My Southeast Asia Trip Part 3 (and I’m still existing on rice)!

Hey everyone! Guess what? I didn’t have any rice this week! You know that of course I’m lying. Of course I had rice. But to be honest, I did get something different. We made fries from pumpkins and potatoes, and had them with Heinz’s 58th variety, Thai ketchup. It was amazingly greasy. Pumpkin fries in a wok? They were delicious, but it could be because I’ve had only rice for the past 4 weeks. Anyhow, from the emails and notes I got regarding my last email, it seems as if I must tone it down this week. I think a few of you took me a little too seriously! Of course I’m writing about my experiences here, but I want it to be clear that I’m not complaining so much as trying to make my time here sound as awesome as it is, and just as interesting and entertaining for the reader. I’m having a really great experience and want to tell my stories to you all, so please enjoy.

As usual, the internet is in short supply. I’ve decided to go a different route this week. Many of you have written in, so this week I’ve done my best to answer reader questions. Let’s start with this popular one I received all the way from Guam!

Q: Coop, could you go into more detail about what you actually eat with the rice? You said you ate various vegetables and rice. What are they? How are they cooked? Is it tasty? Typical of Thai food? Do you ever find any…foreign ingredients in it?
-your friend, Guam

A: Ah, good question, Guam. What we eat are usually vegetables that are either completely different here, or not even seen in America. Even if it’s a similar vegetable variety, it’s usually cooked in a different way from how we Americans would cook it. But if you ate here, you’d realize that everything starts to taste much the same. So we’re given a portion of freshly cooked rice in the morning, cold rice for lunch, and fresh rice for dinner. The vegetable might be cabbage, or baby cabbage, or an Asian lettuce, or some weird, ridged, long, green veggie, or mini white eggplants, or green leaves, or bamboo. But almost everything is prepared in the same way. A bit of oil goes in a wok over the fire, small garlic chunks are added (with skins), and then the cut vegetable is added. Mysterious seasonings are sprinkled on. These might include salt, or pork seasoning, or various viscous liquids. Then water is added and the thing is covered. It cooks for a while, and this makes everything the consistency of something that’s been stewed or simmered for a long time. It’s a veggie in a bowl of seasoned water/borderline soup. If you recall Arrested Development’s hot ham water, well…I think this is probably very similar.
The cooking is not typical of Thai food, but is my tribe’s food. It’s very simple to make, and when I cooked one time, they were shocked I could do it. Seriously? It’s oil, garlic, the veggie, seasoning, and water. Pretty simple. It’s tasty the first time. As for the foreign ingredients part of the question…there are so many things and creatures that are in the food that we’re not even going to go into it.

Q: I heard your multiple comments about a lack of toilet paper. I also heard that you have a 1-year-old baby in your household, so I’m curious. Diapers…?
-Terri Fyedbutt Coorious

A: They don’t do diapers.

Q: Yo dawg, you know me, I’m a party animal, and while I know you’re lame and don’t do that stuff, I still figured you’d know the party scene. I have a 3-part question. First, what’s the night scene like?
-awesome dude in kolej

A: Ah, terrific question. We finish eating at 7PM. Kids do homework or go to temple, or play with the limited number of toys. Parents and grandparents talk and smoke their ginormous pipes. Friends sometimes visit. There are also chores, such as getting water, washing dishes, or sweeping, though they tend to enjoy sweeping most when we have the open bowls of food lying on the ground so that the dirt and partial creature particles can gently float into my meal. Sometimes I go to my pal’s home (the English teacher I made friends with here) where we’ll talk and eat bizarre dishes, such as passion fruit, fish sauce, and red pepper. Or instant noodles (YES! Ate that twice.) with lemon, red pepper flakes, chilis, and cabbage. Or lemon with red pepper and salt. Sometimes I’ll crochet or read. That’s the usual evening.

Q2: And the street scene? Loud and crazy? Hot chicks?

A2: Lots of pigs roam the streets. And piglets. And chickens, homeless dogs, the
occasional crab or water buffalo, cows… Motorbikes frequently pass by, as does the
occasional pregnant woman.

Q3: Lastly, I need a great hangover food. I often party hard, and I expect

I’d party harder over there. What do you recommend for a
great hangover brunch?

