All I want for Christmas

This Christmas was a first for a lot of things. This was my first Christmas without my family. My first Christmas not to go to Church. My first Christmas not to be cold. My first Christmas out of the country. Well let's be real this was my first Christmas not in Memphis, TN. I have spent the last 23 years doing more or less the exact same thing for Christmas.

Christmas day, wake up (the people in the house has dwindled down in the it is just me and my lovely mother and father--those no count siblings had to up and leave their baby sister). We scurry around, argue, clean the kitchen, pack and then rush out the door to make it to the Newsom's side by 1pm--which always always ends up being 2-3pm and everyone is a bit frustrated, hungry and full of teasing-Christmas cheer.

Then we feast. This is something that has changed--but no matter what, where or how we manage to sit, eat and drink. Post lunch, we exchange presents. This also has developed and changed over the years. Back in the day Nanny's blue couch was piled high with red stockings stuff full of amazing treats and gadgets--my favorite part of Christmas Day.

Then comes the photo, some years we get one, some years we don't. But, thanks to Uncle Bill we most definitely have had a Newsom Family photo the past 5 years. Then the dishes. When we were all still at St. Nick,  many a year we dressed in aprons and hats and passed the fine china from hand to hand until everything was put up and away (and many a years it was just Mom & Sondra...)

The rest of the evening has always changed. Some years a game of spoons, others glued to the TV watching A Christmas story over and over again, others Love Actually and way back in the day back handsprings and cartwheels in the front yard.

Then we sleep and wake and do it all over again. This time we head to Grandma and Granddaddy's for the Wills Family version. This has changed over the years too. A few years back we took home our stockings, started an adult gift exchange (in my mind I'm still too young to be apart of that..) We switched from gifts to baked goods and back to gifts and then back again. Things are always changing.

But some things stay the same: the table get it's extra leafs and we file in sitting in our same seats each year (some due to blind eyes others due to habit) and for the past 4 to 5 years our elbows slightly stick to the table as we collapse into our hands after ice cream and fudge sauce. We have eaten everything from fish tacos to BBQ to Christmas spaghetti. Some years there has been homemade eggnog and others gluten free, dairy free (or whatever the allergy of the year maybe) options.

Even though some years didn't end this way--in my mind the Wills family Christmas always ends in the basement: ping pong, pool, air hockey and broken ceiling tiles. Laughing and playing--then suddenly frozen into shock as the room becomes pitch black. "Helpppp" we all shriek. We wait, our eyes adjust and then just as soon as the lights dimmed, they flicker back on again.

Christmas with family is always full of surprises, fights, laughter, exhaustion and a few tears. But, nothing comes anywhere close to how wonderful our family traditions have become over the years. This year will go down in history as the most bizarre and elaborate Christmas for sure, but it's got nothing on the Wills/Newsom gang.

The day started with an early morning run, because I knew there was no way I would have any time after school. Since our director would be out of town our school decided they had the authority to change Christmas day to December 24th. So we arrive to school decked out in our Christmas gear. Money has been a bit tight this past month, because we had to pay back a few debts (we get paid today so no worries!), but point being we didn't have a lot of extra cash for red&green Christmas attire. So I got creative! I wore a white & black striped shirt and a black shirt and green earrings made out of Christmas bows and a red ribbon in my hair. Of course right as I walked through the door my coordinator says "OH NO, black not a good color for today." UGH what a sour way to start the day. I just smiled and said, "Merry Christmas" with a big smile plastered on my face.

The day continues and the kids are running wild--dress in anything red and green they could find at home. Some in full Santa costumes others in angry bird, hello kity, spiderman or whatever else happened to be red in the closet (spiderman and santa--same same, but different..ha). So flag proceeds as normal except instead of a uniformed student a Santa dressed student raises the Thai flag and wais to Buddha.

We finish flag with Joy to the World and a random preacher shows up and reads an except from the Bible in Thai--I think that is what happened at least but I'm not sure. Then we have poppers, but we pop them at the wrong time and then the director and a few students cut a ribbon that leads into Winter Wonderland: a completely decked out stage set complete with life size igloo, sleigh, snow, polar beers, santa and reindeer. It was quite the scene.

