From Hello to Goodbye

After recovering from a bout of Dengue Fever, I ate and drank my way through my final ten days in Chiang Mai, devouring all my favourites: raw vegan foods, noodle soup, meat on a stick, chilled red wine, mango and sticky rice, classic martini with three olives, burmese delicacies, khao soi, margaritas, banana roti, dragon fruit , tom jued soup… I’m salivating just remembering the smell, the flavours, the spices…

I played hard, wrapping up as much as I could at “Urban Light” during the day, and enjoying  nights filled with 90 minute Thai massages, final market shopping and hanging out with my mates into the wee small hours of the morning after rocking the night away listening to live music at our favourite haunt – “Colour Bar”. An average of 4 hours sleep saw me through my final couple of weeks!

I was invited to “Su Su Na MareeeSaa”, my farewell dinner party with my nearest and dearest at my favourite restaurant “Ginger”. This was generously put on by Alezandra Russell, President and Founder of Urban Light, and now, a friend for life. Whilst she was back in the USA, a small group of my friends and I enjoyed a “hi-so” night of cocktails and canapés. I was presented with an exquisite gift of earrings and a blingy bracelet, and a handmade book of personal messages from the people who had crossed my path and made a difference in my life.

In response to this, I wrote a small poem, which I will read to you now if you press play below…

NB: Please allow the video to stream from YouTube before playing. Might take a couple of minutes.

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From Guesthouse to Housesitting to Room Rental

After seven months in Chiang Mai, Thailand, it’s become a time of reflection as I look back at my time here and re-live the many experiences, challenges and blessings that I have had.

Firstly a retrospective look at the places I have called home…

#1 Guesthouse

My first home was chosen for location location location. Directly opposite the Ping River, 2 minutes walk from a coffee house and ex-Pat supermarket, 5 minutes walk to my massage lady and to Riverside cocktails, and only 10 minutes walk to Urban Light. Perfect!

Riverside House was home for the first three months of living in Chiang Mai. After being checked into a room so small that you couldn’t even swing a little kitten in it, and which sat above the busy communal eating area and pool, I negotiated an upgrade to a deluxe room overlooking a quiet garden right at the back of the property.

The room itself was basic, with at least all the essentials covered:

  • a small fridge allowing me to squeeze in my salads, yoghurt and liquids
  • a desk with a rock hard wooden seat where I sat most evenings into the wee small hours of the morning, after a full day at Urban Light. This was to fulfil a previously negotiated contract for a client back in Sydney to design and develop a 5-day Leadership Development Program
  • a shower that ran reasonably warm water, and my loo hose
  • two single mattresses shoved together that were as hard to lie on as the tiles on the floor, and with a crevice between them only ever allowing me to sleep on one side of the bed
  • most importantly a wifi system that was pretty reliable
  • and my gecko friends who circled my ceiling at night and hid behind my wardrobe during the day.

Each morning they provided breakfast of cornflakes and white toast with a few condiments. I became friendly with the staff who warmly greeted me each morning, and my buff security guard was entertained by the many different people who stopped at my gate to collect me on the back of their bike.

The major downfall was the construction of a new building directly next door. Noise would start at 7am and go till 7pm at night, 7 days a week. And normally 7 is my favourite number. Sound restriction on a building site is not monitored here and at times it felt like the walls in my room were going to crumble down on me. After three months living in this Guesthouse and putting up with the construction site for 2 of those months it was onto home number 2…

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#2 Housesitting

I was blessed with tremendous friends who warmly welcomed me into their family home in a Moobaan (gated community) 20 minutes out of town. I thoroughly enjoyed a week of living with an American family of four, a Mama and a Papa Bear and two beautiful daughters. The company, family teatime and being in a much larger home were a welcome change.

After a sensational trip to Cambodia at the expiration of the first half of my Visa, I returned to an empty house. The Faucett family had packed up for a 6-month trip back to the States to raise funds and further awareness of the incredible work that they do in Chiang Mai. This left me with the house for 6 weeks until a visiting family would take over the rental responsibilities of the house.

The highlights of my time here were living in a real Thai home, having multiple rooms, a comfortable study to work from, a widescreen TV, a full working kitchen enabling me to cook and bake (something I miss when I don’t have it), a king sized bed with a mosquito net, the ability to entertain and have people over and the best part … a Maebaan who washed, dried, ironed and hung up my clothes, in addition to cleaning the house, including any dishes or mess made in the kitchen. Oh yeah baby – I could get used to that!

The trek to and from Urban Light and the city of Chiang Mai was always a bit of a task, and added to my experience. I had to catch a yellow sangtaew (the equivalent of the local bus – a truck) outside the Moobaan on a main road. I had to wave it down and pile into the vehicle packed with locals heading to the markets at the last stop. I felt like a local too, when eventually I was asked to pay only 13 baht (approximately 43 cents), and I had to stand on the grate hanging out the back of the truck because it was so packed inside. I also managed to secure my own tuk-tuk driver whom I could ring and book like a taxi driver: better for evenings out in town when most drivers do not want to trek so far out.

I attempted to learn to ride a borrowed motorbike, (kindly offered by Brett) around the Moobaan, but in the end chose to stick with the reliability of my own feet, cheap transport options and the generosity of good friends who more often than not would get me from A to B throughout my time in Chiang Mai. The choice was the right one, as in the short time I have been here, a number of my friends have collided with cars which ignored their motorbikes!

