Tag Archives: travel

Adventure Boots

“Do you think I should take my rubber boots on this trip?” I asked my brother Ben, as we planned our camping adventures.

“You might as well, if there’s room in the car,” said Ben. “They might come in handy.”

Sure enough, the first trail we hiked was soggy and muddy. I ran back to the car to change from my tennis shoes into my boots. Ben, who had no boots, stepped in a particularly bad patch and was in mud up to his ankle.

“I am literally the girl in the red rubber boots!” I thought happily as I skipped down the trails, stomping through the wettest patches just because.

I guess I’m just full of adventures these days. Last week I went to the Redwoods with some friends I barely knew, and this week I went to the southern Oregon coast with my brother Ben. I mean, I was lucky enough to get two weeks of spring break this year, so why not? Ben reads all the Bill Sullivan books and finds the loveliest places.

I lost my heart to Cape Blanco, though. We went there because it’s the westernmost point in Oregon, but I loved it because it looked like how I imagine the Scottish highlands might look.

The rolling green meadows sloped down to the ocean. “Ben! Let’s go down to the beach!”

“I think there’s a path around here somewhere,” he said. But we couldn’t find it.

“Ben! What’s that little white building over there, on the hill below the lighthouse?”

“I don’t know, maybe it’s a WWII bunker.”

“Let’s go check it out!”

“You go–there’s no path, and I don’t want to get my shoes all wet.”

I lolloped off, once again so happy to have brought my boots. It reminded me of being a kid again, and how exciting rubber boots were. I still remember my first pair. They were purple, with yellow soles. You could go anywhere in boots. Boots were for adventuring in.

I didn’t even have red rubber boots when I titled my blog, and I only now have a pair because I wanted to live up to my blog title. I wore them as a fashion statement at first, but now, more and more, am actually wearing them for practical things like slogging through muddy grass.

I went up to the funky bunker thingy and looked inside. I have no clue what it was there for, but I sort-of wished I could clean it out and live in it.

From there I made my way down to the beach, which was nestled snugly into a curve of the cape. It was only when I reached the beach that I saw the path. It was a faint thing, winding up the meadow and looking for all the world like the lovely little paths in The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy Winkle.

And so I trudged up the path, and thought two thoughts: “I am glad I brought my boots,” and, “I am going to come back here and write and write.”

Just a note about this blog: I never wanted to start a separate Facebook page for my blog because that felt, I don’t know, vain or something, but I’ve finally decided to go ahead and do it. Mainly because I want people to be able to subscribe to this blog without A. having to check their email, or B. friending me on Facebook and getting all my non-blog-post updates in their feed. So if you want to subscribe to me via Facebook you can go to https://www.facebook.com/emilysmuckerblog/ and “like” the page.

I’ll still be posting my blog posts to my personal page as well.

The Redwoods Expedition (Part 2)

(Read part 1 here)

I woke up to the sun streaming through the windows of Elaine’s van, shining on the orange pillows and vintage suitcases.

“Yes! Maybe it will finally warm up in here,” I thought, curling deeper into my sleeping bag. It had been a rather cold night.

I heard a rustle of tent and a rattle of pans. Sitting up, I saw Ashlie and Laurel walking around the campsite doing useful things like boiling water. I assumed Elaine was still asleep, because the blue sleeping bag at my feet had a large lump in it. I’d hoped the sun would warm the inside of the van like an oven, but that wasn’t happening. Oh well. If I was going to be cold anyway, I might as well get up.

Surprisingly, it was warmer outside than in the van. Which was great because we didn’t have much firewood.

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Photo Credit: Elaine Stoltzfus

It was so interesting to me how, with so little communication beforehand, we ended up with everything we needed. Ashlie brought an aeropress, Laurel brought a propane camp stove, I brought mugs, Elaine brought a pan, and we all brought tea bags. I was so proud that I’d remembered to bring camp chairs, until I opened them up and discovered that two of them were child sized.

“Don’t worry, they fit me perfectly,” said Elaine, plopping down in one. She was much smaller in person than I’d imagined she’d be.

We ate yogurt with granola and fruit, then shoved our motley crew of coolers and food boxes back into my car. We pulled out the maps of hiking trails that we’d procured, and tried to decide between the myriad of hikes available.

Photo Credit: Ashlie DeHart


“How far is it to the beach?” asked Elaine.

“Like, four miles,” Laurel decided, examining the map scale.

“So an eight mile hike, all together,” said Ashlie.

