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Posts Tagged ‘AFS’

Just “being” with friends

Our bus trip to Roi Et in August 1980 took eight hours but cost us only 76 baht (about US$3). There was, needless to say, no air-conditioning, and the seats were crammed in, suitable for Thai sized persons, but not for me; my diary notes simply that it was “very uncomfortable.” Perhaps these things are easier to deal with when you are 17.

We arrived at 5.30 am, and went straight to Sharon’s house, bathing off the bus sweat and then collapsing, all four of us, for a few hours. We – two American girls and two Kiwi girls – spent the rest of the day just hanging out in this small town in the northeast of Thailand. Later, after school finished, another American AFS student joined us, and we went out to eat ice-cream together, finding a real joy in simply being together, talking, laughing, being kids, without the ever-present pressure to be the polite, interested or engaged exchange student, to make an effort to speak Thai, to always be happy, to represent our countries.

A few afternoons later, after we had returned from our overnight trip to the neighbouring town of Kalasin to celebrate another AFSer’s birthday, Sharon put on her James Taylor tape and we collapsed again on her bed. Now, whenever I hear “You’ve got a friend” or “Fire and Rain,” I think of that trip, and remember Sharon B, Sharon M, Nicki (no longer with us), Peter and Rusty, and I smile.

 

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35 years ago today

I came home from school to find the house strangely silent, my parents uncharacteristically sitting in the sitting room in the middle of the afternoon. It was mid-summer. February 13th 1980. I remember the sun streaming through the windows, Mum and Dad sitting still, like statues.

The letter on the kitchen table was from AFS New Zealand.  It told me I would be going to live in Bangkok, Thailand, for a year.  It told me I would be leaving in just a few weeks.

And so, in the wink of an eye, in the opening of an envelope, the direction of my life changed forever.

I didn’t know then that as a result, I’d change all plans of what I’d study at university. I didn’t know then that my parents and sister would host a girl from Thailand for a year in 1982. I didn’t know then that ten years later I’d take my husband to live in Thailand, as I worked at the New Zealand Embassy for three years. I didn’t know that my husband and I would adopt Thai as our secret language. I didn’t know that I’d enjoy learning Thai, and would attempt two other Asian languages as a result. I didn’t know that much of my career would be focused on south-east Asia. I didn’t know that one day the favourite compliment I’ve ever received would be, “you must have been a Thai in a former life.” I didn’t know that 35 years later, I’d still be in touch with the friends I made that year, and the family I lived with.

I just knew that I was off on an adventure. Excited and terrified at the same time.

(With a nod to my first post on Mali’s A to Z – Alphablog, back in 2007.)

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We met at 16. She was the foreigner, the stranger from Buffalo, New York, USA. She’d crossed the world and ended up in our little town. I was the enthusiastic sixth former, hoping for (but at the time unaware of) the opportunity to go on a similar adventure of my own. We became friends, and shared a great year. I remember the day Betsy left. Another friend and I got up early, and headed to the airport of the nearest city, ready to farewell her. January 1980: It was a gloomy morning, reflective of all our moods. It took 20 years for us to meet again, this time in Florida, in February 2000. I met her husband, and we found again we had a lot in common.

We didn’t have to wait so long for our most recent reunion. This last week, a mere 12 years since our last meeting, Betsy returned to New Zealand for the first time in 32 years. It was her husband’s first visit here. They arrived in time to sit down, with a glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc, and check the US election results. They were happy, we were happy, and we proceeded to have a good couple of days together. I showed them Wellington, and besides the bitter chill in the air (freezing to Floridians), the harbour city put on a good day. Yesterday we ventured over the hill to the Martinborough wine village, and tasted some wine and ate lunch amongst the vines. We laughed at the occasional linguistic difficulties – accents, and terminology. Translating rocket to arugula, and explaining fritters, learning about hush puppies (I thought they were shoes). The sky was blue, unmarred by clouds, and the sun – thankfully –warmed the bones of the travellers and residents alike. Today we said good-bye, making plans to meet again – perhaps in five years or so, and perhaps somewhere like Napa Valley, where we could indulge our shared interest in wine. Before we get out the Zimmer frames at least!

It was wrong that we had both turned 50 this year. We still felt like the teenagers we were when we had met. She at least still looks like the teenager I knew. My first US friendship. Not my last. And now there’s Craig too. But I am counting on my friendship with Betsy being the longest.

At times though I feel I have too many far-flung relationships. They take a toll; missing people who were, no … are, an important part of my life (whether I’ve met them yet or not). Yet they bring great joy too. I hope you all know that.

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13 January 1981

Our year in Bangkok was nearing an end. We only had a few more weeks left, and we were feeling that acutely. We’d spent most of the year relaxed, seeing things when we could, taking pictures when we felt like it. But by now, we had realised that it was now or never. So Fe and I decided we needed to explore and take photos. And in particular, we wanted to go to Wat Pho – The Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Cee and Madeline decided to come too, and we were happy for their company.

It was a Tuesday, but by now, we’d well and truly given up on school. Time was running out, we weren’t getting any credits for our time in school, and the amazing city of Bangkok was quite literally on our doorsteps. Besides, we’d made some wonderful friendships over the year, and who knew if we’d ever see each other again? Time spent together was important. We felt it, even if we didn’t say it.

We headed off to the temple. It was quiet, tranquil, with lots of pigeons, and – for 1981 – lots of tourists. On my last visit (a year ago), I remembered how peaceful it had been in 1981. In those days, a busy temple probably meant 10-20 tourists in the compound. There had been no queues for photos of the Buddha’s feet, or to put coins in the bowls which line one side of the temple. Wat Pho in 2011 was still pleasant, and is always interesting, but can no longer be described as tranquil, though there were still spots you could find yourself alone for a short time.


Wat Pho is one of Bangkok’s most ancient temples, and has always been a seat of learning, in particular for traditional Thai medicine and massage. It is still very much a working temple, despite the tourists, and you frequently see monks hurrying across the courtyards, on some business or other. We encountered two young monks, and must have said something – presumably something polite and respectful – to them in Thai. Astonished, they disappeared then quickly reappeared with their teacher (also a monk) telling him over and over again that “they can speak Thai!”

Soon we were surrounded by over a dozen young monks wanting to talk to us, keen to meet these strange young foreign teenagers who could speak Thai. We chatted for about 30 minutes, and then their teacher gave us a fascinating tour of the Temple. We went home happy, after yet another unique AFS experience.

Friends chatting with monks 31 years ago

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Thirty years ago today

It seems extraordinary that thirty years ago today my life changed irrevocably. It doesn’t seem very long ago. The emotions of shock and excitement and fear are still strong. The relief that I had not been rejected by the exchange programme. The shock of my parents. After the initial speechlessness subsided, I looked up from reading the acceptance letter, and said “Thailand? Are we sure we know where that is?”

We all traipsed into the other room, and peered at the world map on the wall. Till now, its primary purpose had been to cover up a hole in the wallpaper, but we had seen it every day, and knew where countries were. But this time, we really needed to see, to understand. That world map suddenly meant something.

Then we looked in the old encyclopaedia. I remember it said “primary means of transport are elephant and bullock cart.” We all burst out laughing at that; the thought of me doing either of those seemed too ridiculous. Then I looked at the edition date of the encyclopaedia. I don’t recall exactly, but it was at least early 60s, and potentially early 50s. I breathed a sigh of relief. The odds of me riding a bullock to school had reduced dramatically.

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