Career, Education, NQT, School, Teaching

A Year of Teaching

Nearly a whole year has passed since I popped out of my training bubble and was let loose as an NQT (Newly Qualified Teacher). This will come as a huge relief to the Department of Education, who is in the midst of an epic recruitment crisis.

People simply are not applying to become teachers anymore. And those that do, often leave within a couple of years on the job.

As a physicist, I am on the critically-endangered list of teaching skills. And as such, I was wooed into the profession by grants and bursaries to essentially ease my transition from a well-paid career to a much-less-well-paid career. Interestingly, despite this crisis, which covers all subject areas, a PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education) still costs £9,000. There are not many other careers that require you to pay for your own job-specific training, certainly not to the value of £9,000!

This poses the first and probably most significant block to aspiring or curious future teachers. Day one, -£9k. Not a great start. If the potential candidates are not already Googling other possible career options, they might go on to find out that teachers salaries in England are well below the OECD average. In fact, we don’t even make it into the top 20 countries.

It gets worse… When you compare the working hours against the salary, we fall even further down the list. A trainee teacher, even one with a £26,000 bursary, can expect that to equate to far less than minimum wage when spread over the year. And that’s before you deduct the £9,000 PGCE fee!

For me, there is also an issue with the leadership. Schools don’t operate like a business. Although with the academy model slowly taking over many schools, they are being financially run like one (money goes to the pockets of CEOs, not to the students). Despite this shift, most of the people I have met in high-level positions at schools have only ever been teachers. They’ve gone to university then gone straight into teaching. Which is great. We need these people, who have always wanted to be a teacher! But… they have zero experience of how the rest of the working world operates. Teachers and schools are in their own little bubble. A bubble which is completely alien to a non-teaching professional. It’s really, really weird. Trust me.

This lack of real-world business and management experience is blindingly apparent to anyone who has worked outside of a school for more than a few months. Schools need to recruit non-teachers to fill some of the management roles. This would massively streamline – everything. Reducing workloads. Cutting down pointless admin, and generally improving workplace morale. Teambuilding doesn’t exist in teaching. Instead its called CPD, which is just a one-way meeting about how great we could all be if we did just a little bit more work.

To make my point. Go to any modern office space. You’ll find great food, comfortable seating, fast (unrestricted WiFi), a premium coffee machine (or even an iPad controlled coffee tap, Google it), booths/pods for private chats or lunches, IT that works, well-designed surroundings and maybe even some interesting art. You might even, if you’re lucky, find people that look comfortable in the clothes they’re wearing! Gosh. Compare this to any staff room in a school. Dull, crappy seating, a half-arsed attempt at a kitchen unit, and a 5kg tub of stale coffee from Costco. If schools cared as much about their teachers as any decent city firm cared about its employees, there would not be a retainment crisis. End of conversation.

My next issue is the level of respect given to teachers. To put it simply, there isn’t any. Students don’t respect teachers, teaching is no longer an aspirational job. Knowledge is not cool. Knowing stuff has no value. Stupidity is a badge of honor. Morons walk the catwalks. They’re on our TVs, they’re on YouTube, they’re in our ruddy parliament, running the country! We, with our multiple degrees, are seen as people who couldn’t get a job elsewhere. We failed to find a ‘cool’ job. We’re stuck in a crumbling 1960’s tower block filled with asbestos, teaching 14-year-olds about specific heat capacity.

With the recruitment crisis getting worse, this grim misconception may turn out to be true. Teachers will continue to leave, only to be replaced by less qualified and undertrained replacements. Soon, you may even be able to teach science with only a degree in Biology! For crying out loud!

I get asked multiple times a week by teachers, students and parents – “Why on earth did you leave your last job to do this?!”. Because I want to teach! I didn’t accidentally quit my job, move continents, enroll in a training programme, complete a PGCE (and pay for it) and then stumble into a teaching role!

Parents don’t respect us. Every parent thinks that you’re not doing enough for their child. Or that because you gave their child a detention for throwing a pork pie at another child, which then became partially lodged in his ear, you are somehow against their child. I’m not, your child is a prat, trust me, I spend more time with him than you do.

Don’t get me started on parenting… It should be put on one of those lists of skills that our society has lost. Like whittling spoons, outdoor survival and voting based on facts in referendums.

The school doesn’t respect teachers (see my point about the staff areas). Schools are 100% designed for the students. Very little effort has gone into making the staff areas adult-friendly, productive or relaxing, which is a shame, as most staff spend up to 10-hours a day on site!

Finally, the government doesn’t respect teachers. Money is being ripped away from schools. The workload is increasing. Teachers are leaving. Government reduces funding further… Enough said about that. And who can forget when our very own secretary of the environment, that glorified sock puppet, Michael Gove said: “We’re fed up of experts”. I could write an entire blog post on that spam-faced wank crumpet. But I won’t. This is about teaching. Teachers are experts! Experts are exactly what this country does need!

All of this reinforces that popular misquote of the teaching recruitment adverts – ‘Those who can’t, teach’. It’s damaging to the profession, and therefore the next generations.

Teaching needs a huge PR overhaul. Money needs to flood back into schools, they need to be updated. Teachers will not stay in schools with rotting tower blocks and equipment that was last serviced as part of the war effort.

Interestingly only teachers that have taught for their entire professional life say it’s the best job in the world… How would they know? They’ve never had another job. Other jobs pay well, other jobs can choose when to go on holiday, other jobs don’t have compulsory unpaid overtime (yes, that’s a real thing – yes, it is in our contracts – yes, it does mean we don’t get paid for a huge amount of work that we do – yes, it is bullshit).

Please don’t sit there and CPD the life out of me telling me that this is the best job in the world. It’s not. Are you insane? Have you not seen the guys at DARPA who are developing running robots? Get a grip.

Despite this. I still want to teach. I love it. Well, I hate a lot of it. But the bit’s I love make me wake up at 06:30 every day and begrudgingly put on a tie.

I love it when a student comes to find me, out of the whole school, to tell me about a problem they have. I love it when they ‘get it’. I love it when they hate my shirts/music/jokes, I love it when they love my shirts/music/jokes, I love it when they tell me about something awesome they found on YouTube and how they understood it because of my 20-minute off-topic rant about black holes. I love it when they come to my room at lunch, just for a chat. I love it when they get their exam results and they’ve done way better than they expected. I love it when they realise that school is just the beginning, a stepping stone onto the next part of their life, and the more they put in, the more they’ll get out.

Still not as good as making a robot that can run. Come on.

Road Trip, Teaching, Thailand, Travel

London to Bueng Kan

Finally, after what seems like forever, we’ve come back to our Thai home! Our home, which I’ve written about a few times, is in the province of Bueng Kan, Thailand. The province borders the Mekhong river which splits Thailand and Laos. This is where our Thai family are based. It’s also where we’ve built our large family home.

We took a direct flight to Bangkok this time. Normally, to save a bit of cash, we would change in Dubai, Qatar, India or wherever offers the best time/cost saving benefit. Annoyingly, as I’m now a teacher, I have to travel during the school holidays which bumps the price up and reduces the number of cheap options. So, instead of our normally £500-ish return (with a change) ticket from London to Bangkok, we forked out a whopping £750 each on a direct return.

I think it’s the first time we’ve flown with EVA Air, for some reason I’d always assumed they were a carrier from South Africa. Turns out they’re Chinese.

Two points of note from an otherwise unnoteworthy flight. EVA is possibly the only airline I’ve flown with whose in-flight entertainment hardware is even close to acceptable. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it was ‘good’. The touch screen was clear with a decent resolution and colour spectrum. The touch capacitance was light, accurate and quick. Unlike most airlines where you require a chisel and a bucket-load of patience to press each button. The only letdown was the content. There simply wasn’t a huge amount of it. Missing a few new release blockbusters. Even the Chinese movies on offer were nearly a year old. Having said that, the content they did have was high resolution with and with good audio.

EVA also has, by far, the best in-flight blankets. So good in fact that, I slipped one into my wife’s carry-on bag. And I fully intend to grab more on the return flight.

As most people do, once we’d landed in Bangkok, we had an immediate desire to leave it. Bangkok, as much as we love it, is not what you want to experience after 14 hours of travelling. It was also monsoon season, which had the benefit of cooling everything down, but also made everything incredibly wet and miserable. We headed directly to Hualamphong train station to pick up our first-class sleeper tickets and get on our train to Udon Thani.

We’ve travelled first class the last few times we’ve been on Thai trains. The price is a bit more than second class, but you get a private cabin, a sink and room service. For two of us in one cabin, we paid about £85. You even get access to the stations first class lounge, which is an air conditioned room with a large CRT television and a selection of pink and beige 1980’s style sofas. There’s also a fridge full of chilled bottles of water. We always take as many as we can carry discreetly. We boarded at 19:30 and arrived in Udon at about 07:30 the following day. The trains have always had toilets and basic showers, but on the older trains, these were often seats with a hole down to the tracks and a hose for a shower. The new first-class carriages, which have been widely admired on Thai national news programmes, are a huge step forward. The toilets feel like those on an aeroplane, the showers are now a wet room with a proper power-shower. The cabins have screens with a live GPS feed of the train’s location, several TV channels and a room-service menu (provided by an onboard 7-Eleven). There are also LED lights and USB charging ports. The in-cabin screens even have a display in the corner showing which bathrooms/shower rooms are currently available. I’ve stayed in worse hotels.

