Sunday, January 29, 2012

Vacation: Surat Thani (Khao Sok National Park)

A long time ago, while flying through the air, I picked up one of those airplane magazines, which showed all the expensive luxurious places I would never get to go in my life.  One of those places was a treehouse hotel in the middle of some jungle somewhere.  Well, when I realized that I was planning my vacation to a place filled with jungles, I looked into it, and sure enough, there were plenty of treehouse hotels!  Thrilled, I booked my stay at Our Jungle House (click the title), mostly because of their awesome activities list.  I'm so glad that's the one I picked.  This is why:

The view from my first room.

Some of the staff

I went on a "Night Safari."  The key phrase was: "Don't touch that!  Full of poison!!"  This snake will kill you in 30 minutes if it bites you.

Little tarantula.  Although, when my guide said it, it sounded like, "little Dracula."

The lowli moves slowly!  I'm pretty sure he's a type of sloth.

I went on a an intense hike to find the Rafflesia flower, which I'm told is the largest flower in the world.  It only blooms for a couple of days, so most of them were dead when we got there.

This one would be open within the next couple of days (so right about now).

The view from the top of the mountain.
Our Jungle House was GREAT, and I'd definitely recommend staying there.  The place was incredibly family-friendly.  In fact, when I left, I felt like I was leaving home.  Bodhi, his family, and his staff made the stay wonderful, offering activities and food to tempt any traveller.  I meant to write so much about this part of my trip, but it's hard to find words to accurately describe the warm place in my heart I have for Thailand, specifically because of my stay at this hotel (If you can really call it that).  So, I hope my pictures do it justice, and I hope you take the leap and just go ahead and stay there - you won't regret it.

So, yes, all in all, I'd definitely say vacation was a win (and a much needed break from the cold).  Hope y'all are doing well!  I'm off to get coffee with a friend, so I'll upload the rest of my pictures to Facebook later. :)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Vacation: Bangkok

I stopped in Bangkok for one reason, and one reason only.  I'm going to let look at my pictures and figure out what is was.  :)

Rocking the sunburn for an early morning trip down to the floating markets.

The pressure to buy was intense.  One woman started crying when I said I wasn't interested, another started pushing things into my hands.  The place was packed, so I know they were going to get buyers, it's just hard for me to walk (or float) away from that sort of thing.  I'm sure that's what they were banking on, though.

He was selling the opportunity to get your photo taken with this snake around you.  If not for my excruciating sunburn, I would have gone for it.  You win some, you lose some, I guess. :)
Next, I met up with my tour guide at a WWII POW grave yard.   I didn't realize WWII had touched Thailand, but apparently, the Japanese used POWs to build a railroad to carry supplies through the country.  They generally worked 20-hour days, with little to no food and water.  Most died from the heat.  It was tough, walking down the cross-shaped path, hearing people searching for specific names, counting the number of men who were younger than me when they passed...  It was very emotional.

At the Bridge of Death, where so many men unwillingly gave their lives, forced to fight for the side against whom they began their war; I can think very few worse ways to go.  I pray to G-d for His mercy, that, one day, this will not even be an option that crosses the minds of our leaders.

At the tiger temple, with a sweet little cub.  He wasn't the youngest I hung out with, but the other was too frolicky for me to get a great picture. 

Fully grown, and fully fed, so he wasn't too interested in play - just bath time, then nap time.

Speaking of bath time, I had to take this sweet girl down to the river for her bath.  It was, on the whole, much more scary than being around the tigers, as I had nothing to hold while I was riding her!  This, of course, left me incredibly sore, as I think my goal became to stay on the elephant, using my legs as my only semblance of a seatbelt.

Loving that rub down (I hope - it was a little hard to tell).  She started playing with me after a while, splashing me with water and spraying some out of her trunk.  I ended up feeding her in the end, and I think she decided she liked me then. ;)
So - can you guess what it was?  I know, it was definitely an eventful day that is leaving me smiling, even now.  I certainly wouldn't trade it in.  I would recommend it (link attached to the title, of coure).

