Wednesday, 24 December 2014

So how was it?

This is a question I can see I am going to have to get used to, until I have met up again with everyone for the first time, which is going to take a while! Supplementary questions include:
"Did you have a good time?"
"Do you think it was worthwhile?"
"Did you enjoy it overall?"
"Are you glad you did it?"
"What are you going to do next?"
To all of which I am afraid I don't have any ready answers. How to sum up such an intense and complex experience in just a few words? In some ways I think it is too soon to be able to have that sort of overview of the whole experience, and in particular to understand how it has affected me and my outlook. And yet, for the sake of completion of the blog I feel I should attempt some sort of evaluation and reflection. So bear with me...

Throughout the pre-departure training process, VSO do their best to prepare volunteers for the challenge that lies ahead. They tell you to expect the unexpected - that it is very likely that the work will turn out not to be quite what was described in the original placement overview. They prepare you for the emotional roller-coaster of adjusting to a new culture and situation. They warn you not to have over-ambitious expectations of what you will be able to achieve. They mince no words when going through all the potential hazards to one's health and well-being. In short, they make sure that volunteers cannot say: "No-one told me it would be like this!" Being prepared for the ups and downs does not necessarily make it easier, but at least you know that what you are going through is relatively normal. And I was especially fortunate to have been sent off with words of wisdom to confront any crisis:

In terms of the location of my placement I was very lucky. Compared to most of the countries where VSO volunteers are placed, Thailand is very well-developed. Mae Sot is a rapidly developing border town, with an abundance of shops, bars, restaurants, superstores, hotels and other facilities. I lived in a very pleasant, modern little house with western-style kitchen and bathroom facilities, rapid internet connection, reliable electricity and - apart from a horrendous couple of months at the height of hot season earlier this year - reliable water supply.

Sadly, Mae Sot also has an over-abundance of semi-feral dogs which roam the streets at will. For someone who has had a lifelong fear of dogs, this presented me with a particular challenge. To start with I was doing very well at putting my fears to one side and going about my business as normal, but after I was bitten my fears took over again. I no longer walked anywhere, using my motorbike for even the shortest of trips. Even then I was nervous that a dog might jump out at me or chase the bike, causing me to panic and do something daft like swerve into the path of a truck. I rarely went out in the evenings, as the dogs are at their worst after dark, when they roam around in packs. Going out was not the problem - it was the coming home again that terrified me. And even in the safety of my little house they plagued me, frequently waking me from much-needed sleep with their nocturnal vocalisations!

They look so harmless... the little black bundle at the far end is the one that bit me

The other main personal challenge I faced was to do with health issues, and especially the intestinal symptoms that I struggled with throughout the placement. Eventually I was diagnosed with IBS, but I never managed to track down a specific cause. Interestingly, since coming home I have not had a single attack and I am wondering whether the cause was stress. I lost a lot of weight, but for the last three weeks I have been on a strict regime of abundant home-cooking supplemented with regular between-meals healthy snacks, and I have so far managed to put on around 3lb or 1.5kg.

So, what about the positives?! The work was amazing - not without its challenges, but then I do like a challenge! True to VSO predictions, the project did not get off to the expected start, and the first few months of the placement were especially tough, trying to get the project off the ground and deal with all the settling-in issues at the same time. There are many different organisations addressing migrant education issues on the border, but the VSO project was the only one focusing specifically on Early Childhood, so even though it was small scale it was making an important contribution to an otherwise largely neglected area. One unexpected result reported by the directors of the early childhood centres was that the very fact of the VSO project taking place had raised the profile of the centres with the local government administration, who had never considered them much of a priority before. One example of this was the "fast-tracking" of planned playground improvements once VSO got involved:


Seeing the children getting the chance to play outside on a regular basis was one very definite and positive sign of change.
Working with the teachers and the children was hugely rewarding. I really appreciated the opportunity to use my skills and experience to help others to develop their own skills and confidence to try new approaches. It was slow and at times frustrating work, but constantly stimulating, and the children's joy and appreciation made it all worthwhile even when the teachers seemed less than convinced!

I am very realistic about the scope of the change achieved. On the grand scale of migrant education issues in Thailand, and the even grander scale of tackling global poverty, my contribution is tiny. However, the appreciation of the teachers by the end of the project was genuine, and I do believe that some real changes in understanding and practice have taken place that will continue to benefit children into the future.