Having showered and slept properly we both woke up nice and early to watch the sun rise out of our window. We ordered a couple of lattes and some Thai/Chinese breakfast items from the in-cabin screen. After carefully choosing what we wanted and submitting the order, we waited. Soon after, a man appeared at the door, with a menu and a notepad. We repeated our order, and it arrived about ten minutes later. Apparently, they have not figured out how to read the orders yet, only that a cabin wants to make an order. The screen-to-mouth 7-Eleven of the future was still clearly in its early stages.

Arriving in Udon Thani we were met at the station by the guy we normally hire our vehicles from. This time we’d gone for an older model Toyota Fortuner (4×4, 3-litre diesel). Although we own a selection of bikes and trucks at our home, we like to hire when we know we’re going to put loads of miles on the clock. And we had over 2,000 planned for the holiday. I’d already paid both the deposit and the full fee through PayPal over the free WiFi on the train. So we just had to sign the paperwork, jump in and drive off. We’ve always had great service with these guys.

From Udon, we headed north towards Nong Khai. This is also the final destination of the train, but we’ve yet to find a good car hire guy there, so we still hire in Udon Thani. As we raced the train north towards the Mekhong river I was reminded of just how mad Thailands roads are. People happily drive on the wrong side of the road, they will plough into roundabouts as if they’ve been invited to a destruction derby. Scooters are everywhere, not a single helmet in sight. The drivers are nervous and incapable yet incredibly confident that they’re right. There are often kids as young as eight driving scooters down major eight-lane highways. The wrong way. Dogs, chickens and more recently cows all scatter the road. Most notably are the ‘Salengs’, these are scooters with a rudimentary sidecar bolted on the side. You’ll often see entire families cruising around in these. I’ve once seen four adults, three children, a dog and two pigs in one. On the main road. At night. The sooner you accept the madness, the sooner you can enjoy it.

Reaching Nong Khai, we head east along the Mekhong river for about 160Km until we arrive in Bueng Kan town. Now it starts to feel like the end of our journey. Once in Bueng Kan, we take highway 212 until we see the familiar temple sign, about 20Km down the road, take a left and follow the dirt track for another twenty minutes until we’re home in Ba Na Kam village. As I write this, they are busily tarmacking the entire road through our tiny village to the main road. It’ll save us money on tires, but it takes away some of the charm.

A few dabs on of the horn, and the family pop out of the house to greet us. My wife’s mum, dad, brother and two of our nieces (daughters of my wife’s youngest sister). The youngest of which, Gor Khao, is seven months old and we’d not met before.

Talking, hugging, drinking and eating started and we immediately felt like we’d never left. Home.

QTS, Science, Teaching, Work

I’m a Teacher

I did it. I passed it all. I graduated, twice. I received my certificates and I got a good grade too. All of the paperwork, logs, documents, folders and general tedium are now over. I am a fully qualified, and employed, physics teacher.

This, of course, means only one thing at this time of year – six weeks of paid holiday. And before you non-teacher types out there start to compile even the earliest semblance of a winge about teacher holidays – Stop. Take a breath and listen.

If you’re lucky (or unlucky) you might have kids. They might be in the 11-16-year-old range that I teach. If so, you’ll probably know that at this point in their life they are discovering who they are, who they want to be, and who the rest of the world thinks they are. If they’re lucky, they will like one or maybe two of these, or they could hate all three. Each of these three will surface at different times, sometimes all together. Occasionally they will set off fireworks in their heads, just to see what will happen.

Most of these kids are simply growing up and their minds and bodies are growing too. For some this is exciting, for others it’s terrifying. They have questions, they have concerns, and they have insecurities. All of these increase with each passing day.

Some of the kids we teach have learning difficulties or special education needs. These can range from having difficulty reading what has been written on the board, to finding it hard to hold a pen, to having a severe panic attack every time they walk onto the school grounds. There are as many variations in mental health and learning ability in a school as there are students.

There are kids who are full-time carers. When they get home from school they will help their family member/s to the toilet, help them pay their bills, pick up their younger siblings from a nursery, make them dinner, bathe and put them to bed, and all kinds of other responsibilities which no 11-16 year old should have the burden of.

There are kids who live in hostels, kids who take a state-provided taxi, there are kids who aren’t fed at home and there first meal of the day is at school in the breakfast club.

We’ve got kids at our school who have been sexually, physically and verbally assaulted. By strangers, parents, friends, or siblings. For some, this might have been a once off, for others, it might have lasted weeks or even years. In some cases, it might still be happening.

There are a few who won’t talk, at all. Some who won’t write. Some who will simply not acknowledge you at all. There’s one who walks out of the room anytime you ask him a question. There are a couple who bring their older brothers spliffs in to sell on the playground. There’s a few who think it’s hilarious to set off the fire-alarms in the middle of important exams.

We, the school, deal with all of this. And we do a damn good job of it too. We’re counsellors, advisors, psychiatrists, friends and often parents. We clean up their mess, fix their ties, give them an ear to moan into and give them any support we can. Oh… and we also give them one of the best educations available in the world.

Six times a day, I get a selection of 30 of the kids listed above come into my classroom. Six times a day I have to decipher what mood they’re in, what problems they might be facing, put out any fires from break, lunch or the night before and get them to consume the content that I’ve spent hours planning. Once they go home, I have to sit with the detainees, I have to mark their books (that’s 180 books per day), I have to mark any exams and assessments, enter their data into SIMS, and then… when I go home I will spend a further few hours planning the following day’s lessons.

If you asked any teacher to take their salary then divide it by the combined hours they actually worked, I can guarantee that figure would be well below the minimum wage. I’d take an educated guess somewhere between £3-5 per hour.

So, the next time you think we’ve got it easy. Try to think about what we actually do, day in, day out, while you’re working in your 9-to-5 with a decent salary. We deserve to be paid properly and we deserve every second of holiday we get.

Now, I’m going to use most of mine back with our Thai family in the land of smiles while I plan my lessons and learn some names for the next year!

Medical

Anosmia

Anosmia is the medical term for the loss of the sense of smell. Blind people have lost their sight. Deaf people have lost their ability to hear. Anosmics have lost their sense of smell. And as is true in both the loss of sight and hearing, this can affect people from birth (congenital) or it can be the result of an injury. Mine is the latter.

I became anosmic after an accident in which I badly damaged my back and took a heavy knock to the head. Thankfully, I’ve fully recovered from both the bang on my head and the back injury, but I’ve not regained my sense of smell.

When people find out that I’m anosmic, there is a list of questions that they generally work through so I will try to answers these for you here:

How do you know you can’t smell?
I know what you’re thinking. Stupid question. And that’s normally my response. But thinking about it, it is something that’s hard to test, it’s very a subjective sense. It’s not something you wake up to and it suddenly strikes you that there is no smell! I imagine that waking up blind or deaf is much more of an immediate shock.

If I magically zapped away your sense of smell, right now, as you’re reading this, I’m sure you wouldn’t notice. After a few days, you’d probably assume you’re congested. And after a few weeks, you’d just forget about it. It’s only clear that you’ve got a problem when you see something that you know smells very distinctive (good or bad) and you can’t smell a thing.

When did you realise you’d lost your sense of smell?
It wasn’t until months after the accident that I realised I had lost my sense of smell. This is normally a shock to most people. But for the reasons above, you just fob it off as a cold, congestion, or hayfever, until eventually, you become used to not smelling stuff and that becomes the new normal.

My realisation came when I was in a petrol station forecourt with my dad. I, like many others, enjoy(ed) the smell of petrol when topping up the tank. On this particular occasion, I could see the petrol fumes pouring out of the fuel tank from the car in front as they filled up, the windows were open, and the smell came in. But this time it was different, I was suddenly aware that I was tasting the petrol fumes, not smelling them.

How can you taste food? How do you eat?!
This is a tough one to answer. People who do not have Anosmia can simply taste some food, and then hold their nose and taste it again, to make a direct and instant comparison. I can’t do that. As mentioned, I wasn’t even aware that I’d lost my sense of smell until months after I had. There are foods that I like, and ones that I don’t. So in that respect, not much has changed.

Taste is technically independent of the sense of smell. Sweet, salty, sour, bitter. All of these are still present and correct for me. However, most people’s perception of ‘taste’ will be made up of around 75% smell. So smell is clearly a big part of the eating experience. A part that I no longer have.

That said, there has been one quite large change. The texture of food is now much more important to me. If you blended up two meals into a weird smoothie, I could tell you if it’s sweet, salty, sour or bitter, but I couldn’t tell you if it was chicken or pork. I couldn’t tell you if it was a carrot or a potato. But, when I eat these in a more conventional way, from a plate, I can absolutely tell what I’m eating – I can see it. And more importantly, I can feel it. The texture is now my primary form of ‘taste’ it has filled that 75% gap left by the disappearance of smell.

Interestingly Ben Cohen (the Ben from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream) is anosmic. And this is the primary reason that their ice cream contains such whopping great chunks of chocolate, banana, fudge etc. Ben kept adding chunks and increasing their size until he was happy with the flavour. Because to him, the texture was his primary sense of ‘taste’.