Thanks Brett and Shelley for the housesitting gig, only wish you had been here for longer!

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#3 Rent a Room

My final 3 month landing place in Chiang Mai was found through a friend who not only moved my belongings into the residence, but also rescued me multiple times over my stay.

It was a home bought by an Australian woman who has made Chiang Mai her home. It was in a sleepy small suburb near the Ping River, and only 1.5kms from Urban Light on foot. It was enormous, three-stories high and under-going renovations to build a sound studio and a penthouse apartment for the owner.

I had a few room options all varying in price. I ended up settling on the quirky shaped room, with a sloping low roof which had its own bathroom, rather than one on a floor with potentially up to five people sharing a smaller bathroom than what I had. It should be noted I have NEVER lived in a share house environment ever.

First challenge was furnishing the room that had only a bed, wardrobe and dressing table in it. Décor and soft furnishings were up to me. As it happened, one of my besties was leaving Chiang Mai just as I was moving in and donated all the items that had made her studio apartment homely for half a year. So voila, a top mattress for making hard Thai beds more bearable, linen, towels, cushions, lighting, coathangers galore, and the final touches, my Pug calendar, cards and pictures from home.

I was lucky to share this rather oversized home with Chelsea, who was volunteering at Urban Light, for the first six weeks. We were faced with unique challenges in an environment unknown to both of us. With the top level still under construction, the house was in part an office to the owner’s interns. Traffic in and out of the house was always a surprise, and so many people seemed to have keys that it felt like they were being handed out at the end of the Soi to any and all passers-by! This remained the case for my entire stay there until the owner herself eventually moved in during my last month.

My highlights included…

  • on the infrequent nights I washed my hair (who needs to, it’s always up in a messy knot in this type of heat) having the power go off, water stop flowing, lights all go out, and having to find my way in the pitch darkness to wherever the power box was
  • waking daily before 8am to the sounds of car engines being tested, and blaringly loud Thai radio being played from the mechanic shop that was directly behind my room. It was so close in fact, that if I could open the windows fully, I probably could have reached down to turn off the radio and change a car battery at the same time
  • never knowing who was coming and going from the house of strangers, I found myself locked in one morning and needing to perform contortionist tricks to unlock the padlock on the outside of the gate
  • sharing the house with a pack of strangers for a couple of nights because the owner is such a generous and gracious spirit in Chiang Mai she is always asked favours and says yes (a noble woman). Despite telling them that I would be out late, I arrived home after 1am to find that they had locked me out, bolted the door from the inside, making it impossible for me to get in. Unable to stir anyone on the second floor from their deep slumber, Ninja Briggsy to the rescue. He rides over on his chariot of a motorbike and scales the walls, a balcony, all three-stories up from ground, and beats down a door exclaiming loudly “you’ve locked my friend out of HER house”
  • the army of two different types of ants that made themselves at home in my bathroom, and even chose to cosy up to me by visiting me in my bed
  • and running water, well let’s face it, you can live without it right?

Despite all the interesting challenges, it had fabulous air-conditioning, the strongest wifi signal, my room truly felt like it was my own little space in Chiang Mai and I am going to appreciate home back in Oz so much more because of this experience…

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I loved the different walls that surrounded me and which I could call home in Chiang Mai, three distinctly different places, creating a richness of experience and perspective on life.

Here too are some images from two other fabulous places where I stayed whilst in Chiang Mai, that were superb escapes and little pieces of heaven… I highly recommend both to anyone visiting Chiang Mai.

The Chedi – Chiang Mai

A divine five-star hotel in Chiang Mai, once the British Consulate, was home for a week when Mummy and Daddy visited. So spoilt.

Veranda Resort and Spa – Chiang Mai

An idyllic zen resort located about 30 minutes outside of Chiang Mai in the mountains. A beautiful escape I enjoyed for a day and on other occasions for a couple of nights with different fabulous fierce female friends.

 

From a bump to a lump to surgery to emergency

Warning: contents of this blog may disturb and upset those with fear of needles, blood, hospitals and surgery. Explicit, graphic language and medical terms used. Discretion required.

For the bulk of us, anything that requires a personal visit to the hospital for a medical reason is  to be avoided at all cost, and if it does happen, it is not an overly enjoyable or fun experience. I get that, and I have had up to ten different hospital visits in my lifetime, not including birth.

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Put me in a foreign country with a medical need and I am avoiding that hospital visit, even if it means trawling through websites to self diagnose, sending photos of said “problem” (which it will remain titled for the faint of heart) to mother back home in Australia, convincing myself that as the “problem” grows in size and pain, that somehow it’s going to get better of its own accord. ANYTHING to avoid going to a hospital in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

This attitude and conviction only lasted 6 days. By the 7th day I was not sleeping, standing, sitting, walking, doing anything with any degree of comfort and ease. The “problem” had to be seen.

With advice from my travel insurer (a lesson for any traveller – GET travel insurance), I was advised where to go, what to do, what records to ask for and how I could get every Thai Baht back for anything that I was going to spend on removing the “problem.”

Fortunately for me my bestie (Wilksy) was in Chiang Mai, Thailand having her first real vacation in years. Unfortunately for her, what was meant to be a relaxing holiday filled with amazing cuisine, tourist attractions, introductions to my new life and friendships here, became a holiday of hospital visits and patient care (for me).

