Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas in a rain-soaked jungle

I've essentially skipped over Christmas the last two winters.  Last year, I left Vientiane for Nong Khai Thailand where I took a solitary yet life-changing 8 day yoga course on the banks of the Mekong, and then flew to Southern Thailand to meet my two oldest friends on a beach.  I knew my winter break this year was going to be very different.  This year I knew I wanted to spend my precious break in Lao, using my language, and exploring the North.  

Northern Lao is mountainous, green, quiet, and dotted with villages.  It's a different world.  I contend that Lao itself is just one big village, with the capital city itself no more than a sprawling, dusty little town, but northern Lao itself encapsulates a sort of landscape and rhythm I didn't know existed anymore.  Leaving the town of Luang Prabang, it takes no more than 5 minutes of travel before you are suddenly firmly in village life; vehicles dodging chickens, young women carrying woven baskets of firewood on their backs, grandfathers carrying newborns in brightly colored slings over their chests, families sitting in front of their homes on mats enjoying sticky rice for lunch, groups of schoolchildren biking to the nearest school riding two per bicycle, and in the background always miles of rice fields and mountains beyond.  

I wanted to insert myself firmly into this sort of rhythm for my winter break, and so a very vague plan formed in my head.  The first stop: spending a night with my friend Kham and his family in their mountain village.  So on my first day of break, I headed to the northern bus station and jumped into a crammed tuk tuk headed (also very vaguely) towards Kham's village a few hours north.  Lao is cold right now...and I'd go so far as to call that day bitterly cold.  In the back of the truck, I sat between many others- many Khmu people heading back to their villages for the Khmu new year.  On the way, as we whizzed north, the young woman next to me inched closer and closer until I found that we were properly cuddling, me feeling thankful as my newly purchased winter clothes were not proving their worth.  On the way, our vehicle broke down---
I reached the nearest little town to Kham's village, and waited for his older brother to pick me up on his motorcycle to drive me the remaining few hours up the mountains to reach his village.  Their village being so remote that it was hours even from a place where a vehicle can reach... Kham's brother was an excellent motorcyclist and managed to lug me with my backpack up a bumpy, steep road for more than an hour as we climbed higher and higher into the cold, blue mountains.  

We reached their village, a small Khmu settlement quite literally on the top of a mountain, with a 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape.  And so began some of the coldest 20 hours I have ever spent...of course, the temperatures not even close to being as cold as MN in the winter, but without any of the comforts of indoor heating, proper winter clothes.  We went straight into Kham's family home where I was greeted by many curious faces and stuffed filled with sticky rice and vegetable soup (one of many meals that day!).  
It was Khmu near year, so I spent the day walking around with Kham to different homes where we would have to drink traditional Khmu rice alcohol (Lao Hai) and eat more sticky rice and other newly harvested vegetables to celebrate.  As a foreign visitor, I was especially urged to drink as much Lao Hai as I could...and luckily I found it wasn't nearly as strong as Lao whiskey.  

Along our war path of sticky rice and rice alcohol and new year celebrations, we also walked farther away to see the natural surroundings of the area...mountain after mountain, all covered by dense jungle.  

The views in the early morning, although not including a sunrise like Kham hoped due to cloudiness, were unreal.  My friend Kham, he lives in a village above the clouds...

My short visit to this magical, mountain-top village was accented by endless servings of delicious fresh sticky rice and vegetables and Lao Hai, curious little faces, and the kindness of Kham and his family.  And maybe most of all, the two miraculous motorcycle rides leading me to and from the village, where I sat, captivated by blue mountains, and barely balanced, as we flew up and down bumpy dirt roads.  After meeting the village chiefs and being forcibly given several bags of leftovers (sticky rice and vegetables), I was off on the second leg of the adventurous motorcycle ride journey down the mountains.  Kham's friend kindly drove me this time to a little town where I could catch some form of transport to my next destination: Nong Khiaw.  My transport this time was even more special than before, as in a normal sized tuk tuk truck which fits maybe 10 people comfortably, we had no less than 30 humans in the back of the truck bed.  We shared sticky rice together and cuddled.  
Nong Khiaw is a tiny, quiet river-side town nestled between beautiful and severe outcroppings of limestone cliffs.  Nong Khiaw was thankfully warmer than Kham's village, so I could spend my days walking around comfortably.  The other part of my time I spent making friends with the workers at the hotel, reading (for pleasure!), exploring, speaking Lao with anyone and everyone, and staring at the river.  I had another very lao incident in Nong Khiaw where a night intended to be quiet, eating an early dinner and watching the sunset, ended up with me singing karaoke at a bar until midnight thanks to making an unexpected friend of a lao tour guide passing through.  This is Nong Khiaw at different angles and hours:

Sated by several days alone, I was ready to venture up further north to Luang Namtha to meet with my friend Irini to go on a 3 day jungle trek for Christmas.  Luang Namtha is a great little town near the Chinese and Thai border, smaller than Luang Prabang and fringed by mountains and dense rain forest.  When Irini and I met up, we spent a full day in Luang Namtha exploring, eating, and going on a long bike ride through temples, rice paddies, and villages.  We made some friends and spent Christmas Eve eating pizza with them.  

Then, the next morning it was off into the jungle!  Irini and I had chosen a moderate-difficult 3-day option through a hiking company that her friend recently started.  We were with two other foreigners and had an awesome Lao guide in addition to two 'local guides' that lived in the Khmu village where we started.  The hike started brutally, with a 3 hour initial descent up a mountain into the deep protected rainforest.  At lunch, we reached a lovely overlook point:

After another few hours, we reached our jungle camp, and began to set up camp.  It started pouring around this time, and so our first night was spent under a homemade jungle shelter, freezing, and eating a wet Christmas dinner together that our guides made out of nothing more than a small fire, hollow bamboo shoots that they used to cook the food in, and using whatever they could forage to help.  Unfortunately, most of our things got wet, so we tried to dry them over night over a fire.  

Christmas dinner in the rain:

 Making the shelter:

The next day I woke up feeling sick and very off, but nonetheless we embarked on the hardest day yet, 9 hours of very challenging and now slippery terrain, up and down and up and down  mountains.  My shoes were normal walking shoes and had no traction, so I fell repeatedly all day, and during the last 2 hours which was a steep muddy path down the final mountain, I basically had to be majestically carried by the really kind local guide because my knees were so tired from all the tension of slipping and recovering and steep ascents and descents.  We reached the Khmu village where we were staying right as the sun came down (several hours later than we thought), and emerged out of the jungle in a state of delirium and exhaustion.  Our adventure wasn't quite over, because in order to reach the village, we had to literally forge two small rivers in all of our gear.  When we reached the homestay in the village, we collapsed immediately.  I haven't been that tired from hiking for at least 10 years, when I was camping in Utah.  Then, we enjoyed another meal of sticky rice and vegetables (we had been eating the same throughout), a few restorative sips of Lao whiskey, and passed out.  

The hardest day:

The next day we woke up to have breakfast and leave for our final stretch.  The last day was the easiest, as we only hiked about 3 hours on easy terrain.  Overall the trek was awesome; challenging, peaceful, beautiful, and with good company.  Actually, I spent most of my time speaking to the local guides in Lao, and was lucky enough to receive an offer from the older local guide to be his second wife.  Amazing.  

Yesterday I said goodbye to Irini and set back on a day-long journey to Luang Prabang, whizzing through an endless backdrop of villages, mountains, and forest, until we finally reached the familiar surroundings of my home.  

I'm back now, and my legs are still tired.  I'm happy to have more free days before I start teaching again, and I'm planning to spend them seeing friends, celebrating new years, and enjoying the slow pace of life here, because even here in the 'town' it's a lovely, slow, one with the occasional rollicking beat:)


Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Reflection on Teachers from my Past

As a teacher, I feel I finally have the right to critically analyze many of my past teachers and also see how they have inspired or on the flip side- forever traumatized me. Many of their practices and quirks live on in me! Some hopefully don't. Read below for their impact---whether I reflect them in my own teaching or whether I'm still attempting to rid my psyche of lasting trauma imparted by them.

In the beginning, there was preschool, there was Mrs. R and Mrs. K. More than anything else, Mrs. R and Mrs. K. definitely gave me a life-time appreciation for snacks. I never really knew snacks or 'snacktime' existed until I started going to school. The fact that, multiple times a day, things would stop and I would get to eat pudding or apple slices was almost too exciting to handle. I didn't grow up in the great depression, aka I'm sure I also had snacks when I was 3 and my job description was to eat things and mess things up at home, but I don't think I internally labeled them as “snacks” or revered this holy 30 minutes as “snack time.” To this day, I revere snacks and the sacred “snack time.” As an adult, I am most able to enjoy snacktimes under the guise of “break time” and often during workshops or trainings which to me are synonyms for “long things where we sit all day and listen to people talk and write on post it notes and eat snacks.” Mrs. R. and Mrs. K. forever brought an acute awareness and appreciation for snacks into my life, and for them I'm forever thankful. Just now, I went to a film screening in Luang Prabang about female traditional story tellers and enjoyed such a majestic snacktime when we were allowed to stop watching films for 10 minutes and eat awesome snacks and juice. It was so cool. I hope to incorporate more snacks into my teaching in the future.