We decided to take a shorter hike of maybe three miles or so, come back to camp for lunch, and then drive to the beach. “This one looks nice,” said Elaine, pointing to the map. Cathedral trees trail.

And it was really just breathtaking.

We hopped off the trails to walk along fallen logs or climb into hollow trees. We felt like elves. Hobbits. Little ants, sometimes.


Photo Credit: Ashlie DeHart


“You can’t instagram this kind of life!” gushed Elaine.

Which was kinda true, because all our phones died. Except Ashlie’s. We all stole her photos later.

We had to pay eight bucks for beach access, which made us Oregon girls mutter under our breath about those Californians. “It’s not even that great of a beach,” said Laurel, who lives in Bandon and is an expert on these things.

Still, the beach is the beach.

Ashlie and I dozed in the warm sand. Laurel wandered around, exploring, avoiding the water because she’d only brought one pair of pants. Elaine cartwheeled into the waves.

Photo Credit: Ashlie Dehart


Time didn’t matter.

I didn’t know when I’d gone to bed, gotten up, or eaten lunch. I didn’t know how long I’d hiked, or dozed on the beach. We had no cell phone service, and most of our phones had run out of battery anyway. Normally I live a life where I must be in class at precisely 10:00 a.m. and papers are due online at 11:59 p.m. on the dot, and it was really, really nice to get away from that for a while.

Still, the sun eventually sank towards the ocean. We gathered driftwood to supplement our dwindling firewood supply, and Elaine bundled it into her gypsy scarf and carried it to the car.

Photo Credit: Ashlie Dehart


“We know each other pretty well now,” said Elaine as we sat around our campfire that evening, cooking up an odd concoction of bacon, onions, and lentils. “So I have an idea. Let’s go around and say what kind of guy each of us needs.”

This made for an interesting discussion, but the impractical aspect was that none of us really knew anyone who fit the blissful descriptions we spit forth. “I know someone who would be perfect for Elaine, only he’s married,” said Ashlie.

Everyone who I get matched with is already married,” said Elaine bitterly.

“Oh! I know someone who’s perfect for you!” I said, suddenly inspired. “I don’t remember his name. I’ll look him up on Facebook when I get home!”

I did. He’s in a relationship with someone else. Blast.

That night Laurel slept in the back seat of my car and Ashlie, Elaine, and I crowded into Elaine’s van. We piled blankets on top of ourselves and put extra sleeping bags underneath us and made a pillow barrier between us and the cold wall of the van. “I feel like a stick shoved inside a marshmallow,” I thought, as I struggled to even turn over.

But I was warm. Gloriously warm, all night long.

The next morning we drank more tea and ate more yogurt, and then went on a shorter hike. Our era of blissful timelessness was ending, because we had to check out of the camp by noon.

We made a thousand plans for camping trips of the future, but flying by the seat of our pants as we do, none of them are set in stone. So we packed up our things. Hugged. Said “goodbye,” and “next time,” and “I’ll miss you.”

Elaine took her gypsy van and drove south, and Laurel, Ashlie and I climbed back in my car and drove north to Oregon and home again.

 

 

The Redwoods Expedition (Part 1)

I resented daylight savings when I got up early Monday morning to take my last final of the term, but as evening rolled around I was so thankful for it. “Maybe we’ll have just enough time to set up our tent before it gets dark,” said Ashlie, leaning over the seat. I held my phone upside down, because I heard somewhere that you get better service that way, and I still didn’t know where we were going to set up camp.

I was trying to get ahold of Elaine, who I knew from the internet but had never officially met. “I’m going to California for a wedding in March,” she’d told me weeks before. “Do you want to camp in Yosemite with me?”

“Yosemite is pretty far away. How about something close, like the southern Oregon coast, or the Redwoods?”

“REDWOODS!!!” she wrote back.

So we decided to go camping in the redwoods.

Photo Credit: Ashlie DeHart

I asked my friend Ashlie to come along, and she asked her friend Laurel. The three of us planned to drive south and meet Elaine in the redwoods early Monday evening. Which was great, except my nose was buried so deep in my finals that I didn’t quite hash out all the details, and we ended up on the road without any idea where exactly we were meeting Elaine.

“It’s okay,” I thought, “I’ll just call her on the drive down.”

Well. Apparently southern Oregon and northern California don’t have much in the way of cell phone service.

After several phone calls that got cut short when one or both of us moved out of service, we resorted to texting, hashing out whether we wanted to find a place to camp for free or pay California’s ridiculous campground fee. The sun sank lower and lower in the sky, and the evening fog rolled over the trees.

“Look, here’s a campground,” said Laurel. “Let’s just camp here.”

