My Weapon and my Friend: Bringing Words to Life. Inaugural English Poetry Competition, Thailand 2014.

It’s 1983. In a school playground in East London a teacher gives a crying boy two tools to change his life forever. First, a pen: “This is your weapon”. Next, a blank notebook: “This is your new best friend”. Though young Charlie had been expecting something quite different, he noted his teacher’s advice, “Write down how you feel about school”. The white pages gradually filled with vengeance, in what he called ‘The Book of Torture’, plans for what he would do to any bully who touched him again. So, when someone grabbed him in the playground and pulled his school tie around his neck tighter and tighter, he knew he needed to do something, to say something. “If you ever touch me again I’m going to crush you like giants crush mountains”. The bully was so surprised that he left Charlie alone, and that is when he realised if he kept writing and reflecting no one would bother him again. He has written a poem every day since this day, so over 11,000 in total, and the notebooks in their thousands, fill his childhood home.

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Poetry can give children confidence, a voice, and power. The microphone can let them say things they’re too afraid to whisper. UK Performance Poet, Charlie Dark, sees poetry as a useful form of self-expression, like “a silent movie on a snow white paper screen”. He advocates empowering young people with language and ultimately bringing words to life, which is exactly what the 20 finalists of the Inaugural English Poetry Competition did. Charlie and the finalists first met during a workshop. With only one day before the final, the students were given the theme for their poems: themselves. The short time period between being given the theme, and the actual final encouraged the young people to think on their feet and the result was a mixture of nerves, inspiration and raw emotion. The confidence, pride, positivity of the students and their belief in the possibility for change and improvement struck a chord with the adults in the audience. The cheeky smiles and enthusiasm proved to be infectious, and the Director of English, Brian Stott, was even caught on camera pretending to be a DJ.

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The levels of English were impressive and one of the students, Gun, introduced her poem as follows: “It is written in the snow with the footprint of a sparrow, listen to it before it melts.” Transience is beauty, and though this afternoon will soon be a thing of the past it has made its mark on a number of exceptional young people, and members of the audience. Especially the winners, the top prize being a UK Study visit for one week, along with a set of books and vouchers.Through a dramatic reading of one of his poems Charlie Dark engaged and enlivened the audience, and succeeded in drawing a crowd from passers-by. Taking it line by line; animatedly acting out each part, the audience copied him bit by bit. It was a rare occasion when the crowd was as energetic as the performer: the positive energy was obvious. It must have been quite a sight from stage for him seeing the 20 finalists, special guests, visitors and friends pretending to be DJs, holding their pens (weapons) up to the sky, break-dancing and mock aggressively crossing their arms. It brought poetry to life.

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The students’ individuality became clear when they walked up onto the stage in turn to perform their poems about themselves. Some strode confidently, others paced timidly, many forgetting their lines mid-way through, but recovering, taking a deep breath, a nervous giggle, and re-gaining confidence. One boy did a little dance and rubbed his head as if he was massaging his brain so it would work again, another dug out scraps of ripped paper from her pockets and incorporated it into her performance so well that she was awarded the prize for ‘The Best Improvement’. After each performance Charlie provided feedback and the pride in the young people’s faces was overwhelming. He inspired them, but this inspiration was not limited to the young performers. Charlie’s performance and their words combined to produce an atmosphere of hope.

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“I just want to be seen like a book on a broken shelf.”

“I sometimes fall down, but I never give up like the flow of streams… I believe in myself.”

“I dream I can swim across the Pacific Ocean in 1 minute… I dream I can be everything I want to be.”

“I am like a grain of sand in the sea, so little, but strong if you bring it together into a bigger stone. From a grain of sand to something better…like a butterfly I will fly.”

“I am a big shark that can swim in a dangerous and beautiful sea… I can swoop up into the sky and grab my dreams.”

All I need now is my weapon and my friend…and perhaps you do too…

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Chiang Mai, take two (and an unexpected trip back to stormy Sukothai)

6am is the new 8am.I regularly wake up at this time; no alarm required. In fact, when the alarm goes off an hour and a half after I have woken up, I feel pleased and productive.

While the others slept I finished my book whilst sitting on a step next to a cat facing the car park. In the morning it is not too hot, it is best to make the most of this time. Chiang Mai is pretty far away from where I live in Thailand: 475km in fact. I knew that I had to plan my transport precisely so with a little help from an Internet café around the corner I found out train and bus times. I was surprised that at 7am on a Tuesday morning the Internet café was full of children (about 10-14 year olds) playing video games.

After feeding the others croissants for a quick and easy breakfast we went on a fairly epic walk to the riverside. En route we passed by an incredible bookshop called ‘Gecko Books’ which sells thousands of used books in European languages, including a fair few classics. I managed to pick up ‘The English Patient’ by Michael Ondaatje and also ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ by Virginia Woolf for about £3 in total: not bad really.

For lunch, after being pointed in various (and opposite) directions by different Thai people we found ourselves at an open fronted vegetarian restaurant. Here, rather than every person having their own dish, a selection of different dishes are ordered and people just share and get a taste of everything. We got a vegetable soup, some noodles, pumpkin curry and rice. I particularly enjoyed the pumpkin and have seen it in the market before so will have to cook some for my housemates; a Mauritian specialty.

Lunch at the little vegetarian place.

Lunch at the little vegetarian place.