It is often said that volunteers gain just as much as they give, and in terms of my own development it was a tremendously positive experience. I had a very high degree of autonomy in designing and carrying out the project - i.e. I was left to get on with it pretty much entirely on my own - which did wonders for my self-confidence. I developed a whole range of skills, which I will not list for fear of making this sound alarmingly like a job application, of which I suspect there will soon be many...

One of the aspects that touched me most deeply was the opportunity to work with inspirational colleagues from around the world, and in particular with colleagues from Myanmar, who showed such dedication and passion in working to improve the future for their own people and country. Having the opportunity to be a small part of that was a true privilege. Possibly the most valuable aspect of all was the relationship I built with my coordinator, and the contribution I was able to make to his development, as well as everything I learned from him. His commitment, enthusiasm and eagerness to learn were a constant inspiration to me, and his calm and positive demeanour helped keep me steady at moments of high stress!

The Team!
Aside from the work, there was also the opportunity for travel. I didn't see as much of Thailand as I would have liked, but I enjoyed inspirational trips to Vietnam and Myanmar - thank you, Alice! - and the visit of my Italian friends remains a highlight (though we never did find a map of the national park!)
 Hoi An
Vietnamese cooking class
 Outside the home of Aung San Suu Kyi
 Inle Lake
 Dinner in Chiang Mai
Who needs a map, anyway?
So, in summary: yes, I am glad I did it; no, I don't think I'll be doing it again!

And to anyone considering the possibility of volunteering, I would say this:
  • Are you seeking an opportunity to apply your professional expertise in a totally new context?
  • Do you want to have your way of thinking and doing things challenged?
  • Are you open to new and unexpected possibilities?
  • Do you want to work in partnership with people who are seeking to make a positive and lasting change in their communities?
  • Are you prepared to leave behind everything that is familiar and comfortable, and face a completely new, uncertain and challenging situation for the reward of an experience you could never have imagined?
If so, then VSO may be for you!

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Home and dry (and COLD!)

The last few weeks in Mae Sot were marked by farewells and doing things for the last time, together with a growing apprehension about the huge adjustments to be made on returning home. On Friday I was given a great send-off by my colleagues at World Education. Even though my work was not directly connected to WE’s projects, it has been great to feel part of their team and I will miss the wonderful atmosphere and the friendship and support.

Did you hear the one about the chicken and the dinosaur...?

Saturday was taken up with the final packing up and cleaning of my house, before handing the keys over and rendering myself officially “of no fixed abode!” I spent my final night in Mae Sot at Alice’s house, and we both travelled together on the bus to Bangkok on Sunday morning, as she had appointments there on Monday. It was great to have her company for my last couple of days. On Monday morning I had to go to the police department to go through the procedure to get my police clearance certificate, including having my fingerprints taken – the first time in my life as far as I can remember! In the afternoon I had my exit interview with VSO and said goodbye to the office staff there. After a final dinner with Alice at our favourite little Italian restaurant, it was back to the hotel for the last-minute rearranging of the contents of my luggage.

I flew with Emirates via Dubai and the journey went pretty smoothly apart from a delay to the second leg. Thankfully I had had the foresight to ask my mum to bring some warm winter clothing to the airport; the temperature on arrival was around 5 degrees.
By the time we got home I was completely exhausted and collapsed straight into bed, snuggled up beneath the duvet in warm pyjamas and bedsocks, and clutching a hot water bottle.
Apart from the cold, I am feeling very happy to be home, and it does not feel nearly as strange as I had been expecting, though I’m sure I will go through all sorts of emotional phases in the settling back process. As time goes on, it will be interesting to see what are the things that I miss about Thailand, and what are the things that I appreciate about being home.  Here’s the first: today I walked into town along wide, well-maintained pavements (that’s sidewalks for my American friends!) and only passed two dogs along the way, both of whom were attached to a lead, on the other end of which was a responsible owner. Oh joy! Oh bliss! I am going to go out for a walk every day, just because I can!

Friday, 21 November 2014


When I moved into my house in July of last year I inherited the VSO library – a collection of over 150 books built up over a number of years going back to the days when there were as many as a dozen VSO volunteers in Mae Sot. From the copious quantities of dust, cobwebs and lizard droppings all over the books and shelves, it was clear that no-one had taken an interest in the library for some time. In the interest of cleanliness and creating shelf-space I decided to carry out a radical downsizing operation, and after carefully selecting around thirty books that I liked the look of, I gave the rest away to a local organization.

