BKK (Re)Start

In the past when blogging for the first time after a long absence I’ve rather unwisely said that this time it would be different.  I’d do better, be more reliable, more dedicated.  This time I wouldn’t allow the prolonged lapses to pile up.

But I’m wiser to my own ways now. I’m not going to make any proclamations or promises here. I know that this very likely could be the last time this apace sees fresh writing until 2015 or beyond. However, if it really is the start of something more regular, I wouldn’t mind if this little piece of reverse psychology was the trick that got me on the right track.

So where to begin? I’m back in Thailand a place where for the past twelve years I always seem to find my way back to. Unlike my last arrival, when I knew I’d be working as a Fulbright Fellow for the coming year, my future is a comparatively blank slate. In a way that’s exciting. The beginning of the rest of my life is just sitting here, literally at my fingertips as I write these words. Everything I’ve done in the past has in some way, large or small, led to me being here with all of the opportunities sitting before me.

If I were to begin writing more regularly, I’m not sure what the bulk of my ramblings would be composed of.  It could be related to my ongoing job search, my random encounters and observations on life in Bangkok, or perhaps something more esoteric? Here’s to hoping whatever there is, there is at least something.



A Bus and a Meeting

Our daily work and the ethic behind it, the things we strive to improve on, or teach, or sell, or care for in some way can usually be tied to the daily occurrences in our lives in a not too circuitous manner.  Rarely, however, can you be impacted by something on your commute to work and literally within an hours time, be sitting in a meeting with the people who have the power to potentially remedy the exact problem that just had a direct impact on your life. Let me explain further.

Two days ago, at 8:30 am and roughly 30 minutes into my multi-modal hour long commute to the Ministry of Transport, I was standing under the PhayaThai BTS rail station waiting for bus #59 to carry me the final 15 minutes to my office. I had my typical work outfit of dress pants and long sleeved dress shirt on (clothing that I accept because it makes me look professional and most definitely not a tourist, but which I loathe at a purely biological/climate/sweat level) and as the minutes ticked by I could feel my internal temperature both mentally and physically continuing to rise.  Bangkok’s multitude of public buses, and there are literally tens of thousands of them, are amazing in the breadth of the city that they cover at low cost, typically no more than US .30 cents per ride.  This being said the bus system has its fair share of downsides as well, one of the chief complaints being its unreliability.  Even after living in one part of the city for many months, observing and riding the different lines, and trying to make a notation each day of when the bus arrived and how long I waited, it is almost impossible to find a predictable pattern of when the bus will come.  This may seem like a relatively minor issue but planning your morning commute without knowing if that bus you are relying on will force you to wait for 5 minutes or 45 minutes makes getting to work on time and knowing what time you need to walk out your door almost impossible.

This being said, I was hot, sweaty, and about 20 minutes into my wait for the bus when upon a scan of traffic I suddenly caught a flash of the creamy orange bus screaming by in the far opposite lane of traffic, with obviously no intention to stop and offer its services!! I waved my left arm frantically in a feeble attempt to get the drivers attention but he was almost directly across from my at this point and within milliseconds it was clear my wait had been for naught.

I usually am quite apt at maintaining a cool heart, or “jai yen” as the Thais call it, but I was angry and stamped down the street seething at a bus system where the drivers could decide to stop or not stop on a whim, not to mention the complaints lodged in the previous paragraphs. Thankfully there are many alternate routes to my office and I walked the required 10 minutes to a different bus stop servicing a wider-range of routes and within a few minutes hopped on board one that allowed me to arrive to work only 25 minutes late.

I plopped down in my chair, booted up my computer, and basked in the cold air of my office when not 2 minutes later my boss knocked on the door and hurried me off to a meeting of unknown contents. I followed him down a long corridor and down a flight of stairs to one of the many meeting rooms scattered throughout the ministry.  I took a seat, looked up at the large screen, and as I studied the introductory slide of the power point presentation, all I could do was smile.  The arm of the Ministry of Transportation responsible for all of Bangkok’s bus operations the BMTA was giving an introductory presentation to the newly arrived permanent secretary!  Here, seated across the table from me, were the men and women who controlled and shaped the Bus system that I, along with millions of others, had been at the mercy of a matter of minutes ago. I shook my head to myself, sat back, and listened to the bureaucrats talk Bangkok buses for the next 90 minutes.  I’m not under the illusion that the BMTA is responsible for all its rogue drivers, shoddy buses, or that the contents of that meeting will help remedy my complaints.  But I do consider myself to be truly lucky to be working in a place where I can see even a glimmer of hope that things decided in the rooms of this building can in some way positively impact the lives of the people in this city.

A Pinch of Luck

With co-workers at a conference in Phuket, Southern Thailand.