Vacation: Natthida (Taeng)

My whole reason for this vacation, and especially for going to The-Middle-of-Nowhere, Thailand was to see this lovely lady:
My sponsor child - Taeng - and me, outside her home
I've been sponsoring Natthida (Taeng) for about five years now, and the story of how we got started is definitely one near to my heart.  Before Taeng, I had been sponsoring Raquel of Honduras for quite some time.  I had been wanting to sponsor another child, but I wasn't sure I could afford it, so I started hosting Compassion events, when I presented Compassion to churches or even concerts and festivals, trying to get children sponsored that way.  At the start of every event, I made it a habit of picking up every child packet and praying over them.  At smaller events, I'd try to get to know something about each child.  It made things feel more personal, and, as a result, it got more children sponsored.  But still, I couldn't shake the desire to sponsor more.  So I prayed:
 G-d, if there ever comes a child across my table who shares my birthday, I'll sponsor him or her.
And then I continued my habits.  I can't tell you the number of April 22nds and April 24ths that crossed my table, entered my hands, almost had my name on them, but then I'd think of my bank account and my deal with G-d, and I'd wait.

Then, once day, it happened - the packet was there.  Terrified, I put the packet on the table, and prayed a new prayer:
G-d, if this is what you want, confirm it for me: don't let anyone sponsor her.

A copy of the first letter I ever sent Natthida,
which was found in a binder, holding copies of all
of our communications.
But halfway through, I new I was being foolish and cowardly, and I picked up the packet, wrote my information on the form, stapled my money to it, and added it to the stack.  Never before and never since have I encountered a Compassion child packet that shared my birthday.  For some reason, G-d specifically paired Natthida and me.  In meeting her, I began to realize the magnitude of the amount of responsibility He has placed on me and the amount of trust He must have in me, because I am now one of the maybe 6 Christian adults with whom she has contact.

Me and Taeng
For a while, Taeng was attending church and writing to me about what she was learning, but that has stopped.  Her community being mostly Hindu and Buddhist, her family began to fear neighbors' reactions to her church attendance and have had her stop.  She now sells (delicious) deep fried pancakes on Saturdays (which is when her church met) instead.  She does not believe in Jesus' salvation.  For a while, I know she was ripe to believe, but now, I know I must redouble my efforts.  I hope you will join me in praying for her and her family as well as for me - that G-d will give me the right words to write to her to lead her in the correct direction.

Taeng's house.  There are two beds in the house.  Taeng and her sister share one bed, their mother sleeps on another, and their father sleeps on the floor.  If you look to the left of the blue present on the shelf, you will see that the only framed picture in their home is of me and my father.  (I won't lie, I started crying.) 

We went to the zoo, which turned out to be Taeng's favorite spot in town.  I really liked finding that commonality: we both really enjoy zoos!  We also found another commonality: we are both the fast-museum kind of people (unlike my father, who likes to read every word on every sign).

Feeding the MASSIVE fish in the lake near the zoo

Next, we made a quick trip Natthida's grandmother's house, where Natthida helps to make these delicious, deep-fried pancakes and walks around selling them.  She wanted to make some for me, a request to which my taste buds were more than obliging. 
Trying to find more common ground, I noted how this was similar to my job making omelets in college, which was answered with an invitation to give the pancakes a try.  Natthida was giving me instructions over my shoulder.  Apparently, she was impressed with my results. :)

Natthida's little sister kept trying to sneak into pictures, so we just welcomed her in.  I never figured out how the boys were related, but I'm assuming they're cousins.

with Natthida and her mom

Then, we went to the Big Pagoda (I told you the better pictures would make sense here).  The Compassion people seemed very uncomfortable, as they kept insisting that they were Christians, so they knew very little about it, but it's a huge landmark in Nakhon Si Thammarat, and they wanted me to be able to see it and be impressed with it.

It was right about here that Taeng looked over at me and said, "You skin is so pretty!  My skin just absorbs the sun, but yours reflects it.  You're kind of hard to look at."  I laughed and reassured her that in a couple of hours it would be bright red.  This intrigued her a lot, so she asked me to lie down in the sun and show her.  I politely declined and attempted to distract her by buying her things. hahah.  I'm so American.