Flag comes to a conclusion and the beauty contest starts. Within minutes one of the kindergarten students throws up on another student and everyone is running around in a tizzy. Mops, towels or cleaning supplies aren't things found in surplus here in Thailand. So some one comes out with tiny box of Kleenex and they wipe up the stage, but don't stop the show for a second. Half the teachers and students are making gagging noises, but thankfully a chain reaction did not start...I was worried there for a bit.

Then we have the dances and the presentations. Pre-K and kindergarten have 3 students from each class (3 classes in each) that dress as Santa, Santee, Reindeer and Angel. They are dressed to impress. They saunter on stage and say their robotic spiel for the judges: "Good Morning. My name is _____. I am in K1/___. I am 4 years old. I am _____ (Santa/Santee/Angel/Reindeer)." Then of course this must be a competition so there are judges and winners.

Then comes the forced dancing portion. Parents are literally mauling the stage with ipads, video cameras and elbows that cut like knifes if you get in front of their view. They jump in at any moment if their kid's hat happens to tilt to the wrong side. The funny thing is that the kids don't look like they are having any fun. The parents barely clap when finished, but pictures galore are snapped at every other moment. As long as their hat stays in place and their make-up isn't smudged the day is considered quite the success.

Then we venture into the classrooms, were parents have out done themselves. They have brought more food than you could ever imagine. Fruits, vegetables, dumplings, pizza, KFC, donuts, boxes and boxes of cakes and cookies, vats of ice cream. This parties put American Christmas parties to shame. I bopped from one room to the other checking out the food selection, but then become entranced by Teacher Som's Mask party. I have no idea why, but each student brought in a mask and suddenly they all changed clothes and they now have on princess type clothing and the masquerade started. We paraded around the school and once again take more photos.

Then back to the classroom for the gift exchange and the Thai version of Rockin around the Xmas Tree. This is where Gangman style starts to blare (it as already been blasting from the second floor--3-5 grade classrooms for a few hours now) and we dance around the tree and play a version of musical chairs.

For my students the party comes to an end with a gift exchange. They then passed out in their Santa suits and sleep the rest of the day. But, for 1st-6th grade the party continues for the remainder of the day. Every single classroom had Gangman style on repeat and they danced, their bodies possessed by sugar. 

Now that is just the description of the day before Christmas. If you can only imagine, the festivities have continued throughout the week and last night was the teacher New Years Party. The party requires a whole post on its own. We decided that if you aren't okay with getting on stage to sing karaoke and/or wearing a full face of make up--you will not survive in this country.

Mrs. Doubtfire Drinks Sippy Wine

Preface on title:
Our last songtoa ride in Hua Hin was shared with my new role model: Mrs. Doubtfire. She was actually nothing like the real Mrs. Doubtfire except for the fact that she spoke Britishly! Ever since her husband's retirement, they have spent three months in Hua Hin for Holiday. Other times of the year she spends at her cottage in Ireland, which she noted as her favorite travel spot. She has done quite a bit of traveling. She worked for her no-count husband for many years, but was never paid. She therefore insisted he pay for her travel every year with her friends! She was dainty, proper and everything you'd expect. But instead of at tea, we met on the back of a songtoa while profusely sweating and ingesting diesel fumes. She of course could have quickly wiped her brow, lifted her pinky finger and have been ready for afternoon tea in Wimbledon.

This weekend I went on my first small group excursion. Big groups are a lot of fun and as we have found out on past trips, they can help you bargain when purchasing beach sarongs or orchestrating mass transit via truck beds. But, small groups are amazing for travel. Less opinions, less chaos and most importantly less hormones. I think everyone would agree traveling with large groups of girls can be amazingly exhausting.

So back to this weekend. Alicia and I headed out directly from school. I sent my laptop, a New Years gift form a student and my real life home with Alex and we hit the door running-- determined to catch the last bus for Hua Hin.

