A New Start, A Restart, A Fresh Start

Friday, January 26, 2018: Sawasdee khrap! Hello! As I write, all of you stateside likely are finding yourself nearing bedtime, while morning has only just begun over here. After almost three weeks, I would have thought I would be adjusted to the difference of 12 hours, but it is very much still a process (in sleep schedules and in communication!). Thailand is wonderful. It is wonderfully hot and humid as well, but all things considered, I have really enjoyed these first three weeks. They have been a smooth transition, holding a clear focus on adjustment, sightseeing, and planning. As is typical, the first three weeks have not quite been what I was expecting them to be, but they have been good all the same. Learning to navigate the streets, communicate what I do and do not want in my food (and how spicy it should (NOT) be), exploring the awesome benefits of a Thai Massage, and learning about an entirely new culture in the land of smiles – I am trying to absorb all that I can and am excited for what lies ahead here in Thailand.

With the language barrier that I face here compared to my first two project countries, showing up on doorsteps, or receiving email responses for that matter, have been difficult, and thus have left me in a bit of a standstill in relation to how things were done during the first half of my year. Just before I left, I applied and confirmed an internship with various hospital systems within Bangkok and Chiang Mai, a city in the north. Over the course of 6 weeks I will work with doctors across different fields in four different hospitals. A week from today this program starts and essentially fills my time in Thailand to completion, save for a few short breaks and weekends in which I plan to get out and see new parts of the country. This is the first time I truly have a set schedule set up before me, rather than creating one on the spot once something has worked out. It both scares me and excites me. After having had to create and plan for what seemed like each new day, a weekly schedule with a set location sounds and feels really nice; however, after having grown accustomed to the solo scheduling, there remains some timidity about stepping into it. I think these are both good feelings to have.

Below I’ll detail exactly what these first three weeks have looked like.

Week 1: January 6 – 12, The Adjustment

Arriving in Bangkok, having nearly made it through 60 hours of travel (somehow I lived on the 5th of January for all of 8 hours). Leaving on the 3rd of January and arriving on the 6th, my body was a little shell-shocked and thus I tried my hardest to focus on an easy introduction to this place. Having a Nice AirBnB set-up I began to create a routine for my first few days. Breakfast pick-up at the 7/11 across the street, coffee next door, followed by setting out to explore a new part of the town. Experimenting with new street food, new parks, markets, and buildings, I tried my best to familiarize myself with a place that was and is becoming home. What I learned in the first few days: I have not missed the humidity, that I have really missed a good rain (I think it rained all of 3 times during the entirety of my time in Chile), that this city is HUGE, but definitely very friendly, and that street food (as everyone says it does) rocks. Near the end of the week I connected with a friend from Sewanee, who was on a brief vacation from her work in Bhutan with a foreign exchange program. (Yeah Molly Mansfield!) We celebrated a birthday of the friend she was with, and then set out towards the south of Thailand towards a town called Krabi. Arriving in a rainstorm, we essentially settled in for the night in the beach town of Ao Nang, a smaller area just a short drive from the main part of Krabi Town. Waking up to a sunny day on the 12th, we were greeted with beautiful blue waters, sandy beaches, (a lot of people), and towering cliffs. Taking a long tail boat (a long wooden boat with a large motor, long axel, and small propellor), we crossed the waters to a beach only accessible by boat: Railay Beach, and then walked through the small town of Railay to a second beach called Phra Nang. Boats washed ashore carrying kitchens with drinks, smoothies, roasted corn, and delicious Pad Thai. All was well. Afternoon thunderstorms led to good times with new friends and a fun game of cards. It was nice to have some beach time.