After discovering snacks, I then met the many-headed snake of over-validation and praise. Now, as a daughter of Margie Hogan, I am familiar with praise and enthusiasm. But it all came to a climax when I triumphantly entered kindergarten. I already knew so many things! Like how there would be snacks. And my teacher, Mrs. T., was a dear. She was totally precisely engineered to be a kindergarten teacher. Mrs. T, among many other lovely things, was an avid praiser. She had a toolbox of sharpened validation tools to use with her large, sweaty group of 5 year olds. One such tool was a personalized note home EVERY DAY that congratulated you on something you had done well. So, awesome idea, but how many times can you tell little Maxie poo that he did a great job not sharting during morning circle? So, she had to get really creative. I have hundreds of colorful, handmade notes from Mrs. T that say stuff like “Ilse did a GREAT job writing the letter “T” today!” or “Ilse shared her crayons SO well with Kristin during free time!” On days when I didn't do anything impressive outside of not eating my hair for three hours straight or groping another student, Mrs. T. would still somehow find a way to congratulate me, even if realistically the only validations I should have been receiving at the time would be something like “Ilse didn't cry today when her 'G' looked like she wrote it blind and on LSD” or “Great news: Ilse managed not to eat her glue today in art class!” Mrs. Tan is the reason I am constantly searching for validation as an adult, whirling on a frantic hamster ball of a misguided kindergarten-desire to please and succeed. As a teacher I can see myself applying some of this over-validation in the classroom, but I try to counteract it with a healthy dose of verbal degradation and humiliation. For every compliment I give my students, for example, I try to insert some sarcasm, “Wow, Tien, good job reading that word!....even though you sounded ridiculous trying to sound it out.”

And so, I entered first grade proudly, with the discovery of snacks and the knowledge that I'll be praised for not eating my goldfish crackers like a starving anteater.

It wasn't always sunny. Well, first and second grade passed pretty sunnily, besides a few dark moments (one where I methodically and spacily cut off hunks of my hair, and then the one real fight I've ever had with a friend ever in my life that ended in an impressive teaching-moment/shame fest which kept my best friend and I locked in we-can-never-fight-or-we'll-disappoint-mrs.Davidson-stalemate for many years. But then, came third grade, and with third grade, came the recorders. Now, I was a sucker for music class. With my ESP praise-sense at an all-time high, I was receiving some AMAZING validation from our music teacher in the form of praising my singing voice and so I pretty much dug it. Mrs. H was a majestic and theatrical lady. Now, with a cursory internet search, I've discovered that the cursed pairing (third grade and recorders) has been around for decades. At some point, someone should really research the human who started an annual nation-wide months-long pandemic where 9 year olds are encouraged to blow into screeching tubes of spit. Unhappily, I do know from my own field work, that this curse has found its way into the institutions of Laos, where last year I had to endure several months worth of recorder-related shenanagins in my classroom, each errant shriek like a mutilated swan going into labor. An instant headache and bane to us all. Anyway, with my praise-sense sharply tuned, I fell flat into a dark situation indeed involving Mrs. H and recorders. We had started our recorder unit a few months before and were working our way through some truly horrifying progressions of scales and songs in class, I believe to prepare for a christmas concert where our parents would lose 1/5 of their hearing capacity. For more background information, I was a pretty special kid, and I was the sort of kid who forgot things a lot. A real space-cadet. So, this particular day in music class, as we all settled down onto the orange carpet with our recorders, it became quickly apparent to the presiding Mrs. H and to me that I didn't have my recorder. “Oh. I guess I forgot it again,” and indeed there was no recorder in my hand or backpack. And this after forgetting the thing repeatedly (impressively!) for the last two weeks. What happened next was the first time that my luck turned on its head, and instead of receiving some good ole Mrs. T validation (wow ilse, GREAT JOB admitting when you forget something!), I got yelled at (quite reasonably I believe) by an irate Mrs. H (poor, overworked specialty teacher who likewise probably saw the unit on recorders as Armageddon). But here, while getting screeched at by Mrs. H, with a chorus of errant recorders squawking in the background, a bigger purpose and meaning seemed to open in front of me. It was in this moment when I began to discover my inner appreciation for art and beauty. I had forgotten that cursed, devil whistle for more reasons than pure space-cadetry of the highest degree. I forgot my recorder, on that winter day, to add to the beauty, by taking away 1 recorder in a class filled with 20 others. I knew things, at this young age. I knew that combining ME with a recorder would lead to nothing but shame and squawking and misery, and this was my first contribution to the world of art. Thank you Mrs. H, for this.

