Sunday, April 24, 2016

Culture Trip 2016: Chiang Mai, Thailand

When it comes to school study trips, or culture trips, or whatever you like to call them, it's very much luck of the draw. Some years you have to go to a place you've already been multiple times and don't particularly care for, like Shanghai. Sometimes you are sent to a place where there is some hiking and some culture and some overly-touristy destinations, like Shandong. Sometimes you get heaved into an amazing wilderness journey that your students detest but that you thoroughly enjoy, like Guizhou. Sometimes you must remain near Beijing and do stuff you do on the weekends there anyway, like stalk around on the Great Wall or shoot people with lasers, because you live in Beijing. Always with cool students and neat coworkers, of course. 

And, sometimes, you get stuck on a trip to heaven, or some place like heaven. Like Chiang Mai, Thailand. 

This year four other BWYA staff members and I were forced to accompany my school's eleventh grade students - 45 in total - across borders and into the tropics, to Thailand, where we stayed on an international school's campus, ate their food, and did many different things in and near the city of Chiang Mai. Below I will elaborate on some of the many different things we were forced to do.

Thing We Were Forced to Do #1: Learn about Thai culture. 

I know, I know...but I'm not making this up. When we came to their country, they tried to teach us about it. Immediate and mandatory instruction concerning the customs, language, and dress of Thailand was put upon us on our initial Monday in Chiang Mai. Heads were exploding. Various and wise local teachers showed us students and teachers how to do such things as count to ten in Thai, paint decorative umbrellas for our girlfriends or whoever back home, dress in traditional Thai clothing, and construct lanterns that would be sent heavenward at a later point in the week.

Thing We Were Forced to Do #2: Go biking through the lush, green Thai countryside. 

Bike! In the heat? To our next activity? Crazy. They (the Traidhos staff, an extremely capable and organized company that ran our trip) threw us onto bikes, chucked helmets on our heads, and off we went, through over ten kilometers of quiet, reflective dirt road and path. Not all of the students on our trip knew how to ride bikes, and not all of them were experts at it, but everyone who began biking also finished the trek, despite the insipid heat. Because BWYA's students are troopers!

Thing We Were Forced to Do #3: Kayak through clear, still waters to our lodgings for the night.

Doesn't it sound awful? Oh, my. Once we'd recovered from our bike ride, they (the Traidhos staff, a safety-first company that seemed to have no end of challenging ideas for our group) again chucked us into two-person kayaks, booted us off the shore, and bid us farewell. Against all odds, most of us first- (or forty-eighth-) time kayakers fared fairly well; only one girl fell out of her vessel accidentally, and all of our group made it to the destination for the evening: a house boat. Or - more accurately - a hotel boat.

Thing We Were Forced to Do #4: Stay on a hotel boat on clear still waters for one night.  

Aren't you sickened by reading this? Harsh stuff! On the house hotel, we were coerced into even more than we originally bargained for: eating delicious food for both dinner and breakfast, swimming off the dock, fun evening games that involved laughter and mirth, a murky sunrise, peace and quiet at a relatively reasonable hour (considering we were with oodles of students), and excellent conversation of the highest level. Somehow, we survived until morning. 

Thing We Were Forced to Do #5: Go to an elephant park. 

We were given no choice but to immerse ourselves among the elephants, despite the fact that they were huge and we (except, of course, for my enormous arms (see previous post: Hike of Men) were small and frail. The elephants received many a good turn from us, including: (a) baths (b) every kind of fruit imaginable (c) affectionate strokes and pats (d) fame and fortune via social media (e) words of affirmation in great abundance (f) hand germs. They were lucky. Some elephants we just looked at, some we fed and talked to and petted, and on some we poured enough water to hydrate a town the size of Flint, Michigan. Unbelievable. Unbelievable what we had to go through!

Thing We Were Forced to Do #6: Watch a traditional Thai dance. 

Now, I know what you are thinking, and I thought it and am still thinking it: How could they do this to us? But, yes, it's true: first, they fed us scrumptious Thai food, and then out came the dancers, the drums, the bells, the fire. The nerve. The nerve! We watched, mesmerized, by the talent and skill the years had put on the musicians and on the dancers. 

Thing We Were Forced to Do #7: Build a wall. 

Very offensive, very offensive indeed. Our group was convinced - against our better judgment, of course - to help build a wall at a school in a rural area outside of the city. This was a crazy idea, but for different reasons: none of us BWYA people knew jack about building or constructing anything. Maybe Traidhos thought that because our school is in China, near the Great Wall...? Nonetheless, our motley crew put together a pretty bangin' wall; each section received the attention of two or three BWYA souls, and soon the rural school was protected from the outside by our impenetrable defense system of concrete, brick, and human perspiration. Maybe Traidhos knew what they were doing when divvying out assignments after all...