A3: Rice.

Q: What’s the most dangerous thing you’ve done so far?
-your mother doesn’t want to know the answer to this question

A: Seriously, it’s a pretty safe place with the exception of the motorcycle riding. It’s what you have to do to get from point A to point B. There’s nothing I can do about it, so please don’t yell at me. But to answer your question, the most dangerous thing thus far has actually been the farming, no joke. On my family’s farm, for example, we had a ride there where I had to entrust my life to a 15-year-old, walk for a long time, and start farming only to hear the father yell. Three people and translations later, I found out it was because a colorful snake had bitten him. Poisonous? Naturally. So he motored back with one hand and was driven to the “hospital” an hour away. He had to stay overnight because his arm was so swollen. As for myself, I discovered that rice farming is in fact almost back-breaking work. I knew it was hard and thankless, but I learned that the taller you are, the harder it is. You can’t duck below the grass, so you have to stoop in a most uncomfortable way, and the blades of grass, weeds, and bugs really get at you when you’re down under the canopy of rice. That stuff is big. I am now a master with a curved machete. I also got two more leeches, cuts that kept bleeding, etc. The mom got a machete cut on her thumb following week. You also work on super steep mountains that you can easily slide down, etc. It ain’t exactly safe.

Q: You still haven’t told me what you’re doing there.

A: Technically this isn’t a question.

Q: Could you just answer her bloody question?
-Everyone else

A: Wait, how did you—

Q: Please?
-Don’t push it

A: Ok, well, it’s a long answer that I can explain better in person, but basically I knew I always wanted an adventure, and I was always interested in Southeast Asia. After living in NYC for a while and becoming frustrated with many things, I decided that now was a terrific time for a volunteer and travel adventure. And why not do it all by myself? That’s often my favorite way to explore. Since I knew I wanted to volunteer and work with my hands, but not pay to help others (which just ain’t right!), I had to research opportunities for months. I found some small sites that would exchange work for living and food, so I contacted many places and set something up. Eventually I decided where to go, how long to go, and what to do. Well, I’m still in the midst of deciding that, but I have a rough idea. I found a woman who would bring me up to the hilltribe village I’m in now. Cities across the world may be different, but in the end they’ve still got many similar characteristics and features. Also, true need occurs in rural areas where there is less funding and fewer resources. So to make long story short, I’m volunteering and traveling across Southeast Asia, and the biggest portion (this hilltribe volunteering) is almost over. It’s been amazing living somewhere else, and I feel completely at home here. After this (and I leave next week!), I’m heading to Malaysia for a bit of travel, then to volunteer there. After that, more traveling and possible volunteering. I love to help, and there are ways to do that in truly amazing places. I hope to bring everything I learn and see back to the U.S. with me so that I have new perspectives. Why wait until I’m old to travel and have an adventure? The time for me to explore is now, and that’s exactly what I’m doing.

If you want the long story of why I came, feel free to ask and I’ll tell ya.

Q: Do you ever wake up and still think you’re back at home in the States?
-Ignorant in Iowa

A: Oh, totally. I mean, often at home I’ll wake up, brush some ants off myself, see mountains out the windowless window, have rice for breakfast around a fire with people who don’t speak my language, and go to the bathroom in a porcelain hole with the opportunity to pet a pale greenish-pink lizard. Not that I have.

Q: Why don’t you just wash yourself in bleach when you arrive home?
-The Mystified Morristown Monk

A: I very much appreciate the suggestion, but it wouldn’t clean me and would only make me more pale. Besides, Michael Jackson did that and look what happened to him. Ummm…too soon?

Q: Ok, miss complainer. If you have such trouble communicating with your village folk, then why didn’t you study Thai before leaving?
-Smart Alec

A: Ok, thank you for that. Here’s the deal. First, I’m traveling to at least four countries, so getting good at any of ‘em would be hard. Like many languages, Thai is both regional and often incorrect in phrasebooks. The language books work for Bangkok and most surrounding and Southern provinces. Up here in the NW near Burma, it’s slightly different, but enough to mess up even “yes” and “no.” The writing is all crunched together and made up of loopy lines. It’s not the “nam pla” or “pad thai” English-ized Thai language that we struggle with in restaurants. It’s a completely different alphabet, just like Japanese. The main thing, however, is that they rarely speak Thai here! In fact, it’s the secondary language. There are about eight hilltribes in Thailand (who live in mountains, not hills), and each has their own distinct language. I live in a Lawa hilltribe. Not only are there no phrasebooks for my hilltribe, the Lawa language itself is different across northern Thailand! We’re not talking accents or slight differences; we’re talking about pretty much completely different words. The kids don’t even learn Thai until they’re about 6.
All of this is a tremendous excuse to make up for the fact that I’m terrible at learning languages and have very few words and phrases under my belt. But I get around.