As a side-note let me start with: we absolutely positively never travel the same way twice. This isn't by any means on purpose. You would think our travel would become more efficient with time. We'd figure out the tricks of the locals and travel like the speed of light. Travel here is cheap and rather easy but I wouldn't call it efficient.

Father you would have had a heart attack with how round about we went just to get out of our own city. When I know we are backtracking you know things are bad.

We do finally arrive and sit in more traffic so we get off at the first sky train exit we can find and zoom over to victory monument where our more experienced travel friend has been waiting for about an hour. She ushers us quickly to the ticket table we purchase and hop on the van. But the way vans work is they don't leave until they fill up. So we wait some more. I'm okay by this point though because we know we will make it to Hua Hin tonight! Success! (Just a few moments of panic-- "passports, who has the passports?")

We arrive and are dropped off at a crazy night market. We have finally learned the importance of printing your hotel's address in Thai, so we luckily are some what prepared. Of course the first 3 drivers we show the address to, squint, talk in fast Thai, run the through the streets asking others and then tell us "cannot."

Eventually we find a woman who says okay. She folds up her taxi sign and takes us down a side street and say "okay, okay" and points to an unmarked Honda civic. We pile in shaking or heads and smiling. You just never know what type of transportation you will score in Thailand.

We arrive at our all inclusive top of the line villa for the weekend around 11pm. Let me back up a little: Jess (aka experienced travel friend) is one of Alicia's friends from home and will be heading home soon. She is the one that researched and planned a lot of the weekend. In the midst of hostel searching one her friends suggested we just stay with her and her parents for the weekend. They rented a villa close to the beach for the weekend and had two extra bedrooms.

Contrary to what some may think. The most enticing part of the proposition was the concept of parents. We've all been a bit homesick since this will be all of our first Christmases without our families. And the thought of parents made us all jump for joy! And boy did they spoil us rotten! They fed us like kings, told us stories about the good ole days and treated us to what we all anticipated being our biggest expense of the weekend-- the vineyard: a wine tasting and an elephant ride. Without a doubt Kate's parents made the weekend a perfect way to start the holiday season! (And don't worry mom a thank you note is in process an departing gifts were already exchanged! You raised a proper southern belle)

The way I was lured into this trip was by the simple word "wine." There is little to no wine in Thailand and something I miss wholeheartedly. The weekend was planned around a vineyard visit where you could purchase a package to try three different wines paired with three different tapas, try their signature grape juice (sippy wine) and trek through the quiet vineyard perched on top of an elephant.

I didn't even think twice before quickly agreeing to tag along for the weekend. I ended up being uncharacteristically busy last week and didn't have a chance to do much or any research about what the weekend had in store. I knew we would have wine, eat good food and stay in a villa with someone's patents I didn't know and there was promise of American magazines and chocolate.

While packing I thought "hmm I should probably throw in a bathing suit, you just never know." Well it is a very good thing because it turns out Hua hin is oh so much more than a vineyard. It is an adorable beach city filled with cafes, wine bars, night markets and seafood restaurants.

The beach was adorable and just steps away from our fully furnished villa. We rented chairs and umbrellas, ordered coconut watermelon shakes, added a little Thai rum and did mermaid dives in the water until mid afternoon. Then we showered and climbed into a van for a 35 minute ride to the vineyard.

The air changed from hot humid to pleasantly breezy. And the landscape from sandy beaches to lush green vineyards.

The vineyard just celebrated its 10th anniversary and is still trying to somewhat establish itself. The wine was drinkable but not the highlight of the vineyard experience nor did it rank in the top 3 highlights.

The sleek restaurant was the only building that graced the skyline. The rest of the landscape was filled mountains and rows of plump juicy grapes. It was amazing how quiet and peaceful it felt. We felt like royalty. Being waited on hand and foot and present with five star looking tapas. I wouldn't say they were all 5 star tasting--the first was a mayonnaise-y crab salad but it had fresh crisp apples chopped through out and a fresh sprig of basil and it did actually go quite well with the white wine they served (my fave wine of the three). For the second everyone else was given three slices of cheese drizzled with orange and vanilla infused olive oil, garlic and salt and pepper-- it looked divine. They gave me a poached shrimp salad with fresh pomegranate seeds. It was okay. The last was really different and amazing. Smoked duck on a homemade crispy corn chip which sat on top of a shredded carrot mango salad all mixed with a spicy sriracha type sauce. The flavor and texture combo = perfection. The last two wines aren't even worth mentioning...