“Okay,” I said. “Let me text Elaine the name of it.”

We drove in circles for a bit trying to find service. “Here!” I said as one bar popped up on my screen. Laurel slammed on the breaks. I texted Elaine the name of the campground and the color of my car, but of course we didn’t know what campsite we were at yet.

Laurel, Ashley, and I set up that tent faster than I have ever set up a tent in my life. Just as we were about to drive back to the spot with service and text Elaine our campsite number, a white van pulled up.

The driver rolled their window down, but it was too dark to see who it was. “Are you Elaine?” I asked.

“Yes! I’m so glad I found you! It’s getting dark and scary!”

There was only a sliver of light left in the sky. Elaine built a campfire, and Laurel pulled out her 1-burner propane stove and boiled some water for tea.

“I’m so hungry! What should we make for supper?” I asked.

We’d all brought piles of random food, including lots of fruit and veggies that mercifully hadn’t been seized at the California border. We dumped my chicken, Ashlie’s cabbage, and Elaine’s wild rice into a frying pan to create a sort of stir fry. Huddled by the fire, we ate food and talked about everything.

The four of us barely knew each other before that night, but in the middle of the redwoods, we were exactly the same in all the ways that mattered.

It was perfect.

“It’s not even raining!” I said. “It’s been raining here for weeks. Rain was predicted for today, but I prayed that it would be dry.”

As the fire died down, we all got sleepy at the same time. We boxed up all the food and shoved it into my car so as not to attract bears. Ashlie and Laurel crawled into the tent, while Elaine and I climbed into the back of her amazing gypsy van. All the bench seats were removed, replaced with piles of pillows and blankets.

“I don’t like to get cold,” she explained.

I didn’t either. We piled blankets on ourselves and chatted idly about life until we drifted off to sleep.

(Read part 2 here)

 

 

The Longest Christmas of my Life

Hour 1.0 to hour 8.5

One last time, I slept on Amy’s brown leather couch, the soft tropical breezes drifting through the screen door. I rarely have insomnia when I’m in Thailand. Or maybe I do, but the night is so beautiful through the wide windows that I don’t even notice.

I dreamed that I was babysitting a young boy, and I glibly mentioned the myth of Santa Claus. He was horrified. His mother came rushing in. “No no! She’s just kidding!”

But the boy refused to be comforted. “How could you lie to me?”

I felt terrible.

So I guess in a sense I had a Christmas dream.

Hour 8.5 to hour 13

We’d already given our gift to each other, but we decided to try for a traditional Smucker Christmas in every other respect.

Amy took on the role of Dad, and made turtle pancakes for breakfast.

We ate the pancakes with honey and mangoes.

Then Amy got her Bible, and we sat around and recited the Christmas story. Normally it’s Jenny who has the Bible and keeps us on track–so I guess Amy took on all sorts of different roles that morning.

It was a very lazy morning. We were already packed from the day before. In an effort to not have to unpack, I’d hand-washed a few of my things and set them out to dry overnight.

Unfortunately, it happened to rain during the night, and the morning was damp and cloudy instead of the usual hot and bright. I brought in my wet things, lay them over a chair, and aimed the fan at them.

They still didn’t dry very fast.

“Maybe you can dry them in the toaster oven,” said Amy.

So I dried my clothes in the toaster oven.

Hour 13 to hour 15.5

As soon as the lady at the airport check-in desk saw us, her face fell into a look of sympathetic recognition. “Ok?” she asked, making a circle with her thumb and forefinger.

“I think so,” I said, handing her our passports.

She scanned them, and then looked visibly relieved. “Ok!” she said, smiling.

We set our suitcases on the scales. The zipper on our big suitcase had busted on the way over, so we’d replaced it with a somewhat flimsy zippered plastic bag. “Can you tape this up at all?” I asked. Amy hadn’t had any tape.

“No, I’m sorry, I don’t have any tape.”

I said a prayer over the flimsy bag, and we watched it roll down the belt and out of sight beyond the dangling rubber flaps.

Hour 15.5 to hour 19

This flight played a cute Chinese movie called “Love Simply,” and it had large easily-readable English subtitles.

It was about a single mom who still had posters of a musician named Fan Zi that she was really into in the ’90s. Her daughter didn’t know who her real dad was, so when she had to give a report at school about her dad, she said that Fan Zi was her dad.

The kids didn’t believe her, so she said that she would get her dad to sing a song for the school.

So then of course the mom tried to track down Fan Zi and get him to sing for the school, and then they kind-of fell in love, but then the mom got engaged to this other guy who was a good friend but also pretty weird but also quite rich, and drama drama.