Week 2: January 13 – 19, The Beach

This week consisted mostly of my time in the south, while the ending contains my return to Bangkok. On the 13th, Molly and I traveled with a new friend we had made to the Tiger Cave Temple. There, we climbed 1237 steps through pesky monkeys to reach the top of the mountain. At the top we found an incredible 360º view of the land around us and a beautiful, enormous shrine to the Buddha. It was quite the climb, but every part was worth it once we saw what was at the top. Climbing back down we toured some other areas of the temple grounds, ate, and bartered our way to another site in the area, the Emerald Pool. Unsuccessfully bartering, and ultimately paying a steep entrance fee for foreigners, we discovered the Emerald Pool to be as was described – quite emerald green and tucked away in the jungle, but entirely overpopulated as one might find in a public pool in the summer. We tried our best to laugh off the experience and didn’t stay too long. We finished the evening in the night market of Krabi Town. On the 14th Molly and I signed up for an Island Sunset Tour that took us to a few beaches to swim, a spot to snorkel, a tour around a few iconic islands in the area, like Chicken Island (which seriously does look like a chicken), and a nice buffet at the end. The peak of the trip, however, was after dinner where we set back out on the water in the dark to swim with bioluminescent photoplankton. Memories of Planet Earth and biology labs sprang back to me and then I jumped into the water and experienced the real deal. Every tiny movement of my body caused hundreds of brilliant, blue lights to light up around me. The hair that I could see on my arms and head through my goggles glowed with small blue lights as it moved with the current. It was as close to magic as you could get. Having a sunny day in the forecast on the 15th, Molly and I rented kayaks and snorkeling gear. We paddled around for lunch and onwards to new islands we had not yet been to. It was so awesome to just stop and swim where we wanted, and then afterwards float out on the open waters. On the 16th we went to a trail I had read about, Hang Nak – which features a hanging ledge for an awesome photo, but also incredible vistas of the surrounding mountains. Pillar like towers of rock, dirt, and trees poke out of the ground all around you, and flow seamlessly into the waters edge. I learned that this area in geological terms is what is called a Karst Topography, a word I had often heard before…in Sewanee, which also is described as such. Knowing the two resembled each other, it was interesting to see such similarities; however, what was so cool about Krabi, was that it is one of three places in the world where this topography meets ocean waters. Hiking higher and higher we finally reached the top and were blown away at all we could see. We spent our last afternoon relaxing on the beach and soaking up the sun. Back to Bangkok on the 17th, Molly and I parted ways as she departed to Bhutan to continue work and I headed to my new AirBnB to feel like I really was begging my time in Thailand. Taking the next day to map out the rest of my time here, and the 19th at the immigration offices, I received an additional 30 days to my 60 Visa and ended the week feeling like I was all set for an amazing time.

Week 3: January 20 – 26, Planning Week

After having planned for the time ahead, I pictured this past week to be filled with meeting new people, exploring the topic of my project on my own and getting to know a little more about Bangkok, and Thailand’s larger medical system. Well, this didn’t quite occur in the way I had expected…shocker! At a bit of a standstill with hearing back from different groups, the week turned into a bit of further and prolonged planning. What it has allowed me to do is plan for new places I want to see in Thailand, races I hope to run, and beyond as I look forward to my last three months in my Watson year. Adding a return to Denmark for a conference and an additional country to explore before I end in Tanzania, the time to both settle in here and prepare more thoroughly for all that lies ahead of me feels good.

All of this of course comes with their own hesitations. Am I really being productive this week? Are you learning? This current week has both proven to be incredibly necessary, but at times slow. I found myself rereading a quote I had found early during my time as a Watson. In searching for tips from past fellows and their blogs, I came across a fellow from the 2016-2017 year. In crossing over his 8-month mark, he writes,

As a Watson Fellow, the past 8 months have flown; sailed out the window before I realized they happened. And they have dragged, clunking along like cinderblocks. And as I continue to travel, learn, and stumble, it feels like the best way to ‘make the most of my time’ is to just let it fly and clunk and do as it pleases. All the while accepting it for everything it is rather than judging it for everything it is not.”

So, Noah – Thank you for unknowingly guiding me as I travel, learn, stumble, fly, and clunk.

Coming up – Week 4: January 27 – February 2, Bangkok Touring

As I continue to allow myself to fly and clunk with the year – and as I was reminded by a friend who read my first quarterly report to “let the days carry me rather than try to carry the days” I plan to spend my last week before my internship getting to know this beautifully big city just a little bit more. There are countless temples to discover, markets to meander through, and stories and people to meet along the way. I have learned (and been affirmed) that often times much of my learning about myself and my project comes through these times. Things are surely to begin flying again soon, so I look forward to enjoy the slow ride as I learn more about what people call The City of Angels, that is, Bangkok.

As always, Picture time!

Very early on, I found my park to run!

Evening Light here almost always glows like this

Day 1 Views from Phra Nang Beach, Krabi

More Beach Views Boasting Towering Cliffs and Long Tail Boats

A Steep Look Up (towards the Tiger Cave Temple)

Buddha, 1237 steps above

Molly, Luida and Me at the Top!

These cute (but mischievous) guys were everywhere!

At the Emerald (turned public…) Pool

Island Views from our Boat Tour

Standing on Isola Tup as the sun began to fade

Selfie with the Chicken Island! (Can you see it?!)

We got some really great sunset afterglows

It happened again the next day!

Many nights we got to watch an awesome fire show

Hiking towards the top of Hang Nak

Molly and I at the top!

Hanging (on tight!) at Hang Nak!

Back in Bangkok, I hunt for delicious street food, like this pork.

And now…some Project Thoughts!

