The Thailand Diaries: Mr. Parasite and the case of the missing toilet

After three years living in Thailand I decided it was time I wrote my memoirs… this one may be a little too much information for some but if you can’t tell your diary, who can you tell?


My tummy had been doing somersaults since I had woken up but I had put it down to whatever undoubtedly spicy-fried-stuff-with-rice that I had eaten for dinner the night before.  It’s not unusual to feel every single digestive movement within you when you are embracing the local food in Thailand.

Little did I know that there was a particularly pesky parasite harbouring within my body waiting to burst forth – quite literally – and make an appearance.  Only time would reveal this, and my what timing Mr. Parasite had.  I would soon find myself wishing I had listened to my gut’s grumbles with more attention but we all know that hindsight, and a rather memorable toilet (or lack thereof) experience, is a gift we cannot savour until it is already too late.

Perhaps someone reading this will learn something, and my experience will enable another to avoid what was unavoidably my fate.  Read on and take note, dear reader.

As I have already said, I was embracing the local cuisine of Thailand’s deep south, and so I found myself heading over to a little khao geang (literally rice curry) place at breakfast time.  It was owned by a lovely couple who would rise early to prepare an array of dishes to be laid out buffet-style for the customers to peruse and take their pick of.  As is usual in these set ups, the shop was in the front of their house, backing on to the living room which they shared with the patrons.  Unusual by Western standards but very much the norm here in Thailand.  Another rather un-Western thing – customer toilets are few and far between in these types of establishments; this fact would become all too apparent all too quickly.

Grumble.  Groan.  Squelch.  I looked at my breakfast of spicy-fried-stuff-with-rice and was unable to conjure up the slightest inkling of an appetite.  Strangely enough, being able to feel your internal organs in action tends to be quite the appetite killer.

Grumble.  Groan.  GRUMBLE.  GROAN.  Suddenly the urgency with which my insides operated reached a peak with only one message.  TOILET.  NOW.

Mee hongnam mai ka?  Possibly the single most important phrase to learn upon travelling to any foreign land – do you have a toilet?

The husband-wife curry shop duo looked at one another and then at me, in my white school shirt and pencil skirt.  They started to explain that it’s their toilet, it’s no good for customers, especially not farang customers in tight skirts… but I was already up and heading to the back of the house where their gazes lead me.  Tee nee ka?  Here?

I was  in there before they had time to answer but sure enough I found myself in what must be the family bathroom.  A damp concrete square of a room with a concrete floor and only sky where a ceiling would normally take residence.  Good for ventilation I suppose.

GRUMBLE.  GROAN.

I desperately cast my eyes around, looking for the bog, the loo, the porcelain throne… nothing.  There was a small container of water, adorned with wrung out flannels, an old bar of soap and a couple of toothbrushes.  Next to that, a larger bin also full of water with a Winnie the Pooh children’s cereal bowl floating in it.  A quick peek beyond and I found a hole in the ground.  A hole, albeit encircled with a porcelain frame, as if to confirm that yes, this is in fact the toilet.

Full disclosure: I should probably apologise for the misleading title of this post – there was a toilet, just not the type that I am used to.

My pencil skirt was too tight to be hoicked up and so I whipped it off and flung it over my shoulder.  I’ll save you the details of what happened next but let me tell you that Mr. Parasite put me through my paces.  Epic toilet times – a rite of passage when adjusting to a life abroad but something best enjoyed (wrong word) in the privacy of one’s own home.

Something you learn quickly when you are traveling through or living in an Asian country is that there is a distinct lack of toilet tissue, especially in those countires that favour a bidet hose, or bum gun as I like to call it.  In fact, you quickly learn that we have developed a whole load of unnecessary Westernised expectations when it comes to the toilet.  We don’t need toilet seats, automatic flushes or jet powered hand dryers, but at some point we decided that we do.   Had I had the time to think things through before my rush to the toilet I would have grabbed some paper towels from the table.  Again, hindsight.

Unfortunately for me it was a double whammy.  Not only was there no toilet but no bum gun either.

Panic started to set in.  Do I shout for someone to bring me some tissue?  There isn’t even a bin.  Not an option.  There I was, squatting askew a hole in the ground, half dressed with my skirt slung over my shoulder desperately looking for a post-toilet clean up solution.

There’s only so long one can stay in such a position without taking action.  I was time to go truly native, armed with gallons of water, a Winnie the Pooh children’s cereal bowl and…

… my hand.  Oh yes, native indeed.

Thank goodness there was an old bar of soap.