We got to the bus station about an hour before the bus was set to leave. I thought that this was pretty good form. ‘Full’, ‘Full’, ‘Full’; all of the buses to Sak Lek (which is about 6km from where I live) were packed for the rest of the day because it was a public holiday. Because of this I decided to get the bus back to Sukothai with the others and to get another bus from there to Phitsanulok. It was the only option as the trains wouldn’t arrive into Phichit (30 km from mine) until after midnight, and at this time I couldn’t expect for anyone to come and pick me up… or bear the thought of walking for 6 hours in my own on the dark.

En route to Sukothai I got a phone call from Frenelly, who I live with, asking how I would get home. Without going into too much detail the conversation revealed to me that it was impossible to get home that night; totally impossible. So, the only option was to miss half a day of work travelling back to Wang Sai Phun.

I read ‘The English Patient’ the whole way to Sukothai. As soon as the bus turned round the bend to Sukothai Historical Park we heard the thunder clatter and saw the darkness and the rain, fall like a blanket over the city. Occasionally the sky was lit purple by thunder and it is at times like these when I can see the rainy season is upon us. When we left the bus station, the three of us piling again onto Lek’s motorcycle, the rain wasn’t falling but the sky was sweating and ready to open up.

Stopping by 7 Eleven was perhaps not the best idea considering the weather, but we were hungry and did so anyway. It was here that I discovered Lek is terrified of frogs, there were many enjoying the rain, and I felt childishly amused by her fear (sorry!). The rain fell fast and heavy, unceasing. We waited for over an hour for it to die down a little, but when we left we still got totally drenched. My skin was cold and I felt it through to the bone. I think this may have taught me to carry an umbrella, but I still don’t have one. I saw that one of the neighbours had rigged an umbrella to their bike: see the photo.

Until next time! Image

Phitsanulok

Phitsanulok (pronounced Pis-an-u-loh) is a reasonably sized city in central Thailand. It takes about an hour to drive from my school and en route there are lots of stalls selling fresh banana, green plains and rice paddies as well as the occasional ‘lying Buddha’. My mentor and I visited one such Buddha; it was impressively large.

The train station in Phitsanulok is fairly impressive and an old steam Engine with the number 181 on it stands proudly beside the entrance. I was expecting to see Helen alone(another ETA), but I was also greeted by Caron, Will (Weew), Matt and Tom. All of us had been in the same small group at the orientation in Bangkok so it was great to see a few familiar faces and also to be able to talk very quickly in English without fear of being misunderstood.

We passed our day going between inside and outside attractions. The first attraction was Helen’s apartment. She has a large room in an apartment block with windows, curtains, two beds, a mirror, air conditioning, a flushing toilet and a hot shower; it was unbelievable… After trying some interesting fruits and cakes we took a tuk tuk to a large temple beside the river, which is apparently very famous.

The sky was sweating with humidity and as a result we did too. After taking our shoes off and stashing them in my bag (I’ve heard of shoe thieves) we went inside the temple. There was a very impressive and quite large golden Buddha as well as many other related religious items. As it was the weekend of the festival of Kaw Pan Sa it was very busy both inside and out. There was an interesting mixture of people praying and people posing for photographs; often the two went together.

Trams were something we had been told to investigate. I had imagined traditional trams with overhead wires; what we took was more like a bus in the shape of a tram carriage. As we were about to leave we spotted Jodie, another English teaching assistant, being led by two Thai ladies. She was busy, but we got her number for future reference.

The tram tour was relatively cheap (40Baht for 40 minutes- so just less than £1). I liked being able to sit in the shade with the breeze rushing by as we took in the sights of the city. The tour guide was extremely friendly and smiley, but her English was quite impossible to comprehend. A kind Thai lady who lived in Switzerland offered us up some laminated bits of cards, which had the information about each of the ‘sights of interest’ on it. My favourite part was one of the comments about a king who was “brave, strong and strange”.

After a long walk through town, with a brief cool down in a department store with air conditioning, we went back to Helen’s for a snack. The boys pottered off to find a hostel as there was not enough room for all of us in the apartment.

At around 6pm we headed to the food market where I was overwhelmed by the sights and smells of cooked rats, swarms of live bees, multi-coloured curries, all sorts of fruit and randomly an underwear stand in the thick of it. Dinner was very filling- by the end I was eem mak (VERY FULL!) to the point that I thought I would have to lie down. Eating more than half a pineapple has become a rarity. Although pineapple did make up a large part of my meal, I also had fried sweet corn balls and sweet pancakes with warm green paste in them.

The next stop was the night market which predominantly focuses on clothes, accessories and make up. It was set up just down by the side of the river and took more than an hour to walk up and down. I was impressed by Caron’s bargaining skills and saw that knowing the numbers in Thai well can come in handy. I got two lovely flowing dresses that will be suitable for school for less than £10 for two.

A riverside beverage came next when Helen, Caron and I rejoined with the lads. The mosquitoes weren’t too fierce, but after a while we left because we were just so tired our eyes couldn’t stay open. A friend of mine who I met at a hostel in Bangkok told me about a website called ‘post secrets’ where you can send a postcard with your biggest secret into a special address and the best ones get published online weekly. The first few were entertaining and lighthearted, but as we scrolled down we saw some that were moving and others that were just sad or depressing. This is how our evening ended. It was bliss going to bed without being too hot or being munched by mosquitoes.