either win a lot or lose a lot more by the end of September. I have yet to witness a battle of the kwang, since the other village mothers agree with my landlord that kwang fighting rings are no place for ladies on the weekends (because nothing says "danger" like watching two beetles push each other off of a log). Until the time comes for me to take a walk on the wild side, I'll have to live vicariously through this intense YouTube clip of a Thai beetle vs. beetle showdown:

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Rice Harvests and Tennis Balls: A Hmong New Year

Ne and Tan, two of my secondary school students from English Tour Guides Club, invited me to their village for the last day of Hmong New Year festivities. When Kruu Keng and I arrive Sunday afternoon after a bumpy 1.5-hour drive across the mountains, Ne and Tan smile and talk excitedly as they walk us around their neighborhood, introduce us to their families and share with us a part of their lives outside of school.

When the four of us arrive at Tan's house, Tan's father, grandmother, cousins and siblings (with Tan being the youngest of eight) graciously welcome us into their home with boiled pork, stir-fried kale, and chili-vinegar sauce for Kruu Keng and I to gin kaao hai iim (eat rice until we're full). Tan's father, a Hmong village leader and rice farmer, explains that the Hmong New Year is a 10-day celebration in which the smaller Hmong clans come together after the end of the rice harvest from late-December until early-January. "We had a good harvest this year," Tan's father boasts proudly. "Gin kaao hai iim!" Assuming that Tan's family harvests sticky rice, I open up my rice packet to grab a piece only to have a handful of rice crumble and spill over my plate. Ne, who is sitting next to me and witnesses the whole thing, pats my shoulder sympathetically and giggles, while Tan's father jokingly adds, "Kruu Saa-raa hun-gah-ree mak mak!"

After an hour of food, conversations, and rice clean-up (yes, I made the sticky-rice mistake more than once), Ne and Tan change into traditional Hmong clothing before we walk down the street for the New Year festivities at a nearby school. When I ask Ne and Tan about the different Hmong outfits, Ne tells me that an individual's outfit design shows which Hmong clan that person is from. Since Ne and Tan's village consists of Hmong Daew ("White Hmong") people, a common Hmong outfit will consist of a white-colored shirt and bottom, each embroidered with colorful cross-stitched designs and accessorized with silver to display the wealth and prosperity of an individual's family. However, since Ne's family is of the Hmong Gua Mba ("Armband Hmong") sub-division, she is dressed in a black outfit with colorfully embroidered bands along the sleeves of her jacket. When I ask Tan which Hmong clan her pink outfit represents, Tan laughs and replies, "Oh no, I wear this because I like the color pink!"

Two secondary school students dressed in White Hmong outfits;
Ne (black outfit), Tan (pink outfit), and I across the street from a local school

When we reach the local school's soccer field, there are two rows of people dressed in their Hmong outfits and throwing tennis balls back and forth. Trying to figure out the goal of the game, I ask Tan how one becomes the cha-nat (winner), she laughs and tells me that it is just an activity that village members participate in to pass the time. Kruu Keng adds that the ball-tossing activity is a way for village members of different clans to socialize with each other during the Hmong New Year festivities.
I ask Ne and Tan if we can play the ball-tossing conversation game, and sure enough, Tan has a tennis ball handy in her purse. Saint, one of their friends who is visiting from Bangkok for the weekend, comes over and asks Tan if she'd like to toss the ball with him. She giggles and insists that Saint throws the ball to me instead.

Initially, I'm confused as to why Saint is shy to throw a tennis ball to me: it's a conversation starter that's supposed to ease the tension! As we join the end of the two rows and begin passing the tennis ball, I look around and notice the dynamics of the group: girls stand in one row, giggling underneath their umbrellas as they toss tennis balls to the boys across the way, who are nudging their buddies and joking around. And then it dawns on me: they're flirting with each other. This ball-tossing game is a way for boys and girls to interact, and Saint was trying to get to know Tan, who sneakily passed him off to me instead! I think my awkward realization was apparent by my facial expression, because a laughing Kruu Keng comes over to join our ball-toss, with a giggling Ne and bashful Tan joining us a minute later.