And so the years passed. I traded my recorder for a trombone, and in this one symbolic move, went from being potentially cool to the one girl trombonist in the school district. And, in the fourth grade, I had my first exposure to the Yelling For No Reason Teacher. This particular teacher warrants little writing, for he wasn't my teacher, but the homeroom teacher of my best friend. I don't remember his name, but I do remember that one day when I went to borrow or get something from my friend's class, seemingly innocuously enough in the background, I was spotted, and yelled at for 15 minutes straight. The kind of white faced yelling that people often pass out from. I think this guy was probably just having a bad day and lacked the proper coping mechanisms, but it was my first introduction to a yeller. And hey, we've all been there. I've also yelled for no reason on a bad day, fully convinced I had a super cogent reason to yell at my student when he got up in the middle of the lesson to sharpen his pencil. But this particular teacher gave me a valuable cautionary tale. 

The transition from elementary school to middle school was a shaky one, I'm sure for many. I went from a cozy small elementary class to a huge, shiny new middle school with hundreds of new faces. I went from being one of the dorkiest students (the kid who read 130 books instead of the mandatory 3 for book reports), one of three girls who would play sports or run the mile, and fairly mute, to being an unknown mute student surrounded by dozens of girls who probably read and ran more than I did. Robbed of my hard-fought identity, it was a time of frantic scrambling for who I was. Predicatably, my best face wasn't always put forwards in class. Additionally, I was suddenly forced to take all sorts of bizarre and exotic subjects like “Tech Ed” and “Family and Consumer Sciences”, and felt a fish out of water after having had an easy grasp on all the subjects in elementary school. Several teachers of note, several formative experiences. A gentle and jagged example. A gentle teacher I had was our Tech Ed teacher, Mr. J. Mr. J. was an upstanding citizen and very gentle for a man who spent his time teaching prepubescents how to wield potential torture devices like the jigsaw and the bowcutter (?) in order to cut wood into shapes. Unblessed with motor precision, I was a walking disaster in tech ed. I nearly lost appendages every week, and made very concrete and practical assignments (key hangers, birds feeders) into Tim-Burton-like versions, with askance angles and exposed nails. Abstract portraits of Tetanus. Mr. J. was exceptionally patient with me and after ascertaining my level of ability, began to give me very 'special' jobs in class that usually kept me far away from the machines. I also believe I was given a special partner, aka a legit student (read: anyone else in the class) to help me do all of my projects. From Mr. J, I took away the importance of gentleness and patience. Sometimes your students will be absurdly awful at a certain subject, and no matter how slow you go or how many explanations you give, they will still completely blow you away with their ineptness. Like me, in tech ed! Or family and consumer sciences, for that matter, where I metaphorically blew up the kitchen when we cooked food, or sewed shorts suitable for an asymmetrical centaur instead of a human in the sewing unit. And, if they are completely unabashedly hopeless, throw in the towel and make them your 'classroom assistant'. “Ah today, ____ isn't going to do these unexceptional math problems like the rest of you! Instead, he is going to help me fold 200 sheets of paper into half.”

On the more severe side, there was Mr. K. I think Mr. K. taught us science, but I honestly couldn't tell you, because the memory is so marred from fear. Mr. K. was the first teacher I had who hated me without reservation or subtlety. I'm sure my noxious mixture of over-praise and thinking I was a hot shot from my last school (top reader and could run a mile without exploding or breaking all of my bones) had put me in a bit of a smart-ass phase when I entered his class. Mr. K. was also my homeroom teacher at the time. Now, whatever Mr. K. taught me, I honestly couldn't tell you whether it was Nazi Propaganda or plant cells, was punctuated by glares filled with pure hatred and bloodlust whenever he looked at me. I have no idea how I so acutely inspired this hatred, but I can only suspect that in a former life, I must have stolen the love of his life or eaten his children or committed some other horrible offense, and that he somehow recognizes me (a puny 12 year old in his class) from the darkest part of his soul. I was aware of his pure disgust for me even at this immature age, and it completely bemused me. A human who doesn't like me? Who doesn't LOVE ME AND PRAISE ME? This was certainly curious, especially since I had gentle teachers like Mr. J. who would pat me on the back after I handed him a splinter-filled satanic symbol instead of a smooth wooden spoon. But, hate, he did! Because this kind of negative emotion towards me so deeply troubled me, I avoided him like the plague, and this led to some rather delinquent behaviors like going AWOL during homeroom (I absconded to my friend's gentle homeroom instead where I wouldn't be subject to imagining Mr. K. imagining me slowly roasting over a fire). The mystery still endures, but I hope Mr. K. doesn't still hold such hatred in his heart, and that I have been forgiven for whatever horrible act a past version of me may have committed. His legacy is a lesson for me to try to conceal as best as I can any distaste or aversion I may have towards a student, although I have luckily never disliked any of my students.