Q: Could you please provide us with some cool facts of the week?
-someone wondering if the P.E. teacher is still a chub.

A: I’ll do you one better:

Sad or awesome factoids of the week. You decide:
-During free time, the kids like to play with mini machetes.
-One person in my family of seven has ever been to a supermarket.
-Cabbage is the cash crop.
-The mom enjoys trying to make English jokes with me, and upon doing so, enjoys even more giving me a good, friendly punch to my arm or leg. This has caused me to bruise more than once.
-All of the following English phrases I’ve seen on notebooks and folders:
“Open Funny for friend”
“I’ve never care what tomorrow comes I’ve care just only today that have you.”
“ The most manifest sign of wisdom is continuing cheerfulness./Happyness collection
“Blessings are not counted in gold of dividends, but bythe love we share with
family and friends” (almost touching)
“be happy.. I want you to feel relax as we become friends/Sweeten memos”
“Hello! Catty/Heaven and earth to be together forever with you.”
“So sometime I let you be/Sometimes you let me be/I remember reading a book saying/Whenever you’re in dire strait/of your relationship/If one of them dare to move/back astep/And that would mak the two/go on moving”
-Nothing was mistyped in the above factoids

Q: What’s the deal with electricity? And the internet?

A: Even though I’m in a third world country, it’s not as bad as you think. It’s actually a bizarre mix of sub-colonial times and some of the modern world.
There are motorcycles, but the worst roads I’ve ever seen. Some of them are beautifully paved, and then 5 km. along you’ll reach a patch so bad that it’s dangerous to go through the muddy muck. There are ravines dropping right down one side of the road, and jungles going steeply up the other. And traffic congestion in the way of cows and water buffalo. If you’re sitting in the bed of a truck, the mud gets so deep that you can hang your arm over the side and touch it. Wheel alignment is frequently needed I’d guess.
There is electricity, but my family HATES when I have the light on, so much that they’ll ask me to move outside where there’s natural light. If I leave to go to the bathroom, it’s off when I come back. To save money on electricity? I suspect they don’t personally pay it. Besides, the tv is ALWAYS on. What, is tv that much cheaper to pay for? I don’t get it.
There is a mouse-infested “kitchen” where you cook by fire only. When the food cools down, it’s cold forever.
There are luxury bathroom holes for the teachers at the school, but the kids go in the woods. It sort of makes me sad.
As far as the internet goes, well, that’s why I’m rarely on here. I’m actually impressed that the power lines go all the way up here. The fact that internet is here shocks me. I have to borrow my pal’s laptop when he’s not using it, which is very rare, and there’s no guarantee even then that it will work. It’s pretty spotty and often cuts out in

Q: Could you give me an example of a conversation you might have in your home? I’m trying to understand just how much English they know.

A: I can definitely give an example. Janjira, my little sis and the best English speaking student in the village, was talking with me about science yesterday. Here’s what I remember:

Janjira: I be surprised if somebody came up with a scheme for substructure that worked. It would be based on some evidence, but as far as I know right now there isn’t any. You be surprised, would you yes? There are parallels between the leptons and the quarks: very, very strong parallels. Three families in both cases. So it seems likely that if the quarks were someday we, I mean I, no, proved composite, so would be the electron, the neutrino. And there’s certainly yes not evidence for that. So far nothing has pointed in that direction of bistr-no, um, sorry, another layer of constituents underlying the quarks. Nothing points to that. But you can’t rule it out completely, of course. Kat-er-een, you and I know that the present theory, the standard model, is a low-energy approximation of some kind to a future theory, and who knows what will happen with a future theory? But at the moment nothing seems to point to composite quarks or composite leptons.

me: Do you still believe superstring theory is likely to be a profitable approach to making progress in particle physics?

