02 August, 2017

Tokay, Tokay, Tokay... Okay

Vid Micevic is a 2016-17 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA, currently teaching high school level classes at Mae Chan Wittayakom School, in Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand. Born in South Africa, raised in New Jersey, Vid graduated from Arizona State University with a major in Sustainable Engineering and a minor in Slavic Studies. After his grant, he plans to return home with his new-found passion as an educator to begin working in education reform. Feel free to follow Vid’s journey at @373days_thailand on Instagram where you will encounter moments and stories of a day in the life of a Thailand Fulbright ETA. 

I looked at the clock. 11pm. I had made it through my first full day of teaching. The bed started singing my name and my body and mind wanted nothing more than to slip under the covers and drift away into nothingness. When I first got into bed, it was a little cold and stiff, but soon enough my body heat did its magical nightly routine, and transformed those lonely linens into a space of comfort and warmth. A smile cracked across my face as I reflected on some moments of the day. I inhaled in….and exhaled out…. grateful for another day in this beautiful country. I rolled over to the very edge of my bed and reached my lanky arm towards the light switch. After a few moments of struggling and straining every muscle in my arm (because who wants to get out of a comfy bed?), I got it. Success. Lights were off. Mind was at ease. Life was good and my toes were warm. Time to call it a day.

I closed my eyelids. My mind and body began to drift off.

Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap.

My eyes shoot open. My heart instantly began beating faster as my animal instincts kicked in. I was not the only creature in this room. My eyes had yet to adjust to the darkness, but it didn’t matter. My mind wasn’t the one in control. My sense of awareness sky rocketed as I strained my ears for another clue and began ruffling the sheets around me.

Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap. 

There it was again, this time I could make out the sound more clearly--strong, yet stealthy footsteps…except not across the floor, but on the ceiling above me. Each quick step moved closer and closer to me. I rolled over and frantically searched the black wall for the light switch. Click. The lights slowly flickered on. My eyes darted around the room, but I found nothing out of the ordinary. I propped myself up in bed, as my eyes continued to scan for movement.

Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap. 

The sound wasn’t coming from the wall this time. It was coming from the floor. The sound stayed consistent though. Several short quick footsteps then a pause. Several short quick footsteps then a pause. My skin began to crawl as my mind tried to rationalize what creature could possibly be creating these sounds.

Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap. Thap. 

There it was again! This time the footsteps seemed to be moving from the floor towards the ceiling. What is happening? Who is playing games with me? My body continued to be paralyzed by the decision of fight or flight. My heart was pumping in my throat…so much for a good night’s sleep. 

While I didn’t hear footsteps again that night, I think it goes without saying that I did not have a moment of peace until the sun rose the next morning. 18 hours later, my body and mind exhausted from another long day of teaching, I returned to my room. As I climbed into bed, I did all I could to relax my tense muscles and pretended like the night before was only a dream. After what seemed like hours of analyzing the slightest of unfamiliar noises, my tiredness finally overpowered my paranoid mind. I had just drifted into a deep sleep when all of a sudden I was awoken by
Toookayyyyyy. Toookayyyyyyy. Tookayyyyyy.

It sounded like muffled person barking a sarcastic version of “okay”. (You know, when a friend comes up to you and says “I won the lottery!” and you say “yeah, okayyy. Show me a picture or it didn’t happen”.) The call kept repeating like a broken record until finally an eerie silence returned. My mind started rushing to find any explanation. Is someone hanging from the roof holding a children’s stuff doll and continually pressing the play button on its fuzzy foot? I tried to once again not fall into the traps of my paranoid mind. I squeezed my eyes shut and drifted back to sleep…not to be awoken this time.

Those were my first encounters with my beloved friends/foes that I’ve gotten to know so well over my past few months here in Thailand—the Tokay Gecko. Don’t let the word “gecko” fool you. They don’t look like those cute little ones that are the size of your pinky finger and scurry across the wall being all innocent and adorable. They look more like mini dragons that are ready to take flight. Luckily, my research has confirmed that they do not have wings or fire-breathing capabilities (yet). Their brightly colored eyes are massive and dart around, scanning with their vertically slit pupils, similar to the ones cats have. Except unlike cats, these guys do not have eyelids so there is not even a moment of relief from their threatening stare. Their skin is scaly with a grayish/blueish hue and bright yellow/orange spots. On their back, they have ridges contouring the length of the spine. It’s these ridges that have me convinced that these creatures are decedents of dragons (or maybe I could just be watching too much Game of Thrones). Maybe the most obvious (and concerning) difference between Tokay geckos and regular geckos is their size. Tokays are the second largest species of geckos and can grow from 7 – 18 inches. To put that into perspective, look at your forearm…now imagine it as a giant dragon gecko. Terrified? Yes, you should be. Oh and on top of all of this, they are known to be extremely aggressive and their bite can hurt even more than a dog’s.    