Other memories of teachers in midde school are mostly portraits of them as the victims; of atrocities I committed in Spanish class, where I was sadly unaware of the importance of learning a second language, and instead took the time to do anything and everything besides learn how to say “Como Estas” correctly.

Moving on to high school, with even more upheavals in identity. The most formative teachers---again, let's take a positive and a negative example. A negative example would have to be a Russian soccer coach I had in ninth grade who instilled a sound fear of the motherland and pushups into us all...the closest I'll ever be to being part of the Kremlin. Most high school teachers are positive ones for me. Special of note were my science teachers. When I switched schools and entered 9th grade, for a short period of time, I became a horrible student, going from honors classes to almost flunking out. I remember the teachers who pulled me up from the brink. A gentle teacher again, this time a Mr. W, was a young, kind teacher submitted to the task of inspiring an interest of rock sciences into 14th year old brains. A formidable task at best, but especially a challenge when confronted with a rebellious Ilse who had never before been asked to 'study' for anything and who arrogantly reasoned that she could pass any test given to her. For weeks, my classmates sweated over memorizing what seemed to be hundreds of rocks...something I saw as pointless. Not surprisingly, I failed the test spectacularly, and then many successive tests. Mr. W. rather than giving up on me, very kindly talked to me one day about what studying meant. This was a new concept to me. I had to study for things? Like spend time outside of homework to memorize the names of rocks? So interesting! Mr. W. also very kindly decided to put my grade on a special curve that meant I didn't fail my first science class of high school. 

 By junior year, I had a firm grasp on studying, and was in honors science. At this point, I had experienced a major C-change in terms of motivation and effort, and had hence steadily lapped many of my friends in terms of nerdity (amount of time spent studying, how much I care, etc). I was a year behind in science because of a semester abroad, and so I was taking honors Chemistry with a bunch of future Bill Gates a year behind me. Chemistry was a subject that had just the perfect mixture of logic, math, and abstraction, that completely lost me in the dust. I was the kind of student who was taking honors Chem but didn't know how to write or convert “units”, or really what a unit was, which are fairly important concepts. Meters squared, liters, miles, calories, they all meant nothing to me. If you were to have told me that you had just eaten 4 pounds of food, I would smile at you blankly, and ask if you were still hungry. Chemistry has some weird ass units too. So anyway, I swiftly began to take a swandive in chemistry, due to my inability to see the difference between smiles/inch and kilowatts. Luckily, my chemistry teacher was a dream; Mrs. R. Mrs. R herself had this intoxicating mixture of sass, practicality, and warmth that kept me going. She was brilliant and really should have been teaching or doing chemistry experiments in a college, but instead she was spending her spare time teaching me that 4 kilometers and 4 miles indeed are not the same thing, and allowing me to mix dangerous chemicals in her classroom. She gave up so much extra time to go over simple things with me and catch me up to speed. I wanted so badly to understand and I think she recognized that. Chemistry for me-with its combination of infuriatingly nuanced units, and terrifically complicated experiments, was metaphorically tech ed all over again, but this time ended in triumph instead of dismay. From her, I take patience too. To realizing that there's no real thing as “going down to a student's level” but really, just meeting a student where they need to be met, and respecting the things that they DO understand. I had a few things going for me, and her recognition of my desire and my drive to do well in this subject meant that I did do well, and to this day, chemistry has been my favorite subject in science, albeit the subject I spent the most time agonizing over and trying to understand.

Reflecting on my past teachers--their strengths, weaknesses, the color their face turns when they scream, their Achilles tendon in teaching, is a useful thing for me as a new teacher.  Overall, I'd say the greatest things I can take away from this is the importance of snacktime and a lingering astonishment at our nationwide tradition of giving recorders to 9 year olds. 

Love and Loonybins,