I missed the end of the movie because I had to use the bathroom.

Hour 19 to hour 23

Do we follow the signs for international transfers, or for baggage claim? We were told in Chiang Mai to pick up our bags in Shanghai and re-check them. But we were transferring to another international flight.

We tried international transfers first. “No no, go that way!” The lady told us when she saw that we didn’t have a boarding pass. So we went that way.

“This isn’t Shanghai, is it?” said the guy behind us.

“Yeah it is. I mean, it’s Pudong airport, but it’s in Shanghai. I guess there must be multiple airports here.”

“Oh, okay, because I heard her say…that word…and I was like, ‘that’s not Shanghai.'”

The guy–I never caught his name so I’ll call him Chris–was from Toronto, the type of guy who likes to travel the world and jump off as many tall things as possible.

“What were you doing in Thailand?” we asked him.

“Dude, I was in Southern Thailand, that city’s basically like Las Vegas, full of debauchery, and then one night I was drunk and someone was talking about doing yoga and I thought that was a good idea so I went with my gut and decided to be a yoga teacher. I spent the next thirty days basically living like a monk. It was radical, man!”

We had a bit of an issue getting through immigration. Some higher-up had to come check our papers. But eventually we got through, picked up our bags–still intact!–re-checked them, got boarding passes, and went back through immigration to our gate.

We still had 50 Chinese Yuan, equal to $7.74, that we’d saved from our Chinese adventure because we thought we’d be spending 12 hours in Chinese airports on layovers. Ben rested with our stuff while I went looking for something to buy.

You know how stores in international airport terminals are. Lots of designer handbags, fancy chocolates, and stereotypically Chinese-looking designs printed on teapots, silk scarves, and fans. There wasn’t much I could buy with seven bucks.

Until, there it was. A tiny convenience store crammed in among the fancy designer perfume stores, stocked with authentic-looking Chinese junk food.

I grabbed a bottle of peach tea, a bag of odd cookie-type things, and a triangular seaweed and rice treat that I’d seen in a Korean drama once. And then I turned around and saw, of all things, Kinder Surprise eggs! I was beyond excited. My aunt used to bring us these from overseas, as they are banned in the US.

 

Yes, all of this cost less than 7 bucks.

 

We still had money left over, so Ben ran off to buy another peach tea and a box of Kit Kat-like bars. I opened my kinder surprise egg. It wasn’t quite like the kinder surprise eggs of my youth.

Instead of a chocolate egg with a toy inside, there was a plastic egg with a toy in one half and chocolate in the other. Oh well, It was still yummy.

My toy was a little bunny with a ring that could fit around its neck or on your finger.

As we got ready to board our flight, Chris came along. “Hey, do you want some Chinese rice cakes with icing?” I asked him. (That’s what the bag of cookie-type things turned out to be.)

“No thank you,” he said. “Do you want some chocolates?”

He held out a box of fancy chocolates from one of the fancy shops. Each was shaped like a different animal. I chose one shaped like a monkey. Ben chose one shaped like a duck.

“Thank you!”

“No problem, man.”

We chatted with him as we boarded the plane. He showed us pictures of the cliffs he’d bungee jumped off of. We talked about Chinese grandmothers shoving people out of their way.

“I wish I’d brought some socks, man,” he said. “It’s cold. I brought shoes, but no socks.”

“I have some socks!” said Ben, yanking a pair out of his backpack. “They’re kind of old, but they’re clean.”

“Seriously? That’s awesome, man!”

“Merry Christmas!”

“Hey!” I said. “We all got Christmas presents today. You got socks, and Ben and I got chocolates.”

Although we realized later that Ben had given away a pair of Steven’s socks.

Hour 23 to hour 33

As you can imagine, I was very tired at this point. I wanted to go to sleep but I knew we were going to eat soon, so I finished watching The Great Gatsby, which I’d started on the way to Thailand.

An okay movie, but it didn’t seem nearly as nuanced and subtle as the book.

Then I finished watching Love Simply.

Spoiler alert: They ended up together. (Although the hilarious thing was that when he did his grand proposal with all her friends dancing along in support, one of those friends was the ex-fiance.)

We ate, and I tried to sleep. A kid behind me was yelling and yelling and would. not. shut. up.

I got up again and watched Paper Towns. Ben went to sleep. I prayed and prayed that he would sleep well, so that he could drive us home, since I knew I’d be unable to.

Tried to sleep again. Now the kid was screaming and crying, a relentless wail that would not end.