At the time I have to say that wasn’t one of my most pleasant mornings, but at least now I can look back and laugh, and I can face any toilet situation safe in the knowledge that it will never be that traumatic ever again.


I may look back and find this funny, but many people don’t even have a hole in the ground let alone clean water to wash with or even drink.  Check out the gifts you can buy over at Water Aid  to enable people to have access to clean water and village water systems. 

This isn’t a sponsored post, I just want to make up for laughing at what is a daily occurrence for so many people around the globe.

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TEFL 101: The Job Hunt

With the entire world at our fingertips on the internet, it is completely possible to search for jobs on the other side of the world without even getting out of bed.  Long gone are the days of lugging piles of CVs from place to place or of scouring the newspapers for jobs that had probably already been filled by the time you got in touch.  Now we are able to have immediate access to the most up to date job opportunities out there – perfect for looking for a TEFL position in any destination of your choosing.

Before exploring any of the options laid out below, make sure you have an up to date and relevant CV, a working Skype account and email address, both of which don’t have inappropriate names (sexymama101 might not be as funny to a prospective employer as it is to your friends) or profile pictures.  You may also be asked for scans of your degree certificate and transcript, your TEFL certificate and potentially a criminal record check.  It helps to have all of these things already attached to a draft email so you are good to go without having to run around looking for a working scanner at the last minute.

Websites

Quick, easy and up to date – job sites provide a hassle free way to look for a job.  Here area few websites that I have used myself when looking for a TEFL position;

ajarn.com specialises in jobs in Thailand and lets you search by area and salary

tefl.com has jobs from around the world including online work

Dave’s ESL Cafe has country specific job boards for China, Korea and beyond

Be warned – some schools are notorious for posting ads and then never getting back to the applicant, filling the position in person with a friend of a friend – don’t be put off but be aware that you may not be flooded with responses!  Persevere and over-apply – it’s always better to have a choice of job offers than becoming desperate and jumping into a position just because they said yes.

TOP TIP” be aware of and look out for scams asking for the applicant to spend hundreds of dollars in made up administration/application fees, or dodgy looking positions for phony companies.

Facebook

If you know which destination(s) you are looking at, do a few searches for expat facebook groups in the area.  These groups are not only useful for meeting other expats living in the area but will also be a good place to find local job adverts that you may not find on national websites.

A few good groups for Thailand include Teachers in Thailand, English Teaching Thailand, Thailand Foreign English Teachers Network Group, and more locally Phuket Teachers and Friends (there are similar groups for locations across Thailand.  More international groups include TEFL English Teachers Networking Group and ESL Teachers.  There are countless more groups out there, these just happen to be the ones that I have ended up joining myself.

TOP TIP: Just because you are using an informal platform for your job search, it doesn’t mean that you should treat it any differently to any other enquiry about a position.  Don’t just comment on the post – a well worded private message with a forwarding email to enable you to continue the enquiry outside of facebook is better.

REMEMBER!  Potential employers can and do check out your facebook profile before considering hiring you – so either get those privacy settings on lock down or think hard before posting that picture of you doing shots on the bar on Saturday night.

Agency work

If you find yourself moving to your destination of choice and looking for work, consider working for a teaching agency.  Yes, you should do your research first – ask around, try to speak to people who work for the agency to make sure that they are 100% legit (AKA can get you a visa and pay you a full salary).  Agency work can range from being a substitute teacher to providing maternity cover or doing one off english camps.  Many agencies are linked to a language school and so part-time evening and weekend work can become an option.  It is definitely worth considering even just to make sure you have a bit of income while you look for a more permanent position of your own.

Agency work issue of contention in the TEFL world; many, many people have had their fingers burned by agencies and so tar them all with the same brush.  You will hear tales of non payment, or broken contracts or visa troubles.  I myself was placed with an agency after completing my TEFL Heaven course and I continued to work with them for 18 months with no issues.  If anything, working for an agency meant that I got to void some of the pitfalls of working directly for a school – I was less involved in school politics and I knew that someone had my back if the proverbial hit the fan.  If I had to take a day off sick, all my classes would be covered by the agency.  All of my visa and work permit paperwork was processed by the agency with no problem.  I never had a problem with unpaid tax bills.  Yes, that agency must have been making some money off me but I earned exactly the same amount as my colleagues who were working directly for the school.  Maybe I was just lucky.

TOP TIP: If you are looking at working in the south of Thailand (Hat Yai, Songkhla and around) and don’t mind working for an agency, go say hi to Visions and see if they can help you out.