Do you miss being able to smell?
No, not really. Whenever smell seems to work it’s way into a conversation, it’s negative. Something smells horrible, someone’s been sick, the cat has dragged in a rotten bird carcass or the baby has released a small biological weapon into it’s nappy. So no, I don’t really miss it.

Do your other senses compensate for losing your sense of smell?
Possibly, but again it’s hard to tell. I certainly don’t have any superpowers, at least not any that I’ve discovered yet.

Well… there is one thing I can do, which is quite strange… but it’s not something that I can do on-demand. And it doesn’t happen very frequently.

I can remember some smells, and these ‘smell-memories’ can be triggered by visuals, stories, people, anything. And yes, that includes film and television programmes.

You may think I have lost my sense of smell, but really I’ve gained the power of smell-o-vision.

 

Teaching, Work

And the results are in…

I woke up this morning. Which in itself is quite an achievement as I was watching the election results play out until the early hours. Eventually, however, I surrendered to the duvet. So when I woke up, I grimaced as I swiped my phone to life. BBC News Alert. Oh god, it’s all over, I immediately thought Theresa May has probably won by a landslide in the last hundred seats. She has probably already started hunting foxes, feasting on the new-born babies of every single teenage mother and executing pensioners that don’t sell their house to fund her billionaire chums cocaine habit.

I clicked. I read on. We were safe. The Tory juggernaut had not got the predicted landslide, it appeared to have stalled, backfired and suffocated in its own exhaust fumes. Although it wasn’t all good news, she’d still got the most seats… so despite her losing in just about every other imaginable sense, she had technically won. Just.

Labour, on the other hand, had lost, but they’d also won. They have thrown a spanner of such magnitude into the Tory machine that it’s surely close to being written off. Theresa May is scrabbling around the political dregs of Westminster trying to form an alliance with the DUP. The DUP are essentially the most backwards thinking group of morons imaginable. Some of their ideologies would make KKK members uncomfortable. They have incredibly strong links to terrorism in Northern Ireland. And they are to form a government with Theresa May.

She warned us that there would be a “Coalition of Chaos”, she just didn’t say that she would be leading it. But, I didn’t start writing this to moan about the election. So let’s move on.

So, in addition to the election, a lot has happened since my last blog post. Too much to even begin to mention. You’ll already be fully aware of the disaster that was Brexit, where 17,410,742 people voted to leave the EU. Sounds like a huge number, and it is. But not as huge as 46,500,001 (this was the total number of people eligible to vote in the referendum). A basic analysis of the maths would tell you that only 37% of the public have forced the hand of our confused and bewildered government into triggering Article 50, to start the process of leaving the EU.

You will also, no doubt, know that the even the most satirical and obscene scenario in Private Eye can become a reality. Of course, I am referring to the orange-faced fuck-nugget that is Donald Trump. I simply don’t have the vocabulary to verbalise my feelings on this cretin so I won’t try. He has led a campaign based on hate, idiocy and fear. I have recently visited the Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum (which is superb, sobering and informative), and I couldn’t help but note the similarities between Trump’s campaign and the earliest actions of the Nazi party. Enough about the small-handed, toupée’d shit-badger. Back to me.

I quit Royal Caribbean. Yes, I know. Why would you leave a position that paid you to travel around the world, on a ship?! Well, two main reasons, like anything, it’s not as great as it seems. And more importantly, I got a better offer. Mos (my wife) and I had been working for Royal Caribbean for a couple of years, and we reached a point where we simply couldn’t deal with the internal politics and red-tape.

But what was this ‘better offer’? Well, I was offered a role at Trickbox TV in London – back in the UK. I would join their small team as the project manager. Taking over the project management responsibilities of the managing director as the company grew. Strangely the studio that I would be working in was one that I had worked in when it was under the management of a different company – Flint London. This is also how I first met the MD of Trickbox – Liam.

20151204_071331

Trickbox was great. The picture above is the view from the studio! I was there for a year. Great team, brilliant location and some interesting projects. Some of which I will blog about separately. But… there was a problem. I wanted something different. I needed a challenge and I didn’t feel that I could progress in that role. More than this, I didn’t feel like I could progress while still working in TV. There is also the huge factor of commuting. When working in TV, you’re tied to London. You either live in London, or you commute into it. Both are expensive. And both are things that I wanted to cut from my life.

Frustratingly, I still haven’t won the Euromillions, so this new challenge had to be something that produced an income. This small but key caveat limited my options drastically. I was essentially looking for a role that would; pay me, challenge me, reward me mentally and financially, and finally… not be linked to London (or ideally any cities in general). It would also be nice for the new role to be something that I could do anywhere in the world.

I had started to see adverts for training to become a teacher. These became more and more targeted and frequent as I searched for roles online. The internet is a wonderful and terrifying thing. It was soon sending me adverts, so specifically tailored to me that I thought about drawing the curtains, locking the door and applying for a restraining order.

The adverts/emails would be something along the lines of this; ‘Looking for a challenge? Receive a bursary of £30,000 to train to teach Physics’. They knew I was looking for a challenge, that’s not difficult – I was searching for ‘dream jobs’, ‘jobs working from home’ and all kinds of other terms. They knew I was looking to be paid for whatever I was going to do next – not a difficult assumption if they knew I was looking for a job.

The next part is where it gets interesting. I have a BSc (Hons) degree, which for those who don’t know, is a Batchelor of Science with Honours degree. But I don’t think this is publically ‘out there’ on the company websites, blogs or staff pages that I’ve appeared on. But, it’s more specific than that. I have always been a huge physics fan. I love reading articles about the latest developments in space exploration, energy, climate science and a whole load more. Google knows this.

So, to cut a long story short, as I am painfully aware that I’m edging closer and closer to 1,200 words in this post… In July 2016 I joined a number of courses with the University of Sussex, Weydon School and the Department for Education. These courses include post-graduate physics, PGCE (PostGraduate Certificate in Education), TSST (Teach Subject Specialism Training) and QTS (which is essentially a license to teach issued by the government).

I am now, at the time of writing this, about 30 hours away from completing my last task for all of the mentioned courses. From that point onward, I will be a fully qualified and licensed teacher of physics. Wish me luck.

 

Social, Thailand

Community

As regular readers of this blog will know, Mos and I live in Thailand. Sometimes we travel around the world for work. But we live in Thailand. And nearly a year ago we, left our house in Chiang Mai, and moved to Ba Na Kam. A small village, in the north-east of Thailand, nestled between a number of vast lakes, themselves encircled by the Mekhong river.

Our work abroad was a big deciding factor in this move from Chiang Mai. With us being out of the country for six to eight months per year it didn’t make sense for us to keep a large house with gardens. Instead, we made the decision to rebuild Mos’ parents home in Ba Na Kam. The new house would be much bigger, more ‘western’ and house all of our family. Mos’ parents, brother – Foamy, Sister – Fern and Ferns boyfriend – Golf. With all of the family under one roof, everyone’s living expenses would drop, and we could leave the country without moving all of our belongings into storage.

The village of Ba Na Kam is tiny. The residents are all latex farmers, there are three small shops, each selling meat, vegetables, bottled and canned goods and prepared, single serve meals in plastic bags. At one end of the village there is a shed with a horizontal opening at the front that is covered loosely by a sheet of corrugated tin roofing. This is the village petrol station. Inside, there are two drums of fuel, one petrol, one diesel. On top of each is a hand-pump, hose and a glass cylinder which shows the quantity of fuel being pumped.

There are only three roads into the village, all three are potholed, muddy and unlit. Which hardly comes as a surprise when you consider that they have to weave through ten kilometers of rice paddies and latex farms in order to reach a main road. These roads are regularly maintained by residents, who will fill in the holes with dirt and twigs. But once a couple of buffalo, a pick-up truck and some motorbikes have used the road, all of their hard work has vanished.

The houses in the village are all largely traditional Thai structures. Many of the houses are on stilts with sheltered areas underneath to keep farm equipment, dry clothes and to socialise. Concrete is starting to slowing creep into the construction of the newer or recently renovated or repaired properties. But you can still find the odd older house made entirely of the much prised teak wood.

Walking down the main road of Ba Na Kam you will see nothing but smiling faces. A few pointing fingers, and a few children screaming ‘Farang’, which translates to ‘foreigner’ but is usually used when referring to any non-Asian person. In this area of the country there are very few foreigners, so the children get very excited when they see one!

You’ll also see plenty of chickens, dogs, puppies and maybe a pig. If you come at the right time of day you’ll have to step off the road to let a heard of water buffalo casually stroll past as they make there way back from the swampy grazing ponds to their home on the other side of the village.

We’re lucky enough to call this village home. A village where everyone knows everyone by first name. A village where everyone works very hard, for very little, but they will always offer you food and drink. A village where friends sit and talk outside their homes and welcome any passers by to join the conversation, and share the whiskey.

I already knew I was lucky to live in this village. But, a few nights ago, and in tragic circumstances, I really got an insight in to this community.