Exploring the pagoda
Saying goodbye was definitely the hardest part of the trip - having to release this beautiful girl (who's already sick) back into the care of people who, although well meaning, cannot provide all the medical treatment/advice she needs.  She cannot get all the religious encouragement I would want for her.  By no means do I think I could provide a better home for her, but I'm so used to being the kid who takes over the project when I feel like it's not being done to the absolute best of it's potential.  I'm a micro-manager, and I can't micro-manage this.  I have to trust G-d.  I CANNOT be in control on this one, and that's so scary for me.

One thing I will always take with me, though, is the memory of the sound of this sweet child's voice as she called out her classroom window to me, halting my progression to my ride back to the hotel.  I looked up, and there she was, leaning out the window for a third goodbye.  Maybe she didn't specifically mouth the words, "I love you, too, and I want you to be safe, too," but I feel like they were implied.

Sponsor a Child in Jesus Name with Compassion

Vacation: Nakhon Si Thammarat (นครศรีธรรมราช)

The first stop on my trip was the tiny, absolutely non-tourist city of Nakhon Si Thammarat, known in Thai as นครศรีธรรมราช.  I can't read that at all, but it's absolutely wonderful to look at in small quantities.  Nakhon Si Thammarat has been plagued by floods for pretty much a year now.  It's been pretty bad, and a lot of people in the lower half of town (incidentally, the poorer half of town - isn't that how it always goes?) have had to relocate.  Interestingly enough, the whole experience in the city (from the weather to my hotel) kept reminding me of my time in Nicaragua.

I stayed in a cute hotel called Teeny House while I was there.  I wasn't really sure what to expect, but I'm glad I stayed there.  Its bright pink exterior helped keep me from getting lost, the rooms were nice, and the food was delicious.  The staff couldn't have been more friendly or helpful.  I'm pretty sure, of the couple who owns the place, the wife is primarily responsible for the decorations.  It almost gave the feel of a B&B, each floor having a feel of a theme (although you'd have to be a woman to notice it, because each theme was flower-heavy) and hidden poetry or philosophy painted onto the walls.

And, of course, what is a hotel without a mascot/symbol of some sort.  This seemed to be Teeny House's:
While I felt awful for this dog, having to wear a dress in that kind of heat, I did enjoy rolling it around in play, in essence, contributing to the heat problem.  Ah, well...

Nakhon Si Thammarat, while not being tourist in nature, is rich with history and culture.  I took a day to walk the entire length of the place (I'd guess four miles?) and check out a bunch of historical spots marked on my tourist map.  Here are some of them:

This stupa - "Chedi Yak" - was built between 1257 and 1358 AD.   It's in the Coylouese (Sri Lankan) style. 
This Buddha image - "Luang Pho Ngoen" - is located in front of Chedi Yak.

I'm pretty sure this was at "Suan Phra Ngern."

I went out of my way to find this pool.  Unfortunately, it was very much closed off and shut down.  This is "Sa Lang Dap Si Prat," and, according to my tourist map, Si Prat was a poet who prospered during the rule of King Narai the Great.  However, like most poets, he wasn't a fan of conformity to custom and tradition, and, crossing the line with one toe too many, he was banished to Nakhon Si Thammarat, where, keeping with the poet stereotype, he was found to be committing adultery with a local woman.  As punishment, he was executed (by beheading, from what I can tell) near this pool.  According to legend, the executioner washed his sword in this pool.

This is part of the ancient city wall.  It is surmised that the wall was constructed over an older wall that was an earth wall, supported by columns.  This newer wall is a brick wall, covered by plaster.  I sat at this wall and enjoyed a Coke, while watching a guy fishing.  Then the police came by and started hitting on me, so I figured it was time to go. 

Phra Sua Muang Shrine was built to house an image of Phra Sua Muang, the angel of the city who is supposed to protect the city from all dangers, along with protecting the armed forces and bringing peace to the locals.