When I lived in the UK and Italy, the only time I ever tended to read was in bed before going to sleep. In fact, I would often fall asleep reading, and would then have to go back and re-read the next night to remember what was going on. (I read the whole of “The Name of the Rose” in this fashion, at a time when I must have been especially tired, managing only a page or so at a time. By the time I got to the end of the book, I had absolutely no idea what it had all been about. Thank goodness for the film and Sean Connery!)
Here, with a slightly different pace of life and priorities, I have rediscovered the joy of spending lazy afternoons lying on my bed with the dappled sunlight dancing through the window, getting completely engrossed in a book.
These are the books I have read and, with only one or two exceptions, thoroughly enjoyed – testament either to the good literary taste of VSO volunteers or to my ability to pick out books I will like. (I suspect the latter – some of the ones I got rid of looked like complete rubbish!)
Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides
Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – A C Doyle
The Bean Trees – Barbara Kingsolver
Me Talk Pretty Some Day – David Sedaris
The Long Song – Andrea Levy
A Week in December – Sebastian Faulks
The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas
Shakespeare – Bill Bryson
The Help – Kathryn Stockett
The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
First Love, Last Rites – Ian McEwan
The Big Snow – David Park
Beatrice and Virgil – Yann Martel
The Pianist – Wladyslaw Szpilman
A Fool’s Alphabet – Sebastian Faulks
When a Crocodile eats the Sun – Peter Godwin
The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver
Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them – Joshua Greene
Status Anxiety – Alain De Botton
The Gathering – Anne Enright
A Kestrel for a Knave – Barry Hines
Burmese Days – George Orwell
The Constant Gardner – John Le Carre
Winter in Madrid – C. J. Sansom
Started Early, Took my Dog – Kate Atkinson
Prodigal Summer – Barbara Kingsolver
My Life as a Fake – Peter Carey
Any Human Heart – William Boyd
The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson
Dead Famous – Ben Elton
Parrot and Olivier in America – Peter Carey
Map of the Invisible World – Tash Aw
Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother – Xinran
Restless Souls: Rebels, Refugees, Medics and Misfits on the Thai-Burma Border – Phil Thornton

 Perhaps I should make it a resolution to make more time for reading when I come home…

Thursday, 13 November 2014

You know it's time to come home when... Part 4 have a dream about McVitie's chocolate digestive biscuits.

No idea where that came from. I can't say I've been pining for them all this time. But clearly my brain is starting to think about coming home!

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

A sting in the tale - the sequel

Several people have commented expressing surprise that I was being so tolerant towards the wasps that had made their nest in my front yard. Those who know me very well, my family in particular, know that I have a very strong aversion to the type of wasps we have in the UK, and had it been those I would have lost no time in eliminating the horrible beasts as soon as I first noticed them. But this species is quite different. They are very much smaller and more delicate and dainty looking. They fly around in a dreamy, floaty, dangly-legged sort of way, with none of the aggressive, buzzing persistence of their European counterparts. And unless they feel threatened, for example by someone recklessly waving items of laundry around in the immediate vicinity of their nest, they seem remarkably placid and keep themselves pretty much to themselves. The biologist in me was fascinated by their behaviour, and it wasn't until their increasing numbers and their agitated state began to worry me that I felt the need to do anything about them.