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Chiang Mai Ram hospital was to become our daily stomping ground. After disclosing in detail said “problem” to a number of Thaiglish-speaking nurses, all wearing cute little nursing hats and baby blue uniforms, I was systematically processed through a range of tests.  The most distressing of results pre-Doctor, was the confirmation that my ill-fitting clothing was in fact due to the 7kgs I had gained since getting to Thailand, not that my clothes had shrunk from frequent laundering. Who wants to go to hospital to find that out??? Come on!!!

IMG_3132Wilksy and I were ushered eventually into the Doctor’s room where the “problem” was examined. With the Doctor’s commentary mostly in Thai I was able to pick up on the “mmmmm” and “it’s big” and a “does that hurt” poke. Before I was back dressed and seated behind the dividing wall where Wilksy was safely blocked from view of the “problem,” the Doctor was explaining in Thaiglish that I would have to be operated on that afternoon under general anaesthetic. Tears flooded my eye balls as Wilksy immediately shifted into mother mode; notepad out, pen poised, legs crossed, and with the look of an official medical practitioner, she asked “why would that be necessary?” The Doctor saw my welling tears and muttered something about “why crying” and Wilksy remarked indignantly “well surgery isn’t fun now is it?” That mere fact was lost on him.

Okay so the “problem” had grown in shape and size from that of a 20cent piece to a 10cm chocolate bar – the pain would be too great under a local, so knocking me out was the only option.

IMG_3148_2The bowl of cereal I enjoyed that morning had to be digested before I could have surgery. We had a few hours to kill, so with enormous discomfort and pain I showed Wilksy my favourite coffee spot – Ristr8tto, jewellery store – Pink Pvssy, and sanga bar – Smoothie Blues. At least the girl could get some coffee, shopping and food into her before she had to endure a hospital waiting room.

IMG_3127Four hours later, back at the hospital, following an X-ray of my chest, vials of blood sucked from my arm, a needle inserted in my hand and stuck down with sticky tape, I was placed in my pretty gown, ushered up to the surgery floor to finalise a few more forms, Wilksy by my side every step of the way. The moment of harsh realisation that I was truly in a foreign non-English speaking developing country, and this really was happening, was when I tried to explain to the nurse before going into surgery that I had my period. She simply could not understand me, no matter what words I used to describe my period – “I’m menstruating, it’s that time of the month, I’m bleeding, I’m wearing a tampon, my pussy is sick (an expression some Thai women use), I’ve got my rags.” This was when I broke down and whimpered – what was I doing getting an operation here?

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Unlike my other hospital experiences, I walked into theatre and hopped up on the hard skinny operating table myself. Where was my nice comfy wheeling bed with soft white linen covering me? There was some hustle and bustle going on, the anaesthetist looked capable and kind. It was when they started attaching stirrups to the operating table that I was just praying to be knocked out. In my usual well-rehearsed speech prior to going off into la-la land, I thanked everyone in the theatre for taking part in the afternoon’s proceedings, for taking good care of me in advance, and wishing them all very….. Zzzzzzzzz!!!

The worst part of surgery is waking up – disoriented, often with an oxygen mask covering one’s mouth and nose, things attached to you, monitors beeping at you, blood pressure arm-bands squeezing you, waiting to feel some sort of pain from what ever has just been done to you under the knife, and looking at the eyes and white masks of the nursing staff caring for you in recovery. This time the added disorientation was hearing the Thai language spoken – I really felt lost and alone and scared and a long, long way from home. Sob Sob.

The next two hours were long; watching the ticking of the second hand on the clock like it was white paint drying on a wall. Watching other patients being wheeled in and out wondering what their situation was. Getting obsessed by the beating of people’s different monitors and trying to find some kind of peaceful melody in the relentless beeps, ticks and pumps that would help me snooze some more. Hearing other patients in pain, including an alcoholic American who had 6 teeth removed who was coughing and spurting blood and yelling aggressively at the nurses. Where is my Wilksy? I want to go home!!!

Thankfully a change in shifts brought me my angel nurse who stroked my arm, talked to me gently, assisted me back onto the bed after my first failed attempt to get up, and even smuggled some chocolate milk and cookies into the recovery ward to help prevent the dizzy factor that had me back in bed for another 45 minutes.

Once upright and able to stand without falling over, it was into a wheelchair and through a few check points before I got to see my patient friend Wilksy. My favorite check point was being asked how I was getting home. When I responded, “by a tuk-tuk,” the option was quickly shut down and an ambulance ride (free of charge) was offered. Kop Khun Kha!!!

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Under 12 hours after arriving at the hospital, tests, surgery, a wheelchair ride, 27,000 Thai Baht later, a zip lock plastic bag full of drugs, and we were off and away in the comfort of an ambulance.

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Arriving back to my Chiang Mai home, Wilksy stepped into patient care mode, assisting me with anything and everything; feeding me random items found in the cupboard, encouraging me and even going above and beyond the duty of any friend!! I mean what is one supposed to do when one’s surgical dressing falls off? Call mother in Australia on Facetime and show her what’s happened hoping that she can reach her hands through the iPad to reposition the dressing gently back in place? (I tried that). OR ask your best friend to look at a part of your body that honestly no one other than a qualified medical practitioner should be subjected to view, at least in a post-surgical-open-wound-kind-of-state? Needless to say Wilksy has gentle hands and hopefully the ability to shut her eyes at night now without seeing my slashed up bloody “problem.” This night signified the start of a new friendship acronym BFFIEAB (Best Friends Forever In Eternity And Beyond).

