Saturday, 12 March 2016

Stories from the frontline - pool parties, headlice & friends on the street :-)

Somewhere in the summer of 2015 we were at a pool party for a 3-year-old boy in the central business district of Bangkok. As a present for the birthday boy we'd bought a lurid green dinosaur cake from the supermarket. We were also armed with water balloons and buckets to help entertain a mix of kids from Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Pakistan.

Halfway through the party we were making small talk with new and old friends. People were asking about Ireland - so we hit google maps and found an old photo of our house. Everyone crowded around to peer at the tiny image on the screen.

Then the father of the 3-year-old, a Thai who had grown up in Bangkok, said, "Wow! I've always wondered what it feels like to open your front door and walk out onto green grass!"

And I thought, "We KNOW what that feels like. So what the heck are we doing here?"

I think from that moment whatever was left of my resolve to "do" Thailand with kids broke down.  There were already pressures but this was the nail in the coffin! Why live here in this polluted concrete jungle when our kids could be growing up on Paddy's green?

In the 90's I was single, unattached, and could be fully involved in team work, reporting, writing project proposals and traveling at a minute's notice. I didn't have to worry about my kids' homesickness, reactions to foreign bugs or education. Thailand with kids changed everything. Not that I never want to go back! But I never want to go back to the way it was last year!

One major unexpected challenge was headlice. Our kids had them for the entire year!

We hung out in McDonalds during our first 2 weeks in Thailand since they had food our kids could recognise and free wi-fi so we could search for apartment rentals online.

Thea enjoying McDonalds, Thai style. No chilli sauce thank you!

Some local kids made friends with ours and then followed us up the elevator to Tesco (yes Tesco, but not as you know it!), where they decided to do Kayla's hair. Out came their hairbrushes and combs, and on jumped the headlice that would plague us for the rest of the year. No joke - we suffered through hundreds of hours of combing, shampooing and lice-hunting, all to no avail. One month back in Ireland and the problem was sorted!

The kind act that led to our first encounter with headlice :-(

Thailand with kids also meant food was harder. Our initial plan was to eat on the street - cheaper, faster, easier and everyone could choose what they wanted.

Buying Chinese donuts on the way to the office

But Thea was soon hit by a bout of vomiting and high temperatures that lasted around 10 days. We worried about dehydration and heatstroke, turning up the air-con in her/our room until we realised that the cold air was only making things worse. She recovered only to go down with a second bout, and a third, each lasting around 10 to 14 days.

Sick girl! Wrapped to protect against cold air from the air-con

Another bout hit in late November just as we were packing to spend Christmas with my family in New Zealand. We'd gotten such a good deal on the ticket that we couldn't pass up the chance, but now it seemed we might miss out. Finally on the day before our flight we called a taxi and headed off to a hospital just a few streets away.

Turns out Thailand's medical care is amazing. Thea was seen within 20 minutes without an appointment - but we had to give a down-payment of 1,500 euro before they would treat her! I was whizzed down hallways in a wheelchair with Thea cuddled on my lap and within an hour she was hooked up to IV fluids while I waited on a stretcher bed next to her cot. Charles took the other kids home and we spent an anxious few hours communicating over the internet, tracking down our insurance company in Ireland, then in England, hoping this expense would be covered, and hoping we wouldn't have to cancel the Christmas trip home.

The doctor knew we needed to fly at 4pm the next day. By morning Thea was still pasty white but much improved, and even managed to sit up and eat a little toast. By 11a.m. I was beginning to worry since there was no sign we'd be left out that day. Finally I rang the call button and things sped up. Thea was discharged at 12 noon, a friend from the office raced us home to finish packing our bags and we were off to the airport at 1p.m., arriving just in time for check-in. Thankfully our stay in NZ kicked the tummy bug and Thea was more-or-less okay health-wise for the rest of the year.

Special delivery - books & schedules for homeschool

The focus then shifted from health to homeschool. My long-abandoned major in education got a dusting off. We gave ourselves a month to settle in after arriving and then dived into the huge boxes of books and planning schedules we had ordered from the U.S. At first we loved it! The office gave us space so we could be part of the hum every day, and the office staff spoiled the girls with ice cream, donuts and trips out via motorbike to the post office.

But as the year wore on, Thea grew tired of the activity books and packs I put together for her. She just wanted time with me. As I struggled to walk Kayla through the process of learning to read, Thea would tug at my shirt, wanting to sit on my lap.

Thea at a farewell pool party for friends moving to Dubai. Water always seemed to calm her.

By May she was grumpy and whiny; by August she was having full-blown meltdowns at least twice a day. As we packed up the buggy for the morning ride to the office she'd begin crying, "I don't like this place! I don't like this place!" Nothing would console her. Sometimes we'd have to carry her to the lift still kicking and screaming. Sometimes she'd lose it again in the taxi and Charles would have to take her out until she calmed down. Then she'd cry for a full hour after we reached the office.

The same thing happened on the way home. She'd scream and struggle on our walk towards the sky trains, through the check-in counters, on elevators, on stairs and on the trains as we stood shoulder to shoulder with other passengers. Amber would cover her ears and begin to cry and my own eyes were wet as I lugged buggy and screaming toddler down several flights of stairs to street level so we could complete the walk home. Seeing her misery broke my heart.

But there were positives. We wanted our kids to see the effects of poverty first-hand and grow compassion. This happened! Soon after we moved into our apartment on Asoke Road, Amber adopted a homeless man at the bus stop. She christened him 'Bryan' since we didn't speak a common language and didn't know his name. When she asked what we could do for him, we challenged her to find her own ways to reach out. Some days that meant buying him food from the noodle sellers, or giving him soap and a toothbrush. But every day, it meant looking him in the eye, acknowledging him as a fellow human being, and saying hello.

'Bryan', our adopted family member, resting outside a 7/11 store.

As time went by Amber asked if we could bring Bryan home to the apartment. We explained why that couldn't happen, and why it wasn't wise to give him money.

Then last August as we prepared for our 'visit' home to Ireland, she asked if we could bring Bryan with us. Hmm, try explaining to a child now full of compassion why THAT wasn't possible!

Shortly after that question, Bryan disappeared. One day he just wasn't there - and the next, and the next. We had hoped Amber wouldn't notice, but she did. We had to be real with her - yes, maybe he HAD died, or maybe he was very sick and someone had taken him away to get treatment. Then we found out that authorities had made a city-wide sweep of Bangkok, rounding up homeless people and sending them back to families in distant provinces, or, for those who could work, to some kind of vocational training - cleaning up the streets for the benefit of Thailand's many tourists.

We'll never know what happened to Bryan. But he'll always be a shadowy sixth member of our family, and a reminder that while we have opportunity to bless someone, we need to seize it!
So, yay for the positives. But the negatives really made me wonder - is Thailand right for us? What if it's not? What do I really want out of life??

More on that next time!

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