Ropalidia marginata - Red Paper Wasp
After the destruction of their nest, there were about a dozen remaining individuals that reassembled at the nest site. I watched them closely to see what they would do. At first they seemed rather dazed and confused, but after a while they began to engage in undefined but apparently purposeful activity, and I was concerned they were going to start rebuilding the nest. I decided I needed to get rid of them once and for all. I had noticed that early in the morning, before the day warms up, they were very dopy and sluggish, so, working on the principle used by police officers when going after gangs of criminals (i.e. catch them in bed with no clothes on), I decided upon a dawn raid.
There was no problem with getting up on time for the attack on Sunday morning, as I was already wide awake well before 6.30 due to loud talking and laughter coming from neighbours down the road (more on that later). I dressed myself in the most protective clothing I have here - jeans, denim jacket and even a pair of gloves that I brought with me because VSO insist that you should wear proper protective gear on your motorbike. The gloves had previously never been put to use, VSO's policy being completely inappropriate for motorbike riding in a hot country, but now they were about to come into their own as an essential item in my wasp-sting protection gear.
I went outside and, with an unlit straw broom in my left hand for emergency swatting purposes, I let rip with my can of cockroach spray. Some of the wasps fell immediately. Others flew off. One came straight towards me, so I sprayed again, and then realised I needed to relocate to the other side of the yard before I choked myself to death on the toxic fumes within which I was enveloped. One wasp landed, wriggling and writhing on the front step, so I gave it a few more squirts to try and finish it off quickly, but sadly I know from experience that this stuff takes time to work, and that the poor wasps will have died slow, twitching deaths.
Here's one I killed earlier
Once I was sure they were all gone, I gave the nest site a really good clean with my kitchen cleaner spray to deter any unlikely survivors from returning, and then went back to bed, hoping for a bit of a Sunday lie-in. Silly me. After a short while, loud, booming music started up down the road. I tried to ignore it for a bit and then decided to do the unthinkable and go and tell the neighbours responsible that it was far too early on a Sunday morning for such a racket. One is not, of course, meant to make a fuss, but hey, I'm leaving in a couple of weeks.
I dressed again and went down the road to investigate. The noise was coming from the new apartment block that my landlady has been building. They were getting ready for the official opening ceremony and had installed a massive sound system in the front yard which was responsible for the cacophony. My resolve crumbled as I realised that protest was pointless, so I returned wearily and lay on my bed for a while, listening to the thumping music before finally getting up. The celebrations down the road went on all day with music, speeches, monks tunelessly intoning and, in the evening, painful karaoke, all generously blasted out over the sound system so that the rest of the neighbourhood would not feel excluded from the fun. It eventually went quiet around 10.30pm, which I was very relieved about, as I had visions of it continuing into the small hours.
As for the wasps, there have been no returns. I occasionally see a lone individual flying around, but the nest-building enterprise has been brought to a definite halt. I still feel sorry about it - I hate to destroy nature, but on occasion it seems to be the only sensible choice.
UPDATE: when I came home at lunchtime today, what should I see flying around but one of those horrible hornets. I guess they must have a nest somewhere nearby as well...

Friday, 7 November 2014

A sting in the tale

For many months I have been watching with interest the progress of a small group of wasps that had started building a nest on the clothes drier in my front yard. At the start there were only about four of them, and for a long time the nest remained so tiny and insignificant looking that I doubted whether it was a serious enterprise at all. I thought maybe they were a small band of deluded outcasts, or that the nest had been abandoned and they hadn't realised and were continuing to tend it in vain.

Nevertheless I continued to watch them with some fascination. Their activities seemed mostly to involve lots of leg-waving and abdomen-waggling - possibly in order to try and regulate the temperature of the cells? Gradually the nest increased in size and there seemed to be a few more individuals working on it. I could clearly see now that many of the cells had been sealed over, no doubt containing the larvae growing inside. The workers seemed very tolerant of my presence, and I continued hanging out my washing without any thought to the possible consequences.

Last weekend I had hand-washed a shirt and took it outside to hang up. We are continuing to have occasional rainy spells (most unusual for this time of year), so when I went out my poncho was draped over the lower rungs, having been placed there the day before to dry. I moved it over to vacate a rung for the shirt. Then, as I lifted the shirt to hang it I suddenly felt two painful stings on my arm and hand. I yelped and looked up to see the wasps descending upon me. I ran helter-skelter back into the house, waving the wet shirt lasso-style behind me to ward off the wasps.

For a moment I went into panic thinking that maybe Thai wasps are super-venomous and that I was about to die. Then I got a grip on myself, took an antihistamine and went on-line to get some information. My research seemed to confirm that taking an antihistamine was a sensible response and also suggested I should wash the sting sites and apply antibiotic cream, which I duly did. I monitored myself carefully for any signs of an allergic reaction, but the antihistamine did the trick and the local pain and swelling disappeared very quickly.

I began to wonder if perhaps I should do something about getting the nest removed, but I was reluctant to do so, having watched their industrious and meticulous labours for so long, and in any case, I thought, I only have a few weeks left...