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All things going according to plan, I was meant to only visit the hospital once the following day, for a morning check-up with the Doctor and a change of dressing. But that would be too easy…

11pm that evening, about 22 hours after surgery, I was haemorrhaging from my “problem”.  I was leaking blood EVERYWHERE. My bedroom and bathroom started looking like the site of a horror slasher movie, with blood smeared over the white tiles, puddles of blood leading into the bathroom where I’d either walked or crawled, blood-stained clothing, and blood drying on my skin like dripping globules of paint down a wall.

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With my panicky heavy-breathing state and slurring speech, Wilksy (along with my Mother at 2am in Australia connected to me on Viber) managed to navigate through my Thailand Nokia phone to figure out whom to call. No thanks to an ambulance that arrived first with two drivers, who laughed at Wilksy and appeared either intoxicated or totally incompetent, we managed to get to Chiang Mai Ram hospital. Aussies to the rescue – thanks to the homeowner of the house I live in and her next-door neighbour – a nurse.

Bleeding over a number of chairs in the Emergency room may have helped speed up the process of being seen by a Doctor. I do what I can. Good fortune had us out of there after only a couple of hours. Wilksy’s enormous overnight bag was thankfully unnecessary. In my pale, fatigued, emotionally exhausted state, the examination by more sets of eyes, further poking and prodding, a local anaesthetic administered by a number of injections, a small couple of stitches (due to an exposed burst blood vessel) and more dressing, all happened with relatively little recognition. Shortly after 2am we were back home, (Wilksy having managed to get us a tuk-tuk and cuddling me all the way to keep me comfortable and feeling safe), and I was back in bed so looking forward to yet another hospital visit the following morning, making it a total of four visits three days in a row…

It is now a few weeks later and I have my final check-up with my Doctor in a couple of days, a kind and apologetic man, who took full responsibility for the haemorrhaging having seen the bleed when he re-dressed the wound the day after surgery. Wilksy is back in Australia seeking support for all that she saw and had to do on her turbulent holiday in Chiang Mai. I can now sit, walk and stand in comfort.

Above all, I lived to tell the tale…

… of an abscess on my ass!

NOTE: At time of blog upload, Marissa has been tested positive for Dengue Fever and is again frequenting Chiang Mai Ram hospital for regular blood tests.

From Heart to Home

I am two-thirds the way through this life-changing awesome experience in Chiang Mai, Thailand and I already consider this place my home. It’s interesting to reflect on what makes a place that on the outside appears so foreign, so different and constantly changing, feel like a home.

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I realised for the first time that I was home in Chiang Mai when I returned from my 2-week Visa run in Cambodia. How could a place that is so stinking hot ALL the time, where I constantly feel dirty and sweaty, people are dropping like flies around me with Dengue Fever, I have had to pack all my belongings up and move three times, I can’t flush toilet paper down the loo, I don’t speak Thai and those that speak English don’t understand my Australian accent (or my totes whack-daddy expressions), my family, friends and creature comforts are 7,864.1 kilometres away – How could this be?

For me, a slight extrovert (there’s approximately 3% of the population more extroverted than me), it’s all about the AMAZING connections I am having with a remarkably diverse group of individuals who have walked into my life and blessed me with who they are.

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There are the people who make my Cafe Latte to perfection at several great coffee spots around Chiang Mai. Some know me by name – “Mareeesssaa,” others know me by my order – “Cafe Latte? Hot? Takeway or have in today?”. The 2011 World Latte Art Champion knows me because I constantly rave to him how good he is and I drink so many coffees in a row every time I am there, and then most recently, my hidden Thai coffee house where the lady grows and roasts her own beans, and has offered to make me my favourite curry next time I go there.

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Weekly massages are certainly something I would never indulge in back home. Here, they’re a must. Particularly when you have Ngern, the same lady I went to last year when I was in Chiang Mai, a lady who goes to enormous lengths of generosity to continue to be my one and only masseur. She has the most beautiful smile and despite our absolute lack of verbal understanding, we have this close, happy, loving, hilarious relationship. When I was living about 500 metres away from the massage place, we managed to communicate an arrangement for her to come to my place so that I was able to pay her and she was able to benefit from the full amount. She would call me on her “holiday”, the one-day she had off a week from an 11am – 10pm hugely physical and exhausting job, to arrange to come to me. She would give me the most awesome 90-minute Thai massages (with tiger balm), with all the bending, twisting, pretzel-like moves you can imagine a body can be manipulated into, including an upside down flip over her feet in the air, on a weekly basis. Despite not living nearby, I continue to see her, and even when she has the day off, she comes in to treat just me!!

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I even have a man at the market who knows me for my regular DVD purchases and “gives me good price.” There’s my favourite ice-cream haunt, where the guy knows I will always take my time in the refreshing air-conditioned icebox of a store, to taste a few flavours, before always choosing the Strawberry Cheesecake flavour. I have some gorgeous young girls who do my mani/pedi, often re-doing a nail if it is not absolutely perfect. And I of course had to secure a local drinking hole to replace my love of ECQ on Sydney Harbour overlooking the Harbour Bridge. Here it’s RiverMarket on the Ping River overlooking the Iron Bridge. My delightful waiter knows my happy hour order – drink #1 a Bombay gin Martini, dry with olives, and drink #2 a classic salty-rimmed Margarita. Yes thank-you!!

