A Great Letter From Thailand

September 21, 2009

Date: Sun, 20 Sep 2009 20:50:31 -0700
Subject: Sawatdee kha!
We thank Bill Carlson for forwarding this letter from Vera Belazelkoska, who is in Thailand. Ed

Dear family and friends,
I made the promise to stay in touch, and send sporadic updates of my life. This is a very late attempt at doing so.
Chiang Mai has become a comfortable, yet continuously exciting and intriguing home. Upon arrival I settled into a comfortable guesthouse, in close proximity to an unexpected support system made up of fellow Oles and other recent graduates from universities across the US, France, the UK etc, whom I got to know very well and enjoy immensely. The best aspect to my living situation was the authenticity of the neighborhood; hundreds of students and locals roam the streets lined with 40 cents street food every night, rather than the hundreds of farang (foreigners) that roam the streets of “old town”, looking for bars before they set off on a conveniently organized, hungover trip through Thailand’s jungles. Though it is pleasant to meet travelers, their passer-by characteristics are not necessarily what suits my lifestyle here. I am also happy to find that my limited, though improving, Thai skills have been able to get me the vegetarian noodle soups, seafood curries with rice, and vegetable stews with no confusion; confusion that defined most encounters with Thai people during my first few weeks.
Having to part with my comfort zone at the guesthouse was a small price to pay to be able to cut my rent in half, and get the real, Thai home experience. Maria Wentworth, Jonas Lind, Charlie Winship and I (Oles), and Ezra (Coe College graduate) moved into a six bedroom home with two living rooms, a large balcony, a beautiful yard, shaded by tall, mysterious trees; Ezra and I impatiently awaiting the arrival of Heidi (his girlfriend), myself awaiting the arrival of my very good friend Chris Shull (another Ole) to join us in one week. This house will be a riot; simply full of personalities.
Aside from quirky Chris, I was also impatiently awaiting the second visit from Thor, an old friend, and a Norwegian Ole grad with whom I had unexpectedly fallen into a relationship with a few months prior to graduation, against all attempts to avoid doing so. It is his second visit to Thailand, and this time around we are skipping the Thai beaches and the mountainous northern region, and are instead heading further east–to Cambodia. We are departing tonight, planning on a few days spent marveling over the 7th ancient world wonder of Angkor Wat, and a few days transitioning further south with as little plans as possible, except to end at the capital of Phom Penh. A few days after Thor’s departure, I will be also welcoming my parents with whom I cannot wait to share my new life and home with. Hopefully my father will soften his strongly held convictions against my intrigue with all the places of the world, while my mother will be able to spare some teaching advice.
I began teaching at Chiang Mai University two days after arrival. Six days after graduation. In this short time, with little reflection and realization, I moved from behind a student’s desk to the front of the blackboard. I teach four courses: three writing Level II courses, and one beginners Level I course. I must say that I find some parts of the Thai education system frustrating, beginning with getting called out for wearing pants (dress pants), to wearing my hair down, to sitting on my desk, to crouching down by my students when addressing their questions, by observant ‘senior’ Thai teachers’ eyes who concern themselves more with our traditional roles of teachers and our appearance, instead of with our quality of teaching. However, I am immensely pleased with my relationship with my 160 students. Some continue arriving late, copying their friends’ homework to simply get by, while others take such focused effort that I am pleasantly able to track, observe and applaud their progress. My progress with memorizing their names is also something to boast about, although I still mix some of the Ploys, Nuts, Flukes, Balls, and Soms, and mispronounce Aw, Oow, and Au. However I pick the Thai nicknames over Kamawaratan and Veerenchat and Teneleranaporn, every day.
Though there are plenty of unpaid hours spent on grading, correcting, giving detailed feedback, and holding office hours, I still felt unfulfilled teaching four classes, two times a week. So I found a job, one that I enjoy immensely, at the Academy for Education-USA. Aside from providing guidance to Thai students who wish to study in the US, they also offer SAT, TOEFEL, GRE, and conversation classes. I began with a few hours teaching SAT test-taking skills to a quirky student named Magica, unexpectedly landing on many hours teaching writing, critical reading, conversation courses, as well as leading most of this fall’s college admissions workshop. My three years in the Admissions office at St. Olaf finally paid off. I am not only able to guide this group of eager, nervous, yet quite qualified students submit complete applications, but also help them do exactly what I did: get the best education possible in a US university or college. Able to experience their alternative at CMU, where there are no questions raised, traditionally conservative roles filled, barriers created between students and teachers, issues of politics and religion marked controversial, I am that much more motivated to help them gain opportunities to study abroad.

Throughout the past 3.5 months, before realizing the limiting size of my salary, I also managed to spend a few days and a few dollars exploring this country’s beauty and mystique. From hiking mountainous Pai, to enjoying the sandy beaches of exotic Krabi, to circling the solitary island of Koh Chang on a motorbike, I was astounded by the wanders of this country’s vegetation, its culture, and its people. Continuing such explorations, discovering Cambodia’s mystique has been my sole motivator for working weekends until 9pm, or teaching 45 exhausted and slightly disinterested students at 8am.
I also continued my involvement with the leprosy community I visited and lived with three years ago. However, I was shaken to find that they had to split from the McKean Leprosy Foundation due to the landowner’s unjustifiable desire to turn the community into an elderly community, kicking out all patients who had suffered from leprosy. A few dedicated staff members left with the patients, splitting into a separate foundation that is expectantly broke. They are no longer able to house all patients; many forced to go back to their remote villages, unsuitable for their condition, and their communities, which have shunned them away at the onset of their disease. I have been visiting their new location, a plot of land as big as a small house, determined to fund raise, translate their materials into English, and solicit for funds. As soon as I get my Thai teacher to help me with the translation, I might be bothering you, seeking for your help, your involvement. I am in such shock to see this community shrink in size and crucial medical amenities 20-fold. I am also saddened to see their loss of the income generating projects they had established in the old village; stripped from their sense of purpose and ability to produce with their hurt hands, yet high spirits.
However, it has been a wonderful experience to reconnect with them, embracing once again our language barrier, marveling at our ability to still enjoy each other. They are such a lovely bunch, and now that I bought a second-hand motorbike (with Hello Kitty stickers I cannot remove for the life of me), I will be able to visit them more often, able to begin teaching English conversation on the weekends.

I am very happy here.
Now, that is odd to write.
But I am. I am enjoying the simple pleasure of life. Committing myself to enough work, enough interactions with others to feel of purpose, to feel myself, yet not overly committing. Exploring and toying with the idea that I am going to continue exploring the places of the world, yet not yet knowing exactly where, next year for my Rotary Ambassadorial year or the years beyond.
A place of comfort, yet no routine; days planned, yet not scheduled. It’s a good place to be.
I hope the length of this email compensated for my virtual absence in the past three months, rather than exhausted your eyes enough to hope the next letter comes again in such late fashion.
I miss and love all of you.
I’m rereading The Alchemist: “’Well, there is only one piece of advice I can give you,’ said the wisest of wise men. ‘The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon.’”
Each one of you is a drop of oil on my spoon.
Keep in touch!

Rat naa, jub jub,

Ajarn Vera

Aj. Vera Belazelkoska
Room 101, Sak Thong Mansion
75/1 Moo Tumbol Suthep,
Amphoe Muang, Chiang Mai
50200 Thailand

We make the path by walking it.
-Chuang Tze