I watched It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, which seemed an appropriate thing to watch on a sleepless night after traveling to foreign places.

All in all I only got about one or two hours of sleep, off and on. But God answered my prayers and Ben got a solid 6 hours.

Hour 34 to hour 39

We stood at the carousel and watched for our bags. First came the sturdy bag, right as rain. Then, around the corner came the flimsy bag, burst open, it’s contents spilled across the belt.

Frantically I searched for the most precious thing that had been in the bag; my diary. There it was! I grabbed it, and then tripped over other people and other bags as we ran alongside the carousel, retrieving my flip-flops and my electric kettle and Ben’s copy of Searching for God Knows What. 

Everything was there. It must have valiantly held together the entire trip, only to burst at the last minute when it was tossed onto the carousel.

Our Last Hard Thing was crossing the boarder from Canada to the US. We waited inside while the officers searched our car from bonnet to boot.

Mom once had a very bad experience making this crossing, because she forgot to declare her apples from Thailand. They showed her capsules of activated charcoal they’d unearthed, and said accusingly, “is this heroin?”

I thought of every possible thing they could bust me for. Was the barley tea I brought too seed-like? I had a couple unlabeled mineral supplement pills, would they think that was drugs?

But they told us we were fine, and could go.

“Merry Christmas!” I shouted as I exited the door.

I felt sorry for them, having to work on Christmas Day.

I dozed off and on the rest of the way home.

“Hey Ben!” I said, “It’s the last minute of Christmas!”

He didn’t say anything. He was busy looking for a gas station.

Hour -3

We finally got home at 2:30 a.m. The moon reflected on the fog and lit up the night.

I went into the kitchen to get some food. When I saw the leftovers, I laughed. Smuckers celebrate Christmas the same all over the world, I guess.

More Flight Drama

“I’m sorry, but you can’t fly through Tianjin without a visa.”

“What?”

“You need to call your travel agent and get another ticket home.”

“But…what?”

We stood at the checkin desk, bags packed, ready to go home. The lady at the desk looked sympathetic, but she really couldn’t do anything. Our ticket was from Chiang Mai, to Tianjin China, to Shanghai China, to Vancouver BC. Apparently there are only certain Chinese cities you can fly through without a visa, and Tianjin is not one of them.

No kidding. I guess that’s what we get for booking through a website called “Cheapo Air.”

We called Amy through Facebook using the airport wifi. She came and picked us up, and we went back to her place and played phase ten.

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Merry Christmas Eve, I guess.

It was 3 am in Oregon, but I sent mom a message telling her what was up, thinking she’d get it in the morning. The “ping!” woke her up, and she woke Dad up to get him to call Cheapo Air. As he was the one who had booked the tickets, he was the one best suited to try to sort out the mess.

Furthermore, he has “Dad voice.” You know the voice, when your dad has had ENOUGH, and you are to apologize to your mother and go to bed without any supper and all nonsense is from henceforth forbidden.

The people at Cheapo Air not only got Dad voice, they got 3 am Dad voice, and presently, for a small fee, we were scheduled on another flight.

Thanks Dad!

So Lord willing, we’ll fly from Chiang Mai to Shanghai to Vancouver tomorrow, all nonstop flights with only one short layover.

We’ll see how that goes.

 

Failures in English Teaching

Nestled in the jungle outside of Chiangmai is the Night Safari. It’s just like any other glorified zoo, except instead of viewing the animals by day, you view them at night. 

Exciting, huh?

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When I last came to Thailand, just over a year ago, I declined the opportunity to go on a night safari tour because there were many other things I’d rather spend my time and money on. However, a section of the safari is a walk-through area housing smaller animals in cages, and this is much cheaper to visit. Amy and I went one day, taking a lunch along and eating at an empty pavilion that stood along the trail.

There were multiple pavilions along the trail, and we couldn’t figure out why. There was nothing in them–neither animals, nor benches, nor tables. What could they possibly be used for?

On this trip, we found out.

Evidently, the Night Safari is not only a popular tourist destination, it also hosts events. Events like a weekend English camp. Events where random trailside pavilions become English learning stations for groups of children to visit one by one.

We arrived at the Night Safari early Saturday morning, while the sun was bright but the earth was still bathed in a cool breeze. The place wasn’t officially open yet. Cleaning ladies walked along the pathways with wide straw brooms. “We’re with the English Camp!” We said as we walked through the gate, and they waved us right through.