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I also have loved getting to a point where I know how to get around, and know where things are. I have a regular Tuk-Tuk driver – Mr Peak – I can call to take me around for a very reasonable price. Otherwise I can now bargain the price down on a Sangteow. Walking on foot is no longer scary, you just gotta keep your eye on the disappearing cracked pavement before taking each step. I have even caught the local public Sangteow (much like our bus system), squeezed in amongst 20 other people and even hung out the back of one watching the road speed past beneath me! My highlight of knowing that I have assimilated to the way of transport here in Thailand, was the day a friend of mine and I got caught in the rain riding home on his motorbike, he loaned me his huge raincoat and I held an umbrella above his head as we sped through the pelting rain. If the locals can do it – why can’t I?

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Then there are the people I can truly call friends. Each and every one with an interesting and inspiring story on how they came to be here and what they are doing. Here is just a small sample…

  • There’s the bare-footed scraggly red-bearded Thai/Yankee Christian monk who has chosen a simple life, choosing to sleep on a tiled floor, eat one meal a day and shed love on those living in slums and working in the red-light district. He has introduced me to so many friends, transported me places (and all my luggage from one resting place to the next), found me new digs and been the best buddy a girl could ask for.

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  • There’s the independent free-spirited southern American, people-loving world traveller who has called Chiang Mai home for 8 months, who gives her gift of unconditional love to everyone who crosses her path. She teaches Yoga in a boxing ring in the red-light district and creates connections with under-privileged people and showers them with acceptance and love. She has shown me the purest and most authentic form of friendship for which I will be forever grateful.

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  • There’s the volunteers whom I work with at Urban Light, who in their 20s have placed their lives on hold in America to come and be confronted, challenged and give back. Their energy, passion and drive to make a difference every day to the lives of our exploited boys through music, laughter, love, communication, social work, science – whatever their skill –  is awe-inspiring for such young people. And they have made sensational friends and dinner companions to me over here.

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  • There’s the young American family who have made Chiang Mai their home as they work amongst special needs children, victims of H.I.V. and support Urban Light through outreach and baking. They opened their lives to me and allowed me to housesit for a period, and were instrumental in creating a home for me here where friends/new family can be of any age.
  • There’s my local Thai friends who have shared their city with me, showed me where to eat, where to get the best coffee, how to get around and more importantly opened my eyes to Thai culture and customs in the way that they have been brought up. Most recently they spent a breakfast teasing me about my age, my greys, my singleness, how many times I have caught a wedding bouquet etc., only to express that they do this because I am one of them and that is what true friends do. So as far as I am concerned it can be “pick on Marissa day” any day when I am with them.

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  • There’s the founder of Urban Light who initially was a one-dimensional figure on Skype until she became 3D and was standing before me with all her energy and passion and drive and love. Aside from being an incredibly inspiring humanitarian to have established Urban Light by selling her wedding and engagement ring after witnessing the abandoned population of exploited boys in Thailand, she has become a true friend, a person I can cry, laugh, dance, eat, drink, talk for endless hours with.

There are simply too many inspiring people to mention, so many who have moved their lives to Chiang Mai to help those less privileged and in need – teachers, gardeners, translators, researchers, ministers, doctors, human rights advocates, photographers, social workers – all individuals who have stretched my narrow view of what it means to follow your heart and make a difference in the lives of others.

Chiang Mai has become home because of all these interactions, these connections with people, and there’s nothing quite like running into people you know on the streets. Especially when they are the boys who go to Urban Light daily, who are selling flowers at night, or are just wandering the streets aimlessly, they see me, recognise me and smile at me.

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The greatest joy of calling Chiang Mai home right now is the greater purpose and meaning I find in each day that I am part of the Urban Light team. Walking into the Center is like walking into the family home. Everyone has a role and a purpose, there is a meal enjoyed together, we look out for one another, love and care for each other. Sometimes there are disagreements and things get broken. But I have found my purpose here, a way in which I can add value through leading, coaching, guiding, advising, counselling, listening and loving this team of incredible individuals.

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It’s a privilege and a joy to call Chiang Mai, Thailand, my home for this chapter in my life.

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From hot and dry to soaking wet

Thais love their Public Holidays. Having been here for three months I have already enjoyed eight public holidays commemorating and celebrating all manner of significant occasions. I am in full support of the Thai people getting days off work, as their standard annual leave entitlement is six days a year and that is only after 12 successive months of employment.

The build up to Thai New Year, the grandest and most important Thai holidays, was filled with locals sharing exciting stories of crazy festival antics and celebrations that would explode all over Chiang Mai. Oddly to me, all accounts involved tales of water soakings, and not being able to walk down a street in Chiang Mai without being drenched by water! And New Year here is not about going a little wild for one night like we do on New Year’s Eve, this is going to last 4 – 6 days!!! What is this crazy celebration all about? Doesn’t sound like much fun to me – perhaps I will hibernate in my guesthouse by the pool or hit the shopping mall.