Words don't do it justice. Here is the infamous Tokay Gecko*

After two nights of restless sleep, I sought help by imitating the “Tokayyyy” mating call to friends, hoping others would understand me and finally ease my paranoid mind. After asking both my host teachers and neighbors in my government housing complex, it was confirmed. They were in fact Tokay Geckos. I hadn’t yet seen one in the flesh, so I began researching frantically to learn what ever I could about these creatures as if I were on WebMD trying to diagnose a personal health problem. The more I read, the more I was able to learn about the habits of my housemates. I became a feces expert, analyzing the dropping that appeared all over my house to discover what meal they had the night before. (Fun fact: white droppings mean that they ate something with bones). One day, I followed the trail of feces until I stumbled upon their nest, perfectly hidden between two wooden ceilings beams and impossible to reach by hand. I looked even more closely and saw about 12 white eggs…all hatched. Great. Just great. The mini-dragons multiplied.

The Tokay Nest

From the months of tracking and understanding these creatures, I’ve estimated that I had 6 teenager-adult sized Tokays and about 10 little babies. One key fact about the Tokay gecko is that they are nocturnal so they lay low during the day. One weekend, I stayed at home to work on a video project, and went downstairs from the bedroom to grab a bite to eat from the kitchen. Low and behold, there they were—two of them clinging to the wall, sleeping right above my kitchen cabinet. There was no better time than right now to capture them. My eyes locked onto them as I knew a great big battle was about to occur. David vs. Goliath.

Here is one of them right above my kitchen cabinet

In case you haven’t guessed, I was feeling like David. Immediately, my palms began sweating and my heart picked up its beat. I knew I had to do something to try to restore my sanity and peace of mind, but fears kept entering my mind. How am I supposed to reach all the way up there? What if they bite me? What if they call the whole family to plot revenge against me? After twenty minutes of some personal pep-talking, I developed my strategy. I put on my blue rubber dishwashing gloves, grabbed my pink, plastic rice container, and a broom. This was it. Who knows what would happen next? I took a big gulp, ignoring the pounding in my chest and my shaking hands and knees, and whispered to myself “fear means go.”

You know when you feel a little nervous in the stomach because you are about to do something you’ve never done before? For example, trying public speaking for the first time. You automatically get an uneasy churning feeling in your gut, because your body and mind know that you’re stepping outside of your comfort zone. Whenever this feeling arises, I tell myself “Fear means Go”. It’s a saying I read in some random cheesy article when I was a freshman, and it has totally transformed how I approached my life. It’s this saying that has made me try new things and grow immensely as I experimented with what the world can offer and what I can offer to the world. Whenever I do something that has a little uncertainty and gets my gut churning, I always think to myself “Fear means Go”. It eases my nerves and reminds me that no matter what happens from this new experience, I will learn from it and only continue to grow. There is nothing to be afraid of.

The last time I told myself “fear means go”, I was sitting in the Newark International Airport Terminal with a one-way ticket to Thailand embarking on the journey I am sharing with you today. I had many doubts. Why am I leaving when I felt so comfortable and confident in the US? I had never been to Asia. Why did I choose Asia? What if I can’t break through the language barrier? What if I can’t adapt to the culture? What is Thai culture? I have never taught in my life, how am I going to be a teacher? What if the students hate me? How am I going to survive being so far away from my loved ones?

The doubts always arise. I don’t care who you are. If you’re Superman, Wonder Woman, or everything in between. We are human. We have doubts, and that’s okay. But don’t let doubt paralyze you. Don’t let the “what ifs” control your potential as a human. We are made to continuously grow and learn about the world around us, and the only way to reach our potential is to try new things—even those ones that scare us.