A few days ago I came home to find a huge, black, hornet-sized creature at the nest. At first I thought it was the queen laying eggs. However, the massive disparity in size between it and the workers made this unlikely, and on close inspection I saw that it was rolling something between its legs and eating it. Further fascinated research (where would we be without Google?!) has led me to the conclusion that this was one of Thailand's various species of massive hornet, (this one? or this?) and that far from contributing to the reproductive endeavours of the colony it was attacking the nest and eating the larvae. The poor little wasps were unable to mount any sort of defence and simply cowered at the edge of the nest waiting for the intruder to disappear. It was back again the next day for dessert.

Not a very clear picture (I didn't want to get too close!) but you can make out the hornet hanging upside-down from the frame on the right.

After these attacks the wasps seemed to redouble their efforts. Suddenly there seemed to be a lot more of them and their activity was more frenetic. I began to wonder again more seriously about getting the exterminators in. I was beginning to feel distinctly nervous each morning as I manoeuvred my way past on my motorbike and when I parked up again in the evening. Also, I began to think it's all very well that I'm leaving soon, but what if the next person to live in the house turns out to be allergic to wasp stings and they accidentally disturb the nest because they don't realise it's there and end up dying from anaphylactic shock. Then I would be responsible for their death through my negligence about resolving the problem.... Once thoughts like that start going round in your head, you can't really ignore them!

So today I asked at work if there was such a thing as pest-control professionals who would deal with such things. The response was confused laughter, so I guess not! At lunch-time I came home and the wasps were looking more lively that ever. I phoned the young lady who acts as go-between for me and the landlady and tried to explain the problem. Her English is very good, but the conversation was hampered by the lack of a few key words - such as "wasp" for a start. I explained that it is a type of flying insect that stings, but "sting" was also unfamiliar. My explanation that it's a bit like a bite but from the other end didn't really seem to help very much. Anyhow, I managed to get across that the situation was very dangerous because there were loads and loads of these ferocious beasts in my front yard and that they were likely to attack anyone who came near them and that it would be necessary to get someone in who knew what they were doing in order to eliminate the threat. Ok, maybe I exaggerated a bit, but it did the trick. She rang the landlady immediately and then phoned me straight back to say that someone was on their way NOW.

Sure enough, a minute later someone appeared at my gate. No doubt one of the workmen from the apartment block the landlady has been building down the road, he was scantily attired in a flimsy vest, shorts and flip flops and was armed with a very tall ladder. Rentokil he certainly wasn't!
Looking at the ladder, I wondered just how much had indeed been lost in translation and what he thought he was coming to confront. When I showed him the nest he made a noise that would probably translate as "Oh, right!" He then put down the ladder and indicated that he would be back in a minute. Meanwhile, I retreated back inside the house and positioned myself to watch the proceedings in safety from my bedroom window.

He returned shortly, armed with a traditional Thai straw broom. Somewhat alarmed, I thought for a moment he was planning to bash it down with that, and I thought he must be either incredibly brave or incredibly daft. He turned out indeed to be brave, but not daft. He produced a lighter from his pocket and applied it to one corner of the broom until he had an impressive flaming, smoking torch burning, which he promptly applied to the nest. Some of the wasps were killed outright, but many flew off and my saviour leapt nimbly back, brandishing his broom as several of them went for him. He swatted a couple more dead before re-lighting his torch and going back in for a second round. Once there appeared to be no more active wasps in the vicinity he reached up and plucked the nest down. At this point I gingerly emerged from the front door to thank him, and after a few more swats of his broom at a couple of persistent individuals he picked up his tall ladder and went on his way.

I had a meeting in the afternoon, so I decided it was best to leave the house quickly before any of the survivors came back to survey the damage. When I came home, I discovered that the problem has only been partially resolved. The nest is gone, but the remaining workers, of which there are quite a few, have regrouped and are clustered sorrowfully at the old nest site, clearly totally disorientated and wondering what to do with themselves. I did contemplate whether I should try the flaming-broom technique myself and get rid of them completely, but I fear I lack the nonchalance of Man-In-A-Vest. And anyway, I feel terrible for having brought about the destruction of their enterprise. I wonder what they will do next. Will they start again with a new nest, or will they eventually wander off and go their separate ways? Cold season is on its way, so perhaps they were due for hibernation soon.... Clearly I don't know much about wasp life cycles and seasonal habits - time for another session on Google perhaps?!

Saturday, 1 November 2014

You know it's time to come home when... Part 3

...your Wye Valley and Forest of Dean calendar is showing your home town:

Che nostalgia! as they say in Italy