Janjira: It’s promising, yes no? I think yes, it promising, for the same reason. My class not to work on string theory itself, but though I did play a role in the prehistory of string theory. Primary it was thought that string theory and superstring theory might lead to the correct theory of hadrons, strongly interacting particles. Particles that are connected in some way with the nuclear force. But there was a serious problem there, because superstring theory predicted a particle with zero mass, zero rest mass if you want to call it that, and spin 2, a spin of 2 quantum units. Well, it happens to that no such hadron was known and it was pretty clear that there was no good way to fit it in. But then the suggestion was made in our group, and maybe elsewhere as well, that we’d been looking at the theory wrong — it was actually a theory of all the particles and all the forces of nature.

me: But that meant changing the coupling strengths from a strong coupling to the extremely weak coupling of gravity, right?

Janjira: Well yes so to that it meant a factor of 1038 in the scale of my, I mean not my [giggles] theory. The natural scale of the theory had to be altered by a factor of 1038. That’s a very considerable change, you think yes? But doing that, we could interpret the particle of spin 2 and mass zero — it was the graviton, it was the quantum of gravitation, required if we go to having a gravity theory, for example Einstein’s gravity theory, which is the best one so far, and quantum mechanics. So the whole theory was reoriented then, toward being connected at least, with the long-sought unified theory of all the particles and all the forces. Once you or me find the principle, theory is not that far behind. And that principle is in some case a symmetry principle always.

Q: What’s the coolest thing you’ve done so far?
-your boss, if you had one

A: Ah, good one. Well, I think I’m most thrilled when I get to take walks and explore. I took a walk the other day to the nearest village (4km away). It was up and down quite a few “hills” and I’m pretty sure that no white person had ever visited their village. Most people had seen a white person before, but some of the young kids and elders hadn’t, I believe. People literally stopped mid-movement and just stared in shock. Kids stopped playing, people stopped chopping wood…teens drove by and yelled friendly greetings. The walk was wonderful. I know people think I’m crazy, but there’s nothing like exploring on your own. I felt pretty safe, too. I was still near my home turf. I could just stop, look at the most incredible scenery around me, and smile. There was the most gorgeous landscape of rice patties I’ve seen yet, impossibly green and going on and on in waves across the fields, with the mountains as a backdrop. I ate wild passion fruit growing on the side of the road. I saw the most beautiful spiders and bugs in my life. I saw the clouds coming over the mountains looking ominous, but just gently rolling in as dusk set in. I saw the sun set over my village. It was all amazing, and it was just a walk.

Ok people, that’s all for now. I must get going. Big adventure today! Thank you to all who have written, sent things, and offered to help donate towards a college scholarship! I am looking into how to work everything out right now, so it will be a while before I have internet again or can come up with a definite plan. I will eventually, I promise. Sorry for anything spelled wrong…I’m in a rush! I have to start planning my next leg of the journey and leave for my 100km roadtrip today, so until next time, much love!

over and out,


5 thoughts on “My Southeast Asia Trip Part 3 (and I’m still existing on rice)!

  1. Yo, Coop!I love reading your blog/note things….it sounds like you’re having a pretty amazing experience. I always love watching shows about Southeast Asia, so I think it’s pretty awesome that you’re out there. San Francisco is pretty cool, but there is no jungle here. However, we may have the same amount of Asians.Miss you, buddy! Stay well.

  2. Coop! I just love it! and I still need to print these out to show my mom because she will LOVE them too! Of course count me in with helping in anyway you need…the scholarship, or sending things that the people in your village need, or sending things that you need! maybe I should wait to send anything until you are in the next place??? Love and miss you Coop! You better keep staying safe and broke da broke! ya hear?

  3. hey coop!!! so great to read what you’ve been up to! and to look at your first batch of pictures :)wow, does Janjira really speak like that!? she sounds really intelligent! If there is a scholarship, I hope she gets it to come to the US t…o study!!!Stay safe and continue to keep all of us updated!:)

  4. Most of my MIT classmates would not be able to keep up with the conversation you had with Janjira…smart girl (you too). Sounds like an incredible adventure!

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