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Friday, October 28, 2011

Flooding

More than 1/3 of Thailand is underwater now.  The monsoon season that is now tapering has dumped more rain over the central plains than has been seen in the past 35 years.  Central Thailand has been affected with severe flooding for several weeks, devastating millions of acres of rice and forcing evacuation of several areas.  One person with whom I work said his wife's family was just about to harvest their rice fields when the waters rose, destroying their entire crop.  The livelihoods of many people are in jeopardy.

The waters are draining slowly to the sea by route of three large rivers that all make their way to the heart of the country, Bangkok, before exiting into the Gulf of Thailand.  You may have heard the news that Bangkok is now experiencing flooding, and it is expected to worsen tonight and tomorrow as parts of the city are being evacuated, though even some emergency shelters have been forced to close because they too are underwater.  The shelves of every market are bare as people stock up on food and water to outlast the flood conditions that, if the levees do not hold the waters back, are expected to take up residence in the city for up to one month or more.

Though I am thankful to be dry here in elevated Chiang Rai, please pray for Thailand and for the Thai people who are acutely suffering and will continue to suffer after the floods reside.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

This Isn't The Movies


Today I had an appointment at the U.S. Consulate to begin the process to renew my passport.  As they only take appointments two days a week to serve every American in the northern half of Thailand, I set my date several weeks ago since I knew I was making the three-hour trip this week anyway.

In truth, I've been looking forward to this day.  To be on "U.S. soil" even here in Thailand; to step into a zone where I am no longer the foreigner, but the citizen.  Just for a bit.  

I guess I imagined it like the movies - where a crisp American flag billows out front and that navy blue passport emblazoned with the gold bald eagle is the key to open up a secret members-only world.  Where not only would those who are on the inside with me understand English, but they would understand my ups and downs as an American living in Thailand as we shared a cup of tea.  Where I could be reminded of apple pie and Thanksgiving and pumpkin spice.

Well, today was nothing short of an American experience.   Although there was no American flag out front, the dark little entrance was flanked by two Thai guards and quite a lot of bullet-proof glass.  Upon admittance to the first room, I passed through a metal detector, and my purse and paperwork were not only x-rayed, but sifted through as well.  Among the confiscated contraban was my Kindle, a mini-flashlight keychain that incarcerated all my keys by association, my cell phone, gum, chapstick, and my nametag from the conference I am attending. 

Once relieved of these dangerous items in exchange for a laminated card which assured me I would have them returned to me upon my exit, I was curtly waved through a heavy door into a breezeway where a sign instructed me to proceed through another heavy door and directly to Window 1.  More bullet-proof glass and the little dip in the counter like at the bank to slide things through to the other side of the window.  If I had been a green man-eating shark, they wouldn’t have cared less on the other side of the glass so long as I slid them the confirmation number for my appointment and my application for passport renewal. 

After a minute or two, a red stamp was applied to my application and I was told to proceed to Window 2.  One small step to the right, more glass, another counter dip.  The lady at Window 2 collected $110 from me and told me to go back out and wait at the white chairs in the breezeway until they called my name. 

A Thai TV station was airing an English travel show about Mauritania and also the Dow Jones numbers which were down.  Three Thai people were sitting a few seats away, talking in a dialect I couldn’t understand.  Over the loudspeaker, a name was called, and two of the three rose and rushed inside.  They were back out in just a few seconds with new paperwork to fill out to obtain a U.S. visa; apparently they hadn’t done it right the first time.

Finally my name was called and I proceeded to Window 3.  I was returned my old passport along with a slip of paper which I was instructed to bring back in order to retrieve my new passport in 1 to 2 weeks.  I found my way to the exit and once I was back out on the street, I found another window with a dip in the counter through which I exchanged my laminated card for my personal belongings, slid through the dip, one at a time.

Though it wasn’t the American experience I was expecting, it was American all the same: needing safety, trusting no one, and valuing efficiency over relationship.  It was a good wake-up call for me to remember that each culture comes with the good and the bad, and that if even my expectations of my own culture can be skewed, how much more I need to check my expectations of Thai culture. 

For now, I’m happy to be back out in Thailand, wreaking havoc in the streets with my chapstick and my nametag.