At Wat Phra Maha That Woramaha Wihan (try saying that 10 times fast... ... ... or at all) also known as: The Big Pagoda.  I'm putting up two pictures that don't show much at all of its size or beauty, but I promise I'll post more in my next post.  You'll understand why.

Each of these is supposed to hold the ashes of a Buddhist monk.
Yup.  I definitely think the walk was worth the sunburn.  Plus, on the way back, a local college kid got excited to see a white person, so he asked to take a picture with me.  In return, he gave me a ride on his motor bike back to my hotel, while his wife waited at the college.  It was terrifying, as it had just rained and we were going incredibly fast, but I managed to avoid a third round with sun poisoning, so I still throw this one in the win-win category.  :)

Vacation: The part I didn't tell you before I left. (Plus my opinion of AirAsia)

Well, I'm back home, and I had a wonderful vacation!  A lot of people (myself included) were a bit nervous about it, because I was travelling alone, but, in the end, I was glad that I did it.  I got to be an absolute introvert for 10 whole days.  I think I totalled maybe 10 hours of talking the whole trip.  It was wonderful.  It was also a little disconcerting, because I saw how easy it would be for me to retreat into myself and become a hermit, but I suppose that worse things have been known to happen.  Alone time was definitely needed, and I'm glad I got it.

So, here's the part I didn't advertise too much, for fear of freaking my world out more:

Just before I left, the U.S. sent out this huge warning about a "real and credible" terrorist threat in Bangkok.  But I knew that I wouldn't be there very long, and I stayed alert and up-to-date.  I snagged some photos of the guys involved too, and kept them  on my phone, like so:

This is a picture of the terrorist who was caught, after which they released a copy of his passport.  It was his capture that led to the attack actually being called off, but he was the only participant caught, the other culprit was at large... well for my whole vacation.

This is a sketch of the other terrorist.  I kept his picture on my phone to check out anyone acting weird around me.  But, as it turns out, Bangkok is absolutely massive, and it wasn't a problem at all.  I am still explosion-free.

In reality, what worried me more about my trip was all the mess with AirAsia, my airline.  It had been described to me as an Asian Southwest of sorts, but, let me tell you... Southwest, they are not.

It all started with me trying to book my tickets.  They apparently don't like American credit cards or Korean debit cards, so I went all out and got a Korean credit card, which worked... to book my first of three plane tickets.  The latter two, I ended up having to call to book.  The second one booked decently easily, minus having to sit on hold forever.  But the third one... oh the third one.  I spelled my name three times for the guy, and he still ended up book my ticket under the name:
"Ms. N Royster"
N?  Who names their child N?  That's right No one. By the time he realized the mistake (while entering my email address) he apparently had lost the ability to scroll up on the page and fix it, so then he went on about how I needed to call this other department and jump through all their hoops to fix it.  I firmly told him that he would be the one having to waste the time on that, since he was the one who ignored my spelling.  After some arguing back and forth, he eventually agreed to look into and call me back.  However, it was not him who called me back, it was a woman who informed me that "We made this mistake, yes, but YOU'RE going to have to fix it."  She also told me there would be a name change fee involved.  Let me tell you, my firm tone had some volume behind it for that one.  I paid no name change fee, although I was denied the discount I asked for.

In general, AirAsia was just a hassle.  The seats were tiny with no leg room.  The flight times were obscure, meaning I had to spend a night near the airport, effectively making up for the difference in cost between them and the next cheapest flight.  The flight attendants and desk workers were generally rude, although there was one guy - Harry - who was delightful.  The baggage scale in Surat Thani was, I'm pretty sure, rigged, as it weighed my EMPTY BAG in at 10 kg.  They nickel and dimed you for everything.  All in all, I felt like my booking on their flights was just seen as a huge inconvenience for them and they'd rather I booked elsewhere, which I will be doing next time.  In fact, next to my flight, every time was an airline called Nok Air, which is a domestic Thai airline, running the same routes as AirAsia within Thailand.  I haven't looked into their prices or anything, but your luggage flies free with them, and their attendants were very helpful.  I will definitely be looking into them, should I return to Thailand.
The Nok Air flight that left shortly before my own.
Sorry, these were tidbits I had to get out.  I promise I'll have much more interesting things in the following posts!