It was about 19:00. Our family was all sat on the seating area at the front of the house eating what was left of dinner, sharing whiskey and repairing a large green fishing net. Mos and I were just about to go to the shop and buy some milk when we heard some shouting from a few houses down. We listened for a minute, trying to figure out the context of the noise. Then I noticed my families faces all change. They went from cheeky eavesdropping neighbours trying to catch some gossip, to alert, serious and concerned friends, all within a few seconds of each other.

Before anyone had a chance to explain what had happened, we all had head-torches on and had walked down to see the lady that was now screaming. Other neighbours soon also joined us.

This womans son had gone to spread fertiliser on their rice farm five hours ago, and no one had heard from him since. The woman had sent friends and the mans daughter out to the rice field to find him. The reason for the sudden concern from the villagers was a phone call from the daughter. She had found her father, face-down and motionless in their rice paddy. Immediately, people jumped onto motorbikes, pick-up trucks and tractors and rushed to the farm. Within a few minutes the mayor of the village was speaking over the emergency public address system informing the whole village what was happening. Minutes after that announcement was made, the entire village had arrived. Torches, motorbikes, dogs, babies, children, sticks and homemade stretchers. The road was now full of people, all at the womans house, all trying to ask where her farm is and how they can get there to help.

The women of the village all set to work cleaning the house, making a bed, and comforting the mother. They hoped for the best, but we’re clearly preparing for and expecting the worse.

About twenty minutes passed, as the crowd of concerned and equipped villagers grew. Then, heading towards us came a pick-up truck. The first one that left to go to the farm. It was driving slowly towards the house. Once we saw it, we knew the search was over. We knew the man could not have been resuscitated. We knew that behind those two headlights, coming slowly towards us, was the body of the man the whole village had been looking for.

The crowd of villagers stood in silence as the truck backed up into the house. The body of the man was carried into the house by those who had helped bring him back. The villagers who were now returning from their search started to gather around the house. Shortly after everyone had returned the volunteer ambulance from the neighbouring village arrived. They assessed the man and pronounced him dead. The police were called, as they would need to officially document the event. The villagers stayed well into the night to offer comfort to the family.

The following day, outside the house, the villagers had erected a large gazebo, laid down bamboo mats on the floor and garnished makeshift tables with plenty of food. Even today, two days later, villagers are still at the house, making sure the family have food, shelter and friendship to help them through the grieving process.

Our village may be lacking in various aspects of modern western living. But we do have one thing that I’ve never experienced in the UK. A real, honest and pure sense of community.

Teaching, Thailand, Work

I’m back!

So, here it is, my first post in what seems like a decade. I know I have a small, but dedicated readership on here, so I apologise for my absence. Sorry. But, I’m back! And I hope to be posting on a far more regular basis than before. I’m sure you’ll understand both why I’ve been inactive for so long, and why that is now going to change, as you read on.

My last post on the 28th May 2013 detailed my first couple of months working on the Royal Caribbean cruise ship, Enchantment of the Seas. Since then, not much has changed. However I was promoted to Head Broadcast. Which basically means I delegate work rather than actually do it… I’m hoping to base myself on a much larger ship, then I will be able to properly maintain equipment and fix issues.

I did have a short, three-week, holiday back in Thailand. Most of it was spent in airports, on planes, busses and trains. But I did enjoy the remaining time. And of course, seeing Mos again after seven longs months was amazing. We spent every minute of the holiday together. We immediately decided that we’d never be apart for that long again. It’s not fair, it’s not fun, it’s horrible. But, there was light at the end of the tunnel, Mos had been offered a job on my ship. I won’t go into the frankly ridiculous hoops that we had to jump through to get the job offer. But I will say that Royal Caribbean need to take a serious looks at their hiring system. In particular their hiring partner in Thailand. Unhelpful, dishonest and corrupt.

Sadly most of the holiday was spent filling out paperwork and visiting various hospitals, offices and embassies to get Mos’ visa. This is a fairly simple process, but as with everything else the hiring partner (recruitment agency) made it far more difficult and complex than it needed to be. Even so, we enjoyed the hours of taxi rides around Bangkok, we enjoyed the hundreds of BTS train journeys , we even enjoyed a handful of crazy tuk-tuk trips.

In between the two main paperwork periods we managed to escape to our farm and family in Bueng Kan, northern Thailand. It was great to see them again, and our dog Khao San! Who I hadn’t seen since I left Thailand in April 2013. It was also a chance for us to see the new house our family had been building. It is on the same site as their previous house, but far bigger. Mos and I have helped them out with money to get the house built and up to a decent standard. Our family are farmers and happy with the most basic accommodation. Naturally, Mos and I want the best for them, so we’ve helped fund a new kitchen, tiles, equipment and labour to assist the construction. They even built me my own western style bathroom.

As usual out visit was far shorter than we’d have liked. And it was now time for us to head back down to Bangkok to completed the final few tasks to get Mos on her way to Miami! Mos’ contract started a week earlier than mine, so she was going to be flying to Miami, boarding the ship and getting to know people all by herself. I knew she’d be fine, but I was still very nervous for her.

As Mos holds a Thai passport, she was told that she would have to start her career in Royal Caribbean as either a laundry attendant or in room service. She chose room service, which is much less physically demanding, but still has horrific hours. Again, I could talk for hours on the unfairness of this system and what many rightly see as racial profiling, but I won’t. That is the system, it’s been very cleverly set up by the Royal Caribbean legal team and it’s pretty bullet proof from a legal standpoint. Ethically however, it’s disgusting and archaic.

Mos’ role is a mid-level job in the food & beverage department. She works very long hours and answers to a team of supervisors that are tripping over themselves to impress their manager. Sadly, this is normally executed by overworking those under them and pushing the legal working hours to the limit… sometimes exceeding them. This role for Mos is very much a stepping stone to get into the Adventure Ocean team, who look after the babies, toddlers, kids and teens on the ship. As a result, she puts up with far more than she should. There is a light at the end of the tunnel as they say.

Having said that, I have learnt not to trust any information the company gives me. I only believe it if I can see it. There are countless examples I could give, but again, to refrain from this post becoming a rant, I won’t. We’ll just say this, Mos has all the qualifications needed to join the Adventure Ocean team. She has been approved by our Miami office. She has been told by HR that it’s very likely to happen. But, I’ll only believe it when Mos starts her first day in Adventure Ocean.

Even if our next contract does have Mos in Adventure Ocean, we’re not fully sure that we’ll return to the company. There are a few points that are making us look elsewhere. Mos’ biggest factor to leaving ships is the distance from her family. Not so much the geographical distance, but the time delay in information. We often only check our Facebook pages, phone home etc twice a week. So, if anything happens at home, we will hear about it a couple of days late. Meaning it difficult for us to respond to anything urgent. An issue which has affected us and one that I will discuss later.

One of my main issues with our work on ships is the lack of a ‘home’. Sure, we have a cabin on the ship, but it’s not a home. I want a home, that we can own together, that we can furnish, decorate and enjoy. We are also keen to start a family in the next few years, and that is simply impossible on ships, and difficult without a homely home.

Another issue that plagues me throughout this industry is the feeling that nothing I do means anything. I don’t help anyone. Nothing I do matters. Sure I can install a full HD broadcast studio, I can build a stereoscopic camera system from scratch, I can operate a multi-national satellite network. I can do plenty of complicated, difficult and technical things. But at best, all these skills do is enable people to watch TV. It lets people watch a football match live from the other side of the world. That’s it. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t change lives.

I don’t save lives, I don’t put out fires, I don’t help people, I don’t serve in the military. And that is something I want. I want to do something that benefits someone else. Someone that needs it. And that is why teaching has caught my eye. And not just any teaching. I am looking at teaching English to children in rural Thailand. Children who’s families can’t afford to send them to the expensive schools, colleges, universities. In Thailand, fluency in English is the holy grail of education. It can open doors to scholarships, jobs, societies and it is a vital skill for any visa application in the west.

As a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) teacher, I could also travel, like I do now. These teachers are in demand across the world. And salaries vary greatly. In Thailand, a TEFL teacher can expect around $1,000 USD per month. Some schools will also provide accommodation, flight and lunches, but not all. A TEFL teacher in South Korea and expect to receive $2,500 USD per month, again some schools will include some added bonuses, some won’t. In addition to this base salary, many TEFL teachers take on private lessons, where they teach students 1-to-1 for an additional fee. Which can be anything between $8-$50 USD per hour.

Both of these salaries will strike anyone from the ‘west’ as low. But you have to take into account the living expenses and quality of life. In Thailand for example, your $1,000 USD salary which equates roughly to 30,000 Thai Baht, would easily allow you to have your own air-conditioned bungalow, run and maintain a motorbike, drink socially and eat every meal in a local cafe and still have 30-50% of your salary to put into savings. The quality of life is also vastly different to that in the UK for example. There is very little stress, you have far more spare time and far less admin work such as paying personal taxes and bills.

Most valuable to me though is the impact I would have on the lives of my students. I would be giving them a skill that they will have for life. A skill that will give them more opportunities that their parents would have had.

To get started on this idea of becoming a TEFL teacher, I have started my certification and training program. It’s with a company in the UK, and I am able to complete the course online with tutors and various bits and pieces at my disposal. I’m currently 36% of the way through the course having completed four exams and having scored an ‘A’ grade on all four. I will have completed this certification before the end of my contract at the end of July.