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The Grand Songkran Festival officially starts on April 13th and celebrates Thai New Year. The festival unites families in a tradition which includes the younger Thais paying respect to their elders by sprinkling their hands with scented water, and apologising for the wrongs that they have done. In response, the elders bless them by brushing their heads with the perfumed water. Our beautiful Urban Light staff members organised to conduct this traditional ceremony with our own elders (which I was invited to be, although I am not quite ready to be considered an elder, even though by age differences I may well be). It was so special to see our staff and some of our boys sit at the feet of our Director and one of our long-term volunteers in an act of respect and love.

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So how on earth did this translate into the craziness that was being described to me? I was about to discover. The custom of throwing water originates from another ritual of Songkran, which relates to cleaning images of Buddha with water, and using this ‘blessed’ water to soak people as a way of bringing good fortune to them. It also doesn’t hurt that April is the hottest part of the year in Thailand, and being soaked is possibly a refreshing escape for many from the heat and humidity. So just before our 5-day long weekend, the Urban Light team, equipped with water pistols, headed out to Thapae Gate, the entry to the Old City, to see what the pre-festival activities might be?

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It’s a couple of kilometres to the Old City, and as we approached the Gate on foot, there were more and more people using water pistols and squirting us. A nice little spray is quite refreshing.  This is okay! The streets had a festival feel with flags and bright colours everywhere; the anticipation of what was at Thapae Gate was mounting. A bucket of water is flung at us from out of a shop front, then trucks drive past and people in the back suddenly dump an entire large bin of water on us – there really is no escape and now I am soaked.

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Once at Thapae Gate I thought I had reached a western rave or music festival. There were stages set up with Dj’s playing loud thumping party music, hoses spraying water at the crowd, hundreds and hundreds of people dancing, jumping, screaming and hosing one another down with water pistols and hoses connected to water tanks on their backs. The craziest thing is you get used to being totally soaked from head to toe (and yes, it is a relief from the heat), but people have ice in their water and when you get hit by iced water it is COLD!!!!!… This is madness! “Shiver!!!”

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You end up looking shriveled like a prune, eye make-up in lines and smudged streaks down your face. All the tales of not being safe in any street were true, and the festival hadn’t even started yet. Just walking back to the Center on side streets was dangerous. I was grabbed by some man and taken over to a group who drowned me with 7 buckets of iced cold water. It really is FUN!!! Perhaps I won’t hibernate.

I wouldn’t have believed it could get any bigger until I went out amongst it the following day – the first official day of the festival. Crossing the quiet road from my guesthouse I observed trucks packed with people zooming past with endless supplies of water in tanks and drums on-board. Buckets of water being thrown over passers-by and motorists; no one in sight is safe. The streets are awash with water and with people. It’s like all occupants of the city step out onto the streets to smile, celebrate and engage in the absolute soggy madness that ensues.

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Down at the Old City, already saturated from head to toe, people are everywhere around the entire city, (which is already encircled by water in its moat, soon to be used for re-filling pistols and buckets), dancing around now multitudes of stages with different dance music blaring and conflicting with each other. There’s even the Coca-Cola stage with its foam party going OFF! This is HUGE!!!! You would think once you are soaked, people wouldn’t squirt or spray or slosh buckets of water on you anymore; not the case. Everyone is engaging with everyone else, and in such a positive high-energy, fun-loving, mischievous way. People are dressed in bright colourful clothing, some even in team t-shirts, and super-heroes can be seen floating between dance stages packing heavy-duty, water loaded guns the size of your leg.

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It is one big PART-AY that lasts 5-days, each day with the same vigour, vibrancy, energy and of course the most important ingredient – WATER!!! It’s the most fun I have ever had getting soaked, saturated, soggy, drenched, sopping-dripping-wringing wet. It’s a festival worthy of being seen to be believed, and a place where you can do nothing but grin and smile from ear to ear, even if your skin shrivels up and it becomes questionable what is in the water that is being thrown – who cares, this is FRENETIC CRAZY WILD FUN!!!

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Needless to say I didn’t hibernate or hit the shopping malls. I celebrated along with a city full of friends for a long week-end to be remembered forever, and perhaps even re-visited on annual trips to Thailand…

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From Exploited to Empowered

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I ask myself daily, “What on earth is a dynamic learning and organisational development professional doing volunteering in Chiang Mai, Thailand at a center for boys at-risk of exploitation and trafficking?”

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When it comes to performing work such as leadership development, team effectiveness, coaching and facilitation, organisational culture and climate, instructional design, performance management and talent management – I’m qualified and experienced with 21 years working in the corporate world.

I’m also perfectly comfortable in the corporate environment with people wearing slick business suits, going to back-to-back meetings, deciphering an in-box flooded with unread emails requiring attention, working tirelessly long days in an air-conditioned open plan office environment with rows and rows of desks and chairs, being surrounded by industrious hard-working people with their heads down being busy busy busy, conducting intelligent business chatter at the printer, craving morning and afternoon caffeine injections to fuel the day, taking phone calls, answering questions, doing this, doing that, work work work… ALL THIS I KNOW WELL!

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What I don’t know well is volunteering in a developing country, being confronted daily with issues of child slavery, trafficking and exploitation. In this environment I am neither qualified and experienced, nor even comfortable.