As I feel my way through the first weeks at my new post here, it is difficult to know if some of the work patterns I’m observing are typical Ministry routine or just happen to be coinciding with my time here but one trend that does seem to keep popping up is work trips attending seminars and conferences in all different regions of Thailand.  As mentioned in a previous post, I flew down to Phuket, in the south of Thailand, for a brief 1 night trip last week and this week I will be flying to a different city in the south by the name of Nakhon Si Thammarat for a similar length trip.

It appears as if I don’t have any real responsibilities during these trips, other than helping out where needed, attending any necessary meetings related to the conference, and in general gaining some interesting experiences while visiting some parts of the country I haven’t managed to pass through in the past.  Next week I’m scheduled to actually make two more such trips to the cities of Chonburi and Korat, though these are much closer to Bangkok and won’t involve a flight but instead short drives of 1-3 hours.  Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that a job with the Ministry of Transport involves a lot of travel!

In short, I’m extremely lucky to have these opportunities and its once again giving me a chance to pinch myself when I realize that I’m actually being paid to be flown around Thailand to learn about important issues that are shaping the future of a country I love.

On Language

I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to refer to myself as a fully functioning adult, and therefore I do not come across many situations that have the power to transport myself back to the disoriented state of the young child, grasping for meaning in a big, frightening, and confusing world. This fundamental assertion, however, is scrambled irrecoverably when the daily use of a second language is introduced.  As my weeks working inside a foreign government progress, my language limitations become more apparent (at least to myself) every single day.

Perhaps more than anything, fumbling through a second language allows me to more fully grasp what an incredibly powerful tool your mother tongue can be. The ease at which the millions of different permutations of words, clauses, desires, and fears can spill from my brain and into the abyss of blog readers eyes, strangers ears, and policy report folders is miraculous.  Just the simple joy of reading becomes this spectacularly wonderful gift, the way my eyes can blaze over entire paragraphs in a matter of seconds, it becomes this super-human power when I compare it to my reading speed when slogging through what is probably about a 5th grade level Thai language text.  It is only through this sort of reflection that I can begin to grasp how powerful the supercomputer is that we have strapped on our shoulders and have the privledge to use each and every day!

I sometimes read things in Thai on public transit or other conspicuous locales, and the not too modest thought occasionally will pop into my head that I hope people will notice that I’m actually reading something in Thai and not English!  Aren’t you impressed?  Unfortunately, the prideful pat on the back I want to receive for this accomplishment usually takes a quick turn towards embarrassment when I hope it hasn’t become too obvious that I have been stuck on the same page for the last five minutes!

I guess I’m writing this today because I’m feeling quite angst-ridden about how limiting my language skills might prove to be for my next year on the job here.  I’m doing my best to stay positive and try to think of ways I can contribute despite the linguistic hurdles, but some days the words just flow more freely than others.

Fear and the Opposite of Loathing in Bangkok (Part 2)

One of Bangkok’s many graffiti filled bus stop signs.

My previous post was designed to be left as some sort of half-baked cliff-hanger but really it wasn’t that surprising to walk through the door of unknowns and find out that things weren’t that scary on the other side. Throughout the first day I was flooded with introductions to new names and faces, and perhaps the hardest part was trying to assign the correct thai nickname to face as I was literally introduced to dozens of people over the first several days.

The first weeks have been a bit of a blur as I’ve gradually settled into my new routine at the Ministry of Transport.  I have my own desk and computer in a sub-office of 6-7 people working on transportation policy and research issues. I don’t have any real assignments as of yet, I’ve mainly been tagging along to meetings throughout the ministry and reading some annual reports and policy documents to get up to speed on what is happening here.

On a somewhat deeper level, I find myself periodically pinching myself, still somewhat shocked that I actually am working inside of a Thai government ministry and being given access to all these high reaches of Thai socio-politcal society that ten years ago I never dreamed I would be privy to. Last week alone I attended a high-level meeting between the Ministry of Transport and the Thai Securities and Exchange Commission discussing infrastructure financing throughout the country and last Thur-Fri I traveled to a one day conference on transport/infrastructure projects in Southern Thailand in Phuket.  I was even captured in a photo from a Thai newspaper for this event, marking my first ever appearance in the Thai media!

Much more has happened as well, including a rare public speaking opportunity to share some of my master’s thesis findings with a broader audience, but I will leave that for the next post.

Fear and the Opposite of Loathing in Bangkok (Part 1)

My New Home

Fear, in all of its different iterations can be an incredibly powerful emotion.  What precise flavor of fear I was tasting as I stepped off the canal boat and slowly walked the long city block to my new workplace is unclear, but I could taste it, it was present and gripping me in all its usual ways.  This fear was something that any introvert is familiar with.  It is the fear of the unknown, the yet to be established social setting, the unfamilar faces and names to come and so many other things that makes someone like myself so susceptible to its powerful grip.  You can then take all of these things that typically contribute to the baseline fear level in a social introvert and multiply then innumerably when you are dropped into the setting I was about to enter.  A stranger, coming from a country on a different side of the globe, with a perhaps incomplete set of language and professional skills was plodding up the steps of a foreign government’s Ministry of Transport, ready to report to an unknown desk and supervisor.