Also, as if fate has already decided that I am going to become a TEFL teacher, I have been offered a job in a tiny remote rural village in the North East of Thailand. This village has also happens to be home to Mos’ family. Bueng Kan.

So, right now, Mos and I are working away at completing our current contracts. We’ve got 87 days left. I’ve got my certification to complete. We’d both like to start learning Spanish. And we’re also researching ways to invest our money. So lots to be done. Plenty to keep us busy. Who knows, maybe by the next time I update this blog we’ll have a completely different set of plans… That’s what’s so exciting…

Travel, USA, Work

Ship Life

Here’s another landmark to add to the still relatively young 2013. As you will most likely already know from my previous posts, I’ve been waiting to be assigned a ship for my new job. Six weeks ago, whilst on Koh Tao, sitting in the office of a small production company, I got an email. This was the email I had been waiting for. It simply read; ‘Ship Assignment – ENCHANTMENT OTS – Baltimore, MD – April 13th’. Which is American for the 13th April. At the time, this was only three weeks away. Which was great, something was finally happening. But it also meant that I would be leaving Mos far sooner than we’d expected. But as we’ve discussed many times, this was going to be great for our future. My new job on the ship would allow me to take home plenty of tax-free cash, and, they’d be able to hire Mos too. We’d be able to build our savings account to the point where we could buy a house in the UK, or, retire in Thailand in the space of a few years. And of course, you need money before starting a family.
Shortly after I received the email Mos and I started running around the island doing last bits of shopping that I’d neglected. Socks for example. Living in Thailand socks quickly make their way from the wardrobe to the bin. We had parties, sometimes multiple parties each day. On an island like Koh Tao, the resident community is small, and as a result people want to say goodbye when someone leaves. But as most of them are small business owners finding a single date and time for a party is nearly impossible. So, and I’m not complaining about this, we have lots of leaving parties.
Royal Caribbean, my new employer, had booked my flights from Bangkok to Washington DC. But I still had shopping to do and more importantly a visa to get! So I headed off to Bangkok to start the process, which annoyingly, was at precisely the same time as Songkran, Thai new year. Songkran is effectively the worlds biggest water-fight. It’s brilliant. But it also means that the entire country, including foriegn embassies close down for the week. Luckily I managed to get my visa granted, hours before the shutdown.
A couple of days later Mos traveled up from Koh Tao to meet me in Bangkok. As this would be the last few days we’d spend together for possibly up to seven months we decided to treat ourselves. We went for nice dinners, shopping, sightseeing and even to Siam City theme park. Where Mos proved to me that roller-coasters really can make someone projectile vomit. Despite this, we had a great day.
Once Mos and I had exhausted our time, money and bodies it was time for me to leave. I picked up my new suit, tuxedo and shirts from my tailor. Packed my bags and headed off to the airport. Mos and I had one last milkshake together before I disappeared into customs. I hate leaving her, especially at airports.
I flew with Qatar, who I’ve flown with a few times in the past and they have always impressed. This trip was no different. And in case you’re wondering, Doha airport still has a huge amount of camel themed souvenirs along with countless diamonds, jewelery and watches for sale.
Once I arrived in Washington I was met by the US Immigration team. And like all crew, apparently, ushered into a waiting area where my visa and passport where double and triple checked against their various databases. After an hour I was let through. The first thing you see when you leave Washington Dulles airport is a huge American flag. Today it was back-lit by the sun with perfectly trimmed grass surrounding it. It was like I’d walked into a film. After a short wait my van arrived to pick me up and take me to my hotel.
Maybe it was the 32 hours of traveling. Maybe it was the feeling of elation after finally getting through customs. Maybe it was just me being acclimatised to rock-solid mattresses and hot, humid rooms in Thailand. But the Holiday Inn at Washing Dulles airport had the best bed. Ever.
During the day other new crew arrived at the hotel. Most of us had arrived by the time we had our complimentary dinner in the restaurant. I met a guy from Serbia who was going to be signing on as Stage Staff. His name is Srdan, but it’s pronounced the same as the English word ‘surgeon’. It turns out Serbia is one of the biggest denominations of crew on this ship, behind the Philippines, Indonesia and India.
The following morning we were all picked up by a coach and driven to Baltimore, which is just over an hours drive away. Once we arrived at the port, US Customs and Border Patrol met us and led us into a secure crew area where our belongings were x-rayed and we were searched. Finally we were moved to  secure holding room with tea, coffee, pastries and the usual tea trolley bits. We had to wait for the passengers to get off the ship, once they were, staff distributed our contracts and other paperwork and took or passports. Then, we were led to the gangway of the ship. On the ship we dumped our luggage in the middle of deck one, which, apart from a small area for guest embarkation, is completely for crew. We waited in line at the HR office to have our photos taken and information checked. Once we had completed that, each persons supervisor came to pick them up and begin to show them around their relevant work, living, leisure, eating and emergency areas.

Enchantment at DockEnchantment at Dock.
Thankfully, my job comes with a rank. I’m a 2-stripe officer. To give you perspective, the captain is 4-stripe. And out of the 850+ crew, only 240 of us are ranked with stripes. Starting with half-stripe followed by 1-strip, 1.5-stripe, 2-stripe and so on. The crew is further divided into three groups; crew, staff and officers. Officers are the marine department, the people that stand in the bridge, along with the various heads of engineering and so on. The crew are the people that keep the ship running; engineers, cooks, cleaners, deck boys, painters, laundry and so on. The staff are the people that are neither required to operate or maintain the ship. The staff are the luxuries; executive housekeepers, concierges, cruise directors, managers and me. I work in the Broadcast team. I say ‘team’, really it’s just me and Frank. Between us we manage all of the broadcast related satellite equipment, the encoders, decoders, streaming systems, scheduling systems and just about anything on the ship that involves video of any description. Having said that, the collective term for all employees is ‘crew’.
My job and rank means that I have access to all of the guest areas, all day, I can use any of the crew, staff or officer facilities and most of the guest facilities. In-fact, tomorrow I will be going to the on-board spa & saloon to get a long-overdue haircut. One restriction on all crew, even the captain, is use of the casino. No employees, of any rank or role can gamble on board. Which is fine, because even if you did want to gamble your wage away, there are plenty of casinos in the ports we visit.
Another restriction that applies to all employees is alcohol. Royal Caribbean operate a zero tolerance policy on alcohol and drugs. You’re allowed a blood alcohol content level of 0.04 whilst on-duty, and 0.05 when off-duty. Both of which are far lower than most drink/drive limits. If you’re found to be over these limits at any point you will leave the ship, and the company at the next port. As for drugs, any possession, use, or trace in your system of drugs will result in you leaving the ship at the next port, getting fired and being turned over to local authorities. Which could mean a 25-year prison sentence in a small jail in the Bahamas. Not good. None of which bothers me as I’ve never touched drugs and I very rarely drink alcohol.
During my first two weeks on the ship my predecessor, Homer, was on-board to show me the ropes and get me up to speed. Which on this ship meant showing me all of the equipment that is broken, or about to break and how he manages to do his job around them. Homer is now on a four-month holiday and will be rejoining the fleet in Australia on the Radiance of the Seas. It’s a hard life.
My first two weeks didn’t only involve Homer showing me computers that pre-date most modern civilisations, I also had ‘training’. Training, like most other things on the ship is divided into stuff you need to know to save your life (Marine), and stuff you need to know to make guests happy (delivering the ‘wow’). We had two or three sessions each day. I, unlike most, found the marine training interesting and looked forward to each session. After all, it could literally save your life. The training that they call ‘Delivering the WOW’ bored me to my core. There are hour long presentations on how to smile at guests, how to point at things in ways that don’t cause offense, how to converse with guests and various other life-lessons that anyone who wasn’t locked in a box from birth would have picked up by the time they were ten years old. I hated it. With a passion.