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My new working environment is the Urban Light Youth Center in Chiang Mai, Thailand, just blocks away from the red-light-district, on a small Soi off the bustling Night Bazaar, and 50 metres away from a Mosque. It is a four-storey un-air-conditioned hot box. The ground floor contains an open space for our daily lunch and training. A small kitchen containing a single sink and two electric hot plates is where our beautiful young housekeeper produces the most amazing daily meals. The second floor is the main hub for the boys with bean bags galore, games, computers, a TV and Playstation. The third floor is for the staff, with basic table and chairs for us to congregate around. We also have a newly furnished room for volunteers to be housed. Finally the fourth floor which includes an open outdoor rooftop area, is empty and awaiting a purpose and furnishing.

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My clients are a little different from those found in the corporate world. I am here to serve, love, support and empower young vulnerable boys aged between 8 – 20 years. They are unskilled and uneducated, some homeless and living on the streets, having been sent from their small rural villages to the city to make money to support their family. They often arrive at the Youth Center dirty and tired from an evening searching for a meal, finding a place to sleep, even striving to earn money, any way that they can. This could be selling flowers to tourists, wandering the streets looking for opportunities, and for many of them with no options and no choices, working in bars where they are sexually exploited by western ‘heterosexual’ middle-aged men, who pay them a few hundred baht to perform sexual acts. To me, they’re just young boys wanting to play like boys, be loved, accepted and helped out of the shackles of the slavery of exploitation.

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A day at the Urban Light Youth Center can present our small team of four staff, the director and a couple of volunteers, with moments of true joy, incredible frustrations, challenges never faced before and great sadness. Just in my short time here I have celebrated a few boys making excellent personal choices, showing initiative and securing themselves jobs and getting a permanent roof over their heads (for which we support them financially). I have felt the disappointment and sadness when a boy made a bad decision, stole some money, ran away for a couple of months, lived it up, then returned to the city and was arrested. He is now in an adult prison outside of the city.

We close our doors in the late afternoon and send our beautiful young boys in to a night of unknown temptations and aloneness, where boys are often forced to be men. And they wear the marks the following day when they arrive at the Center, with bruises or new hand-made tattoos on their young infant limbs. Then there’s the unique challenges of helping a boy who desperately wants to embark upon a different path by going back to school. This requires us to get proof of his identification and birth records, which means a long journey to his small poor rural home village, only to find that his parents couldn’t afford to pay to register him, so there is no record that he exists. We see tears, laughter, we see boys shutting the world out to protect themselves, we see aggression, we see friendships form, changes in behaviour develop … we look for brighter happier futures for them all.UL Boys working

Although the environment and my clients here are very different from anything I have ever been confronted by before, I have found a way to use my skills to help Urban Light in a period of significant transition. My overall purpose for the next 6 months is to help the Founder of Urban Light bring to life her vision for the future. Daily that translates into all manner of tasks from re-writing job descriptions, developing recruitment processes and conducting interviews for the new Thailand Director, coaching and mentoring the staff, being energetic and positive, reviewing policies and procedures, and all importantly having fun.

Amongst the hard work, the challenges, and the emotions, there is certainly a great deal of enjoyment. We eat together every day as a family and the food is always amazing, although I am a little scared of a few traditional northern Thai dishes, which do not have the blood from the meat excluded. We have afternoon excursions to the park, the local pool and the waterfall, even to the movies where I enjoyed my first Hollywood film all in Thai (Ewan McGregor is nowhere near as hot talking Thai as he is with his Scottish accent). We play board games and UNO, we bake yummy muffins and biscuits; even learn how to make jewellery.

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A few things that are the same for me here – the deep need and love for my morning and afternoon coffee (sometimes replaced by amazing Mango Smoothies for $1.00), the connection I have with this inspiring team of individuals that I work with daily, and the opportunity I have to just be me. I even break into song on a regular basis at work, and I’ve always done that in the corporate world! There’s even an occasional martini enjoyed after work on a Friday night…

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It’s a privilege to be here, to be accepted, needed and most importantly, to be able to help out a cause that for so long has tended to focus on girls, whilst boys have been neglected, yet are equally vulnerable of sexual exploitation. I just hope that I can truly add some value and make a difference while I am here…

If you would like to know more about the organisation Urban Light, or Love 146, an organisation I am visiting in Cambodia, or watch a video that features these two organisations talking about exploitation and child slavery check out below…

http://www.urban-light.org

http://love146.org

From Familiar to Foreign

As a proud ‘Melbney’ or ‘Sydbourne’ lady I have said good-bye for six months to all that I love about Australia’s two rival cities. Good-bye to my Melbourne, often described as “the brooding brunette”, with her arts and culture, intellect, laneways, quirky bars, coffee, black fashion and host to my beloved family and lifetime friends. Good-bye to my Sydney, often described as “the bubbly blonde”, with all the good looks, flirtatiousness, spirit, warmth, endless blue harbours, spectacular views and host to new friends who have welcomed me in to their lives.

Good-bye to all that is familiar and yummy about my home for 37 years … 

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… and hello to the foreign land of Chiang Mai, Thailand …

Chiang Mai is Thailand’s “Rose of the North,” a cultural and natural wonderland having weathered seven hundred years of history, to become the modern and cosmopolitan city it is today. The old city of Chiang Mai maintains its traditional charm, with its diverse dialects, delectable cuisine, distinctive architecture, traditional values, lively festivals, handicrafts, northern style massage and classical dances. Chiang Mai is also blessed with mountains, waterfalls, rivers and jungle.