The old fashioned way

While I don’t recommend rocking up in person at every school in your chosen destination (unless you are prepared to do a lot of aimless wondering around looking for someone who can speak englishand has the time to help you), a little bit of research can go a long way.  Search the internet and find the local schools.  Get an email contact (preferably the HR department) and try your luck with an email including your CV.  Yes, many of those emails will bounce back.  Yes, many of those emails will go unanswered.  But, you may just have some luck.  I actually got my last job doing just this.  I sent out over 20 emails to schools in Phuket and of that 20 I had 3 replies, all of which were the standard we will keep your CV on file.  I didn’t have much hope.  However, 2 of those schools did keep my CV on file and did in fact get in touch when a job position came up.  Having already made the first contact I was already on the minds of the HR department and was told about the job before it had been put on job websites, putting me at an immediate advantage.

TOP TIP: It’s not a good idea to send one blanket email to all 20 schools – they can easily see that your email is completely generic, and this makes it look like you aren’t putting much effort into your job search.  Do a little bit of research and take the time to tailor each email that goes out.  Sure, you can have the same main body but adding in those little details that show you have taken the time to actually think about the school you are contacting will make you stand out from all the other emails they get asking for jobs.  It’s worth a shot!

It’s not what you know…

If you have already relocated and are frantically looking for a job, go and make friends with other teachers NOW.  Not only will they be able to tell you which schools are best to be avoided, the teachers already on the ground will be the first to find out about job positions as soon as they come up and will be able to put in a good word for you.  This is certainly the case in smaller communities where it really can be a matter of knowing the right person that will put your chances ahead of the rest.


Do you have another tried and tested method for finding a job?  Please share in the comments below…

From TEFL… to TA… to…

Head of Pastoral Support Department!

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Another year in Thailand, another job…

I came to Thailand with the intentions that many have – get a TEFL, teach for a few months, travel around and go back home.  I managed to tick off most of the things on my list… apart from the going home bit which just hasn’t happened (sorry mum!).

I did the TEFL, I got a relatively good TEFL job at a Thai government school (I could have been on my own in the jungle, at least I ended up in a city) and I taught for a few months.  Which became a few more.  And then 18 months down the line I found myself at a crossroads that many an expat come across all too often – should I stay or should I go?

We all know the answer to that question (had I gone home I doubt I would be sat here right now overlooking my own banana trees in a tie dye dress in the middle of February…) – and so I relocated to Phuket, dazzled by the call of bright lights and seedy back streets (and the beaches, it’s all about the beaches now).  I took a job as a teaching assistant, not because it was my dream to be a TA but it was something I could do and it got my foot in the door of an international school (AKA higher salary, better job prospects and basically not in the Thai education system).

For the past year I have been a TA and it has been good but I never kept it a secret that it wasn’t my dream job or my long term career goal.  There are sides to being a TA that are great – no lesson planning, no parent-teacher conferences, far fewer responsibilities – but if it isn’t your career intention to be a TA for life (and there are some amazing people out there for whom it is, and I by no means think that there is anything wrong with that) then it can be so frustrating to be in a classroom (but it’s not your classroom) with a class of children (but they aren’t your class) helping to teach a lesson (but it’s not your lesson)… do you see what I mean?

And so another crossroads presented itself to me – do I sign another 2 year contract for a job that I enjoy but find frustrating?  Do I enroll on the distance learning PGCEi and qualify as a teacher (but only be able to use this qualification outside of my home country)?

Honestly, I didn’t really want either of those options.

Luckily for me, a third option appeared, and it couldn’t have been more perfect for me.

I am blessed to work at a school that recognises the strengths of its employees, is supportive in career development and isn’t afraid to be creative and take a leap of faith every now and then.  All too often when working in Thailand I have been met with “Cannot!” when something has threatened to be out of the ordinary.  As a TEFL teacher in a Thai school you are employed to that one job (and be a foreign face for the school to show off at token events, of course) and there is no route for progression, there is all to often no opportunity for promotion or pay rise or an increase in responsibilities – frankly they don’t expect you to hang around too long, with the average length of stay for a TEFLer being only 9 months (I’m sure I read that somewhere, but perhaps I am making it up…).  It has been really refreshing to be encouraged to try out something new and exciting and something that I never expected I would be able to do in Thailand.

And so, aware that I wanted to stay but wouldn’t be entirely happy remaining in the same position as TA, my school have asked me to develop and lead a brand new school department of Pastoral Support.  Hopefully this will make use of all of my skills from my work as a youth worker back in the UK while still enabling me to work within the school environment.  I have always swung back and forth from wanting to be a teacher to not – hopefully this may be the happy medium that I have been looking for.