Thing We Were Forced to Do #8: Send lanterns up into the sky.

Yes. This was the final and culminating act that they demanded of us. Earlier in the week, in our lessons about Thai culture, each group had made large lanterns and decorated them. Then, at the end, each lantern was lit, which forced it up high into the heavens. Up they floated, the lanterns that BWYA had made, onward and upward to who knows where.

Yes. It was just one of those things that, as a teacher, you have to endure, fight past, and pray through. We all survived, somehow. Perhaps our survival was due to many years of training on other culture trips to other locations and destinations, which prepared us for the task of withstanding a week in Thailand. And who knows where we'll all end up next year...New Zealand? Phuket? Hawaii? The Bahamas? Hainan? Somewhere rougher, no doubt. 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Hike of Men

Four young men they were; no more and no less, 
Men all from the lines of great Gilgamesh, 
From Beowulf, Hercules, Odysseus, 
Alexander the Great, and Chuck H. Norris.

These four lads had names, names written in stone, 
These names defined them, their muscles, their bone: 
First: Ali; then Ben, and then Justin Barnett, 
And lastly came Reuben, the nastiest yet. 

The four wildish sons one dark morning quit
The safety of city; with Beijing they split. 
To Jiankou, on wings of a black taxi car;
To distances epic, li'l known near or far. 

Disembarked from the vehicle, into the wild
The men plunged headfirst; toward the Wall they all piled. 
No paths could withstand the force of their pace. 
And no other hikers with these dudes could race. 

Quite soon, on the Wall, on ages, they stood.
Nearby all the ladies screamed, "Dang, you look good!"
Heading north, blazing trails both ahead and behind, 
With the strength of a hundred Sam Bayles combined. 

Tallish and gangly and full of good cheer, 
Ben's stride in the hearts of the others struck fear. 
He climbed stuff like Jack and his beanstalk of yore. 
And up on the peaks he'd let loose a foul roar.

From Scotland, with love (or with something like that) 
In valleys he'd frolic and on hilltops he sat.
His muscles the size of a great SUV
Other hikers bowed down and murmured, "Ali!"

With a beard and some ink and the stuff made of legends, 
Justin Barnett ascended toward the gray heavens. 
His first steps upon the Great Wall left huge holes;
Which hikers with soup could then use as bowls.

Another dark beard, one of evil repute, 
And on his hairy shoulders draped a backpack of fruit. 
"Minnesota, Minnesota!" his baseball cap cried
As Reub's hiking shoe caused a modern landslide.

These hikers, on work days, and days they had off, 
When a lady walked by, they had no caps to doff, 
Their skulls were quite usually open and bare, 
But on this manly journey, hats covered their hair.  

From tower to tower, through brush and through crowd, 
And past weaker hikers, with war cries quite loud. 
The wall hike - quite brutal - gave bruises and cuts; 
The men, though sure-footed, oft fell on their butts.


They picked from their hands some wild splints of wood. 
They skinned up their knees, but oh! It felt good. 
The wind tried to pull their hair off their face, 
The wall tried in graves these men to encase.

But the four men, they laughed! Those muscular blokes, 
They laughed long and hard and made "Your mom" jokes. 
Stopping for water and big Snickers bars,
The sun in their faces; in their eyes there were stars.

Thrashing through bottles of water and fruit
And cherry tomatoes, the arms of each brute
Grew larger and larger, and more manly! Woof!
This added muscle helped them scale Jiankou's roof. 

There were points when the men felt a little bit lost, 
And the savage wind threatened to leave on them frost, 
But then they remembered a critical fact: 
They were men! They were here not to cry but to act!

There were points when the risk of vile death had drawn nigh. 
When the foothold below the men's feet was quite high. 
But then they remembered the ever-true truth:
That they'd climbed higher cliffs ever since their dang youth. 

There were points when the men - because of their strength
Grew a little bit bored with the Great Wall's great length. 
They said, "This is cake! This is easy! Child's play!
We could do ten of these hikes on any Monday!

But then they remembered something always quite lame. 
Several of the men - I shall not name names - 
Always worked on their Mondays, an accursed, sad shame. 
To climb without the wouldn't be the same.

They counted their blessings and gave thanks to God
For permission to on the Great Wall firmly trod. 
And then, like the men that they'd been made to be, 
They continued their hike toward eternity.

Is this hell? Is it Sparta? Has the time come to die? 
No, it's just Ali, a more-than-regular guy, 
And Benjamin Whitmore, and Haggar Reuben, 
And Justin, Four Quartets, beginning and end. 

Civilization extends just so far, 
Four dudes reach the end and see where they are. 
They give some high-fives and slaps on the back
And over the edge they quite deftly attack.