As I said above, I haven’t felt quite as productive with my project as I would have hoped, but that isn’t to say good thoughts haven’t been happening. I have stated before how I have found importance in separating my quest to learn about my project, and time to let myself “just see a new sight,” and I laugh at how I am coming to realize that seeing a new sight and learning about my project are so intricately related to each other that these days I find it much harder to distinguish much of a difference between what I am learning and what I am seeing. This makes me happy. Where I at first joked about how I was “studying” every time I saw an ambulance drive past me on the streets of Copenhagen, I now find myself with a heightened sense of awareness towards these situations and the sights around me.

What fascinates me so much about ambulance care, is that no one is external to it – that is, if you or someone you care about need help, you are going to want an ambulance, or at least someone with the training and qualifications to help you. (At least I think you would!) Thus, when I see ambulances drive by sirens blazing or idling in traffic, or when I walk past clinics or major hospitals, my mind is now constantly drawn to these questions. No, I do not stop and have a conversation with the person next to me every time an ambulance whirls by us, but every time my mind is centered back towards what I am exploring. I see an ambulance here in Bangkok, and my mind flicks back to those in Chile – to those in Denmark. What’s different? What’s similar? My mind darts across traffic, and how do you react here? In the response I received from my second quarter report, I read “One of the distinct characteristics of a Watson is that there is no end product, and in many ways this year is all about experiencing and leaving the concluding to a later date….I always say, the best Watson years are the ones where you come out with more questions than answers.” I have come to love that each day as I wake, I find myself asking new questions. Seeing new things and then asking, well, how does this relate?

What has most profoundly struck me here has been what I saw in Krabi, near the beaches. Walking around different parts of the town I found tucked in between hostels, restaurants, street food, and cheap merchandise vendors, nice, glass-filled buildings reading, “AO NANG MEDICAL” or “KRABI TOWN CLINIC,” and just below it would read, “International Insurance Accepted,” and “We Speak English.” Parked outside of these places were single ambulances. Each clinic I passed reflected the same, and there were plenty. The more I walked past, the more my heart sank a little. The ways these places advertised their services made me question who they are really there to serve? I was left with two main thoughts: perhaps the increase in tourism in the area has caused more health centers to rise up, and perhaps that too brings an increased level of access to healthcare for the local people who live in Krabi and around; however, at what cost? Do these clearly privatized clinics, who advertise a welcomeness to visitors, also care for those who live locally? Even for those who may not afford the same income levels as those who visit? It’s something still left unknown for me, and I look forward discussing these questions with the doctors I will soon be with during my internship.

Over here in Bangkok, I see ambulances as often as I did in Santiago. Similarly, they are almost always a different one than what I had previously seen. It seems like hospitals have their own ambulances for transport and transfer as well as emergencies. From what I have read, there also is a more central service as well, titled BES – Bangkok Emergency Services. At an open, public festival in the park where I like to run, I did see a medical tent with these ambulances stationed there. With the existence of both public and private sectors here in Thailand, I am interested to see how these services operate towards the greater community – who they serve, and who they perhaps do not. A new component to the overall system, which I am still in the process of searching for, is about the volunteer emergency services around the city. Originally labeled as, ‘body snatchers,’ due to their arrival on scene to transport a Dead on Arrival Patient, these services have evolved and matured. Now, they often receive calls and arrive on scene before a death has occurred, and thus are able to provide intervening treatment. Operating often in the night, these services frequently help provide for those involved in motor vehicle accidents; they operate entirely off of volunteer fundraising, and serve any who call.

Lastly, arriving in a new place also means adjusting, learning, and engaging with a new culture – a new way of life. With six months having come and gone in a flash, it still feels like I am starting over. I recognize the similar challenges that arrive, and feel like I slowly become more prepared each time. As it was in Denmark, and continued to be in Chile – I am loving the opportunity to see a new way of life, different than where I had been before, and ever more so from where I have come. As I pursue this year further, I am beginning to see this more clearly. Life happens here. There is community. People laugh; people cry. There is poverty and there is wealth, but community and communities exist and persist. It amazes me how many ways there are for people to come together, to engage. Gratitude is a big factor in your interactions here; you bow in greeting, always say thank you, and exchange a healthy round of smiles. Living in the Land of Smiles, I am beginning to feel those effects and the sense of welcome that comes when one smiles at you on the street or in a market. As I continue to pursue these questions of communities in the face of crisis and health emergencies, I am so thankful to have had the chance in these first weeks to be more observant in the Thai way of life. Knowing that I have only barely scratched the surface, I am thankful for the welcome and for having had the opportunity to begin.

ขอขอบคุณ, Khob Khun Khrap, Thank you, sincerely, and talk to you soon.

Mark

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