Thankfully, I had a lot of things on my side that I could use to combat that sickening taste of fear. Though it is true that I was a cultural stranger by appearances, a 100% Farang (foreign person in Thai), I’ve managed over the previous ten years to pick up on more than a few of the requisite social norms and cues that can help soften what for most anyone would be a frightening drop into a new workplace. Also working on my side is the general lack of foreigners who can speak more than a few words of the most basic Thai.  I always have to remember that with the exception of my own Thai language teacher or a few of my closest friends, my Thai language skills, as futile as I sometimes feel they are, will inevitably wow the typical Thai person, particularly during an intial interaction. Combine all of this with the default overwhelmingly friendly Thai disposition, and you can see that I actually did have quite a few things going for me as I took a few deep breaths and opened the door to the permanent secretary’s office and tenatively peaked inside.  To be continued…

Canal Contemplation

It’s a tired tourist brochure cliché but people like to say that Bangkok was once the Venice of the East, replete with canals that crisscrossed the city, providing sustenance for the Central Thai rice bowl before eventually draining into the mouth of the Gulf of Thailand.  Many of these canals are now paved over or at least downgraded to objects that appear to be closer to drainage ditches rather than proper urban waterways.  But I’m here to argue that the demise of the Bangkok canal is somewhat overstated.  Hop on a random bus or taxi going almost anywhere in the city and chances are that you can’t travel more than a kilometer or two before cresting a small bridge that crosses a canal.  If you are traveling on a non-AC bus and reading a book, it might be your nose that gives the only clue to as to the close proximity of a canal, and often bringing your nose from your book to the direction of the window allows only a passing glimpse of the small waterways.

A Typical Bangok Canal

Not surprisingly, land along a smelly canal full of black water does not exactly qualify as prime real estate.  As a result, those who live alongside the many canals of the capital are inevitably poor.  With the exception of some of the larger, better maintained canals, you will usually find corrugated aluminum type shacks lining the raised banks of most of the smaller canals.

Just yesterday while on a run, I came across one of these neighborhoods.  I recently moved to a different apartment, about 4km from my previous place, and this week has been full of exploratory runs as I scout out potential new running territory.  While scrolling through google maps I noticed a dark black line tracing through a neighborhood about a kilometer south of my apartment.  The line plotted a consistent course through the neighborhood ranging from east to west and it was only after zooming in a few levels that I realized it wasn’t a road but a very narrow canal.  I knew immediately that my run that evening would take me along this canal, as Bangkok canals, despite presenting a few unique obstacles, pass for “ideal” running spots in a city that is decidedly runner-unfriendly.

This new discovery didn’t disappoint.  Most of my previous canal running experience in Bangkok has fallen on the broad shoulders of the Saen Saep canal, one of the few canals in the city that still supports a working passenger boat service, and has even served as an inspiration for world premiere as a stage writer!  The Saen Saep is easily 50 meters wide at points and it feels like a more substantial flow of water.  The canal I ran on yesterday (which I have yet to find a name for) was much smaller, usually only 5-10 meters across.  A small path, slightly narrower than a standard suburban sidewalk, hugged the rim of the canal while a broad canopy generously shaded me from the last hour of sunlight.  The temps were the same as they are for every one of my runs in Bangkok, 90 degrees with a dew point hovering between 70 to 75.

It turned out to be an immensely enjoyable run.  At times I felt as if I was literally running thru peoples living rooms or at least front porches, because of they way they have informally expanded their houses to sit on stilts extending over the canal.  A small roof, inevitably less than 6 feet tall, will connect the mainland portion with the canal side extension forcing me to dodge people transiting different parts of their house while hunched over in an attempt to avoid any serious damage to my head.  Additional obstacles include cats and dogs lazily sleeping on the path and uneven cracks in the sidewalk that force me to clip and lengthen my stride when appropriate.

I have no doubt that I am a strange sight to anyone who suddenly has their cozy canal path invaded by this tall and goofy looking farang.  But I never get a feeling of animosity from anyone, usually any looks I receive are of indifference or curiosity.  I plod alongside the canal and I almost forget that I sweating through the middle of a huge metropolis of 10 million people.  Along the canal, everything feels older, slower, and peaceful.  I don’t want to slide into a flow of nostalgia here, but it is a slice of what I imagine a lot more of Bangkok looked like only 20 or 30 years ago.