Zac, one of the organizers of the event, was waiting on the other side. He gave us badges to wear and ushered us into a large meeting room. There the four of us, plus the other English teachers, sat at a round table and drank instant coffee. Zac pulled a stack of papers from his yellow grocery bag.

“These are the papers you’ll need for your stations. These are for today, and these are for tomorrow. And this sheet is for assessment of their abilities.”

Looking over my papers I saw that some of them were labeled “actor,” and some “director.” The kids at my station were supposed to get into pairs, one being the director and one being the actor. The director would say things like, “Say ‘Hello.’ Pretend you are very very tired.” And then the actor would have to say “Hello” while pretending to be very very tired.

A simple enough concept, as long as the children could read and comprehend English. Amy said that Ben and I should run through it first so they knew what they were supposed to do.

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Ben and I prepare to teach.

Ben and I settled in at our station, and pretty soon a line of sixteen children came marching up, flanked by two university students who were helping out. The university students quickly made themselves scarce. “Hello,” I said. “I am Emily, and this is Ben. To start, I want everyone numbered 1-8 to stand over here, and everyone numbered 9-16 to stand over there.”

The kids split neatly into two groups. So far, so good.

“You are going to pretend to be directors,” I said to one group, “and you are going to pretend to be actors,” I said to the other. I handed out their papers. “You will do what it says on the paper. Ben and I will show you how to do it.”

Ben and I did what the papers said.

“How are you?” I asked.

“I’m good,” said Ben.

“What kind of movies do you like?”

“I like funny movies.”

“Say ‘I’m hungry.’ Pretend you are very very hungry.”

“I’m hungry,” said Ben, moaning and holding his stomach.

We went through the whole paper. Then I turned to the children. “Okay, now you try it with your partner.”

Nothing happened.

“Can you read the paper and do what it says?”

They gave each other glances of utter confusion.

I went to a child. “Can you read? Look, it says, ‘how are you.’ Can you say, ‘how are you?”

Blank stare.

The teachers weren’t supposed to say anything to the children in Thai at all, but this clearly was going nowhere. I ran out of the pavilion to try to find the university students who were supposed to be helping out. They were hanging out next to some pastel ceramic penguins, chatting. “Come help me!” I said, “I need you to explain to the children what to do!”

They followed me inside, where I showed them the actor and director papers. They read them, discussed them with each other, asked me some questions, and then tried to explain to the children what to do. Thus we were able to muddle through the half hour session, with the kids who knew English better helping the ones who were still 100% lost.

Zac came lolloping through about then. “How’s it going? Do the kids understand what they’re supposed to do?”

“Um…nope.”

“Oh well, give them all ones and we’ll come up with something different to do tomorrow.” And he trotted on down to the next station.

The point of the camp was not to teach English so much as to assess the current skills of the student, rating them a five if they could do the activity on their own and a one of they couldn’t do any of the activity.

We gave out a lot of ones.

As the subsequent groups came through we re-adjusted things, having the university students translating our directions from the very beginning. Instead of demonstrating the entire activity at once, Ben and I went through it line by line, first doing it ourselves, and then having the children do it. In this way we muddled through the rest of the day and were able to provide a skill assessment that was hopefully somewhat helpful.

When we finished supper that evening and walked out into the greater park area, there were people everywhere. This is prime tourist season. There were food carts, and traditional Thai dances, and little booths where  you could pet small animals.

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Me and my friend, Mr. Albino Porcupine.

With our nifty badges we could get on the Night Safari tour for free. We climbed onto an open-air bus that was painted to look like a giraffe, and set off down the dirt trail. It was night, and the tour guide shone bright lights on the animals as we passed, spouting various interesting facts about them in heavily accented English.

Which was cool and all, but I did feel sorry for those animals being awakened from their sleep by a brilliant light from a tour bus. (Although people did throw them lots of bananas and such, so perhaps that made up for it.)

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Ben and a giraffe that ignored us because we had no food.

We slept at the safari that night. Away down another dirt road, on another open-air bus painted to look like a giraffe, we rumbled and chugged on and on until we came to a guest house of sorts, in what was apparently a “Camp Gronud.”

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Our room had a bunk bed, one outlet, and a fake tree made out of cement and built into the wall.

I should have taken a picture of that fake tree. Perhaps hung my jacket on one of the branches. But I didn’t.

“Have you ever done that team-building exercise where everyone stands in a circle, and grabs hands with people across from them, and then they try to untangle themselves without letting go of hands?” Zac wondered the next morning.

“No, but I’ve heard of it.”

“Okay, well that’s what you can do at your station today. The university students all should know how to play it. It should take about fifteen minutes for them to untangle themselves.”