But what did I see when I stepped off the plane? Not much! A cloud of grey murky haze, with poor visibility of anything beyond 100 metres. The thick burning heat wrapped its fat scorching arms around me and the taste of smoke scratched the back of my throat. I arrived just at the start of the smoky season in Chiang Mai when, every year, the city is clouded in smoke and ash from the slash-and-burn farming in the surrounding countryside. People everywhere were wearing masks to avoid the apparently hazardous levels of air pollution. All around me were sick people with various respiratory infections, eye irritations and allergies.

YAY – Welcome to Chiang Mai Marissa!!!

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The guest house I had selected from the worldwide web to be my home for the first chapter of my time here, featured a room with a ceiling closing in on me, filled with two single beds jammed together, over which you had to climb to get to the bathroom door. The room was situated above the busy and noisy communal eating area, and faced onto the small pool constantly occupied by scantily clad foreigners lounging and looking straight through my window. Needless to say I requested a move. Who would have thought that, down a pathway, round a corner, behind two buildings, there was a beautiful tropical courtyard with a two storey white building hosting spacious rooms?

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I have settled into my one room + bathroom (inclusive of private balcony and shared verandah), by nesting, displaying photos, cards, a pug calendar, some tasteful draping of colourful scarves, and burning candles. My main adjustments have been adapting to my rock hard firm bed (really I may as well sleep on the tiles), and replacing soft gentle sorbent toilet paper with a hose that at times sprays so hard it’s like an industrial strength pressure hose. “Down there” does not require a spray hard enough to blow mould off an outdoor ceramic tile!! Then there’s the unwanted house guests; from flying silent, but deadly mosquitos; to teeny tiny ant armies building their home in my bathroom; to the jing jok gecko with his special suction cup feet allowing him to run up and down my walls and on the ceiling whilst making loud clicking noises. Lucky I’ve got the bigger room now, to allow for all of us to live together so easily!

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I love the care they take in housekeeping, and being their longest staying guest, they have the unique challenge of a new towel fold each day – here are some of my highlights.

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After enjoying long fast-paced walks back home in Sydney along flat concrete pathways between well-manicured lawns or bushland, often with panoramic harbour views, walking here is a hazard worthy of protective clothing, knee and elbow pads, a helmet and a whistle for getting attention upon crashing. With uneven broken slabs of haphazard concrete acting as footpaths, one must not take in the interesting surrounds or smile back at happy passers-by; instead one must keep one’s head down, focussed on each foot deliberately placed  upon what looks like the most secure footing. Then there are the roads to navigate, with the one-way streets, zig-zagging vehicles including cars, trucks, Tuk-Tuks, and hundreds of motorbikes, all ignoring lines on the road and the traffic lights. And who knows what the brightly coloured road signs say? Crossing roads is a feat of faith, as there are no pedestrian crossings. With a constant stream of on-coming traffic, you step out as though you have Superman strength, so if a vehicle chooses not to slow down or stop for you to cross, it will concertina on impact with your invincible strength. That’s the faith and courage and strength one must have to cross roads over here, and don’t forget to look both ways, even on one-way streets (take it from one who courageously stepped out in front of the onslaught of traffic, and was narrowly missed by a motorbike speeding down a one-way street in the wrong direction)!

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Using local transport is definitely the preferred mode of getting around. Whether that be jumping in a Tuk-Tuk  (basically a stretched motorbike with three wheels and a bench seat), that’s smelly, noisy and often fangs around like it is a speedy motorbike. Or a Songthaew, a red covered pick-up truck with two bench seats in the back. You can pile in along with another 10 people, all crammed together, all going different places on a route determined by the driver. Expensive and complicated mykis, ferries and trams are a distant memory, as prices get negotiated with each driver. Or my favourite transport, being on the back of a motorbike with a mate, helmet safely secured on my head, tearing about town between rows of cars, trucks and traffic, with the 40 degree fan-forced oven breeze and stinky fumes blowing freely in my face. “I’m the king of the world….”.

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The relentless heat here is sweltering around the harsh high 30s day and night. It makes for a very lethargic and relaxed pace of life. Slowing down is necessary here, in part because of the blistering heat, also to fit in with the smiling locals who have a laid-back, gentle, easy-going, fun-loving approach to life. What definitely agrees with me is their inherent sense of playfulness and fun.

There are also many comforts found all over …

  • A quality daily latte at my local café and enjoying the discovery of an emerging coffee culture throughout Chiang Mai, and some local friends who know where to find it.

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  • A local market that sells delicious fresh fruit, bright flowers and Thai dishes for a few bucks.
  • The relief of stepping into a building that has icy cold air-conditioning blasting the sweat on your body into small tiny icicles.
  • The friendly wide-smile greetings of locals “Saw-wat-dee Ka/Krap” as you walk past them, or the toot of a Tuk-Tuk driver as he flies past hoping you will signal for him to stop.
  • Finding more and more amazing places to indulge in tasting delicious food in creatively decorated spaces.

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  • My tenacious hunt for the perfect mojito.
  • The plethora of markets, quirky shops, shoes, accessories and handbags for sale everywhere I turn.

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  • New friendships forming with people from a multitude of backgrounds and nationalities, with inspiring personal stories of what has brought them here, many sharing a passion and interest in loving and caring for those less privileged than we are.

What seems foreign one day becomes familiar with an attitude of openness, responsiveness and willingness to take delight in the unusual, the challenging, the confronting, the different and by throwing oneself into the surroundings of a new home. If only for a short time, it’s going to be a good time!!!