Enchantment in ArubaEnchantment of the Seas in Aruba.
Our ship, the Enchantment of the Seas, is now one of the smallest in the fleet. She is rumored to be second in line to be sold off or given to one of our subsidiary companies. This rumor was as good as confirmed when she was scheduled to leave her 14-day cruises from Baltimore and move to a 3/4-day cruise schedule from Port Canaveral. 3/4-day cruises are like a hospital ward for the terminally ill. Ships are sent there to keep them running and operational until they die, are sold off or scrapped. I joined the Enchantment on the 13th April 2013, which was her last ever voyage from Baltimore, as she repositioned to her new home port of Port Canaveral.
We arrived in Phillipsburg on the island of St. Maarten after three full days of sailing from Port Canaveral. I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting from Phillipsburg. But I wasn’t surprised at what I found. Disappointed, but not surprised. Phillipsburg, much like all of the ports I have visited since, was full of brand name shops. Each of the ports has the same 8-10 brands. Each port has the same arts and crafts markets selling branded trinkets, most of which are made in China and printed with the name of the port you happen to be in. Phillipsburg represented everything I dislike about the classic package holiday. I’ve never understood why people travel half way around the world, get on a ship, and then get off and shop in the same shops they have in any mid-size city back home. I also dislike the time restrictions. When I go to a new place, I want the freedom to explore the local scenery, meet local people and eat local food. Cruise passengers pile off the ship, go to the generic beaches, eat in McDonald’s and shop in the brand shops. Maybe I’m the strange one…
On the evening of the ninth day of the voyage we had to divert into Nassau, Bahamas due to a medical emergency with a passenger. Probably a case of too much McDonalds. People on cruise ships eat like machines. It’s amazing to watch.
Before reaching Port Canaveral I had to familiarise myself with all of the equipment before Homer left. As I said before, this was less training and more showing me what was broken and how they work around it. For example, the edit suite is a 2006 vintage AVID with less processing power than pretty much any new $300 off-the-shelf laptop. I won’t spend this entire post complaining about the dated computers, miss-used equipment or broken machinery that we have in broadcast. Largely because I’m not sure I have enough time to make the list. I’m only here for seven months afterall.
After the various Caribbean and Bahamian island stops, which all fitted nicely into the crew shopping motto of ‘same shit, different port’, we arrived in Port Canaveral. Our new home. From this point on we will be only taking three and four day voyages. The three day itinerary is as follows; Day 1 – Port Canaveral, Day 2 – Nassau, Day 3 – CocoCay, then we arrive early in the morning back in Port Canaveral in order to disembark the guests and pick up the new ones. The four day itinerary is; Day 1 – Port Canaveral, Day 2 – CocoCay, Day 3 – Nassau, Day 4 – At Sea.  Port Canaveral is in the US state of Florida, the other two stops are both in the Bahamas.
CocoCay, which you may not have heard of, is our private island. It is owned by Royal Caribbean and is for the exclusive use of our guests. The island is a nice small island, there is snorkeling, hiking, jet ski hire, swimming, beaches and so on. There is also a very large, free, barbeque. Which I’m pretty sure is the reason most people really go. Cruises seem to be almost entirely centered on eating.
Nassau is a small town in the Bahamas, with western prices. We’ve also been warned by our chief security officer that the Bahamian police often set up drug selling operations to try and sell you drugs and then arrest you. The prison sentence in the Bahamas for drug possession can be as severe as 25 years in jail. Nassau, lives up to my earlier description of the ports we visit. One thing that is particularly depressing about Nassau is the large amount of puffer-fish and starfish that have been caught and dried out to be sold as souvenirs. Having seen many varieties of both these species in their natural habitats around the world, I can’t see the attraction of having a dead one sitting on your mantle piece.
As far as life on a ship goes, it’s great. I get free food, free gym time, free accommodation, I pay no tax, I have no bills and I get paid to effectively be on holiday. Much of my time is now spent trying to get Mos, my wife, onto the ship. Part of the deal when I signed up, was that they would provide Mos with a job on my ship. So far they are proving to be as useless at this as they were during my sign-on period. However, tomorrow our ship gets a new HR manager. Hopefully that will speed up the process!
We are currently sailing from Coco Cay to Port Canaveral, where we are due to arrive in nine hours. I hope to be getting off, I need to open a US bank account to keep my cash safe. It also makes it easier to buy online and send money back home to Thailand. Not sure if I’ll be going with someone or not. Most of the people I know are ‘management’ level, so they don’t have timetabled work hours. Like me, they just have to make sure they are there when something breaks.
Port Canaveral itself is fairly basic. There are taxis or a shuttle bus for the crew to head into town. There is a small shopping center (Mall), a Walmart, Cocoa Beach, Hooters, McDonald’s, a Post Office and various other eateries and shops. Most of the crew head to Walmart to stock up on luxury snacks, toiletries and drinks. The on board crew shop – ‘The Slop Chest’, is fairly limited in selection. It’s also our only American port. Which means that any crew that are signing on or off their contracts change over here. Which adds to the chaos.
Changeover day (Port Canaveral) is where we load on the new guests. Which means that at 15:45 each changeover day we have a full emergency drill for the passengers (PAX Drill). I am part of a seven person life boat team based at muster station 2. Which is good because it means I get a seat on a life boat rather than a life raft in a real emergency. But it’s bad because I will have to control 143 scared and panicking tourists.  I don’t mind it too much as I get to shout at them for 40-minutes detailing how they will all die if they don’t listen to me.

This is my life boat, lowered and ready for lowering in Nassau, Bahamas.

Enchantment Lifeboat

Thailand

Back to Koh Tao

Earlier this year, following my spinal surgery, Mos and I decided to leave Chiang Mai and move back down to the island of Koh Tao. Which, as you may remember is where we got married on the 14th March last year. Chiang Mai was amazing and we loved it there, the climate was great, much cooler than the rest of Thailand. We had a really nice house, an awesome dog, and some great neighbours. It had started to feel like our home. It was after all the first place we had lived as a married couple.

But, I wasn’t working. Any work I was doing was done remotely over the internet. Or the odd bit of film and television production work in Bangkok. So there was no need to be tied to a location. And Mos had been offered her old job back, at Scuba Junction on Koh Tao. These factors, and many more, made the decision a sensible and ultimately easy one.

We packed up our belongings into large boxes and divided them into two piles. The first pile was stuff that was to be sent to our farm and family in Bueng Kan. We had a few things that we wanted stored safely, there was aslo Em and Sak’s belongings. As at this point Em and Sak were both living with us with their daughter, our niece, Oon Ing. They would be moving to live in Bueng Kan with the rest of our family, Em and Sak would also take the reins on our farm. In addition to Oon Ing, they would be taking another very special cargo with them. Khao San, our dog.

Over the last few weeks Khao San had bonded with Em and Oon Ing. And she normally finds it very hard to build relationships thanks to her fairly horrible past. But with Em, Oon Ing and later Sak, Khao San had no issues. She could see that Mos and I trusted them and she gradually started to trust them too. She would come and sit on the sofa with them, play around them, and generally be far more relaxed than we had seen her in front of other guests to our house. Possibly the best sign was when she started to get protective of the then two-month old Oon Ing. If she could hear her crying upstairs she would immediately find Em and try to signal upstairs, mostly by repeatedly running from Em to the door of the room Oon Ing was in. If a stranger walked past our house she would immediately check where Oon Ing was and then sit within eyesight of her.

It was horrible for Mos and I to leave Khao San, but we knew that we had already improved her life dramatically by rescuing her from the Care For Dogs shelter and giving her the love and care she deserved. We also knew that she would grow to love life on the farm. We have two other dogs over there, both a similar size and look to Khao San, but considerably more robust. They are both sisters, so we hope Khao San will eventually fit in as a third.

The second pile of boxes would be sent down to Koh Tao. In Thailand postage is so cheap it’s easier to move house by post than to hire a van or truck. I think we posted the entire contents of our house for a little under $200. In these boxes we loaded extra bedding, all of our clothing and other bits and pieces like keyboards, cables, adaptors and speakers. Oh, and we also posted our scooter, which cost a further $100.

For the remaining bits of furniture and general household stuff we called a local second-hand shop who came in a pick-up truck and gave us a fair price for the lot.

Once we were all packed up, postage sent and remaining bits sold, it was time for us to leave. Em, Sak, Oon Ing and Khao San would be leaving later that night on a ‘VIP Extra’ bus to Udon Thani. A twelve-hour, overnight journey through very tight and winding mountain roads. Not a pleasant journey, which is why we sweetened it slightly by buying tickets for the ‘VIP Extra’ bus. This bus has very wide and fully reclining seats. Waitress service with free refreshments and also blankets and pillows to help you sleep.

Mos and I were leaving on the sleeper train to Bangkok. My back was still in recovery as this was still only one week since my surgery. So I decided that we couldn’t fly or take the bus as both of these would greatly exceed my sitting threshold. At this point I could only sit for about ten minutes before feeling pain. By fifteen minutes the pain would be unbearable and I’d have to take a painkiller and walk around. The sleeper train was the only option really as it enabled me to lay flat for the entire 14-hour journey.

Once we arrived in Bangkok we took a taxi to Khao San Road (no relation to our dog). We often stay in or around Khao San Road, it’s a very busy street famous for catering to backpackers. There are hostels and cheap hotels all over the place, along with cheap bars and a lot of street food. Because it is a hub for backpackers it’s travel links are very good. You can get buses, trains, planes, boats all from Khao San Road (or at least a $2 taxi ride away). Khao San Road is also my least favourite part of Bangkok, if not the whole of Thailand. Thanks to the constant waves of 18-20 year old gap year students and travellers flooding the street with their cheap booze and luminous clothing, other industries have emerged. In short, the area is now teaming with con men, criminals and prostitution. There are Indian palm readers who aggressively grab your wrist, Tuk Tuk drivers who follow you asking if you want to see a ping-pong show, or the pickpockets that follow drunk travellers waiting for them to reveal the location of their wallet. But, we still go there, and will do in the future.

Once we’d checked into our hotel, the Khao San Road Park, we had a quick shower and got in another taxi, back to Bumrungrad Hospital to see my surgeon. It was time for my first week check up. Thankfully, the surgeon agreed with my diagnosis. My back was healing well and I was well on the way to making a full recovery. He said I should stay on ‘light-duties’ for another three weeks and then gradually build up my activity after that.