I took a step closer to the mini-dragons. Then another one. Then another one. Each step, I got a little more scared and a little more unstable. I began to extend my arms making the broom slowly rise into the crevice of the beam. The geckos woke up, fully aware that my broom was wobbling every which way above its body, as I was trying to control my limbs from shaking. For all they knew, I was there to kill them. They shifted their bodies a little so they could better prepare to fight or flight (oh how the tables had turned). I took a deep breath, and WHACK!

I slammed the broom against the wall hoping to pin one of them. They both scurried in separate directions. They were quick. My awareness became heightened as adrenaline flooded through my body. My eyes were following the one moving to the right as if I were a cheetah hunting a gazelle in a prairie. I forcefully brushed the wall with the broom so the bristles could release their sticky feet from their wall. It worked! The mini-dragon fell from the wall onto the floor and began frantically running up the closest wall. I kept pushing it down from the wall onto the floor. The gecko opted for option B to hide behind the furniture of the kitchen. Clearly underestimating my size, I moved the furniture and the shocked gecko tried once more to scurry up the wall to its safe zone. 

Not this time, buddy. I used my broom to pin the gecko’s head, doing all I could to avoid getting bitten. My blue rubber gloved hand quickly grabbed the hind legs. I did it. I had taken down Goliath! The Tokay Gecko in my hands didn’t feel as squishy as I expected it to be. Its rough skin felt like thick armor covering its surprisingly muscular body. As I picked it up and let it hang, it was clearly not happy. Just like any person wouldn’t be happy if a bully turned them upside down to shake the change from their pockets. Its mouth was left wide open ready to chomp down on anything within striking distance. What did I do after I caught it? I did as any millennial would do… I ran upstairs grabbed my phone and took a selfie! (pics or it didn’t happen am I right??).

Me and my first Tokay catch

I then quickly placed my prized catch in the plastic rice container and screwed the pink top as fast as I could. The tokay began running and squirming all over the container with the hope to escape.

Placed my phone next to the container for a reference of size

Placed my phone next to the container for a reference of size 
After a half hour of coming down from the adrenaline rush, I got on my bike and grabbed the container. Off we went on a nice bike ride to the rice fields ten minutes away from the house. It was quite a site for the locals seeing a “farang” (foreigner, usually a Caucasian) awkwardly riding a bike that was too small for him and carrying a large container with a Tokay in it. The locals laughed as they pointed at me, saying “Tokay! Tokay!”. I nodded my head in pride feeling like I was on a victory lap. I got off the bike and went into the rice field. I found a nice patch of grass, and unscrewed the top.

I expected the Tokay to immediately run out of the plastic jail cell. For whatever reason, it just sat there with its vertically slit eyes looking right at me and mouth gaping wide. I gave the container a good shake and it plopped out onto the grass. Before running away, he turned back for one final photo op.

Releasing the Tokay into the field

Walking back to my bike, I was still smiling to myself. I rode my bike home with a new experience under my belt, feeling a little more confident in my ability to adapt and survive in this new environment. Reflecting on these memories, I realize this is exactly why I signed up to experience the unknown halfway around the world. I wanted to feel a sense of helplessness, to truly be challenged, and to let those experiences humble and shape me in whatever way they wished.

Many foreigners who come to experience Thailand compare their time to being stuck in a fish bowl. You always stick out in a crowd (especially when you are 6’3”) and are a constant source of entertainment to locals, as they examine your every move. Rather than a fish bowl, I would compare my experience here to that of the Tokay being confined by that pink plastic container. I was uprooted and dropped into a completely different culture, cut off from so many things that brought me security and comfort. Yet, like the Tokay, when I think about having the chance to return home, back to what was familiar, I hesitate. I hesitate because this experience has made me learn and grow in ways that I will never be able to fully explain to those I love. I hesitate because I know that I am capable of living a life of uncertainty and volatility, outside the confines of suburbia. I hesitate because I know that I would become disconnected from all these memories and lessons from my time in Thailand once I adapted back to my familiar surroundings in the States.

There is one thing that will always stick with me like gecko’s feet to a wall—no matter what environment I’m thrown into—I am confident that I will adapt. That is one of the most powerful and beautiful things about humanity. No matter where I go, I will be challenged. I will fail. I will adjust. I will learn. I will grow.

Now whenever I hear the gecko calling “tokkkaayyyy” during the night, instead of gulping my heart in fear, I simply think of it as a reminder from the world telling me everything will be okay.


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