For those of you wondering what on earth pastoral support is, I have a blog post planned and I will put a little linky in here when it’s done.  But put simply, it is working with children to overcome any barriers that may be stopping them from reaching their full potential be it personal, social, emotional or academic.  A bit like a school counsellor, only I’m not a therapist quite yet…

I am going to be working with the children individually, in small groups and as a whole school.  I’m currently juggling this between completing my current post as a TA (which I’m seeing out to the end of the school year) so I’m am pretty busy most days – I didn’t realise how un-busy I had been until I started this new role too… it has been non stop every day since I came back from Christmas break – the only reason I am able to write this now is because it is half term – and I have never been more in need of this break, although I spent last night trawling pinterest for ideas for work…

Expect to see lots more pastoral support/school counseling posts here soon.  I am yet to decide if I should make a separate blog or just let this one morph into whatever it will become – a bit like me I guess!

Life of Phu: an update

Sometimes I post opinionated pieces on the political/educational/moral state of Thailand, other times I post pretty pictures I’ve taken.  Sometimes, I just post a little update of all the nothings I’ve been doing; what should probably be put on a postcard and sent home to grandparents but never is.  This is one of those latter posts.

It’s been just over a month of my new job/house/life on the island (I like to reiterate this point) of Phuket.  In my last update I had just moved into the new house but without furniture or any home comforts.  We were camping with cardboard boxes for tables and only the hard tiled floor to sit on.

But after a few trips to Hat Yai we now have kitchen utensils and a sofa and all those little things that make a house a home, like earl grey tea bags and somewhere to put my clothes other than the floor-drobe that was gathering at the foot of my bed.  I say bed; we don’t actually have one of those yet, or a mattress.  But we’ve created a nest out of duvets and yoga mats and actually it’s really comfortable and probably very good for my back.  That’s what I keep telling myself anyway.

The house itself is really nice and completely water tight which is better than the last place – and with the shock storms we’ve randomly been getting it’s a good job!  It’s not rainy season yet but after 100 days without rain the heavens have opened and every few days we are having thunder storms and rain – which is actually quite nice as it slightly cools down the air which can be stiflingly hot and humid at times (I swear it’s much hotter here than in Hat Yai).  The thunderstorms I can bear, but the power cuts that come along with them are a bit of an annoyance.  Five hours overnight with no electric and therefore no AC, no fan, no water (electric water pump) so no shower to cool off – not fun!

Cat by candlelight.  Romantic.  Sweaty.
Cat by candlelight. Romantic. Sweaty.

School is going really well.  To begin with I wasn’t quite sure what I needed to be doing and it was a case of making up my own jobs as the teacher I am currently helping out is only covering maternity leave for the actual teacher.  After a few weeks we have figured out a routine that makes the days go quickly and get all the jobs done.  Working in an international school with high tuition fees means that we have a high level of accountability to ensure that each child is read with x amount of times a week, that books are checked and marked y times a week and z amount of homework is given out and taken back.

The actual year 6 teacher will be coming back from maternity leave in just under a month, when the routine I have gotten into will no doubt be pulled apart and turned upside down and I will have a whole new way of working to get my head around.  But once I’ve got my head around that one, at least it won’t be changing any time soon!

On the last day of term (yes, I’m on holiday already) we had the school sports day which couldn’t be any different from the almost-Olympic extravaganza that I went through at my last school.  In contrast, emphasis was placed on the actual sport (would you believe it) and there was the smallest of opening ceremonies that didn’t involve an overnight stay at the school, a 4.30 am wake up, ten tonnes of make up and a 3km walk in the searing heat for me.  So overall, a much better experience!  We even had teacher’s races and a parents v. teachers tug of war – just like the sports days I used to have at school when I was younger!

The whole day culminated with a sponsored swimathon being completed by the teachers with two teamss swimming 5km each.  I contributed a pathetic 150m but considering I don’t really swim, it was the best I could do.  It helps that the pool is really nice.  Maybe I will take up swimming after school… another benefit to working at an international school is being able to use really good facilities.

My school pool.
My school pool.

I’m not sporty at all so my participation in the entire day was a bit of a shock to the system – when we were told to just come in our usual sports gear I had to go on a shopping spree to buy shorts and my first pair of actual trainers.  Who knows if they will get any more use?  I’d like to think now I have the kit maybe I could go for a run or maybe join in one of the outdoor aerobics classes you see all over Thailand in car parks on weekday evenings – let’s see… it would make for an interesting post I suppose!

So that’s all really for the update.  I’m on Easter/Songkran holiday now for the next two weeks so hopefully the storms clear up and I can get some sunshine.  Can someone do a sun dance for me please?