“What will the students do for the other fifteen minutes?”

“Oh, they can practice their cheer. Or they can practice their skit.”

I had no clue what their cheer or their skit consisted of, but I figured the university students would know what was what. I happily trotted off to my station, grateful that there would be no confusing actors and directors today.

Geshum, the 8-year-old child of one of the other teachers, came along with me since he speaks fluent Thai and English. I helped the children get into a clump and grasp the hands of the people across from them, and Geshum explained the concept of untangling themselves.

It didn’t go so well. They managed to form themselves into two interlocking circles instead of one big circle, and were thus never able to fully untangle themselves. Whatever. We did the best we could.

“Let’s play duck duck goose!” Whined Geshum.

Just like the day before, the first group was the one with AWOL university students, so I couldn’t get them to lead the students in practicing their skits or their cheer.

So we played duck duck goose.

Turns out, duck duck goose is a spectacular game that transcends language barriers.

The next three groups were able to untangle themselves quite quickly, after which we played about ten minutes of duck duck goose before I told them to practice their cheer. We never got to the skits. Ben left because he didn’t have anything to do, and Geshum left because he didn’t get picked often enough in duck duck goose. The teams were supposed to be at the stations for 30 minutes and spend 5 minutes between stations, but the time lagged more and more as things went on.

The last group could. not. untangle themselves. I couldn’t figure out how to untangle them either, or I would have given them some pointers. Should we just quit and play duck duck goose? Oh well. It’s a team-building exercise. Let them do some team-building.

Thirty minutes passed. I guess we’d just have to quit. I turned to the university students. “The time is up,” I said, pointing to my phone. “We’re done.”

“Oh, my phone is dead,” said one student, by which I assumed he meant that he hadn’t been watching the time.

I had noticed that the university students tended to hang around for a bit before finally leading the children to the next station. I didn’t know if they were confused or if this was just the Thai way. When these two university students didn’t leave, I just figured they wanted to wait a bit longer and see if the children could untangle themselves.

They couldn’t. We waited and waited, at least ten more minutes if not longer. Should I say something again? Tired and exhausted, the kids stepped over arms and ducked under, staying as tangled as ever before.

Finally one university student came to me with something written on her phone. It said, “If the children do not leave soon they will be too late, and will not be able to eat lunch.”

“Oh, they can go,” I said. “They can quit. It’s fine. I told you they were done!”

“Finished?” she asked.

“Yes, yes, they’re finished!”

We all left the stupid tangle game and went in for lunch. I felt so stupid. “The time is up?” Why had I kept saying “the time is up?” Of course that didn’t make any sense. Why is time up instead of down or sideways or forward or backward?

Finished. Finished is the word to use.

I’ve read a lot about needing to be willing to fail miserably in order to learn, and that’s how I comforted myself through my embarrassment.

After lunch was the grand finale, where the kids were supposed to perform their skits and their cheer. The skits, it turned out, were renditions of popular tales such as “The Three Little Pigs,” and were the focus of Amy’s station that day.

They dragged on…and on…and on. They never did get to their cheers.

Oh well, I’d heard most of them anyway.

“Little Pig, Little Pig, let me come in!”

Thus ended English camp.

“You’ve done so much already, you could probably call your trip a mission trip,” Caleb, another teacher, had joked to us earlier.

We laughed. It had been a hectic four days.

It was time for some relaxation. We went home and chilled for the rest of the day.

Into the Thick of Things

I was an angel but I had no wings. I fluttered the tails of my long white sweater, hoping the children would get the picture. “I am an angel,” I announced, in case there was any doubt. “My name is Gabriel. I have come from God with a special message for you.”

I spoke slowly, enunciating clearly and using as few words as possible. “You will have a baby. He will be the Son of God. You must name him Jesus.”

“The Son of God!” Amy, or should I say Mary the mother of Jesus, exclaimed.

The Thai schoolchildren sat in rows on the floor, watching us. Levels of comprehension varied, as we tried to present the Christmas story visually, with Ben acting as both Joseph and the Shepherd, and a vase wrapped in a sheet and pillowcase standing in for Baby Jesus.

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Thai children are particularly good at sitting in orderly rows. Photo credit: Amy Smucker

When we arrived in Thailand Wednesday evening, Ben and I had no idea this trip would require us to be actors. Amy sprung it on us as we sat in her living room and ate soup, trying to recover from our two-and-a-half day journey. “By the way, Kimberly volunteered us to act out the Christmas story for the children at the school where she teaches.”

