I offered to make soup for dinner, a vegetarian affair after a weekend of meat-choked lasagna and stuffed peppers. Rest assured this is not another soup story. The recipe called for chili powder, coriander, cumin, turmeric and hot pepper flakes. Joyce had the chili powder and the pepper flakes as expected and surprisingly there was turmeric on her spice rack. I stopped at the local supermarket, the one my family has shopped at for over 50 years, since I was a tot, the one on the far side of town. I found the spice section and scanned the alphabetic labels until I reached cloves. Next in line was cream of tarter then dill. No coriander. No cumin. I ran through the alphabet again. Still no CO or CU spices. What kind of backwoods place was this? Ah, yes, my hometown in Western New York. I had assumed that cumin would have found its way here, with America’s love of Mexican food and it being a few days shy of the year 2015. I resigned myself to the fact that the soup I was going to make would be cumin-less, thereby flavorless and one-dimensional.
After dinner I retreated to my room. I was streaming Sherlock Holmes off of Netflix and Benedict Cumberbatch was just about to solve the first mystery devised by Moriarty, twenty minutes into the show, when the Wi-fi connection conked out. I unfurled myself from the comfort of the bed and trekked down the hall, all of 20’, to Joyce’s computer to resuscitate the internet connection. Over the next hour and a half I had to perform this life-saving feat four more times. I cursed the inconvenience and the boondocks I had escaped 40 years before. Yes, this was it, this is what Thailand was going to be like, wasn’t it? Oh, the Peace Corps warns us of these things. They suggest that volunteers bring their favorite spices with them, that it’ll be difficult to find taco seasoning in Mongolia for example. They warn us that internet access is limited and that we will likely have difficulty maintaining our blogs or FaceTiming with family back home. I never expected to encounter these inconveniences before I even I left the States. These were tests and I was already failing them.
Sometimes Joyce knows me better than I know myself. She sees me as a reflection of my father. She knows I like my time alone, my quiet time and privacy and she asked what I was going to do about that when in Thailand. I will live with a host family during my first three months of training, and then with another family for another three months after that while I settle into my permanent site, somewhere in Thailand. Who knows what those families will be like? They could be multi-generational families all living under one corrugated metal roof with bickering grandparents and throngs of noisy kids. Or they could be simple, quiet rice farmers in bed by 9 PM and up before dawn. We volunteers are supposed to have a room of our own with a door and a lock for privacy. That doesn’t necessarily guarantee quiet time.
Now here I am visiting my father and Joyce for the last time before I fly off to Southeast Asia in about a week. I’ve been adjusting to their quirks and habits through the years: the loud television first thing in the morning, the early dinners, the noises that emanate from their aging bodies, their dietary restrictions and entrenched appetites, their quizzical looks when my big-city ways confront their rural conventions. We’ve had these peccadilloes throughout the years, but now I’m more attuned to them, more aware of them, knowing that in a day or two when I drive back to Albany, I may never experience them again. In a few weeks I will be settling into a very strange and foreign environment and forced to share my life and myself with a new family in a new culture.
I need to remember why I’m doing this, what my commitment was from the start. I need to remember the Core Expectations of the Peace Corps: to serve where they ask, under conditions of hardship, if necessary, and with the flexibility needed for effective service; to commit to improving the quality of life of the people with whom I will live and work; and, in doing so, share my skills, adapt them, and learn new skills as needed; and to engage with host country partners in a spirit of cooperation, mutual learning, and respect.
I can do that. And I will do it, with limited internet access and without cumin.