Monday, January 16, 2012

On vacation

I'm going on vacation.

If you're reading this and thinking this will be a good time to break into my apartment, have at it.  Fair warning: I own nothing of any resale value.  You may think the Mac and the HP under my desk are good finds.  However, you would be wrong.  The Mac is riddled with water damage from an unfortunate OJ spill: it's laser-disc drive does not work; it also has an extremely dented left speaker; oh, and it was refurbished to begin with.  The HP is extremely out of date and probably loaded with viruses - various programs are slowly wiping themselves off of it.

If you're reading this because you normally read my blog, I will not be posting again for about a week.  I'll talk to you then.

I hope you all are having a wonderful Martin Luther King Jr. Day!

Please leave a message after the beep.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Harry Potter Camp - Day 10 - The Final Battle

The last four days of camp were marked by the arrival of a letter from various enemies of Harry at the start of each class.  The final day, Lord Voldemort himself wrote to us, demanding that we turn him over.  There was only one problem: we didn't have Harry; we'd never seen Harry; we certainly couldn't turn him over.

The Slytherins suggested that we either join the Death Eaters or run, but the rest of the class out-voted them, suggesting that the Slytherins could sit quietly on the sidelines if they'd like, but if they joined the other side, "We duel to kill."  (No, that's not quoting my students in real life, it's quoting Professor McGonagall.)

Soon, the epic battle was underway.

As an early elementary schooler, my reading material of choice were the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books.  If it wasn't for the fact that these were not Accelerated Reader books, I never would have read anything else (and thus never would have read Harry Potter, so it all turned out for the best).  So, when I found a PowerPoint game, designed as a Harry Potter-Lord Voldemort Choose Your Own Adventure battle, I could not turn it down.  The game was loaded up with 60 different slides, two to three options on each slide, and (from what I can tell) one way to win.

This thing kept me happy for the forty minutes that we played (because each house had four lives, and it took almost all of those lives to finally beat it).

In the end, it was, surprisingly enough, the Slytherin house that defeated Voldemort.  For doing so, they were awarded 160 points, as per the movie, which was enough to make up for all the points they had lost along the way for doing their Slytherin-like antics, such as not doing/turning in their work or not participating.  I was so glad that it turned out the way it did, because I hated seeing them so clearly far behind everyone else.  Unlike the books, though, it was not the house that defeated Voldemort that won the house cup.  Rather, it was Ravenclaw, coming in with over 500 points.  This worked out well for me, because there were two students to whom I was considering giving an award "for special services to the school" (aka perfect attendance and best attitude).  As one of them was a fifth grader in Ravenclaw and the other a sixth grader in Hufflepuf[f], I decided the best course of action would be to give it to the student who hadn't yet been recognized for her achievements.

I promised her that if she needed help reading it, we could get together and have some Harry Potter fun.
"And suddenly, their wardrobes were empty, their trunks were packed.  Neville's toad was found lurking  in a corner of the toilets; notes were handed out to all students, warning them not to use magic over the holidays ('I always hope they'll forget to give us these,' said Fred Weasley sadly); Hagrid was there to take them down to the fleet of boats that sailed across the lake; they were boarding the Hogwarts Express; talking and laughing as the countryside became greener and tidier; eating Berttie Bott's Every Flavor Beans as they sped past Muggle towns; pulling off their wizard robes and putting on jackets and coats; pulling into platform nine and three-quarters at King's Cross Station...

"'Hope you have - er - a good holiday,' said Herminone, looking uncertainly after Uncle Vernon, shocked that anyone could be so unpleasant.

"'Oh, I will,' said Harry, and they were surprised at the grin that was spreading over his face.  'They don't know we're not allowed to use magic at home.   I'm going to have a lot of fun with Dudley this summer..."

The End