Kimberly, Amy’s roommate, looked up indignantly. “I asked you. ”

“Well, yeah, I guess. And I thought they’d like to do it. You like acting and stuff,” she said, turning to me.

“When is this?”

“Friday morning.”

“Also, Friday evening,” Kimberly put in. “Chad and Jenny are doing a Christmas party, and they want you to act it out there too.”

“But…I’m the one that has to come up with what we do?” I asked.

“Yeah…but you like doing that kind of thing.”

“Okay,” I said. Because it’s true.

I do like doing that kind of thing. Both aspects. I like coming up with skits, and I like being thrown into the thick of things when I come to visit a foreign culture. I like hastily constructing costumes out of broomsticks and old sweaters, and I would rather make new Thai friends than go to a popular tourist location and get kissed by an elephant.

This trip has been particularly fun because I’ve been to Thailand before, so I don’t have to start at square one when it comes to friendships.

It began Thursday evening, after a short partial day’s rest from our travels. “Do you remember Leila? And Ahn? They work at the college.” Amy asked me.

“Yes, of course I do!”

“We’re having a mookata party tonight, and they’re coming. Also, my friend Amy whom you’ve never met. And Kim. Remember Kim? You helped her with her homework last time you where here.”

“Oh, Kim! I’d love to see her again!”

We rolled out rice mats in the driveway for sitting on, and took the floor lamp outside for extra lighting. Leila, Ahn, and Leila’s husband showed up first, bringing veggies and raw meat and mookata grills. Mookata is a traditional Thai dish in which you fry meat and veggies and boil more veggies in the broth. The idea is to spend half the time cooking things and the other half eating, plucking things off the grill with chopsticks and trying different flavors together.

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Ahn and I grill meat. Photo credit: Amy Smucker

It ends up being a sort of potluck, with everyone bringing something new to fry and stew. I fried and stewed and chatted and fried for hours.

“Are you all ready for your skit tomorrow?” Kimberly asked when all the guests had left and we were mopping up the grease that had drifted into the house and settled on the floor.

“Wait, that’s tomorrow? What time are we starting?”

“Oh, probably 9:30 or so.”

Ben, Amy and I gave each other exhausted glances. “I’m tired. How about we get up early tomorrow and do it?”

“Sounds good to me.”

“Me too.”

It was settled, then. We got up early in the morning and tried to figure something out.

“Okay, Mary, you start out over there. Joseph, on the other side. I’m the angel, so I’ll come in this direction and tell you you’re going to have a baby…should I make a gesture of a pregnant belly or of rocking a baby?”

In roughly half an hour we scraped together a passable five-minute skit of the Christmas story, in relatively comprehensible English. I donned Amy’s white dress and sweater in order to be an angel, and we transformed Ben from Joseph to Shepherd mid-skit by handing him a straw hat and a telescoping mop handle. (The telescoping part was important–all props were transported by motorbike.)

Amy’s roommate Kimberly teaches classes for the English program at a local government school. A friend of Kimberly’s was putting on an hour-long Christmas program for the whole school, with songs, gift-giving, a craft, and, of course, a short skit of the Christmas story. Only one or two grades could fit in the assembly room at once, so the whole program was repeated five or six times.

Which, for us, meant five minutes of acting, fifty-five minutes of waiting, and another five minutes of acting, over and over.

As we were relaxing after one of our performances, I heard Amy laughing.

“What’s so funny?”

“The teacher asked a student, ‘do you know what a shepherd is?’ And the student said, ‘Santa Clause!'”

We had to do the skit again that evening at Chad and Jenny’s Christmas party. Chad and Jenny are Amy’s co-workers, and they invited some university students over. I pulled out the bags of marshmallows I’d brought Amy from the states and whipped up some Santa Rudolphs for the occasion.

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Photo credit: Amy Smucker

It was a little weird doing the skit for university students since we’d geared it towards children, but it went fine. We rounded out the evening with decorating Christmas cookies, reading the Christmas story, and trying to unwrap a Christmas present while wearing oven mitts.

I was exhausted after that party. “Are you all packed for tomorrow?” Amy asked me.

“What? Packed? Are we going somewhere?”

“We’re teaching at English camp! Didn’t you read my email?”

“…I skimmed it. I didn’t realize we were spending the night there.”

“Well, we are. We’re leaving tomorrow morning, teaching all day, spending the night, and teaching the next day too.”

“Wow, you really threw us into the thick of things right away, didn’t you?”

It was okay though. I like being thrown into the thick of things.

Coming Soon: Adventures of Teaching an English Camp at a Thai Safari.