One thing that I haven’t mentioned yet is that before my back surgery I had just completed a pre-employment medical for my new job. Obviously this surgery had put my medical on hold until I was cleared to continue by my surgeon and the companies medical team. The job is for Royal Caribbean International. They require geeky people like me with a professional history of satellites up links, camera feeds, broadcast systems and various other technical bits to work on their ships. And by ships I mean cruise ships. Currently their fleet consists of 22 ships. Two of these, the Allure of the Seas and the Oasis of the Seas, which are sister ships, are the worlds largest passengers ships. The fleet sail pretty much everywhere you can think of too. This, along with their offer to employ Mos once I had completed my probationary period onboard made this very attractive. All I had to do now was wait a month and revisit my surgeon to get signed off as fully functioning and fighting fit.

This was also another factor in moving down to Koh Tao. It’s a small island so I could walk just about everywhere and there are plenty of spots for me to lay down and read a book on my Kindle. It was the perfect recovery location for me to fully heal.

Once again Mos and I chose the sleeper train to make the journey from Bangkok to Chumphon. Chumphon is the nearest point of the Thai mainland to Koh Tao, about 60km. As a result it’s also where the Lomprayah catamaran boats ferry people to and from the island. The Lomprayah is the fastest of the various boat services taking around an hour and forty-five minutes. Other boats leave from the nearest big town on the mainland, Surat Thani. These vary from cargo ferries to overnight sleeper boats. Some of these can take over twelve hours to reach Koh Tao. But, are about half the price of the Lomprayah.

Although the Lomprayah is the fastest boat to Koh Tao, it still well exceed my 20-minute sitting barrier. So I stood outside on the back of the boat. Unfortunately this is also the area where the landlubber’s come to share their travel sickness. Often in a projectile fashion. Thankfully I managed to find a spot behind a door that kept me out of eyesight of the chunder fountains and gave me a good view out to sea. Although once you leave Chumphon peir there is very little to see for 60km other than water and sky, there are the occasional sights that make the journey more interesting. There are often fishing boats with children on board, madly waving at the boat full of tourist as it thunders past. There are shoals of flying fish that jump out and skip along the surface of the water to safety. And sometimes sea birds come and fly next to the boat as if they are escorting us on the journey. I think it’s much more fun standing outside than watching some commercials and out of date infomercials, despite the sound of people loosing their lunches.

Once we arrived on Koh Tao, it immediately hit us how much had changed since we were last here almost exactly a year ago. We got off the boat to be greeted by an army of pick-up trucks from various dive schools and resorts. On our first visit to Koh Tao there were probably a total of thirty cars/pick-up trucks on the island. Now there where twice that number, all on the pier  We eventually made our way to Scuba Junction, the shop where Mos would be working. The two managers and a few dive instructors were still there, but the rest of the staff were all new. The Thai boat boys were all still there; Pak, Tak and Sak. There is also the captain of the dive boat, who only seems to go by the name of ‘Captain’. He was still there.

As usual, finding accommodation on the island was a long and frustrating process. Because of the huge number of tourists that visit the island for short periods, costs are high. We stayed in a couple of different bungalows on the beach road for a week. And just to clarify, bungalows on Koh Tao are not single floor houses  as we might imagine in the UK. They are a very basic shack, which often consists only of a single room with a bed, some have en-suite toilets. We stayed in one, part of the SBC2 resort, that was pretty crappy. The room was small, the mattress was old and hard and they hadn’t given it a good clean in months. Sadly that is fairly standard for Koh Tao. There is a lot of accommodation  food and diving instruction that is well below par. But, on the other hand, if you know where to look there are also some really good places. I imagine it’s the same everywhere in the world with there is a high volume of short-staying tourists. If people can get away with running a resort with low standards and still manage to charge what others charge, they will. The other bungalows that we stayed in were part of Nat Resort. The bungalows are all concrete construction, so there are no rotting floor boards or termites. They are spotlessly clean. There is plenty of natural light and lots of fresh air. Exactly the same price as the SBC bungalow, but so different. Most also come with hot water showers and some with cable TV.

Thankfully, after a week in bungalows, we managed to find a nice en-suite hotel room for a months rental. Hot water, air conditioning, cleaning and bed changing every four days. That set us back $500. Which is about four times the price of an equivalent room in Chiang Mai. We just needed to get in somewhere, unpack our bags and relax. The hotel was the La Ville View Guesthouse, which is fairly new. For anyone that knows Koh Tao, it’s between Choppers and the 7eleven on the junction in Sairee. Other than the temperamental WiFi we had no complaints about our room.

Two weeks into our months rental at La Ville View we started to look for a more permanent option. We wanted a house. Something with a kitchen, living room, fridge etc. A place that we could make feel like a home, not a hotel. After a few days of searching, a friend of ours, P’Daeng, offered us on of his families houses. P’Daeng is one of a handful of locals that own and run the island. He’s a very good friend to have in this kind of community. The house was a little further from the beach and Scuba Junction as we would have liked. But once I’d walked the journey a few times it seemed much shorter. It takes 12 minutes to walk from our house to Scuba Junction. 15 on the reverse trip as half the route is uphill. If you know Koh Tao, we’re about fifty meters up the hill from Roctopus dive school.

Today is our last full day in the hotel, and as Mos is at work I have been moving stuff from the hotel to the house. We’ve had the keys to the house for two weeks, and I’ve been gradually moving bits and pieces. All that is left in the hotel now is a change of clothes and a few toiletries for our stay tonight. I’m looking forward to moving completely to the new house, it will be nice to feel like we’ve got a home again.

Thailand

Microdiscectomy

This post doesn’t really follow the trend of my others. But it does cover, in some detail, a recent fairly major event in my life. My first surgery.

In October 2012 I started to feel some pain in my left leg when sitting. Nothing major, just a fairly dull ache that got worse the longer I sat. This stayed fairly constant until mid-November, now it was quickly changing from a dull ache to a shooting pain in about ten minutes of sitting. Soon I was only able to lay down or stand comfortably, sitting became far to painful.

At this point I decided it would be a good idea to seek medical assistance. So Mos and I headed off to our favourite clinic in Chiang Mai, the highly recommended Health Care Medical Clinic. Earlier in the year I had had some stiffness in my neck which had caused my last visit to the clinic. And because of this the assumption was made that I might be suffering from muscle stiffness, this time in my hamstring. So I was injected with a dose of muscle relaxant and given a four-day course of pills to keep me relaxed.

During the my check-up at the clinic, they mentioned that a few things were not right. If this was purely a tight hamstring some of my symptoms didn’t quite fit. So they suggested that if there was no improvement after my four-day course of pills, that I should visit a physiotherapist at the local hospital. My doctor recommended Khun Took at Rajavej Hospital.

Over the next four days I tried to remain active, take the pills as and when ordered and to make sure I didn’t do anything that could pull or twist my hamstring. But, it didn’t get better, in fact, it got worse. By the end of the four days I was now barely able to walk for more than five minutes and had to spend most of my day in bed. We booked the next available appointment with Khun Took, thankfully it was only a few hours after we phoned.

After a very painful scooter ride I arrived at Rajavej Hospital, headed up to the physiotherapy department and introduced myself to Khun Took. She immediately set to work, strapping me up to machines that stretch my leg, straighten my pelvis and heat my muscles. I also had intensive and very painful massages (which although they hurt, felt like they were doing something good). She also used ultrasound to ease the pain. Once my session was over I felt better. Not Olympic fit, but able to walk without a limp, which was a big step.

I continued on a fairly intensive seven-day course of physiotherapy, but on the sixth day, the results nose-dived. Previously I had ridden my scooter, with Mos, to and from the hospital. It’s ten minute ride. The journey to the hospital was always painful but nothing I couldn’t handle with some codeine and a stiff upper lip. The ride home was always less painful. On the sixth day however, the pain was greater even after the first few meters. By the time we reached halfway I realised that I was going to have to stop the bike. Thankfully I managed to pull over, put the bike on its stand and loosen my helmet before I blacked out draped over a nearby gate. I was only out for about twenty seconds. I limped around in circles trying to get some blood back to my head and pain out of my leg. We got back on the scooter, this time with Mos riding so I could keep my legs straight at the side of the bike, which seemed to help the pain.

On arrival to the hospital I informed Khun Took of the drama that was my commute to the hospital. She said that because of that, paired with the fact I was making nowhere near as much progress as she had hoped, I should see an orthopedic surgeon. Within ten minutes a member of staff was there to whisk me down to the orthopedic section where I chatted to one of the hospitals surgeons. Over the next hour I had an X-Ray and a very large dose of morphine. From this moment on, I would be on a constant stream of the of highest strength painkillers available. All of which barely dented the pain I was now in. The doctor also booked me in for an MRI scan, but that would have to take place at a neighboring hospital due to a malfunction at Rajavej. But to my surprise they managed to fit me in that afternoon.