The ride back to town we all still had grumbling stomachs because our America sized stomachs were not satisfied. We stopped at a restaurant our driver recommended and shared a few dishes family style. We were not disappointed. I've had some great green curry since I've been in Thailand but this ranked #1.

The night ended with 2 large chocolate bars, a big bag of peanut m&ms and the bold idea to awake for sunrise. We woke early, jumped in our prearranged songtoa which drove us up chopstick mountain (also called monkey mountain-- should have been clue #1...)

We rounded the corner as the sky began to lighten to see a sea of beady red eyes staring back at us-- a mix of mange-ifed cats, dogs, and my least favorite thailand creature: monkeys. We should have known at this point this was a bad idea. But, we were already up and thought why not.

We bravely walked forward, darted around, saw a few view points and decided it was time to head back to town before the sun even fully colored the sky.

Unfortunately, our songtoa driver did not wait for us-- so we started walking. We decided it might be kind of nice to just go ahead and walk all the way into town anyway. We walked about 10k and arrived at a German bakery (our planned breakfast destination) just in time for opening.

It was a perfect breakfast. An omelette filled with big slices if onions, potatoes and bacon and freshly baked breads. I was one happy girl!

The rest of the morning was finished off with one last beach nap, one more mermaid dive and one more watermelon shake. Perfect ending to a perfect weekend-- that is until I got stuck in the worst mini van seat for the trip home. Beaming hot sun, freon low ac, little to no shocks and smashed between a baby and a Thai woman was really how the weekend ended. But the first ending sounds much more picturesque and blog worthy.

Loi Krathong

So I feel like it is/was a rush to get this next blog post typed up and published. If it wasn't complete by Tuesday night then low and behold it is already the next Thai holiday (yes, Thai people find a reason to celebrate anything and everything and call it a holiday...) Obviously it is Friday, so I didn't get it done before Father's Day (aka King's Bday & Wednesday) or Sports Day (Thursday).

The most important thing to talk about is Loy Krathong. I'm sure most of you have seen pictures. I had a lot of confused messages/inquiries on what the heck was going on and why I was dressed up like lace clown person.

Well let me reiterate that I never ever have any idea what is going on until it is already happening or most of the time I find out about a week later what happened the week before and then sort of have an ahh hah moment --"Oh that is why we all got up in middle of class and went outside and marched around the school 2 times. But, yet of course we must practice for sports day."

Well so I did technically already know about this holiday. We learned all about it during orientation, but we were told it was in the middle of November. After doing a bit of research I found out that Loi or Loy Krathong falls on whatever day there is a full moon in the last lunar month of the year. So it is always different. This year it happened to fall on Wednesday, November 28th.

We were randomly asked to participate in a parade and to dress in traditional Thai clothing. We went and had our dress fitting in a humongous dress up closet. It actually wasn't a closet at all--it was much larger than an of my thai classrooms and housed hundreds of traditional Thai costumes. All the costumes represent different different costumes--some for Thai royalty, some for southern region, some the northern region, some from different time periods and so on. I was told my dress was what the princess wears. Oh very appropriate for me (well actually the queen would have been more fitting, but I guess I'll settle for the princess).

So I thought we were just going to just dress up at 4pm for the parade, but of course one of my other teacher friends called the night before around 11pm and said we need to arrive at school at 7am to dress for the morning assembly. Of course we go early and are handed the bags of clothes and told to dress ourselves. This is insane all the "pants" consist of are a huge pieces of fabric that you wrap around yourself until it somehow transforms into a pair of pants.

Thankfully another teacher saw our distress and graciously helped us get dressed. So we just stood like statues at the morning assembly while they say a lot of stuff in Thai. Then the students sing Loi Krathong in both Thai and in English. And then they made us dance around the whole courtyard doing the traditional Thai dance --which we have no idea how to do.