The following day, with MRI results in hand we went back to see the surgeon. He said immediately that the X-Ray showed to bone damage. So that was a big relief. He was concerned that maybe I had fractured a part of my pelvis. We then handed over the MRI scan and even Mos and I, with no medical training could tell there was a problem. He pinned up the scans on the light-box on his wall and started to circle various parts of it with a red marker. We all know that red markers mean bad things. He went on to explain that one of my discs had ruptured and in spectacular fashion. The cause of my sever leg pain was now apparent, the material that had ruptured from my disc had pushed against and now become wedges against my sciatic nerve. Causing what is commonly know as sciatica.  Well known as one of the most severe pains going. Pregnant women can sometimes get a mild sciatica from the pressure from the womb, this is however less painful due to the direction at which the pressure is being applied, as the surgeon explained.

So as I lay on his examination bed, fully dosed on morphine and a cocktail of other über-strength, but ultimately useless painkillers. Shaking and sweating with pain. He continued to describe in great detail just how painful sciatica is. But then he paused. And made a very careful and very deliberate red circle on a different area of the scan. Then, to himself he muttered ‘Oh, that’s interesting’. He looked at me and then back at the scan. Then he peeled the scan from the light-box and showed it to me. The material from my ruptured disc was not only crushing my sciatic nerve. It was also putting pressure on my spinal column. The surgeon went on to explain that I would need surgery to remove the ruptured material from my back, this would cure the sciatica and remove the possibility of the material causing permanent damage to my spinal column. And he didn’t need to detail what exactly ‘permanent damage to my spinal column’ meant.’ We all know that at best wheelchairs would be involved. We went on to discuss what the surgical options where, quite simply, there are two. I could have a Discectomy or a Microdiscectomy. They are both ultimately the same procedure, however the ‘micro’ option is a form of what most people call keyhole surgery. Whereas the regular Discectomy involves a far larger incision and a much longer recovery time.

Both procedures have the same objective. Cut a whole in your back, where on your back depends on where your damaged disc is. They will move your sciatic nerve, guard your spinal column and then the surgeon will pull, scrape, cut and burn the excess material away from your disc. That’s it. A fairly simple procedure in a potentially dangerous area.

From my fairly extensive research on the internet, many people seem to think that they have had the micro option but they have in fact had the regular option. The scar from Microdiscectomy surgery is between 2-3cm in length. And is almost always glued, not stitched or stapled. My scar for example is smaller than a ten pence piece.

The orthopedic surgeon at Rajavej Hospital went on to say that they do not have the specialists or equipment to perform the Microdiscectomy, but could perform the regular surgery with four days notice. He advised however that I have surgery as soon as possible. And that the best option would be to travel to Bangkok to see one of the major hospitals.

Mos and I immediately thought of Bumrungrad International Hospital. We had been there previously during a visit to Bangkok about a year previously. Mos had come down with a kidney infection and they treated her like royalty. Superb service, excellent facilities and one of the best rated hospitals in the whole of Asia. We didn’t even need to discuss it. That night Mos called Bumrungrad and explained the situation. We knew that I would need to travel to Bangkok by sleeper train, as this was the only option that meant I could lay down. So the following day we boarded the sleeper train in Chiang Mai, I swallowed a handful of multi-coloured, prescription-only painkillers and we set off.

I managed to sleep for a few hours. I’m pretty sure it was pure exhaustion rather than lack of pain. But as we pulled into Bangkok I was very happy to see an ambulance team from Bumrungrad who had been sent to collect me from the station. Unfortunately they had not been allowed to bring the stretcher onto the platform so the two taller guys held me on either side as we slowly hobbled to the station exit and the waiting ambulance. The driver helped Mos with our bags.

It was a short trip to the hospital, and as soon as we arrived I was whisked up to the twelfth floor, which is the Spinal Center. Although we had arrive four hours early, my surgeon came to meet me within two hours. He looked over my MRI scan, poked and prodded me, and then told me that I must be in a lot of pain. Surgeons seem to like to point that out here.

My surgery team would be led by Dr. Surapong Anuraklekha, who was brilliant. He could see that I was fairly nervous and in a lot of pain. So he described the surgery to me and asked me when I wanted to have it. I was expecting to have to wait maybe a week, or two. I had heard of people in the UK on the NHS waiting list having to wait up to three years! But not here. By this point it was 13:30, and we had scheduled my surgery for 17:00. Which was brilliant, as soon my pain would be gone! But also because it meant I didn’t have enough time to get worried.

I was taken to my room, which was far more like a luxury apartment than hospital room. The nurses positioned my fully electric robotic bed into an ‘s’ shape, which was amazingly comfortable. Then, just as I was still sinking into the bed, two nurses came in, introduced themselves very politely and then proceeded to strip me naked. Before I had a chance to buy them a drink I was in a hospital gown with a morphine drip in my left hand. Mos arrived after completing some of my paperwork and we talked for a few minutes before I fell asleep. Again, out of exhaustion rather than lack of pain. The next thing I knew my surgeon was waking me up, it was 16:00 and time for me to move into the special room for people about to have an operation. I’m sure it has a more catchy title, but I don’t know it. Mos walked alongside my bed as I was wheeled to this new room. And she said good luck and ‘I love you’ at the door, quite tearfully. I’m not sure if I replied. I was in a different world, a world of morphine on tap.

I stayed in that room for what seemed like ten minutes before a nurse said that I need to go to the toilet before my operation. So she helped me hobble over to the toilet and thanks to the many grab handles and safety rails I managed to do the rest on my own. Minutes after getting back on my bed I was met by my surgeon, this time dressed in surgical scrubs and looking far more like a surgeon than a doctor. He and his team wheeled me out and into the operating theater. The pulled my bed up next to another bed which had a large triangular object in the middle which it quickly became apparent I was to be placed over, naked and arse in the air.  Before I have the chance to take a second glance the anesthetist introduced herself through her protective gear. Placed a plastic mask over my mouth and nose and told me to count out-loud from ten to zero. The last number I remember was six.

I woke up in the same pre-operating room as I was in previously. A nurse was monitoring my oxygen levels, and as I woke up she removed my oxygen mask and told me to breathe slowly and deeply. I managed for a few breaths, looked at my oxygen monitor which was dropping from 99 down to 98 and then 97, but then fell back asleep. She re-applied the oxygen mask and we tried again. On about the fourth time I managed to stay awake, I looked at my oxygen monitor and proudly, and I think quite loudly, declared ‘I did it I’m at 99’. The nurses laughed got me ready to leave. As I was wheeled out of that room The first person I saw was Mos. Leaning against the wall and looking tired. Apparently I’d been in there for nearly six hours. The operation took just under two hours, the rest was preparation and waking up. I was very happy to see her and squeezed her hand as tightly as I could, which I imagine was very weakly. The nurses used a spinal board to move me from the transport bed to the bed in my room. They reset the bed and arranged my blankets, I think I managed to stay awake for about an hour before falling asleep.

Every hour the nurses would sneak into the room like medical ninjas to measure my blood pressure, temperature and my various bags of liquid drugs that were being fed drip by drip into my hand. Mos was fast asleep on the sofa, I imagine this time, she was sleeping thanks to exhaustion.

In the morning, just after I’d been served breakfast, my surgeon appeared. This time looking like a very smart doctor, not a surgeon. He told me that everything had gone very well, and despite taking slightly longer than expected, the operation had gone perfectly to plan. Then he handed me a small plastic pot. This pot contained a pale transparent liquid, and in it was white lumps of hard and soft tissue. This was what he had removed from my spine only last night! Mildly disgusting but completely fascinating. He also gave me a DVD video of the procedure. Which I had asked for previously when I found out that the keyhole procedure was done using a remote camera.

Then, after I had played with my ruptured disc in the plastic pot, he asked me to stand up. Now, for three months I had not been able to walk without pain, and for the last two I hadn’t been able to stand up straight. For the last two weeks I had been completely unable to walk without people helping/carrying me. So to ask me to stand up only hours after surgery seemed a bit much. But I shuffled out of bed and a nurse helped me to my feet. Aside from the slight tightness and soreness from the incision, I felt no pain. None. Not even an ache. My left leg was slightly numb, but my surgeon explained that this was normal. My sciatic nerve was simply readjusting to not being crushed. All of the pain had gone. I no longer had to drag myself off the bed, onto the floor and to the toilet. I could walk! No more sleepless nights. No more painkillers and morphine drips. No more blacking out through pain and exhaustion. I felt completely normal.

I opted to stay in hospital that night, just to make sure everything was as it should be. I thought that surgery on my spine deserves that extra bit of caution. After all… it is my spine!

The following morning we headed back to Chiang Mai, again on the sleeper train. I slept like a baby. I enjoyed a week of bed rest mixed with regular exercise, light walks, mostly between 5-10 minutes. After a week I was feeling great. Fairly week, but that’s to be expected after being stuck in bed for months prior to my operation. We headed back to Bangkok for a checkup, my surgeon was very happy with my progress. And signed me off as able to continue normal activities from March. In the meantime I should continue with light duties. Which meant not sitting on the floor, at all. Not sitting on chairs for longer than twenty minutes at a time and not lifting more than five kilograms.

I had my surgery on the 25th January 2013. It’s been twenty days now and I am improving everyday. Most people wouldn’t even be able to notice that I am still in recovery. I am living a perfectly normal life. And I’m still on ‘light-duty’.

Here is a picture of my scar. Taken today, 20 days after surgery. For people not familiar with Thai currency, that coin is the same size as a ten pence piece. For you Americans, the coin is about an inch in diameter.

Scar