After many pictures and traditional Thai games and many "I love you Teachaas" and "Beautiful Teachaaa" we changed back into normal clothes to teach for the rest of the day. The students and teachers did have a different sparkle in their eyes though when they looked at me. For some reason Thai people really like to see farangs dressed in the traditional clothing.

Then at 3pm (they asked us to arrive at 12...insane that we would need that much time to get ready and we said no we have to teach--teaching is what we came here for right?) we went back to the costume closet to be dressed officially this time. They dressed us, did our hair and then Teacher A (very fashionable lady boy) did our makeup. It was so cute. She spent what felt like hours just penciling and "fixing" my eyebrows. The final touch was a little extra white powder and baby powder to make me even whiter than I already am--very Thai style.

It had been monsoon-ing all day so we weren't sure if the parade would even happen. But all the Thai teachers reassured us that they would not cancel the parade. There is only one day that Loi Krathong can be and it will be today. So we left in the school van and they dropped us off with all the other 5th grade students that had the "honor" of being in the parade and handed us all matching umbrella. The street was lined with costumed teeth-chattering, wet children. But, don't think for a minute they weren't dressed to the nines: full hair and make-up and standing up right holding their krathongs. The whole scene reminded me a lot of a Mardi Gras parade. People proud of their roots and deep cultural history, not ashamed in the least to march through the streets singing, dancing and wearing hair pieces heavier than full bowl of mash potatoes (ha..that's pretty heavy!)

We walked the parade and were the only Farangs for miles and definitely the only farangs in the parade. We still aren't really sure why they wanted us in the parade or why they dressed us up. One theory could be to parade around just how many American Teachers we have at our school. But, we were like little local celebrities. Thai people LOVE to take pictures of farangs--no matter what we are doing. Kind of like a lion at the zoo--you have to stop stare and take a picture and sometimes even ask to pose to be in the picture with the lion.

So the rain tapered off and our umbrellas were snatched from us, so everyone could admire our beautiful attire. It really was pretty neat. The streets were lined with our students, parents and the whole city of Chonburi. As we we got closer to our school, I saw two of my favorite students. They were screaming and jumping up and down "Teachha Esther". Warmed my heart. Then we passed our favorite coffee shops and restaurants and they waved and cheer us on as well.

We ended the parade at our running park. The park is not a normal park/track. It is beautiful and I've already come to take it for granted. There is an amazing white temple in the center, a pond, waterfall and tons of green space and trees. So we all marched together and the students released their krathongs into the water.

We were slightly miserable, exhausted, definitely hungry and our feet hurt at this point, but we were bound and determined to release our own krathong. We walked back to school and changed out of what had quickly become the most uncomfortable pair of "pants" and lace top I've ever worn. Grab our backpacks and headed back to the park.

It was hard to decide what kranthong to buy. There were so many: ones made of cabbages, peppers, banana leaves, bread and of course orchids and other beautiful flowers. A little back history on what Loi Krathong is all about:

Original this day signified the day where you were thanking/honoring the Goddess of Water (and apologizing for all the pollution...). Now the day has a even bigger meaning. People make or buy krathongs and each kranthong has a candle and incense. Once the candle is lit it represents the light of Buddha. You then add finger nail clippings or small piece of hair to your krathong. You push the krathong away into the water letting go of hatred, anger, and past negative thoughts (hair and nails representing the not so good parts you need to let go of). Some also had small coins to ensure good fortune for the next year.

The experience of releasing my very own krathong was something I never forget. I was happy we decided to stay in our Chonburi, the place we call home and were surrounded by our new family and friends. As I bent down to release my krathong into the murky, pollution filled pond I heard "Teachhaa." I smiled to myself--I knew this day represented exactly what the next year had in store for me: a day filled with poor communication, swollen tired feet, strangers snapping pictures of me left and right and a park buzzing with thousands pushing away their bad thoughts right along side a constantly confused farang. I couldn't have wished for a better day.